In the footsteps of St. Francis: Radical surrender to mercy and grace

[dropcap type=”4″]G[/dropcap]od’s mercy changes everything.

Joyce Coronel is interim managing editor of The Catholic Sun and author of “A Martyr’s Crown.” Opinions expressed are the writers’ and not necessarily the views of The Catholic Sun or the Diocese of Phoenix.
Joyce Coronel is interim managing editor of The Catholic Sun and author of “A Martyr’s Crown.” Opinions expressed are the writers’ and not necessarily the views of The Catholic Sun or the Diocese of Phoenix.

Some of the greatest saints the world has ever known were utterly changed by God’s mercy. And although we revere them now as models of sanctity, the saints weren’t always so saintly. In the lives of such diverse personalities as St. Paul or St. Mary of Egypt — who led a life of prostitution for 17 years — or even the inestimable St. Augustine, one finds souls who turned from sin and embraced the Gospel. Their lives were forever changed by an encounter with God’s mercy.

St. Francis of Assisi was one such person. As a young man, he was into the party scene. He lived in the 13th century, but Francis could be described in modern terms as a “wild child” who got carried away with wine, women and song. He eventually became a knight, but was captured by enemy soldiers and held for ransom.

After spending almost a year in prison, he began to have visions of God. The rest is history. Francis turned the world upside down by his radical surrender to God’s grace and decision to live a life of poverty and penance. Today, 800 years later, he is still revered by Christians all over the world who seek to imitate him. Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio took his name upon being elected pope and for the first time in history, we have a pontiff named after the humble Francis of Assisi.

Living Witnesses

I saw this heartfelt desire to follow in the footsteps of St. Francis on Oct. 4, his feast day. I was in Flagstaff that day and attended Mass at San Francisco de Asís Parish, named in honor of the medieval saint. After the homily, Fr. Patrick Mowrer called forward 12 parishioners for a solemn ceremony.

These 12 men and women had spent three years in formation and study in order to become members of the Secular Franciscan Order. One by one, the 10 women and two men renewed their baptismal promises and became members of the Secular Franciscan Order by promising to live their lives in accordance with the Gospel and in the spirit of St. Francis, striving toward perfect love. A few of them broke down as they recited their promises, and I couldn’t help but wonder: were they overcome by the immensity of God’s mercy in bringing them to such a pivotal moment in their lives? Was it the absolutely overwhelming sense of God’s love that they were experiencing?

I’ve been meditating lately on the verse from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans, that “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Ponder those words well and consider what it is Christ has done for each of us. It’s when we realize how much God loves us in spite of ourselves and how little we deserve His mercy that we understand how it is we must live. St. Francis knew this.

Like him, each day we must choose peace, choose forgiveness, choose Christ. When we feel unloved or discouraged, when we’re mistreated or wronged or tempted, it’s this daily decision to follow in the footsteps of Christ that will keep us grounded.

The 12 San Francisco de Asís parishioners, now members of the Franciscan Order, are a great example for each of us in this regard. They have committed themselves to living as followers of Christ in the midst of a society that has largely rejected Him.

The Secular Franciscan Order is an official order within the Catholic Church and was established by St. Francis himself. Then, as now, there were many married people who were captivated by Francis’ example and teaching and who wanted to imitate his way of life.

These members of the Secular Franciscan Order don’t live in a monastery, but live their everyday lives in the world as witnesses to Christ, following a Rule of Life approved by Pope Paul VI.

How about you? How are you choosing to follow Christ today? God’s mercy changes everything. Once you’ve found it, you’ll want to live it out each and every day. Ask the Lord today to speak to your heart about what it is He would have you do to help spread His love and mercy.