Describing the early experience of St. Francis as his former friends struggled to understand the change in him, Henri d’Avranches describes his outreach to the lepers:
What spread his good name in the first place was his patience
In virtue of which he is given the care of the lepers, no one
Was more zealous than he in looking after them, even if
At one time he could not bear to watch their houses even
At a distance. Now he makes beds, wipes away venom, soothes ulcers,
Touches mouths, washes feet, strokes corroding,
And forces to the task his fugitive feelings.
—The Versified Life of St. Francis, by Henri d’Avranches, 125, 126 (see p. 456 in Francis of Assisi: Early Documents, Volume 1)
It is easy for us to romanticize this early experience of Francis—his first embrace of a leper. We speak of it often as emblematic of dramatic change in a person seeking to know Christ, to live by the Gospel’s injunction. Given the lack of experience of most modern people with the experience of Hansen’s disease (leprosy), it becomes hard to truly imagine the kind of courage and self-control that serving such sufferers entails.
D’Avranches makes sure that the reader does not miss the radical impact of this change in Francis. It is described in terms that evoke emotional responses. He wants us to imagine the revulsion, the fear, the sensual impact of the work of nursing these victims. And, in doing so, he allows us to then imagine the power of the grace of Christ—the gift of conversion—that drives a man like Francis to such a change of behavior and sensibility. And this change will stay with him all his life. As he descends from La Verna and the extraordinary mystical encounter with the crucified Christ in the stigmata, he expresses a desire to return to his care of the lepers!
The call to enter into the world of “the other” contains a costly component. Moving from accepted bias, taboos, and prejudices is not an easy step.
Often such taboos are reinforced by laws of both Church and state. They are firmly implanted in a culture or society’s conscious and unconscious mindset. While a person can “study” his or her way to a new understanding of “the other,” often it requires more than intellectual acceptance of a new position. The movement from understanding to action and advocacy is a movement of grace. This profound understanding of the way of Christian conversion of life was a bedrock for the leaders of early civil rights activity. If today’s leaders of new social movements do not appeal to such faith-based beliefs, they nonetheless invite us to new moments of conversion, new responses to changes in our capacity to be inclusive of persons and identities that not so long ago were considered outside acceptable norms.
The very first name that Francis and his companions adopted was that of penitents. Too often we reduce the notion of penance, of being penitents to actions that involve confession of wrongdoing, enacting tough disciplines to move from vice to virtue such as fasting, self-denial, and other actions that involve giving up something appealing. Francis led the recovery of a biblical understanding of penance as the root conversion that signals entrance into the following of Christ. It is the response to the call that opens the public preaching of Jesus: “Repent, and believe in the Gospel” (Mark 1:15). It is a profound reorienting of one’s way of living that leads to new demands—often unexpected consequences of being part of the community of disciples.
So, we share the wisdom of our authors, and we pray for the gift to believe that the Gospel invites us to new and tough choices. Yet, these choices are the path of life for all disciples, even we who struggle to match the ancient creeds to the newest crises of our times.
This article first appeared in St. Anthony Messenger magazine (June-July 2022) and is reprinted with permission of Franciscan Media. All rights reserved.
Margaret Carney, OSF, is a member of the Sisters of St. Francis of the Neumann Communities and is a teacher of Franciscan history and spirituality. She continues to serve as a lecturer and leader for Catholic higher education and Franciscan organizations in the United States. She is president emerita of St. Bonaventure University.