By Cliff Garvey
Saint Francis of Assisi once said: “I have been all things unholy. If God can work through me, he can work through anyone.” If Saint Francis was right, then there’s hope for me, hope for you, hope for all of us. But did you know that Francis was easily discouraged? That he had unreasonably high expectations for himself and for those around him? That he struggled with anger, lust, pride, and impatience?
“I have been all things unholy. If God can work through me, he can work through anyone.” I love these words. I love many things about Saint Francis: his hometown, his simplicity, his humanity. I love his faith, his perseverance, and his lifelong struggle for holiness. Most of all, I love stories about his life. Maybe you have heard some of them: How Francis heard the voice of the Crucified Christ in an old church. How Francis changed the Church by working within it. How Francis received the stigmata: the five wounds of crucifixion. Saint Francis was blessed with these wounds because of his great love for the Poor Christ; for those who suffer; for those who are crucified on the crosses of addiction and bigotry, greed and pride, sickness and despair, poverty and loneliness.
Consider some other stories about the life of Saint Francis: He kissed the leper. He tamed the wolf. He made peace with the sultan. During Francis’s lifetime, leprosy was an incurable disease. Lepers were stripped of their citizenship, their freedom, their property, and their rights under the law. Lepers were driven from their homes; forced to live apart from the community; and forced to wear bells around their necks to warn others that they were coming close. Francis did not just overcome his fear and kiss the leper. He lived with them, cooked for them, nursed their wounds, and advocated for better care for them and their families. If Saint Francis lived among us now, who would he love like the leper?
Francis tamed the wolf. Tradition tells us that the village of Gubbio was terrorized by a wolf that lurked in the shadows, committed crimes, and could not be captured. But human history (and perhaps human nature) suggest that the wolf may not have been a wolf at all. The wolf may have been a stranger. Did this stranger look different? Was he an immigrant? Was she a Jew or a Muslim? Was the wolf an addict? Or a poor person in need of a hot meal? Or maybe just a person from Maine, like me? Whoever the wolf was, Francis approached, offered a hand in friendship and solidarity, and loved him or her like a brother or sister. If Saint Francis lived among us now, who would he love like the wolf?
Francis made peace with the sultan. Yes, the sultan. This was the same sultan who commanded the Muslim armies that dominated the Holy Land; the one who ordered the execution of poor friars who went to preach the Gospel in North Africa; the one who captured child pilgrims and sold them into slavery — or worse. Francis made peace even with the sultan!
Groucho Marx once said: “Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it, misdiagnosing it, and then misapplying the wrong remedies.” This seems so true, especially during these troubled times. The same could be said about Saint Francis and his approach to evangelization. It was bad enough that Francis entered the sultan’s territory. But upon crossing the border, he repeatedly chanted: “Sultan! Sultan! Sultan!” And then, as if that weren’t enough, Francis openly preached to the sultan and dared to convert him. Looking for trouble, finding it, misdiagnosing it, and misapplying remedies, indeed!
The penalty for Francis’s crude attempt at evangelization and peacemaking should have been martyrdom. But the sultan was so taken aback by Francis’s authenticity, simplicity, and fidelity to the Good News that he embraced him, fed him, gave him gifts (that Francis declined), and provide him with a safe passage back to Italy. Surely, if Francis could reach out to the sultan, then we can reach out to the neighbor who drives us crazy; the colleague who gossips about us; or the friend or relative against whom we hold a longstanding grudge. If Saint Francis lived among us now, who would he love like the leper, the wolf, and the sultan? The homeless person who begs for a dollar? The addict who seeks to be understood? The dementia patient who seeks to remember? The divorced parishioner who longs to be welcomed? The single mother who asks for a helping hand? The AIDS patient who needs help bathing because he is too weak to bathe himself? Or the sick neighbor who suffers alone with COVID-19?
Saint Francis said: “I have been all things unholy. If God can work through me, he can work through anyone.” And so, God does. He works through us, sinners all. He calls us, sinners all. God beckons us to give faithful witness to his love and mercy: to the leper, the wolf, and to the sultan; to meet them and embrace them where they are, whoever they are, wherever they’re from, and no matter what they’ve done in this life. Just as Christ called Saint Francis more than eight hundred years ago, he calls us here and now from the cross. He calls us to listen for the leper’s bell, to look for the wolf, and to preach to the sultan. He calls us to encounter them, love them, and serve them without counting the cost. Christ call us, as he called Saint Francis, to live the Gospel, share God’s love, and rebuild the Church — one person at a time. Leper by leper. Wolf by wolf. Sultan by sultan. Person by person. Life by life. Soul by soul.
We have been all things unholy. If God can work through us, he can work through anyone, anywhere, everywhere. And so, God does! Glory to the Father, to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit; as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever. Amen. Saint Francis of Assisi, pray for us! Saint Clare of Assisi, pray for us! Our Lady of Angels, pray for us!
About the Author & Presenter
Cliff Garvey is a co-founder of the Assisi Project. He is a graduate of the University of Southern Maine, Saint John Seminary College, and the Catholic University of America. Cliff is a spiritual director, retreat leader, writer, and university lecturer. He also serves as Associate Minister of the Catholic Community of Gloucester & Rockport in Massachusetts where his ministry focuses on adult faith formation.
Thank you for listening to the Assisi Project Podcast: If God Can Work Through Me… This audio recording is produced by the Assisi Project, Inc. For more information about the Assisi Project and our ongoing programs and ministries for adults of all ages and backgrounds, please contact Cliff at firstname.lastname@example.org. Copyright 2020. All Rights Reserved. May the Lord give you peace!
Founded in 2007, the Assisi Project is a Fellowship of Franciscans in Spirit with members, friends, and followers in the United States, Canada, Europe, and Africa. We are dedicated to helping Christian believers of all ages to more faithfully live the Gospel of Christ in the spirit of Saints Francis and Clare. The Assisi Project is a non-profit, tax exempt charitable organization. All are welcome to support our ministry via PayPal or smile.amazon.com; or by sending a tax-deductible donation to the Assisi Project, Post Office Box 3158, Gloucester, Massachusetts 01931-3158. For more information about the Assisi Project and our upcoming opportunities for formation, prayer, and pilgrimage, please contact Cliff Garvey at email@example.com. May the Lord give you peace!