Sermon for Third Sunday before Advent (Remembrance Sunday) – High Mass Sunday 8 November 2015
“Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel.” Mark 1.14-15
A couple of weeks ago, I was in Assisi. As you walk down the hill from the old town to the great basilica which houses the shrine of St. Francis, you pass a statue of a young man in armour riding a war horse. But this is no portrait of a proud warrior. The soldier is slumped, head down in the saddle.
The young Francis had dreamed of military glory but his military career was to be neither long nor glorious. In his first campaign, he was captured and held for ransom for a year, in conditions which would permanently damage his health. The soldier on the horse is Francis riding home after experiencing a vision on his way to war for the second time: an experience which turned him not just homewards but towards God. It was a stage in the conversion of life which would bring him fame, not as a warrior but as a saint.
The war in which he had been involved was only one of many conflicts which scarred the life of Italy at the time:
- The struggle for dominance between popes in Rome and holy Roman emperors in Germany – into which cities were drawn on one side or the other;
- Conflicts between cities like Assisi and its neighbour Perugia;
- conflicts within cities – between the traditional landed aristocracy and the rising new merchant class with their wealth and education;
- or vendettas between families – Shakespeare’s Montagues and Capulets in Romeo and Juliet.
And then their was crusade against the forces of Islam in the Holy Land and in Spain.
This endemic conflict had a devastating impact, especially on the lives of the poor. In the midst of it, Francis and his brothers and sisters sought to lead people in the paths of peace.
One of the earliest images we have of Francis, a fresco of 1227 in Subiaco, shows him holding an unrolled parchment with the inscription in large letters: “Pax huic domui!”: “Peace to this house!” This was the greeting he often used.
This work for peace was an aspect of the life of Saint Francis which been slipped into the background over the centuries. But it was brought back into the light by Pope John Paul II when he invited leaders of various faiths to Assisi to pray for peace.
Largely forgotten too was the connection Francis saw between poverty and peace: his conviction, echoing the Letter of James, that most acts of violence and conflicts were linked to possession and the desire for power, Francis wanted to show with his brothers, who had renounced property and possessions, the witness of a community of poor people united in mutual affection and the refusal of every aggressive claim.
At the same time, he urged those who remained in the world to be reconciled to their enemies. This does not mean that he neglected the social and collective dimension of evil. But he called people to repentance because he recognized that efforts to establish peace could only bear lasting fruit if they were based on the conversion of hearts, minds and lives and their persistence in peaceful dispositions. Like any religious conversion, this had to be more than a one-off emotional event, it would have to be sustained and renewed over many years, otherwise its results would be precarious.
This was proved by the experience of the friars in peacemaking in the years which followed his death. In 1233, they and the Dominicans, threw themselves into a great campaign of peacemaking in northern Italy. Hope and yearning for peace, as much within the cities as between them, was so strong that the ruling classes were obliged to give up their power for a few weeks or months to the friars. Their entrance onto the scene in town after town was translated into legal reforms aimed at re-establishing peace. The principal ones were:
- A general amnesty to wipe out the traces of previous violence;
- The return of the banished who were to be re-integrated into communal life;
- Peace treaties between warring families so as to preempt reprisals and vendetta.
- Those imprisoned for debts were freed.
- In one city, the obligation to pay lawyers to serve as advocates and counsellors for the poor, widows and orphans, was written into the city’s statutes: an early form of legal aid.
Tragically much of this was to be eroded over succeeding years because of the lack of sustained conversion to the ways of peace.
Our country is going through one of its periodic agonies about our membership of the European Union. Often the arguments for and against membership seem to be couched solely in terms of economics and trade. Debates about economic prosperity and how its benefits are shared are important, but it is worth remembering that while the European project is in part about them, at its root is something deeper, something profoundly moral, and indeed Christian: the establishment after the devastation of two world wars, of a Europe which would never go to war again.
That aim has been largely achieved – but war in the Balkans and the Ukraine should remind us of the fragility of the institutions of law and diplomacy which bind us together. These “instruments of peace,” to borrow a phrase from the 19th century prayer wrongly attributed to St. Francis, but expressing something true to his spirit, need long-term commitment and work. The neglect of them all too quickly leads to the triumph of dark forces like the national and ethnic hatreds and rivalries which destroyed hopes of peace in the years after the “war to end all wars.”
The lesson learned after the Second World War, or at least learned by enough people, was that judgement and revenge – even for the most appalling acts of aggression – was not enough. On its own it would only fuel resentment and stoke up more violence in the future. A new way of relating to each other was needed in which people would learn the ways which make for that peace which is more than the mere absence of conflict but a positive growth in mutual understanding and respect.
We see the results of the absence or breakdown of these on our television screens day by day: soldiers and civilians both, caught up in the maelstrom of destruction and violence of warfare, maimed and traumatized. Young men and women home from Afghanistan or Iraq whose lives will never be the same again. We send them to war and we have a duty to care for them when they have borne the price of political decisions made on our behalf. We have seen it in genocide in the Balkans. We see it now in the tragedy being enacted in Syria and Iraq and the Mediterranean: a sea of human misery. We see it in the failure, the lack of will, to establish peace in the Holy Land.
Today, we are struggling to come to terms with the fact that much of the conflict we are involved in now is not with secular ideologies like fascism and communism, but with people whose religious beliefs impel them to fight us.
Here too, Francis has something to say to us. He had renounced his ambitions of military glory but he did go to war once more. He travelled to Egypt when a crusading army was besieging the city of Rosetta. He made his way through the lines to speak to the Sultan – who seems to have recognized him as a holy man, talked with him, and let him go in peace.
Peace was not established as a result, but the incident has served as an inspiration for efforts to build bridges of understanding and sympathy between Christians and Muslims lest the forces of darkness prevail. Such efforts demand patience and perseverance and openness of hearts and minds.
They demand too, courage on the part of participants because that very openness to the other is abhorrent to the fanatical.
At one level, we feel powerless to do anything about this. It all seems too much, too difficult. But we have to start somewhere. What Francis grasped was that the building of peace demanded of his contemporaries, and of our ours, a repentance, not just a sorrow for our sins, but a radical change of heart and mind and life, so that we do not measure our worth by power and possessions but by the quality of our relationships, and we work on those relationships.
Francis and his brothers went around the countryside and towns of Umbria singing songs and calling people to “do penance:” which was the Latin bible’s translation of “repent.” Repentance does involve doing something: it is a change of life as well as of mind. If it brings a commitment of the building of a peaceful society, then it will have borne the fruits of repentance and that will be something to sing about.