Franciscan Fanfare: 5 marks of penance from Francis of Assisi — love of God and love of neighbor


In the beautiful and diverse expression of the Gospel given to us by the saints, sometimes we’re blessed to draw from them a motto or a phrase that stays with us. One can hardly think of St. Ignatius without hearing the powerful words, Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam (it’s not just a vibrant men’s household!). If you’re a devotee of Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati you may have verso l’alto on a sticker on your water bottle. How can one not be moved by the words “I Thirst” that adorn the chapels of St. Theresa of Calcutta and her sisters? 

For me, as a follower of Jesus Christ seeking to live like his disciple Francis of Assisi, I feel drawn to particular prayers and pieces of writing of the little poor man of Assisi. While little known, perhaps the most powerful words for me of St. Francis are from a work that he wrote for lay people whom he came into contact with early in his life as an itinerant preacher. This small work authored by Francis is known as “The Earlier Exhortation to the Brothers and Sisters of Penance,” and it was given to those first penitents who desired to share in Francis’ Gospel way of life. 

The particular words that are my focus in this article are from the start of this exhortation in a chapter entitled, “Those who do Penance.” Francis tells us who those are that do penance? This should be interesting. Those who do penance, according to Francis of Assisi, are “All those who love the Lord with their whole heart, with their whole soul and mind, with their whole strength and love their neighbors as themselves, who hate their bodies with their vices and sins, who receive the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, and who produce worthy fruits of penance.”  After listing these five marks of penance, Francis says, “O how happy and blessed are these men and women while they do such things and persevere in doing them.” 

For Francis, penance begins with Gospel imperatives  love of God and love of neighbor.  You might be reading this and think “duh!”, but the reality is that these two precepts of the Gospel are profound in their simplicity and they are unable to be separated from each other. In the first mark of penance, Francis quotes Mark 12:30 and calls for a love of God that engages the total person  heart, soul, mind and strength. 

How can we do this more fully? We engage our whole person in the love of God when we are constantly seeking to be given over more to God in the person that we are. Not the person we think we have to be to be holy  the person that we are! If you are a person who suffers from anxiety, you will know that love of God is increasing in you when you are taking the step to see a counselor and to pray with what comes up when you see them. If you are a person who feels prayer is a struggle, you will grow in the love of God when you show up for prayer offering the results to the Lord. 

The second mark of penance is love of neighbor, which is the essential call in our lives, for the love of the one we see is the true expression of the love of the one we cannot see (see all of 1 John on this). It is penance to truly love our neighbor, that is, to be sacrificial and to love when it is inconvenient.  Sometimes your “neighbor” is your roommate, your fellow teammate or your classmate. Sometimes your “neighbor” is that politician who makes your skin crawl. Sometimes your “neighbor” may be the part of you that you wish didn’t exist or that you find to be shameful or weak. 

Love of neighbor is a choice to place that “neighbor” as a person worthy of love in your life.  Love of neighbor is receiving the love of brothers, like me – as I type this with a bad cold – receiving my brothers’ love as they cover my assignments for Mass that I can’t fulfill.   

Love of God is the vertical beam and love of neighbor the horizontal beam of the cross. The two met most perfectly in the crucified Christ. When we live them, we live penance, we live metanoia, we live conversion, we live Jesus Christ. When we live Jesus Christ, we live our destiny, we are most fully ourselves, we are most happy. 

More to come on Francis of Assisi’s five marks of penance. Don’t forget to come to Metanoia Mondays or catch Fr. Dave’s Metanoia segments released online every Monday. And May God give you peace!