Franciscan Fanfare: 5 marks of penance of Francis of Assisi: A little more on love of neighbor


In the last segment of this column, we began by speaking of Francis of Assisi’s prescription for living penance (in other words: ongoing conversion, metanoia). This prescription includes five elements: love of God, love of neighbor, hatred of sin, reception of the Eucharist, and worthy fruits of penance. We began by speaking about the complementary call to love of God and love of neighbor. In this column we will offer a few more reflections on love of neighbor. 

We hear that phrase “love of neighbor” and it can seem so generic and cliché that we don’t grasp the weight of what it means. When we look through Francis’ writings, we find a reference to the phrase “love of neighbor” that unpacks how the Saint of Assisi understood it. Francis wrote a beautiful commentary on the Lord’s Prayer entitled “A Prayer Inspired by the Our Father”. In this catechism of prayer, Francis fleshes out what the various lines of the Our Father mean. 

In the part of the prayer, “Your will be done on earth as in heaven, Francis offers the following comment: 

“Your will be done on earth — That we may love You with our whole heart by always thinking of You, with our whole soul by always desiring You, with our whole mind by always directing our intentions to You, and by seeking your glory in everything, with all our strength by exerting all our energies and affections of body and soul in the service of Your love and of nothing else; and we may love our neighbor as ourselves by drawing them all to Your love with our whole strength, by rejoicing in the good of others as in our own, by suffering with others at their misfortunes, and by giving offense to no one.” 

For Francis, the divine will on earth is manifest in Christians loving their neighbors as themselves. How do we do this? Francis tells us that we love our neighbor when our whole strength is bent on drawing others to God’s love. This is a beautiful call from God  we have some responsibility in drawing others to experience his love.  By our actions, our words and the way we respond to others’ dignity, we can draw them to God’s love.   

Another way of loving neighbor is to rejoice in the good of others as in our own. This is a challenging call and yet so many opportunities await us. While I am not great at this, I have found that intentionally practicing such affirmation of our brother or sister’s good makes it easier to make this a virtuous habit. A homily beautifully preached through the Holy Spirit by my brother Daniel Maria is worth rejoicing in!   

For Francis, love of neighbor also means suffering with others at their misfortunes. None of us like to suffer, and yet the gift of compassion is a suffering with the other. Sometimes suffering with may mean a very practical sacrifice of your will — think of the parents who stay all night in the emergency room with their child. Yes, this might be expected of them, but do they embrace this opportunity for love of God and love of their child which is inherent in the sacrifice? If they do, it then is transformed into being redemptive. 

Finally, Francis says that we love our neighbor by giving offense to no one. Our culture needs a revival of the virtue of kindness. We have opportunities on the road, in the store, with our families, in our households and in athletic competition to mind ourselves and not give offense. A spirit of honoring the other is so needed and so heroic. 

Sometimes it is downright difficult to love our neighbor.  We feel that it is not within our willpower to love the person in front of us who for whatever reason we loathe in the moment. 

Ubertino da Casale, a Franciscan friar writing in the 14th century, may offer us a word of wisdom: “The love to imitate You is what drives me to stoop down to my neighbor. Wretchedness draws me back as I feel unworthy. But as I have placed myself under Your will, I await the word of Your command, since Your command has power to make up all deficiencies.” 

The difficulty to love our neighbor can be surmounted by surrender to and calling upon the Lord to act in us. When you struggle to love someone, it can be helpful to plead with the Lord, “Jesus Christ, Loving Savior, love (name the person) through me. In my will, I choose to love. Animate this love in me towards this person”. 

As we begin Lent this week, let us look at how conversion can flow from our love of God and love of neighbor. Let us not be afraid to be transformed for God’s glory!