Rebuilding Christ’s Church

Congratulations to Br. Dan Horan, OFM, who will be ordained this coming week and who just graduated as the Valedictorian of the last class at Washington Theological Union, which is closing.

Over at his fine blog, Dating God, Br. Dan speaks of the ornateness of the Basilica of St Mary in Assisi, Italy in his valedictory address and how his meditation there led him into a deeper vocational call that has a message for each of us.

As the conference winded down, I snuck away early to pray at the little chapel that is the mother church and founding location for the Franciscan movement.

Called the Portiuncula, or “the little portion,” this centuries-old chapel is about the size of one of our WTU classrooms. It is small and simple and was the church most loved by Francis of Assisi. In the centuries after his death, the Franciscans and the universal church, in order to honor and protect this sacred space, built a gigantic basilica over the Portiuncula.

The basilica church is simply huge, with an imposing presence outside in the open piazza and inside with its massive and overarching structure of marble and stone. My thought has always been that Francis was likely rolling in his grave at the thought of such opulence and excess. But then I realized something that might be insightful for us today. I asked myself: Where is the Church of St. Mary of the Angels? Is it this massive, imposing, stone basilica? Or is it the tiny, fragile, simple church, which is housed within?

The more I considered it, the more I realized that on the one hand, it is both. They are intertwined, the large church protects and shelters the small church, it provides the context and sets the environment. Yet, the small church gives meaning and purpose to the large basilica and it is where Francis’s heart was located. His work and his way of life arose out of the small church – the little portion – and transformed religious life and spirituality forever. If Francis were alive today, I wonder if he wouldn’t still have problems with the big, imposing basilica; with its opulence and with the message it seems to project about what is important and what is not. But, Francis would likely not be as bothered as I can be at times today as a friar coming “home” to the spiritual center of my religious order. He would, I think, still focus his attention and energy and direct his love toward the little Church, the Portiuncula.

It is there that he came to hear the quiet voice of the Spirit calling him to live his baptismal vocation to the fullest.

It was there that the early brothers, inspired by the would-be saint, joined Francis in fraternity and ministry.

It was there that the young noblewoman Clare of Assisi professed her commitment to follow Francis’s way of life.

It was there that women and men, the poor and the privileged, the powerful and the marginalized alike sought out the pastoral care and spiritual guidance of the man who would become Christianity’s most popular saint.

It was there, at the Portiuncula, that Francis asked to have his naked body laid so that, as he entered this world in total poverty and completely dependent on God, he might leave this world in similar fashion.

And, I came to realize while praying in the tiny church, that all of us here have our own Portiunculas, our own “small portions” of the church, like Francis had St. Mary of the Angels.

For some of the graduates, your Portiuncula is at the side of a hospital bed or in the waiting room of an oncology wing, where your hearts are led by the Spirit to reveal the compassionate face of our loving God to the sick and dying.

For some of the graduates, your Portiuncua is found in the parish church where you help form the spiritual life of the faithful, minister to people during their most joyful and sorrowful moments, and share the good news of Jesus Christ in so many ways.

For some of the graduates, your Portiuncula is located in the classroom, educating students about the richness of the theological and spiritual traditions of our faith, guiding and mentoring the next generation of Catholics and other Christians during their most formative years.

For some of the graduates, your Portiuncula is in place yet to be imagined in a world that so desperately needs the Gospel, and with people who wholeheartedly long for the life-giving word that God loves them and journeys with them in life.

Like Francis of Assisi, each of us graduates has received – in some form or another – the vocational call of the Spirit to “Rebuild Christ’s Church.”

Read the rest of his address, but know that this call is not just for graduates, rather it is for us all. We are all called to the Portiunculas of our lives. It may be to the bedside of a sick parent or child, to the homeless down the street, to the neighbor struggling to make ends meet, that co-worker who can’t seem to do anything right these days and fears unemployment and of course to all of those jobless and filled with worry.

And we are called to ourselves. Where our deepest fears need to meet with God’s mercy and love to find that God can meet us in the Portincula too and calm out fears and fulfill our deepest desires if we just hone our relationship with God a tiny bit more each day hearing the words of St. Peter, “To whom shall we go, Lord? You have the words of eternal life.”

Congratulations to WTU’s final class, especially Br. Dan and Rich Andre, CSP and Tom Gibbons, CSP. As ordination awaits each of you, may you be filled by the grace God imparts each day and may that grace lead you to be more of who God calls each of you to be.

And may God call each of us to the same vocation.

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