St. Francis of Assisi’s dramatic conversion from young man about town and failed soldier into “the most Christlike of all the saints,” as Pope Pius XI noted, was greatly assisted by a line of Scripture proclaimed at Mass one morning. St. Francis had moved to a small chapel named Porziuncula, built on a small plot of land that belonged to the Benedictine Abbey of Mount Subasio. The Porziuncula was located about three miles from Assisi and was almost in ruins. The tranquility of the site pleased Francis along with its title, Our Lady of the Angels. Francis repaired the building and made it his residence. There on the feast of Saint Mathias in 1209 St. Francis heard the Gospel of the feast day which read in part, “Without cost you have received; without cost you are to give. Do not take gold or silver or copper for your belts; no sack for the journey, or a second tunic, or sandals, or a walking stick.” (Mt 10:8-10). These words penetrated Francis’ heart and he literally gave away his sandals, his walking stick, and his belt and he was left only with a tunic tied by a cord. This crude, wool garment was similar to that worn by shepherds and farmers in the district. It later evolved into the familiar Franciscan habit. Dressed in that way, he began to exhort people to penance with much energy, moving the hearts of his listeners and soon attracting followers.
The Gospel words that moved St. Francis so much are the same words that will be heard throughout the Christian world at this coming Sunday’s Mass, although this year worshippers will hear St. Luke’s version of Christ’s exhortation to his disciples rather than St. Matthew’s account which St. Francis heard. The words of course are substantially the same: “Carry no money bag, no sack, no sandals; and greet no one along the way. Into whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace to this household.’ If a peaceful person lives there, your peace will rest on him; but if not, it will return to you. Stay in the same house and eat and drink what is offered to you, for the laborer deserves his payment. Do not move about from one house to another. Whatever town you enter and they welcome you, eat what is set before you, cure the sick in it and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God is at hand for you.’ Whatever town you enter and they do not receive you, go out into the streets and say, ‘The dust of your town that clings to our feet, even that we shake off against you.’ Yet know this: the kingdom of God is at hand. I tell you, it will be more tolerable for Sodom on that day than for that town.”
St. Francis providentially understood these words to be an appeal for evangelical poverty: no money, no sack, no sandals. Yet when all of St. Luke’s as well as St. Matthew’s words are considered, Christ’s call is not limited to evangelical poverty so much as it is directed toward apostolic urgency. A money bag might attract brigands. A heavy sack might slow one down. Greeting people along the way will delay the task at hand. Moving from house to house will take up valuable time. Being fussy over meals will just drag things out. Wasting time on unrepentant towns is scorned. All of these directives indicate a very strong, very determined sense of urgency. Preach the Gospel; announce the Good News; proclaim the Kingdom of God! Do not waste any time! Don’t dilly dally! Get moving!
Few believers are called to strict evangelical poverty as St. Francis was and as many religious congregations and individuals have been throughout the centuries. Yet all Christians are expected to have a sense of urgency about living the Gospel message themselves and sharing the Gospel message with others. And here Jesus really means business. The same Jesus who once found value in a “smoldering wick” and a “bruised reed” is now counselling his followers to wipe the dust of an unrepentant town from their feet in order to move on to a more receptive locale. The risk of losing some should not prevent the disciples from trying to reach all. Time is short.
Today’s Catholic might well take the Gospel message seriously but the average Catholic nowadays gives little attention to urgency. Urgency is for the Pope or the priests or the missionaries. Rather all Catholics must develop a sense of opportunity, a sense of taking advantage, a sense of reminding or introducing people to the Gospel message: “The kingdom of God is at hand for you!” St. Francis touched hearts. All Catholics are called to touch hearts.