As we approach the feast of St. Francis of Assisi (October 4) it might be useful to bypass the usual picture of the saint and look at his efforts to rebuild the Church. This is the San Damiano Cross. I carry a picure of it in my wallet and often use it when praying the rosary.
Anyway, what happened was this. The story very largely revolves around the ruins of the Church of St. Damien, an old shrine in Assisi which was apparently neglected and falling to pieces. Here Francis was in the habit of praying before the crucifix during those dark and aimless days of transition which followed the tragical collapse of all his military ambitions, probably made bitter by some loss of social prestige terrible to his sensitive spirit. As he did so he heard a voice saying to him, "Francis, seest thou not that my house is in ruins? Go and restore it for me."
Francis took this quite literally and set about rebuilding the chapel at San Damiano wherein he was praying. When he was finished at San Damiano he went on to the Portiuncula which formed a base for his order. Obviously Our Lord had something greater in mind for Francis but his faithfulness in small things laid the basis for these greater things to come. Soon Francis and his band of followers traveled to Rome to seek the approval of Pope Innocent III for his order.
Innocent III, the great Pope, according to Bonaventura, was walking on the terrace of St. John Lateran, doubtless revolving the great political questions which troubled his reign, when there appeared abruptly before him a person in peasant costume whom he took to be some sort of shepherd. He appears to have got rid of the shepherd with all convenient speed; possibly he formed the opinion that the shepherd was mad. Anyhow he thought no more about it until, says the great Franciscan biographer, he dreamed that night a strange dream. He fancied that he saw the whole huge ancient temple of St. John Lateran, on whose high terraces he had walked so securely, leaning horribly and crooked against the sky as if all its domes and turrets were stooping before an earthquake Then he looked again and saw that a human figure was holding it up like a living caryatid; and the figure was that of the ragged shepherd or peasant from whom he had turned away on the terrace.
What strikes me here is the theme of building up the Church beginning with small things and being led on to greater things. St. Francis went about the neighborhood of Assisi begging for stones and building materials to repair the little chapel of San Damiano. This was St. Francis' vocation but he did not come to it easily. The time spent in a Perugian prison cell no doubt afforded him time to reflect on his life. He began by taking small faltering steps, some of which were questionable. He sold some of his father's cloth, drapery and even his horse to buy building supplies for San Damiano. This he repented of when he returned his clothes to his father in front of the bishop.
Reflecting on St. Francis might give us some insight about what it truly means to build up Christ's Church. Francis did not begin with a trip to Rome to consult with Pope Innocent III but by repairing the chapel of San Damiano. When the Lord finally called him to Rome, he did not go in the same spirit as heretical groups which preceded him like the Waldensians but tonsured in obedience. His rebuilding of San Damiano taught him that stolen goods could not be used to build Christ's Church.
We should ask ourselves whether we are willing to serve the apprenticeship Christ sets out for us as Francis did or skip ahead to the good parts as we are wont to do. We should ask whether we are using tools and materials appropriate to the task. Most of all we need to ask whether our imitation of Christ is selective or complete. Do we dwell on the cleansing of the temple or the warning against the scribes and pharisees or are we willing to follow Christ to Golgotha. St. Francis was granted the stigmata as a sign that his imitation of Christ was complete. May ours be as well.