By ARCHBISHOP GREGORY J. HARTMAYER, OFM Conv. | Published October 4, 2023 | En Español
When I was appointed the Bishop of Savannah in 2011, I chose as my Episcopal Motto, Pax et Bonum! (Peace and All Good!).
St. Francis of Assisi, whose spiritual son I am, would greet his brothers with these words. Peace and good are central components of the Franciscan charism. St. Francis favored the phrase’s use, and often began and ended his sermons and letters with those words. Pax et Bonum is a reminder to be at peace at all times with all things and to live a good life.
Another reminder of my vocation as a Conventual Franciscan Friar may be seen on my coat of arms, the Tau, shaped after the Greek letter. St. Francis would sign his writing with a Tau, often painted it on the walls and doors of places where he stayed and would remind his friars that their habit was in the shape of a Tau cross, illustrating that they must go into the world wearing this cross like an incarnation of Christ.
In St. Francis the ancient prophetic sign was actualized, regained its saving power and expressed the beatitude of poverty, which is an essential element of the Franciscan way of life. The Tau served as St. Francis’ seal and reflected his deep spiritual conviction that the salvation of every person is only in the Cross of Christ.
The Incarnation and the Passion were central to the spirituality of St. Francis. In the Incarnation, God became man, coming to earth as a helpless and vulnerable baby. And of course, the Passion is inseparable from the Incarnation. The very reason for Jesus coming to this earth, was so that he would die on the cross for our sins. Francis reflected often on the humility of the Incarnation and the charity of the Passion in his prayer. We are invited to do the same.
The year 2023 is significant in the life of the Franciscan family for two reasons. First, it is the 800th anniversary of the Rule of St. Francis which can be traced back to when Francis received his calling to Gospel Poverty. At Mass, he heard the familiar words of Jesus as he commissioned his disciples to continue his work—”Do not take gold or silver or copper for your belts; no sack for the journey, or a second tunic, or sandals, or walking stick. The laborer deserves his keep” (Mt 10:9-10). These words resonated with him as he responded, “This is what I want to do with all my strength.”
Like Jesus, many followers were drawn to Francis and his charism of radical poverty. An initial rule was accepted by Pope Innocent III in 1209, and the Franciscan order was established. In the years that followed, many others were drawn to the Franciscan order. With greater numbers, more structure was necessary. In 1223, Francis and two of his religious brothers entered a hermitage near the Italian city of Rieti. After 40 days of prayer and fasting, they emerged with the Final Rule which Pope Honorius III approved in 1223. The Rule is the fruit of St. Francis’ vision for his followers, that they might live the Gospel in a spirit of poverty and simplicity.
The Franciscan Order is divided into three independent branches, the Friars Minor, the Conventual Franciscans and the Capuchins. I am happy to say that we have all three branches in the Archdiocese of Atlanta. The Conventual Franciscan friars serve at St. Philip Benizi Church in Jonesboro and Holy Cross Church in Atlanta. Our Capuchin friars, based in Tucker, travel throughout the archdiocese feeding the poor and ministering to their spiritual needs. The Friars Minor have merged their North American provinces to form a single province, Our Lady of Guadalupe Province, that will have its headquarters in Hapeville. All of this brings great joy to this spiritual son of St. Francis.
Francis’ celebration of Christmas
The second commemoration of this year centers upon what happened in the Italian town of Greccio at Christmastime in 1223. St. Francis who was a deacon, was asked to assist at midnight Mass. He proclaimed the Gospel narrating the first Christmas and preached on its importance.
He came there wanting to celebrate Christmas in a new way, a midnight Mass with a real ox and donkey and with townspeople gathered around witnessing this live Christmas crèche.
Christmas was the dearest of feasts because it revealed the profound humility of God in choosing to become a little infant. In doing so, St. Francis hoped that people would see themselves in the Christmas scene. It would not only be about something that happened many years ago in Bethlehem, but it would be something that was happening then and there to them. Everyone could see that the Christ Child comes to us in our own place and time at Christmas.
St. Francis wanted to show everyone there how close God was to them, how humble God is, how like a child is God who loves us unconditionally. Emmanuel—God is with us, and we can love him with affection and overflowing love, as God has first loved us and continues to love us. Pope Francis reminds us: “Beginning in childhood, and at every stage of our lives, the crèche teaches us to contemplate Jesus, to experience God’s love for us, to feel and believe that God is with us and that we are with Him.”
We celebrate these anniversaries during the papacy of Pope Francis. The Holy Father stated that he chose his name because of the example of St. Francis of Assisi, “the man of poverty, the man of peace, the man who loves and protects creation.” October 4 was the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi, and this year especially, we have much to celebrate.
May these celebrations be a source of blessing for the universal church, and most especially here in the Archdiocese of Atlanta. May the Lord grant you his peace!