Yesterday, Pope Benedict XVI traveled to Assisi to celebrate the 800th anniversary of the city’s favorite hometown hero, St. Francis. During his eleven-hour trip, the pope gave five talks, including a beautiful address to a crowd of more than 25,000 young people gathered in the square surrounding the Porziuncola, the little church where Francis realized his vocation to serve God by living in poverty among the poor. Here are some excerpts:
Saint Francis speaks to all men and women, but I know that he has a special attraction for young people. Your presence here in great numbers confirms this as do the questions you have put before me. His conversion took place at the prime of his life, of his experiences, of his dreams. He had spent twenty five years without ever having come to understand the meaning of life. A few months before his death, he will remember that period as a time when he was â€œin sinâ€ (cfr. 2 Test 1: FF 110).
â€œAimless wanderingâ€, ambition and truth
What was Francis thinking of when he spoke of sins? According to biographies, each with its own line, it is not easy to determine. A useful account of his way of life is found in the Legend of the Three Companions, where it reads: â€œFrancis was expansive and highly strung, addicted to gaming and song, he wandered aimlessly throughout the city of Assisi by day and by night with friends of his cast, so generous in his spending on luncheons and other delights all that he could have or earnâ€ (3 Comp 1,2: FF 1396). How many young people of today could be described in a similar way? Now there is also the possibility to go beyond our own cities in search of enjoyment. Each weekend recreational events gather the youth in great numbers. Now we can also â€œwanderâ€ virtually â€œsurfingâ€ the net, in search of all kinds of information and contacts. Unfortunately there is no small number â€“ actually there are far too many! – young men and women who search for fatuous and destructive surroundings in the artificial paradise of drugs. How can we deny that there are many young people, and some not so young, who are tempted to follow the lifestyle of the youthful Francis, before his conversion? Deep down, in that way of life there was the desire for happiness which inhabits each heart. But could that life give true joy? Francis certainly did not find it to be so. You, my dear young people can test this from your own experience. The truth is that finite things give the weak impression of joy; only the Infinite can fill the heart. This was said by another great convert Saint Augustine: “for Thou hast formed us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in Thee” (Confess. 1,1). The same biographical text tells us that Francis was quite vain. He liked to have sumptuous clothes tailored for him and sought to be original. (Comp 1, 2: FF 1396). In vanity, in the search for originality, there is something which touches us all directly. Today there is much talk about â€œtaking care of oneâ€™s imageâ€ or â€œkeeping up with appearancesâ€. In order to have the slightest chance of success, we have to strike others with something new, original. In a certain way, this may be expressed in an innocent desire for acceptance. But all too often it is penetrated by a subtle pride, an excessive search for ourselves, egoism and the desire to outdo others. In real terms, a life which revolves around oneself is a death trap: we can only be ourselves if we open up to love, by loving God and others… Dear young people, you have reminded me of some of the pressing issues for youth today, of your difficulties in building a future for yourselves and above all of your strained efforts to discover the truth. In the account of Christâ€™s passion we find Pilates question: â€œWhat is the truth?â€ (Jn 18,38). It is a question which resounds widely throughout modern day culture. The Gospel indicates Christ as the truth: Godâ€™s truth and manâ€™s truth. We risk spending our entire lives deafened by the chaos of empty voices, we risk losing his voice among the din, the only voice which counts because it is the only voice which saves. We content ourselves with fragments of the truth, we allow ourselves to be seduced by truths that are only such in appearance. Is it really a wonder, then, that we find ourselves surrounded by a world of contradictions, which, despite the many marvellous things, so often deludes us with its banal expressions, its injustices, and its violence? Without God, the world looses its basis and its direction. Do not be afraid my dear friends, to imitate Francis above all in the ability to turn to yourselves. He knew how to make room for silence within himself, to listen to Godâ€™s Word. Step by step he allowed himself to be taken by the hand and guided by God towards a full encounter with Christ, to the point of making it the precious treasure and light of his life… Yes, my dear young people: let us meet Christ! Let us trust in Him, listen to His Word. He is not just a fascinating human being. Indeed, He is fully human and similar to us, except in sin ( Eb 4, 15). But He is also so much more: He is God made man. Therefore He is the only Saviour, as he same name tells us: Jesus that is â€œGod savesâ€. We come to Assisi to learn from Saint Francis the secret to recognising Christ and to experience Him. This is what Francis felt for Jesus, as his first biography narrates: â€œJesus always in his heart. Jesus on his lips, Jesus in his ears, Jesus in his eyes, Jesus in his hands, Jesus in all his other membersâ€¦..Actually, finding himself often on travels, by meditating and singing to Jesus, he forgot that he was travelling and stopped to invites all creatures to praise Jesus (1 Cel II, 9, 115: FF 115). Francis in short was truly in love with Christ. He met him in the Word of God, in his fellow man, in nature, but above all in the Eucharist… My dear youth, your presence here today in great numbers is a sign of how much the figure of Francis speaks to your heart. I willingly give you once again, his message, but above all his life and his testament. The time has come for young people, like Francis, to commit themselves and learn how to enter into a personal relationship with Christ. The time has come for us to look upon the history of this third millennium which has just begun a history that needs more than ever to be lifted by the Good News of the Gospel. I once again make my own and invitation my Predecessor, John Paul IIâ€™s loved to give the young: â€œOpen you hearts to Christâ€. Open them as Francis did, without fear, without calculation, without limits. You, my dear young people, are my joy, as you were for John Paul II… I bless you all.