The pandemic has drastically changed our mode of thinking, living, and socializing. For example, our social distancing and the lack of regular human contacts has speeded up the ageing process, especially with the elderly. Researchers have noted an increase of anxiety leading to violence, at interpersonal and even international levels. As Christians we tend to identify ourselves with a non-violent lifestyle. As disciples of Saint Francis, we take for granted our calm behavior and openness to dialogue; we project ourselves in Matthew’s Beatitude: “Happy the peacemakers: they shall be called sons of God” (Mt 5,9). Some of us bear peace in their behavior and their gaze at others, or through the sound of a soothing voice. Others build peace in creating harmonious relationships, while others flee confrontation or open conflicts. But it took a Pandemic social crisis to make us realize how we can be violent at times.
During the last year, we have witnessed the many faces of violence. Or even experienced them in our spiritual life, our fraternal relations, or at a social level. The whole world has gone through the dark side of violence. We can easily pinpoint down an increase in road rage, impatience and complaining in lineups, ethnic gang wars, domestic quarrels, battered women and physical abuse, hatred and revenge triggered by the recent scandals concerning the First Nations… The list is endless and concerns each one of us. Violence starts within our hearts and explodes as far as Afghanistan. The Latin root of violence says it all: an excessive use of force. Pandemic violence has triggered darkness and refusal to consider the other as a precious human being. One better understands Cain’s denial when asked where his brother Abel can be found: “Am I my brother’s guardian?” (Gn. 4,9).
Then Francis of Assisi comes along with his Canticle of the Creatures at the end of his life. He gives an indirect statement on non-violence. He reconciles pardon and suffering: “Praised be You, my Lord, through those who give pardon for Your love, and bear infirmity and tribulation. Blessed are those who endure in peace for by You, Most High, shall they be crowned.” (CtC10) One finds it strange that such a praise of thanksgiving for Creation includes many dead-end situations in our lives: hatred, illness, trials, death and sin. We know the historical origin of this verse on pardon, added in the Canticle!
In July 1226, a quarrel between the Mayor and the Bishop of Assisi bursts out in the open. The Bishop excommunicates the Mayor. Their conflict could have been triggered by property issues and matters of jurisdiction. What was once a friendly relationship has become a source of violent hatred. What strikes us is Francis’s immediate reaction to the conflict. The Legend of Perugia refers to his pity for the two men in authority. He criticizes the fact that no one would intervene to reestablish peace and harmony. His comment is clear: “Shame on us, servants of God! There is no one to bring peace and concord when the Mayor and Bishop hate themselves so much!” (LP44) The Saint acknowledges the crisis for what it is; he anticipates the consequences, but mostly suffers for the lack of action. He then adds a verse on pardon to his Canticle, and sends his friars to sing out loud the Blessing under their balconies.
This historical event offers a way of functioning in times of crisis. To be able to see and hear a conflict, either personal, interpersonal, or social. To have the courage to intervene in a compassionate way when no one else does – Francis reacts by creating a new verse in his Canticle. To rely on partners of reconciliation when one is unable to meet the people in conflict. To rejoice while searching for a peaceful solution. This reveals the need for reconciliation in our evangelization journey.
Another example in Franciscan literature shows us how to act in times of violence. The Fioretti invent the Wolf of Gubbio narrative to go further into the steps of reconciliation (Fior 21). Francis listens to the fears and victimized reactions of the people of Gubbio, in front of the beast. He sets out of the walls of the city to meet the wolf on his turf. He approaches him like a friend: no judgement, no menace, no accusations. He simply recalls the damage done and how much it affects Gubbio. At the end of a patient dialogue, he then proposes a double covenant between the people and the wolf. Bending low and extending his paw, the wolf engages himself by letting go his violence; the people engage themselves by protecting and offering him sustenance.
This scene might seem a romantic fiction, yet a legend holds hits interpretation. Any legend is worth its finale: reconciliation is a long-term commitment. Just like the verse on pardon in the Canticle, the Gubbio scene discloses a way of communicating in order to build harmonious relationships, and create a practical spirituality of reconciliation. Pardon becomes a healing process to rekindle and create, a work in progress. The unique face of pardon feeds on God’s own way of treating us, contemplating our lives, with or without the wounds or elements of crisis. As members of the Franciscan family, our legacy enables us to risk steps of pardon in a proactive Gospel Way. When Jesus asks us to extend the other cheek (Lk 6,29), he simply asks us to stop and silence violence where it is happening, and to let the violence in the others die within us. The joy of healing cannot come without such courage!
Pierre Brunette, OFM
(Photo by Chris Sabor on Unsplash)