The great Patriarch of Assisi will soon appear a second time in the holy Liturgy, and we shall praise God for the marvels wrought in him by divine grace. The subject of today’s feast, while a personal glory to St. Francis, is of greater importance for its mystical signification.
The Man-God still lives in the Church by the continual reproduction of his mysteries in this his Bride, making her a faithful copy of himself. In the thirteenth century, while the charity of the many had grown cold (Collect of the feast), the divine fire burned with redoubled ardor in the hearts of a chosen few. It was the hour of the Church’s passion; the beginning of that series of social defections, with their train of denials, treasons and derisions, which ended in the proscription we now witness. The Cross had been exalted before the eyes of the world: the Bride was now to be nailed thereto with her divine Spouse, after having stood with him in the pretorium exposed to the insults and blows of the multitude.
Like an artist selecting a precious marble, the Holy Spirit chose the flesh of the Assisian seraph as the medium for the expression of his divine thought. He thereby manifested to the world the special direction he intended to give to the sanctity of souls; he offered to heaven a first and complete model of the new work he was meditating, viz: the perfect union, upon the very cross, of the mystical Body with its divine Head. Francis was the first to be chosen for this honor: but others were to follow; and henceforward, here and there through the world, the Stigmata of Our blessed Lord will ever be visible in the Church.
Let us read in this light the admirable history of the event, composed by the Seraphic Doctor in honor of his holy father St. Francis.
Two years before the faithful servant and minister of Christ, Francis, gave up his spirit to God, he retired alone into a high place, which is called Mount Alvernia, and began a forty-days’ fast in honor of the Archangel St. Michael. The sweetness of heavenly contemplation was poured out on him more abundantly than usual, till, turning with the flame of celestial desires, he began to feel an increasing overflow of these divine favors. While the seraphic ardor of his desires thus raised him up to God, and the tenderness of his love and compassion was transforming him into Christ the crucified Victim of excessive love; one morning, about the Feast of the Exaltation of holy Cross, as he was praying on the mountain-side, he saw what appeared to be a Seraph, with six shining and fiery wings, coming down from heaven. The vision flew swiftly through the air and approached the man of God, who then perceived that it was not only winged, but also crucified; for the hands and feet were stretched out and fastened to a cross; while the wings were arranged in a wondrous manner, two being raised above the head, two outstretched in flight, and the remaining two crossed over the veiling the whole body. As he gazed, Francis was much astonished, and his soul was filled with mingled joy and sorrow. The gracious aspect of him, who appeared in so wonderful and loving a manner, rejoiced him exceedingly, while the sight of his cruel crucifixion pierced his heart with a sword of sorrowing compassion.
He, who appeared outward to Francis, taught him inwardly that, although weakness and suffering are incompatible with the immortal life of a seraph, yet this vision had been shown to him to the end that he, Christ’s lover, might learn how his whole being was to be transformed into a living image of Christ crucified, not by martyrdom of the flesh, but by the burning ardor of his soul. After a mysterious and familiar colloquy, the vision disappeared, leaving the Saint’s mind burning with seraphic ardor, and his flesh impressed with an exact image of the Crucified, as though, after the melting power of that fire, it had next been stamped with a zeal. For immediately the marks of nails began to appear in his hands and feet, their heads showing in the palms of his hands and the upper part of his feet, and their points visible on the other side. There was also a red scar on his right side, as if it had been wounded by a lance, and from which blood often flowed, staining his tunic and underclothing.
Francis, now a new man, honored by this new and amazing miracle, and, by a hitherto unheard of privilege, adorned with the sacred stigmata, came down from the mountain bearing with the image of the Crucified, not carved in wood or stone by the hand of an artist, but engraved upon his flesh by the finger of the living God. The seraphic man well knew that it is good to hide the secret of the king: wherefore, having been thus admitted into his king’s confidence, he strove, as far as in him lay, to conceal the sacred marks. But it belongs to God to reveal the great things which he himself has done; and hence, after impressing these signs upon Francis in secret, he publicly worked miracles by means of them, revealing the hidden and wondrous power of the Stigmata by the signs wrought through them. Pope Benedict XI willed that this wonderful event, which is so well attested and in pontifical diplomas has been honored with the greatest praises and favors, should be celebrated by a yearly solemnity. Afterwards, Pope Paul V, wishing the hearts of all the faithful to be enkindled with the love of Christ crucified, extended the feast to the whole Church.
Standard-bearer of Christ and of his Church, we would fain, with the Apostle and with thee, glory in nothing save the Cross of Our Lord Jesus. We would fain bear in our souls the sacred Stigmata, which adorned thy holy body. To him whose whole ambition is to return love for love, every suffering is a gain, persecution has no terrors; for the effect of persecutions and sufferings is to assimilate him, together with his mother the Church, to Christ persecuted, scourged and crucified.
It is with our whole hearts that we pray, with the Church: “O Lord Jesus Christ, who, when the world was growing cold, didst renew the sacred marks of thy Passion in the flesh of the most blessed Francis, to inflame our hearts with the fire of thy love; mercifully grant that by his merits and prayers we may always carry the cross, and bring forth worthy fruits of penance. Who livest and reignest with God the Father, in the unity of the Holy Ghost, God, world without end. Amen.” (Collect of the feast)
At Bingen, in the diocese of Mayence, Saint Hildegarde, Virgin. (Martyrology on this day) Let us salute the “great prophetess of the New Testament.” (Vita St. Gerlaci coæva) What St. Bernard’s influence over his contemporaries was in the first half of the twelfth century, that in the second half was Hildegarde’s; when the humble virgin became the oracle of popes and emperors, of princes and prelates. Multitudes from far and near flocked to Mount St. Rupert, where the doubts of ordinary life were solved, and the questions of doctors answered. At length, by God’s command, Hildegarde went forth from her monastery to administer to all alike, monks, clerics, and laymen, the word of correction and salvation.
The Spirit indeed breatheth where he will. (John 3:8) To the massy pillars that support his royal palace, God preferred the poor little feather floating in the air, and blown about, at his pleasure, hither and thither in the light. (Hildegarde, Epist. ad Eugenium Pontificem) In spite of labors, sicknesses, and trials, the holy Abbess lived to the advanced age of eighty-two, in the shadow of the living light. (Guibert, Vita Hildegardis, iv) Her precious relics are now at Eibingen. The writings handed down to us from the pen of this illiterate virgin, (Scivias; Lib. Vitæ meritorum; Lib. Divinorum operum; etc.) are a series of sublime visions embracing the whole range of contemporary science, physical and theological, from the creation of the world to its final consummation. May Hildegrade deign to send us and interpreter of her works and an historian of her life such as they merit!
O God, who didst adorn thy blessed virgin Hidlegarde with heavenly gifts: grant, we beseech thee, that walking in her footsteps and according to her teachings, we may deserve to pass from the darkness of this world into thy lovely light. Through our Lord.
This text is taken from The Liturgical Year, authored by Dom Prosper Gueranger (1841-1875)