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franciscan - May 2001

© The Society of Saint Francis, 2001

Loving with Christ's love

By Gregory SSF

In their pastoral work brothers and sisters are helped by Guidelines for Pastoral Care, produced and authorised by the community. In the light of his ministry in this area, Brother Gregory reflects on some elements of the Guidelines.

As The Principles of the First Order remind us, we are set apart to show the love of God and to reflect Christ-like attitudes and responses.
Our Principles (Day 9) encourage us to develop a warm sympathy with the interests and needs of others ... but There is a risk that our concern and affection ... can be misinterpreted. Care should always be taken about the effects of our ministry upon others ...

Saint Francis said, ‘Preach the Gospel and, if necessary, use words!’ We are to preach the word simply by being. For some who come to see us we are perhaps the only face of the Church that they will meet at close range. How they encounter us and, in us, God, will depend to a great degree on how we present ourselves. Body language, facial expression, custody of the eyes and hands, touch – all send messages before we begin to listen, let alone speak.

Am I aware of the messages that I’m giving? Do they make me comfortable to be with, and trustworthy? Does the habit I wear ‘fit’ me? Am I fit to wear the habit as a tool for witnessing to the kingdom, as an ambassador for the Church and SSF?

Our Lord says ‘of those who have been given much, much will be expected’; expected not only by the community but increasingly by those who seek us out because God has inspired and encouraged them to share their story with a stranger.

Our mistakes and successes earn a reputation not just for individuals but for the community and the Church. The regrettable court actions we read about in the press record the mistakes and irresponsibilities of religious and priests in the past.

Too many people, vulnerable people, have had their lives marred by inappropriate responses or actions. Wearing a habit just does not qualify us to be irresponsible. We are accountable to those who come to us for help and to each other.

This ministry is central to our life (Principles, Day 23). It also places us in a position of great trust, which it is important to honour ...
We are recipients of great trust. We are to exhibit the simplicity of our vocation as Brothers and Sisters to be a vehicle of comfort. Encouraging people to unburden themselves of that which imprisons, threatens and dis-eases.

The words Pax et Bonum (peace and good) which we put on our note paper, hang on our doorposts, and use to sign letters, should remind us and those who sense our charism that we are meant to be worthy of our vocation: that our vows of poverty, chastity and obedience are a gift to God, the Church and the world.

There should be clear boundaries of space and time and manner ... There is a proper enclosure which is a sign of our celibate vocation.

We are there for people to befriend. Befriending, in my experience as a friar, has its limitations: holy limitations, boundaries which keep us free to respond generously whilst remaining responsible to those who come to us, and to the teachings of the Gospel.
An over-zealous or over-developed and misplaced compassion exposes the unacceptable face of ministry. We want to give no sense of false security. We must avoid lulling the unsuspecting into the sticky web of our own hidden agendas. But we are called to embrace those who come to us for counsel. It is to be done by words and actions which reveal the hidden beauty of Christ borne in our hearts and nurtured in others by our ministry and mission.

In the Gospels and in our holy Father Saint Francis we have examples of compassion showing love with integrity through the beauty of a celibate response.

... we should have an understanding about whose needs are being met in any form of ministry.

Jesus and Saint Francis could give themselves so generously because they demanded nothing in return but that love which is ‘the inspiration of service and the reward of sacrifice’ (Principles, Day 13).

The sacrificial loving which is part of celibacy leads us to see the Christ hidden in each person. Hence we reverence each person as holy, and this reverence for the holy begets wholeness.

Despite our broken, bruised, hurt selves, with the limitations of our sexuality, God calls us beyond self-gratification to see with the eyes and heart of the wounded and the scared. Many of us carry the hidden stigmata of Francis which may cause pain when exposed to the physical beauty and attractive personality of another.

We would ask that brothers and sisters take these Guidelines very seriously, that our ministry may be responsible and effective, as well as caring and loving, in the spirit of Christ.

As well as the Guidelines, we have the Gospel, with all its wisdom on which to reflect. Unlike the Guidelines, which we are encouraged to refer to ‘from time to time’, the Gospels are a daily experience. Francis, who shaped his entire life on the Gospels, with great dignity and reverence won the hearts and minds of many. His reputation for wisdom and compassion was earned by a life devoted and consecrated to God in Jesus. We too as Christians are consecrated at our baptism.

Around and through the eucharist we can find inspiration for our action from the words and the offering of God. God gives so that we may serve and continue to be there for others.

The peace which Jesus brought to the frightened disciples is ours to share. We are commissioned at the end of every eucharist to ‘Go in peace to love and serve the Lord’, to which I hope we can all give our affirming ‘Amen!’ in word and action. f

Brother Gregory SSF has been Guardian of Alnmouth Friary for the last nine years, the maximum-permitted term of duty. He expects to return to live at Glasshampton in the autumn.

 

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