“The Holy Protomartyrs of the Order fulfilled the desire for martyrdom of Francis, Clare and Anthony of Padua, who decided to embrace the folly of the Gospel at the passing of their relics”, said Br Massimo Fusarelli, Minister General, in his homily delivered in Terni on Sunday 16 January on the occasion of the Feast of the Protomartyrs of the Order. The Minister was welcomed by the Provincial of the Seraphic Province of St Francis of Assisi, Br Francesco Piloni, together with the friars of the Friary and numerous faithful.
Br Andrea Natale, Guardian of the Friary in Terni, spoke of the importance of this visit, which was centred around a beautiful and moving celebration during which the Minister General also announced his forthcoming visit to Morocco, the place of martyrdom of the Protomartyrs.
In the Friary of Terni, there are five friars who devote themselves to the pastoral service of a large parish, accompanying families, young people, various groups and collaborating actively with the Diocesan Caritas in assisting the poor.
Full text of the Minister General’s homily:
Feast of the Franciscan Protomartyrs
16 January 2022 in Terni
We have heard the words of St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 4:9, “For I think that God has exhibited us, apostles, as last of all, as though sentenced to death, because we have become a spectacle to the world, to angels and to mortals”. The Apostle recognises a condition of humiliation as a characteristic of the ministry: our strength is the power of God acting in us, weak and small.
The Gospel of Mt 10:16 told us just as clearly: “See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves”. Jesus does not send us to win and triumph but to radically surrender ourselves as unarmed to the power of the other. The path is traced by Jesus himself, who handed himself over to his enemies, letting them do with him what they wanted.
St Francis walked in this Gospel spirit. He saw the presence and work of the friars as heralds of the Gospel, citing Mt 10:16 in chapter 16 of the Earlier Rule when he allowed the friars “who by divine inspiration wish to go among the Saracens and other nonbelievers” to go. It is precisely with this word that Saint Francis saw the mission. And in the same chapter, he tells the brothers to “remain subject to every human creature for God’s sake and to confess that they are Christians”.
The Christian missionary is fully open to the Gospel before opening to people. The more vulnerable he is to the Gospel and its inverted reasoning, the more others can do what they want with him. Again, Francis tells the friars in the same chapter: “let all my brothers remember that they have given themselves and abandoned their bodies to the Lord Jesus Christ. For love of Him, they must make themselves vulnerable to their enemies, both visible and invisible”.
Here is the Wisdom of the Cross that overturns every human calculation. For St Francis, a person’s value does not lie in his own strength. Let us listen to him:
“Even if you were more handsome and richer than everyone else, and even if you worked miracles so that you put demons to flight: all these things are contrary to you; nothing belongs to you; you can boast in none of these things. But we can boast in our weaknesses and in carrying each day the holy cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Adm V, 7-8).
For Francis, the evangelical style of his life and that of his friars is the first form of evangelisation. Only a Christian who has allowed himself to be transformed by the logic of the Cross can truly proclaim the Gospel, allowing it to take flesh in us and thus be a credible word for others.
In Admonition VI, Saint Francis returns to this and confirms it: “Let all of us, brothers, consider the Good Shepherd Who bore the suffering of the cross to save His sheep. The Lord’s sheep followed Him in tribulation and persecution, in shame and hunger, in weakness and temptation, and in other ways; and for these things they received eternal life from the Lord.” (vv. 1-2). The way of the mission is to follow, to remain on the path of Jesus.
The Protomartyrs of our Order, whom we celebrate today next to their precious relics, are brothers who took this word in a radical, almost crazy way. They followed the Lord in suffering and persecution, rejection, and even physical violence. They have become so conformed to the poor and crucified Christ that they wish to be truly with Him, like Him, behind Him.
“There is in the whole of the original Franciscan spirituality a characteristic aspiration, that of the imitation of the Lord, to the extreme consequences; now is it not said of the Lord that “he offered himself because he wanted to”? (Is 53,7) Does not the Lord himself say: “. . I give my life . . . No one takes it away from me, but I give it of myself. . .”? (Jn 10,17-18) It is true that “no one should spontaneously give himself to death” (S. AUG., De civ. Dei, 1, 26; PL 41, 39), that “one should not give others the opportunity to act unjustly” (Summ. Theol, ibid. II-II 124,1 ad 3); but, as Benedict XIV himself notes, referring to similar cases, there can be situations in which, either by the impulse of the Holy Spirit, or by other special circumstances, the herald of the Gospel has no other way of shaking infidelity than that of making his own blood the voice of an extreme testimony. A testimony that is undoubtedly paradoxical, a shocking testimony, a vain testimony, because it is not immediately accepted, but extremely precious, because the total gift of self validates it; a testimony that makes it supremely clear what martyrdom is. It should be immediate, passive; in hagiographic language, it is called passio; but it is never without a voluntary, active acceptance; which in our case prevails and therefore shines more brightly”. (St. Paul VI, Homily 21 June 1970).
The martyrdom of our Protomartyrs is a dizzying act of extreme and absolute love in the footsteps of the One who gave his life for his friends. It testifies on the one hand to his total fidelity to the Father and on the other hand to the truth of his proclamation, proven by blood. Thus, for his disciples and for us. Martyrdom seals the truth of the Gospel. The Eucharist that we celebrate roots us in this self-giving love.
The Holy Protomartyrs of the Order fulfilled the desire for martyrdom of Francis, Clare and Anthony of Padua, who decided to embrace the folly of the Gospel at the passing of their relics.
Today we remember them. The memory becomes contemporary. The madness of these friars clashes with our modern mentality, so careful to preserve itself, so sceptical and lacking in idealism, ready to settle for a minimal measure of the human.
We admire these martyrs, but at the same time, we feel far from their inner strength. Yet, their example cries out, shaking our numb faith, uncertainty, and wavering.
They provoke us to rediscover the courage of the truth, which is Christ, crucified and risen. Their robust witness poses a difficult question: how should we stand in relation to today’s world, to the society that surrounds us? Should we stand in front of the world rather than alongside it? Should we break our relationship with the time we live in and its contradictory and multiple realities, at the risk of isolating ourselves and making the mission difficult?
Did these Protomartyrs perhaps wish to reject their own time and set themselves apart from it? If we take a good look at them, we recognise that they were moved by a strong and, at the same time, naive love, animated by a mad hope. Perhaps they really thought they could convert those men? They made a miscalculation, but out of love, to benefit others, to open a way for the Gospel. Did they simply reject and even hate the Muslim world? No, because they went among people of a different faith and loved them in their own way, wanting to bring them the love of Christ. This is why, in the light of their example, we can also strive to appreciate as Christians God’s action in other religions, because the Church rejects nothing of what is true and holy in these religions.
“She has a high regard for their manner of life and conduct, their precepts and doctrines which… often reflect a ray of that truth which enlightens all men and women” (Nostra Aetate, 2, quoted by Fratelli Tutti 277). At the same time, the witness of our Protomartyrs reminds us, as Fratelli Tutti says in No. 277, that “Yet we Christians are very much aware that “if the music of the Gospel ceases to resonate in our very being, we will lose the joy born of compassion, the tender love born of trust, the capacity for reconciliation that has its source in our knowledge that we have been forgiven and sent forth. If the music of the Gospel ceases to sound in our homes, our public squares, our workplaces, our political and financial life, then we will no longer hear the strains that challenge us to defend the dignity of every man and woman”. Others drink from other sources. For us the wellspring of human dignity and fraternity is in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. From it, there arises, “for Christian thought and for the action of the Church, the primacy given to relationship, to the encounter with the sacred mystery of the other, to universal communion with the entire human family, as a vocation of all”.
These feelings lead us to celebrate the Lord in the Holy Protomartyrs of the Franciscan Order. I am honoured to do so this year here in Terni, next to their relics.
St Francis reminds us again: “Therefore, it is a great shame for us, the servants of God, that the saints have accomplished great things and we want only to receive glory and honour by recounting them”! (Adm VI, 3).
We do not only want to honour their memory, but to continue to be inspired by their example, to invoke their heavenly protection for the Church, for this Umbrian land from which they departed, for our entire Franciscan family, and the whole world.
Br Massimo Fusarelli, ofm