Out of the Horrors of War Came the Little Man of Peace by Fr. Robert M. Hutmacher, OFM
In 1054 war broke out between Assisi and the much larger city of Perugia, just 22 kilometers (14 miles) away. This began horrid inter-city warfare that lasted for years. I’ll spare you details of medieval warfare but it was grim, fierce, relentless and inhumane. What you might see in contemporary films rarely conveys the horrors that were acceptable behaviors. I’ve read some eyewitness accounts from that period and couldn’t finish the accounts because of the atrocities. This conflict between two beautiful, strategic hilltop cities continued till an imposed papal peace in 1540. The Middle Ages in Italy were not peaceful as warfare raged between cities, territories and countries. Most scandalous was the constant warfare between the papacy and the Holy Roman Emperors centered in Germany. Civil war in Assisi itself raged from 1190 – 1200 as its citizens battled for complete independence from both the Papal States and the Empire.
Francis and Clare were both born into this brutal and violent world. In 1198 Francis himself was part of a revolt in which citizens brazenly attacked and destroyed La Rocca, the massive castle and center of imperial power above the town. Assisi claimed to be its own self-governing comune, which it is to this day. Clare’s Offreducio family was nobility, unlike the merchant class Bernadones, and they fled to Perugia during this civil war.
Arnaldo Fortini, famed mayor of Assisi and historian made it clear in his huge biography Francis of Assisi that this war (and many others) was an economic one that included the merchant class, guilds and nobility. If a comune could gain control of a forest, a road or a bridge over the Tiber it would grow in power; that enabled the town to then align itself with the German emperor for even more protection and gain. Witness the collapse of the feudal system! The small towns and entities were either wiped out totally or incorporated in such a way into the larger city that it lost its identity completely.
In the valley between Perugia and Assisi are areas akin to our unincorporated townships; one of these is called Collestrada and it’s exactly midway between Assisi and Perugia. The new knight of the Bernadone family, Francesco, witnessed the horrors of war first hand and was captured, then imprisoned in Perugia for over a year. Thomas of Celano’s biography recounts the prisons of that period: “iron blocks, weak light in subterranean cells, overcrowding, threats and jeers from guards, total lack of hygiene and constant degradation.”
Francis remained in that squalor over a year and became very ill; his father, Pietro, ransomed him (yet another ploy for economic gain) and Francis returned home to recover. His dreams of knighthood wavered but Pietro pressured Francis into going to battle again to raise the reputation and economic gain of the Bernadone family. Francis had long admired Gautier de Brienne, a renowned and powerful knight who gathered both French and Italian soldiers. Once again filled with romantic notions of knighthood Francis let his father outfit him with splendid armor, a magnificent wardrobe and fine horse; together with a nobleman and their squires they set off for Apulia to join de Brienne on the 4th Crusade.
However, near Spoleto, Francis’ illness overcame him and he remained behind the others, lost in sorrow and disappointment. One night he dreamed that he’d heard a voice asking him where he was going. The Legend of the Three Companions records this interchange: “Who do you think can best reward you, the Master or the servant?” “The Master,” Francis answered. “Then why do you leave the Master for the servant, the rich Lord for the poor man?” He returned to Assisi, relinquished knighthood and well – you know the rest of the story about the Cross at San Damiano and his tumultuous four to five years of conversion. Violence was never to be part of his life again in any way. Never.
January 2012. I was carrying bags of groceries into the house when three men pistol whipped me about the head. Though it took a few weeks to recover the police assured me that I was most fortunate. I knew I was as soon as they drove off in my car without stealing anything else or firing the gun. That was my experience of urban violence. It pales in comparison with what far too many people experience in our city. Chicago Police report that violent crimes have decreased 7% between 2013 and this year to date. That’s good. There have been 310 murders so far in 2014, mostly by gunfire. That is 310 too many.
I want to encourage you to view the 27 minute film For the Love of Mom. You can find excerpts on line or simply go to the “For the Love of Mom” Facebook page. The film tells the emotional story of two Chicago mothers who’ve lost children to gun violence, find consolation with each other and commit themselves to preventing more tragedies like theirs. Their stories will captivate and move you. I was blessed to have spent an hour after viewing the film with two mothers who’ve lost children to guns, one of whom is featured in For the Love of Mom. I will never know the pain in their hearts but as educated and well-versed, stronger-than-life mothers, their voices are going far beyond neighborhood fences. Watch the film! Please let their message sink in because it needs to be heard around the world.
You know the connection now between Francis’ story and why I chose this topic for the Legionnaire. There is no room for violence within our Franciscan life and given our roots in love for all of creation, the spirit of Francis has been and must continue to be a loud voice with these mothers, calling our city, our country, our world to peace and reconciliation.
In February 2013 the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops submitted written testimony to the U.S. Senate titled Proposals to Reduce Gun Violence: Protecting our Communities While Respecting the Second Amendment. The bishops stated “the Church has been a consistent voice for the promotion of peace at home and around the world and a strong advocate for the reasonable regulation of firearms. Simply put, guns are too easily accessible.” In 2006 the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace emphasized the importance of enacting concrete controls on the production, possession, and trade in weapons, including handguns, calling for them to be regulated “by paying due attention to specific principles of the moral and legal order.”
In 1994 the Bishops Conference of the U.S. issued their pastoral message Confronting a Culture of Violence: A Catholic Framework for Action. In this they stated “we have an obligation to respond. Violence is destroying lives, dignity and hopes of millions of our brothers and sisters.” Again in 2000, our bishops wrote Responsibility, Rehabilitation and Restoration: A Catholic Perspective on Crime and Criminal Justice. They challenged all people to work toward a culture of lifeand to end violence in our homes and to help victims break out of patterns of abuse…We support measures that control the sale and use of firearms and make them safer, and we reiterate our call for sensible regulation of handguns.” In January 2013 the U.S. bishops urged Congress to support policies that 1) require universal background checks for all gun purchases; 2) limit civilian access to high-capacity weapons and ammunition magazines, 3) make gun trafficking a federal crime and 4) improve access to mental health care for those who may be prone to violence. Our spiritual leaders have been crystal clear about the plague of violence and abuse of handguns in the United States!
In my conversation with the two moms who lost children to guns, they voiced many reasons why we are all called to do something, do anything to bring about change. The reasons for rampant violence are legion: the cycle of poverty, the cage of fear urban children and youth live within, lack of education, mental illness, a justice system that is far from perfect…these are just a few. How do we tackle these issues as individuals and as a society?
I know from international travel and friars from other countries that the proliferation of and ease of purchase of guns in the U.S. mystifies the world. I personally understand guns for hunting but why in the world do we need to allow semi-automatic guns and other powerful handguns to be so accessible? Guns and weapons are created to do one thing and one thing only: kill. To kill. The exact opposite of how our universe came into being – God loved the world into existence!! God so loved the world that He gave his only Son…Whoever loves me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our dwelling with them…This I command you: love one another as I have loved you…God is love. Message received!
How can we, as individuals, counter some of the reasons for violence listed by these moms? How can I possibly break the cycle of violence or improve access to mental health care? How can even small organizations change gun laws? Well, how did one little ragtag beggar from Umbria change his world? He became Peace. That’s how I see it. Francis allowed the Spirit of the Most High to dwell within himself to such an extent that he became Peace. He embraced a revolting leper then spent twenty years working and nourishing the unwanted social outcasts. He travelled into both Christian and Muslim army camps to visit with the Sultan of Egypt without harm. He reconciled public leaders and some of his own friars. Francis became Peace. He and his friars brought about peace between Christian factions in towns across Italy and beyond. He became Peace.
St. Bonaventure wrote in his Major Legend of Saint Francis: “Thus it happened that, filled with the spirit of the prophets and according to a prophetic passage, he proclaimed peace, preached salvation, and, by counsels of salvation, brought to true peace many who had previously lived at odds with Christ and far from salvation.” The key to his and our work for peace is bringing people to Christ. That doesn’t necessarily mean we try to make everyone a Christian; Francis came to see that converting the Sultan was not the most necessary element of their new relationship and was not disappointed to let go of that initial reason for going to the Middle East. But the peace that they discovered through one another, whether through Christ or Muhammad, had its source in God.
We can learn from his actions. Francis was obviously not afraid to converse with people from outside his familiar environs. The experiences of being a POW, religious hatred, interpersonal disasters within his own fraternity and his burning desire to imitate the Crucified Christ shaped how he came to accept all people as children of God. His heart broke when he saw the atrocities of war and the scandal of religious warfare he saw in the Middle East intensified his need to preach reconciliation.
The mothers in For Love of Mom told me they are now compelled to speak anywhere and help others see that we can make a difference with simple gestures. These humble women have shocking stories, yes, but they’re also rooted in reality. They have other children, spouses and jobs. Violence ripped them from normalcy into the world of criminal justice, waiting years for an indictment, learning the hallways of 26th and California (Cook County courts and jail) facing evil and hatred. Yet moms have that inner power to keep loving and facing life with equanimity. These moms find comfort in other families of victims. They teach us too. Through pain comes power for good, justice and eventually, peace.
Offering one person words of respect can surprise her or him and prove that not every person is an enemy. Writing political leaders always helps, as does voicing our desire for peace and gun law reform when we vote. Joining neighborhood watch groups like CAPS or a parish Peace and Justice committee can make a difference. It’s not necessary to join public demonstrations; simply imitate Francis who became a conduit of God’s divine peace by his famous greeting: “May the Lord give you peace.” Our dreams for peace are externalized and people sense the peace of Christ in our words and actions. We are the Body of Christ who bring the Canticle of Zechariah to life again: “..because of the tender mercy of our God the daybreak from on high will visit us to shine on those who sit in darkness and death’s shadow, to guide our feet into the path of peace.” (Luke 1:78-79)
Thank you for the support you offer the friars and ministry of St. Peter’s. Be assured of our prayers for you and I leave with the words of our father Francis: “may the Lord give you peace.” Always. Fr. Bob Hutmacher, ofm
Art work: Francis by Mic Carlson, Modern Pietà by Deanna Middleton.