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At San Damiano the Crucified Christ challenged St. Francis to "go rebuild My house." That task meant Francis had to transform himself first. Every pilgrim who visits Assisi must make the short walk outside the city walls and spend time at the sanctuary of San Damiano. It is one of the most important places in the Franciscan story.

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The Challenge of the San Damiano Cross
By Roch Niemier, O.F.M.

At San Damiano the Crucified Christ challenged St. Francis to "go rebuild My house." That task meant Francis had to transform himself first.

Every pilgrim who visits Assisi must make the short walk outside the city walls and spend time at the sanctuary of San Damiano. It is one of the most important places in the Franciscan story.

The event most often repeated about this place is the encounter between Francis and the image of Christ Crucified who spoke to him and said: “Francis, go rebuild My house; as you see, it is all being destroyed.” Thomas of Celano tells the whole story:

With his heart already completely changed—soon his body was also to be changed—he was walking one day by the church of San Damiano, which was abandoned by everyone and almost in ruins.

Led by the Spirit he went in to pray and knelt down devoutly before the crucifix. He was shaken by unusual experiences and discovered that he was different from when he had entered.

As soon as he had this feeling, there occurred something unheard of in previous ages: with the lips of the painting, the image of Christ crucified spoke to him. ‘Francis,’ it said, calling him by name, ‘go rebuild My house; as you see, it is all being destroyed.’

Francis was more than a little stunned, trembling, and stuttering like a man out of his senses. He prepared himself to obey and pulled himself together to carry out the command. He felt this mysterious change in himself, but he could not describe it. So it is better for us to remain silent about it too.

From that time on, compassion for the Crucified was impressed into his holy soul. And we honestly believe the wounds of the sacred Passion were impressed deep in his heart, though not yet on his flesh.”
Second Life, #10, Francis of Assisi: Early Documents, Volume 2: The Founder, New City Press, p. 249

Herein begins the mystery of the cross in Francis’ life. At first he interpreted his experience in a literal manner, doing all he could to provide the means, with stones and mortar, to rebuild the physical structure of San Damiano, which actually was in ruins.

Although this may have been part of the intent of the revelation, Francis quickly realized that the rebuilding process had to include the transformation of his heart, his inner self. He would have to rebuild his inner self, and in doing so, discover his true identity. A simultaneous vocation unfolded: rebuilding the place and rebuilding his person.

Focused on Christ

How did Francis go about rebuilding his life? The process slowly unfolded from his gazing upon the Crucified Savior over time.

What were the steps? St. Clare, a contemporary companion of Francis, described it best in her Second Letter to Agnes of Prague, when she wrote: “Gaze upon Christ, consider Christ, contemplate Christ, imitate Christ.” Those four steps would become the pathway into the discovery of a new heart, a new power and a new self.

I want to focus on just the last of these four directives: “imitate Christ.” That is the key to understanding what happened to Francis at San Damiano and the key to an effective rebuilding of one’s life.

To imitate relates to the word “image.” In our context here, it means I become the image upon whom I gaze. Francis would learn that his self-image, that is, his identity, was to become that of Christ on the cross. Both Francis and Clare must have spent countless hours contemplating this mystery. The change that would take place within Francis’ heart was imaged by what he gazed upon, and this new self would become his tool for renewing the house of God.

The Incarnation Is Key

The key to this is the Incarnation. In the Incarnation, God revealed to us who God is. The Incarnation showed us the face of God. But what does this image portray? What do we see? What Francis and Clare saw in the person of the Incarnate Christ was humility, poverty and charity. The most visible, tangible expression of this was the cross.

In the Incarnation, Francis saw that becoming human was the basis for humility. In embracing our humanness, Jesus did not cling to being God. This choice was the epitome of humility. In so choosing, Jesus could accept everything to which human nature is prone, even death. This image of Christ as seen on the cross became an essential component of Francis’ new self.

Like Jesus, humility for Francis meant not to cling to anything or appropriate any goods, titles, honors or position. It meant to be a servant to all, even inanimate creatures. It meant generosity of spirit and generosity of heart, the willingness to let all others be first. It meant obedience to all, being subject to all, just like Jesus, the Word made flesh, who did not cling to honor, status or power.

In recognizing his true self in this image, Francis embraced the essence of his being and the realization that he needed nothing else to give him worth.

The poverty Francis saw in the Crucified was the poverty of being a human creature. Although Jesus was God, he did not cling to this status. He didn’t hold on to it. In letting go of divinity, Jesus accepted the status of a human creature, being dependent, powerless, helpless and empty on his own.

This is the essence of poverty. Some call it poverty of being or ontological poverty. This true picture of humanity, modeled in the Incarnation, enabled St. Paul to write that Jesus, “though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness” (Philippians 2:6-7).

Jesus, as God, chose to become human, or poor, in order to reveal God’s self, which is love, and teach us our true identity. Again, this poverty of God was most visible by the fact of God’s Son on the cross. Here Jesus embraced powerlessness, emptiness and utter helplessness and opened himself to complete abandonment and trust in his Father. These were, and are, essential components of the human makeup.

All-embracing Love

The other element that the image of Christ on the cross portrayed was that of charity, compassionate love. Jesus’ outstretched arms drew in all humanity, welcoming every creature into the embrace of God’s tender love through mercy, forgiveness and acceptance of all. This meant recognizing and accepting the worth and dignity of each one.

As we internalize the same, we are slowly transformed into the image of Jesus, which is the image of our true self.

The path into this discovery of self is the cross. The cross is a mirror. In seeing myself in that mirror, I see Christ Crucified, and in seeing Christ Crucified, I see my most authentic self. As I am transformed into that image, I become the person God has always intended me to be.

The distinguishing marks that identify me are the same I see in Jesus: poverty, humility and charity, which are identifying marks of the face of God. Paul’s words in Galatians 2:20 are then very fitting: “It is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.” Then I am my true and genuine self.

This reflection is difficult to describe and I’m sure equally difficult to understand or accept. Yet it lies at the heart of Francis’ spirituality and mission. It also ties in most intimately with his experience before the San Damiano Crucifix and the invitation to rebuild the Church. It was a transformed heart, a transformed self, into the image of Christ that became the tools by which society, the Church and all life could be rebuilt.

As we embrace this process, we take a major step towards discovering who we are as a disciple of Christ; we are also well on the way to rebuilding our inner life and ultimately rebuilding the house of God.

God's Project

How can we make this real and concrete? It seems to me we must come to a moment in life where, like Francis, we say: “This is what I want and desire with all my heart.” Once that is clear, then the rhythm of daily prayer is essential. We need to beg God for the kind of transformation of heart needed to have a dwelling place for humility and poverty and charity. We cannot achieve this on our own power. It is God’s project, God’s work, and only grace can make it happen.

The other arena is that of relationships, whether among friends, in the family, community life or one’s workplace. It is here that humility, poverty and compassionate charity are brought to life and nowhere else.

Francis’ biographers point out that, when people met up with Francis or heard him preach, it was not simply a question of listening to words of peace and joy. Nor were people merely persuaded to reflect upon reasons for forgiving each other, doing penance or thanking and praising God.

Rather, they were confronted with these realities in the person of Francis. They were in the living presence of forgiveness, peace, faith and love, because Francis had integrated these values into his person by taking on the image of Christ on the cross.

Francis became conformed to the Crucified to such a degree that at the end of his life he appeared like the Crucified with the wounds of Christ engraved into his flesh. This would complete what began at San Damiano when “the wounds of the sacred Passion were impressed deep in his heart, though not yet on his flesh.”

Francis sought repeatedly for ways to encourage the brothers to give birth to these essentials, to strive for purity of heart, and thus give birth to Christ in their own lives. This is the transformation that must go hand in hand with all other endeavors in proclaiming the Kingdom of God. This is the inner rebuilding that gives life and spirit to any outward effort.

The image of Christ in Francis was very real, as we read in Celano:
The brothers who
lived with him know
that daily, constantly, talk of Jesus
was always on his lips,
sweet and pleasant conversations
about Him,
kind words full of love.
Out of the fullness of his heart
his mouth spoke.

So the spring of radiant love
that filled his heart within
gushed forth.
He was always with Jesus:
Jesus in his heart,
Jesus in his mouth,
Jesus in his ears,
Jesus in his eyes,
Jesus in his hands,
he bore Jesus always
in his whole body....
With amazing love he bore
in his heart and always held onto Christ Jesus and Him crucified.
Francis of Assisi: Early Documents, Volume 1: The Saint, New City Press, p. 283-4

Let the Crucifix Speak to You

A pilgrimage to Assisi would be incomplete without time at the sanctuary of San Damiano. This place is most quiet and suitable for prayer in the early morning before 10 or in the early evening. Sit before the crucifix, listen to your heart and hear Jesus say: “Jim, Joanne, David, Beth, Jerry, Bob, Susie, Carol, go rebuild my house; as you see, it is all being destroyed.”

Or visit the Basilica of St. Clare within the walls of Assisi. The original crucifix of San Damiano is housed therein. It is unmistakably a place of prayer where the windows of one’s heart may open to hear the voice of God.

In the cross, the pilgrim discovers his or her true identity and finds the rebuilding tools needed to renew the house of God.

This article is excerpted from In the Footsteps of Francis and Clare (St. Anthony Messenger Press).
Roch Niemier, O.F.M., accompanied thousands of pilgrims through places dear to Franciscans. From 1981 to 2005, he was director of Franciscan Pilgrimage Programs ( He was a member of the Assumption Province of Franciscans and was ordained a priest in 1965. He received an honorary doctorate of humane letters from St. Bonaventure University in Olean, New York, in 2004. He died in 2010.

An Assisi Pilgrimage via DVD and Two Books

by John Feister and Pat McCloskey, O.F.M.

Whether you have been on pilgrimage to Assisi, birthplace of Sts. Francis and Clare, or simply want to know more about these saints and their world, you probably suspect that they can help you live more fully as a Christian, right here and right now.

Assisi Pilgrimage: Walking in Faith With Francis and Clare, a new Franciscan Communications DVD from Father Greg Friedman, O.F.M., makes that pilgrimage experience tangible. This two-hour program allows viewers to hear the stories of pilgrims who have visited Assisi and the most important places connected to these extraordinary saints.

In addition, Franciscan Pilgrimage guides—including author and poet Murray Bodo, O.F.M., Clare scholar Margaret Carney, O.S.F., and Roch Niemier, O.F.M., author of the accompanying article and a book about pilgrimages to Assisi—tell the stories of key places and events in the lives of Francis and Clare.

Music by Franciscan composer Robert Hutmacher adds a medieval flavor. Special features include interactive maps, timelines, a detailed explanation of the symbolism in the Cross of San Damiano and a pilgrims’ dramatization of Clare’s departure from wealth.

A pilgrimage helps the person making it to get in touch with the deepest strains—including God’s grace—in his or her life. By breaking our routines, by stopping to walk in the footsteps of holy people, we pray and reflect on our own holiness. That, as Assisi Pilgrimage demonstrates, can happen near or far.

In her book Francis and the San Damiano Cross: Meditations on Spiritual Transformation, Susan Saint Sing, a former resident of Assisi and an active follower of Francis, takes readers to the chapel where Francis prayed before that cross. She recounts the spiritual and physical transformation of Francis as he began to “rebuild” the church—first that run-down chapel and later the larger Church.

The transforming message of this cross “speaks to us still, beckoning us to repair our lives, our relationships, our failings—in honor of Him who gave his life there on the cross in order for us to become more in the fullness of his presence, to be instruments of peace.”

In the Footsteps of Francis and Clare, by Roch Niemier, O.F.M., veteran pilgrim guide, explores the “spirituality of place” and takes readers through the streets of Assisi, to nearby San Damiano, Maddalena and the Portiuncula, and also to Greccio (where Francis celebrated Christmas) and to La Verna (where he received the marks of Christ’s wounds).

Assisi Pilgrimage (item D1222, $29.95) can be ordered from St. Anthony Messenger Press (800-488-0488) or online at Francis and the San Damiano Cross (B16735, $9.95) and In the Footsteps of Francis and Clare (B16793, $19.95) can be ordered there as well.

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Peter and Paul: 
		<strong>Peter (d. 64?)</strong>. St. Mark ends the first half of his Gospel with a triumphant climax. He has recorded doubt, misunderstanding and the opposition of many to Jesus. Now Peter makes his great confession of faith: "You are the Messiah" (Mark 8:29b). It was one of the many glorious moments in Peter's life, beginning with the day he was called from his nets along the Sea of Galilee to become a fisher of men for Jesus. 
<p>The New Testament clearly shows Peter as the leader of the apostles, chosen by Jesus to have a special relationship with him. With James and John he was privileged to witness the Transfiguration, the raising of a dead child to life and the agony in Gethsemane. His mother-in-law was cured by Jesus. He was sent with John to prepare for the last Passover before Jesus' death. His name is first on every list of apostles. </p><p>And to Peter only did Jesus say, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father. And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven" (Matthew 16:17b-19). </p><p>But the Gospels prove their own trustworthiness by the unflattering details they include about Peter. He clearly had no public relations person. It is a great comfort for ordinary mortals to know that Peter also has his human weakness, even in the presence of Jesus. </p><p>He generously gave up all things, yet he can ask in childish self-regard, "What are we going to get for all this?" (see Matthew 19:27). He receives the full force of Christ's anger when he objects to the idea of a suffering Messiah: "Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do" (Matthew 16:23b). </p><p>Peter is willing to accept Jesus' doctrine of forgiveness, but suggests a limit of seven times. He walks on the water in faith, but sinks in doubt. He refuses to let Jesus wash his feet, then wants his whole body cleansed. He swears at the Last Supper that he will never deny Jesus, and then swears to a servant maid that he has never known the man. He loyally resists the first attempt to arrest Jesus by cutting off Malchus's ear, but in the end he runs away with the others. In the depth of his sorrow, Jesus looks on him and forgives him, and he goes out and sheds bitter tears. The Risen Jesus told Peter to feed his lambs and his sheep (John 21:15-17). </p><p><strong>Paul (d. 64?)</strong>. If the most well-known preacher today suddenly began preaching that the United States should adopt Marxism and not rely on the Constitution, the angry reaction would help us understand Paul's life when he started preaching that Christ alone can save us. He had been the most Pharisaic of Pharisees, the most legalistic of Mosaic lawyers. Now he suddenly appears to other Jews as a heretical welcomer of Gentiles, a traitor and apostate. </p><p>Paul's central conviction was simple and absolute: Only God can save humanity. No human effort—even the most scrupulous observance of law—can create a human good which we can bring to God as reparation for sin and payment for grace. To be saved from itself, from sin, from the devil and from death, humanity must open itself completely to the saving power of Jesus. </p><p>Paul never lost his love for his Jewish family, though he carried on a lifelong debate with them about the uselessness of the Law without Christ. He reminded the Gentiles that they were grafted on the parent stock of the Jews, who were still God's chosen people, the children of the promise. </p><p>In light of his preaching and teaching skills, Paul's name has surfaced (among others) as a possible patron of the Internet.</p> American Catholic Blog The way of the cross is unavoidably uphill. Christians don’t get to carry their cross downhill. Suffering has always been inextricably linked with Christianity, but those who carry their cross willingly in these times can serve as an example and inspiration to all of us.

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