by Leon Suprenant
One of the most beloved saints in our Catholic tradition is St. Francis of Assisi (1181?-1226).
Many people assume that St. Francis, like most founders of male religious communities, was a priest.
Actually, he was a deacon.
If we step back and consider St. Francis’ life, especially his humble, Christ-like service and love for the poor, he surely exhibited the heart of a deacon.
Yet, the permanent diaconate had all but faded out of existence by the end of the first millennium. Further, most histories or stories about St. Francis center on his vocation as the founder of the Franciscans, not on his role as a deacon.
But there was one very special occasion on which St. Francis’ diaconal ministry left a lasting mark on the church.
Three years before he died, St. Francis was visiting the town of Greccio at Christmastime. It was a small, mountainside village about 30 miles from Assisi.
St. Francis realized that the chapel there was not large enough for the Christmas midnight Mass, so he and his companions set up an altar in a cave near the town square.
What was unique was that St. Francis, with the permission of Pope Honorius III, arranged for a living Nativity scene — complete with real people, animals and, of course, a manger and hay — so as to focus the celebration on the worship of the Christ Child.
It is generally believed that this Christmas celebration in Greccio led to the tradition of having a crèche or manger scene in Christian homes and churches to celebrate the nativity of Christ.
And again, it was in this context that we catch a magnificent glimpse of St. Francis’ diaconal ministry.
St. Bonaventure, the great Franciscan doctor of the church writing about 40 years later, said that “the man of God (Francis) stood before the manger, full of devotion and piety, bathed in tears and radiant with joy; the Holy Gospel was chanted by Francis, the Levite of Christ. Then he preached to the people around the nativity of the poor King; and being unable to utter His name for the tenderness of His love, he called Him the ‘Babe of Bethlehem.’”
Deacons are ordained to be “heralds” or messengers of the Gospel, like the angel on that first “holy night” (see Lk 2:8-14).
The proclamation of the Gospel is the high point of the Liturgy of the Word, which is why the Book of the Gospels is treated with such reverence and all the people stand to receive this divine message from the deacon.
Deacon Francis wasn’t content to merely read the Gospel, but he literally made it come alive for his listeners to foster and enhance their devotion.
May our own Nativity scenes — in our homes and in our parishes —deepen our own love for the Babe of Bethlehem this Christmas season.