By Galen Holley
NEW ALBANY – Outdoors, on a perfect fall morning, was the ideal place and time to celebrate the life of perhaps the most popular saint in history.
The parishioners of St. Francis of Assisi Parish in New Albany, as they do each October, gathered in the three-acre lot behind the church, in an open field, skirted by pine and oak, and sat facing the altar, shaded by a redbud tree.
The faithful, some 350-plus, sat in folding chairs, and many stood in a wide semi-circle, as youngsters carried in the statue of St. Francis, led by the rhythmic thumping of drums, and the colorful blaze and synergetic movements of La Danza.
The community of St. Francis of Assisi is 74 years old. The first gatherings were in the home of the Kelso family. Priests from the Glenmary Home Missioners were among the first to provide ministry to the faithful. St. Francis is now a parish in the diocese, with Father Jesuraj Xavier as the pastor.
“St. Francis spoke the language of love,” said Father Raj, during his homily. “The saint asked God to make him a channel of peace.”
That peace is much needed in a world torn by war, Father said. He mentioned the devastating conflicts raging in Israel and Ukraine.
“For us, St. Francis is not simply a name, but an identity,” said Father Raj. “St. Francis embraced poverty and humility, as well as joyful charity, and today we celebrate in nature, gathered around the Eucharist and united as one.”
As Father Raj explained, the Italian mystic and itinerant preacher known to the world as St. Francis of Assisi (d. 1226), was never ordained a priest. “He didn’t consider himself worthy to celebrate Mass and preside at the Eucharist,” said Father Raj. “He remained a deacon and knew that his role was to exemplify poverty and simplicity.” St. Francis is also one of the very few saints to have borne the stigmata, or the wounds that Christ suffered during crucifixion.
“St. Francis embraced nature and animals” said Father Raj, with a broad smile. “He would say ‘brother tree’ or ‘sister cat.’”
As the faithful received Communion, almost incredibly (and quite comically) an orange tabby cat, with which children had been playing along the edge of the woods, made its way to the altar area. The cat inspected things, leaped upon a chair or two, then moved on.
Before sending forth the congregation, Father Raj reminded the faithful to live the identity of their patron saint.
“If you do one thing today, if you take away one message,” Father Raj said, “pray for peace.”