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Why Dominicans Celebrate the Feast of “Our Holy Father Francis of Assisi”

One of the first things I learned about the culture of my new religious community when I joined the Springfield Dominicans back in the last millennium was that there was some kind of a thing between the Dominicans on the west side of town and the Franciscans on the North End.

Put aside the fact that we are perennially being mistaken for one another. “You’re a Dominican? You run St. John’s, right?” (wrong) or “Oh, the Franciscans…they have the high school, right”? (wrong). Put aside that many of us are related to one another.

There was something else. With great interest, I learned to anticipate what thoughtful gift would arrive on the doorstep of Sacred Heart Convent from that beautiful motherhouse on LaVerna Road on August 8, the feast of St. Dominic. Then, two months later, I wondered how we would reciprocate on the feast of St. Francis, October 4.

Last July, when we formally transferred the sponsorship of our hospital in Jackson, Miss., to Franciscan Calais Ministries under the sponsorship of the Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady, the folks that do these things settled on the image you see above as a symbol of the transfer: Dominic and Francis embracing one another.

Until then, I’d not paid much attention to stories, supposed to be mostly legend, about the meeting of these two medieval founders.

So when I stumbled across an essay published decades ago in Franciscan Studies titled “The Meeting of Saints Francis and Dominic” I was intrigued to learn that it is reasonable to think the two might have met, but the facticity of such a meeting could be of less import to the relationship between these two orders than its symbolism.

The most likely occasion for their meeting seems to be the Fourth Lateran Council held in Rome in 1215, at a time each of the founders was in the process of seeking recognition from the Vatican.

In a Dominican text published in 1260, a story is told of a vision Dominic had while praying late at night in church. It seems to be the source for the many artworks that show Dominic and Francis together.

In the vision, Dominic sees Jesus standing ready to hurl lances against the faithless peoples of earth. The Virgin Mary intervenes, asking Jesus for mercy and tells him she knows how he could restore humankind: “I have near me a faithful servant whom you will send into the world to make known your word…I will give him another of my servants to work as a fellow laborer in the same way.” Jesus apparently approved of the plan, at which time, Mary then “brought forward St. Francis, whom our Lord praised evenly.” Then, the text records, “Dominic earnestly scanned the features of his companion while the vision lasted.” The next day he saw Francis, recognized him from the vision, and embraced him saying “You are my comrade; let us stand together and no foe shall prevail against us.”

According to the Dominican text, “From that hour they became but one heart and one soul in God, and enjoined their sons to foster this brotherly spirit to the end of time.”

This touching story goes a long way toward explaining the source of the tenderness between our two congregations. [ And an aside: this fondness is not exclusive but extends as well to the Ursuline Sisters located geographically between us, whose presence in Springfield pre-dated both Dominicans and Franciscans.]

It is also a source of healing for those times in the 800-year history of both religious orders when the relationship was on rockier ground.

And it makes for a delightful reflection as we approach October 4, the final day of the Season of Creation, and the feast of “Our Holy Father Francis of Assisi.”

Notes

Stephany, C. (1987). "The Meeting of Saints Francis and Dominic." Franciscan Studies, 47, 218-233. Retrieved September 29, 2020, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/41975092.

photo: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Benozzo_Gozzoli_-_Scenes_from_the_Life_of_St_Francis_(Scene_4,_south_wall)_-_WGA10234.jpg. Public Domain.

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