During WWII there was a platoon of Army Rangers deployed well behind enemy lines on a critical mission during the European campaign. A single sniper bullet had killed one of the platoon members. The mission had to continue, but they just could not leave their friend as a stranger in a strange land, buried in an unmarked grave that they might never again find. They remembered a small Catholic church in the area. So, under the cover of the moonless night, they approached the church and rectory, and knocked on the door. After a while a single light came on in the house. Eventually, the door cautiously opened, and the parish priest even more cautiously greeted them.
They Rangers told him that they wanted to bury their friend in the church cemetery so that they would know he had a proper place until the Lord came again. The priest’s mind raced. This was still occupied territory. Would the burial be seen as a sign of collaboration? Would he be endangering his parish community? The awkward moment lingered in the silence. The Rangers repeated the request assuming the priest had not understood, but he gently waved his hand indicating he understood, then said, “Of course, let us celebrate his life, give Glory to God, and place him at rest among his fellow Catholics.”
Then it was the priest’s turn to endure the lingering silence as the Rangers looked at him and each other, before the sergeant replied, “Padre, Billy Bob was Baptist.” The priest knew that only Catholics could be buried in the hallowed ground of the parish cemetery. He thought for a moment and told the rangers, “Let us celebrate this man and mourn his passing. We will take care of your friend. We will bury him just outside the fence, and we will tend his grave as we would our own.”
The Rangers prepared the grave, prayed, said their goodbyes, thanked the priest, and returned to war.
More than a year later, with peace declared in war-ravaged Europe, the Ranger platoon, at least those who survived, was sent back for R&R in Paris. They decided to pay their respects to Billy Bob and let the Army know exactly where they had laid him to rest. Army records needed to be completed and, besides, there was a family to inform.
It wasn’t easy to retrace their steps. It took several days of searching but they eventually spotted the country church. It was Sunday and Mass was being celebrated inside. They would visit the priest later when the mass was done, but now they wanted to pay their respects to Billy Bob. As they walked the perimeter of the fence, they were confused they could not find his grave. Confusion gave way to anger as they assumed the priest had gone back on his word and removed the evidence of his collaboration with them. They waited and silently fumed.
At the end of Mass, when the priest saw them, he knew who they were. He came over and greeted them, giving praise to God for their safety. The sergeant, as calmly as he could, asked the priest, “What happened to Billy Bob’s grave? You promised to care for it and now we can’t find it. What gives?”
The priest led them to a grave, within the fence of the graveyard. There was a simple stone inscribed in French marking the resting place of their friend. The priest simply said, “We moved the fence.”
Moving the fences. Crossing a bridge. They are simple metaphors, but it describes the life of St. Francis as he moved the fences that defined life in medieval Europe, that defined what holiness meant, as he and his Franciscan brothers and sisters were part of a movement that said holiness is for everyone, not just the religious elite behind the monastery walls or the leaders of the Church
St. Francis moved the fence, crossed over to the Leader of the Muslim nations to extend peace during the height of the 5th Crusade. Franciscans have followed that missionary charism. Within one generation of St. Francis’ life, the friars were found in North Africa to south, England to the north, the steppes of Russia, the Holy Land, and as far east as China. Ever moving the fences, always yoked to Christ and to each other. Always inviting people to belong to Christ and to each other.
What does it mean to be Franciscan in our time? There are many things that could rightly be offered but let me suggest one. Think of this in the light of the missionary charism that is Franciscan, and I think especially apropos in our times of divided families, divided society, and the lack of civility that permeates it all.
There across the river is someone with whom you strongly disagree on political, moral, social, or some basis you hold to be important. There is always the ignore, don’t speak and maybe they will go away option. Besides they are outside our “fence.” But then we are yoked to Christ who always went to the margins; it is our missionary imperative. Broadly, there are a couple of options available:
- Yell across the river and tell the person when they get their life right, they are welcomed to cross the bridge and join you.
- Go to the middle of bridge, and tell the person, you’ll at least meet them halfway, and then maybe you’ll journey with them to your side of the bridge
- Or… cross the bridge, introduce yourself and first listen to their story
To be Franciscan at heart is to cross and listen to the other. It is a way of moving the fence. What happens next is really the word of the Spirit and may surprise us, but that is the Franciscan life – ever missionary.