This essay contains several modern Franciscan stories. The main content is a pair of stories told by the Rev. Dr. Remus F. Muray (1913-1994). In the middle of writing this essay, my own spiritual journey brought me to a deeper understanding of how important Franciscan stories are to the Franciscan charism. Remus had internalized Franciscan spirituality in a way that I’ve seldom encountered.
Remus was born in Hungary. His family had a large number of children – I believe Remus was the eighth child. Very early on, it was apparent that Remus was an intellectually gifted child. Remus’ parents didn’t have the means to educate their gifted son, so at an early age, Remus was encouraged to join the Order of Friars Minor (OFM). The OFM saw Remus’ intellectual talent and sent him to Rome to study. In the early 1930’s Remus was awarded a PhD in Theology (Summa Cum Laude). The Franciscan ministers who managed the OFM in Hungary could see another war was coming, so they encouraged every Friar who could get an advanced degree to get one. Remus went to Rome once more and got another PhD, this time in Philosophy (Cum Laude).
The two Franciscan stories Remus told me that I would like to share were both from sometime around the late 1920’s. In the first story, Remus was either a newly professed Friar or a novice. An older Friar-priest required Remus to help him with a prison ministry. Remus was to go down to the Friary’s kitchen and pick up two large baskets of food. The older Friar and Remus then walked to a nearby prison. The prison guard didn’t question the older Friar nor did he ask to see inside the baskets Remus was carrying.
Remus and the older Friar went to the prison chapel where the older Friar was going to say mass. The prison guards gathered up a group of prisoners and filled the chapel. The Friar began the mass and when he came to the sermon he started encouraging the prisoners to repent and turn back to God. After about twenty minutes of telling the prisoners the consequences of their behavior in a rather relentless fashion and how important repentance was, the older Friar suggested that the guard at the back of the room could leave the chapel, because there was another forty minutes of similar sermon material coming. The guard left, and after about ten more minutes of preaching, the older Friar stopped preaching, cleared off the alter and asked Remus to help him unpack the food in the baskets. The food was wonderful, the best the Friary kitchen had to offer, far better than prison fare. The older Friar invited the prisoners to ‘come to the altar and help themselves’.
Remus said the hardened criminals in this prison came to the alter and ate the wonderful food and many of them started crying because someone had treated them as human beings for the first time in a very long time. I asked Remus if the older friar had continued the mass after all the food was eaten and he paused, a peaceful expression came to his face and he said, “No.”
The second story that Remus told happened after he was life professed in the OFM. He was still in Hungary and the date was probably in the early 1930’s.
The bishop of one of the dioceses that bordered the diocese in which Remus’ friary was located was a prince bishop. A prince bishop had fealty from both the church property and the secular property in the diocese. The early 1930’s in Hungary weren’t that far removed from medieval feudalism, so a prince bishop was the absolute power in the lands that constituted his diocese.
The prince bishop decided that he could make more money if he shut down the churches and had his serfs work six days a week and rest on Sundays. Remus heard of this situation and he was scandalized. He and another friar walked to the neighboring diocese and went to the steps of the closed cathedral on Sunday morning and preached. In my own experience, Remus was a very passionate, dynamic preacher. Without a doubt, he and the other friar drew a big crowd. When they were finished preaching, they walked back to their friary.
The prince bishop was furious. Remus and his friend didn’t ask permission to preach. Indeed, they never had intended to ask permission; they just wanted to make a point – and to preach the gospel.
The problem for the prince bishop was that he had no way to discipline Remus and his friend. Friars report through a Franciscan hierarchy to the pope. The prince bishop had to appeal to the pope through his normal church hierarchy. Then the pope would send the reprimand down through the Franciscan hierarchy where it finally reached the guardian of Remus’ friary. In the 1930’s this kind of communication took a very long time – years.
A couple of years after Remus’ preaching adventure, his guardian called him and his friend into the guardian’s office and told them that they were officially reprimanded. The guardian shook his finger at them and said “Don’t do that any more”.
Remus’ personal story continued in a dramatic fashion. The war did come to Hungary. When the Russians occupied Hungary after the war, they dissolved all the religious communities. Remus became a protestant pastor. One of his fellow protestant pastors was an informer to the state police. The informer pastor told the state police that Remus was preaching against the Russian sponsored government. This was not true, but the police came and took Remus to the jail for political prisoners. While Remus was in the jail, he was beaten every day for a year. Then, without giving a reason, the police let him go.
Eventually, Remus was able to escape from Hungary. He lived in Paris, France, for a while before coming to America and finally to Phoenix, Arizona. Along the way, he acquired a wife and a son.
My story intersects with Remus’ story here in Phoenix. At the beginning of my personal Franciscan journey, when I was a novice, my pastor suggested I ask Remus to be my spiritual director. The T.S.S.F novitiate requires twenty-four monthly reports that describe how the novice in question has kept his or her rule of life. I would drive over to Remus’ house and give him my report. He would read it and invariably say “Good Andy”. I would ask him questions about my Franciscan journey and about spiritual topics in general. He gave wonderful answers to my awkward questions.
Some time later, I studied New Testament Greek with him. A little later still, when I was in Education for Ministry and Remus’ son Les was the mentor for our group, Remus accompanied his son to our meetings. I remember one of the first meetings he came to – he said he would just sit on the other side of the room and listen. And that didn’t work very well because when the group started to soulfully struggle with theological questions, Remus was totally incapable of sitting quietly on the other side of the room. He had to be part of the discussion.
I have had an insight into why Franciscan stories are so important. Benedictines deepen their spiritual lives by studying the Rule of St. Benedict. The Rule of St. Benedict has practical spirit-filled solutions for all kinds of human problems. Franciscans don’t have such a wonderful document. St. Francis tried his best not to write a rule for the Franciscan Order. His advice to the brothers was to read the Bible and obey their superiors.
In order to deepen their spiritual lives, Franciscans retell the stories of St. Francis’ life and ministry. The Franciscan story that has come to the fore of my life is the story of St. Francis and the leper. Francis abhorred lepers. He would throw money at them from a distance. One day, on meeting a solitary leper on the road, he got off his horse, embraced and kissed him. Francis turned back to get on his horse and when he was facing the leper again, the leper had disappeared.
St. Francis’ attitude toward lepers changed from that day forward. He said “What was previously nauseous and revolting became a source of sweetness.”
As a Third Order Franciscan of some thirty years now, I believe I’ve been in a prayerful discussion of what it means to kiss a leper at least once a year for each of those thirty years. Every Franciscan has a different answer to this question. Every answer is valid and useful. And I want to hear every answer. Each answer helps me refine and deepen my own answer.
The introduction to this essay mentions several Franciscan stories. Three of those stories are Remus’ stories. Remus was wonderful. My own story intersected with Remus’ story by the grace of God. At the end of his life, Francis said “I’ve done my part; now it’s time for you to do yours.”