A Third Way
Sunday, May 28, 2017
The Franciscan Tradition in which I’ve been formed is an “alternative orthodoxy” or heterodoxy. While we are part of the Roman Catholic faith and embrace the great Christian Tradition, we are not mainstream. Francis (c. 1181-1226) and Clare (1194-1253) of Assisi paid attention to and emphasized different things than the Church’s leaders and theologians of their time. Franciscans don’t throw out the mainline tradition; we simply place our effort and our energy on overlooked or misunderstood aspects of the tradition. We all do that in our own ways. There’s something honest about the Franciscan experience in naming it.
Francis didn’t bother questioning doctrines and dogmas of the Church. He just took the imitation of Christ seriously and tried to live the way that Jesus lived! One of the earliest accounts of Francis, the “Legend of Perugia,” quotes Francis as telling the first friars, “You only know as much as you do.”  His emphasis on action, practice, and lifestyle was foundational and revolutionary for its time and is at the root of Franciscan alternative orthodoxy. Francis and Clare fell in love with the humanity and humility of Jesus. For them Jesus was someone to actually imitate and not just to worship as divine.
You may be wondering, “How can Franciscanism be an alternative and still be called orthodox (right and true)?” Heterodoxy is precisely a third something in between orthodoxy and heresy! I sincerely think Francis found a Third Way, which is the creative and courageous role of a prophet and a mystic. He repeated the foundational message of all prophets: the message and the medium for the message have to be the same thing. Francis emphasized the medium itself, instead of continuing to clarify the mere verbal message (which tends to be the “priestly” job).
The early Franciscan friars and Poor Clares wanted to be Gospel practitioners instead of merely “word police,” “inspectors,” or “museum curators” as Pope Francis calls some clergy. Both Francis and Clare offered their rules as a forma vitae, or form of life. They saw orthopraxy (correct practice) as a necessary parallel, and maybe even precedent, to verbal orthodoxy (correct teaching). History has shown that many Christians never get to the practical implications of their beliefs! “Why aren’t you doing what you say you believe?” the prophet invariably asks. As the popular paraphrase of Francis’ Rule goes, “Preach the Gospel at all times. When necessary, use words.”
Gateway to Silence:
 “The Legend of Perugia,” Saint Francis of Assisi: Omnibus of Sources (Franciscan Press: 1991), 74.
Adapted from Richard Rohr, Returning to Essentials: Teaching an Alternative Orthodoxy, disc 1 (CAC: 2015), CD, MP3 download; and
Eager to Love: The Alternative Way of Francis of Assisi (Franciscan Media: 2014), 81, 86-87.