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An Unexpected Francis

St. Francis: A Message for Our Times

An Unexpected Francis
Sunday, October 4, 2020

During the election, I was seated next to [Brazilian] Cardinal Claudio Hummes: a good friend, a good friend! . . . When the votes reached two thirds . . . he said: “Don’t forget the poor.”. . . Right away, thinking of the poor, I thought of Francis of Assisi. . . . For me, he is the man of poverty, the man of peace, the man who loves and protects creation; . . . He is the man who gives us this spirit of peace, the poor man. Oh! How I would like a church which is poor and for the poor! —Pope Francis

I’d like to dedicate this week of meditations, which begins with the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi (1182–1226), to my spiritual father’s life and legacy. Although many people are familiar with Francis’ story, I believe his well-grounded, revolutionary values of nonviolence, simplicity, and care for creation become more important with each passing year. Happily, we have a spiritual leader in Pope Francis who understands the power and the urgency of Francis’ message. Author and editor Robert Ellsberg describes the ways Pope Francis embodies the message of his namesake:

The first Jesuit elected pope, Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, became the first to assume the name of Francis. . . .  That no previous pope had ventured to take that name is unsurprising. Among the many associations conjured by the name of Francis, one of the most obvious was his utter rejection of the trappings of status, power, and importance. He called his followers the Lesser Brothers. He esteemed Lady Poverty as his spouse. He called it “perfect joy” when he was reviled or treated with contempt. . . .

Yet, as soon became clear, Pope Francis aspired to live up to the challenge posed by his name. This was reflected immediately in his choice to dispense with fancy garments and the custom-made red shoes and, more notably, in his decision to forgo the Apostolic Palace in favor of a modest room in the Vatican guesthouse. But beyond these gestures of humility, the remembrance of St. Francis implied an agenda and a program for renewal. Francis, after all, was the saint who set out to rebuild and reform the Church by evoking the example and spirit of the Poor Man, Jesus. He spurned violence and power. He reached out to members of other religions. He treated women with dignity and respect. He cherished the earth and all its creatures. He pointed to a new form of human and cosmic community, marked by love. And he did all this with such a spirit of joy and freedom as to make him a source of wonder and attraction to many of his contemporaries. . . .

Nearly eight hundred years later, St. Francis undoubtedly remains the world’s most popular saint—honored in every land, even by the secular-minded and people of other faiths. This reflects, in part, his winsome qualities and the romantic gestures that sometimes encourage sentimentality [what I call “bird bath Franciscanism”—RR]. But beneath all that, St. Francis stands as one who made the way of Jesus credible and concrete, both for those called to formal religious life and for men and women living in the ordinary world.

Robert Ellsberg, The Franciscan Saints (Franciscan Media: 2017), xv–xvii.

Epigraph: Address to media representatives (March 16, 2013). Full text

Image credit: Early Autumn (detail), Qian Xuan, 13th century, Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit, Michigan.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: Let us place our first step in the ascent at the bottom, presenting to ourselves the whole material world as a mirror through which we may pass over to God, the supreme Artisan. —Bonaventure
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