Francis transformed the church by refocusing Christians on the Gospel, resurrecting Christian practice in six distinct ways. Some of these reveal a man who was ahead of his time. One reveals a man ahead of our own time. In each of them we can see a similarity between Francis of Assisi and Pope Francis.
What Francis did and said 800 years ago was not only for the church, or people of faith, but for all people, and this begins to explain why he was so popular even back then. The same is true of Pope Francis today. You probably have noticed that unlikely groups of people—atheists, Buddhists and certainly disaffected Catholics—are among those listening attentively to the pope, who is speaking in ways they understand, practicing a Catholicism that they recognize as meaningful and important for the world. We recognize, when we see it, how being Catholic can also be beautifully catholic.
There isn’t space here to go into detail about each of these six aspects of Francis’ spiritual vision, so I will only summarize them. But one builds upon the next, and they all reveal a revolutionary, life-changing approach to life and faith.
Friendship. A strange place to start, perhaps, but friendship had a primacy for Francis. If you think of the traditional qualities of a saint, they are usually courage, intellect and compassion. Francis had these virtues, some of them to an extraordinary degree, but for him the list simply started elsewhere. His journey began and ended with—and his charism comprised almost entirely—a true and unique gift for friendship, for true solidarity. There were clear and distinct lines of gender, religion and status in his culture and time, and Francis crossed them all. Had he not also been of unimpeachable motives and character, he probably would have been burned at the stake for this radical solidarity.
Embracing the “other.” Francis saw a different world from the one perceived by most religious people of his time. He saw the sacred in everyone and everything and so was able to pay profound respect to invisible, discarded and demonized people, creatures and other unknowns. He had nothing to gain by doing so, but he included them as equals in his life. This inclusiveness was the essence of how he changed monasticism and how he believed every person should act in the world.
Poverty. The popularity of Francis’ spiritual movement in the two decades between his conversion and death is almost without precedent in the history of Christianity. Other reforms within monasticism had shown quick growth, but not like the early Franciscan movement. In one of the most pregnant phrases of Chesterton’s little book about Francis, he wrote: “What St. Benedict had stored St. Francis scattered.” This scattering was deliberate on Francis’ part, as he made the values and spirituality of traditional monasticism available to everyday people everywhere. He took on poverty personally and voluntarily, within and for himself, rather than simply as a subject of concern in the lives of others. He did not make poverty a virtue in and of itself, but he focused attention on how being poor was a sure way to understand the message of Jesus. And for him, personal poverty was not only about living without means; it also was about renouncing power, success, influence and even respect. “Being poor” became something people wanted to do when they saw it lived out by Francis.
Spirituality. Francis lived at a time when the church often felt threatened by individual expressions of faith. One was only “spiritual” in church. Yet Francis created ways for ordinary people to mark their lives as holy no matter where they were. Valued higher by Francis than theological understanding, his personal spiritual life set him apart from nearly every other leader in the church of his day. What Francis did and said 800 years ago was not only for the church, or people of faith, but for all people, and this begins to explain why he was so popular even back then.
Care. This word perhaps best summarizes Francis’ gentle attention to, not just people and creatures, but things. This extended beyond humankind, to animals, fish, even rocks. Why? He was learning to be a lover of the Beatitudes. It was his care-full-ness in little things that made him the environmental saint we know today. In no other area do we see so clearly how Francis was a man ahead of his time.
Death. Francis embraced death not fatalistically as a gift, as did the majority of medieval people who talked in macabre ways about life as a “dance with death,” but as an important part of living. His welcoming of death was almost without precedent in Christian teaching and is more important than ever for people of all backgrounds to grapple with. Death was his sister. In this area I believe the Poverello reveals himself to be a man even ahead of our time.
In all six ways, Francis forged a new path. Not accidentally, these same areas of Christian life have been revived in the pontificate of Pope Francis.
Francis of Assisi gained tens of thousands of followers quickly, when he was doing these things 800 years ago, but historians also report that Francis died an unhappy man. Why? After the initial inspiration, his closest friends began to abandon the original ideals. The values of the people were slowly compromised. It all seemed too difficult. Being Christian in these six ways no longer seemed “realistic.” So, even before Francis’ death in October 1226, it was in many ways back to “business as usual” in what was already, by then, called Franciscanism.
Today Pope Francis is reviving the spirit of St. Francis among us. “Let us not allow ourselves to be robbed of the joy of the Gospel!” the pope wrote in “The Joy of the Gospel.” Our answer must be “Amen,” and then, “How?” We must look to the past, not simply to learn what happened, but to understand ourselves in the present. Let us continue to look to St. Francis of Assisi. And let us see that, with the help of Pope Francis and the guidance of the Holy Spirit, perhaps the transformation that happened 800 years ago is still happening today.
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator