I Francis – A reflection on the Eve of St. Francis Day

S. Francis, in the shadow of the Andes, Lima Peru. Photo by the author

Francis, we need you more than ever, right here, everywhere, through all time and right now.

Through your physical presence centuries ago, you disturbed and challenged your Church, inviting those who paid attention to what was really happening, who remained faithful to the Jesus vision, into a more generous and focused community of followers and witnesses. You brought reform to an institution which had become an aberration of what is once was and was meant to be. Your disturbing presence opened a door for love to enter afresh the Church and the world. Relationships were re-ordered, beginning with those who knew little or no love – the poor, the disenfranchised, those ignored, rejected, forsaken or denied human community.

With your friars and the sisters of Claire, you founded a movement still vital and relevant to the present moment. Your strategy regarding inter-personal relationships was simple: Become the one you meet. If it is often said that we cannot walk in the shoes of another, you proved this statement false. You embodied the spirit and lives of those who wore no shoes. You kissed the face of a leper. In the words of Jon M. Sweeney:

(You) understood soldiers and fools, mothers and fathers, business people and rulers, poets and court entertainers, pastors and criminals. (You were) at one time or another, in one way or another, all of these. And the spiritual path (you) discovered is the way of faith made tangible, and perhaps more relevant for our times than it was in (your) own day.  

Simply put, you help us confront our fears and move through and beyond them. If fear keeps us apart from one another, in every age, you help us face our fears. Today there is so much to fear, no shortage at all. Whether the exploding proliferation of toxic drugs on our streets, the growing angst of COVID-response protesters, the horror which is present-day Afghanistan or Burma/Myanmar, these and other social problems seem so vast and insoluble. We all wonder if we and our progeny will be safe. So we shut down, we run for cover, we lash out using harsh language often with little thought. We change the channel and retreat from danger. If “the medium is the message” then we use available media to share our message, often employing the language of complaint, protest, criticism, often seeking if not a solution, then a pulpit. Even those of us who refuse such complaining complain about those who do.

Francis, we need you and your caring spirit now, more than ever, to help us face our fears, especially around the climate crisis. To some who question the value of bringing new life into the world, you say: There is love; There can be safety; Life is worth the risk though the risk is real. To some who fear the problems are simply too large and complex, who cry “what can I do?” well, if everyone does something, something will be done, even well done. The refrain of Genesis 1 can be our chant once more. “It is good, it is very good.”

Many look to the forthcoming COP-26 meetings with hope and expectation, that a global agreement accompanied with accountability will slow or even stop the escalation of climate change effects, in the Arctic, in the South Pacific, in metropolitan and urban areas of Western Europe and North America, in the fields, the forests, the oceans, seas, rivers and lakes, on northern and southern ice flows, in parched deserts, isolated islands. Well, everywhere.

The evidence notwithstanding, so many fear that we cannot change our economies, our commercial and industrial practices, our political agendae and our short-term electoral cycles. Many fear that we cannot live more simply so that others may simply live. None less than Pope Francis (his vocational name intentionally chosen) in the encyclical Laudato si’ accepts the cry of the poor coupled with the cry of the earth, deserves attention, respect, measurable and visible response, and yes, a disturbing revolution – a Franciscan revolution. The Pope knows what many of us know, that the only way forward is through fear, the sort of fear chronicled in the Gethsemane struggle of Jesus, through fear to liberation.

I Francis is the title of a 1980 book telling the story of St. Francis and the evolution of the Franciscan order. It was first presented to me by a friend in 1982 and still graces the shelves of my study. In this concise and prescient book I find a message, that  I and you and everyone can unite with the spirit of this ancient saint. I can become we, and we can change the world.

It has been done before – it can happen again.

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