As Roman Catholic leadership meets in Rome for an historic global conversation, will the Spirit of Francis prevail?
Two years ago, on St. Francis Day, I had the honor of preaching at the Blessing of the Animal’s service when “All things creeping innumerable, both small and great beasts” shared our sacred space at St. Paul’s Cathedral in San Diego.
It was great fun to command the standing congregation (with my arm outstretched) to “SIT!” when the gospel reading ended. As a priest, I am always amazed at what you can learn about someone on this important celebration of God’s creation, when they bring their pet in front of me and other clergy seeking a special blessing. Invariably, they tell me a story about their deep connection with this little animal and about pure love. Our pets tell us a lot about who we are as humans. Francis of Assisi continues to occupy one of the most popular seats in our fascination with the strange and holy, the brave and reforming. Even people from other faiths or no faith, find a connection with the man who was proclaimed by the Pope as the patron saint of ecology. As global climate change strips us of any sense of security and predictions of weather patterns, we might rely upon, Francis and the readings appointed for him on his feast day, Oct. 4, for deeper reflection.
Scrubbing the prophets clean beyond recognition
There is a danger that the message and the significant human contribution of Francis becomes lost in a sea of romantic and nostalgic garbage, when his life and experiences can provide illumination to the seeker. Dr. Cornell West, now teaching at Union Seminary in New York, describes the human process of canonizing a real historical figure whereby he or she is invariably scrubbed clean of all the issues they actually stood for.
He illustrates this unfortunate process in our own lifetime, to the work and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and calling the process SANTA-CLAUSIFICATION. How do we turn a modern-day prophet, whose message was so overwhelmingly honest, timely and true, into something domesticated and harmless, like a pet dog? King’s prophetic message was so dangerous and uncomfortable that he had to be silenced.
The readings for St. Francis Day, from ancient texts, invoke Jerimiah, Paul, and Jesus and there is no doubt their inspiration would have influenced Francis and Martin to become prophetic figures in their own day. All five of them remain dangerously uncomfortable characters that we would all probably prefer not to have them as our next door neighbors! Their messages were, for many, difficult to hear and the consequences of the ethical and moral vision they have for humanity is even more difficult to practice or live into.
Ancient wisdom and experience
Jerimiah lived at the end of an era when the Southern Kingdom of Israel was crumbling and was about to be invaded by a foreign power that would forever change the face not only of Judaism but of the world. The brightest and best would be carried off into exile in Babylon and all the major institutions known to Jerimiah’s contemporaries would be destroyed. His dramatic call for repentance one day forced him to create a theatrical-leather yoke or mask to be strapped around his neck, to show the consequences of coming of the invader.
Without repentance, including a change in how the rich and powerful took more responsibility for sharing wealth and power with their employees and the workers who built their homes and cities, ALL would be lost. Judging “the cause of the poor and needy” was seen not only an attribute of being a good leader, but it was part of the nature of God as well. Jesus, in Matthew’s Gospel, takes up the yoke theme (perhaps from Jerimiah’s own attempts to communicate the need for economic reform before society would be reformed from without) to illustrate a different way to change. “For my yoke is easy and my burden is light”… “Come onto me all you who labor (who are exploited, rejected?) … and find rest.”
Matthew’s parables appointed for Sunday readings over the last few weeks, are all about limiting wages, limiting God’s grace, and what happens to us when humans work from an overwhelming framework of scarcity. The Kingdom of God, Jesus teaches, is not like this. The last shall be first, the guy who works one hour is paid the same as the guy who worked all day and the forgiving slave owner expects the same justice and grace from the one who is freed from his burden of debt. It is clear from these messages from Jesus that we cannot hoard Grace or God for ourselves and as we experience the love, grace and generosity of God in our lives, we share this in abundance with others.
A pilgrimage to Assisi
Last year, I visited Assisi in northern Italy for the first time and paid homage to the shrine where St. Francis is buried. The city welcomes 6 million pilgrims a year and the buildings that memorialize Francis ministry are truly epic and enshrine some of the greatest artistic and cultural offerings human beings have ever made.
Yet the place is full of paradox. Francis’s relationship to the community he began up on the hill of Assisi, and the religious order he founded (the Franciscan Order) was complex and sometimes often hostile. Within his own lifetime, there were moves to oust him from the order because he insisted on the community maintaining the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. The main contention was about retaining the vow of poverty and some later brothers who came after him, thought this holy poverty stuff was simply … for the birds.
Francis felt more comfortable ministering to the lepers and worshipped in a tiny little cell church that is still commemorated today a mile down the hill from the awesome Basilica that was built to honor him within four years of his death. There was an unprecedented response to his life when he died at the age of 44, to have such magnificent buildings completed so quickly, on what was the local community’s former rubbish dump. Francis insisted he be buried in land that was of little value and used for refuge and cast-offs, but in 1228, only two years after his death, he was canonized a saint and Pope Gregory IX personally laid the foundation stone of a great Basilica that would take another 25 years to finish.
This paradox remains in Assisi today, from the imperial basilica and epic monastery on the hill, to the little chapel commemorating where he actually died (it is now inside another imposing much larger church) at the foot of the hill. You have to work hard to find the spirit of Francis in these well- intentioned memorials of his life and ministry.
Eileen Blumenthal, a board member from St. Paul’s Foundation, and Maxensia Nakibuuka from Uganda and I were fortunate to visit Assisi two days before the first Pope who took Francis’ name made his first visit last year.
Pope Francis had just released a controversial interview with one of Italy’s most famous atheist journalists and talked about the kinds of reforms he wanted to see in the Vatican. He compared the Curia (senior church management) to the “leprosy of the church.” Instead of being a servant to the people of God, the Curia saw itself as the overseers instead of being the Quartermasters to the faithful. The Curia and global church leadership were stunned by his critical analysis of the center of church authority. Reports began leaking out about how he chose his papal name and they tell us much about the spiritual inner conversations Pope Francis had with God within hours of his election as Pope. He was undoubtedly the leading contender with 75% of the ballot and one of his close associate Cardinals whispered in his ear as they embraced: “Remember the Poor.”
The new Pope-elect immediately thought of St. Francis of Assisi. His speech in Assisi last year (made on the very spot where Francis was alleged to have removed all his fine clothing bought by his distinguished merchant family. The context was a trial where he was fighting a legal battle with his angry father and adjudicated by the local bishop, known as the Stripping Room) says a lot about the reforms he is trying to make:
“A Christian adores Jesus, seeks Jesus, knows how to recognize the scars of Jesus. When Jesus rose he was beautiful. He didn’t have his wounds on his body, but he wanted to keep the scars, and he brought them with him to heaven. The scars of Jesus are here, and they are in heaven before the Father. We care for the scars of Jesus here, and he from heaven shows us his scars and tells all of us, ‘I am waiting for you.”
He later spoke to the economically disadvantaged from the Assisi region and compared the stripping of Francis to the need to strip the church of its worldliness and to condemn an economy that strips a person of the dignity of work.
“The Church is all of us and we all have to strip ourselves of this worldliness. … Our Lord told us: We cannot serve two masters: either we serve money or we serve God. …
Many of you have been stripped by this savage world that does not give work, that does not help, that does not care if children die of hunger…, that does not care if many families do not have anything to eat or money to bring bread home. The worldly spirit kills; it kills people; it kills the Church. … I ask the Lord that he gives us all the grace to strip ourselves.”
Walking the talk
Several months later, the Pope met with Dr. Jim Kim, president of the World Bank (whose mission is to alleviate Global Poverty-setting some robust goals to alleviate extreme poverty in the next decade). They pledged to work together -- the Bank and the 1.2 billion member Roman Catholic Church, to relieve the suffering of the poor and to give people the tools and resources to contribute to their own well-being and that of society.
This week also marks a new chapter in the reform process Pope Francis has been working on with his call for an Extraordinary Meeting of Bishops from all five continents for the first of two major conferences on "The pastoral challenges of the family in the context of evangelization.”
Two hundred and fifty people are meeting for two weeks, and half of them are heads of Episcopal conferences from all over the world. A second conference will be held next year and one of Francis most important documents will be created at the end of this extraordinary process. There has not been this much attention on the family within Catholicism since 1980, so we wait to see what the outcome of these conversations will be.
Will these conversations be inspired from the spirit of St. Francis and the little community down the hill or will they be conversations largely dominated from the imperial church from on high? There is no doubt in my mind that the definition of family and the way in which the family is seen as an instrument of love, support and economic development in all its diversity and inclusion, will shape many issues in the next decade. Will these conversations and the definition of family be so narrow as to further deny the place of non-traditional forms of family life (single parents, LGBT couples and families, or the contentious issues of polygamous families in many parts of the world where the subject is not even talked about, even when the polygamous family is Christian).
Add to all of this, the more hidden issue of Catholic priests who have children in the community, more common than the church would like to admit in places like Africa). It is sometimes easier for church leaders to focus on minority communities who have no voice or place in the church than to speak about the complexity of family life, even within modern Roman Catholicism where the growing majority of its 1.2 billion membership are the global south impoverished. We will pray for these meetings and look forward to substantial reflections and plans how the reforming movement of this new Pope will join forces with ecumenical partners like the Anglican Communion and secular partners like the World Bank.
Significant role of Anglican/Catholic dialogue over 50 years
There are many things we may disagree about but Anglicans and Roman Catholics agree on about 75% of almost everything. There is an opportunity for ecumenical partners to stop focusing on the 25% of what we disagree on, important as it is, and see what we can actually do together in the spirit of Jesus, Francis, Paul and Jerimiah. All these prophetic figures were ironically unmarried, often had issues with their families of birth and called their communities around them into a more inclusive from of family life than the ones they came from. Are we listening to ancient wisdom and their definition of family or are we about to SANTA-CLAUSIFY this essential human unit?
And perhaps saints like Francis can help us all to reframe not only our lives and discipleship, but to bring together the humble chapel and majestic basilica, the bottom of the hill folk and issues with those who rule from the top of the hill. Clearly Pope Francis is trying to bring about this reconciliation knowing so much depends upon a reframing of family as a moral and economic lifeboat for billions of people who live on a dollar a day. We look with anticipation and hope in the outcome of these deliberations. To follow the conference meetings in the coming week, please check here.
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RGOD2 looks at faith and religion from an LGBT point of view and is written by the Rev. Canon Albert Ogle, Vicar of St. Peter’s, Lithgow in Millbrook, New York. Ogle is known around the world for his work in support of LGBT rights and HIV-prevention efforts. He is president of San Diego-based St. Paul’s Foundation for International Reconciliation. Donations to the foundation can be made by clicking HERE. RGOD2 appears on SDGLN and GLBTNN.