Pope Francis’ choice of Assisi for the launch of his latest Encyclical last weekend was well made. The town of St Francis and St Clare was surely the ideal place for a teaching on brotherly and sisterly love.
More than any other follower of Christ, Francis of Assisi has been called ‘a second Christ’. More lives have been written about him than any other person since Jesus. He is the most painted non-biblical character in history and the usually cautious Church declared him a saint only four years after his death. Chesterton called him “the world’s one most sincere democrat” and even Lenin spoke admiringly of him shortly before his death. Others have praised him as Europe’s greatest religious genius while Oscar Wilde called him “the only true Christian since Christ”.
Even in his own lifetime, Francis exerted a strange attractiveness. His life was an enacted parable, an audio-visual aid to Gospel freedom. It gives us the perspective by which to see as Jesus did – the view from the bottom. Contrary to the rest of the human race, Francis ran in the opposite direction, certain that he was following the path of Christ. He spent his life going down instead of trying to be upwardly mobile. He wanted to be poor first of all because Jesus was poor and to have nothing to protect him except the love which makes all else useless.
In a macho medieval world he was gentle, caring and compassionate. Todays’ world derides these values at its peril and with results that are all too obvious. He was astonishingly unimpressed by success, degrees, status symbols – even the priesthood which he refused. But he never railed against the trappings and show of medieval Catholicism; he simply moved outside the walls of Assisi and did his own thing. It was his lifestyle that shouted judgement, not his words. His witness, consequently, has been able to call and challenge believers down the centuries.
Francis’ choice of weakness instead of strength, truth instead of pragmatism, honesty instead of influence, stands in marked contrast to our success-orientated world. In his own time he abandoned his early life as a knight and warrior, even though that career was very esteemed and culturally approved. In Francis’ time, not only had war and its disorders become a necessity and a habit, they had become the preferred occupation, the ruling passion and the whole meaning of life.
But Francis was a peaceful man who sought to resolve local disputes between the nobles and their serfs and on the international stage between Christians and Muslims. In a time when feuds and vendettas were so common that few people went abroad unarmed, Francis forbade his followers to fight or carry weapons or even swear allegiance to any noble. Francis’ insight that “religious war” was not of God and his desire to work for peace, led him on one occasion to go from the Crusaders’ camp to visit the Sultan in Egypt. Even the prayer we associate with him continues to be an inspiration to those who work nonviolently for justice and peace in our world. It is surely no accident that the last two Popes, inspired by Francis’ passion for peace, have chosen Assisi as the location for their inter-faith pilgrimages.
Surely that is his relevance for us today in our blood-stained and murderous world. The trouble is that so distorted are our values, so limited our vision, so self-centred our society, that it is Francis who emerges looking sane! Society today would have us believe that the purpose of life is to get ahead, be successful in work and life, be independent and always strong. All of which is precisely what the Gospel message is not about.
For Francis, every person and every created thing mattered; he talked to the animals, preached to the birds, considered every living thing as good and beautiful. We badly need his example today. But we need him off the prayer cards, out of the Churches and into the streets because Francis of Assisi was, is, and always will be the best guide to the meaning of being a Christian, a follower of Christ.
Interestingly, however, Francis did not wish his followers to be exactly like him. His dying prayer was: “I have done what is mine; may Christ teach you what is yours!” I cannot think of a more appropriate prayer for us all and for Pope Francis as he continues on his pilgrimage of peace.