Today the world celebrates the feast of Francis of Assisi, the Little Poor Man of Assisi, whose life has inspired so many. Born into a merchant family, he abandoned privilege and saw his calling as a follower of Christ Jesus, God who became poor.
At times, his radical message has been hidden behind bird-bath statues and biographies that hide his challenge to the Church and the world. (Paul Moses, in The Saint and the Sultan: The Crusades, Islam, and Francis of Assisi’s Mission of Peace, looks for the real story of Francis and the Sultan, hidden by some early biographers.)
Francis appeals to many because of his love of all creation; but his deep love for the poor and the outcast, his embrace of the leper, and his call to love one’s enemies sometimes gets lost in the sentimental Francis of the birds and fishes.
Recently I’ve run across two books on Francis from Protestant sources: Ian Morgan Cron’s Chasing Francis: A Pilgrim’s Tale and Jamie Arpin-Ricci’s The Cost of Community: Jesus, St. Francis, and Life in the Kingdom. Francis’s radical living of the Gospel moved these and other authors.
But what is Francis’s message for us today?
A few years ago, a Conventual Franciscan friar told me that the three Franciscan male orders each has emphasized a different aspect of the message of Francis. He suggested, if I remember correctly, that the Friars Minor emphasize “minoritas” – being the “lesser” brothers, identified with the outcast and lower classes; the Conventuals emphasize community; and the Capuchins, poverty. That was helpful.
For me Francis is one who sought to follow Christ as a poor man, spreading the Good News of Jesus by a life of radical commitment, which meant embracing Lady Poverty. Thus, Carlo Carretto’s I, Francis, really speaks to me.
I am far from living the poverty he did and from following the Gospel with such great abandon. But Francis is a light in the midst of darkness.
As Francis was a sign of God’s kingdom in the midst of a medieval Church that had become corrupt and identified with power, violence, and riches, Francis offered a vision of the power of humility, nonviolence, and poverty.
So today we need to recall his identification with the humble, nonviolent, and poor Savior, so that we may be signs of hope for our world.
This coming February I’m hoping to get to Assisi and so I’ll be reading a lot about Francis this year. I pray that this may help me live out my calling better, filled with love for the poor Christ and the poor whom I daily encounter.