Francis and repairing the church

When I visited Assisi in 1973, one of the first places I went was the church of San Damiano, where Francis heard Christ speaking to him from the cross, “Go! Repair my church, which you can see around you is falling into ruins.”

I overheard an English Franciscan friar explaining this to a few young people. Francis was going through a serious emotional crisis after his experience as a prisoner of war in Perugia after a battle in which Assisi lost. His response was what he needed – to do something physical. His work literally rebuilding the church of San Damiano was a form of physical therapy which helped him heal.


Later that day I went up to the major basilica where Francis is buried. As I marvelled at Giotto’s frescos on the walls of the upper church, I heard a Conventual Franciscan friar explain to a group that Francis got it wrong. He was not called to rebuild the church of San Damiano but to reform the whole church.

I think this friar got it wrong.

Reform of the church begins with the small everyday acts of building up the church. It is, in a way, to show in one’s daily life what a reformed church looks like. It is not to call on the authorities and castigate them (even when that is necessary). There is more.

Leonardo Boff, in Francis of Rome and Francis of Assisi: A New Springtime for the Church, puts it this way:

Francis of Assisi was obedient to the church of the popes, and at the same time he went his own way with the gospel of poverty in his hand and heart. In 1970, Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI) wrote: “Francis’s no to that type of church [powerful and rich] could not be more radical; it is what we would call prophetic protest”. It does not attack or criticize the dominant style; rather, it simply inaugurates and enacts a new style.

Francis lived the repair of the church – reconstructing San Damiano and other churches, kissing and caring for lepers, becoming one with the little ones of this world and showing others the way of poverty, living Christ amidst wealth and power by living without possessions and sharing God and all that he had with those most in need.

We can repair the church, first and foremost, by being followers of the poor Christ, who healed the sick and raised the dead. We can be a witness to the corruption by living austerely. We can “repair the world” by letting Christ repair us.

This, of course, does not rule out prophetic denunciation. But that must be rooted in a conversion to the God of the poor, so that we may become a poor church, a church of and for the poor.


One response to “Francis and repairing the church

  1. Pingback: The Upside-Down World of St. Francis | walk the way

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