What’s in a Name? The importance of being Francis
There is probably no saint who is as beloved, across the Christian churches and beyond as St Francis of Assisi. As a young man St Francis fell passionately in love with Jesus Christ, and he attempted to live a life as like to Jesus’ as possible. In this short piece we look at some aspects of St Francis’ life and what choosing his name might mean for our new pope and for us today.
Early in his life St Francis heard God calling him to ‘re-build my Church’. At first he thought God meant the physical rebuilding of a single church building, later he came to see that the Lord was inviting him to renew the whole Church.
In our own time we need to rebuild the Church in the wake of the sexual abuse scandal. Just like the broken-down church that St Francis originally restored, we need a pastor who will deal with the brokenness and pain, the disillusionment and betrayal that many people feel both directly and indirectly as a result of this scandal. We need someone who will help the Church to become more transparent and accountable so that abuses such as these can no longer thrive in secrecy.
Yet this scandal is only the most public of the Church’s challenges. Commentators and theologians, like Karl Rahner, have been calling for many years for a profound renewal of the Church. When he established his ‘third order’, St Francis offered a way for everyone to share his radical life of simplicity and loving service of God and neighbour. As Pope Francis said to the press ‘For me, he is the man of poverty, the man of peace, the man who loves and protects creation … How I would like a Church which is poor and for the poor’. So, in the name of Francis, we too are encouraged in a radical commitment to the Gospel.
Another aspect of St Francis’ life was his deep spiritual friendship with St Claire. She desired to join him and work with him. In the culture of the time that seemed impossible and yet together they discerned a way in which it became possible. St Claire in her enclosed life lived as profound a commitment to the Gospels as did St Francis. Many women feel second class in the church, the friendship of St Francis and St Claire offers hope of a different way.
But St Francis also speaks urgently to the world beyond the Church. To use an image of H.E.Daly we are running the world like a company in liquidation. We use up resources, destroy habitats and ultimately impoverish our descendants in order to fuel our own instant gratification. St Francis’ profound insight into the interconnection of all creation and his emphasis on the simple life is an invitation to re-examine our culture of excesses.
Finally St Francis was a man of peace. The interfaith pilgrimages to Assisi that have been called for by the last two popes are inspired by his passion for peace. In our own time we need only look at Africa, Asia and in the Middle East to see the proliferation of wars between people of faith. His insight that ‘religious war’ was not of God, and his characteristic ‘foolhardy courage’ that led him to befriend Muslims in the Holy Land make him an inspiring religious figure for many today.
St Francis lived a life of passionate love for God, for all God’s people, for all of God’s creatures and all of God’s creation. May the new pope be inspired to a life as radical as his.