The title of our blog, ‘Go, Rebuild My House,’ comes from the words St. Francis heard in the spring of 1206 at San Damiano, a little church in ruins near his home town of Assisi. The young Francis was praying there, contemplating an icon of Christ on the cross, desperately wanting to hear from God who he was to be, what he was to do. He believed the command was Christ speaking to him directly, which filled him with intense joy. Francis at first took the message literally and set out to repair the building. Later he realized he was being asked to do much more.
As Franciscan friar Daniel P. Horan so well puts it in a National Catholic Reporter column on Francis as a model for church reform, “It would seem that ultimately God was less concerned about the physical structures of this or that particular worship space and more interested in spiritual and moral renewal, a rebuilding of the church that is the Body of Christ. St. Francis’ whole manner of living became focused on renewing the embodied, daily experience of Christian life by prioritizing the fundamentals of Gospel values in service to the poor, forgotten, voiceless and abandoned in his own time and context.”
Horan says there is a clear way of proceeding that Francis offers today’s Church: “repair the church, for as you see, it is falling apart!” Look at what is in plain sight crying out for repair: those forgotten, voiceless, abandoned in our own time and context, particularly “the women and men broken by abuse and silenced by trusted leaders that make up the church.” The popular image of Francis is of a sweet, unthreatening little man preaching to the birds, a domesticated garden statue among the flowers, what Horan in a later NCR column calls “the birdbath industrial complex,” the reduction of the saint “to a medieval petting-zoo mascot […] without regard for the radical truth about God and creation he intended.” Francis did not set himself apart from others. In fact, he did not set himself or humanity apart from other creatures, from creation. In his great poem “Canticle of the Creatures,” Francis spoke of creation in familial terms: “Brother Sun,” “Sister Moon,” “Brother Wind,” “Sister Water,” “Brother Fire,” and “our Sister, Mother Earth.” “Such a free, anarchic soul was Francis,” Thomas Cahill wrote after being moved by the poem. “How he went against the grain of his hierarchical, ordered, aggressive, divisive society.”
Here is one reason why the little poor man (il poverello) is a saint for our times. The words of his poem, the life of joy and simplicity he led and inspired others to lead still goad pompous and arrogant hierarchs. A German Cardinal, among others, incensed over what he viewed as un-Christian activity taking place at the Vatican Synod for the Amazon in Rome this month, said the term “Sister Mother Earth” is pagan and heretical, apparently ignorant of Francis’ poem. Francis has been much in the news lately, at least in Catholic news. Pope Francis, the first pope with the courage to take the saint’s name as his own, has consecrated the synod to St. Francis. It opened on October 4, St. Francis’ feast day, with a tree-planting celebration in the Vatican gardens. The tree was planted in earth from Assisi, the Amazon, from places of environmental destruction and human degradation. Indigenous people from the region and others sang and danced around a mandala, which included a photo of Sister Dorothy Stang, the human rights activist murdered in Brazil, and two carvings of naked pregnant females greeting each other, perhaps a representation of the Visitation. The first week of the synod has been remarkable. The possibility of married men becoming priests, of women becoming deacons, discussed openly and seriously. Scientists are included in conversations about the environment and the effects of climate change. Input has been given from below—the people are speaking and teaching, the priests are listening. Pope Francis recognizes that St. Francis of Assisi is the model the Church now needs most for rebuilding its house.
I would like to end on a personal note, for Francis has been much on my mind for personal reasons. I have moved to the city named after him: “La Villa Real de la Santa Fe de San Francisco de Asís,” or “The Royal City of the Holy Faith of Saint Francis of Assisi.” Of course, Francis is everywhere here: roads, schools, hotels, churches, apartments are named after him. We often eat lunch together, Francis and I, in a courtyard of the hospital where I have begun work as a chaplain. He is there every day, wings in the air, head thrown back in joy, one foot kicked high behind him. “Happy Dancing St. Francis” is the title of this statue, which erodes Horan’s “birdbath industrial complex.” I like this place, for it seems to have more of Francis about it than the statue. Many of the hospital’s leaders are women, and they have stressed the importance of relationship, of acknowledging and respecting each other, whether patient or colleague. Rooms are private and often have lovely views of the desert and mountains. There is a mix of religions and spirituality in Santa Fe: Catholic, Protestant, Buddhist, Native American, Nones, New Age, Jewish, Sikh, Muslim. Spiritual care of the patients is inclusive and expansive: the care of every person is stressed, regardless of belief. My colleagues are Catholic, Jewish, Buddhist, Eastern Orthodox, Evangelical, Interfaith. All of us believe in the importance of this approach. Here is where my ‘Church’ is, and doubtless where Francis’ was also.
Jennifer L. Reek is a writer and teacher.