03/18/2013 12:49 pm ET Updated May 18, 2013

St. Francis, Radical for Love

In today's world, there is perhaps no more familiar or more comforting saint than the medieval mendicant St. Francis of Assisi. Catholics and non-Catholics alike hold him in reverence and awe. What is it about the actual, historical St. Francis that drives such an enthusiastic response eight centuries after his death? For surely there is not another saint in Christendom who commands such devotion.

In truth, few more radical individuals have ever walked the earth. St. Francis, like no one before or since, captured the essence of what it meant to follow the example of Jesus Christ. Jesus, of course, commanded the impossible. He ordered his followers to love one another without limit or precondition. Whatever stands in the way of our love must be removed. If there is a boundary or barrier to be overcome, we must overcome it. Sacrifice, always and everywhere, for the good of others. Sacrifice, offered in full rejoicing at the opportunity to expend ourselves totally for our neighbor's well-being. Jesus commanded and St. Francis, more than any other human being, attempted to fulfill this simple yet unachievable demand.

When St. Francis broke with his father, who had hoped he would enter the world of business and commerce, he stripped naked in the town square of Assisi, handing back his clothes to the befuddled older man. When Brother Ruffino, of noble descent and one of Francis's first followers, hesitated to preach, Francis commanded him to preach naked. Side-by-side before the assembled congregants, these two naked men denounced pride and pretense in the name of utter humility. When you stand naked before God and man, after all, you kill the old self, the self-important vainglorious self, and become totally transparent to the world.

St. Francis preached to the birds, informing them of their beauty, reminding them that God had endowed them with wings and feathers, and the wondrous gift of flight. In this small, strange gesture, St. Francis recalled for his audience the miracles of everyday life. Even birds are not commonplace. They are gifted with abilities no human can ever hope to share. On other occasions, he preached to fish, to rabbits and even tamed a wolf threatening the town of Gubbio.

In all of this, Francis taught that no part of God's creation is ordinary. Everything, from the tiniest microbe to the largest galactic structure, is unique and special. God is not some distant judge, thundering "thou-shalt-nots" from on high, but is woven into the very fabric of the world around us. People are quite right to see St. Francis as a nature mystic, as a defender of the natural world, as a patron saint of the environment. He is all of that. But he is so much more besides. Everything in God's creation is to be respected because everything is worthy of our love. God, after all, is love without limits and God created this world and ordered us to shepherd it safely home.

St. Francis demanded of his followers an absolute and unconditional renunciation of all property. Christ was poor. He relied on the kindness of others to carry on his mission. Like the lillies of the field, he did not concern himself with what he was to eat, or drink, or where he was to sleep for the night. And neither would Francis' disciples.

This teaching was radically destabilizing in its application. Francis' followers would spend the next two centuries threatening papal power and authority with their unyielding insistence on apostolic poverty. Umberto Eco set that improbable medieval murder mystery, "The Name of the Rose," in the midst of these controversies. But the implications for our time are clear: Material prosperity represents, in some measure, a compromise with the things of this world. All preoccupation with material wealth is by definition something we hold back, something we keep in reserve. We are not full or complete in our love, in our trust, if we withhold anything from God or the love we must show others.

St. Francis kissed lepers. He embraced them. He recognized their humanity beneath their scabbing skin and benumbed limbs. Lepers were the most marginal members of medieval life. Feared and despised, they were forced to inhabit encampments on the edge of civilization, or were confined in leprosaria, or even killed for sport or pleasure.

In reaching out to the marginal, St. Francis imitated Jesus. Jesus did not come to reassure the high and mighty of their rightful place in society. He came to comfort the afflicted. He brought hope to lepers. He numbered tax collectors among his followers. He ministered to prostitutes. In a society dominated by male hierarchy, he spoke directly to women. There was Mary Magdalen, of course, and Martha and Mary, and all the many women he healed. He conversed with a Samaritan woman at Jacob's well. She had been married five times and now lived with a man not her husband. Jesus promised her the sweet, sweet water of eternal life.

I will confess I never thought it possible a pope would take the name Francis. The pope, after all, represents the institutional church, the church of structure, of hierarchy and discipline, the church of respectability and good order. St. Francis' whole life was led in tension with all of these aspects of what it means to be church. He subverted hierarchy, he broke down barriers, he insisted by deed and word to demonstrate the limitless law of love. He was Jesus, after all, to Dostoyevsky's Grand Inquisitor.

What can we expect from a pope who has chosen to be known by this most challenging of all Christian saints? I share Joseph Amodeo's hope that Pope Francis might reach out to those most marginalized and mistreated Christians, gay Catholics (see "Could Pope Francis Be the Gay Community's Greatest Hope?"). I think that Frank Kirkpatrick is right to expect Pope Francis to challenge the vast economic injustices of our age (see "What's Behind the Pope's Name"). For my part, I was a guest on several radio call-in shows where I was struck by the number of callers who identified themselves as lapsed Catholics willing to give the Church a second look based on little more than the choice of papal name.

But papal names also become standards by which we judge the success or failure of pontificates. Can Pope Francis practice the humility and transparency of St. Francis? Can he reduce the trappings of a papal monarchy grown stiff with rigor mortis? Can he confront and transform an economic order as unequal and unjust as any since the industrial revolution? Can he reconcile the marginalized? Can he, in short, practice the love without limits that Jesus asked of his followers and that St. Francis sought to emulate in all things?