THE BLOG
09/19/2014 02:58 pm ET Updated Nov 19, 2014

WWFD - What Would Francis Do?

Eight hundred years ago a little man in Italy was saving the Church from its corruption, clericalism, irrelevance, and insincerity by waking people up to a renewed focus on the Gospel. His name was Francesco Bernardone, but we know him as Saint Francis of Assisi. Francis is still the world's most popular saint, and he has become the inspiration for Pope Francis.

Don't let the pious legends get in the way. We need to see Francis of Assisi's genius for what it really was; we shouldn't be satisfied to see a fake. That would be like what happened in 1911 when Franz Kafka traveled from Prague to Paris in order to visit the Louvre. He queued up to visit not Leonardo's "Mona Lisa," but the blank space on the wall where it usually hung, for it had been stolen a week earlier! Kafka (like thousands of people that year) went to the Louvre to see the legacy of the painting rather than the real thing. Let's not go to see the legacy anymore. The real Francis is far more compelling and important than the imaginary one.

The stories of Francis's life were not incidents of piety. They were experiments of a man who was never entirely sure what he might do next. Francis was often uncertain. He frequently questioned his own motives. I'm certain that that is part of why we like him so much. And those quixotic, "saintly" things he did were simply, in his time, experiments in living according to Jesus's teachings. Francis's life demonstrates that Christianity is much more than institutions, catechisms, and sacraments - it is also techniques and practices.

I think Pope Francis is doing that, now. If we stand back and wait for the institutions, catechisms, and sacraments to change the world, it won't happen. When Pope Francis is gone, they will revert back to a more comfortable position of status quo. That's what always happens. It even happened to Francis of Assisi, beginning ten years after his movement was begun, and seven years before he died. He knew it was going wrong, that he had few friends willing to use their lives to change the world for the better.

Six Ways to Practice

Francis transformed the Church by refocusing Christians on the Gospel, resurrecting Christian practice in six distinct ways. Some of these reveal a man who was ahead of his time. One, I believe, reveals a man ahead of our own time. Each of them demonstrates a similarity between Francis of Assisi and Pope Francis. In fact, I wonder if the Pope had in mind a revival of Franciscan proportions, based on what he has been doing over the last eighteen months.

There isn't the space, here, to go into detail on each of these six aspects of Francis's spiritual vision, but I will summarize them. One builds upon the next, and they all reveal a revolutionary, life-changing approach to life and faith.

Friendship. A strange place to start, I realize, but friendship had a primacy for Francis. If you think of the traditional qualities of a saint, they're usually courage, intellect, and compassion. Francis had these virtues, some of them in spades, but for him the list simply started elsewhere. His journey really began and ended with--and his charism comprised almost entirely--a true and unique gift for friendship. There were clear and distinct lines of gender, religion, and status in his culture and time, and Francis crossed them all. Had he not also been of unimpeachable motives and character, he probably would have been burned at the stake for it.

The Other. Francis saw a different world from the one perceived by most religious people of his time. He saw the "sacred" in everyone and everything and so was able to pay profound respect to invisible, discarded, and demonized people, creatures, and other unknowns. He had nothing to gain by doing so, but he included them as equals in his life. This inclusiveness was the essence of how he changed monasticism and how he believed every person should act in the world.

Poverty. The popularity of Francis's spiritual movement in the two decades between his conversion and death is almost without precedent in the history of Christianity. Other reforms within monasticism had shown quick growth, but not like early Franciscanism. In one of the most pregnant phrases of G. K. Chesterton's little book about Francis, he wrote: "What St. Benedict had stored St. Francis scattered." This scattering was deliberate on Francis's part, as he made the values and spirituality of traditional monasticism available to everyday people everywhere. He took poverty on personally and voluntarily, within and for himself, rather than simply as a subject of concern in the lives of others. He did not make poverty a virtue in and of itself, but he focused attention on how being poor was a sure way to understand the message of Jesus. And for him, personal poverty was not only about living without means; it was also about renouncing power, success, influence, and even respect. Fascinatingly, "being poor" was something people then wanted to do, when they saw it lived out by Francis.

Spirituality. Francis lived at a time when the Church felt threatened by individual expressions of faith. One was only "spiritual" in church. Yet, Francis created ways for ordinary people to mark their lives as holy no matter where they were. Valued higher by Francis than theological understanding, his personal spiritual life set him apart from nearly every other leader in the church in his day.

Care. An awkward word all alone as a noun, but "care" best summarizes how Francis was almost Buddhist in his gentle attention to, not just people and creatures, but things. This extended beyond humankind, to animals, fish, even rocks. Why? He was learning to be a lover of the Beatitudes. It was his care-full-ness in little things that made him the environmental saint we know today. In no other area do we see so clearly how Francis was a man ahead of his time.

Death. Francis embraced death, not as a fatalistic gift, as did the majority of medieval people who talked in macabre ways about life as a "dance with death," but as an important part of living. His welcoming of death was almost without precedent in Christian teaching and is more important than ever for First World people of all backgrounds to grapple with. Death was his Sister. In this area I believe the Poverello reveals himself to be a man even ahead of our time.

In all six ways, Francis forged a new path. Not accidentally, the same areas of Christian life have been revived in the pontificate of Pope Francis.

St. Francis gained tens of thousands of followers quickly when he was doing these things 800 years ago, but historians will also tell you that he died an unhappy man. Why? After the initial inspiration, his closest friends began to abandon the original ideals. Values were slowly compromised. It all seemed too difficult. Being Christian in these six ways no longer seemed "realistic." So, even before Francis's death in October 1226, it was in many ways back to "business as usual" in what was already, by then, called Franciscanism.

It remains to be seen what we will do with Pope Francis's reviving of the spirit of St. Francis among us. "Let us not allow ourselves to be robbed of the joy of the Gospel!" the Holy Father wrote in Evangelii Gaudium, an obviously leading, rhetorical question whose answer is "Amen," but then, "How?" Look to Francis of Assisi. I think it is helpful to look to the past, not simply to learn what happened, but to understand ourselves in the present. It was the novelist William Faulkner who said, "The past is never dead. It's not even past." That's true, or, it can be true. What happened 800 years ago is still happening today.

-Jon M. Sweeney is the author of many books about Francis of Assisi, most recently, When Saint Francis Saved the Church, published by Ave Maria Press in Notre Dame, Indiana.