Seasonal Reflection: A Franciscan Approach to Civility in Discourse

Larry Janezic, OFM, and Russell Testa Features

With the need for civility being a hot topic recently in the media, two leaders of the Franciscan Action Network reflected on this subject, which coincides with the Church’s Respect Life Sunday, each year held on the first Sunday of October.

Francis of Assisi is recognized as an embodiment of peace. His constant greeting of “peace and all good” suggested that our interactions with each other and the language we use are important building blocks for civil dialogue in our relationships. Francis was able to greet people with a word of peace because Francis was a person of peace.

According to his writings about the life of Francis, Thomas of Celano said Francis took up the call to be a disciple of Christ by living his life in poverty, possessing neither silver nor gold. In this disposition, his words became “like a burning fire, penetrating the inmost reaches of the heart, and it filled the minds of all the hearers with admiration.” The author goes on to say, “(Francis) always most devoutly announced peace to men and women, to all he met and overtook. For this reason, many who had hated peace and had hated salvation embraced peace through the cooperation of the Lord with all their heart and were made children of peace and seekers after eternal salvation,” (Celano X). Francis’ message of peace was credible because of his integrity. His poverty made him a person free from self-interest.

Francis used his language of peace most significantly and effectively when engaged with people of power and authority. He appealed to a sense of faith and reconciliation in a standoff between the mayor of Assisi and Bishop Guido. Bishop Guido had excommunicated the mayor for promoting alliances in a war with Perugia. At the recitation of the Canticle of the Creatures, the mayor was moved to forgive the bishop, and the bishop apologized in a gesture of reconciliation.

In his “Letter to Rulers of the People,” Francis called leaders to faith and integrity, and asked them to promote faith among the people.

Exchange of Mutual Respect 
Perhaps the most dramatic example of Francis’ language promoting peace is found during his encounter with the sultan. Francis and the sultan were of different cultures, faiths and worldviews — at war with one another — yet the two engaged in an experience and exchange of mutual respect.

The approach that our brother Francis brought to dialogue is a greatly needed example in the current U.S. context and climate, especially with the elections in the next few weeks. So much of what gets portrayed as “political dialogue” fails to uphold the dignity of the other persons. In fact, most political exchanges are designed to destroy the other. This type of “dialogue” over the past several years is has led to an inability to organize public action around weighty problems.

Our fear is that this impasse will be even greater after the November elections. For those that think the issues of our day are not addressed now, the situation is likely to be even worse when the new Congress convenes and as we move toward the 2012 presidential election.

If we are honest with ourselves, this same sort of impasse and lack of real dialogue exists in our Church structures. We find ourselves vilifying and devaluing those with whom we disagree.

Principles for Public Conversation
A commitment to civility in discourse does not mean shying away from strong, well-defended positions. The essence of the process of governance in the United States is a participatory democracy; it is attentive to all points of view.

The Franciscan Action Network, with whom Holy Name Province partners for advocacy action, is engaged in the process of policy reform to promote peace, care for the environment, and a concern for the poor.

Often FAN’s perspective on issues, as it attempts to articulate a Franciscan approach, is very different from other public views. As FAN leaders recognize that our voice is one among many, we still believe in FAN’s reasoned positions and thus makes sure that they are put forward. 

FAN believes that its contribution to public conversation should be civil and respectful. FAN recognizes the dignity of those of differing views. For this reason, Franciscan Action Network offers some principles for public conversation drawing from the life of Francis and from Franciscan tradition.

Currently, our national conversations on policy contain a great deal of inflammatory language. This language exaggerates differences and hardens positions; it is provocative in nature and uses violent imagery at times. FAN’s purpose in proposing these principles is to be mindful of a Franciscan way of promoting policy reform and to demonstrate peace in an ongoing process of transformation.

To promote ongoing transformation in our society and our world, conversation on public issues should: 
· Respect the dignity of all people including the dignity of those who hold an opposite view 
· Call policy makers to their sense of integrity in faith and values and respect those values 
· Use terms or a vocabulary of faith to unite or reconcile rather than divide
· Recognize that all human engagement and dialogue is an opportunity to promote peace 
· Recognize that dialogue and engagement can lead to new insight and mutual understanding.

It is a blessing to be able to give voice to our opinions; it is our responsibility to do so in a way that promotes the common good. There are moments when we recognize that the way that we articulate our views can promote a transformative sense of peace and make us instruments of peace. Our hope is that public conversation can be a transformative peaceful influence on our nation and on our world.

We encourage you to visit the Franciscan Action Network website and consider supporting its campaign to bring a Franciscan-inspired civility to discourse through the FRANCIS Commitment and the “Encounter with Civility: Knocking at the Door” Campaign.

— Fr. Larry, a member of Sacred Heart Province, is interim director of FAN; Russell Testa, FAN’s founder and former director, is director of the HNP Office for Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation.  Information and views from people affiliated with Francsican advocacy can be found on the Facebook page of the Fransican Action Network.