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Seasonal Reflection: Pope’s Appreciation of St. Francis

As the world anticipated last week’s visit by Pope Francis to Assisi for the feast of St. Francis, a former president of Washington Theological Union and specialist in ecclesiology gathered his thoughts about the impact the pope has had during his six months as leader of the Catholic Church.

Many of us in the Church feel especially blessed in the vision and direction that Pope Francis is bringing to his ministry as Holy Father. He has sounded a new call to mission, emphasized the key role of charity and mercy in life and ministry, insisted on the dignity of each human person, especially the poor. Other innovations touch the human heart and are spelling out a vision of Church that is both good news (gospel) for our Church and nourishing our faith and life. Francis speaks from the heart in a language and symbols that we all understand.

What I find especially engaging is his choice of the name Francis. It’s clear he wasn’t seeking notoriety or publicity, but that for him that name expressed his deep appreciation, indeed appropriation, of the spirit of Francis and his belief that Francis’ vision of holiness and ministry offers a vision of pastoral care for all peoples that responds well to the needs of our world.

Caring for Poor, Ending Clericalism
In a way, Pope Francis is living out in his life, word, and symbolic actions an interpretation of the Franciscan charism in and for the 21st century. Such actions as living simply, visiting the sick, the imprisoned, and marginalized, embracing the disabled, preaching in the peoples’ language, washing the feet of a Muslim girl, simplifying papal raiment, driving a plain car — all point up a simple Franciscan life.

On a larger scale, Francis is also reconceiving what it means to be Church — not as if the Church has lost its way, but, to rebalance thoroughly the Church’s role in our world so that it might more effectively speak to the contemporary world. So he insists on the centrality of Christ in the Church, especially in preaching, teaching and prayer. He focuses on the key actions that charity and mercy play in ministry. Above all, he calls for practical and loving care of the poor, needy, and marginal people of the world.

For him, everyone has equal dignity, and this is especially so in the Church. Consequently, he calls for a rapid end to the crippling clericalism that can captivate clergy and distance laity from the Church. For him (and for us), the defining characteristic of priestly ordination is service, not privilege. Accordingly, the central and essential sacrament is baptism, because that sacrament gives each Christian the special gift of the Holy Spirit.

In a very intriguing way, Francis describes the Church as a “field hospital after a battle.” The “battle” is our daily life in a complex, globalized, secular world. He calls for the Church to not only minister to the world, but also to be deeply embedded in that world. The Church is to be a community of healing, a safe harbor for the human spirit, a place where we can find rest and nourishment for our lives, a community that extends practical, personal love to all its inhabitants, no matter whether rich or poor, no matter race, no gender superior to the other, and no religious affiliation blocking entrance to this hospital of the Spirit. To be alive is the sole passport needed for entry into this field hospital. Here, one will find peace, here one will experience personal meaning, here the human heart can both weep and mend in the arms of the Lord.

This then is a Church whose doors are wide open, whose ministry is grounded in the earthy experience of human life, whose vision is the same as Christ when he said “I came that you may have life and have it more abundantly.” Such guidance by Pope Francis spells out again a new and needed understanding of the role of the Church in the world, just as Vatican II did in “The Church in the Modern World.”

Continuing the Call for Peace, Communication
In addition, these words augur a renewed and engaged approach to other faiths, especially Judaism and Islam, as well as to our fellow Christians, Protestant and Orthodox. Again, Pope Francis picks up the salient themes of Vatican II as the agenda of our future Church. His concern for other faiths and the need for communication and relationship with them signals that this Holy Father continues the papal call for peace in our world, a world often badly wounded by religious polemics and strife.

This papal leadership is a contemporary clarion call to all peoples, especially Catholics and Franciscans, to take up anew the mission of being in the world and for the world, because we are in Christ and of Christ. What is being offered here is not merely advice but good news (gospel) that carries within it a dynamic vision of prayer and need for action.

Charity now means more than writing a check and calls for engagement of our lives in healing and pacific ways. Hope is more than optimism and good feelings. Rather, it is a strong, flexible characteristic grace of our living that enables us to face challenge and even defeat and still know that God’s will in some way will be done. Faith is not a list of dry doctrinal propositions that we have in our mind, but rather it is the living foundation for a passionate vision of life that sets the Christian person, even now being transformed by Christ, to be both free and strong as one lives out one’s faith and engages our world.

We are challenged on the deepest levels of our life, both as Church and faithful. More could be said, but let this suffice for now. We Franciscans, and indeed the whole Catholic world, stands in debt to the Society of Jesus for forming and giving the Church this man, a Jesuit, who has believed deeply and lived authentically the spirituality of Ignatius, and, in so doing found Francis as a companionable wayfarer to express his authentic discipleship Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam – for the greater glory of God and the life of our church and world.

— Fr. Vincent, a senior friar living at Holy Name College in Silver Spring, Md., served as president of Washington Theological Union from 1975 to 1999. The friar, who marked 50 years as a priest this year, continues to do parish ministry on weekends, teaching theology and leading adult education programs.

Editor’s note: The HNP Communications Office welcomes friars to submit reflections about holidays, feast days and other topics of a timely nature. Those interested in submitting a reflection for consideration for a future issue of HNP Today should contact communications director Jocelyn Thomas by email at Communications@hnp.org