“Preach the gospel at all times and when necessary use words.” St. Francis
I will join thousands of people from all over the world and from all faith traditions Oct. 4 in Assisi, Italy to celebrate the feast of St. Francis. Why is this man, who lived a short life (44 years) and lived so long ago (more than 800 years), still popular today … that even the pope chose his name?
There are as many reasons for St. Francis’s enduring popularity as there are books written about him. He is probably best known for his love of the poor, simple life style and reverence for animals and the environment. But to better understand St. Francis requires that we go beyond the “bird bath” sentimentality that is associated with him. He was a transformative figure who fundamentally changed religious life and proposed a dramatically different way of living and relating with one another.
While not an ordained priest himself, St. Francis’s order included everyone: priests (first order), women religious (Poor Clares), and laity (third order). Franciscans have become one of the largest religious orders in more than 100 countries despite St. Francis’ resistance to organizations, power and prestige. He changed religious life by emphasizing both contemplative prayer and social action. He was a deeply spiritual person who more than any other human being attempted to live Christian ideals, having left a wealthy life style to follow the gospel and imitate Jesus.
For St. Francis, being a contemplative meant an abiding love of God and regular prayer practice.
Prayer was not so much about words … talking God into something or changing God. It was about listening in silence to what God was telling him and cooperating with God. For St. Francis, prayer also was consciously discovering divine presence within himself, in others and in all things ordinary.
Equally important was social activism … being God’s presence on earth to others. St. Francis worked tirelessly for the poor and the marginalized and showed by his example what we are all capable of doing.
If he were alive today, he would be encouraging us to get out of our “comfort zone” to lovingly serve the needy. He would be involved in our social services/ministries in Olympia … serving food at the Community Kitchen, volunteering at the Thurston County Food Bank, St. Vincent de Paul and Sidewalk. He would be visiting those homebound, in hospice and in jail.
He would be advocating to bring about lasting changes in legislation/policy, focusing on unemployment, income inequality, fairer tax laws, labor rights and immigration reform. He would be joining Fellowship of Reconciliation in their weekly peace vigils and working to eliminate nuclear arms and violence.
Venerated as the patron saint of Ecology, St. Francis would be working with Earth Ministry and Sierra Club to protect our environment and address global climate change. He would be encouraging us to take the “St. Francis Pledge” to lower our carbon footprint.
When St. Francis visited the Sultan of Egypt during the Crusades, he developed a profound respect for other religious faiths. He would be meeting with Interfaith Works and participating in inter-denominational liturgies and dialogues that promote mutual understanding of all faith traditions and address local social needs (e.g. homelessness).
I look forward to joining the pilgrims in Assisi to honor this beloved saint and to remember what he taught. None of us is called to be St. Francis; there can only be one. However, we are capable of making a significant difference in our lives, our community and our world. In fact, we are even capable of being saints. That hopeful message is as relevant today as it was eight centuries ago.Daniel Roy is a Secular Franciscan and a St. Michael’s representative on InterFaith Works. Perspective is coordinated by InterFaith Works and is the opinion of the author.