By the Reverend Dr. David Sinclair
‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’
Francis of Assisi was born in 1182 in Italy, the son of a wealthy silk merchant. His real name was Giovanni di Pietro di Bernadone, but he was nicknamed Francesco (the Frenchman) by his father, who loved all things French. In the first part of his life he lived the typical life of a wealthy young man – full of fancy clothes, rich friends, an excess of pleasure, and a pleasure in excess. It was a life of which his father approved, a life that would lead him into following in his father’s prosperous footsteps, a chip off the old block.
There was a sign of change, a looming threat to all that, when the young man showed what his father thought was a ridiculous level of generosity to a beggar. But his carefree life carried on uninterrupted except by a period in the army, during which he spent a year in prison having been captured by the enemy. Disillusionment with the life he was leading, the life of his father, the life of the rich and their excesses, was beginning to set in, however: an illness removed him temporarily from his accustomed life, and he began to spend time nursing lepers, avoiding his former friends and their activities – and then he went on a pilgrimage to Rome.
During that pilgrimage it is said that he had a vision while contemplating an icon of the crucified Christ. ‘Francis, Francis,’ he heard, ‘go and repair my house which, as you can see, is falling into ruins.’ At the time, he took this to refer to the church in which he was praying – and used some of his father’s produce to raise money to give to the priest. Later he would come to believe that it referred to the church as a whole. His father was not happy. He threatened his son, he beat him, he took him to court. And in the court, in front of all the witnesses gathered there, Francesco renounced his father, his inheritance, even the clothes his father’s wealth had provided.
Peter began to say to him, ‘Look, we have left everything and followed you.’ Jesus said, ‘Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life.
Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life? Francis of Assisi was that rich young man who comes asking – but, unlike the young man speaking to Jesus, he was did what was asked of him. He went off, lived for some time as a beggar, and spent his time restoring ruined chapels – go and repair my house.
It was only at the end of this period in his life, that he heard a sermon on the text with which we began our service: ‘take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, no bag for the journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff.’ So he began to wander about the land preaching repentance, taking nothing with him. His preaching was unauthorised and he was never ordained – which is perhaps why no pope until now has taken his name – but he gathered followers, and established a simple rule for how they were to conduct themselves: follow the teachings of the Lord Jesus Christ, and walk in his footsteps.
The Franciscan Order was founded in April 1210, preaching first in the regions of Umbria before spreading their activities more widely. This order of brothers was followed by an order for women, called the ‘Poor Clares’, and then by a third order for those who sought to follow the teachings of Francis without withdrawing from the world in the way he had. The definition of ‘more widely’ is, perhaps, the aspect of Francis’s life that has become most often recognised. He saw it as his job to take the message of Christ to all creatures: ‘all creatures of our God and King, lift up your voice and with us sing’. So there are stories of him preaching to the birds, and of him befriending a wolf – making peace between the wolf and a village it had been menacing.
He has been taken in much more recent times as the exemplar of how we should relate to the natural world of which we are a part. John Paul II said that Francis ‘offers Christians an example of genuine and deep respect for the integrity of creation,’ and should remind us, ‘not to behave like dissident predators where nature is concerned, but to assume responsibility for it, taking all care so that everything stays healthy and integrated, so as to offer a welcoming and friendly environment even to those who succeed us.’
‘As a friend of the poor who was loved by God’s creatures,’ John Paul went on, ‘Saint Francis invited all of creation – animals, plants, natural forces, even Brother Sun and Sister Moon – to give honour and praise to the Lord. The poor man of Assisi gives us striking witness that when we are at peace with God we are better able to devote ourselves to building up that peace with all creation which is inseparable from peace among all peoples.’
And you get in that quotation, I think, a taste of how the church takes its most radical thoughts, and works incredibly hard at removing the jaggy edges. Francis, the rough diamond with a fairly dodgy past, the threatener of good business practice, the son who renounces his father and all his ways, who decides that the church has gone to rack and ruin – and needs to be rebuilt by his hand, has over the centuries been polished into a gem fit for any expensive ring or necklace. He is no longer an embarrassment nor a challenge, but part of the firmament of the church.
Or at least, he was. I get the feeling that the adoption of his name by Jorge Bergoglio may have changed all that. This Argentinean pope’s action in using Francis’s name has brought his ideas and his inheritance into the centre of world Christianity – and it and he were always happier when he was on the periphery. It’s kind of like when a veteran and inveterate dissident backbencher, who could (on the backbenches) be regarded affectionately and sometimes condescendingly as a ‘treasure’, suddenly is propelled onto the front bench – and the affection dissipates, even when the condescension does not.
When Claudio Hummes, from Brazil, whispered in the ear of his Latin American colleague from Argentina, ‘do not forget the poor’, he set in train a series of decisions that may yet change his church more than he might have thought possible. Because when the name of Francis was chosen because of his commitment to the poor, it brought with it a commitment to the natural world, and to a universal application of the gospel of Christ. It brought with it a call to repentance aimed primarily at the rich and the rich world – aimed at those whose hold on the corridors of power, and the ears of decision, they thought was secure. And it signalled a move in thinking from the priority of those who were on the inside to those who were not – and it is not yet clear how far that movement is going to go, or indeed how far it will be allowed to go.
Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life? The question posed to Jesus is posed in terms of ‘me’; it is posed in terms that presume a gaining of merit, a gaining of access, the eventual attainment and possession of something summarised as ‘eternal life’. But Jesus, as he does often, answers in terms quite different to how the question has been posed. The kingdom of God does not consist of a process whereby we ‘gain’ things, but rather of a process whereby we lose them.
But the question is also posed in terms of what might be called a ‘religious’ mindset. What is there religiously that I must do to make me worthy of the gifts of God? And Jesus at first plays along, and asks his questioner what the commandments are. The young man answers – because those are the answers he knows, though he clearly suspects that they are not in themselves sufficient. Then Jesus moves the discussion away from religion altogether; he moves it onto the territory of social relationships, of the distribution of wealth, of the worship of possessions, the desire to have more, to hoard, to fill our lives and our houses with stuff.
And even when the young man goes away despondent Jesus does not let the matter drop; there is a lesson here that those around need to understand. So he makes one comment more – and the disciples, we are told, are perplexed; so he makes yet another. It’s important that they get the point. You can follow all the religious rules you like, you can comfort yourself with the knowledge that you are breaking none of the commandments, you can go to church every Sunday – but if you still worship stuff (either because you have it, or because you want it) you are keeping the reign of God at bay.
Today Francis of Assisi is remembered; but is he remembered as a remarkable man who did remarkable things 800 years ago, or is he remembered as an example that might still be followed 800 years later? Peter was right to be astonished at Jesus’ words, because he and the others had also given up their homes and their livelihoods to follow (though it is clear they still had them to go back to); but we today still manage, with less reason, to be astonished. Most of us, in churches around the world, presume that we can follow Jesus without giving up too much of the other things of life.
Francis took Jesus at his word – and challenges us to do the same: the question in the Catholic Church, with a pope seeking very clearly to follow Francis and be guided by his ways, is actually the same as the question for every other part of the universal church – including this one. What does Francis mean for us? What does he mean for us as we seek to care for the earth and all its creatures? What does he mean for us as we seek to live and have our being in a way that is not for ourselves but for those who are not on the inside of our community?
What does he mean for a time of harvest when, yet again, we gather food to be given to a food bank? What does it mean for us, and for those who rule in our land, if he sneaks away from his romanticised place on the back benches, and finds his way to the front, where decisions can be demanded and challenge proclaimed?