Thursday, April 4, 2013

Simple feet…

“Preach the gospel always; when necessary, use words.” St. Francis of Assisi purportedly uttered these words in the early 13th century. It’s possible he never actually said them, but I suspect he’d agree! His first papal namesake, though, the recently elected Pope Francis, from all accounts appears to take the notion quite seriously.

First, some Francis background. He- the saint- grew up the son of a wealthy merchant, living the typical medieval high-life of banquets, carousing and battle. One day, however, on his way to war, Francis had a vision that shook the young man deep. He returned to his hometown, ceased his former behavior, went on pilgrimage and began to beg on the streets. His pops didn’t take fondly to this change of heart. They had a falling out. Francis endured, then founded several religious orders that remain in existence. Within several years, he became world famous for his strong preaching and advocacy for the poor. He loved the environment, eschewed “worldly” renown, yet was made saint within two years of his death. Since then, he’s been seen as a champion of moral spirituality, among our faith tradition’s great examples. Though he spoke much of Jesus, more importantly, he lived the gospel, the “good news”.

“Lord, make me an instrument of your peace,” is his oft-attributed prayer. In that phrase, you discover a person for whom spirituality isn’t just about praying. Rather, it was about giving of his full self to those in need, identifying completely with the world’s brokenness. He wasn’t scared of embracing disease victims or washing a homeless man’s dirty feet. He once tried to end the cycle of Crusades by ministering to an Egyptian sultan! Perhaps he should’ve focused on the Pope of his day; it didn’t work, war continued. Nonetheless, a point was made. Be the peace you want to see in this world.

Strangely to my mind, though, no ensuing Pope sought to honor him by taking his name. There have been several Popes Pius, numerous Benedicts, cadres of Johns. But only now is there a Francis, the former Argentinian cardinal Bergolgio. Perhaps his predecessors as Bishop of Rome were intimidated by Francis’ stark example. For better or worse (usually for worse, in my opinion), the medieval and modern papacy hasn’t been known for toning down the pomp and circumstance. That’s not all about St. Peter’s successors, as the Catholic Church styles them, enjoying prestige or being greedy. There’s something good about embodying God’s majesty from time to time. But as St. Francis taught, the full glory of God as we meet in Jesus wasn’t seen in trappings of high office, but in caring for “the least of these.”

So it was with pleasure that I read of Pope Francis’ escapades this Maundy Thursday. He performed a ritual well-known in Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox circles: washing people’s feet on that day in honor of Jesus’ similar act the night before his death. Breaking with Catholic tradition, however, this time Pope Francis did the act not in a cathedral, but in a youth prison. And not for priests’ feet, but for convicted criminals- men and (gasp!) women. Something I find frequently obnoxious about some ways people understand Christian faith is when they claim that we must always be speaking about Jesus, trying to “win” people by audibly preaching the gospel. Not only does that project neglect Jesus’ profound focus on acts of charity and social justice, it also misunderstands the ways humans actually change. If someone doesn’t want to be Christian or even a good person, just telling them they should be, over and over, isn’t likely to help. Caring for their needs, however, convicting their selfishness or fear through your own courageous compassion and self-giving, that’s as effective as any seventeen sermons you or I could preach.

I think that’s the insight communicated by the alleged Francis dictum- Preach the gospel always; when necessary, use words. May it be that the most famous Christian now living, the new Pope Francis, continues such activities. And regardless of him, may we be and share “good news” in all we do.

Grace and Peace,

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