I would encouage you to read the life of our Holy Father Francis, maybe the edition written by Thomas Celano, who was an early brother. When you do, pay special attention to some of these details.
He lived at a time when the Church was in worse shape than it is today. Unfortunately, there are people who like to believe that the past is always better, which is not true. There were good things, but there were also some very horrible things happening.
Francis was surrounded by people on the left and the right side of every issue and he never defended either. On the contrary, he avoided being identified with both sides. This is brought about very clearly when he visits the Sultan who asked him, “Did you come in the name of the Christians?” Francis responds, “I’ve come in the name of Jesus Christ.” Celano, Bonaventure and other learly Franciscans who knew him tell us that the answer was very carefully planned. Francis did not want to associate himself with the Christian camp, because he was convinced that their actions were wrong, even though their cause was noble. He had an abilityt to separate actions from causes. He was not about to identify with the Sultan either, because his actions were equally wrong and his faith was incomplete. So there was only one place where he could stand, that was under the shadow of Christ. What we see here is an excellent example of how he navigated between opposing forces without taking sides and delivering the message of the Gospel, which was a message of peace and a message of salvation.
Francis also forbade his followers from professing allegience to any nation on earth. No one was to ever pledge allegience to any flag, any nation, any political party or polical leader. He realized that patriotism divides men and sets brother against brother. As his order grew, he did something that had never been done before. He divided it into regions called provinces, but these provinces were to ignore national boundaries. They were for the purpose of fascilitating the government of a growing family, not for fostering a cultural identity. To drive home the point, he wrote in French, Italian, Provencal and Latin. Many people do not know this, unless you’re a Franciscan going through a novitiate program where you have to read the early writings. He did this deliberately. He was not part of any group, any party, or any movement. He was Catholic.
He brought down the structures of the religious life of the day by founding the first religious order where all men are brothers. The brothers were priests, bakers, farmers, lawyers, scholars, doctor, royalty and peasants. However, Francis did something that had never been done before. He stripped the clerics of their power. Every cleric who joins the Franciscan family, to this day must submit to the authority of a superior who can be either cleric or lay. This was not the usual for his time. He also founded a real order, with a rule and its own government for married men and women and he forbade the friars interference. He also forbade the friars interference in the life and government of the nuns that he founded. He believed that Clare and her sisters could also hear the voice of Christ and did not need males to guide them or govern them. Unlike other religious women, the Poor Clares always governed themselves without male intervention.
Francis insisted in absolute obedience to himself and to the Pontiff. This is very interesting. Today, we hear so many people talk about the importance of thinking and how the pope and bishops can be wrong about this or that. Francis wrote that it was true that the pope, bishops and superiors could be wrong about this or that. He also admitted that they often were wrong. Then he commanded his followers to do whatever they were told to do, even if it was wrong, as long as it was not a sin. His argued that Pilate was also wrong, but had Jesus failed to comply, salvation would have been forfeited. Therefore, he believed that God brings good out of obedience. This was not a popular position and it’s still a very unpopular position. Here on CAF, most Franciscans who have attempted to participate have ended leaving in frustration, because people don’t want to hear this other side. In some houses, superiors have simply forbidden the access to CAF, because of the rejection and the abuse from the left and the right. Bu the lesson to be learned is that we can navigate through life without making enemies and teaching with our humility and our fidelity to the Gospel and to the Church as it speaks to us through the Pontiff.
Another thing that you will notice about him is how he never pointed the finger at the clergy or the religious. In fact, he had several brothers excommunicated for doing such a thing. He placed everyone in his order under obedience to him. Once he did that, he then commanded absolute obedience and respect for clergy, bishops and popes. The law of the Church is that if you violate a solemn vow, you’re excommunicated until you recant and correct what you have done. Many were excommunicated then and today too. He had zero tolerance for people who tried to run the Church. But you would never know it by his words, only by his actions. He preached to them without ever tellign them that he was talking about them. His style was kind of “if the shoe fits, wear it.”
Devotion to the Gospel, the Church and the world can be achieved. One just has to know how to navigate the waters.
Br. JR, OSF