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San Francisco, A Giant in Faith

Friday, March 15th, 2013

Saint Francis with Pope Innocent IIIFellow Passengers: This week’s Prophetic Passage* (Isaiah 22) transports me 800 years back in time to a legendary meeting at Rome’s Lateran Basilica between the namesake of the newest vicar of Christ, San Francesco, and the Pope of the Day, Innocent III. It was an age of intense Christian-Muslim tensions and violence, of gross materialism, and abuse of power within the imperial church. Francis had several years prior been converted from a life based on the cultural norms and expectations of his day – chivalry, opulence, and frivolity – to a life completely devoted to the Way of Jesus. He had abandoned all material goods, believing that ownership of property and other goods was a root cause of violence. Soon after his conversion he received a vision, a calling to repair the church, which he first interpreted as restoring the dilapidated San Damiano church building there in his Assissi community. He could not have envisioned the scope of how his work with the poor and his peacemaking would bring much needed repair and reform to the Church universal. Francis attracted quite a following, and eventually gained this audience with Innocent III to seek official recognition of his movement as a new order within the church. The Holy Father, upon meeting this impoverished beggar, conveyed a vision of his own. In his dream he had seen the Lateran Basilica almost ready to fall down. A small, impoverished man, scorned by the world, was propping it up with his own back. The Pope was convinced that Francis would be the fulfillment of this prophetic dream, saying that he would hold up Christ’s Church by what he does and what he teaches. Quite a statement coming from one with the presumed power and authority of St. Peter to hold the keys to the Kingdom. The moral authority of the Christian world was, unofficially to be sure, transferred from the Pope to a pauper. This authority was firmly rooted in the radical ethics of the biblical Jesus. While Francis never openly spoke out against the militaristic Crusading misadventures of the Church (aimed at French Christian heretics as well as Holy Land Muslims), he lived out his peacemaking principles, once even risking a journey across battle lines to gain an audience with the Islamic Sultan of Egypt, in an attempt to both evangelize him with the good news of the Prince of Peace, and to try and negotiate a peaceful settlement to the Fifth Crusade, as well as to advocate for a more humane treatment of prisoners of war.

Prophet Isaiah by RafaelRoughly 1800 years before the time of Francis and Innocent, Hebrew prophets such as Isaiah were seeing visions and hearing calls to repair the faith community. It, too, was an age of intense warring and materialistic idolatry and frivolous living, at least this is how the prophets paint the picture. Isaiah’s pacifism, his vision of a new era of peace, as today’s passage attests, was not based on passivity. He lamented the cowardice of those who were captured in battle without putting up a fight. But he also critiques those who put their faith in the national guard armory of the day, and in the efforts to shore up the walls of defense. Neither placing trust in worldly power nor passively aquiescing to the enemy was the way of God. And so the prophet announces that God is shifting authority, giving the keys of the Kingdom to another person, presumably more in line with these radical ethics of active peacemaking. God is establishing this new authority firmly, like driving a stake into the wall, and it will last for a time, but not forever. One day that peg will come out, and there will be a need for yet another transfer of power and authority.

Cardinal Bergoglio at an AIDS Hospital in 2001It seems every few hundred years there are these massive shifts in moral authority as faith communities cycle though periods of militarism, materialism, and meaningless living, only to have prophetic leaders emerge to authorize a radical ethic, repairing the foundations of faith. From Moses to Isaiah to Jesus to Francesco, major sea changes occured that challenged the foundations of imperial power. And here in our day and time, yet another period of violent warfare between world faiths, conspicuous consumption, and frivolous living, the new pontiff chose to channel one of those radical reformers, Francis, in becoming the first Pope to carry that name. Already we are hearing critiques emerge, particularly around allegations that then Cardinal Bergoglio was silent during Argentina’s Dirty Wars of the 1970s. It would behoove critics to remember that Saint Francis was equally silent with respect to the dirty wars of the 13th century’s Crusades, choosing to doing his preaching of peace without words. Yet no one questions his commitment to be an instrument of peace, sowing love where there was hatred, pardon where there was injury. Who knows to what extent the medieval saint will be ruling vicariously through the new vicar; we will have to wait and see how much of the radical Franciscan ethic the new Francis will invest into the re-building of the Church, which is in great need of repair in many ways. It would certainly be interesting to be alive during another sea-change time, when the moral authority of the Church radically shifts back in the direction of the Jesus Way, with the impoverished poor and the scorned of the world again carrying the falling faith community. We’ll see.

How about you? Where does this Prophetic Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment, and share with friends on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, email, etc.


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