Monday, 18 March 2013
Francis and Poverty
I have some concerns about the idea of a Pope taking the name of Francis. Let us be clear, this is something the then Cardinal Bergoglio decided before being named as Pope and stepping out to greet the public. Further, I wish not to criticise His Holiness's actions hitherto, just to suggest, tentatively, that the Holy Father, while making gestures bound to make the Church more 'populist', are also a little dangerous.
Hot on the heels of the abandonment of the red shoes, I hear that His Holiness is to receive at his inauguration a second hand fisherman's ring which has been converted from a ring originally worn by Pope Paul VI's secretary. His Holiness obviously sees Francis as a name that connotes divesting if not the authority of the Papacy, then at least the signs and symbols of what we have become familiar with in the Papacy. Could not His Holiness, for instance, invest in some cheap red shoes, if His Holiness did not want expensive ones?
Francis's charism was new and his Order grew in numbers quickly because of his charisma and people's total lack of doubt that he was a living Saint. People were not attracted to his poverty. They were attracted to his holiness, something which is always attractive. However, he remained in his station as a mendicant, as a friar and as a poor brother of Jesus Christ. His mission was one of total abandonment to Providence and to Jesus.
Francis readily greeted insults and humiliations. He did the kind of things that would see anyone who imitated his life story be sectioned in the modern World. He exchanged places with a beggar, swapped clothes with him and continued where the beggar left off, in his place. He exalted in his spirit when people poured forth insults at him because he felt closer to his Lord Who, in His Bitter Passion, was insulted and spat upon. To him, to be humiliated was to draw closer to the God Who loved him.
As God and Man, Our Lord had no need for earthly riches. His Ministry was one of self-emptying, self-giving. He was the Rich One. Rich in mercy, love, justice, grace and truth. St Francis, being like a 'second Christ' and wishing to conform his whole life to that of his Lord, we can assume, at some point saw the earthly possessions were to him like dust, money a contemptible thing to be desired since it did not increase one bit a person's ability to be saved or to love God more.
Francis's spirituality was about poverty, but not for its own sake. It was about poverty for the sake of loving nothing more than doing God's will, loving nothing more than God, loving God above all things. Francis saw in poverty, not only the imitation of his Brother and Saviour Jesus, but the gift of detachment from passing pleasures and glories which were empty. Detachment from the world is necessary for those who seek to devote their life to prayer, contemplation and seeking the face of God. He was not a fool for being a fool's sake. He was a fool for Christ's sake, in the eyes, at least, of the onlooking Christian world.
To my mind, Francis's great gift is not just the fact that he endured harsh and bitter poverty for the sake of Christ, but that he gave a new meaning to the Church's mission as a lay man who became a religious missionary in his homeland and beyond. Like Pope Francis, St Francis of Assisi had the 'common touch' and took the Gospel to the streets - to the people - to anyone in his orbit, but unlike any Pope can do, Francis divested himself of himself. He had no ecclesiastical authority or tradition to give away or renounce. His renunciation was himself.
Francis's ascent was spiritual - he grew in holiness and love for Jesus, having cast off his fine robes, to be clothed in Christ's glory. Those in love with Jesus have no need for earthly riches because they are rich even if they are poor in spirit. The ones to feel truly sorry for are those who revel in their earthly riches or glories but forget their oncoming death and judgment, because earthly riches you cannot take with you to Heaven or even Hell and all you take with you is the charity and almsgiving you have stored in wait. Why store up treasure on earth with death approaching if you have no treasure in Heaven, that place that will abide for eternity?
St Francis was all about self-emptying in order to be filled with Christ - so that Christ may be 'all in all' in him. Having nothing meant not that he was able to give nothing to others, but that he had nothing to give but Jesus Christ.
It is very difficult to take the name of Francis as a Pope and model yourself on St Francis because St Francis was a man who sought no rank within the Church whereas the Papacy is the highest Office in the Church. His was a mission particular to St Francis and to his followers - that is - those who joined his Order. He was about self-emptying - not the emptying of the Church, nor of the Church's treasures, or Her traditions, which all are employed at the service of Almighty God for His Glory. St Francis wished his lifestyle and spirituality for himself and for all those who wished to follow Jesus Christ perfectly as friars. He did not wish his lifestyle and spirituality for the Papacy, the great Office of which he esteemed so much that he walked to Rome to have his Order's constitution be given the approval of Pope Innocent III.
A man could start out as a Franciscan and be elected Pope, but it is very hard for a man to start out as Pope and become a Franciscan unless that man is going to be a Pope who is also something akin to a tramp or a troubadour. If Pope Francis is to achieve something of what St Francis of Assisi achieved, in imitation of the hero of the Faith, then I look forward, at least, to the day when the Cardinals of the Curia will be placed outside in St Peter's, buried in dung for days, to be asked finally by Pope Francis, 'Are you dead to self-will, yet?' Why? Because that is what St Francis did to those disciples of his who resisted total abandonment to God's will.
Pray for His Holiness, Pope Francis, that his great love of this popular Saint and his desire to see the Church become a Church that is 'for the poor' will lead to His Holiness emptying himself in love for the Papacy and the whole Church and rejecting as false and dangerous the temptation to empty or divest the Papacy or the Church either for himself or for others.
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