Dr. Edward Edezhath notes parallels in present time and that of St. Francis of Assisi, encouraging us to imitate the beloved saint, to build a world of love.

Transforming the World through Simplicity and Beauty

‘Can I share something with you that has been troubling me so much?’ The phone call was from an active youth from a distant city. I thought he was going to share some personal tragedy. But he started pouring out his concerns about so many Catholic youth growing in anger against other religious groups and taking up the big mission of spreading messages of anger and fear. This virus is spreading, and it appears that very influential people in the Church are also encouraging this mission of spreading ‘scare and hate’.

This launched us into a discussion and sharing. I tried to lift his troubled heart and encourage him, and our thoughts moved on to St. Francis of Assisi, his times and his response to the problems of this day.

A warrior alone, but with God

Francis lived in a small town of Italy during a very troubled time of history. He was born to a rich family in 1181. His mother baptised him Giovanni, but his father wanted a more fashionable name and called him Francis. Growing up as an adventure-loving and fashionable youth, his dreams were to become a famous nobleman. In 1202 he joined a military expedition but was taken as a prisoner. After a few years while going to join the army, Francis had a strange vision persuading him to reconsider his path of life and he gave up his worldly ambitions.

His newfound path of spiritual exploration took him to newer heights of exciting adventures. He turned away from luxury to a journey of interior search. He shared whatever he had with beggars. As he had a deep aversion for lepers, he took the daring step of going and embracing one of them. He heard a call to ‘rebuild the church’ and began to renovate a local church building. When his father became upset about his irresponsible generosity and approached the court of the bishop, Francis returned even his clothes back to his father. He gave up his inheritance, declaring himself to be the true son of the Heavenly Father. He married ‘Lady Poverty’ and started living a beggar’s life. Slowly and steadily his radically simple life, utter faithfulness to the Gospel, and deep love for the person of Jesus began to attract many followers, among others a lovely girl named Clare who gathered many women to the simple path of Francis.

Youth and elders, men and women, scholars and simple-minded, the rich and the poor, and people of all nations found in Francis a most challenging way of responding to the problems of their lives and the corruption of their times. Eight centuries have passed by, yet the ‘Poverello’ or as the famous Greek novelist Nikos Kazantzakis named his novel God’s Pauper, remains an irresistible challenge to numerous people of all faiths.

Let Francis challenge us today!

‘Inclusion’ is a big word these days. In all civilised communities there is a realisation that if you keep away any person or group, eventually, it will harm everyone. Francis lived at a time of deep segregation everywhere. Imitating Jesus, Francis lived a radical life of brotherhood. His path of integrating the suffering, beggars or criminals to full participation in society was to throw away his own privileges and become really like them. Francis truly followed Jesus who loved like the Heavenly Father, who makes no distinction between the good and the evil or the just and the unjust (Matthew 5:45).

Francis loved Jesus and obeyed his words in a radical way. At a time when Church life was full of complex rituals, prayer formulas and external spectacle, our little man followed the earthly, human life of Jesus with a deep passion. He lived a life of praise and enjoyed a deep prayer life. No wonder Francis was blessed with Stigmata – five wounds of the crucified Jesus.

As in Francis’s day, so too today the big slogans are, ‘Buy, consume, and enjoy!’ or ‘Compete, excel, and win!’ But Francis was unimaginably counter-cultural and threw away all comfort and success and opted to be poor. To join his lifestyle, people had to sell everything, give to the poor, as Jesus told the rich young man, and become a beggar like Francis himself. Yet so many rushed to take up that challenge.

Francis loved beauty and nature. He loved singing and found immense joy in God’s creation. Pope Francis uses the refrain from the saint’s celebrated Canticle of Creation as a title for his famous encyclical, Laudato Si. For Francis not only human beings, but everything in creation was a brother or sister. And the miracle was that even birds, animals and plants responded to him with love and friendship. Most befittingly, in 1979 Pope John Paul II recognised him as the Patron Saint of Ecology.

There should be a little footnote to St. Francis and his times. So many would have been upset about the pomp and hollowness of the Church of the Middle Ages. There were radical preachers like Peter Waldo (1140–1205), who urged for a return to poverty and fidelity to the Gospel message and got into big trouble with the Church and society. But the big difference with Francis was that he loved the Church and was utterly obedient to the Pope. Most of us would have seen Zeffirelli’s famous depiction of Francis meeting Pope Innocent III in 1210. When others thought that the Poverello was destroying the Church with disregard for order and discipline, the support of the Pope himself helped the simple saint to continue in his holy yet radical path.

To follow Christ, you leave the crowd

The path of Christ is a journey of building and fighting. Francis wanted to be a soldier but became a most gentle yet persevering fighter. And thus, he built the Church of Christ in his day and became a leaven for all ages to come. For a time, he was alone with his Christ-given mission of building a world of love, but then one after the other those who were touched by the spirit joined him.

Perhaps it is the same way today also, I told my frustrated friend. Don’t be overwhelmed by those who preach a Christianity of anger, fear, and exclusion. We have the example and teaching of Jesus himself and the inspiration of many like Francis. Even if alone, we are called to be messengers of love and brotherhood and build God’s Kingdom of Love.


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