Last week I made a video explaining how the many groups of Franciscans developed over the centuries, splitting and reforming into the many Orders we know today. But I think there is an even more interesting question: what was so attractive about the early movement that it grew as quickly as it did and remains vibrant in the Church today? It’s in answering that question that we see why Franciscans are needed as much as ever in our world today.
A renewed sense of prayer
When we think of the medieval world, many of us think that everyone was Christian, that it was not until the modern world that “secular society” began to exist. The fact of the matter is that there has always been a divide between the religious and secular, and Christians have had various degrees of religious commitment since the time of Jesus. In Francis’ time, corruption (both at the hands of the Church and civil society), disenfranchisement, and apathy all around. Few people received the Eucharist, and because many people were either illiterate or ignored, they rarely had profound encounters with God in the Church.
With Francis and the Franciscans, the Church was called to a renewed sense of prayer and spirituality. Their “incarnational spirituality” showed people that God was in their midst, comprehendible and accessible to them wherever they were. And do you know what? They used entertainment to get their message across. The Franciscans were popular preachers. They did not preach precise doctrines or theological treatises, they preached the Gospel in the language of their hearers. They preached with joy, with life, and most of all, with creativity. Their spirituality caused people to change their lives, but their style of preaching made people want to listen to them in the first place.
Today, the world looks quite different, but the issues remain the same: many people are disconnected, alienated, even cynical towards faith. But notice how I don’t say that it is “secular society” or “new atheism” that’s the problem. While more and more people are claiming “no preference” on religion, there is still a strong spiritual yearning, even among youth. The real problem, as I see it, is that the established religions have failed to speak the language of new generations and engage them in a way that makes prayer meaningful. Too often, when faced with difficult questions, they’re handed answers of morality and philosophy when all they’re looking for is compassion, inspiration, and joy.
How do we respond? With engaging preaching that comes from a solid life in prayer. For Francis, the world was his cloister: he could at once be grounded in prayer while also attuned to the needs of the people around him, a witness to something greater.
Brought together in equality
The 13th century saw the beginnings of a new economic system: the feudal economy was fading away and the market economy was coming to prominence. On the one hand, it brought wealth to people who would have otherwise been ignored because of their lack of nobility; on the other hand it broke the bonds of responsibility for the poor and subjected some to even more humiliating poverty. It was a time of major class division, growing disparity between rich and poor, and no recourse to bridge the gap.
And then there were the Franciscans. Here was this bunch of men that brought together rich and poor at one table. Clergy, professors, princes, homeless, porters, lepers. Together in one family, they were all equal. Where else in the 13th century could you experience such radical emphasis on human dignity? Where could you step outside of the expectations and systems of society to live as the Apostles did? No where.
Today, we see the divide between the rich and poor growing rapidly in recent years. In the past 40 years, the United States has seen some of the worst of this: the top 1% own 10% more of the total wealth today than they did in 1979, have seen a 275% increase of income compared to 40% for the rest, and in 2011, despite being the most affluent country in the world, half of the United States lived in poverty or was designated low-income. Among the rest of the world, the United States is in the 30th percentile (70% of countries are better) with the trend getting worse.
How do we respond? By being minors for the sake of the poor. Because we do not believe that we are above anyone else or deserve respect because of who we are, we find ourselves among the poorest and most forgotten of society.
A Fraternity bigger than oneself
I can’t say exactly what it was about the time of Francis, but there appeared to be a deep yearning for brotherhood. Francis and his brothers were by no mean revolutionary when it came to the idea of forming a brotherhood: the middle ages saw a tremendous flux of new communities and orders all throughout the Church. The answer might be a simple one: people have a natural drive to be together, and seeing other people with similar ambitions is attractive.
Today, we live in a highly individualized culture. In a very positive way, the turn to the self has allowed more people to develop a personal relationship with Jesus in a way that previous generations simply did not even think about, not to mention the heightened sense of the personal dignity and health of self. These are great things. That said, much of our culture has taken this to the extreme, isolating and individualizing everything in such a way that we live fragmented, selfish lives. Everything is about “me, me, me.” The rise of new forms of communication have connected people in ways never before seen, but it has not been accompanied with the maturity and responsibility required to maintain personal relationship at the same time. Despite being so connected, so much of the world feels so alone.
How do we respond? With an example of “us, us, us.” Being a fraternity in mission categorically changes the way we do mission, and really, the mission itself. We don’t just work together, together we work for the sake of one another; we don’t just live together, we have lives together.
Building bridges, not walls
Finally, there could be no discussion about the Franciscans without a mention of peacefulness. One of the most foundational experiences in Francis’ own conversion was witnessing the horrors of war. In this time, there were battles between cities, wars between nations, and a little thing called the crusades. Groups like the “Knights Templar” and “Militia of the Faith of Jesus Christ” (seriously…) even sprang up as religious brotherhoods of soldiers, seeing it their duty to engage in violence for the sake of the kingdom.
The Franciscans could not be any more different. Francis always came in peace and told his brothers to always begin preaching with the words, “peace be with you.” They were forbidden to carry arms and could not even use violence to defend their own property or lives. As if this was not revolutionary enough, Francis even went to the front lines of the crusades and attempted to make peace. Crossing enemy lines, he walked right into the camp of the Muslims and spoke with the Sultan. Did he tell the Sultan that Islam was wrong? No. Did he try to convert the Sultan? Nope. He simply showed the love he had for God and spoke with him as a brother. Even in his words, Francis acted as a man of peace before all.
Today, violence is all around us. It is on battlefields, in our streets, on our televisions, in our politics, and in our homes. It’s as if we have forgotten how to dialog, how to disagree with one another while maintaining respect. In recent months, our political debates have been a prime example of this. But it’s more than that. Washington is not broken as much as Washington reflects the way we engage one another in our daily lives: name-calling, judging, excluding “those” people, looking down on those with which we disagree, and failing to show each other the respect we deserve.
How do we respond? By being peacemakers like St. Francis. Rather than seeing everyone as potential enemies, why not see everyone as Francis did, fellow children of God? Instead of starting conflicts or running from them, why not run towards them with a desire to reconcile? We need peacemakers who are willing to build bridges, not walls.
800 years ago, the Franciscans grew like wildfire because they were exactly what the world needed and people wanted to be a part of the movement. Today, I think that is still the case. What we stand for is exactly what the world is longer for.
But ideals and mission statements don’t change the world. Throughout history, it’s been the men and women who have heard the call and lived these values that has made the real difference. Nothing else will do.
So, what does the world need today. It needs men and women who live prayerful lives, lives that spring forth in creative in relatable ways; it needs men and women who are able to check their ambition and privilege at the door to be equals with anyone else who walks in; it needs men and women who are capable of struggling with others, overcoming their shortcomings, and making it work with others; it needs men and women who want to live for others, who want to build the kingdom of God even in the most difficult of places.
The funny thing about it all is that these people are already out there in the world, living and doing these very things. Maybe it’s even you. Maybe what the world needs most right now is not some politician to fix our problems or God to perform some incredible miracle, but you, as you are, living the 800 year old charism of St. Francis of Assisi.