Eight hundred years ago, a little man from Assisi, a man without tremendous wealth, power, stature, or societal influence, set a movement in motion that would leave the Church and world forever changed. That man was St. Francis of Assisi.

Within just a short decade, there were already more than 5,000 friars in countries all across Europe, the Poor Clares had spread to multiple monasteries and established itself as a new way of monastic living, and the penitent movements had received their rule and amassed a larger number even than the rest.

It’s difficult to underestimate the effect that the Franciscan movement had on history. With its great size and diversity came the ability to spread its culture and values, including a number of innovations, in a way that had never been seen before. Constantly on the move, they could respond to the signs of the times, enflaming a people with passion before moving on to the next place. The way they served the poorest of the poor, living humbly themselves, preaching in new and popular ways, and not asking for much in return challenged the secular priests of their day to serve in a different way. The nativity scene and stations of the cross, while not invented by the Franciscans, are popular devotions today because of their insistence on an incarnational way of prayer. And the breviary, the shortened and compacted way of praying the psalms found in every religious house in the world today, was first employed by these traveling preachers.

At every level of the Church, in every country in the world, the Franciscans have not only been present, but have left their mark in irreconcilable ways.

But why? Why didn’t the Dominicans, who were formed around the same time, not grow as quickly? Why did it take the Jesuits, who were founded to do similar forms of ministry, so long to get its first pope (who took the name Francis!) Why haven’t the Benedictines, who have existed for much longer, had such a lasting effect on the imagination of the Church? And why haven’t the countless other religious orders that were founded throughout the history of the Church been able to match what the Franciscans have done in 800 years?

I ask these questions not to put down other Orders or even to shamelessly promote the Franciscans (okay, a little bit of the latter), but simply to marvel at what seems inconceivable: a religious movement started by a simple man like Francis should have never worked at all, let alone have changed the Church and world as it did.

Why is that? And maybe more importantly, what might we learn from the success of this movement 800 years ago in what our Church and world are facing today? That is what I was employed to talk about last weekend at the Franciscan Renewal Center in Arizona. While I can’t repeat all 5 hours of talks, I wanted to share the central points here in this week’s vlog.

I hope it inspires you to join in the movement, in however you can in your situation, and happy Feast of St. Francis to you all!

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For centuries, the Catholic Church has held to a rather strict doctrine: extra Ecclesiam nulla salus. For non-Latin speakers, “Outside of the Church, there is no salvation.” For Catholics of a certain age, it was a statement that was uttered often and defined the way Catholics related to non-Catholics, treating people of other faiths with respect, but sorrowfully looking upon their souls as lost.

And then all of the sudden, the phrase disappeared from our common language. Now, you would almost never hear such a statement spoken in a mainstream Catholic Church. It just seems so… politically incorrect, right? In a world where everyone is free to choose what to believe and can’t be judged by it, we would never say something so arrogant.

Right?

Well… it might surprise people that the Church has not abandoned this long-held stance. In fact, it has reaffirmed it even after the Second Vatican Council and up through Pope John Paul II’s papacy. If you read the Catechism, you will find this stance, quite literally “on the books.”

And yet, as some in the Church—responding to what they perceive to be a softening of the Church due precisely because of a desire to be politically correct—are bringing back this language in their everyday speech, it is important to know the history of such a phrase and how it doesn’t mean the same thing today as when it was first uttered. As Catholics, we may still hold to the teaching, but the teaching is much more nuanced than what is understood at face value.

The Church’s Moral Standards Are Too High

“They say there’s a heaven for those who will wait
Some say it’s better, but I say it ain’t
I’d rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints
The sinners are much more fun
You know that only the good die young.”

Read any line of Billy Joel’s “Only the Good Die Young” and you’ll find the song’s simple message ringing through: The Church’s rules are stuffy and useless, so give in to carnal desires and have fun. By his own admission, “The point of the song wasn’t so much anti-Catholic as pro-lust,” but it’s also hard to see the difference in this case. Joel painted Catholicism (or maybe the Church in general) as an institution disconnected from the world, out of touch with people’s reality, and burdensome to normal living.

But this sentiment is not limited culturally Jewish New Yorkers with a lot of experience living around Catholics. No, this is an argument that even some Christians have made: The Church’s moral standards are too high. Setting up rules and regulations completely disconnected from the lived reality of people today, the Church, some say, expect what is impossible when what it should do is “lower the bar” a bit and set more attainable goals. Why set the ideal as the bar when everyone is going to fall short?

As you can imagine, I am not one of these people. For me, the Church’s moral standards are exactly where they need to be because they point us to exactly where we need to be going: the kingdom of heaven.

When I went to college, I was really excited about my faith. I was proud to be a Catholic and I wanted other people to know about it. There was only one problem: I knew very little about my faith. (Small detail…) Living in South Carolina at the time—a place with fewer Catholics than those who do not like Catholics—I found my faith challenged on a regular basis.

“Why do Catholics worship Mary?”

“Catholics aren’t real Christians.”

“The Pope is a made up power ploy.”

“That’s not in the Bible.”

I needed to learn about my faith. I needed to learn how to defend my faith. Luckily for me, our Church has a long history of defending itself from outside attacks, dating all the way back to the second century with people like Justin Martyr. And even though things didn’t exactly work out for him (…) his work was instrumental in keeping the faith alive at a time when attacks were not only verbal but also violent. Rather than responding with violence, Apologists, as they were called, defended the faith with intellect and charity, allowing the faith that they believed in to speak for itself and stand up against criticism.

These “apologies” continue today, although in varied forms. In its best form—that which I encountered in college—truth and charity work together, sharing what we know to be accurate about our faith without compromising on the life we live, engaging our enemies while also loving them. This form of apologetics defends without being defensive, knowing that if something is true it will stand up to questioning, and more importantly, recognizing that sometimes the most powerful argument we have is not with our mouths or intellect but with the way we treat others.

Unfortunately, this is not the only form of apologetics known to our Church. Sometimes, as sad as it sounds, we find those in the Church that choose truth or charity, picking one without the other. Armed with the truth of our faith, they treat those who do not believe as we do as enemies, dangerous individuals that need to be defeated at all cost. While the content of their speech is (often) accurate, the speech itself fails to live up to the expectations of the Gospel; as we say, what you say is not as important as how we say it, and sometimes apologetics undermines its truth by saying it with hate.

But this is not the only problem we need to be aware of with modern apologetics, which is the subject of this week’s video.

When I went to college, I was given a helpful study tip: study and relax in distinct places and never mix the two. The thinking is that your body becomes accustomed to a certain environment and will train itself for a specific task, i.e. you sleep in bed and so you begin to get tired when you get into bed. When environments are mixed, so too do our habits. Studying in bed will make us more inclined to fall asleep while trying to learn, or worse, less inclined to sleep when we want to. By only sleeping in bed and only working at the desk, keeping tasks in a specific and distinct location, one will be able to focus on each better.

We certainly can and have applied this principle to our prayer lives as well. In places like chapels, cathedrals, and monasteries, we create environments that fosters prayer and contemplation. They are generally quiet but acoustically resonant, beautiful yet tasteful, simple yet thought-provoking, and comfortable yet deliberate. They are not the place to eat lunch or watch television, but places to experience what is holy. Over time, they become places of refuge, sources of inspiration for our faith; places that we celebrate the sacraments, gather for communal prayer, and find peace. In other words, these are the places that we find God. These are holy places.

Ah… an interesting concept. Holy places. What do we mean by that? What does it imply? We are absolutely correct in saying that such places are fountains of God’s love and mercy, that God can be found in these places. We know this to be true. But does that mean that God cannot be found other places? Are there places that God cannot be found?

That is the topic of this week’s reflection, looking at what we would describe as the “sacred” and the “profane.” While there is certainly some benefit to applying our common study tip to our prayer life, we have to be careful not to be so quick to cut off God’s ability to reach us when and where we are.