Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The current relevance of the spirit of Saint Francis

Leonardo Boff
Earthcharter Commission

Since the present Pope adopted the name of Francis, many people are interested again in this singular figure, perhaps one of the most luminous that Christianity and the West have produced: Francis of Assisi. Some call him "the last Christian" or "the first after the Unique," this is, after Jesus Christ.

We surely can say that when Cardinal Bergoglio took this name he was indicating that the Church would be in line with the spirit of Saint Francis. Saint Francis was the opposite of the tendency of the Church of his own time, that was expressed by temporal power over almost all of Europe, including Russia, by immense cathedrals, sumptuous palaces and grandiose abbeys. Saint Francis opted for living the pure gospel, literally, in the most extreme poverty, with an almost ingenuous simplicity, and a humility that kept him close to the Earth, at the level of the most despised of society, living among the lepers and eating with them from the same bowl. He never criticized the Pope or Rome. He simply did not follow their example. As to that type of Church and society he explicitly confessed: “I want to be a 'novellus pazzus', a new crazy one”: crazy for Christ the poor and for “the lady dame poverty” as an expression of total freedom: to be nothing, to have nothing, without power or pretense. This phrase is attributed to him: “I want little, and the little that I want I don't want very much.” In reality, it was nothing . He eschewed all titles, and considered himself, “stupid, small, miserable and low".

This spiritual journey was hard, since the more followers who came to him, the more they opposed him, demanding convents, norms and studies. He resisted as much as possible, but in the end he had to surrender to the mediocrity and the logic of the institutions that presuppose rules, order and power. But he did not renounce his dream. Frustrated, he went back to serve the lepers, allowing his movement, against his will, to slowly transform itself into the Order of Friars Minor.

This unlimited humility and radical poverty offered him an experience that leads to our questions: is it possible to regain the care and respect for nature? Is a universal brotherhood and sisterhood possible that includes all, as Francis of Assisi did: the sultan of Egypt he found in the crusade, the band of thieves, the ferocious wolf of Gubbio, and even death?

Francis showed that this is feasible through a life lived with simplicity and passion. Not possessing anything, he maintained a direct interaction of coexistence with, rather than possession of, every being of creation. Being radically humble he grounded himself in the very earth, (humus = humility) and on the side of every creature, that he considered his sister. He felt as if he were brother to the water, to the fire, the lark, the cloud, the sun and to every person he came across. He inaugurated a fraternity without borders: reaching the depths with the least, at the side of his fellow humans, whether popes or servants, and upwards with the sun, the moon and the stars. All are brothers and sisters, children of the same Father of goodness.

Poverty and humility thus practiced bear no trace of sanctimoniousness. They imply something previous: respect for every being without restriction. Filled with devotion, he moved the worm from the path so that it was not trampled, held a broken limb from a tree to heal itself, in the winter he fed the bees that flew about lost. He placed himself in the midst of the creatures with profound humility, feeling as if he were their brother. He fraternized with "sister and Mother Earth". He did not deny the original humus nor the obscure roots whence we come. By renouncing any possession of goods, rejecting all that could put him above, or possessing, other persons or things, he made himself into the universal brother. He would go to an encounter with others with empty hands and a pure hearth, offering them only courtesy, friendship, love without self-interest, full of confidence and tenderness.

Universal fraternity arises when we place ourselves with great humility in the womb of creation, respecting every being and all forms of life. This cosmic brotherhood, grounded in unlimited respect, is the necessary prerequisite for human fraternity. Without this respect and fraternity, the Human Rights Declaration will be hardly efficacious. There will always be violations for ethnic reasons, for reasons of gender, religion and others.

This posture of cosmic fraternity, seriously undertaken, can animate our ecological concern to safeguard every species, every animal and every plant, because they are our brothers and sisters. Without real fraternity we will never be able to form the human family that with respect and caring, inhabits "sister and Mother Earth". This fraternity demands an unlimited patience, but it also holds great promise: it is reachable. We are not condemned to set free the beast that inhabits us, and that took form in Videla, Pinochet, Fleury and other cowardly torturers.

We hope Pope Francis of Rome, in his practice of local and universal pastor, honors the name of Francis and shows the current relevancy of the values lived by the fratello from Assisi.

Leonardo Boff

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