Monday, 2 September 2013

Three men named Francis

Imagine St Francis of Assisi. What image comes to mind? The chances are that it might include one of him wandering through the mountains and forests of Umbria, perhaps sharing a song and word with the birds. There might be a glimpse of him lying asleep on a patch of bare rock with only a stone for a pillow…

And what of St Francis Xavier? There is an interesting divide. Westerners could describe a saint who took evangelisation seriously, who, rightly or wrongly, continued baptising until his arm ached. People from Goa, where he is buried, might speak of heroic dedication and willingness to travel huge distances in order to take the Gospel to distant lands.

First, however, consider a different question. What is the difference between Francis of Assisi declaring “My God and all!” and Ignatius of Loyola seeing God in all things? It seems to me that Ignatius accepted those words of Francis, made them his own and slipped them into the structure that we know as the Spiritual Exercises. Ignatius gave people a systematic way of discovering how best they might pray “My God and all!” within the ups and downs of daily life.

Francis told the early friars that they preached a sermon merely by walking through the town. Ignatius challenged his followers to ask what improvements could be made to their journey so that it could become even more effective.

Francis of Assisi never intended to found a religious movement and when he discovered that he had followers, he really didn’t know what to do with them. He responded first and foremost from the heart and only thought about the consequences afterwards. When he travelled to the Holy Land, he had not intended meeting the Sultan. It was only during the siege of Damietta that he suddenly had the bright idea of going to talk to the Sultan Melek El-Kamil to see if he might have a change of heart, a totally crazy, utterly Franciscan idea: to go unarmed to have a chat with a powerful warlord. Again, he acted from his heart, not his head.

Xavier was a very different person. For sure, his travelling to the East was unplanned, but it did not come as a spur of the moment decision. He was far more orderly and knew where he was going even if he didn’t eventually reach China. He tried to learn the language even if it was difficult. Unfortunately he did not appreciate the rich traditions he encountered in India and often condemned where he might have been enriched.

The world needs both types of Francis: the simple spontaneity of Francis of Assisi and the dogged perseverance of Xavier, who kept on baptising even when exhausted. Perhaps our approach to evangelisation has changed considerably since his day, but the Church would find it very difficult to continue without the Xavier types who persevere day in, day out, generally without the serendipitous ‘happenings’ that marked the life of Francis of Assisi. Neither Francis was perfect: they became saints because they tried to be perfect, and tried with every breath they breathed.

The Francis of Assisi-Francis Xavier scenario somehow epitomises the situation in this country at the present time. Many people like the idea of Francis wandering around the forests and hills, speaking to ‘Brother Sun and Sister Water’. They would give their last drop of blood to spare the Wolf of Gubbio from harm. People are seeing Creation but not the Creator. Ecology has become everything... but why? Concentrating on the superficial and the ‘feel good factor’, it doesn’t occur to a huge number of people that there might be a deeper reality. Francis of Assisi challenges their environmental awareness, but, at present, he is not challenging them to ask “Why am I here?”

Time and time again, people describe themselves as ‘spiritual but not religious’. Celebrity has taken the place of religious authority. Suddenly semi-literate sports personalities and musicians are pronouncing authoritatively on spiritual matters and are accepted. Mysticism constitutes, not a deep awareness of the reality of God but, instead, nothing more than a darkened room filled with incense, mood music, a guru and a small pyramid, perhaps with a bit of yoga and vegetarianism thrown in for good measure.

A Jesuit friend wrote that “Francis of Assisi emphasized the mystical element everywhere – in poor, broken humanity, in birds and beasts, and in all creation. It’s the inclusiveness of Francis of Assisi which is important and significant today.”

Too many people see Creation but do not see the Creator whom they have left out of the picture. They have forgotten how to pray. Francis of Assisi makes sense only in a God-context. Once God is removed, Francis is, at best, a pretty, sentimental picture of a medieval eccentric.

Life is becoming more frenetic and throw-away. A sense of permanence has been lost. In searching for the immutable, people are stumbling on trees, whales, mountains and rivers, working very hard to preserve them for future generations but are concentrating on the lesser whilst ignoring the greater Permanent Loveliness.

It seems to me that the West needs a St Francis Xavier as much as it needs a Francis of Assisi. He was blind to the vast spiritual wealth of India. Who knows what he could have achieved if he had approached the vast subcontinent with the perception and sensitivity of another renowned Jesuit, Matteo Ricci? Yet Xavier’s focussed missionary approach and tireless, self-sacrificing zeal also brought with it, strange as it might seem, a depth of faith and commitment that has already lasted for centuries. In spite of everything, he is loved. Perhaps Xavier was to India what Benedict is to Britain?  His coming to this country was very brave, very foolish or a mixture of both.  The strength of the opposition has really forced the Church in Britain to stand up and be counted – and to account for itself in a way that has not been necessary for a good number of years. We’ve had 400 years of being a discriminated minority here, but whereas we’ve often been a thorn in society’s flesh, we’re now putting our heads above the parapet. There is a closer likeness to Xavier than to Francis.

Yet St Francis of Assisi is also present. People here might not see God, but there is an enormous identification with the poor and the suffering. The struggle for Human Rights is a struggle for Christian values but with God removed from the equation: stick God back into the picture and things start falling into place.

Perhaps it is not a question of either-or, but of both-and. It is both “the age of focused mission, of tireless and self-sacrificing zeal” and of a need to be “one with the poor and dispossessed, of talking to ‘the enemy’ without prejudice and of communing with nature and understanding it from within.”

Perhaps this is the age of two saints by the name of Francis. Perhaps we need a Pope who combines the gifts of both Francis of Assisi and Francis Xavier to restore the balance.

May God allow Pope Francis I to be a worthy successor to his namesakes.

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