Penance: Retrieving the Whole Francis

February 12, 2021

When Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected the 266th pope, he chose to bear the name, Francis, after St. Francis of Assisi. To many Catholics and, surprisingly, non-Catholics who take an interest in the news of the Church, it was a point of rejoicing. Francis of Assisi is one of the most universally celebrated figures in history. Many looked to him as one of the most Christlike saints in history. Others see certain aspects of his way of life as particularly important whether it was his view of creation, his embrace of poverty, his willingness (or, rather, willingness to overcome his unwillingness) to serve the leper, his fervent devotion to serving and praising God, or the ways in which he caused reform in the Church. I have a special tie to Francis of Assisi in that he is my confirmation saint. Before learning about the number of ways the faith can be lived out–how the “rubber meets the road”–in the forms a spirituality may take, I first learned St. Francis’ way.

As is still proper to the confirmation program, I learned about my saint by writing the famous (perhaps infamous) saint paper. In preparation for confirmation, the rite asks each candidate to choose a Christian name which will be used to refer to the confirmand by the minister (ordinarily a bishop) during conferral. The candidate is encouraged to choose a saint that they can personally look up to. The saint in turn will act, in a sense, as their heavenly “Godparent,” and so the preparation guidelines often entail some form of research on said saint. I chose St. Francis initially simply because his feast day is my birthday. I encountered someone who was simple and yet deeply enigmatic even to those closest to him.

Being that I knew very little of the cultural Catholicism that surrounded St. Francis of Assisi and the kind of veneration that he enjoys, I learned of a man who grew up in a war torn Italy in the midst of a Church whose people struggled to maintain their identity. In a world where people strove to get a leg up over everyone else, a world that still very much exists today, Francis decided voluntarily that he would strive to be the last and least, in accord with his reading of the Gospel and teachings of Jesus. He would become poor, beg, and become the “least” of his brethren. Hence the name, Ordo Fratrum Minorum–literally “The Order of Lesser Brothers.” Their mission was not to seek prestige but rather to seek the lowest place of society. While he saw the benefit this could be to those preceding them in this place, namely, they pushed up and benefited in some way, this was not the primary intention. The saint’s main intention was simply imitation of Christ and fulfilling the commands of the Lord to the fullest extent. It was in this way that he hoped to fulfill his famous mystical word from Christ, to “Rebuild my church.” This little poor man from Assisi would indeed go on to impact the world and he would do so through his penance, austerity of worship, the simple profundity of his preaching, and his obedience to even the smallest details of the Gospel.

It was not until after my confirmation that I gradually learned of the current manner in which popular devotion and veneration of the saint was carried out. I did not realize that people liked to bring in their pets to be blessed on his feast day, that he is the patron saint of ecology and ecologists, and that he is well-known for his philosophy of action before words (“Preach the gospel at all times, use words when necessary” is famously attributed to him) and that this usually signaled to the faithful, as was commonly understood about the saint, to serve the poor, like a prototypical Mother Theresa. These discrepancies between the cult around St. Francis and my understanding of him caused me to look more critically at my research. After all, it is reasonable to assume the minority position is more likely to be mistaken.

Over the years I went to read a few other biographies of St. Francis, his own writings, commentaries on his writings, and the multiple orders and spiritualities that sprung up taking St. Francis as their patron and model. While I came to see where certain devotions came from like St. Francis,’Canticle of the Sun’ as the reason for his patron-hood over ecology and the signs of holiness of how Francis was treated by wild animals (i.e. the legend of the wolf or birds listening and drawing near to him as he preached), I did not see these to be central to what St. Francis was trying to make known by his life. I kept coming back to not so much a devotion to stewardship of creation as much as a praise of God because of it, not so much as an active service to the poor as much as seeking to become poor, that the material instruments such as our sacred books and places of our worship need to be treated with greater dignity, and, above all, there was the absence of Francis’ embrace of and emphasis on penance.

In the first few months of his papacy, I was particularly enthused about Pope Francis’ executive program. The new pope bore the name well. It was so much so that a lot of people had trouble understanding Pope Francis’ moves. From the beginning, the pontiff expressed that he desired a “poor church,” that ecology was a major concern of his, and that the people of the church would need to rebuild its relationship to the world and to itself. And he led the way with his actions. He gave up the papal residence, opted for simpler arrangements in contrast to previous papacies, and limits the amount of explanation he gives in his hope that his actions speak for him and that those who understand will help explain. He has received a lot of mixed “reviews” from the Church. Conservative Catholics have simply called him a bad pope. Looking at Church history not every pope is enrolled in the canon as a saint, and they look at our current Pope and say this is one of the those popes. Self-proclaimed radical traditionalists (radtrads) have gone as far as to call him an anti-Christ, a heretic, or an anti-pope. Some among these will even say they are Sedevacantist (from Latin sede vacante which translates to “empty chair” meaning the chair of Peter currently does not have a pope sitting in it). Others, sometimes termed the progressive stream of the Church as well as much of the media and world outside of the Church looking in finally find in Pope Francis the champion of change in the various structures of the Church. And while certain political and administrative structures certainly need reform, such see in the pontiff the motions in him that are simply not there to change what cannot be changed. Here I speak of the desire for women’s ordination, same-sex marriage, and in general a greater departure from tradition.

With the polarization and politicization of even ecclesial discourse, I often wondered what a papacy of someone who tried to stay above the “sides” of this ongoing argument would look like. I think we are seeing it now. The pope who took office and decided to forgo the trappings of the highest office of the Church and to express a desire, not just to serve the poor but for the Church herself to become poor. Especially in the light that exposed the roots of the sexual abuse scandals, I think Pope Francis is sending a very apropos Franciscan message to the entire church, demonstrating two of the three important principles of the saint’s spirituality that stood out to me. First, Francis of Assisi was a reformer, who received from Christ Himself the directive, “Rebuild my Church, which, as you see, lay in ruin.” Francis of Assisi himself was praying in a rundown little chapel, with part of the walls and roof caved in. This was symbolic of the whole Church at the time, which was filled with what we call practical atheism today. We profess our faith but live as though God does not exist. Pope Francis mentioned that prior to his being elected pope he had read a book on the history of the papacy, and that the history surrounding Peter’s chair is horrendous filled with scandal, corruption, and sin. It was a good preparation for him because he also sees that the Church is in the middle of a crisis. As the bishop of Rome, but like his namesake, he is trying to rebuild the Church one living stone at a time.

Secondly, and not unrelated to the first, St. Francis is the “patron saint” of the charism of voluntary poverty. He is famous for being rich and then giving it all away to become a poor beggar, like the many strewn through Italy at the time. He founded the order of friars called the Ordo Fratrum Minorum (OFM) which in English means the Order of Lesser Brethren. The principle expressed here was that those in this brotherhood would seek to become “last,” “least,” and poor (cf. Matthew 20:16, Matthew 25:40, and 2 Corinthians 8:9 respectively) patterned after Christ Himself. Instead of seeking higher offices and honors within the Church, the saint directed his brothers to resist worldly recognition. In order to follow this rule himself, especially when the knowledge of his holiness spread throughout the Church, the saint asked a brother to continually walk with him and remind him of his sins to keep him humble. Another current trend that Pope Francis has repeatedly spoke against is the careerism rife in our culture and in the ranks of the earthly Church. There is a tendency to “sell out” in our personal relationship with God in order to earn money and enjoy the world’s renown. St. Francis rejoiced when he was treated poorly and mistaken for the common beggar (which happened every so often because his reputation often preceded him). He saw it as a mark of Christ-likeness whom “we held in no esteem” (cf. Isaiah 53:3). Like Francis of Assisi, our pursuit of Christianity should embrace even the “bitter” tastes of the Gospel. But what of the third major principle of his spirituality?

Fr. Augustine Thompson, O.P., relatively recently published a book entitled, Francis of Assisi: A New Biography. In it, Fr. Augustine writes that the foundational fruit of Francis of Assisi’s deeper conversion was the desire to be a penitent and live a life of penance. He went on to say that Francis even went to the Vatican to get his rule approved for a penitential community but, in a slight misunderstanding of St. Francis’ intentions, the community was instead approved by the pope to be preachers of penance. Francis took this to be a nudge of the Holy Spirit and adjust his vision to spread the message of penance in addition to living a life of it. This, I fear, is a message of St. Francis that has been neglected even today.

In all of the apparitions of Our Lady in the modern period there has been an exhortation to penance, some more emphatic as if to say that was the primary point of her visit. The third secret of Fatima for example, entailed a vision of a holy angel ready to strike the world with the fiery sword of God’s justice. As Mary stops the angel, the angel, “With a great voice shouts, ‘Penance, penance, penance!'” The people of God are not encouraged only to uphold the basic precepts of the Church, which are meant to indicate the bare minimum of living a Christian life. If the church waited for the season of Lent only to abstain from meat and fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, we are not truly heeding the call to penance. And even then, a great number of people in the church waver and fail to do even this minimum because “hearts are far” from God. Whereas Jesus commands us to “Seek first the kingdom” (Matthew 6:33), that is, to make faith and the salvation of our souls a top priority, practically many of us treat prayer and practice of faith as an afterthought, the last to go on our schedule and planners.

This is precisely at the heart of St. Francis’ efforts at reform. It was to remind and exhort the Church to “sell everything” for that pearl of great price (cf. Matthew 13:45-46), the kingdom of God which is the holiness and redemption of souls. It was of this that St. Francis of Assisi became an example in his own time and culture. This was the manner in which Francis would rebuild the Church, a task that is in many ways still ongoing. Dr. Larry Chapp, retired Theology professor, wrote an exceedingly incisive blog post about the state of the Church today and the crisis of practical heathenism and atheism in the Church. In their efforts to evangelize the world, large swaths of people throughout the levels of the Church have mistakenly become too much like the world. In the hearts of many Church leaders and members, it is “seek first the financial and social security.” How an archbishop in the Church was able to secure for himself a multi-million dollar beachfront home in order to carry out an unspeakable lifestyle for anyone much less a cleric of the Church is beyond my comprehension and, frankly, shameful. I do not think I ever quaked with so much rage as I did upon learning just some of the details of the McCarrick report. As Pope Francis said at the beginning of his papacy, we need to be a Church of the poor once again.

Penance will be a crucial piece of the reconstruction of the Church’s heart. In order for penance to be authentic, the first step is to allow our hearts to be broken by seeing the truth of the Church’s situation. “Rend you hearts, not your garments” (Joel 2:13). The people of God, the Church, the one assembly that is meant to be the royal priesthood after God’s own heart, does not even know how to be this people. This is sad. There is no cause for celebration here. With Lent a few days away, this is the perfect opportunity to have this vision of the Church and mourn our sinfulness. This mourning is the foundational spiritual disposition for the true practice of penance–why abstinence from meat and drink, fasting, and giving “until it hurts” begin to make sense. Eating, drinking, and general revelry are for times of celebration, times of peace and times of flourishing. The Church is not in one of those times. This may sound like gloom and doom, but the paradox is this is the path to true beatitude.

The general fear is that those who embrace mourning, grief, weeping, and sadness are in effect giving in to despair (which is hopelessness) and depression. NO! This could not be further from the truth. Christ, in delivering the sermon on the mount’s beatitudes, says, “Blessed are they who mourn, for they will be comforted.” (Matthew 5:4, cf. Isaiah 61:2 and Luke 6:21). God sent His Son to bring comfort to those who mourn and this is our hope (and not a hope in the common sense where we want it to happen but there is some degree of uncertainty or improbability. A theological hope is one of waiting and expecting God to fulfill His promises). The beatitudes are promises. God will comfort the mourning. At this time God should find us mourning. Just as the “rich [will be] sent away empty” (Luke 1:53), God should find us poor and hungry for righteousness. This is akin to the Eastern spiritual principle of not being able to fill a cup that is already full, the Christian tradition has already spoken a great deal on this particular fault. It is called the sin of presumption. Just as Christ “emptied” himself on the cross, Christ commands us also to take up our crosses, thereby “empty” ourselves, and follow Christ onward to the resurrection and surpassing joy of Easter. This was the ultimate joy to which St. Francis is pointing.

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