The Feast of St Francis took place on Friday 4th October and our Deputy Head Pastoral, Matthew Fogg, gave us a talk on the relevance that St Francis of Assisi has in the 21st century:
“When he became Pope, Cardinal Jose Bergoglio could have chosen any saint’s name. This is a key moment for any new Pope – the name that they choose says a lot about the sort of Pope that they intend to be, the priorities that they will have.
Francis says that he was seated next to his friend, the Brazilian Cardinal Claudio Hummes, during the conclave. When it became clear the cardinals had elected Francis to be Pope, he said, Cardinal Hummes “embraced me and kissed me and said: ‘Don’t forget the poor’… and that struck me… the poor…Immediately I thought of St Francis of Assisi. Francis was a man of peace, a man of poverty, a man who loved and protected creation.”
That was when he chose the name Francis, he explained, adding: “How I would love a Church that is poor and for the poor.”
Today is the feast day of St Francis and it is worth reflecting a little on what relevance he has for us in the 21st Century.
Concern for the poor is a central theme in the life of St Francis of Assisi. He is a saint for our time, because he stands in a tradition of powerful demands for social justice. The problems he confronted head-on are all the problems we are grappling with right now: involvement in wars, poverty, corruption in high places, social exclusion and the wealth-poverty gap.
St Francis lived in the 12th century as one of the poorest and lowest in society, and worked as a day labourer. This was hard, menial, low-paid work, yet he never passed a collection plate when he preached, nor asked the public for money. He was satisfied with having enough to live on.
His life and message were uncompromising and simple: greed causes suffering for both the victims and the perpetrators. St Francis's views about the perpetrators are relevant as the wealthy in our world get richer, while others suffer. The indifference of the wealthy and their attitude towards the poor hurts the rich, too: St Francis believed living with that sort of attitude was morally, socially and spiritually destructive. By this he means that we have got stuck in a sort of terrible trap – we can afford pretty much anything we want yet nothing we buy truly makes us happy. At the same time the richest in the world have more than enough to solve many of the world’s problems – but, despite some notable attempts by some, the majority don’t seem to try. Jeff Bezos is worth 108.4 billion US dollars in a world in which 736 million people have less than $1.90 a day – the standard measurement for absolute international poverty – in other words, the level of poverty that you will die of.
Another problem St Francis grappled with was war. The people around him kept telling him he was mad to go single-handedly to stop the crusades. However, he got there and made a deep impression on the Muslim leaders, who, unusually, just let him go. Is it a hero or a madman who'd go to today’s warzones and try to stop the war there?
St Francis had no respect for people in high places, and when he walked to Rome and finally saw what the Vatican was like, he exploded. He publicly criticised the greed, wealth, power, venality, worldliness, corruption and emptiness of it all. Pope Innocent III could hardly believe his ears. Nobody had ever spoken to him like that, and here was this poor "nobody" telling him that the church was against Christ. St Francis was jailed for this outburst, but in the end the pope let him go.
St Francis offers a vision of a different world, where we share more equally the abundant wealth of goods and life itself as we focus on the right relations to the earth and all our fellow creatures. His pantheist language, scruffy clothes and campaign for social justice are a good antidote to the problems of consumerism and materialism we struggle with today.
On today’s feast day it is a good moment to reflect on the most famous of his prayers, one which is well known and I am sure will be recognised by many of you:
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace:
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy.
O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
And so we ask St Francis and our patrons for their blessings:
St Philip Neri – pray for us
St Francis – pray for us
Blessed John Henry Newman – pray for us
Matthew Fogg, Deputy Head Pastoral