Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
April 27, 2009
Benedict relishes St. Francis' example of radical conversion
CATHOLIC NEWS SERVICE
VATICAN CITY — At first glance, the scholarly Pope Benedict — sometimes dubbed “the pope of reason” — might seem an unlikely devotee of St. Francis of Assisi, the mystic friar of simple faith.
Yet the German pope has found in St. Francis something that goes beyond the saint’s popular image as the patron of peace, the environment and animals. For him, St. Francis offers a model of radical conversion to Christ.
It’s instructive to see how Pope Benedict views the life of St. Francis. During a 2007 visit to Assisi, the pope described the young Francis as a “king of partying” who grew disillusioned with the clothes, music and relatively easy life that he lived in the 13th century.
In his first 25 years, the pope said, Francis was mainly out for fun, was vain and placed a lot of emphasis on image.
Then a change came, triggered by encounters with the poor and the sick.
The pope compared Francis’ conversion to that of St. Paul. Although Francis’ journey was more gradual, he said, it was just as intense as St. Paul being knocked off his horse and blinded by the light of Christ.
Francis began to have visions and to withdraw in prayerful solitude. He told friends he was about to be married — to a bride called Lady Poverty. He encountered a leper on the road and, after first drawing away in disgust, went toward him and embraced him. He came to Rome, prayed at the tomb of St. Peter and gave away all his money.
His conversion is sometimes pinpointed to the moment when, praying before a crucifix, he heard God’s voice telling him to “repair my house.”
He then wandered the hills trying to rebuild churches, but this was far from an idyllic lifestyle: Francis was mocked as a madman, pelted with stones, locked up at times by his angry father and often went hungry and cold.
It was in 1208 that Francis clearly understood his vocation, while listening to the Gospel account of Christ’s instructions to his disciples: to renounce all material things and to roam the land, calling people to penance and peace.
By now, ridicule among the local people was turning to respect, and Francis began to attract followers.
He wrote the first “rule,” a collection of Gospel principles on which his order would be founded. That rule was approved by Pope Innocent III in 1209 — despite resistance by the Roman Curia to such a radical mode of religious life.
This year’s commemoration in Assisi marks the approval of the first rule of St. Francis, and it will no doubt be followed by others in a kind of “rolling anniversary” of Franciscan milestones, including Francis’ death in 1226.
For Pope Benedict, the key to St. Francis’ vocation was the figure of Christ and if seen strictly through the lens of social activism the saint suffers a “type of mutilation.”
“He fell in love with Christ. . . . He could truly say with Paul: ‘It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.’”