Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Faith Like A Child

My beautiful wife and mother of our three children (well one hasn’t quite arrived yet) tells this story of faith as it appears in the most simple and powerful ways. . .

Today Grandma Joan came to take the kids to the park to give me yet another break so I could pack some more boxes [we are in the middle of a move].  As they left the house Jackson INSISTED on bringing two basketballs along to the park.  When they got to the park and were playing Jackson kicked the basketball and it landed right in the creek. Jackson begged Grandma Joan to go and get it but she knew there was no way they could safely accomplish it because the bank was too steep and the water too dangerous.  Joan explained to Jackson that she was sorry but they just couldn’t do it. 

Then Jackson says, “Well let’s pray to God because He can make anything happen.”

So right there at that park, our five-year old son stops, folds his hands, and in typical Jackson fashion belts out a LOUD and spontaneous prayer, “God, would you please get my ball out of the water?”

And this is what happens. 

Less than a minute later a City of Davenport truck pulls up to work at the park.  Jackson, always the gregarious one, flags them over and asks them if they can get his ball out of the creek.  The workers looked, saw where the ball was at and hesitated.  But after a minute of assessing the situation one of the workers said okay.  She grabbed a repelling rope, hooked it in to the side of the ravine and repelled her way down to the creek to get the ball. 

Oh my gosh.  Seriously I don’t ever want to forget this story.  I want him to ALWAYS know that confidence of faith…and wouldn’t my life be a little better if I had an OUNCE more of that kind of trust in God.  We are so blessed to see our God through Jackson’s eyes.  J

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Where Are the Catholics?

In 1964, Bill Starr became the second president of Young Life. He followed Jim Rayburn, the storied founder of Young Life who pioneered the idea that Christian leaders could not hang a sign on the door and expect teenagers to “Come to Church.”[1] For leaders to be effective, they had to enter the world of kids, meet them on their own turf, and “earn the right to be heard.” This incarnational model of evangelization has become a trademark of Young Life’s ministry ever since.

But as he took over the presidency, Bill Starr sensed that a change was needed to fulfill the calling of God and the Great Commission of making disciples of all nations.[2] This change had nothing to do with the way Young Life reaches kids or proclaims the gospel. It had everything to do with who was at the table.

Speaking firstly about the make-up of Young Life’s board of directors, Starr reflected, “The more I prayed and thought about [it], the more I believed . . . that we needed to add African Americans, Latinos, Catholics and more women.”[3] He later intuited that we needed the unique contributions of inner city leaders and international trailblazers who could help us reach kids around the globe. Starr knew that to reach “every kid, everywhere,” this would require an intentional, collaborative effort of whites, blacks, Hispanics, men, women, urbanites, suburbanites, rich and poor.

And look at Young Life now.

We can hardly imagine the mission without multi-cultural leadership. We wouldn’t dream of doing Young Life without women. We have intentionally invested in the unique needs of the growing population of Latinos and we have a bourgeoning Young Life presence internationally, serving kids in over 90 countries worldwide. It seems that Bill Starr’s 1964 vision has been beautifully fulfilled.

. . . with one curious exception. Catholics.

Though Catholics make up the largest segment of the religious landscape of the United States (over 77 million), I can count on two hands the number of Catholics who are working full-time for Young Life. Throughout New England and the greater New York division, the majority of kids reached by Young Life are Catholic. In the Southwest where the Latino population is surging, nearly 70% of these are Catholic. There are strong Catholic contingents strewn throughout the Midwest. Yet we have only a handful of practicing Catholic staff that are uniquely positioned to serve them.

If we know that the best way to reach inner-city kids or multicultural kids or international kids is to raise up indigenous leadership who know that particular context like the back of their hand. . . If we know that the most effective way to reach kids is to enter more fully into their culture and strive to meet the unique demands therein, then why aren’t we employing this approach with the multitudes of Catholics that fill our communities?

The time is now. It is time to fulfill the great vision of Bill Starr of inviting Catholics to the table to lead this mission to reach every kid for Jesus Christ. In the words of our current president, Denny Rydberg, “It is time to raise up the next generation of Catholic leaders in Young Life.”[4] The success of our mission rests in the collaborative vision of reaching every kid with a diversity of leadership that reflects the diversity of the populations we serve.

So where are the Catholics?

[1] Interestingly, the word teenager first showed up in print in 1941, the year Young Life was founded.
[2] Mt. 28:19.
[3] Bill Starr, The Season For Reflection (CreateSpace Independent Publishing, 2013), 64. Special thanks to Cathy Garcia-Johnson for bringing this resource to my attention.
[4] Denny’s opening remarks at the YL Catholic Summit in May 2013 included this stirring exhortation about the necessity to raise up Catholic leaders within the mission of Young Life. 

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Young Life, The Catholic Church and the Kingdom of God

Jesus’ message was the kingdom of God. He came to announce, to embody, and to inaugurate a new way of living, of relating, of loving. Jesus did not simply have a message about the kingdom, Jesus is the message of the kingdom. A seminary professor of mine once declared that the entire Gospel could be distilled down to one verse and he asked us to announce to the class what we thought that verse was. Quick to answer, many of us shouted, “John 3:16! Matthew 22:36-40! Romans 5:8!” Yet his answer surprised us:

“The time has come, the kingdom of God is near.
Repent and believe the good news!”
Mark 1:15

Jesus' primary message, the one that he took on flesh to personify, is the kingdom of God.  But what does this kingdom look like? What are its distinctive features? And how are we to contribute to this kingdom today? These are the questions that fill my mind, particularly as we enter into the entangled web of broken relationships, growing fears and bitter divisions that constitute today’s complex world. These are the questions that buoy my spirit when I get bogged down in all the challenges and uncertainties that surround the colossal project of bringing Catholics and Young Lifers together for the sake of Christ, kids and kingdom.

On days like today, hearing the words of Scripture, I am reminded that my central aim, just as it was for Jesus, is the kingdom of God. So what does that look like?

I’ll never forget how the above-mentioned professor, noted Princeton theologian and missiologist Darrell Guder, began each class.[1]  “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”[2] Those weren’t his own words. Dr. Guder was quoting David, the great Psalmist and hero of ancient Israel. What he was trying to get across, through this daily ritual of contrition, is that true kingdom work is not born of our esteemed efforts, as noble and sophisticated as they are. They are God’s. The mission is God’s. The kingdom is God’s.

This humility opens the door for real healing. In a world and in a church marked by fracture and division, our humility before the Lord and before each other allows the Spirit to tend to our wounds, alleviate our pain, and silence the voices that cause us to be afraid. Humility allows us to hear the words of God spoken to us in the daily liturgy, “Lord, I am not worthy to enter under your roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.”[3] Humility allows us to own our mistakes but not be imprisoned by them. It allows us to say, “I’m sorry,” and set out on a new course of relationship and oneness.

This humility is the repentance about which Jesus spoke when he proclaimed, “The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe in the good news!” In humility we see that the relationship between Protestants and Catholics has been tragically marked by sin and separation. Through kingdom eyes we can see that the Lord calls us to repent and believe in a united future. In humility we know that the road to reconciliation will be hard and fraught with painful trial. Yet with kingdom hearts we acknowledge that Christ’s suffering paved the way for our healing, that we are one body of Christ called to serve one mission of God.

Lee Corder, Young Life’s Senior Vice President of the International North Division, notes, “Under missio Dei [the mission of God], the church becomes the community that is sent by the triune God into a world of alienation. As that church moves out toward the world, it must then come as reconciled community.”[4] A reconciling God sends a reconciled people into a world in dire need of reconciliation. In a word that speaks prophetically of the missional moment we are living in today, a moment of healing and shared mission between Young Life and the Catholic Church, Lee closed his doctoral project with this:

The blessings and challenges that such a synergy of ministry offers will not be without frustration and great difficulty. But, as individuals each uniquely touched by the Lord Jesus’ call, it is incumbent upon all to work to honor the call to unity and mission that this challenge presents. . . We must learn to respect, honor and serve one another under missio Dei. We, both church and mission, need one another.

Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.[5]

[1] Dr. Guder currently serves as Princeton Theological Seminary’s Henry Winters Luce Professor of Missional and Ecumenical Theology. Guder is a brilliant mind and enthusiastic supporter of Young Life.
[2] Psalm 51:17.
[3] These words come from the mouth of the centurion, noted in the eighth chapter of Matthew’s gospel, “Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. But only say the word and my servant will be healed.”
[4] Lee Corder’s Doctor of Ministry project, entitled “Church and Mission, Collegial Partners Under the Missio Dei,” provides an excellent vision for the relationship between mission organizations like Young Life and the institutional church as they participate, together as one body of Christ, in the one mission of God.
[5] From the Our Father or Lord’s Prayer.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

The Jesuit and the Friar: Pope Francis and the Enduring Legacy of Franciscan Spirituality

What we're seeing in the life and witness of Pope Francis is a resurrection, not only of the evangelical project of Vatican II but the pastoral innovation of one of the most beloved figures in Christian history. The following is an essay about the significance of a Jesuit pope, who's taken a Franciscan name, and called us into the world as modern missionaries of Jesus Christ.

When the words, “Habemus papem!” rang out across St. Peter’s Square on March 13, 2013, the crowd’s electric applause was tempered only when the relatively anonymous name “Bergoglio” was announced. Overcome by the deafening ovation, many didn’t hear it, most didn’t recognize it, but the papal conclave had just elected the first Jesuit, the first South American, and the first ever from the Southern Hemisphere to the chair of St. Peter. History had been made.
If this were not enough, the multitudes were downright stunned when the regnal name was finally spoken, “Francesco!” In a gesture as shocking as St. Francis’ famous disrobing before the local prelate, a Jesuit pope had taken the name Francis – not Francis Xavier, the famous sixteenth-century Jesuit missionary to Asia, but the beloved Francis and thirteenth-century friar from Assisi. In the eighty-nine popes elected since the extraordinary life of St. Francis, not a single pope had taken the appellation. For most, the moniker approached the status of off limits, untouchable, unrepeatable. In the minds of most Catholics, taking the name Francis was tantamount to taking the name Jesus, although the humble saint from Assisi would cower at the comparison.
Who could possibly assume even a portion of the audacity, simplicity, and revolutionary genius of the chivalrous playboy turned religious luminary, Giovanni di Pietro di Bernardone? Yet this intrepid move would herald a sign of the missionary acumen and evangelical spirit of our Holy Father that would soon shock the ecclesiastical status quo and intoxicate the world over. It appears that the legacy of the Lesser Brothers is alive and well today.
In this essay, I will explore the plebian papacy of Pope Francis as it relates to the enduring spiritual legacy of Francis and Clare. While it may seem odd to view Franciscan spirituality through the lens of a contemporary Jesuit figure, archbishop Bergoglio’s assumption of the papal signature Francis highlights precisely the perennial power and lasting influence of the Franciscan tradition.  Within this paragon of spirituality, I will focus on two fundamental themes – radical poverty and the associated principle of incarnational relationship – in an effort to answer one essential question: What do apostolic poverty and a relational approach to evangelization have to contribute to pastoral ministry today? I will argue that these enduring pillars of the Franciscan spiritual tradition are uniquely suited to answer the missionary mandate of the Church and address the unique postmodern challenges of the 21st century.
Frontiers and Laboratories
It is important to note from the start that St. Francis of Assisi was not an academic. Francis never even mastered Latin, the mother tongue of the western Church. Donald Spoto notes, “[It] is clear from the two existing manuscripts that have survived in his own hand, he could not even write it without the help of a secretary.”[1] Thus we do not see in Francis the language of a theologian steeped in the technical minutia of the scholarly elite but the ordinary penmanship of a common man whose identity was forged by a prodigal past and a superabundant portion of God’s amazing grace.
Francis was revolutionary, a reformer, a visionary and a pastor of the people. His voice and vision did not emanate from the lecture hall but from the gritty daily experience of 13th century life. No doubt informed by the chivalrous frivolity of his first twenty-five years, Francis understood, on a deep and personal level, the “joys and hopes, the grief and anguish” of the human condition.[2] He understood the struggles and temptations that accosted the human spirit and, on the other hand, the renewing fire that sets the soul ablaze in Christ.[3]
His thorough experience of human life, paired with an unrivaled commitment to Christ and his kingdom, served as guiding lights of this magnanimous medieval figure and important keys to understanding his enduring spiritual legacy. “Francis was no theoretician of the spiritual life,” writes Spoto. “He never spoke of God in any but experiential terms . . . He could speak only of what he saw, heard and felt.”[4] He did not minister from a textbook. Francis forged an innovative and completely original path to follow God’s call and address the unique frontiers of his cultural milieu. 
As we will soon discover, this experiential predisposition would foster the very foundation of the Franciscan order and test his leadership as he faced the never-ending onslaught of ecclesial challenges in the thirteenth century.  Speaking of Francis’ style, “He did not try to understand what the Gospel meant and then attempt to find ways of carrying out its message,” Spoto continues. “Rather, he dared the experiment of first living that message, and from living it, discovering a new and practical way of understanding it.”[5] Thus, Francis did not simply espouse the gospel with his lips but witnessed the Good News with his life.[6]
Pope Francis: On the Frontier of a New Evangelization
            The same experiential style can be seen in the life and witness of Jorge Mario Bergoglio. Unlike Francis, he did receive formal academic training as a Jesuit, but Bergoglio’s strengths and aptitudes place him in notable distinction from the professorial papacies of his predecessors, John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Like St. Francis of Assisi, Pope Francis has already established himself not so much as an intellect, but as a penetrating personal embodiment of the God we call Emmanuel, God-with-us. “Ours is not a ‘lab faith,’ but a ‘journey faith,’” Pope Francis noted. “I am afraid of laboratories because in the laboratory you take the problems and then you bring them home to tame them, to paint them, out of their context. You cannot bring home the frontier, but you have to live on the border and be audacious.”[7] The life of the Church, according to Pope Francis, is not nourished in the ecclesial laboratory of abstract truths but in the messy reality of human life.
In Buenos Aires, where Bergoglio served as archbishop for over twenty years, Bergoglio was widely known in the neighborhoods locals refer to as villas miserias, or “villas of misery.”  These are Argentina’s most destitute slums, places where the poorest of the poor are found.  Bergoglio would arrive, not with the press corps and ecclesial entourage, but in his common priestly “blacks” and trench coat. “He’d take the bus and just come walking around the corner like a normal guy,” reported one of the local priests who knew the archbishop well.  “It was the most natural thing in the world.  He’d sit around and drink tea, talking with people about whatever was going on.  He’d start talking to the doorman even.  He was totally comfortable.”[8] For Pope Francis, it is of far greater import to reach out and touch one poor person with his hands than to write a thousand volumes about the poor with his pen. Pope Francis seeks to live close to the people – kissing babies, embracing the broken, comforting the downtrodden, and washing the feet of criminals.
In a move that is quickly becoming his papal signature, not to mention earning him the unofficial nickname “The Cold Call Pope,” Francis regularly picks up the phone and makes spontaneous calls to people in need. In early September, Pope Francis was moved by a letter from an Italian woman whose boyfriend had unsuccessfully pressured her to abort the child. Now an expecting single mother, the woman expressed her anxiety about her standing with the Church. Francis, the preeminent pastor, called the woman, comforted her and offered to personally baptize the baby when it was born.[9] Francis’ warmth and solidarity with the people make him an exciting symbol of Christ at a time when talk is cheap and action is everything. Reviving not only the name but the spirit of the humble friar from Assisi, Pope Francis is a living witness of the enduring pastoral heirloom of the Franciscan tradition.

Radical Poverty/Simplicity

On a cold April morning in 1208, Francis gathered himself and two lowly disciples in the church, opened the missal blindly and read these words, “Go, sell what you own, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”[10] He turned to the next passage, “Take nothing for your journey – no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money – not even an extra tunic.”[11] And finally the third, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves, take up their cross daily, and follow me.”[12] Thus marks the humble beginnings of the Lesser Brothers. Inspired by radical poverty, simplicity, and a denial of oneself for the sake of the Suffering Servant, Francis of Assisi inaugurated a quiet revolution that would transform the Church and renew the face of Christian mission in the world.[13]
Perhaps nothing is more constitutive of Franciscan spirituality than the unwavering commitment to radical poverty. After “boiling in the sins of youthful heat,” having become a “slave of sin by a voluntary servitude,” Francis ultimately renounced the folly of material things and set out to follow Christ with nothing but the naked grace of God.[14] In direct contradistinction to the opulence and privilege that had infected the ecclesial culture of his time, Francis understood Christian discipleship in a literal way, following Jesus of Nazareth who himself had no place to lay his head and who plainly asserted, “No one can serve two masters. . . You cannot serve both God and Money.”[15] Francis was not entranced by the growing opportunities for power and advancement that accompanied the bourgeoning commercial enterprise of 12-13th century Spain. Instead, “Francis brought the world a life of radical simplicity,” notes Spoto, “unmoored to possessions and therefore free to follow the promptings of grace and the path toward God, wherever and whenever God summoned him.”[16] For Francis, his disinvestment from material gain meant everlasting freedom for the kingdom of God.
            Francis’ contemporary, Clare of Assisi, manifested the same unwavering commitment to poverty as the foundation for the spiritual life. “O God-centered poverty,” she writes in her First Letter to Agnes of Prague, “whom the Lord Jesus Christ Who ruled and still rules heaven and earth, Who spoke and things were made, came down to embrace before all else!”[17]  For Clare, the road to God’s kingdom is paved with the poverty, humility and self-sacrifice reflected in the life of Jesus. Choosing “a spouse of a more noble stock,” Clare saw poverty as a life-long marriage with Christ bringing a dignity and honor far surpassing the temporary splendor of secular wealth.[18]
It is important to note that Clare’s insistence on poverty in the image of the crucified Christ is not ultimately about a depravity of possessions but about a receptivity to relationship.  “Poverty is not so much about want or need; it is about relationship,” says Delio.[19]  Clare assumes the foundation of apostolic poverty established by Francis while expanding it, deepening it, and coupling it with contemplative practice.  “Gaze, consider, contemplate, imitate” Clare instructs us.[20]  This poverty of spirit and contemplation of Christ is meant to elicit a personal transformation and an overflowing impulse to participate in the life of God. “May you be inflamed ever more strongly with the fire of love!” she exhorts.[21]  Our poverty makes us both available to receive God’s love in relationship but also to share that love in relationship with others. It is a matter of allowing Christ’s life to live through us in a way that transforms us and reshapes the world.
Pope Francis and the Church of the Poor
            When Pope Francis refused the traditional vestments of papal tradition in favor of the simple white cassock, when he eschewed the trappings of the papal palace and chose the humbler dwellings of Room 201, when he rejected the pageantry of the papal limousine to drive a Ford Focus, he was not simply making a statement about his personal preferences. Pope Francis was signaling a return to the radical simplicity that marked the life of St. Francis of Assisi. Following the conclave of 2013, it was clear that this pope was breaking with much of the pomp and circumstance that has characterized the papacy since the Middle Ages. “[We] must be pastors, close to people, fathers and brothers,” the pope exhorted at a recent address to South American bishops. “Men who love poverty, both interior poverty, as freedom before the Lord, and exterior poverty, as simplicity and austerity of life. Men who do not think and behave like ‘princes’”[22] For Pope Francis, apostolic poverty is an essential prerequisite to spiritual leadership.
            This posture of poverty was revealed further in a recent interview with Fr. Antonio Spadaro, editor-in-chief of La Civilta Cattolica. When asked, “Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?” Pope Francis answered, “I am a sinner. This is the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner.”[23] His own self-assessment illuminates the very poverty that St. Francis and St. Clare espoused over seven hundred years ago, a spirit of penance and humility that silences the ego and allows God’s presence to take center stage.
            Pope Francis’ spirit of poverty informs his pastoral vision of the Church and allows God’s life to spill out into the lives around him. “This church with which we should be thinking is the home of all, not a small chapel that can hold only a small group of selected people,” Pope Francis asserted.[24] Comparing the modern church to a field hospital, he declared “The thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal the wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity.”[25]
The ministers of the Gospel must be people who can warm the hearts of the people, who walk through the dark night with them, who know how to dialogue and to descend themselves into their people’s night, into the darkness, but without getting lost. . .The church’s ministers must be merciful, take responsibility for the people and accompany them like the good Samaritan, who washes, cleans and raises up his neighbor. This is pure Gospel.[26]

For Pope Francis, the world is the Courtyard of the Gentiles, the grand stage upon which the drama of God’s merciful redemption is played. It is the theater of nearness and encounter, a place where the intimacy of God shown forth in Christ is manifest in our intimacy with God’s children here and now. Much in the same way as Francis and Clare, the pope is calling the Church to return to its evangelical roots, stripped down and unadorned, “a poor Church for the poor.”
Drawing on Ilia Delio’s commentary on Clare, we see in Pope Francis a similar understanding of poverty as it corresponds, on an ultimate level, to relationship. “The foundation of the evangelical life is the human person and the sharing among persons of the experience of Christ. The experience of God in the flesh emphasizes being a ‘person in relationship,’ that is, a brother or sister,” notes Delio. The upshot of our daily encounters with Christ and the expression of our faith in God are manifest in the concrete human relationships that constitute society today. We are not isolated monads, each with our own solitary relationship with God, but an interconnected web of relationships, a body, who is invited to personify the very message we have been entrusted to proclaim. Cambridge theologian John A.T. Robinson offered a prophetic word on this point in his 1952 manuscript, The Body:
The redemption of man to-day means his release to become, not an individual . . . but a person, who may find rather than lose himself in the interdependence of the community. The content of social salvation for the modern man is to discover himself as a person, as one who freely chooses interdependence because his nature is to be made for others. . . The alternative to the ‘They’ is not the ‘I’ but the ‘We’. . .[27]

            While part of Pope Francis’ decision to forego the luxuries of the papal palace arose from his evangelical commitment to poverty, his recent interview offered a further insight into the Argentine pontiff that affirms this relational point. Pope Francis did not so much object to the extravagance of the palace but its architectural design. “The entrance is really tight,” the pope explained. “People can come only in dribs and drabs, and I cannot live without people. I need to live my life with others.”[28] For Pope Francis, like Francis and Clare who went before him, poverty is explicitly connected to relationship and our ability to minister to others in the spirit of Christ.
            This might explain why Pope Francis so readily visits the poor, comforts the afflicted and picks up the phone to offer personal encouragement. He is a man of the people, a shepherd of his flock, and modern witness to Jesus, the Good Shepherd of us all. In the words of St. Bonaventure, he is perfectly suited for this post, “so that through him, more by example than by word, God might invite all truly spiritual men to this kind of passing over.”[29] The love of Christ is not private property but a communal heritage. In this light, God’s love is always manifest in relationship. For Pope Francis there is little to be understood of Christian faith without the corporate experience of the body of Christ, the Church:
There is no full identity without belonging to a people. No one is saved alone, as an isolated individual, but God attracts us looking at the complex web of relationships that take place in the human community. God enters into this dynamic, this participation in the web of human relationships.[30]

Franciscan Spirituality: Pioneering New Paths for Ministry in the 21st Century
What practical import do these two Franciscan foundations have for the pastoral minister today?  While it is hard to accuse the vast cadre of pastoral ministers of being “in it for the money,” renewing our commitment to apostolic poverty in light of Francis and Clare may enjoy uncommon purchase in today’s cultural economy. True poverty allows the spiritual leader to dispense with the notion that he or she is the primary protagonist of fruitful ministry. Ever dependent on the provision of God and the partnership of others, evangelical poverty empties the soul of self-will so as to receive the life-giving sap of unmerited grace. St. Clare notes, “The kingdom of heaven is promised and given by the Lord only to the poor because she who loves what is temporal loses the fruit of love. ”[31] The fruit of God’s grace is love, the fulfillment and consummation of our Christian faith. Poverty’s pursuit of God alone is the lifeblood of healthy ministry because it sacrifices the uncanny seduction of “success” and renders us fully available for God’s often unseen or misunderstood purposes.  
St. Francis struggled with this vainglorious temptation for most of his life, pursuing self-centered victories in both his secular and spiritual affairs. Yet through his personal encounters with God, Francis was able to embrace the truth of his utter dependence on divine mercy and the existential destitution of his life without the sustaining goodness of his heavenly Father. Spoto notes, “At the deepest core of his being [was] a constant, constantly maturing reliance on the God he experienced as unimaginable love and mercy – a God Who asked him to collaborate in the healing of the world.”[32] Poverty kept Francis humble, and it kept God in the driver’s seat of his ministry.
Yet evangelical poverty has more global implications for the pastoral minister. According to World Bank Development Indicators, almost half the world’s inhabitants, over three billion people, live on less than $2.50 per day.[33] Over 80% of humanity lives on less than $10 per day.[34] Of such abominations to human dignity, Pope John Paul II once asked, “And what should we say of the thousand inconsistencies of a globalized world where the weakest, the most powerless and the poorest appear to have so little hope? It is in this world that Christian hope must shine forth!”[35] More than ever before, the global Church is aware that her message will attract the world’s attention not so much in its internal logic and theological consistency but in her valiant witness of liberating action.
Let me be clear that the pastoral minister should not attend to the poor because of the self-reproaching guilt of a pricked conscience. We, as disciples of Christ, should serve in solidarity with the poor because this is the very nature of God, because we are filled with the true presence of God who is already there, because “Christ’s love compels us.”[36] As Cuban-born professor of ethics at Hope College, Miguel De La Torre asserts:
Christians make an option for the poor, for those on the margins, not so much because it is the “ethical” thing to do but because of the need on the part of believers to imitate God as fully revealed in the life of Jesus Christ.[37]

Pope Francis’ call for a poor church in service to the poor draws widespread appeal because it stands precisely at the intersection of the world’s greatest need and his own deepest identity. In this Jesuit pontiff sworn to continue the legacy of St. Francis, we see the telltale signs of God-with-us “who takes on the infirmities of his people, walks with them, saves them and makes them one.[38] Pope Francis is most himself, most radiantly authentic as an image-bearer of God, when he denies himself, takes up his cross and follows Jesus into the plight of the poor. And we are most beautifully ourselves when we follow him.
            As St. Francis revolutionized evangelization in the 13th century, challenging the cloistered confines of monasticism to engage the people in their own language and style, Pope Francis calls the Church of the 21st century to depart from the smug dogmatism of Counter-Reformation Catholicism to engage the frontiers of the postmodern era. “Instead of being just a church that welcomes and receives by keeping the doors open, let us try also to be a church that finds new roads, that is able to step outside itself and go to those who do not attend Mass, to those who have quit or are indifferent,” Pope Francis exhorted.[39] The pope is openly critical of a pastoral approach that neglects nearness and relationship for the sake of organizational procedures and disciplinary actions. “They do not take into account the ‘revolution of tenderness’ brought by the incarnation of the Word.”[40] For many young people today, the cool institutionalization of the Church is exactly what makes it so inhospitable, and they are leaving in droves. According to a USCCB report, nearly four times as many adults have left the Catholic Church than have entered it.[41]
            What is needed is an evangelical poverty which makes us broken vessels carrying the living waters of Jesus Christ, a brokenness that places us in solidarity with the earth’s largest demographic. What the world is waiting for is an incarnate witness of the God who is not afraid to enter into the sultry circumstances of the human condition and transform the world in love. This relational nearness, revealed in Christ, refocused in St. Francis, and recapitulated in our Holy Father today, underscores the enduring legacy of the reluctant saint from Assisi and the eight hundred-year tradition that followed. “I beg that we take seriously our calling as servants of the holy and faithful people of God,” Pope Francis implored, “for this is where authority is exercised and demonstrated: in the ability to serve.”[42] May we respond to that humble calling with the kind of poverty, simplicity and compassion that would make St. Francis proud.

[1] Donald Spoto, Reluctant Saint: The Life of Francis of Assisi (New York: Penguin Compass, 2002), 18. This does not in any way suggest that Francis was ignorant. Far from it, Francis was gifted with a spirited native intelligence that manifests itself clearly in his life and writings. The point is that his spiritual acumen was more experiential than theoretical.
[2] Regis J. Armstrong, J. A. Wayne Hellmann, and William J. Short, eds., Francis of Assisi: The Saint (Early Documents), NY: New City Press, 1999, 182-183; Gaudium et Spes, 1.
[3] Lk 12:49.
[4] Spoto, xix.
[5] Spoto, 68.
[6] Francis’ penchant for personally witnessing with Gospel surely gave rise to the quote which is regularly misattributed, but nonetheless true for him, “Go out and preach the gospel always, and if necessary use words.”
[7] Antonio Spadaro, “A Big Heart Open to God: The Exclusive Interview With Pope Francis,” America (September 20, 2013) accessed 9/20/2013 at:
            [8]  John Allen, “Pope Francis gets his ‘oxygen’ from the slums,” National Catholic Reporter (April 7, 2013) accessed 4/10/2013 at:
[9] Elisabetta Povoledo and Dan Bilefsky, “The Pope Gets on the Line, and Everyone is Talking,” New York Times (September 9, 2013), accessed 9/22/2013 at:
[10] Mt 19:21; The Medieval practice of opening the Scriptures randomly to elicit spiritual guidance, sortes apostolorum, was widespread in Francis’ time. According to Donald Spoto, it was “based on the devout (if somewhat superstitious) belief that if one by chance turned to the same or similar passages three consecutive times, it was a clear sign of God’s plan.” See Spoto, 72.
[11] Lk 9:3; Spoto, 72.
[12] Lk 9:23, Spoto, 72.
[13] Following the Gregorian reforms of the late 11th century, the Church seemed to have cemented its hierarchical ordo and its understanding of the apostolic life in terms of the ecclesiastically ordained priesthood and in those bishops who served as successors to Peter and the early apostles.  Yet this same period found a clergy steeped in the corruption of simony, usury and unchaste practices which called into question the “worthiness of the priest” whose life failed to embody gospel values.  Quite naturally, many began to question whether the Church’s hierarchical and juridical focus had somehow neglected the essence of Christianity, particularly for the vast majority of Church, lay men and women who also took refuge in the gospel message.    
In this climate, various laygroups arose in northern Italy, France and western Germany which sought a way of life that could satisfy their longing for a more personal and participatory response to the witness of Jesus Christ.  Inspired by the biblical norms of evangelical poverty and apostolic action, these groups (Waldensians, Humiliati, Cathars) yearned for something more than a forensic connection with the hierarchical Church and mere intellectual assent to orthodox formulations of Christian dogma.  The faith of these courageous men and women and the auspicious approbation of Pope Innocent III set the stage for Francis and an impressive epoch of religious innovation and a broader, more inclusive understanding of Catholic ecclesiology. A new structure, consciousness and lifestyle of Christian spirituality was born.
[14] Armstrong, Francis of Assisi, 183-184.
[15] Mt 8:20, 22; Lk 16:13.
[16] Spoto, xviii.
            [17]  Clare of Assisi, trans. Regis J. Armstrong, Clare of Assisi: The Lady, Early Documents (NY: New City Publications, 2006), 45.
[18] Ibid, 43-44.
            [19] Ilia Delio, Clare of Assisi: A Heart Full of Love (Cincinnati, OH: St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2007), 11.
            [20] Armstrong, Clare of Assisi, 49.
            [21] Ibid, 57.
[22] Pope Francis, “Address to the Coordinating Committee of CELAM,” Sumare Study Center, Rio de Janiero, July 18, 2013.
[23] Antonio Spadaro, “A Big Heart Open to God: The Exclusive Interview With Pope Francis,” America (September 20, 2013) accessed 9/20/2013 at:
[24] Antonio Spadaro, “A Big Heart Open to God: The Exclusive Interview With Pope Francis,” America (September 20, 2013) accessed 9/20/2013 at:
[25] Ibid.
[26] Ibid.
[27]  John AT Robinson, The Body: A Study in Pauline Theology (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1952), 8.
[28] Antonio Spadaro, “A Big Heart Open to God: The Exclusive Interview With Pope Francis,” America (September 20, 2013) accessed 9/20/2013 at:
[29] Ewert Cousins, trans., Bonaventure (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1978), 112-113.
[30] Antonio Spadaro, “A Big Heart Open to God: The Exclusive Interview With Pope Francis,” America (September 20, 2013) accessed 9/20/2013 at:
[31] Clare of Assisi, trans. Regis J. Armstrong, Clare of Assisi: The Lady, Early Documents (NY: New City Publications, 2006), 46.
[32] Spoto, 83.
[33] Anup Shah, “Poverty Facts and Stats,” Global Issues (January 7, 2013) accessed 9/23/2013 at:
[34] Shaohua Chen and Martin Ravallion, “The developing world is poorer than we thought,” World Bank (August 2008).
[35] John Paul II, Ecclesia de Eucharistia (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2003), §20. 
[36] 2 Cor 5:14.
[37] Miguel A. De La Torre, Doing Christian Ethics from the Margins (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2004), 57.
[38] United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church (Washington, D.C.: USCCB, 2004), 87 (§196). 
[39] Antonio Spadaro, “A Big Heart Open to God: The Exclusive Interview With Pope Francis,” America (September 20, 2013) accessed 9/20/2013 at:
[40] Pope Francis, “Address to the Coordinating Committee of CELAM,” Sumare Study Center, Rio de Janiero, July 18, 2013.
[41] United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, The Catholic Church in the United States at a Glance, 2009, accessed 9/23/2013 at:
[42] Pope Francis, “Address to the Coordinating Committee of CELAM,” Sumare Study Center, Rio de Janiero, July 18, 2013.