Of all the saints, St Francis of Assisi must be one who has most caught the popular imagination.
Born in 1182, the son of a wealthy woollen merchant, Francis embraced the leper, swapping clothes with a beggar and devoting himself to the created order of Brother Sun and Sister Moon. His love for animals has inspired writers, artists, film-makers and followers through the ages.
It was Francis who introduced the Christmas crib and a more visual spirituality. The hymn attributed to him, Make Me a Channel of Your Peace, is much-requested at weddings and funerals and not least by those who never go near a church. Those words have significantly shaped their world view since they were children.
On Monday, Christians celebrate the feast day of St Francis, whose story really began in the Church of St Damiano in Assisi when he had a vision of Christ on the Cross saying to him, “Go Francis and rebuild my church”.
Not only did those words change his life, but they present a profound challenge to the church today.
The pandemic over the past two years has brought into sharp relief the problem of how to keep the church sustainable for new generations. What was going to become the challenge ten or 15 years hence has become a present reality. It has become a regular mantra that there are too many church buildings, too few people going to church (many of them elderly) and crippling financial problems.
At a time when the church should be connected we seem disconnected. Should we be surprised that many get their spiritual sustenance from Gardeners’ World?
In 1986 Walbert Bühlmann, a Swiss Capuchin, wrote The Church of the Future: a model for the year 2001. One chapter is entitled “Francis, Brother To All”.
For him Francis is a prophet of a new apostolic presence in the world of today as people search for a less structured and freer church.
This year in the Anglican Communion the Society of St Francis celebrates the centenary of Hilfield Friary in Dorset. Many of the brothers and sisters down the years will be remembered.
Among them is Brother Neville, who went to live in their house in Cable Street in London’s East End. The house, with a chapel at its heart, was a rat-infested former brothel. Neville’s deep pastoral care, together with non-judgmental commitment to the poor, were in every way as much a byword and part of the texture of East End life as that of the Anglican sisters of Nonnatus House in Poplar of Call the Midwife fame.
Rooted in the Gospel and sacraments, the radical yet orthodox vision of St Francis was a universal one. One of the great Franciscan prayers is: “We adore you, most Holy Lord Jesus Christ, here, and in all your churches throughout all the world.” It continues to be outward looking and not constrained by any ecclesiastical bubble we inhabit. It is about lifestyle and not just pious platitudes. It is about the simplicity of deeds and actions.
The prophetic action of St Francis reaching out to the Muslims is a fillip for a vision of ecumenism as we look to the future of the church, a vision of the ark of salvation for the whole earth. The greatest ecumenical challenge is not how Christians might get on together but rather, as we look to future generations, how Christians and Muslims might share one world.
After his papal election the Jesuit Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio chose the name Francis. It is more than an act of prophetic symbolism. It gives us a sense of direction as we look to the future.
GK Chesterton wrote of the age of St Francis as one of a fresh flowering of culture and an awakening of the world. In our own time the nature of many of our institutions seems fragile as we await the dawning of something new.
As we look back to St Francis and his vision, living in a time not dissimilar to our own with all its division and pain, we can see in God’s bricklayer an important building block for our age.
The Ven Peter Townley is the archdeacon of Pontefract