Go, repair my house
When I was in Rome months ago, we spent some time at the St. John Lateran Basilica, the center of the Catholic world at the time of St. Francis of Assisi. It was here that he and his men met Pope Innocent III, to request for the approval of “The Rule”. In front of the basilica, we can still see monument of several men, one of them Francis, beholding the great building. At a certain angle from the back of the monument, you can see that the statue of St. Francis is holding the church in his hands.
After the meeting of Pope Innocent III and Francis and his first community, the pope had a bad dream: the great Basilica, the symbol of Catholicism, was crumbling. But just as it was about to fall, Pope Innocent saw a poor man in peasant clothes took up the weight of the falling Church unto his own shoulders to save it. We now know that St. Francis and his efforts at reform—together with others during his time—saved the Church.
St. Bonaventure narrated this story about Francis of Assisi earlier in his life. One day, Francis was walking by the country church of San Damiano and went inside to pray. “Kneeling before an image of the Crucified,” Bonaventure writes, “Francis heard with his bodily ears a voice coming from the cross, telling him three times: ‘Francis, go and repair my house which, as you see, is falling into ruin.’”
At first, Francis took it literally so he sold everything he had to raise funds. He sold all he had, begged for bricks, in order to repair the rundown church. But the Church the Lord was talking about is not the building but the “body of Christ”—the lepers, the sick, the vulnerable—the Church of the poor.
The call to incarnate the “Church of the Poor” is a constant rallying vision of any movement for church reform—from the words of early Church Fathers to St. Francis of Assisi and the mendicant orders, from the Reformation to the Pact of the Catacombs at the Vatican Council II; from Medellin, Puebla and the theologies of liberation to the Second Plenary Council of the Philippines.
The vision of the Church of the poor in the life of St. Francis takes distinct forms. First, he has dedicated himself and his men to take care of the lepers, the concrete form of poverty in the surroundings of Assisi. Francis wrote in his Testament: “When I was in sin, the sight of lepers nauseated me beyond measure; but then God himself led me into their company, and I had pity on them. When I became acquainted with them, what had previously nauseated me became the source of spiritual and physical consolation for me.” When he first met one, he was filled with horror and disgust but he went down on his horse, and kissed him. In his commentary on the Good Samaritan, Pope Francis writes in Fratelli Tutti. There are only two kinds of people: “those who care for someone who is hurting and those who pass by; those who bend down to help and those who look the other way and hurry off” (FT, 70). Unless the Church stops to help the stranded victims, to help everyone regardless of the cultural, religious, political borders that divide us, we can never call ourselves Christian.
But beyond the actual victims, the Church of the poor in the vision of St. Francis also included the animals and flowers, sun and moon and the rest of creation. Our “common home” is being destroyed and are falling apart, as Laudato Si rightly tells us. And as we hear the “cry of the earth”, consequently, we also hear the “cry of the poor” who are the first victims of our neglect and aggression.
The same Church formally opened its Synod on Synodality on the feast of St. Francis.
Today as it was 800 years ago, the church is in crisis. Poverty and violence, sickness and despair have ravaged the world creating millions of victims. The pandemic has shown how fragile the world is. Senseless bombings in the Gaza strip and Israel have just started even as I write these words. Ironically, this is the same land, where Francis crossed enemy lines to offer a gesture of peace to the Muslim Sultan Al-Malik-Al Kamil in the midst of the Crusades (1219). A synodality that does not take the poor victims into account is not synodality. Synodality is not about us; synodality is about them whom the world has excluded.
But the world our common home is also crumbling. At the start of the Synod, Pope Francis also issued a new apostolic exhortation “Laudate Deum”. “Despite all attempts to deny, conceal, gloss over or relativize the issue,” the pope writes, “the signs of climate change are here and increasingly evident.” (LD, 5). “I ask everyone to accompany this pilgrimage of reconciliation with the world that is our hwwwome and to help make it more beautiful, because that commitment has to do with our personal dignity and highest values” (LD, 69). A synodality that does not take the crumbling cosmos into account is not synodality at all. Synodality is not about us; it is also about including our common home whom humans often forget.
May the spirit of St. Francis who holds the Church in his hands, guide the participants of the Synod to follow the same inspiration and zeal that guided St. Francis: “Go, repair my house.”
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