This article originally appeared in the December 1981 issue of Sojourners. To subscribe, click here.
If ever the 20th century has been given a key to the secret of wisdom in a crazy world, it is in Francis. But so distorted are our values, so limited our vision, so self-centered our society that it's Francis who comes out looking mad.
His own society, even his own father, thought he'd lost his mind.
But our society is not much for loving lunacy either. We romanticize it perhaps, but we certainly do not promote it. As a youngster in the local Catholic school, I learned that Francis gave up a high position in the army and the family business to live with the poor. Frankly, I questioned that, too. I never told Sister, of course. Saints were saints, after all, and not to be criticized. But I had already learned from subtler sources that the purpose of life was to get ahead, to buy things, to be patriotic, to be independent and proper and strong. Now I'm beginning to understand, I think: While we're all talking wisdom in this wasted, wacky, warring world, Francis of Assisi is a key to understanding it that nobody wants.
Ronald Reagan went to Cancun to give the starving countries of the world the 19th-century American industrial answer: If you work hard enough you, too, can be rich. That's no Francis of Assisi speaking. Francis would give things away. In abundance. That's a key apparently that nobody in their right minds considers sensible.
Alexander Haig went to Europe to convince the Western allies that the politics of terror were benign. That wasn't Francis of Assisi speaking. Francis would take off his sword, give away his cloak, do good to his enemy. Without limits. That's a key you can't even give away.