Elvis, Stalin, or Francis of Assisi?

Time magazine, as anyone who reads the papers knows, has been soliciting votes for its highly publicized Person of the Century. The magazine’s criterion—the person who for good or ill has made the greatest impact on the world—allows for some quite unsavory selections. Hitler and Stalin are near the top of that list, and word has it that the legion of Elvis fans have been stuffing the electronic ballot box.

But what if we were to broaden our scope to the last thousand years? What individual stands out as having had the most impact on our millennium? We might find it an even more fruitful exercise if we were to ask the question, Who has had the most effect for good over the course of the past 10 centuries? While the usual suspects would include those who wielded political, economic, or military power, leading conquering armies or sitting on the thrones of rich and far-reaching empires, people of faith might bring a radically different set of criteria. Applying gospel values instead of worldly ones, the most fitting candidate for person of the millennium might very well be Francis of Assisi.

Why Francis? First off, he’s not just the meek-and-mild animal lover of myths and legends. The real Francis was a high-spirited and rather wealthy young man, on the road toward economic success and military glory. He renounced it all to follow the gospel. The ideas and values that he personified—simplicity of life, nonviolence, humility, love of the creation—are qualities of increasing importance as the world limps out of the materialistic, war-torn 20th century.

Francis began a movement in the Christian church and in secular society that continues to challenge us to this day. On a broader plane, he inspired many of the nonviolent social movements that have come after him, including all those that have relied on the "little people," the power of an idea, and the intrinsic weakness of human power structures, such as the Gandhian revolution in India and Martin Luther King Jr.’s civil rights struggle in this country.

Francis put into practice values that have gone out of favor in modern society. He believed in obedience to the institutional church, lived a celibate lifestyle, and embraced poverty. While most people in modern times—probably even most Christians!—find such values a little old- fashioned and even a bit distasteful, perhaps they are just the kinds of "limitations" that can provide real freedom in a world sorely lacking in discipline, commitment, and structure.

THE POINT, OF COURSE, is not to give recognition to the person of Francis (it’s safe to assume that if he were here, such a designation would strike him as unnecessarily vain). But what of the values that he stood for? What does the way he lived teach us about how we ought to live today? What lessons for the future can we draw from his life?

In some ways, Francis represents the choice that we’re given as human beings facing the beginning of a new millennium. His life and spirit stand in stark counterpoint to the Hitlers and Stalins of our world. We’ve seen in this century the effects of militarism and violence; we’ve yet to unleash the power that Francis exemplified, the power of nonviolence. As Pierre Teilhard de Chardin put it, "Someday, after we have mastered the winds, the waves, the tides, and gravity, we shall harness for God the energies of love. Then for the second time in the history of the world, humanity will have discovered fire."

For that rediscovery, we have been offered role models, like Francis—people who have walked a personal journey that placed gospel values over worldly ones. As we enter the new millennium, the true measure of our humanity, if not our godliness, might be seen in how well we walk in their footsteps. —The Editors

Many thanks to Joe Nangle, OFM, a longtime Sojourners contributor, for suggesting that we enter into the person-of-the millennium spirit and for lobbying hard on behalf of the Little Man of Assisi.

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