Pope in Assisi, following footsteps of St. Francis
By NICOLE WINFIELD | The Associated Press October 4, 2013 8:16AM
Updated: October 4, 2013 2:38PM
ASSISI, Italy — Pope Francis made a pilgrimage Friday to the hillside Italian town of Assisi, following in the footsteps of his namesake, St. Francis, the 13th-century friar who renounced a wealthy, dissolute lifestyle to embrace a life of poverty and service to the poor.
According to tradition, St. Francis was famously told by God to “repair my house.”
In word and deed, the first pope to name himself after St. Francis has made clear how he wants to follow that command. Francis is trying to shape a church that is welcoming to all, but especially to the most marginalized, with a church hierarchy that is worthy of its 1.2 billion flock.
Here are some of the pope’s main goals as he attempts to remake the church into the institution St. Francis would have wanted.
A CHURCH ‘THAT IS POOR AND FOR THE POOR’
Pope Francis met with the poor in Assisi, demanding that the faithful “strip” themselves of their worldly attachment to wealth, which he said was killing the church and its souls. He delivered that exhortation during the most evocative stop of the day, in the simple room where St. Francis stripped off his clothes, renounced his wealth and vowed to live a life of poverty. Since becoming pope in March, Francis has made it clear that one of his principal objectives is a church that is humble, looks out for the poorest and brings them hope. The “slum pope,” as he is known because of his work in Argentina’s shantytowns, recently denounced the “idolatry” of money and encouraged those without the “dignity” of work.
A CHURCH THAT WELCOMES EVERYONE, INCLUDING NONBELIEVERS
At his first public audience after his election, Francis made an unusual exception: In recognition that not all in the room were Christians or even believers, Francis offered a blessing without the traditional Catholic formula or gesture, saying he would bless each one in silence “respecting your conscience, but knowing that each one of you is a child of God.” That respect for people of different faiths or no faith at all has become a hallmark of Francis’ papacy as he actively seeks out atheists for dialogue. Assisi is known as a place of interfaith dialogue, drawing people of all faiths — and no faith — to visit the basilica dominating the hill and its magnificent frescos by Giotto.
A CHURCH THAT DOESN’T JUDGE
Francis made his first stop in Assisi to an institute that cares for gravely disabled children, who in the words of the director are often seen as “stones cast aside,” invisible and neglected by the world. Francis refuses to cast such judgment — he caressed each child, kissed each one, saying their “scars need to be recognized and listened to.” It was part of the simple message of love that he has brought to others often considered outcasts, like drug addicts and convicts. His “who am I to judge” comment about gays represented a radical shift in tone for the Vatican. Catholic teaching holds that all people should be treated with dignity and respect, so Francis was making no change in doctrine. But church teaching also holds that gay acts are “intrinsically disordered” — a point Francis has neglected to emphasize in favor of a message of merciful inclusion.
A CHURCH THAT IS ‘MESSY’ AND GOES OUTSIDE THE SACRISTY
St. Francis was considered a radical disobedient for having renounced everything and given himself entirely to his faith, but that’s just the type of radical witness Pope Francis wants for today’s Catholics. Francis told Argentine pilgrims during World Youth Day in July to make a “mess” in their dioceses and shake things up, even if it meant irritating their bishops. He wanted to convey his hope the church would stop being so inward-looking, and instead go out to the peripheries to spread the faith, just like St. Francis. The pope’s first trip outside Rome was to Lampedusa, a southern Italian island closer to Africa than the Italian mainland. His eulogy for all migrants lost at sea denounced a “globalization of indifference,” a prescient message given Thursday’s shipwreck off Lampedusa that killed scores of migrants. As black ribbons hung from Assisi’s banners in mourning, Francis proclaimed Friday “a day of tears” for the dead.
A CHURCH THAT WORKS FOR PEACE, CARES FOR THE ENVIRONMENT
St. Francis is known for his message of peace and his care for nature, but he is often misunderstood, “sweetened” into something he wasn’t, Pope Francis said Friday. A Vatican spokesman put it this way: “Too often his message is lost and we reduce his role to that of a gentle, whimsical hippie who fed birds, smelled flowers and tamed wild wolves.” Pope Francis said the saint’s message was to truly “love one another as I have loved you,” calling for an end to all the wars in the Middle East, especially Syria. The pope has been steadfast in his call for peace in Syria, inspiring hundreds of thousands of people around the world to hold a day of fasting and prayer when it appeared military strikes against the Damascus regime were imminent.
A REFORMED CHURCH
Francis was elected on a mandate to reform the church, and he has set about doing that. One of his first stops Friday was to pray at the sanctuary of St. Damian, where the saint in 1205 famously was told to take a broken church and rebuild it. The pope has just finished three days of meetings with advisers helping him rewrite the main blueprint for how the Catholic Church is governed. Ideas include having a “moderator” to make the Vatican bureaucracy run more smoothly and a revised role for the Vatican’s powerful secretary of state. It also includes involving lay men and women more in the life of the church. Just as St. Francis wanted.