Christ's words to St. Francis, `repair my Church,'
apropos for today

By Archbishop Charles Chaput, O.F.M. Cap.

The archbishop's column this week is excerpted and adapted from remarks he delivered June 22 to graduates of the School for Pastoral Leadership, Archdiocese of San Francisco.

Before I was a bishop and even before I became a priest, I was a Capuchin Franciscan. The Capuchins were a reform movement within the Franciscan community. They wanted to get back to the real St. Francis: the radical, simple St. Francis. So it shouldn't surprise anyone that Francis of Assisi has always had a big place in my life. History calls Francis the vir Catolicus — the embodiment of everything a Catholic believer should be: a person filled with faith, joy, simplicity, courage, charity and zeal for Jesus Christ. Francis had all these qualities, and of course even non-Catholics remember him because of his love for animals and nature, and his witness for peace.

 

But what many people overlook is that Francis lived in an age very much like our own. Francis was not just a loving man. He was also a formidable one, because he had to be. The 13th century was a time of great political unrest and great confusion and corruption in the Church. Francis began his life submerged in that world. He was comfortable. He was selfish. He was shallow. But finally, he was also hungry for something more in his life — and once he found it, he pursued it without compromise. What Franciscans remember about St. Francis is his demand that we live the Gospel sine glossa — without gloss, without excuses, without interpretations to make discipleship easier or more comfortable.

Francis was a revolutionary in the truest sense. He wanted a radical commitment to holiness from his brothers, holiness in the root meaning of the word. Holy doesn't mean good, and it doesn't mean nice — although holy people are always good, and they're also frequently nice. Holy means "other than." Francis wanted to be different, as Jesus was different. Francis wanted to live in the presence of God, as Jesus did. He wanted to live and act in ways "other than" the ways of this world.

What distinguished Francis from all the other reformers of his day was one simple thing. He understood that he could never live out his love for God alone, or even with a group of friends. He needed the larger family of faith Jesus founded. So he never allowed himself or his brothers to separate the Gospel from the Church, or the Church from Jesus Christ.

Francis was always a son of the Church. And as a son, he sometimes scandalized his brothers because he always insisted on fidelity and obedience to the Holy Father and reverence for priests and bishops — even the ones whose sins meant they didn't deserve it. What Francis heard from Jesus on the Cross of San Damiano was not "replace my Church" or "reinvent my Church," but "repair my Church." And he did that in the only way that lasts — one stone at a time, with the living stones of his own life and the lives he changed through his personal witness.

If we want to be disciples and make disciples; if we want to repair the Lord's Church in the shadow of a terrible sexual misconduct scandal; we need to understand that new policies and programs and reforms in the Church will be important. We certainly need them. But without saints, nothing we do will work. Without holy men and women on fire with Jesus Christ, in love with His Church, and zealous in preaching the Catholic faith through their words and actions, nothing will work.

We can't give what we don't have. If Jesus Christ and a real Catholic identity don't burn in the interior cathedral of our hearts, we can never possibly rebuild the external life of the Church in the world.