Michael Perry OFM with Pope Francis

On 30 January Minister General, Michael Perry OFM, gave a talk in Washington University, St Louis, USA, on the theme: “What Do Francis of Assisi and Francis of Buenos Aires Have in Common? A ‘Franciscan’ Perspective on the Common Good.” 

Steve Givens, who is a spiritual director, musician and composer, university administrator on the campus, shares his notes from the event.

Fr. Perry began by discussing the “distinct Franciscan social vision” that Francis of Assisi and Pope Francis share. Although the Pontiff is a Jesuit and therefore has an Ignatian worldview, he obviously chose the name Francis for a reason, and this was the rich and fertile ground that Fr. Perry explored with us.

He noted that every event in our lives contains a “message and opportunity to enter into the life of the Other.” These opportunities, he said, involve an interplay of the personal and the political, including the shaping of our shared social life. The obligation to vote, for example, is both a responsibility to ourselves and to the communities in which we live. “I am because we exist,” he said.

Another interplay exists at the intersection of the “singular life of virtue and the anticipation of the reign of God,” he said, quoting St. Thomas Aquinas: “The primary moral virtue is justice.” In a world filled with hatred and with political leaders and other individuals intent on tearing apart any sense of unity and hope, it would be easy to lose heart and give up, he said. However, he quickly added, we must not let such a worldview overtake our own obligations: “Do not run away from your responsibilities,” he said emphatically.

Christianity, highly politicized in today’s American culture, offers us much more than stances on political issues, he said. Our faith offers an approach to engaging in politics, and it is an approach that should be about “community building and consensus, not about making deals.”

What Pope Francis and St. Francis of Assisi have in common is a spiritual vision of the world, he said, and a preferential treatment of the poor looms large in this vision. Integral to this world vision is the idea that all humans are capable of change and transformation through dialogue with one another. We must be willing to cross boundaries and even be seen as a bit crazy for doing so. Both Francises have been willing to do both of these things, he noted, citing the example of both making unprecedented forays into Egypt to engage with Muslim leaders. “The path forward is always through dialogue,” he said.

Both Francises also hold all life in reverence, and Perry cited examples of writing from each. St. Francis’ idea of “fraternity” includes the belief that we are all part of one family and are responsible for each other, as well as for our planet. He recalled St. Francis’ “Canticle of the Creatures,” a song composed by Francis in 1225 when he was sick at St. Damiano. Also known as the Canticle of Brother Sun, the song, in part, praises God for all creatures (including sun, moon, stars, wind, water, fire and earth).

Turning to Pope Francis, Perry noted the Pope’s second encyclical, published in 2015, Laudato si´, which bears the subtitle, “On Care for Our Common Home.” In it, the Pope critiques consumerism, irresponsible development, environmental degradation, and global warming, and calls all people of the world to take “swift and unified global action.”

This integral ecological vision of the two Francises is both social and environmental, Perry said, addressing both the poverty of the individual and the ongoing care of the natural world that sustains us. The dangers of separating the individual from the community, he noted, are all around us. “We are creating gated hearts, gated minds and gated communities, all filled with people who agree with us. We are re-tribalizing our communities.”

So what do Pope Francis and St. Francis have in common, Perry asked rhetorically to conclude his talk? His answer was one word: “Everything.”

During the question and answer session following the talk, a student asked Perry about the role of mystics in the modern church, asking “Is Pope Francis a mystic?” His response revealed the depth of his heart and mind: “Mystics help others see what is.” So, he gently explained, we need to look beyond traditional definitions of mysticism that emphasize an ascending toward God, and begin to see mysticism as descending.

“Jesus is about going down to where there is pain, darkness and hopelessness and standing in the middle of that,” he said. “That is the beginning [of mysticism.] That is the way of humility — our willingness [like Pope Francis’] to bend down and wash the feet of the Muslim woman in prison.”

Fielding a similar question from a young man about the perils of relativism, he cautioned not to use such labels to categorize people. “We need to look at our wholeness and stop breaking things apart so we can choose the pieces we like,” he said.

He ended with a call for continual discernment and community. “Discernment is so crucial here,” he said, “to create a critical understanding of things and to try to get to the truth. But we need to construct that truth together.”

See Steve Given’s blog