Anne Howard: A Word in Time: Francis Redux


I'm a little embarrassed to admit this, but when I sat down to write about upcoming Holy Week, I found myself writing about Pope Francis, and my theme for Holy Week sounded vaguely familiar. So I looked back to find last year's Word in Time post and sure enough, I was writing about the new pope, with hope that "We might become known once again as the church of Jesus."

Well here we are, one year later, and Pope Francis has indeed reminded us of the life and teaching of Jesus, with his insistence on caring first for those who have least, and his challenge to those who have power. At this moment in our national budget process, when a Catholic congressman gains fame for his budget blueprint that slashes the federal safety net, shifts the tax burden from the wealthy to the middle class on the backs of the poor, this Pope reminds us of the essence of Catholic social teaching as well as the essence of Christianity.

So rather than say it all in a slightly different way, I want to share again last year's Holy Week Word in Time, in celebration of this Pope and the vision to which he calls all of us:

"Francis, the saint, has been much in the news of late. The Bishop of Rome, dressed in the shimmering white silks of his office, announced last week from the high Vatican balcony that he would be known as Francis I. The Church Universal will have at its head the name that is synonymous with simplicity, humility and allegiance with the poor. Change is in the wind.

 "Back in the 12the century, young Francis of Assisi turned his back on a life of wealth and privilege to follow a new vocation. St. Francis said he heard God call him to "repair my church." And so, renouncing his family's riches, he devoted himself to creating a new kind of church at the margins of his world.  He became an itinerant street preacher, and took up residence with the poor and the outcast. He broke the rules and crossed the boundaries, just as Jesus had done. St. Francis, the stories say, greeted the leper with a kiss and the wolf with an embrace.

"St. Francis was known more by his deeds than his words, but a few words survive, including his advice to preachers, and to all of us: "Preach the Gospel at all times and when necessary, use words."

"So What Would Francis Say to us as we head into Palm Sunday and Holy Week? What might it look like if we welcomed the spirit of St. Francis into our local churches, just as the cardinal from Argentina has now welcomed the spirit of St. Francis into the Vatican? What if we took into our Palm Sunday and Holy Week the admonition to "preach the Gospel at all times and when necessary, use words?"

"As much as I love words and value well-crafted sermons, and as much as I know we need some good preaching to help folks get over bad theology about substitutionary atonement and introduce Easter Sunday visitors to some fresh ways to see resurrection, I can imagine a Palm Sunday and Holy Week with less words and more simplicity.

"St. Francis was a man of gesture-the kiss on the leper's mouth tells us more about compassion than any sermon ever could.  The embrace of the wolf tells us more about facing fear with love than any sermon ever could. He told the story of the birth of Jesus by building a rough manger, filling it with straw and bringing in the animals.

"So this coming week, when we get lots of words-we hear the whole Passion story in many of our churches, on Palm Sunday and again on Good Friday-what if we let the story stand on its own, without interpretation, at least until Easter Sunday?

"We have the opportunity to tell our story without words-with palm branches in our streets, dramatic reading, overturned tables at banks-too-big-to-fail, footwashing at Veterans Hospitals, broken bread at soup kitchens, stripped altars and darkened crosses in our churches, stations of the cross in our city streets where people suffer-it could be a week for images and drama and artists and musicians, and just a few, very few words.

"What if we started, this week, to follow Francis in his simple way? What if we found church at the margins? What if we changed some old patterns and tried some new gestures? We might hear that same call he did, to "repair my church" and that call might us, all of us. We might become a church that is known for its humility, simplicity and allegiance to the poor. We might become known once again as the church of Jesus."

Echoes from the Edge

Finding My Voice

By Karen Roher, Beatitudes Fellow - April 22nd, 2014

I went to a seminary that taught Excellent Systematic Theology. They taught theological theories and systems well and built a deep and clear understanding of gospel truth in my mind and heart. The clarity with which they taught the gospel was enlivening and exciting.  After such training, few things are as disheartening as the logistical and financial realities of the world in its current state.   I left seminary and embarked on ministry convinced and convicted that the church must not leave neighborhoods simply because those neighborhoods could not afford to pay the church's bills.  I left insistent that the gospel had more to say in the midst of poverty than "We're sorry, but you can't afford the good news."

But that conviction, actually, is not enough.  It's not enough because being a pastor is not only my vocation, it is my job, and I have to eat.  The church building can only be a safe space if it is maintained, if the building is sound and solid, allergen and pest free--and these things cost money. When I landed in ministry, that suddenly became the issue I must address, the riddle I must solve.  And pretty quickly, I felt the weight of it, and I began to believe that I had to fix it, that I had to answer the riddle with my own little church.   I didn't feel allowed to still believe and proclaim the gospel that the church was for every neighborhood unless I could make it work myself.  Ministry in the neighborhood still enlivened me, but the strain of not being able to think and speak that truth with feeling alone in trying to answer it started to weigh on me.  

When I met with Beatitudes Society Fellows, I was feeling pretty bogged down by that pressure, and by the loneliness I felt.   I was beginning to think finding a way to do church in an underserved neighborhood was something only I cared about and as such, it was something that didn't matter to the church. 

In the group of Fellows though,  I found my voice and I found a group of people animated by the same ideas and the same beliefs in the gospel.   I found a group who was convinced that solving the riddle was important and holy and universal in its implications.  They cared whether or not it was possible.  In the space of that group, during our media training, I found what has become a turning point for me on this topic. The leader of the training, Macky Alston, instructed us to think of that one thing that felt true and personal and vulnerable in our mission, and for that one thing to frame our strength and our energy as we spoke about our respective organizations.  He told us to hold tight to our stories and truths and to speak from them. He asked us to have faith that the audience would resonate with the issues and with us.  He told us that our unique stories and viewpoints were powerful in their idiosyncrasy, that they would remind us who we are in the moment and call others to remember who they are.


Since that time, I have been struck by the power of that gospel truth that I still cling to.   I have worked to stop fearing that church beyond pledging is something only I believe in, but instead to speak it with confidence, believing that others will feel the weight of that truth and want to be a part of this work.  As I continue to learn how to preach and share in the Good News, I am so grateful for the Beatitudes Fellows, the Beatitudes Society, and for a community that believes that the Good News is for all of us, even pastors. 

Finally, the Poet

on hope, from Leavings, VI

By Wendell Berry - April 8th, 2014

. . .Found your hope, then, on the ground under your feet.

Your hope of Heaven, let it rest on the ground

Underfoot. Be it lighted by the light that falls

Freely upon it after the darkness of the nights

And the darkness of our ignorance and madness.

Let it be lighted also by the light that is within you,

Which is the light of imagination. By it you see

The likeness of people in other places to yourself

In your place. It lights invariably the need for care

Toward other people, other creatures, in other places

As you would ask them for care toward your place and you.

No place at last is better than the world. The world

Is no better than its places. Its places at last

Are no better than their people while their people

Continue in them. When the people make

Dark the light within them, the world darkens.

From the Beatitudes Society blog.