“Francis, Francis, go and repair My house which, as you can see, is falling into ruins.”
The crucifix from which Francis heard those words—words which gave him his life’s mission—hangs in the side chapel of the St. Clare’s Basilica. We entered the room and found that the dozen or so pews were filled by a tour group. So EA and I just stood off to the side for a few minutes. This side chapel easily brought in more visitors than the actual sanctuary; all because of the cross that hung over the altar.
When the tour group left, EA and I scooted into one of the pews and sat next to a praying nun. There was a reverent hush over the entire chapel. Well, there was except for a two minute period when a man standing at the exit made a high-pitched whistle to get the attention of his wife across the room. He probably thought he was being subtle. He was probably too subtle for his wife—he had to whistle about nine times before getting her attention—but not subtle enough for the rest of the room. Other than that though, the only sound was the creaking of wooden pews as people rose to light a candle.
I stared up at the crucifix. Walking in, Jesus’ eyes seemed to follow you wherever you went. Settled now in a seat, the look became more intense. Not intense in an angry type of way, but like the cover had been peeled off of my soul. I couldn’t help but hear Jesus beg of me what he had pled of Francis: Rebuild My Church.
One of the most charming parts of the Francis story is that he took that request literally. The church in which he was praying had fallen into ruins and so he took it upon himself to renovate the place stone by stone. That literal-mindedness seems to have served Francis well. It was a hallmark of a childlike faith that started a movement that did indeed help restore the Church of his day.
I shuffled in my seat as thoughts pinballed around my brain. The idea of restoring the Church—a call given to all Christians—seemed like a thorny knot of complications. I’m sure that many people (and I’m speaking from a Western context here) believe the Church needs to be restored, but there is very little agreement on why it needs to be restored and how.
Some would say that the Church has been ruined by hypocrisy and judgmentalism. Others would say the rubble is from years of not welcoming in certain groups whether it be the poor, different races, or the LGBTQ community. Others would say that Church is in danger because so many churches have slid along with the culture and abandoned their principles. Some think the Bible is the foundation on which she’ll be built and others think that view smacks of idolatry.
I looked up at that picture of Jesus and narrowed my eyes. How exactly do you rebuild the Church when it seems no one can agree about the blueprint? Is the Church too fractured to make such a wholesale renovation possible? The crucifix just continued to stare at me. It didn’t seem like I would get the audible direction that Francis received.
Matters were complicated in their own way in Francis’ time. The details were different but the heart of the issues were the same. Yet everything that I have read about Francis of Assisi doesn’t suggest that he wrung his hands in worry over the entire thing. He may have. The accounts about him are not totally unbiased. In fact, they’re fairly glowing; sometimes literally.
However, his actions seem to bear out that he simply did what Jesus asked. He loved Christ so much that he rebuilt that dilapidated church and then he tried to follow God the best that he could. That love took him to some pretty vulnerable places, but he followed still.
Beneath all of the legend and mystique surrounding Francis seems to be this very simple fact: he truly seemed to love God with his entire being and thus loved his neighbor as himself. He loved both so much that he even preached to the birds. That long obedience in the direction of God's love changed the world to a point that its impact still inspires women and men today.
The way in which Francis rebuilt is massively difficult. We’d rather hide behind our theological systems, blaming the perceived errors of others for the ramshackle state of the Church today. We do that because it is easy. What Francis did was simple, but it was not easy. Rebuilding the Church, following Jesus, and loving so radically never is easy. That’s why the world perks up when it happens.
The pew creaked as I stood up. No one can set out to rebuild the Church. All you can do is love God, follow in obedience, and let renovation take ahold of you. The Church is made up of broken people in the process of rebuilding. As we are rebuilt, so too will the Church.