Imagine the scene, then: St. Francis, the son of a well-to-do merchant and a French noblewoman, chased down a wandering vagabond in a crowded market. Finding him at last, he “loaded the astonished mendicant with money,” as G.K. Chesterton rather charmingly puts it.
It’s all a bit weird. His contrition borders on scrupulosity, and we’re naturally cynical about such ostentatious displays of humility. Surely (we ask) Francis should have gone into his room and shut the door and prayed to his Father who is in secret?
New York Times columnist Ross Douthat coined the phrase “Make Catholicism Weird Again” following last year’s Met Gala. Douthat argues that this “beautiful and blasphemous spectacle” proves the Church’s efforts to “demystify” herself were counter-productive. People like a mystery. We like lace and silk, the candles and incense. We like the medieval pomp that suggests medieval circumstance—the vast, rotating cosmologies and disciplined celestial hierarchies evoked by the haunting lilt in the chanting of “in saecula saeculorum.”
I don’t disagree. On the contrary. I would only suggest there’s something equally weird and compelling we may try, too: the radical simplicity of St. Francis.
There’s a story that tells of the Poor Man taking his lunch (probably just a bit of stale bread) to sit beside a brook and have a picnic. He plopped himself beneath a shady tree, propped himself against a rock, and watched the water go babbling toward the sea. Between mouthfuls of food, he would exclaim: “What a treasure we have here, what a treasure!” There’s definitely something indispensable about the majesty and solemnity of Catholic tradition for drawing one away from the omnipresent screen and into something deeper, more human, more real. Yet there’s something particularly compelling in our day and age about a saint who shuns the artificial and takes so much delight in the ordinary beauty of Creation.
What gave me a new opinion of Franciscan spirituality was the new Slate interview with Theodore McCarrick—the former Archbishop of Washington who caused, of course, the largest scandal in the history of the American Church. The intrepid reporter traveled to the Capuchin friary in Victoria, Kansas, where McCarrick has been living since his fall from grace. She also interviewed Fr. Christopher Poprovak, a spokesman for Capuchins’ local province. Here’s how he explained his reasoning for accepting McCarrick into the priory:
“Our mission is very much tied up with helping people to amend their life, to change their life, to repent,” he said. “Christians, even when it’s difficult, are called to show mercy.” Pope Francis had sentenced McCarrick to a “life of prayer and penance,” and a bare-bones friary in rural Kansas seemed to Popravak an appropriate place to do that. Capuchins are Franciscans, and Saint Francis, he observed, was known for embracing lepers.
That, too, is an understatement. According to Bonaventure, Francis was ashamed of how repulsed he was by the deformity of lepers. St. Francis, therefore, sought them out “in spite of himself” to humble himself by serving them. In one instance, a leper approached Francis, knowing of his holiness, and begged to kiss the holy friar’s feet. Bonaventure says that Francis, “who could not suffer it, kissed his diseased and loathsome mouth.” Instantly, the leper was healed.
“I know which of these two things is the most worthy of admiration,” Bonaventure remarks; “the profound humility of the kiss, or the marvelous power which wrought so stupendous a miracle.”
It’s easy to dismiss Bonaventure’s remark as a bit of pious fluff. In fact, that’s really the last thing it is. We regret the thousands of Catholics who’ve been scandalized by McCarrick’s crimes and left the Faith—as we should, of course. And yet these priests spend every day with the man, living and eating alongside him. Many of us find it hard enough to be on the same planet with him; they live in the same house. They embraced a vocation to live in a small friary in a small town on the plains of Kansas, away from the bustle and intrigue of the East Coast, for the sake of Holy Mother Church. Now they have in the midst of them the very embodiment of the corruption and decadence that’s tearing her children from her breast—not to mention the scandal he carries with him like a noxious odor. And yet their priority isn’t revenge: it’s mercy.
Here, again, the Franciscan charism is so single-mindedly good that it almost seems wicked. The Slate reporter found an online forum where residents of Victoria complained about McCarrick’s new digs. “Couldn’t they have found another place in the country that isn’t 15 feet from an elementary school?” one asked. “Like the cemetery?” wrote another. That, to us, would be justice. Men like McCarrick don’t deserve mercy.