ASSISI, Italy — Pope Francis broke bread with the poor and embraced the disabled on a pilgrimage to his namesake’s hometown Friday, urging the faithful to follow the example of the 13th-century St. Francis, who renounced a wealthy, dissolute lifestyle to embrace a life of poverty and service to the poor.
According to tradition, God told St. Francis to “repair my house,” and the first pope to take the saint’s name has made clear that he sees that as his own mission as well.
For Francis, that means reaching out to the most marginalized among the church’s 1.2 billion followers, reforming the broken Vatican bureaucracy, and allowing the faithful to shake things up in their dioceses — even at the annoyance of their bishops — if that’s what it takes to better spread God’s word.
After all, the pope said, St. Francis was a radical himself in his complete devotion to his faith — a model that can serve Catholics today.
Here are the main goals Pope Francis has set out for his church, highlighted during his visit to the hilltop town of Assisi, whose native son has inspired his papacy:
A CHURCH ‘THAT IS POOR AND FOR THE POOR’
Francis had lunch with a group of poor at a soup kitchen after demanding that the faithful “strip” themselves of their worldly attachment to wealth, which he said is killing the church and its souls. He delivered that exhortation during the most evocative stop of the day, in the simple room where St. Francis stripped off his clothes, renounced his wealth and vowed to live a life of poverty. Since becoming pope in March, Francis has made it clear that one of his principal objectives is a church that is humble, looks out for the poorest and brings them hope. The “slum pope,” as he is known because of his work in Argentina’s shantytowns, recently denounced the “idolatry” of money and encouraged those without the “dignity” of work.
A CHURCH THAT WELCOMES AND DOESN’T JUDGE
Francis’ first stop in Assisi was to an institute that cares for gravely disabled children, who in the words of the director are often seen as “stones cast aside,” invisible and neglected by the world. Francis caressed and kissed each child, saying their “scars need to be recognized and listened to.” It was part of the simple message of love that he has brought to others often considered outcasts, such as drug addicts and convicts. His “who am I to judge?” comment about gays over the summer was another reflection of this message of merciful welcome. It represented a radical shift in tone for the Vatican. Catholic teaching holds that all people should be treated with dignity and respect, so Francis was making no change in doctrine. But church teaching also holds that gay acts are “intrinsically disordered” — a point Francis has neglected to emphasize in favor of a message of inclusion.
A FEMININE CHURCH
Francis has called for a greater role for women in the governance of the church, while ruling out female ordination. He says the church itself is female, that Jesus Christ was married to the church and that Mary is more important than all the apostles. On Friday, Francis paid special attention to the women of the church, visiting the cloistered Sisters of St. Clare, an order founded by one of St. Francis’ followers. In the Basilica of St. Clare, Pope Francis told the nuns that they must be mothers to the church and be joyful. “It makes me sad when I find sisters who aren’t joyful,” he lamented. “They might smile, but with just a smile they could be flight attendants!” He showed that same sense of humor later when he told a story about a mother who lamented that her 30-year-old son still hadn’t gotten married — a reference to a generation of Italian men who seem unwilling to move out: “Signora,” Francis recalled telling her. “Stop ironing his shirts!”
A CHURCH THAT IS ‘MESSY’ AND GOES OUTSIDE THE SACRISTY
St. Francis was considered a radical disobedient for having renounced everything and given himself entirely to his faith, but that’s just the type of radical witness Pope Francis wants for today’s Catholics. Francis told Argentine pilgrims during World Youth Day in July to make a “mess” in their dioceses and shake things up. He hopes the church will stop being so inward-looking, and instead go out to the peripheries to spread the faith, just like St. Francis. The pope’s first trip outside Rome was to Lampedusa, a southern Italian island closer to Africa than the Italian mainland. His eulogy for all migrants lost at sea denounced a “globalization of indifference,” a prescient message given Thursday’s shipwreck off Lampedusa that killed scores of migrants. As black mourning ribbons hung from Assisi’s banners, Francis proclaimed Friday “a day of tears.”
A CHURCH THAT WORKS FOR PEACE AND CARES FOR THE ENVIRONMENT
Assisi is known for its message of peace, drawing people of all faiths — and no faith — for annual peace pilgrimages to the basilica dominating the hill and its magnificent frescos by Giotto and Cimabue. The town takes its cue from St. Francis, who preached a message of peace and care for nature. But Pope Francis lamented Friday that the saint’s message is often misunderstood, “sweetened” into something he didn’t represent. A Vatican spokesman put it this way: “Too often his message is lost and we reduce his role to that of a gentle, whimsical hippie who fed birds, smelled flowers and tamed wild wolves.” Pope Francis said the saint’s message was to truly “love one another as I have loved you,” calling for an end to all the wars in the Middle East, especially Syria. The pope has been steadfast in his call for peace in Syria, inspiring hundreds of thousands of people around the world to hold a day of fasting and prayer when it appeared military strikes against the Damascus regime were imminent.
A REFORMED CHURCH
Francis was elected on a mandate to reform the church, and he has set about doing that. One of his first stops Friday was to pray at the sanctuary of St. Damian, where the saint in 1205 famously was told to take a broken church and rebuild it. The pope has just finished three days of meetings with advisers from churches around the globe helping him rewrite the main blueprint for how the Catholic Church is governed. Ideas include having a “moderator” to make the Vatican bureaucracy run more smoothly and a diminished role for the Vatican’s powerful secretary of state. In an indication that a shift is already underway, the secretary of state didn’t accompany Francis to Assisi, though his eight cardinal advisers did — a symbolic changing of the guard in favor of less centralized church authority. The reforms also include involving lay men and women more in the life of the church. Just as St. Francis wanted.
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