By Rev. Warren E. Jensen, D. Min, Pastor to Pastors
Presbytery of East Iowa
Several weeks ago Pope Francis, the 266th Pope of the Catholic Church visited America. Many of us were in awe. He began with the name Jorge Mario Bergoglio and only later chose the papal name of “Francis”, in honor of Saint Francis of Assisi. How appropriate that name change was for the needs of our times. Throughout his life and ministry he has already become known for his humility, concern for the poor and his willingness to dialogue as he builds bridges between people of all backgrounds and faith traditions. He has chosen to reside in a guesthouse rather than the papal apartments of the Apostolic Palace used by earlier Popes and travels in a very modest car.
The 7th Beatitude reads like this: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” I have always been drawn to the Beatitudes of Jesus because they seem comforting, directive and very specific about what I should be doing in my life. They continue to be held as a model of compassionate living by all practicing Christians. It has not always been an easy task, as anyone knows who has tried it. But it seems necessary. The question facing us today is simple: where are the peacemakers?
The early followers of the teachings of Jesus were called simply “People of the Way”. It was a simple, straightforward description of who Christians were and how they lived their lives. “People of the Way” often lived communally, sharing what they had with one another and their motto was “all things in common”. There were no rich or poor and everyone pledged to care for one another. It began to change under the reign of the Roman Emperor Constantine who reigned during the years 306 – 337. In 313 Constantine was involved in issuing “The Edict of Milan” that legalized Christian worship. In 380, with another edict, Christianity became the religion of the empire and “People of the Way” lost much of their identity. Almost overnight it was mandated that everyone in the army was to convert to the Christian religion. “Wars” became sacred to the soldiers because now they were defending the Roman Empire against those who were then called heathens, idolaters, and much worse.
St. Francis of Assisi once went to war himself. He once stowed away on a vessel headed to Egypt, (which is why yet today he is known as the patron saint of stowaways), where he tried to bring an end to the 5th crusade. He failed in that effort and returned traumatized by war, giving himself totally to being a peacemaker. There exists in the church a tradition that says Francis died naked on the ground just outside his re-built church called Portiuncula, where with his last breath he told his followers, “I have done my part. Christ teach you to now do yours.”
Francis of Assisi lived in a world that loved grandeur and augmentation; he practiced simplicity while also embracing the outcasts of society and all the marginalized people. He was a lover of nature and is remembered as one having a special kinship with all creatures, even as one who preached to the birds and stroked the feared wolves. He practiced a gentler and much more loving ministry then we are familiar with. And he is remembered because of it! How many other persons of power, prestige, and force throughout history are held in such esteem? How many of them are remembered? The new Pope Francis seems to already be bringing hope to the church and to the world. Perhaps we can find ways to do likewise.