The Kiss of Francis, the Sandbag of Moses

This great feast of St. Francis leaves any and all who wish to say something meaningful about this saint with a bit of paralysis. Where to begin, and how to capture a saint of such magnitude with a spirit so elusive? G. K. Chesterton, in his brilliant and must-read biography of St. Francis, best captures this elusiveness in his description of Francis living iconography of the Gospel:

He was a poet whose whole life was a poem. He was not so much a minstrel merely singing his own songs as a dramatist capable of acting the whole of his own play. The things he said were more imaginative than the things he wrote. The things he did were more imaginative than the things he said. His whole course through life was a series of scenes in which he had a sort of perpetual luck in bringing things to a beautiful crisis.

Clearly, our present Pontiff made the ground-breaking decision to take St. Francis’ name in order to assume the momentum, as so many already have, of Il Poverello’s foolish reform-model. More specifically, Pope Francis appears to have not only taken up Chesterton’s portrait of St. Francis as God’s dramatic minstrel, but as God’s mad artist bent on splashing the Christian and non-Christian imagination with flying globs of brightly hued paint absconded from the Gospels. In fact, when someone recently showed me the video of an artist wildly painting an indiscernible portrait (click here), I thought: That’s Francis! What’s he doing?!

There’s way too much to say, but I will bite off a minuscule portion of this art, prayerfully chew on it a bit and share here some of the cud. Mmm.

Miserando atque Eligendo

Pope Francis has clearly proffered himself as a “pope of mercy” (see John Allen on this), and (like his pastoral/PR style or not!) he’s determined to challenge the Church, and especially her ordained ministers, to unleash copious amounts of mercy’s perfumed oil on the still-suffering feet of Jesus’ pilgrim Body — “…the desire of our people [is] to be anointed with fragrant oil, since they know that we have it.” (Francis’ Chrism Mass homily)

In the first of his two (one, two) recent, wildly controversial, off-the-cuff interview, Papa Francesco made the percipient point that the Church and her ministers must place mercy at the forefront of their God-given mission:

How are we treating the people of God? I dream of a church that is a mother and shepherdess. The church’s ministers must be merciful, take responsibility for the people and accompany them like the good Samaritan, who washes, cleans and raises up his neighbor. This is pure Gospel. God is greater than sin. The structural and organizational reforms are secondary—that is, they come afterward. The first reform must be the attitude. The ministers of the Gospel must be people who can warm the hearts of the people, who walk through the dark night with them, who know how to dialogue and to descend themselves into their people’s night, into the darkness, but without getting lost.

Francis’ “pure Gospel” reform is a reformation of mercy that, Samaritan-like, compels other-Christs to daily descend toward fallen humanity, pressing near the dirt to hear each victim’s tale of being felled by robbers, attending to their mortal wounds, and traveling with them to the Field Hospital to ensure they are attended to until they reach full health.

This Samartian-esque descending is clearly what the “world’s parish priest” is trying to do daily and dramatically from Vatican hill.

Fair enough. But in our tradition, mercy must always be placed side by side with justice, or mercy simply becomes mere indulgence, right?



A few rough definitions. in Christian thought, mercy can be fittingly described as love encountering evil and overcoming it, while justice might be described as rendering to each what is his or her due. Though in the real world there can be dramatic and seemingly insoluble experiences of tension, mercy and justice need each other. Justice illumines, exposes and brings to just judgment the unjust and the evildoer, while mercy, grounded in justice, goes far beyond the demands of strict justice in its will to not simply expose and mete out to sinners what they justly deserve, but rather seeks to heal, pardon, reconcile, raise up humanity, even when that means that the mercy-giver has to himself fall victim to the criminal’s crimes.  The Roman Canon makes this “over-riding mercy” point so eloquently when it asks God to look at our just “merits,” but to look on our supine state in mercy, “not weighing our merits, but granting us your pardon.”

Germain Grisez concisely phrased this Christian vision: In Jesus, mercy is the justice of God’s Kingdom.

While justice rightly calls out evildoers as justly banished exiles, mercy prodigally calls out to evildoers and invites them home. But even more than that — in Jesus’ supremely extreme version, mercy not only calls out but welcomes into itself the full-force of evil’s destructive and hateful fury as the necessary price of an intimate encounter (an insight I once shared in this blog that still sticks with me).

Franciscan Allure

St. Francis’ extraordinarily successful ecclesial/social reform flowed from his own lived proclamation of a Gospel that inextricably entwined, after the pattern of Jesus Crucified, God’s all-pure justice with His all-messy mercy. Through St. Francis’ itinerant-beggar ministry, the image of a God dressed in rags, wandering about in the hovels and graveyards of the earth earnestly pleading with rebellious humanity to return to Him, tends to catch the eye.

Shakespeare weights  in

As an aside, I have always found Shakespeare’s description of the mercy-justice dialectic in Portia’s Speech from the Merchant of Venice to be an apt expression of the Gospel-vision St. Francis sought to make known:

The quality of mercy is not strained.
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blessed:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.
‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest. It becomes
The thronèd monarch better than his crown.
His scepter shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings,
But mercy is above this sceptered sway.
It is enthronèd in the hearts of kings.
It is an attribute to God himself.
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice.

Merciful Anecdotes

In an effort to keep this blog mercifully short, and to avoid further temptations to wander aimlessly, I will leave you with two stories that highlight what mercy as a pastoral strategy might look like — one’s taken from the “flowers” of St. Francis, and the other from the Acts of a sainted African desert father, St. Moses the Black. Hopefully they make my point.

Francis’ Kiss

The first story occurs at the end of St. Francis’ life, when he is weak, going blind, and still bearing the painful and bleeding stigmata in his flesh. He is brought into a town to encounter in the public square a priest who is well known for his sexual exploits. In front of the righteously angry crowd, Francis is carried near the priest and, falling to his knees, reverently kisses the priests hand, saying,

All I know and all I want to know is that these hands give me Jesus…if it happened to me to meet any saint coming from heaven, and also a poor priest, I would first go kiss the priest’s hands, and would say to the saint: Holy saint, abide a while, for the hands of this priest have handled the Son of Life, and hath performed a thing above humanity.

This gesture of reverence, as the story goes, brought the profligate priest “at once” to his knees in tearful repentance and calmed the crowd’s ire.

Even as much as this story is a sign of Francis’ reverence for the dignity of sacarmental priesthood, it also bears a pastoral strategy of mercy that evinces a divinely naïve hope that every human being, no matter how far they have slumped into miry pit of evil, desires mercy — “divinely naïve” in the tradition of St. Catherine of Sinea’s image of God’s “mad and crazed” (pazzo d’amore, ebro d’amore) love for fallen man that seems, Catherine says, to be unaware to just how wicked, hard-hearted and ungrateful man is.

Venite adoremus.

Moses’ Sand

The other story from St. Moses, who entered the monastic life after abandoning a life of gang violence, alcoholism and crime, is a story dearly cherished in the wastelands of Egypt.

One day a monk had been caught in a particularly heinous sin, and the abbot asked St. Moses to come to the church and render judgment. He came reluctantly, carrying on his back a leaking bag of sand. When he arrived, the brothers asked him why he was carrying such a thing. He simply said,

This sand is my sins which are trailing out behind me, while I go to judge the sins of another.

At that reply, the brothers forgave the offender and returned to focusing on their own salvation rather than the sins of their brother.

Franciscus Interviewus

As we find ourselves stirred, inspired, shaken and disturbed by Pope Francis’ messy interviews and off-script interactions, needfully sorting critically through the finer doctrinal and moral distinctions Catholics must always make (which the Pope, self-proclaimed sinner, would welcome!), keep in mind his canonized namesake’s imaginative and erratic methodology, as well as that of his Master, the “glutton and drunkard, friend of tax collectors and sinners.”

I will end by approvingly quoting a NY columnist’s recent take on Papa Francesco:

Francis sees the human within the theological, the person within the religious, the living, breathing, confused, confusing man or woman within the moral law.

8 comments on “The Kiss of Francis, the Sandbag of Moses

  1. Jeane Bishop says:

    Happy Feast of St. Francis! This blog post will be passed on to my family and faith sharing group. This is excellent. Our study group has taken a detour from the Vatican 2 documents we were reading to read and discuss Pope Francis’ interviews and the commentary that is accompanying them. He certainly has our attention and, very much, my affection.
    Thank you, so much, Dr. Neal!

  2. Anthony says:

    Happy Feast of St Francis, Tom! A wonderful post. Going to share this on Facebook now! 🙂

  3. Ona says:

    Whether Pope Francis will end up being a successful and beneficial adminstrator/manager of the institution of the Church, I do not know. But as a brother in Christ he clearly speaks from an intimate understanding of God’s love, which is exactly why he is so disturbing.

  4. Pam H. says:

    G. K. Chesterton, not Cherston

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