Holiness or Criticism? I choose Franciscum.

Re-post from March 18, 2013, soon after Pope Francis’ election.

Henri De Lubac once wrote that the difference between St. Francis and Martin Luther is the difference between a reform aimed at holiness and a reform aimed at criticism. In choosing Bergoglio, the cardinals seem to have opted for the former. — John Allen Jr.

What an insightful remark. Though both have a role, I for one am glad to see in yet another pope the mendicant saint prevailing over the trolling cynic.

Bergoglio chose St. Francis of Assisi’s name, it would seem, to point to this saint as the needed paragon of Gospel poverty in a time of materialistic excess; of charity in a time of vitriol; of trust in Providence in a time of fear; of outward-facing apostolic zeal in a time of inward-facing church navel-gazing; of conciliation in a time of division; of passion in a time of apathy; of prayer in a time of activism; of service in a time of self-interest; of chastity in a time of sexual licence; of Gospel freedom in a time of addiction; of peace in a time of violence; of hope in a time of despair; of unshakable joy in a time of passing pleasures. I dare not tire you further with this lengthy litany!

St. Francis’ model of reform sounded something like this: to incite God’s revolution, make certain you’re the first to have been revolved. Nemo dat quod non habet, “No one gives what he doesn’t have.” Or as that other Italian saint, Catherine of Siena, said: “Be who God meant you to be and you will set the world on fire.”

St. Francis’ Russian counterpart in the Eastern Church, St. Seraphim on Sarov, who defined holiness as the “acquisition of the Holy Spirit,” also made this same point succinctly: “Acquire first the Spirit of peace and then thousands around you will be saved.”


Fr. George Rutler, in his book A Crisis of Saints, argues that every crisis in the Church is at core a crisis of holiness. The lack thereof, that is. Saints are not only compelling witnesses to the Gospel to be imitated, they are springs of divine power erupting from the earth, transforming deserts into oases. In their refusal to leave the Gospel untried, they give God permission to overcome apathy and cast fire on the earth. Each saint sparkles with the beauty of God in an absolutely unique way, refracting the “Light of Light” as no other can. So if I fail to become what God created me to be, the world is irrevocably impoverished and darkened (cf Matthew 13:58). As Leon Bloy had it, “The only real sadness, the only real failure, the only great tragedy in life, is not to become a saint.”

The mission of the Church is to capture the world’s attention and turn it toward the Face of Christ, Savior of the world (cf. John 4:39-42).

G.K. Chesterton made this point well:

Every saint is a sort of man before he is a saint; and a saint may be made of every sort or kind of man; and most of us will choose between these different types according to our different tastes….The Saint is a medicine because he as an antidote. Indeed, that is why the saint is often a martyr; he is mistaken for a poison because he is an antidote. He will generally be found restoring the world to sanity by exaggerating whatever the world neglects, which is by no means the same element in every age. Yet each generation seeks its saint by instinct; and he is not what the people want, but rather what the people need.

Chesterton is speaking of the saintliness of St. Francis, of course. Imagine such a spectacle:

A young fool or rascal is caught robbing his father and selling goods which he ought to guard; and the only explanation he will offer is that a loud voice from nowhere spoke in his ear and told him to mend the cracks and holes in a particular wall. He then declares himself naturally independent of all powers corresponding to the police or the magistrates, and takes refuge with an amiable bishop who is forced to remonstrate with him and tell him he is wrong. He then proceeds to take off his clothes in public and practically throw them at his father; announcing at the same time that his father is not his father at all. He then runs about the town asking everybody he meets to give him fragments of buildings or building materials, apparently with reference to his old monomania about mending the wall. It may be an excellent thing that cracks should be filled up, but preferably not by somebody who is himself cracked; and architectural restoration like other things is not best performed by builders who, as we should say, have a tile loose. Finally the wretched youth relapses into rags and squalor and practically crawls away into the gutter. That is the spectacle that Francis must have presented to a very large number of his neighbors and friends.

Papa Saint-maker?

Maybe by taking this name, our Pontiff is hoping such an unruly sanctity will arise in the midst of the Church. If the world needs a strong dose of the Medicine of Immortality that subsists in the Catholic Church, saints are the best ones to administer it.

I’d bet Pope Francis is hoping for the kind of sanctity once praised so eloquently by the late Swiss theologian, Hans Urs von Balthatsar:

And the saints are humble, that is to say, the mediocrity of the Church does not deter them from expressing once and for all their solidarity with her, knowing well that without her they could never find their way to God. To bypass Christ’s Church with the idea of making their way to God on their own initiative would never occur to them. They do battle with the mediocrity of Christ’s Church not by protesting but by enkindling and encouraging the better. The Church causes them pain, but they do not become embittered and stand aside to sulk. They form no dissident groups but cast their fire into the midst. Your genuine saint never points to himself; he is no more than the reflection. It is the Master Flame that counts.

Maybe. Time will tell.

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