In this month's celebration of the 800th anniversary of the birth of Francis of Assisi, the Rev. John Roach, the president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, observed forcefully that the work of this heroic saint is unfinished. He said that "evils of the world at the time of Francis are similar to those of today, including the proliferation of weapons and greedy affluence in the face of widespread poverty."
But what if St. Francis had been born into our times, not the distant one of European feudalism? How would we in the late 20th century be receiving him and his values?
A hint of the answer can be found in Thomas Carlyle's remark: "If Jesus Christ were to come today, people would not even crucify him. They would ask him to dinner, and hear what he had to say, and make fun of it."
St. Francis in modern times would also get us laughing. We would immediately place him in our electronic funhouse, the talk show. Merv or Johnny would ask Francis for some babblewit on his charming ways with animals. Tell us, Francis, about the time you tamed that snarling wolf. And how about the birds: do they really stop chirping when you preach to them? We have five seconds before a commercial break: let's hear your newest birdcalls.
After the show an agent comes forward with a book proposal. I'm only 40, protests Francis, I haven't lived long enough to write my memoirs. "What memoirs?" asks the agent. "You're a thin guy. Let's go for the big money. I can see it now, number one on the best-seller list: 'The St. Francis Diet Book: Love God and Eat What You Will.'"
When the agent goes off to phone a blockbuster publishing house, Francis is whisked to the airport. He is to be taken to a seminar convened by a learned institute. There, after being awarded the first annual Henry Kissinger Peace Prize, Francis is engaged in a panel discussion on Christian capitalism.
You don't understand, a scholar instructs the gaunt and unsmiling Francis: living with the poor and going hungry with them is a noble gesture, but the free-enterprise system is actually the real ally of the poor. Haven't you heard of trickle-down economics?
When Francis stares back in astonishment, he is told of President Reagan's recent economic nostrum to the Third World poor: just imitate the United States, and life will get better.
Another panel member, sensing that it is Francis' spiritual side that must be developed, quotes from one of the latest publications of the American Enterprise Institute: "Toward a Theology of The Corporation." It declares that, "If we look for signs of grace in the corporation, we may discern seven of them--a suitably sacramental number." Through these signs, which include creativity, liberty and social character, "corporations offer metaphors for grace, a kind of insight into God's ways in history."
Francis, looking properly awed by this Deepthink but clutching his worn rosary nevertheless, takes his turn. He asks his fellow panelists--all veterans of the seminars-on-heady-issues circuit --some modest questions. How many hours have you volunteered at the soup kitchens that Franciscan priests and brothers run in many cities? How many prisoners have you visited, how many illiterates have you taught to read? How many open sores of homeless people have you dressed?
When silence follows these questions, Francis explains that he isn't out to embarrass anyone. He tells of his own life and how little he has done. He was a rich man's son who liked silk clothing and the ways of the dandy. But after a year as a prisoner of war, he chose a life of pacifism and service to the poor. Of his conversion, he says: "That which seemed to me bitter was changed into sweetness of body and soul."
The panel moderator rings the bell and calls for a 10-minute break. Francis tears from his robe his "Hello, I'm Francis" lapel sticker and runs out the door, on his way back to the streets and alleys of the poor.
Giddy with his freedom, he laughs uproariously at a sudden thought: all those self-scourging ascetics of the Middle Ages who believed their hair shirts and fasts were hard penances! They had it easy. They should be around for the 20th century and the martyrdom of being laughed at by clowns and lectured to by pedants.