Just as Pope Francis does not exclude anyone from being welcomed to the Church, so does he not exclude anyone from the radical demands of the Christian Gospel.
Pope Francis visited the room where St. Francis famously stripped naked to renounce all and follow Jesus Christ. The new Pope is known for dramatic gestures himself, and some Catholics were wondering whether he might follow St. Francis’s example and strip off his clothes.
That would have been a soutane too far, but Pope Francis referred to St. Francis’s prophetic gestures by saying that we need to strip away all our attachments to worldly vanity, materialism, and greed.
Are we ready to hear this message? Are secular people – so many of whom are attracted to this Pope – ready to hear this message? I fear that too many of us are delighted to hear the call to strip away all attachment to worldly things as long as it is someone else who is taking the step of stripping away all things. It’s good for Pope Francis, St. Francis, and the Franciscans – but me? We chortle and cough and mutter that “we are not called to that sort of radical Christianity.”
Just as Pope Francis does not exclude anyone from being welcomed to the Church, so does he not exclude anyone from the radical demands of the Christian Gospel. He calls all to be welcome in the Church, but that call is to embrace Jesus Christ and to follow the joyful way of life exhibited by St. Francis and all the saints. Are those who are happy that Pope Francis is “inclusive” ready to be included in the call to strip away all attachments and stand naked before God?
Why does Pope Francis call us to strip away all our worldly goods? We are called to apostolic simplicity of life not because material things and material pleasures are wrong, but because we are unduly attached to them. We love our material pleasures instead of God. We have made idols of our material goods and the power and status that comes with them.
When we give up our material goods, we learn to rely on God instead. Each human person has at their heart a God-shaped space. This void will not be filled by any of the “P” words: prosperity, power, pleasure, position, or prestige. When we seek to fill that space with anything other than God, it only leads to disappointment and despair.
The Franciscan call to embrace “Lady Poverty” is a radical call for all of us – not to despise material things and physical pleasures, but to love them according to their proper value. The English poet Thomas Traherne said, “Can a man be just unless he loves all things according to their value?” We are not called to despise material things, but to love them for their true value and worth. Only by simplifying our lives can we begin to see things for what they really are and love them according to their worth.
With his emphasis on the love of God and the love of people, Pope Francis – like his namesake saint – reminds us what life is all about. We are to love people and use things, not love things and use people.
Pope Francis’s call for us to strip away all things and stand naked in the presence of God reminds us that each one of us must turn away from the idols in our lives. Each one of us must make a heartfelt and passionate turn away from everything that will ultimately disappoint and turn towards the Father God who loves us.
St. Francis and Pope Francis are not revealing anything new. Both of them follow in the footsteps of Jesus Christ, the Savior and Redeemer. He was the one who did not cling to equality with God, but took the form of a slave. He’s the one who had no place to lay his head. He’s the one who embraced the poverty of this world to open the way to the riches of heaven for the whole world.
Pope Francis’s call to turn away from the empty materialism of the world is a prophetic call for humanity to accept Jesus Christ – the Lord and the only way to the God who loves and reconciles all things.
Fr. Dwight Longenecker’s latest book, The Romance of Religion, is published by Thomas Nelson in February. Visit Fr. Dwight’s blog, browse his books and be in touch at dwightlongenecker.com.