Monday, April 19, 2010

Repair My Church, Not Start A New One

"Repair my church, for it is in ruins."

These are the famous words that St. Francis of Assisi heard from an icon of Christ on the cross in the Church of San Damiano outside of Assisi, Italy. He took the vision to be referring to the particular church in which he was praying and so began work to have it restored.

In retrospect, however, with all that Francis did to re-invigorate the Church at large, many believe that Francis misunderstood - that the vision was speaking of the Church.

St. Francis continues to inspire many today, including many in the Protestant tradition. Most recently, I heard Shane Claiborne cite this particular story of Francis' life in a talk he gave, adding that many Christians felt they were hearing the same thing today.

While I deeply respect many within the Protestant tradition who are inspired by Francis (such as Claiborne), I'm not sure that they realize the irony of the situation: Francis heard a voice that told him to repair the Church, not to abandon the current one. And yet, many Christians who cite Francis as an inspiration stand at best in an ecclesial no-mans-land if not explicitly within the Protestant tradition.

Francis was a Catholic, a devout Catholic. He encouraged Catholics to take their Catholicity more seriously.  Francis was not a stand-alone revolutionary, nor a rebel who cast off the structures of the Catholic Church in order to get to "the real core" of the Christian life. Although the Church of his day was full of blatant corruption among clergy- including the selling of Church offices and openly ignoring vows of celibacy - Francis exhorted Catholics to continue to reverence clerics and to respect them as the only ministers of the Eucharist, which he believed to be the real presence of the Body and Blood of our Lord. He encouraged people to confess their sins to priests and to follow the teaching of the Church. He submitted himself to the authority of the Pope.

And to those who try to dismiss his Catholicity with a suggestion that there was somehow no other option, I remind you that what I explained in my post "Heresy Has Always Been an Option" was true of Francis as well (e.g. the Cathars, the Waldensians, etc). Francis was not Catholic by default.

St. Francis is indeed a model for us today. Let us follow him in living our Christian life in the only place that we can do so fully - the Catholic Church. And as we inevitably encounter sin, problems, and disappointments, let us work in a spirit of humility, love, and obedience to repair the Church.


  1. Isn't he the one who instituted Eucharistic Adoration? That sure ain't Prot.

  2. How do you suggest we repair the church from the sex abuse scandal?

  3. Hey Evan,
    Long time no comment.
    It'll be a tough road. The Church needs to be completely open, hand over offenders to the appropriate civil authorities, big time repent, and do everything they can, with humility and love, to help victims, while acknowledging that many will have scars for life.
    It's tough, but by God's grace the Church can get through it. My point is that Christians should stick with the Church through this hard time and try to improve things, not abandon it.

  4. Hey Brantly,
    Yeah it's been a while. I've been pretty busy, and I imagine you are too with graduation coming up.

    I recognize your point, but my question to you is: is there a point where you would say "enough is enough, it's time to start over?"

    I see a strong parallel between the church and the divine right monarchies that used to run the world. Both are led by a single person who claims to have been chosen by God to have ultimatte authority. Should the revolutions that brought us toward the democracy we enjoy today not have happened? If your logic was applied to politics, the answer would be "no they shouldn't have."

    Having a single leader with ultimate authority is a system that is fundamentally opposed to change. The leader will do everything in their power to keep the status quo, and there is little the common people like you and me can do to repair it.

    I mostly agree with what you said the church should do about the sex abuse, but the problem is they are doing the opposite of that.

    They threaten excommunication to clergy that report sexual abuse. Ratzinger himself continued this policy in 2001.

    So again, is there a point where enough is enough?