"Francis, go repair my house": papal advice from a saint?

By Simon Barrow
March 13, 2013

Others will also recall it now, but I am grateful to Mark Chater, director of Culham St Gabriel's Trust in Oxford, for reminding me of one of the most significant sayings said to have been received from Christ by St Francis of Assisi: "Francis, go repair my house which, as you see, is falling completely to ruin."

Francis is the name the new pope, Argentinian Cardinal-Archbishop Jorge Mario Bergoglio, SJ, has chosen as his pontifical monicker. Both Cardinal Doolan and the Jesuit Fr Federico Lombardi, the official Vatican spokesperson, confirmed that the new pope chose the name in honour of St Francis of Assisi.

The resonance with a 12th century Saint who is revered well beyond Catholicism, who is recognised for his humility and voluntary poverty, who is an inspiration to peacemakers, and above all who challenged a wealthy and top-heavy Church, looks very powerful in the context of the crises the Vatican is currently presiding over -- not least within its own structures and culture.

There is also a nominal connection, of course, with the pioneering 16th century Jesuit missionary priest Francis Xavier, whose global vision saw the Christian message spread to India, Japan, Borneo and the Moluccas. His is a toponymic name (related to a region) derived from etxaberri, meaning "new house" in the Basque language. That might suggest a certain disposition towards the Church and its challenges from the new papal incumbent, too.

As for St Francis' vision of Christ and call to repair the Church, the foundation of the field chapel of San Damiano (http://www.sandamianofoundation.org/), situated a mile outside the walls of Assisi, recounts the story in the following way.

Back in Francis’ time, the simple, poor church was half in ruins following years of neglect. In 1205, in response to God’s grace, Francis was in the midst of transforming his life. He was beginning to feel the presence of God in all he saw and in everyone he met. More and more, Francis was able to see the image of Christ in the poor and afflicted. He was not just seeing things, but seeing through things. After embracing a leper, Francis sought to discover an inner unity within himself and an outward unity with others. He had a deep desire to dedicate himself to a life of solitude and prayer, and an equally strong desire to serve the poor and spread the Good News of Christ. His large heart was divided: he felt a call to prayer and a call to service. And so, one day he entered the decaying little Church of San Damiano to seek God’s will.

Light flooded in through the partially collapsed roof as Francis humbly knelt in prayer in front of a large, painted Byzantine cross which hung above the altar. During what may have been a long, intense period of prayer, a voice broke through the silence of the abandoned church. It was Christ speaking. And he said, "Francis, go repair my house which, as you see, is falling completely to ruin."

Francis took the words he heard as a direct order to restore the church. Brick by brick, he rebuilt it, begging for all the supplies he needed. By 1206, the restoration of the church was completed. After restoring that and other small churches, Francis began the progressively more difficult tasks of restoring the universal Church and restoring himself.

The symbolism of all this will be immensely powerful, not least for those whose hope and prayer is for a wind of revivifying change to blow through the corridors of the modern Catholic Church, and perhaps especially its hierarchy and Curia (administrative bureaucracy).

Robert Micken, correspondent of The Tablet newspaper, currently in Rome, said this evening (13 March 2013) that we might expect not just a challenge to the ruling bureaucracy, but "a reform to simplicity" from Pope Francis. It will be fascinating to see what unfolds.

* Papal #conclave: news, comment, background and analysis from Ekklesia: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/PapalConclave

* Analysis: What can we expect from Pope Francis I?, by Simon Barrow: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/18166

* A 'religious pope': what difference it could make for the Catholic Church, Simon Barrow: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/18167

* More on Pope Francis from Ekklesia: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/PopeFrancis

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© Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. A member of the Scottish Episcopal Church with strong Anabaptist/Mennonite leanings, he has worked at a Catholic university college in the past, as well as within the ecumenical movement. He has a long-standing interest in, and appreciation for, Catholic spirituality and liturgy, alongside the peace and justice traditions of the Catholic Church.

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.