WWFS? (What Would Francis Say?)

By Anne Howard, Executive Director
The Beatitudes Society

Francis. Francis is on my mind right now as we travel toward Palm Sunday, and Holy Week rises into view. I should say that Holy Week looms into view, as this can be a daunting time of year for church folks: preachers and palm-frond gatherers and liturgists and lily arrangers and foot-washers and bulletin preparers are all making sure their “Ts” are crossed and their “Is” are dotted.  It’s not a simple thing to get from here to Easter Sunday.

But WWFS? What would Francis say?

Francis, the saint, has been much in the news of late. The Bishop of Rome, dressed in the shimmering white silks of his office, announced last week from the high Vatican balcony that he would be known as Francis I. The Church Universal will have at its head the name that is synonymous with simplicity, humility and allegiance with the poor. Change is in the wind.

Back in the 12the century, young Francis of Assisi turned his back on a life of wealth and privilege to follow a new vocation. St. Francis said he heard God call him to “repair my church.” And so, renouncing his family’s riches, he devoted himself to creating a new kind of church at the margins of his world.  He became an itinerant street preacher, and took up residence with the poor and the outcast. He broke the rules and crossed the boundaries, just as Jesus had done. St. Francis, the stories say, greeted the leper with a kiss and the wolf with an embrace.

St. Francis was known more by his deeds than his words, but a few words survive, including his advice to preachers, and to all of us: “Preach the Gospel at all times and when necessary, use words.”

So What Would Francis Say to us as we head into Palm Sunday and Holy Week? What might it look like if we welcomed the spirit of St. Francis into our local churches, just as the cardinal from Argentina has now welcomed the spirit of St. Francis into the Vatican? What if we took into our Palm Sunday and Holy Week the admonition to “preach the Gospel at all times and when necessary, use words?”

As much as I love words and value well-crafted sermons, and as much as I know we need some good preaching to help folks get over bad theology about substitutionary atonement and introduce Easter Sunday visitors to some fresh ways to see resurrection, I can imagine a Palm Sunday and Holy Week with less words and more simplicity.

St. Francis was a man of gesture—the kiss on the leper’s mouth tells us more about compassion than any sermon ever could.  The embrace of the wolf tells us more about facing fear with love than any sermon ever could. He told the story of the birth of Jesus by building a rough manger, filling it with straw and bringing in the animals.

So this coming week, when we get lots of words—we hear the whole Passion story in many of our churches, on Palm Sunday and again on Good Friday—what if we let the story stand on its own, without interpretation, at least until Easter Sunday?

We have the opportunity to tell our story without words—with palm branches in our streets, dramatic reading, overturned tables at banks-too-big-to-fail, footwashing at Veterans Hospitals, broken bread at soup kitchens, stripped altars and darkened crosses in our churches, stations of the cross in our city streets where people suffer—it could be a week for images and drama and artists and musicians, and just a few, very few words.

What if we started, this week, to follow Francis in his simple way? What if we found church at the margins? What if we changed some old patterns and tried some new gestures? We might hear that same call he did, to “repair my church” and that call might us, all of us. We might become a church that is known for its humility, simplicity and allegiance to the poor. We might become known once again as the church of Jesus.

This post originally appeared on The Beatitudes Society website and is reprinted with permission.

The Rev. Anne S. Howard is Executive Director of The Beatitudes Society, a national Progressive Christian leadership development organization that equips emerging entrepreneurial faith leaders.