Franciscan Theatrics: Papa Francisco’s Gangsta Ways

“Show, don’t tell.” This could be the Franciscan evangelical motto. The Franciscan tradition is rooted in story, stories of Father Francis doing crazy, wild, and beautiful things. St. Francis was, in many respects, a fool. He saw things in the most literal, direct ways. A childlike artist.

Finger painting.

When called to rebuild Christ’s Church, Francis began with his hands. Only later did he realize that the work was not a brick and mortar affair. This is the man who placed a manger under the altar and animals in the sanctuary, to show the truth of the Nativity: puer natus est. Francis was a deeply embodied ascetic, even as he apologized to his broken “Brother Body” as he died, sick and blind, for having been too hard on him.

This foolishness was also his genius. The literary tradition is full of fools who, in their simplicity, see the world as it truly is. A real Quixote, a canonized Sancho Panza: Francis was so real—too real—we can best understand him only through fiction.

There is also another side to this. Perhaps the fool, harkening back to Socrates, is simply acting. Pretending. Maybe the fool isn’t a fool at all.

I don’t care for either reading. The fool-as-buffoon is too naive and disrespectful, but the fool-as-manipulator is surely an overcorrection. There must be some randomness to the matter. I prefer a bipolar fool, who plays buffoon and manipulator, and almost always by chance.

Pope Francis has been widely praised for his acts of humility. His precious bus rides, hotel room payments, and newspaper cancelation phone calls—and his historic upcoming Holy Thursday Mass. Others have noted how papal humility can itself be prideful and even selfish. Both sides have their logic. But they also miss a key point: the theatre of the papacy.

John Paul II understood the pulpit and the theatrics of the stage and Benedict XVI understands the letter and the book, but Francis understands something simpler still. The theatre of the everyday. An almost Seinfield-esque sense of the significance of the ordinary. (Yes, on this reading, Seinfield was a Franciscan sitcom.)

When Father Francis presented his Rule to Innocent III, he was admonished to use it to preach to pigs. Francis obediently proceeded to a pig stye, covered himself in mud and pigshit, and returned with his original request. Funky Francis eventually got what he wanted—although Innocent III refused to put his approval in writing.

The extreme humility of St. Francis was also strategically subversive and theatrical. Francis chose to show, not tell.

There is another story where, at a later council, Francis climbed atop a house he thought the Order was using in violation of his severe Rule and began throwing the roof tiles to the ground as a reprimand. He had to be informed that he had climbed onto the wrong house. Oops!

Pope Francis has only been adorable to date. Refreshing for some, Quixotic for others, borderline duplicitous for a few. Perhaps strategically, perhaps not, probably both. All of the above.

If he keeps it up, he will probably embarrass himself. So be it. Like his namesake, Pope Francis is aware of the theatrics of the New Evangelization, he’s a total gansta, a fool who is unafraid to show more than he says, to embody the gospel and mix the sacred with the dirt and excrement of the profane.

The challenge for us is the same: how do we show more than we say?

All I can say is this: Papa Francisco, how I love your gansta ways!



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