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!



  • Agni Ashwin

    A true Gangsta. An Original G.

  • srocha

    OG indeed, Agni.


  • Yae

    Viva il Papa! He wears Mary’s mantle of humility well. If the world is embarrassed by it, so be it as he continues to preach Christ Crucified.

  • Theodore Seeber

    I still don’t understand your POSITIVE use of the terms surrounding gang violence. Gangstas to me are anything but humble- and humility is at the center of Franciscan teaching and ways.

    Gangsta to me is a man who descends into machismo and violence to get the dignity he can’t get any other way- to find the pride that he can’t find any other way. The trouble is, machismo, pride, and violence are anything but dignified; the bridge of the gangsta isn’t far enough to cross the chasm.

    Franciscan builds the bridge from the other side- in great dignity, building dignity for others.

    • srocha

      If the word bothers you, substitute something you like better.


      • Theodore Seeber

        What’s wrong with Franciscan?

        • srocha

          I used that word, too.

      • Theodore Seeber

        I finally went back and re-read your original Gangsta posts from six months ago (was it really last October?!?!?) to remind myself what you meant by Gangsta, and it’s not nearly as bad as what I mean by that term.

        But it isn’t humility either. Franciscan humility is MUCH more radical than any righteous anger of the Gangsta ever tried to be. Gangstas are quite common, Franciscan humility is downright noble. Jesus the Gangsta, when confronted by money changers in the temple got angry and threw tables about and kicked them all out. St. Francis, when confronted in his own mind in the middle of winter of the corruption of his father’s wealth, stripped down to just a hairshirt, told the Bishop to give his clothes and money back to his father, and went out wandering in the snow.

        Show don’t tell is wrong too- because St. Francis ALWAYS preached. You couldn’t shut him up. Even if the only audience he had was a wolf, the sun, and the moon, you couldn’t shut him up.

        That’s a whole lot more radical than any gangsta I’ve ever met.

  • John

    Brother Theodore, bless you. Don’t hate the playah, hate da game.

    • Theodore Seeber

      Thus the ” to get the dignity he can’t get any other way ” in my above comment. It is indeed the game- the grinding poverty that comes from the disruption of paternity that was part and parcel of chattel slavery in the United States, depriving many young men for a good 150 years after the civil war of any possible example of healthy fatherhood and manhood- that I hate.

      Thanks to the sexual libertines, that same curse, through divorce and homosexuality, is now being visited on a much wider audience of children in the last 40 years, but the African Americans had it first. Gangs and Gangsta culture is a reaction to that.

  • Steve

    Sam, first I just want to say I really love reading your blog. I think that you talk about a lot of subjects in such a way that makes them completely new to me. Unlike so many religious blogs, yours is actually very refreshing and thought-provoking.

    That being said, I swear if I read the word “gangsta” from you again, I’m going to find your house so I can punch you in the face in a most uncharitable fashion. On a related note, could you send me your home address?

    Your friend in Christ,

    • srocha

      Dear Steve,

      I fear there is too little talk of gangstas around these parts, but I’ll try to not overdo it. I tend to repeat myself, if you haven’t noticed. Consistency is one thing, redundancy is another.

      Man, I hope you come in about two months, once I’m in good shape. Then we can have a solid rumble. However, if I gave you my address here, you’d never get to me — my wife would kill me first!

      Thanks for reading,


  • JoFro

    Could someone please send me a link to stories like these about St Francis of Assisi – is there a page on the web that discusses all these awesome parts of St Francis’ life?

    • srocha

      I drew them from memories of my Life of St. Francis course I took in undergrad. For the life of me, I cannot seem to find our excellent book. I think Theodore may have located it!

  • Theodore Seeber

    It’s on the web now. It was originally a book published in 1923. GK Chesterton did quite the in-depth study of Francis of Assisi’s life.

    • srocha

      Thanks, Theodore!