The Ministry of Relationship According to St. Francis
Francis’s way of being-in-the-world centered on following the example of Jesus Christ. Franciscan scholar Michael Blastic insightfully connects the humility of God that Francis recognized in the Incarnation and sought to emulate with God’s outward movement toward humanity. Once rooted in humility, God Incarnate – Jesus Christ – entered into relationships with the people around him. All four Gospels recount the multitude of encounters Jesus had with many: the marginalized, outcast, wealthy, powerful, average, violent, peaceful, and so on. Because he lived in such a perfect state of humble existence among his sisters and brothers, Jesus was able to meet those he encountered as they were and treat them with the inherent dignity rightly deserved by virtue of their humanity. For Francis, this became a major component of his way of life and remains a characteristic of Franciscan ministry today.
While most of the preserved writings of Francis are letters, prayers, admonitions or ways of life addressed to large audiences, we have one letter that was written to a particular minister. The identity of this brother remains anonymous, which at first causes frustration in an age full of people impatient for instant gratification; however, the anonymity of the recipient allows us to stand in his place as the receiver of wisdom from Francis concerning ministry. The letter provides a touching look into the heart of Francis. Francis is concerned about the attitude and disposition of his brother friar and instructs him:
I wish to know in this way if you love the Lord and me, His servant and yours: that there is not any brother in the world who has sinned – however much he could have sinned – who, after he has looked into your eyes, would ever depart without your mercy, if he is looking for mercy.
Mercy trumps retributive justice. Relationship remains the primary hermeneutic for interpreting every encounter with another. While in retrospect this sort of observation may at first appear obvious, it is only because our familiarity – if only subtly and indirectly – with Franciscan ministry informs our way of seeing. However, this had not always been the case. Franciscan historian Joseph Chinnici describes the early Franciscan movement as a radically new form of “penitential humanism.” Chinnici understands this term as the unifying tendency of the Franciscan movement to connect people amid “social discord and violence.” This approach to ministry is one that places relationship and community above one’s personal faith journey and conversion. In fact, one’s own conversion, if indicative of a Franciscan hue, should lead toward humanity and away from only one’s self. It is for precisely this reason that Francis insisted that the friars were to remain mendicants and not monks, to live as if the whole world were a cloister and not be limited to the four walls of private religious life.
A Franciscan approach to ministry is not simply a praxis of good method and skillful implementation of model practices; rather it is an ethical project that seeks to unite those who are separated by the violence of social, political, and ecclesial dissent. To further stress the importance of relationship as the operative approach to ministry, Francis often used familial terms in his writing. In his Earlier Rule, Francis says, “Let each one love and care for his brother as a mother loves and cares for her son.” The familial understanding of relationship in the spirituality of Francis even extended beyond human relationships to include all of God’s creation as found in his most famous work, The Canticle of the Creatures, where he addresses all elements as brother or sister. In an age of heightened ecological awareness the notion of relationship with the earth and the rest of creation can positively influence our approach to ministry. We are called to minister to all with a deepened sense of our interdependence and relatedness as children of God and brothers and sisters of all God’s creation.
This is an excerpt from the chapter titled, “A Franciscan Way of Ministry,” in my new book Francis of Assisi and the Future of Faith: Exploring Franciscan Spirituality and Theology in the Modern World (Tau Publishing, 2012). To read more, check out the book in Paperback and for the Amazon Kindle.