Several scholars of the Franciscan tradition, both professed Franciscan women and men as well as those who are not explicitly part of a Franciscan community per se, have written in recent years about the renunciation of power as a constitutive characteristic of what it means to be Franciscan. First among these thinkers is the renowned French scholar and director of Medieval Studies at the L’École Français in Rome Jacques Dalarun. He wrote a book some years ago titled François d’Assise ou le pouvoir en question (1999), which was subsequently translated into English and published by the Franciscan Institute as Francis of Assisi and Power (2007). It is simply an excellent book and well-worth reading in its entirety, but here I would like to highlight just the overarching thesis, for it will factor, in part, into my lecture this weekend in New York City.
Because power is the operative element that governs so many dynamics of human living, it’s important to consider the ways in which it is used and abused in the world. There are unrecognized and unconscious systemic ways power plays into our economic, political and social institutions and experiences. Power is also an underlying principle behind relationships. Who has control, what are individual motives and the like all function as expressions of the way power operates beneath the observable layers of human interaction.
Power becomes an overt issue as well, in cases where people seek to control and influence others, or perhaps — less maliciously — desire only to obtain more wealth or stature themselves.
The Franciscan tradition reminds us of our call to reject the at-times intuitive systemic injustice and power imbalances in our world. Francis was one who flipped around his own engagement within power structures, seeking as best he could to reject the injustice of society that emerged through realities such as the rising merchant class or event the ecclesiastical endorsement of things like marginalization of lepers or the villainization of Muslims during the Crusades.
Dalarun explains that the genius of Francis’s response to this reality was not that he withdrew from the world, as would have been another option in a more traditionally monastic life, but that he engaged the world in a Gospel-focused way.
In its beginnings, the Order that is called “Franciscan,” or more accurately, “The order of Friars Minor,” was a fraternity of mostly lay individuals who decided to do penance. The founder, in his concern to live “according to the form of the Holy Gospel,” chose to establish in a rule of religious life the condition shared by the most powerless classes in the society of his time: destitution, precariousness, itinerancy, manual labor. He showed a loathing for all forms of power and went far beyond the scorn of the world found in the monastic and ascetic tradition. With Francis, there is less of a merely visible break with the world; at the heart of his life there is instead more intransigence toward any compromise with the world and its powers.
How is that we engage in or even support structures of injustice and power in our day? In what way do we perpetuate what Francis sought to end: namely, those things, practices and attitudes that create walls between people and prevent relationship instead of building up the Church, which is the Body of Christ.