Being a Franciscan in a Secular Age

Yesterday, the Secular Franciscans of the BC Coastal region gathered for their Chapter of Mats, and they had invited me to provide them with some input. The title of this blog is the theme that I had chosen. It’s not easy being a Christian in our time, in an age in which secularism governs every aspect of our lives. Some want to withdraw to the certainties of the past and traditions that have long since lost their roots in the life of the Church, but clearly, this cannot be the Franciscan response.

The first presentation was about history, and the two specific episodes in the life of Francis that I find most important. The first is the encounter with the leper. Some time ago, I had gotten curious about what modern historical research has to say about the life of lepers in the time of Francis, in the 13th century. I ended up being quite surprised. The idea of the leper as a fear-imposing menace, to be avoided at all cost and shunned by society, seems to be one of the many stories about the middle ages invented in the 19th century. After all, the more barbarous the middle ages were presented, the easier it became to see modernity as a tale about progress.

Life in leprosaria was more akin to life in monastic communities, and some of them were well off, and others not so much. They were an established part of the medieval religious world. They had their opponents, which is why, in 1179, the 3rd Lateran Council had to take measures to protect them. However, it seems that the matter was about money: the lepers might get donations that otherwise would have gone to the parish. So, this really does not sound so very different from today’s situation. For Francis, the leper represented the suffering Christ, and the reason why the encounter with the leper became so important to him is that it was in this moment that he experienced the healing mercy of God in his own life. It made it possible for Francis to carry his own burdens, his own disappointments and failures, and turn it into the joy of living the redeemed life of a Christian.

For how to live this life, I gave the example of the friars who chose to live among the Muslims, and Francis’s own attempt to reach out to the Sultan of Egypt in the midst of the 5th crusade. We see the lesson that was learned in the 16th chapter of the earlier rule, where it gives the brothers an important permission. They are allowed to live among non-believers and be humble and subject to them, and they are allowed give witness to their faith only through their own humility and steadfastness in Christian faith, rather than their zealousness for making conversions.

This seems excellent advice for life today. We continued the afternoon session by taking another look at Pope Francis’s first apostolic exhortation: The Joy of the Gospel. It continues to challenge us, and it is the key document that explains Pope Francis’s understanding of what it means to be a Christian in a secular age. It asks us to become a missionary Church, a Church that goes out into the world, but in humility and trust in God alone. It is a call to be witnesses to radical trust in a world that suffers from radical doubt. It is trust in God, in Jesus Christ, in the Sacraments and in the Gospels, and nothing else.

This is quite a challenge! But then, it always was. At least we know from history that it was never easy to be a Christian, or a Franciscan, but that we have many saints to look up to if we feel that we have lost our way.

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About the author

His intellectual formation includes a doctorate in biochemistry from the University of Munich, but now most of his writing is about faith and science. After a career in universities and biotechnology companies in the US and Canada, he changed course. He became a Franciscan Friar in 2008 and was ordained a priest in 2014. His scientific research interests were the mechanism of intracellular protein transport and the use of proteomics to understand disease mechanisms. Now they are the relationships between modern science, the Franciscan view of nature, and Christian faith. His ministry is in Montreal, with an emphasis on outreach to young adults and all others who try to understand their faith in a scientific-technological culture. His most recent publication is "Remembering Francis: Making Sense of Modern Life", available at Franciscan Institute Publications.

Last updated: November 22, 2021

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