With all the brouhaha surrounding the recent Synod on the Family, it may be tempting to think that Pope Francis’ only legacy will be one of deep questioning about coherence between our understanding of holy scripture and the practices of religious traditions in the church, especially with regards to the quality of mercy. But for me, this will be but a step in a journey that was prefigured by something that he said at a weekday morning Mass in April 2013: “Christians who are afraid to build bridges and prefer to build walls are Christians who are not sure of their faith, not sure of Jesus Christ.”
I remembered that statement when he praised the work of four Americans in his address to the U.S. Congress: Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day. It was an interesting set of choices, none of them officially declared saints by the church, yet praiseworthy in his eyes, bridge builders to be sure. One built a bridge of peace between two disparate parts of a nation torn by civil war, another built a bridge of justice between races separated by violence and fear, another built a bridge of understanding between world religions, and another built a bridge of compassion between the poor and the powerful.
Pope Francis’ concern for the poor is most strikingly evidenced by his name, chosen because Francis of Assisi “is the man of poverty, the man of peace, the man who loves and protects creation,” he told journalists gathered for a special audience in 2013. Like his namesake, he understood the art of communication and the rich symbolism of what he would say to 5,000 representatives of the world’s mass media: “How I would like a church that is poor and for the poor,” he mused.
For me, his legacy will be the fact that Pope Francis built a bridge between the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor. Regardless of his success in changing the attitudes and behaviors of polluters around the world, he has made it much more difficult to not see at a single glance rain-forests, polar bears and vulnerable people, all threatened by the same policies and practices, whether callous or simply misinformed.
We treat people the way we treat the environment, argued Leonardo Boff (Cry of the Earth, Cry of the Poor, 1995), a fellow South American. Boff wrote extensively about cosmic Christology and the vision of Francis of Assisi. This book is replete with notions that are now amplified by Pope Francis (Laudato Si’, 2015.)
The pope’s address to congress was also interesting from another perceptive. In choosing to mention the names of Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day, he drew attention to bridges that are especially important in our own times. Merton, who confessed to be “in some secret way a son of St. Francis,” built a bridge between prayer and action, monasticism and activism (Franciscan Eremitism, 1966) (You may wish to check out Where the Grey Light Meets the Green Air: The Hermit as Pilgrim in the Franciscan Spirituality of Thomas Merton by Sean Edward Kinsella.)
Meanwhile, Day, born in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge, was motivated in her social action by a spirituality that had deep roots in the Franciscan teaching of her mentor Peter Maurin. She built a bridge between the people left destitute by the Depression and church authorities that regarded care of the poor as synonymous with Communism (ring a bell?), and another bridge between war and peace that she saw as not only an end but also the means by which to achieve it. A radical pacifist, she actively confronted state-sanctioned violence.
Finally, this being the month of November, the time in which we celebrate the lives of saints and commemorate our own loses, we are reminded of the final frontier of bridge-building, the passage from life to death, shores that are closer than we often imagine. This is the subject of one of the most hopeful verses in Francis of Assisi’s classic Canticle of Creation, of which “Laudato Si” are the opening words. Approaching the end of his own earthly life, he embraces death with sibling affection: “Be praised, my Lord, for our Sister Death, whom we must all face.”
Seeing death as a bridge, the reconciliation of what seems to the human mind to be irreconcilable, he joyfully and confidently ends his poem and his life with these words: ‘I praise and bless you, Lord, and I give thanks to you, and I will serve you in all humility.” These words should be our daily prayer as we stare at chasms and obstacles. No distance is too great; no wall too daunting for bridges that people of faith can and must build with humility.
Dr. King once said, “One of the great tragedies of life is that men seldom bridge the gulf between practice and profession, between doing and saying. A persistent schizophrenia leaves so many of us tragically divided against ourselves. On the one hand, we proudly profess certain sublime and noble principles, but on the other hand, we sadly practice the very antithesis of these principles. How often are our lives characterized by a high blood pressure of creeds and an anemia of deeds!”
So many bridges to build. So many reasons to doubt our capacity to build them. Yet Pope Francis reminds us that, with sureness in Jesus Christ, we can. I wish the reverend doctor could have met him. Maybe he did in that dream that he had.