“Mankind must remember that peace is not God’s gift to his people; peace is our gift to each other.”
These words, from Holocaust survivor and peace activist Elie Wiesel, are my go-to on Franciscan Media’s social channels whenever acts of violence befoul our country. Needless to say, I’ve tweeted them often. The message speaks to our own potential as peace-builders—and they are so inherently Franciscan they could have flowed from the pen of Francis himself. But it seems that, culturally, we have devalued the art of peacemaking.
A week has passed, but the nation is still reeling—and healing—from the riots at the US Capitol in Washington, DC. As of this writing, five people were killed as a result of the insurrection. After the dust settled, I became acutely aware of two things: This is not the country envisioned by our founders; and given the growing division in our nation, we are far from the peaceful utopia for which St. Francis prayed in his lifetime.
Medieval and Timeless
The poor man of Assisi was medieval to his core, but his struggles were surprisingly contemporary. Born into privilege, a young Francis was wooed by earthly trappings and dreams of glory on the battlefield. But that was not to be. During his time as a soldier, he was captured and taken as a prisoner of war for a year, eventually returning home, sick and broken. But healing through spiritual conversion was underway.
One chapter in that conversion story happened when Francis approached a leper outside the walled city of Assisi. Once repelled by the sight of them, he suddenly saw the face of Christ in the leper, kissed his cheek, and embraced him as a brother. What could have been a sweet-but-insignificant moment became a hallmark of Franciscan spirituality: embracing “the other” and setting aside our differences as children of God.
It isn’t always comfortable embracing those who differ from us—and rarely is it convenient. Shedding our worldly selves for such a higher purpose doesn’t count unless it challenges us. Francis of Assisi understood this lesson of rising above prejudice and scorn, but it is one seldom practiced today.
The Least Among Us
Who qualifies as 21st-century lepers? What individuals or groups have we neatly categorized as dangerous, unsavory, suspect? Asylum seekers, those who have fled persecution in their home country but who are without legal status as refugees, are a good place to start. How would Francis of Assisi treat them if he were alive today? Would he favor their removal from the only country they've known? Or would he embrace them as brothers and sisters? The love Francis had for Christ burned like fire in his heart, and he would surely see parallels between asylum seekers behind chain-link fences in McAllen, Texas, and the plight of the Holy Family, asylum seekers in their own day.
Those who are targeted because of their race, religion, or sexual identity or orientation could qualify as 21st-century lepers, absolutely. According to a 2019 report by the Department of Justice, over 50 percent of hate crimes in the last year were committed by white Americans. But the relentless narrative among many is that the real threat is beyond our borders, not within.
Would Francis of Assisi help in building walls of division? Would he fan the flames of fear and suspicion? A singular moment in his life may offer an answer. When he was praying in the fallen-down chapel of San Damiano, Francis heard God’s simple message: Do not destroy, repair; choose peace over conflict; build bridges, not walls. That should be our directive in this century.
Endure in Peace
It’s easy to classify Francis’ message as too dated to be relevant in this complex century, but that is shortsighted. His life mirrored the Gospels. And their core message—love God, love your neighbor—goes away whenever a human life is endangered, compromised, or cut short.
Living lives devoted to peace and justice is like a flame illuminating a darkened sky. Francis of Assisi was such a light in his lifetime and he is calling us to be the same. He said as much in his “Canticle of Brother Sun.”
“Happy those who endure in peace; by you, Most High, they will be crowned.”