Editorial: Dialogue over Division

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“The Franciscan charism will save the world!” Every now and then, this phrase pops up in our Franciscan family. But do we really mean it? Or is it simple hyperbole supporting our way of life? I would argue the truth is there, but with no action, its fate falls short. 

As we enter this controversial presidential election year, I am reminded of election night in 2012. I was in my second year of novitiate with the Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia and attending a formation event that brought together Franciscans in initial formation in our Franciscan family. Tensions were high that Election Day: Mitt Romney was the Republican candidate, and Barack Obama was the incumbent. Though it may be difficult to remember now, this election divided our country. 

Franciscans are unique when it comes to such moments of division—we span the spectrum of labels. Whether you name it conservative, liberal, or something else altogether, Franciscans come as a hodgepodge of eclectic characters across the political continuum. As election results were reported that November evening in 2012, we sat together, both parties in the same space. There was excitement, empathy, sadness, and support all mixed together in a room that could easily be divided. We spent the rest of the week praying, eating, sharing, and having fun together. We were simply together

‘Mirror of Perfection’ 

This witness provides our country with a concrete example of what life could be if we chose dialogue over division. I do not pretend that real problems do not exist, nor do I believe the separation and division are unwarranted, but I do believe that with no cross-conversation, community is not possible. 

Pope Francis, in an address in 2014, spoke of unity by saying, “It means knowing how to listen, to accept differences, and having the freedom to think differently and express oneself with complete respect toward the other, who is my brother or sister.” 

Our own Franciscan tradition speaks deeply to the idea of unity through community. In St. Francis of Assisi, the Mirror of Perfection, written by Brother Leo, we are told the story of Francis waking up the brothers in the middle of the night to sit for a meal with one brother who cried out in hunger. Francis made it abundantly clear that it was “great necessity and charity [that] compelled” him to do what he did “out of love for [their] brother.” Francis went on to say, “Let each one provide his body with what it needs as our poverty will allow.” 

This act of compromise came from a place of love without loss of identity or values. He wasn’t asking all the brothers to bend to the need of a single brother; he was asking that judgment be set aside so that each may have only what they needed. He was simply acknowledging differences. It seems the divisions of our time have caused us to lose the ability to make room for differences due to strict adherence to laws over compassion—something Jesus often warned the Pharisees against. 

Collaboration, Dialogue, Transformation 

So, yes, I believe the Franciscan charism can save the world, but only if we act authentically from that call to community and wrestle with the challenges that come with it. Many members of our Franciscan family are already doing this work, but it needs to be shared widely. 

The Franciscan Federation, of which I am the executive director, has been engaged in a multiyear transformation process to broaden the membership beyond the sisters and brothers to include Franciscan organizations and all who identify as Franciscan. I am deeply aware of the challenges and communication needed to do such transformative work within a single organization. It will take all of us to transform the world. 

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