As we have approached another feast of St. Francis I've been reflecting a little bit on how it is I got to be a Franciscan. It's always an interesting reflection for me, for at least a couple of reasons. On the one hand, my interest in and desire for the Franciscan life goes back almost to the beginning of my Christianity. On the other hand, my first priest, who had care of my soul as a pre-catechumen and again as a neophyte, insists to this day that I am a Benedictine at heart. I don't think he's correct, but perhaps there might be those of my confreres who would agree with him.
As I have thought about it over the years, I have come to the provisional conclusion that Francis caught my desire and imagination so strongly because I found in him a synthesis of punk rock and Christianity.
I first met St. Francis in a history class during my sophomore year of college. I was not yet a Catholic, though I was on my way. I had begun to read the New Testament the summer before, found it compelling, and had decided that I wanted to become a Christian. I didn't know what sort of Christian, however, and didn't even know how to make such a decision. As it turned out, this impasse was a great gift of grace, as it became my first school of prayer and helped me to learn that this wasn't something I was doing, but my first steps of surrender to God. In the end I didn't so much as decide to become a Catholic Christian but only confessed that I had been led in that direction.
But I also have to admit that having met Francis of Assisi, the 'thoroughly Catholic and apostolic man' was an influence in my surrender to the Catholic I had become.
Punk had taught me to question. It had showed me that the given value, that what everyone said or thought was the thing wasn't necessarily the right or best way to go. Even the geography of punk life spoke to this: the record stores were hidden away on second floors of buildings. The bands played in basements. It was an intensely liberating discovery for me. No longer was there the anguish of feeling like I didn't fit into the world around me; punk made me realize that I didn't want to fit in anyway. Punk was stern in in its social critique; the injustices of our society were unacceptable. Opting out of the dehumanizing system was the only option; the situation was beyond compromise.
But though punk taught me a critical turn against the world and gave me a desire to opt out of the 'system'--"Death to the World" as the Orthodox 'punks to monks' used to say--punk didn't seem to me to present much of an alternative. We critique, we opt out, but then what? What would a better world look like? True, some punks had some idea of this, such as the brighter and more committed anarcho-punks and others who took starting points like veganism to their logical conclusions and even became pro-life, but most of us didn't. It was all rage against the system but little plan for a renewed or healed world.
For this I needed Christianity, and Francis became the model, or 'pattern' to use a more Franciscan term. Francis lived in a society with deep parallels to our own. Violence was endemic and increasing. The reinvention of the money economy was creating new injustices. Like a good punk, Francis opted out. Recovering from the illness that had come upon him as a prisoner of war, he began to pray. He sought God, finally renouncing his own place among the new wealthy of his time. He stood naked before his neighbors, calling only on God. He lived with the lepers, renouncing his welcome among those who were called decent and healthy.
Against the evils embedded in his own society, Francis had done what punk had made me want to do as a response to mine. But unlike the punks, Francis had a durable and workable alternative. He would live as the Lord revealed to him he should, secundum formam sancti Evangelii, according to the form of the holy Gospel. (Testament, 14)
Punk rock taught me that human society and culture were subject to critique, and that compromise with its anti-human, anti-life 'horrendous policies' was not an option. The radical Christianity of Francis of Assisi showed me where I could go with this insight, and God has given me the grace of an opportunity to follow the Gospel according to his pattern.
Holy Father Francis, deacon, founder of the three Orders, pray for us!