The other day someone put the question to me: 'why did you become a Franciscan?' I was caught a little off guard. There's no short answer. Indeed, there is an array of 'answers.'
There is grace. The Holy Spirit judged that being a Franciscan friar was the best way to work my salvation and make use of me for the salvation of others. This I believe.
There are moments. There's when I met St. Francis in a history class. There's the week I spent alone in Assisi in 1993. There's the day I came home from a disastrous interview with my diocese and read St. Francis's Testament.
Though there is a lot more to it, I think at the root of my wish to be a Franciscan is that St. Francis provided me with a compelling way to respond to the experience of finding myself a privileged person in a violent world.
I don't think St. Francis was what we would call a pacifist; his response to the violence of his society was more radical. He just decided to have nothing to defend, neither material wealth nor personal capital. He simply opted out of the systems of wealth, power, and privilege. With nothing left to defend, he became free from any temptation of violence or retaliation. This is why a Franciscan, if he is given some kind of capital--the spiritual and sacramental capital of priesthood, for example--he must exercise this power in a very detached fashion, or, as I have suggested elsewhere, in an ironic fashion, that is in such a way as to undermine the systems of worldly domination and subordination. A Franciscan who is attached to any form of prestige has forgotten who he is.
I had some of 'Job's friends' way back when I was struggling with all this. 'Have a normal life and help the poor one weekend a month' someone said. But to me, 'helping the poor' from a position of power and the control of resources was never an answer. Francis didn't help the lepers from the position of his privilege; he 'went among them' and served them. Like Jesus the Servant who washed the feet of his disciples, he set himself below those he served. Helping from above wasn't enough for me; it seemed to me that serving from below was the only way to step outside of, to renounce cooperation with the systems that had left some people poor and other people privileged.
Have I succeeded in living these dreams by being a brother of the Friars Minor Capuchin? Maybe that's another post, and a harder one.