Francis: Two men, 9 centuries apart, models for helping the poor

St. Francis of Assisi and Pope Francis

By Stephen H. Padre

This Sunday is the Feast of St. Francis (1181/1182-1226), the day the Church honors a great friar from Assisi. He is the patron saint of the environment and animals because he loved all creatures and allegedly preached to even the birds. In recent years, many congregations have started to bless pets and other animals as a way to mark this day and honor his spirit. This has upped the saint’s popularity rating among church-going Americans.

Americans are still basking in the glow of another Francis – the pope – who visited our country last week. For Catholics and non-Catholics alike, the pope’s visit created a lot of goodwill because of his humble demeanor and common touch. In many ways, not just in name, Pope Francis takes after St. Francis of Assisi.

Pope Francis raised the issue of hunger and poverty several times during his U.S. visit. But he didn’t just talk the talk. He walked the walk. Here’s a man who was received officially as a head of state in our nation’s capital. The entire legislature, cabinet members, justices of the Supreme Court, as well as the president the day before (all three branches of our government!) came to hear what he had to say. He was in the midst of our country’s most powerful people, who listened to him with bated breath. And what did he do immediately after that? He went straight to dining with homeless people on the streets of Washington, D.C. And he drove to them not in a fancy, armored limousine, but in a compact car, a Fiat. He went from shaking hands with the Speaker of the House to laying hands on people who are homeless.

Part of why Pope Francis is so popular is that he’s a bit of an oddity in our world today. He has tremendous power, wealth, and influence in both religious and political circles. But he’s also a man who hasn’t forgotten about the common, ordinary folk and the people who are usually shunned by the upper crust of society.

St. Francis was also among his country’s rich and powerful. He was born into a 1 percent family, the son of a prosperous silk merchant in Italy. But on a pilgrimage to Rome, he joined the poor in begging at St. Peter’s Basilica and went on to live a life of poverty as a friar.

Like Francis of 12th century Italy and Francis of a 21st century globalized world, can we Americans also be a bridge between the world’s powerful people and the world’s poorest people? Can we touch both worlds and use the gift we have of citizenship and residency in the United States to speak to our government as Pope Francis did? Can we be so compelling that they will want to listen to us like they did to Pope Francis? Will we stop and speak with – or even dine with – the homeless people on our streets? Can we take the stories of people who are hungry to Congress and challenge them to end hunger in our time?

May we find a model for putting our faith into action and ending hunger in these men named Francis.

Stephen H. Padre is the managing editor for Bread for the World. Although he’s not Catholic, he likes both Pope Francis and St. Francis of Assisi.

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