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Wednesday, Oct 02 2013 02:24 PM

VALERIE SCHULTZ: Pope Francis true to namesake in shaking things up for the good

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    Valerie Schultz

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    By AP Photo/Riccardo De Luca

    Pope Francis waves to faithful as he arrives for his weekly general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican, Wednesday, Sept. 18, 2013.

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By The Bakersfield Californian

Pope Francis is well named. As we Catholics celebrate the yearly feast of St. Francis of Assisi on Friday, we can reflect on the spiritual shake-ups of these two Francises.

Although St. Francis lived in the 12th century and Pope Francis has only been pope since March, they advocate and embody the same Gospel message of love and service. To quote the director of the U.S. Conferences of Catholic Bishops' Office of International Justice and Peace: "Pope Francis chose his name very purposefully and reflects his commitment to peace, the poor and the planet."

The story of St. Francis begins with a spoiled young man of means who has an encounter with God and begins to take the Gospel literally.

Whenever anyone does this, two things happen: He or she first attracts followers, and then upsets the status quo enough so that he or she is chastised or disciplined by the entrenched and earthly hierarchy of the Church, for being too radical. Francis gave away his possessions, brought nothing on his journeys, and took up the cross of service to others. His bishop was reportedly horrified by Francis' austerity. St. Francis was eventually granted papal permission for his order of monks, and the Franciscans are still among us today, caring for and living with the poor and forsaking personal wealth for the common good. Assisi is now a holy place of pilgrimage. St. Francis himself is now venerated and embraced by the Church.

What's interesting about our new Francis is that he heads the very hierarchy that he is currently making nervous with his radical adherence to the Gospel.

Who can doubt that the Holy Spirit is dwelling among us when we are witnesses to the fresh air that is blowing -- nay, gusting -- through the Church? Pope Francis has taken on the pomp of the Church, instead modeling a down-to-earth simplicity. He has condemned income disparity, the worship of money, and the plight of the poor among us. "Money has to serve, not rule," he has said. And, "Human rights are violated . . . by unfair economic structures that create huge inequalities." And, "Let us all remember this: one cannot proclaim the Gospel of Jesus without the tangible witness of one's life." He speaks directly and plainly on just about any topic. He demonstrates love, compassion and acceptance in word and deed. When it comes to the Gospel, he seems to mean business, rather than business-as-usual.

And the arrival of Pope Francis on the global scene is timely. On this feast of St. Francis, let us note that Pope John Paul II named St. Francis of Assisi the "Patron Saint of Those Who Promote Ecology." This is the second year that the Catholic Coalition on Climate Change has produced an educational program to coincide with the Feast of St. Francis. This year's chosen theme is "Melting Ice, Mending Creation: A Catholic Approach to Climate Change," with a nod to the work of James Balog and his Extreme Ice Survey, which he documented in his film "Chasing Ice." If you see that documentary, it will chill you with the realization that we have an alarming amount of work to do to care for God's creation. We have been remiss in our stewardship.

St. Francis, of course, possessed an exuberant love of nature. His "Canticle of the Sun" prays in communion with "Brother Sun, Sister Moon, Brother Fire, Sister Water, and Mother Earth." He literally talked to the animals, and artistic renditions usually depict him in the company of birds or rabbits. One of my favorite tasks during eight years as the director of religious education for a Catholic parish was organizing the annual Blessing of the Animals in honor of the Feast of St. Francis. The children in our program led the dogs, cats, horses, birds, hamsters, gerbils, rabbits, and iguanas of the parish in procession, to receive our pastor's blessing with holy water. Natural animal lovers, the kids didn't even mind getting out the rake and shovel to take care of the piles our guests had left on the lawn. Years later, it occurs to me that living the overwhelming love mandated by the Gospel requires both the sweet blessing and the smelly shovel.

Which are two spiritual tools that Pope Francis, like his namesake before him, employs. I believe that today's Francis can inspire us all to become Francis in our time. I believe we can work together, in the words of the Prayer of St. Francis, for the things of God, for peace, love, pardon, faith, hope, light, joy, consolation, understanding, giving, and life, on this planet and in the world to come. We can pray for the strength and courage to shake up our own worlds a little. We have excellent role models, past and present, in these men named Francis.

These are the opinions of Valerie Schultz, not necessarily those of The Californian.

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