A few years ago I decided to go on a self-directed solo pilgrimage to holy places representing Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Islam and Christianity.
Of course, this was all in the aftermath of my rather public break with President Bush in which the White House described my motivation for doing this as "Matthew is on a personal journey." I think that is code for he is crazy.
I traveled to India, Nepal, Turkey, Israel, Rome, but my final stop was the most heartwarming - Assisi. I thought it the best way to end this long trip.
St. Francis has always been a personal hero of mine. I have statues of him throughout my place in Austin. I hired a woman artist to paint on a four-foot board the famous prayer of St. Francis, which I keep in my living room especially reminding me that it is best to love, rather than be loved, and it is in giving that we receive.
I remember so well walking the stone streets in Assisi and visiting the chapels dedicated to Francis and to one of his famous followers, St. Clare. The shadows on the old simple buildings as the sun began to fall seemed to come alive with the spirit and joy St. Francis embodied.
As the new leader of the Catholic Church became Pope Francis, I am filled with hope and faith that this institution will follow the path St. Francis laid out nearly a thousand years ago. St. Francis renounced the trappings of wealth, gave up his very comfortable ways, and dedicated his life to all creatures, especially the poor and vulnerable. And he did this not in a sullen somber manner, but with joy and laughter and lightness and love.
As Pope Francis begins to walk in the new shoes of Pope, his acts and words seem to be signaling that he is serious about adopting the way of St. Francis. He wants a church that is both poor and of the poor. He has waved off the papal limousine a number of times. He speaks humbly and with humor.
This start makes one very optimistic, but there are many valleys ahead. Though one interesting thing is this new pope has become a human Rorschach test for people. Everyone seems to be seeing in him what he or she wants. Conservatives see him as conservative, liberals see him as progressive. That actually gives Pope Francis a tremendous opening to lead all of us.
After having watched leaders in the United States who had good intentions, get lost on their intended way, I have five humble suggestions for this Pope and his team at the Vatican.
And finally for all of us, I recall a famous saying attributed to St. Francis: "Every day preach the Gospel, sometimes use words."