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.
- Strip the Vatican in Rome of its extravagance and obnoxious displays of wealth. I was struck on my pilgrimage when I went from Rome to Assisi how much more holy and human a place like Assisi felt over the ostentatiousness of Rome. The flock and the world need to see an outward sign that the Vatican has changed. And while this may seem only symbolic, it is an important value to convey. Let us all remember Jesus spoke much more often about the dangers of wealth than he did about any other issue, including sex.
- Reform the staff and bureaucracy of the Vatican immediately. I have seen two presidents in a row, one of which I worked for, who had good intentions about bringing the country together and getting past the divisiveness, but then had people around them that did the exact opposite of those intentions. In order to reform, you have to surround yourself with reformers who have in their hearts the spirit of St. Francis. Don’t look for folks who can manage the bureaucracy well, look for those who will fundamentally change the nature of the Vatican, including openness, transparency, and compassion.
- Figure a way to bring women and youth and laity more into the leadership of the Church. Even if the bridge to cross of having women priests is too much, listen to the nuns who follow St. Francis’ way every day in communities around the world. Have lay people who are qualified give sermons in church and tell their stories and speak their truth. Create more institutionalized ways for young people to serve the church, even if they are not called to be clergy. President Obama missed a huge opportunity for doing this after he won the first time when young folks wanted to change the world, but were never asked to in any concerted way.
- Don’t get caught up in tactics, it is the message that matters and how we live it. In St. Francis’ time there was no Internet, social networks, television or radio shows, and Francis traveled only a few miles from his home nearly his whole life. It was the truth and timing of his message and the way he conducted his life that had the power and changed the world. It is not about using twitter more; it is saying and acting the truth of our hearts more.
- Take regular trips to Assisi while you lead the Vatican in Rome. Not photo-ops or with large entourages, but simple trips to pray and remember the path of love St. Francis layed out before us and who you now carry his name.
And finally for all of us, I recall a famous saying attributed to St. Francis: “Every day preach the Gospel, sometimes use words.”