The Rule of St. Francis, and the Declaration of Independence
Twenty-five years ago I was blessed by an unrepeatable adventure in Franciscan life: to help grow the new Franciscan presence at the United Nations by developing interest among Franciscan Friars around the world. What was at that time a budding dream, Franciscans International, has since become a well-respected presence among non-governmental organizations at the United Nations. But in those early years, there was concern that the initiative, which had a decidedly North American and Western European beginning, needed to embrace the worldwide Franciscan movement more deliberately. I had been ordained only two years prior; but my previous work in the planning phase, plus a Master’s degree and thesis on the topic, led to my being asked to take on this next phase.
The next three years were the most thrilling of my vocation! Almost everywhere I went, friars were intrigued and excited about the idea of advocating for the poor, for peace, and for the care of our creation within the halls of the one place where literally the whole world was somehow present. Of course, for me that meant a lot of travel – sometimes months at a time living out of a simple suitcase (which I still use!) crossing two or three continents at a time. Over the three-year assignment, I worked in 28 countries, always staying with friars who frequently lived among some truly poor people. The courageous example of the friars, especially those living close to people who struggled with the immediate effects of war and extreme poverty, is among the most deeply impressive things I have ever witnessed.
And with all that travel came the frequent experience of borders. National borders. The world was much different then – the Soviet Union had just left Central Europe, there was no Euro, Britain still possessed Hong Kong, and the US had no embassy in Vietnam. So I’ve crossed many different kinds of borders. Some crossings were as easy as barely waking up in the train crossing from Italy into Switzerland, groggily flashing a passport to a bored agent. Some were frightening, like the barbed wire and landmines still crossing the farm fields separating Austria and Slovakia, the swaying golden wheat completely uninterested in passports and visas. Stepping into Vietnam — only twenty years after the US left Saigon, nineteen years after I graduated high school, and still without US diplomatic relations – was singularly other-worldly. Crossing briefly into North Korea (yes, that North Korea) involved a trip to and through the DMZ, which is the most heavily fortified territory in the world; stepping into the “Truce Village of Panmunjom” where a small rectangular building straddled both sides of the border; walking around a simple wooden conference table where, on the “other side” a phalanx of uniformed soldiers beyond the windows snapped photos of our every move.
There were other borders as well, not defined by treaty or marked by war, but nonetheless just as real. There was a train track that separated the apartments of Mumbai (then, Bombay) from one of its largest slums, a slum where thousands lived in huts among pathways defined by open sewers. Airport customs lines entering countries of brown-skinned people had two kinds of lines: one for fellow brown-skinned people, whose baggage was searched beyond humiliation; and one for white businessmen (like me) who were whisked through with barely a glance. Basilicas have sacristies open to friar-priests but not to the laity. Old Jerusalem has streets set aside for Jews, Muslims, Armenians, Orthodox, and Catholics – and neighborhoods in cities like Chicago or Cleveland (or Mostar during the Balkan war) have streets that, if crossed, get you marked for gunfire.
So, I know borders.
Yet there is something about a border that is simultaneously forbidding and inviting. You know you are not from the other side, but you just wonder what might be there. Saint Francis of Assisi had this fluid relationship with borders. Unwilling to be confined to monastic walls, he sent his brothers in small groups wherever the Spirit would lead them – often with mixed results. Crossing the Alps from Italian to German-speaking lands got some friars in trouble with locals who thought they were heretics. Though their first foray into Islam led to martyrdom, yet later for Francis, it was an introduction to a most unusual friendship with a sultan during the Crusades. Indeed, the entire “world was his cloister” where the Order had extended from Italy and France to the British Isles, Slavic countries, Germania, the north African coast, and Palestine by the time Francis died.
Saint Francis also knew the other borders that were unofficial but ever so real. He was a rich kid who chose poverty; he came from an established family and chose to be a wanderer. He fed lepers and welcomed women into his new movement. He built a bridge between the mayor and the bishop, and he wouldn’t let his disabilities impede composing the first lyrical poem in the Italian Renaissance.
So, Saint Francis knew borders.
Maybe that is why he included for his friars this description in his Rule of Life from 1223: “As pilgrims and strangers in this world, let (the brothers) go seeking alms with confidence, and they should not be ashamed because, for our sakes, the Lord made Himself poor in this world.” The call to be pilgrims and strangers in this world led to Franciscan Friars accompanying Christopher Columbus on his second voyage to what he thought to be a new world. My first mentor in the Order, a long-time missionary in the Philippines, said to me while I was a much younger friar student, “Where is home for a friar? Everywhere, and nowhere.” Indeed.
For the next week in the United States, we will be celebrating Independence Day. As we prepare for the cookouts, the travel and the parades for the Fourth this year, borders (namely, our own national ones) are very much on the minds of just about anyone who has a TV or a smartphone. In addition to the official territorial borders, let’s also remember the many unofficial but deeply real personal, economic, cultural, racial, religious, and sexual borders as well. On this day when we celebrate one of our foundational documents as a nation, it is worth reading the whole Declaration of Independence.
Perhaps the lines we learned in eighth-grade civics class are still deep inside our heads: “When in the course of human events…” “We hold these truths to be self-evident…” Etc. But the better part of the document lists the various explicit grievances that gave rise to the founding fathers taking this extraordinary step to which they would “mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.” Would you be surprised to know that two of the references were to their status as immigrants? One of the grievances against the king was his “Obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners.” And in another place, “We have reminded them (our British brethren) of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here.” Yep, there it is. In the Declaration of Independence.
Until I take my last breath I will be grateful for the brotherhood that entrusted me with a unique mission to the world while I was still young and untested. Likewise, I am grateful to have been born in a country whose passport was, and so far still is, respected in every corner of the known world. International travel opens new horizons, challenges one’s view of one’s own country, and leads to a renewed and wiser love of one’s home. My country assured my safe passage literally around the world; my brotherhood let me embrace my wanderlust so that I could cross the unofficial human borders as well. The passport let me see the world, the brotherhood helped me to love it. Reasonable people exercising their best prudential judgment can disagree about particularities of immigration law. But no one who goes by the name Christian, let alone Franciscan, can allow themselves to be led to find an enemy in every face that looks at borders and longs for what is on the other side – especially when our side is life and peace, and their side is death and despair.
On this, our Christian tradition and true patriotism are not opposed at all.