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Thursday, May 24, 2007

What Do Teresa of Calcutta and Francis of Assisi Have in Common?

I am reading a book called Mother Teresa: A Simple Path. I'm not very far into it yet; actually, only still in the introduction. Yet something struck me as I read one passage, which referred to St. Francis as a Church reformer. The passage called him "revolutionary" and "progressive." And it pointed out the fruits of Francis' efforts, even within his own lifetime:

By the time of his death, he had gathered more than five thousand professed monkis, priests, and nuns to carry on his work. Today, the Franciscan order thrives as one of the largest religious orders in the world.
The Bible says we know a tree by the fruit it bears, and after so many centuries, we still see a shining beacon of faithfulness and the giving of life to God wholeheartedly as a fruit of the work of Francis.

He never nailed complaints to a door or chewed out a Pope. He never threatened or left the Church, but instead stayed to rebuild it. And he didn't do it through bitterness or judgment, but by devoting himself entirely to God, at great personal sacrifice. The point of the book, of course, is that this is the same sort of reform that time will show to be the long-lasting fruit of Mother Teresa's work.

When we look at the efforts of Luther, can we say the same? Did he reform the Church by personal holiness, sacrifice, and increasing his own closeness to God? When we look at the long-lasting fruits of his efforts, we see schism, division, and dozens of thousands of different creeds, each claiming to be God's one or greatest expression of truth. We see an example of a man who (I must trust) had good intentions in pointing out the flaws in the way the Church was operating, but who expressed his concerns, ultimately, not by prayer or holiness. Rather, he expressed his concerns by dissent and departure. He began a movement in which any man has the right and opportunity to make up his own rules and interpretations and call them the Unchanging God's new truth.

We all have the opportunity to strive for holiness. We all have the opportunity to choose obedience and faith. We all have the opportunity to keep our promises, pray, and give ourselves entirely to God. And when we see change needed, we have the power to create reform from within, whether we are talking about reforming the Church or the behavior the family's children. How? Not by dissent or by bellowing, but rather by example. Luther's disobedience started a new movement of dissent, but did not reform the behavior of the people of God. How could he preach obedience to God while breaking his own promise of celibacy and that of a nun, and living in overt and blatant sin against a promise made to God?

A child who hears foul language will learn to use foul language. A Church that models itself after disobedience and disregard for God and prayer will learn disobedience and disregard for God and prayer. Nailing complaints to a door will not, cannot change that.

The only way to increase holiness in the world is to start with ourselves. I can't expect a world to follow me in pure worship if I am not willing to make the sacrifices of pure worship myself.

This is the lesson we can learn from both Francis of Assisi and Teresa of Calcutta. The first reform we must make is upon ourselves. When grace shines through us, the message of the Gospel will not be empty words but a living lesson.