Tuesday night, Nov. 8, I stayed awake past midnight, anxious to find out the results of the Presidential Election. Finally, I rested my weary head on a pillow. “O God where are you in the midst of all this?” I sighed. “And what do you want me to do?”
I got an answer a few days later when, out of the blue, an image and a story popped into my mind. That image was one of Giotto’s frescos in the Upper Church of St. Francis in Assisi, Italy. The fresco tells a story. St. Francis was passing by the city of Arezzo, which was in a grip of an intense conflict. According to the story written by St. Bonaventure, “St. Francis saw a multitude of demons rejoicing over the city and instigating the angry citizens to destroy each other.” The people were deeply divided along economic, social, and political fault lines. Many felt disempowered. That disempowerment, in turn, gave rise to fear, resentment and hatred. It bred mistrust, mutual demonization, and even violence.
In response to that scene, St. Francis sent Br. Sylvester as his herald to preach a message of peace. On the fresco, you see Br. Sylvester standing in front of the city of Arezzo while St. Francis, down on his knees, is in a deep contemplative prayer. As a result of the intervention of the two friars, “the tumult in the city was appeased, and all the citizens, in great tranquility, began to revise the statutes and regulations of the city, so that they might be duly observed. Thus, the fierce pride of the demons, which had enslaved the miserable city, was overcome by the wisdom of the poor. The humility of Francis restored it to peace and safety.” The fresco depicts the demons fleeing Arezzo.
In this post-election season in America, there are – and I’m speaking figuratively – demons hovering over our cities and the entire nation. They are the demons of fear, callousness, and incivility. Those demons incite intolerance, discrimination, personal, and systemic violence.
What can we do to follow the lead of the two medieval Franciscan friars who put evil to flight?
I’d like to offer three observations and suggestions:
- St. Francis and Br. Sylvester were contemplatives in action. Francis was, down on his knees, praying. Likewise, our efforts for justice and peace must go hand-in-hand with cultivating prayer and contemplation. Only by going deeper will we be able to draw on these inner resources. Only then will we have the power to deal with fear, anger and helplessness. Only then will we be able to let go of the rigid ideologies that shackle us and hinder us on our path toward the Kingdom of God.
- St. Francis and Br. Sylvester didn’t flee from the conflict – they took personal risks and engaged that conflict with compassion, creativity, and courage. They brought opposing groups of Arezzo’s citizens into a civil discourse. Are we willing to follow their lead? As a response to the 2016 Presidential Election, Franciscan Action Network invites us to make this make this commitment to Civility in Dialogue:
- Facilitate a forum for difficult discourse and acknowledge that dialogue can lead to new insight and mutual understanding.
- Respect the dignity of all people, especially of those who hold an opposing view.
- Audit yourself and utilize terms or a vocabulary of faith to unite or reconcile rather that divide conflicting positions.
- Neutralize inflamed conversation by presuming that those with whom we differ are acting in good faith.
- Collaborate with others and recognize that all human engagement is an opportunity to promote peace.
- Identify common ground, such as similar values or concerns, and utilize this as a foundation to build upon.
- Support efforts to clean up provocative language by calling policy makers to their sense of personal integrity.
- According to the biography of St. Francis, the devils fled the city of Arezzo when its citizens sat down together in a civil dialogue and “began to revise the statutes and regulations of the city.” The key point here is that an authentic dialogue leads to restorative justice. The 1971 World Synod of Bishops reminds us that “Action on behalf of justice and participation in the transformation of the world is a constitutive dimension of the preaching of the Gospel.” The Church’s mission for the redemption of the human race and its liberation from every oppressive situation ought to compel the ordinary Christians – men, women, youth, and children – to civic engagement, and not just during times of elections but throughout the year.
I hope that, just like St. Francis and Br. Sylvester, our faith communities will continue to inspire and empower people to live out a Gospel that is not truncated but, rather, is inclusive of civic engagement.
So, where is God in this tumultuous post-election period?
As typical of our God of surprises, he might be waiting to be found in your commitment to deeper prayer and contemplation, in your pledge to civility in dialogue, and in the tenacity with which you stay engaged in various community or advocacy efforts without giving in to despair or cynicism. I know it gets tough. But God believes in you.
Jacek Orzechowski, OFM was born and grew up in Poland. After immigrating into the U.S. in 1988, he joined Franciscan Friars of Holy Name Province and obtained a Master of Divinity degree from Washington Theological Union. For the past eight years, he has been ministering at the St. Camillus multicultural parish in Silver Spring, M.D. He also serves as a member of the Board of Directors of the Franciscan Action Network and he is involved in the Archdiocese of Washington Care for Creation committee.
Catholics around the country are involved in efforts to transform their communities on a year-round basis. Learn what ongoing faithful citizenship looks like by visiting the WeAreSaltAndLight.org Success Stories page, where you can learn how faith communities are working on racial justice, predatory lending, immigration, caring for God’s creation, and more.