One of the legacies of Francis and Clare of Assisi are the many ministries they have inspired. In the United States alone, there are 23 Franciscan colleges and universities, numerous hospitals founded by Franciscan religious, countless social service organizations, and Franciscan parishes.
Increasingly, lay professionals are serving in leadership roles that priests, brothers, and sisters once held. A question that today’s leaders ask while encountering complex organizational challenges is, “What would Francis and Clare of Assisi do?” We can trivialize the question. They are, after all, long dead! Or it can point us toward a modern Franciscan worldview.
Francis and Clare never wanted to serve in leadership roles. They sought a simpler life and embraced voluntary poverty as a reaction to the materialistic stance into which they had been born. People followed them not because of who they were, but because of who they were becoming. Francis and Clare evolved over the course of their lives. They asked, “What would Jesus do?” and acted on that in the context of their times. They did not always get it right, but they were stubbornly persistent. We too do not always get it right, but perseverance and commitment to the Franciscan worldview is key even when sailing in uncharted waters.
They first forged relationships with the most marginalized in their society, the lepers. The lepers changed Francis. In his final Testament, Francis tells us that what “seemed bitter to me was turned into sweetness.” Leading in a Franciscan ministry is not only about “respect for the human person,” but rather, it is about creating real kinship with all our brothers and sisters.
Francis and Clare came to realize that we are all members of the same family. Francis’ life of simplicity and prayer gave him the insight that all of God’s creation is connected. In the Canticle of the Creatures, a poem written near the end of his life, Francis praises God while acknowledging the elements (earth, water, air, and fire) and calling them “brother, sister, and mother.” His spirituality embraced this integral connectedness. We as Franciscan organizational leaders today are responsible for the sustainability of our organizations by connecting people, profit, and planet into our planning and day-to-day decision-making.
Leading with a Franciscan worldview in the 21st century is not easy. It demands a vocational stance in the face of difficulty but it rewards with an insertion into a fascinating family of Christian agents of change. The Sisters of Saint Francis of the Neumann Communities, in collaboration with The Franciscan Institute at St. Bonaventure University, is launching The Padua Program this fall. This program combines in-person and online courses and discussions to assist lay and religious mission integration officers who serve in Franciscan Ministries develop the skills and knowledge they need to act as Francis and Clare would in today’s world.