Saint Francis of Assisi was a right-brain thinker, drawing on intuitions and emotional creativity as he set out to follow the Gospel. Saint Paul of Tarsus, a millennium earlier, had preached the Gospel—from a left-brain perspective—using his scholarly training and logic to bring the good news outside the walls of Jerusalem.
According to Richard Rohr—Franciscan teacher, preacher, and author—there are connections between the different thinking of Saint Paul and Saint Francis, two of his spiritual heroes. They are mentors on Rohr’s spiritual journey that can guide others on theirs. He sees in Saints Paul and Francis differing perspectives, which were and are needed by the Church then and today.
Rohr sees these two very different saints as revolutionaries—proclaiming with their lives and their words, expressed in Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians, “when I am weak, then I am strong” in the Lord (12:10).
“Paul has been a hero of mine all my life,” Rohr says, “[especially] once I started studying Scripture.” He remembers that in 1966, just after the Second Vatican Council when the Church began to encourage more exploration of the Bible by all Catholics, “I started studying Scripture . . . in an intelligent, wonderful way."
“I remember just devouring First and Second Corinthians,” he says, pointing to Saint Paul’s letters to the Christians there. “I just, again and again, felt validation. I thought the Gospel was shaped the way [Paul] shaped it,” he says. Francis, for him, became a reason to pack up and leave “Kansas to join the ragtag group [of Franciscans] in Cincinnati."
Paul and Francis—recognized as giants in the Church today, were not seen that way by contemporaries. The two could not be much different from one another. The fiery Paul, who grew a Church on missionary pilgrimages from the Middle East into Europe; and the gentle Francis, who guided his band of “lesser” brothers to fundamentally shift a Church focus to the least among us.
“They were both, in their own way, revolutionaries, in terms of critiquing their own inherited experience. Paul did it twice over, with Judaism and the new Christianity. Francis did it with his 13th-century Italian Catholicism.”
"Both had the confidence, the vision, and the backbone to be able to propose an alternative way of approaching spirituality," Rohr stresses.
Francis, as the founder of his order, was much more about the story, the biography, the experience of taking off the cultural clothes and putting on the garments of Christ. But what Francis is not about is “a set of theological statements,” he says.
While Francis was a product of the late Middle Ages Roman Catholicism and, as Rohr says, “he obviously loved it [and] it informed him,” he interpreted it in a very different way than did the churches in Assisi.
For that reason, “he was an embarrassment to his parents, and, apparently, to a lot of the town. He basically had to move out of town,” Rohr adds.
“He was a revolutionary,” Rohr says, who “knew how to be loyal to the tradition,” was genuine and without “an antagonistic spirit.” As such, he gained the respect of the bishop of Assisi and the pope of Rome, Innocent III, when the papacy was at its height of temporal and spiritual power.
“This, you might say, was a pope who understood power and knew how to wield it,” Rohr points out. “Maybe that’s part of why he admired Francis as almost his opposite, who was into powerlessness.”
Francis and Paul took different approaches to the New Testament. Rohr notes that Francis, in his life and his forming of the Franciscans, centered on the Gospels. And, Rohr says, “the Gospels are . . . places where we theologize from, but you wouldn’t say the four Gospels, in their form, are theological writing.”
The Gospels, he points out, are “the narrating of stories from the life of Jesus.” Paul comes along 20 years after Jesus with a theological worldview, he adds. “Jesus proclaimed the kingdom; Paul founded the Church.”
Rohr points to the fact that the word church is found very few times in the Gospels, whereas in the writings of Paul, “it’s found everywhere.” In that sense, says Rohr, “Francis is more like Jesus.”
In his book Eager to Love: The Alternative Way of Francis of Assisi, Rohr suggests that both Saints Francis and Paul shared similar understandings of creation.
"Each of them is someone who is critiquing his own tradition," says Rohr, and has the “ability to stand outside the walls of that perceived church and be able to give some reflection about that. Each of these saints is a “person who was flawed, yet somehow chosen...[with] a different understanding of God than those around him may have had.”
"Both had deep-seated, personal understandings about the Incarnation, the presence of God in our midst, and the concept that the universe is indeed sacred."
“Their way was not about obtaining power, especially with Francis admitting powerlessness, and Paul in putting himself in a position of antagonizing or at least putting himself out there against the power source,” Rohr states. “They trusted their own experience. They accepted and embraced suffering, and saw the great mystery in everything.”
And yet, in doing so, Rohr says, they both accepted the cross, but also accepted they were not in the mainstream. “The ‘folly of the cross’ is exactly Paul’s phrase. But Francis’ ideal [was] to be the new kind of fool, as he calls himself.”
"Paul has been seen as an idealizer of suffering,” Rohr says, while “Francis identifies with suffering . . . leading to the stigmata itself, the identification was so total.”
Both saints idealized not power, but “powerlessness as the way to follow Jesus,” he says. “Francis got that, and, I have to believe, much of his interpretation of it came through Paul.”
Rohr points to that as “an alternative orthodoxy” then, and “it still is.” He asks whether Christians today, who “have the cross everywhere” as an image, understand that and use that understanding as an operating principle in their lives.
“Probably not,” he says, noting, "unfortunately, the cross serves as 'more the logo of the organization for too many in the Church' than an agenda.”
Among many Christians and non-Christians, Francis and Paul are misunderstood: Francis is seen as the birdbath saint, with birds and other small creatures at his feet. Paul is seen as distantly heroic and anti-woman, but not a teacher for today.
Rohr sees those misrepresentations as an “almost predictable ego defense.
“Their message is so counterintuitive, countercultural, absolutely demanding the death of the ego, that I think the ego, in protecting itself, came strongly against them,” Rohr notes. He explains that Catholics have a tendency to sanctify a saint when he or she gets real—or, as some say, to put saints on a pedestal.
We “antiseptically clean them up,” he says. “They’re plaster saints,” he adds, and, in being such, they lose dimension, become flattened out, reduced to less than what they are calling us to be.
He notes that he was never told “to imitate Paul, and yet that was his very line, ‘Imitate me as I imitate Christ’ (1 Cor 11:1), because to really imitate him would be a major demand on your lifestyle and on your approach.”
The Franciscan friar stresses that “the easiest way to avoid following someone is to worship them,” to put them on a pedestal.
"Doing so," Rohr says, "is a defense mechanism to keep me at a distance from them."
“It’s a very clever disguise,” the priest says. “We’ve done it to Jesus, we’ve done it to Paul, and we’ve done it to Francis. You offer them incense and light candles in front of them, but you don’t really read their life or try to imitate their life.”
Paul and Francis show us not to run from suffering or shy away from the violence of the cross, but to use it as the stuff of kingdom building.
Rohr explains that many Christians are uncomfortable when faced with suffering that appears to be idealized. “We come along, as outsiders, and we see them in their statues gazing at the crucifix or having very hard lives, and we often don’t know what to do with it,” he says. “It looks, to us, like masochism. A lot of our Catholic saints look masochistic.”
"Paul seems to understand that 'subtext in Christianity' about the possible transformative power of trial and suffering," he says, adding that "Paul also did not want to idealize it."
“He wanted to say,” Rohr notes, that suffering “is going to come your way, so let’s understand how God is working in this, how God can be found in this.”
Paul uniquely, in the time of the beginnings of the Church, understands “Jesus’ nonviolent life, nonviolent death, nonviolent teaching,” the Franciscan stresses. “He takes the cross and makes a theology out of it.”
He points out that the importance of that is seen still to this day in contrast to that which guides almost all human history, “the myth of redemptive violence, that violence is somehow going to save the world.” It is not, he says. But redemptive suffering is something else again. “The myth of redemptive suffering lived by Jesus, taught by Paul, exemplified by Francis, is definitely a counterpoint, minor key, and yet it has never been lost.”
For Rohr, both the Pauline and the Franciscan understanding of God and roles as people of God call Christians to embrace connection instead of ranking and judging everyone and everything. “Many members all making a unity in the work of service,” he says. “It’s very clear in Ephesians, in Corinthians. It’s many gifts and many ministries working together to create the body of Christ.”
Life as participation becomes then the linchpin of Paul’s theology, says Rohr. “Paul’s doctrine of the body of Christ, his understanding of the Eucharist as the body of Christ, is all about connectivity,” he points out.
Yet, the globally recognized speaker and author states that Christianity, “in its Catholic,Orthodox, and Protestant forms, all of our Western and Eastern Church,” drew upon a model of “domination Christianity.
“Once you define who has got the power, you’ve got to define who doesn’t have it, which is the laity, in our Church,” Rohr says, adding that Paul would not have recognized differentiations between clergy and laity.
“Paul’s notion of ministry has almost nothing to do with the way we presently run the Church. We’ve just got to start being honest about that,” Rohr states. “Maybe that’s one of the reasons we didn’t read Paul.”
He stresses that in Jesus, Paul, and Francis, we have three people whose focus was on forming community, and all three are pointing laypeople to service. “Find their gift, use their gift, trust their gift, and try to find a way to link that into the community,” Rohr says.
“Instead of aping—and Pope Francis is talking about this—we’ve got to stop clericalizing the laity.
“This moving from ranking to connecting, I think to build community, to build relationships, to connect and love with whoever is right around you,” he says, “that sounds so simplistic, but you couldn’t get any better notion of rebuilding the Church.”
The building of “healing communities,” he concludes, was ultimately what Paul sought to create and was part of Francis’ gift in forming a band of brothers and then sisters, through Clare, around the idea of reaching out.