Brother Francis and Brother Mitt

The other day I passed a house with two icons in the yard. The contradiction between them was so glaring it pierced me.

One was a statue of Saint Francis, or as he preferred to be called, Brother Francis. The other was a Romney-Ryan campaign sign.

It is hard to imagine two men with more opposing values than Francis and Mitt. In the early 1200s Francis wandered the Italian countryside camping out of doors and begging for his food. Today we might call him a welfare case. In fact, he was homeless. And in Francis’s day being homeless meant being looked down on as a “social problem” just as much as it does today.

The teenage Francis had been a fiery young man who loved to sing ribald love songs and throw lavish parties for his friends using his merchant-father’s money. But one day in his early twenties, in the middle of the public square, Francis had ripped off his rich cloaks, standing naked before the town. It was a thunderous move. His clothes were the products of his father’s cloth trade, and in that one dramatic gesture, Francis was rejecting both his family and their well-to-do way of life.

From then on, Francis wandered homeless through the countryside, inviting people to leave their status symbols and physical securities. Where before he was upwardly mobile, now he gloried in having nothing. Where before he sought nobility, now he saw in poor people the face of the Christ who had called him away from riches. He redefined his family ties, calling everyone Brother and Sister. To him, all were equal—and equally loved by God. He saw no difference between a highborn lord and the humblest living being, such as a sparrow. He preached sermons on poverty, calling listeners to find the face of God in the lowliest, most-looked-down-on poor people.

What might Brother Francis say to Brother Mitt? The same thing he said to rich and powerful figures of his time, the same thing he says to people today: “Your wealth means nothing. It prevents you from seeing true values. To become rich in what really matters, leave behind your wealth, your pride. Embrace poverty. Become able to see God in poor people.”

It’s a message just as challenging today as it was in the time of Francis.