A Feature Review of
Reclaiming Francis: How the Saint and the Pope are Renewing the Church
Paperback: Ava Maria Press, 2014
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Reviewed by Jess O. Hale
A wind is blowing through many lands in our world and many are finding this wind to be renewing or at least refreshing. It may not be the first time this wind has blown through a few of these locales. Could it be that we may just find the breath of God’s Spirit in this wind? To many Catholics and Protestants and even a few of those outside of the traditional faithful, the arrival of Jorge Mario Bergoglio from Latin America as bishop of Rome counts at least as a breath of fresh air and quite possibly as the renewing wind of the Spirit of God on the church of Jesus. After all, Pope Francis has forgone many of the more ornate trappings of his new office to live more simply and communicate more directly with the faithful and the world. He focuses more directly on grace and love and justice than on the more controversial topics of sexuality. To this end he has upset Rush Limbaugh with his economics and startled the mainstream press as he becomes Time’s Person of the Year. He has stirred up the faithful outside of his Catholic flock as well—-even Sojourners magazine has given him an iconic cover as the joyous Pope Francis waves with a bird perhaps representing the Spirit hovering close by. However, as the continuing presence of the saint of Assisi witnesses, it is not the first time that a wind of the Spirit has come through troubled lands.
In Charles M. Murphy’s Reclaiming Francis, we find an argument that Pope Francis is, like his earlier namesake in the saint of Assisi, a wind of the Spirit in our lands. From within the Roman Catholic Church, Monsignor Murphy writes a winsome argument for the continuing relevance of Saint Francis for the renewal of the Church in which he finds a concrete embodiment in the early papacy of Pope Francis. Murphy does not write as a cantankerous troublemaker within the Catholic Church, but rather as a faithful priest who sees a need for renewal in his beloved institution. As a protestant at home in a mainline denomination, I will not pick up on all of what Murphy is saying to Catholics, but I can appreciate the need for the witness of both Francis the saint and the pope to the broader Christian faithful.
Murphy was as surprised by the arrival of Pope Francis as the rest of the world. He had largely completed this book before the new pope was selected as the many positive references to Pope Benedict XVI serve a textual trace. However, Pope Francis’ commitments to the poor caused him to quite passionately rework his book to connect the two Francis’s as sources of renewal for God’s church. The book comes in two parts. The first part engagingly retells the story of Saint Francis, joined with vignettes about the new Pope Francis with an eye to the continuing witness of the Saint to today’s world. The second identifies several themes in Saint Francis that are critical to rebuilding today’s church—prayer, love, the centrality of the poor , the imitation of Jesus, the valuing of the environment and peace.
The “new evangelization” in the Catholic Church represents the organizing theme for appropriating the Saint Francis for the renewal of the Church. This theme seeks a Christian faith that is committed to the church and yet presenting a compelling and attractive witness to changing the world with the Gospel. However, those winds of renewal blow outside of this one ecclesial manifestation of God’s grace. One might detect echoes of the renewal sought by the new evangelization and both the saint and the pope in the missional expressions of the church found in emerging churches. The “fresh expressions” movement in the Church of England and emerging voices such as Nadia Bolz-Weber and Brian McLaren are in many ways kindred to this commitment to renewal.