Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Assisi 21.12.2013: Pilgrim Tchotchkes and Francis in the Mist

Basilica of St. Francis, 21 December 2013

Francis, your name is again in vogue. It's in people's mouths with a pope who now has your name. Francis, they say, as if they know him. Or you. Francis, we say, as if we know you.

But I'm not at all sure I know even where you are. Not even here in Assisi, where I've just visited your shrine, prayed at your tomb, left a candle there to be lit on the altar before your tomb.

I find it very hard to see you anywhere in that monstrosity of a church, with its busy shrines and side altars. With its business

They've made a business of your memory, Francis. Little poor man of Assisi. Stores full of tacky gewgaws and pilgrim tchotchkes (and, yes, we bought some bookmarks with your picture on them, some eucalyptus lozenges for my sore throat, some scented soaps to bring back as gifts.)

But where are you in all this business, Francis, in the cheap tau crosses and crosses that spoke, in the € 500 gold crosses one can buy if one asks to look in cases under lock and key? Where are you?

Where are you, above all, in the many hard faces that seem to have no joy or welcome (things about which you--and Jesus--spoke much) about them, even as they pray at your shrine? Some of them, the hardest faces of all, the faces of young religious dedicated in a special way to you and Jesus . . . . 

I know. I should be praying, not studying the faces of fellow pilgrims. My own face is, I have no doubt, as closed and censorious as many of those about which I write.

I should be praying for my own conversion, not that of others.

But there's this: the hardness is often--how can I pretend I don't see this?--directed specifically at Steve and me as a couple. As if to say, How dare you come here? How dare you show your face here? How dare you pretend to pray?

How dare you pick up that candle and bring it to be lit at the poverello's shrine?

This is a message we've been given a long time now by many members of our church. It's one we're receiving all over again on this pilgrimage to the institutional homeland of our church. Even at your shrine, though you spoke constantly of embracing, welcoming, celebrating God in everyone around you. And you showed us these gospel values by your actions.

Francis, where are you? In this "new" church of a pope who has your name, whose message is supposed to be about a gospel of joy, about not judging those who are gay . . . ?

I find it hard to see your face in this church, even now. When we went to your shrine today, it was so shrouded by winter mist, we could hardly discern its outlines inside the fog. As a follower of Jesus who happens to have been made gay, I've spent much of my life waiting and watching for the church to emerge from the mists--the church of joy and welcome, not the one of censure and judgment with which many of us have lived so long. 

I'm still not seeing that church emerging from the mists. Francis, where are you?

Presepio at Basilica of St. Francis, 21 December 2013

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