Franciscan Spirit Blog

Loving ‘the Other’ as St. Francis Did

If the walls we build around us are too high, light cannot reach us.

“Thousands displaced. More than 100,000 missing. Cities and infrastructures destroyed,” a United Nations investigator reported last April. Although these grim realities sound like the crisis in Ukraine, this UN report describes the war in Syria, now in its 11th year. While news agencies were dispatched to Eastern Europe when Russia invaded its neighbor in February, the Syrian conflict has largely gone unreported of late. 

This could be attributed to our limited attention spans, worsened by the 24-hour news cycle. Nothing will stay in the forefront for long. But regardless of the crisis we are facing—be it war or COVID-19 or racial unrest—something always surfaces that we must face but often turn away from: embracing “the other.” In the weeks following the evacuation in Afghanistan, 75,000 refugees came to the United States seeking asylum, drawing the ire of many. 

Advocates pray for a smooth transition for refugees in their adopted countries—and for the conversion of those who favor closed borders. How should we as a culture react? We can start by looking at the life of a 13th-century saint. 


Hearts Opened 

St. Francis’ conversion didn’t happen overnight. It came in stages. One step in that journey was when Francis embraced a leper on the side of a road. As he walked on, he turned back to see that the leper had disappeared, and he thought it was Christ whom he embraced. Sweet as this story is, it is likely a legend. What isn’t fiction is the time he spent with lepers outside Assisi. 

In his Testament, St. Francis wrote, “When I was in sin, it seemed extremely bitter to me to look at lepers, and the Lord himself led me among them and I practiced mercy with them.” Note his wording: “practiced mercy with them.” This means he received as much as he gave—possibly more so. 

Who are the lepers in our society today? “The other” implies anybody on the periphery: those who look, worship, or love differently than the majority. It isn’t easy to embrace those who are different, but conversion isn’t designed to be simple. Stepping outside our comfort zones will always be a noble challenge. Again, we have an example to work with.

St. Francis understood suffering. That’s why he was able to show empathy to others, as John Quigley, OFM, says.

Being the son of a successful cloth merchant, Francis was a carefree young man who dreamed of battlefield glory in Assisi’s war with Perugia. But that wasn’t meant to be. Spending a year as a prisoner of war brought on an internal storm. When Francis returned home, he could no longer savor the rewards of wealth. This led to a life of poverty and penance. 

What Francis understood is that real conversion requires tearing down our own walls. And he embraced something many of us struggle to reconcile: God loves us all—the imprisoned, the homeless, the refugee. It’s our job to open up our internal borders instead of closing them. 


On Fraternity and Friendship

Pope Francis is leading by example in this effort. In fact, so committed is our pope to embracing “the other,” that his encyclical “Fratelli Tutti” addressed a bitterly divided world. 

One line from it can sum up his papacy and the legacy of his namesake: “We encounter the temptation to build a culture of walls . . . to prevent this encounter with other cultures, with other people. And those who raise walls will end up as slaves within the very walls they have built” (27). 

That is advice worth heeding. If the walls we build around us are too high, light cannot reach us. We will never see the Promised Land, a world without borders, where all of God’s beloved—regardless of skin color, creed, or country of origin—are welcomed. 

Click here for St. Anthony Messenger‘s special issue, “You Welcomed Me.”

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