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One thing amazed me about the new pope being appointed last week. For the first time in Church history – after about 800 years – a pope chose the name Francis, in honor of St. Francis of Assisi. I hadn’t realized this was the first time ever. Well, it’s about time.

Francis of Assisi, for whom one of our great cities is named (San Francisco) was a delightful Christian example for Catholics, Protestants and Orthodox Christians alike. If more of us who profess to follow Christ were more like him, we would have a much stronger witness before the watching world.

Francis Bernardone (1182-1226) grew up the son of a wealthy merchant, but upon receiving a divine calling, he forsook a life of comfort and ease, choosing instead a life of poverty and simplicity to serve the Lord. Centuries later we still remember him.

According to author Marc Galli (now the editor of Christianity Today), “‘Lord, Make Me an Instrument of Thy Peace,’ sometimes called ‘The Prayer of Saint Francis,’ was not written by Francis – though it does embody his spirit. It was probably composed at a Catholic congress in Chicago, in 1925″ (Christian History Magazine, Issue 42, 1994).

I find the Prayer of St. Francis quite liberating. After some recent personal conflicts, I make it a conscious goal to pray it, along with the Lord’s Prayer, every day.

Part of that prayer includes: “O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console; to be understood, as to understand; to be loved, as to love. For it is in giving that we receive. It is in pardoning that we are pardoned, and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.”

I’m reminded of the opening concept of Rick Warren’s mega-best-seller, “The Purpose-Driven Life.” The key to understanding life is this: It’s not about you, but the Lord.

This is such a winning approach to life, come what may. I especially find helpful the line, “It is in pardoning, that we are pardoned.” As was said by Christ, whom Francis patterned his life after, we should pray, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” Forgive others instead of clinging to simmering resentments, which ultimately ruin us.

Human nature, being what it is, is bound to produce conflicts. Francis recognized that. One of the geniuses of the Founding Fathers of America was recognizing man’s moral limitations and putting in place safeguards to protect us – from each other.

James Madison, direct student of the Scottish Presbyterian head of Princeton, Dr. John Witherspoon, said, “All men having power ought not to be trusted.” That’s not a cynical view of human nature. It’s a realistic one.

Ben Franklin said that if you had 100 kings, only one would not tend to be like Pharaoh (the evil one described in the early chapters of Exodus), if given the chance.

Because of the founders’ realistic, and biblical, belief in man’s corrupt nature, Americans have experienced a great deal of freedom. Countries built on a foundation of man’s supposed innate goodness – like the failed Soviet Union – end up with endless bloodshed.

The Bible also says, inasmuch as it is up to you, be at peace with all men. It’s not always up to us. Francis strikes me as one who tried to live up to that ideal.

Francis was a great peacemaker. He attempted, unsuccessfully, to stop the Crusades. But at least he was able to peacefully present Jesus to the Islamic leader – and live to tell about it.

Samuel Escobar notes, “What we learn from history is that the inhumanity of the Crusades was not the only way in which Christians related to Islam in those days. Francis of Assisi pioneered a different approach. In 1219 he managed to cross the lines of battle and gain entrance to the sultan of Egypt. There Francis presented to the sultan the message of Christ in its simplicity and beauty” (Christianity Today, 1994).

G.K. Chesterton added this tribute to Francis: “He … saw the image of God multiplied but never monotonous. To him a man was always a man and did not disappear in a dense crowd any more than in a desert. …”

Chesterton added, “What gave him his extraordinary personal power was this; that from the pope to the beggar, from the sultan of Syria in his pavilion to the ragged robbers crawling out of the wood, there was never a man who looked into those brown burning eyes without being certain that Francis Bernardone was really interested in him.”

Francis is the one who created manger scenes – live nativity sets. Galli writes how on Christmas Eve, 1223, he “set before our bodily eyes how he [Jesus] lay in a manger.”

I watched a movie recently on this great leader. The man who directed the classic movie “Casablanca” made a film called “St. Francis of Assisi” in 1961. It’s well done – if you can get past the dreadful music during the opening credits (just one man’s opinion).

Francis, the new leader of the Roman Catholic Church – some 1.2 billion people today – has some pretty big shoes to fill – those of St. Francis of Assisi.

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