The Porziuncula is a good symbol of Francis’ revolutionary impact on the church – though the word “revolutionary” might not be the most precise. Contrary to revolutions that change regimes or constitutions, Francis led a revolution of the identity and essence of the church. And because this revolution happened in and with the church, it may be better called a “reform.” Two important revolutionary reforms that still affect the church today are the basis for authority and the basis for individual rights.
Drawing on Augustinian thought about the ‘two cities’ and on the Aristotelian influence regarding the ‘nature-grace’ duality, medieval theologians spoke of two distinct realms that wield authority: the sacral (spiritual) and the political (secular). The church held that spiritual authority (for example, theories and claims to justice) had to have priority over secular authority (for example, the application of justice).
In Francis’ day, the basis of authority for both realms was property. In the sacral realm, the Pope, it was claimed, owned all property, not ‘in particular’ but ‘universally’; we might say, all property rights that others exercised were grounded in his authority. The chain of equivalences that legitimized authority went like this: property meant power; power meant jurisdiction; jurisdiction meant authority; and authority meant a determinative role for the church in shaping society under the law of Christ (O’Donovan, The Desire of Nations, 206).
Franciscan friars confronted Papal authority with the possibility of absolute poverty. This provoked some intense questioning of what it meant to possess ‘spiritual authority’. The threat which the Franciscans posed to current doctrines of the papacy was far more serious than that vague discomfort which poverty always poses to wealth. By vowing to poverty, Francis subverted the traditional claims to authority, which risked unraveling the whole garment of Christian society.
Out of the long controversy came an attempt to articulate a different concept of spiritual authority, one based on the authority of the word. This was the work of the imperialist theologians who took up the Franciscans’ cause. Their role was, of course, ambiguous, serving at the same time the church’s interest in recovering a truly spiritual authority and the secular rulers’ interest in having an uncontested field. Their most important contribution lay in the principle that a word of Gospel truth has its own distinct authority, different from the authority of threat or command (O’Donovan, The Desire of Nations, 207). In this, it is easy to identify Francis’ influence on the Reformation.
Of course, today the authority of the word is debated and contested. Retreating to modern propositional stances and risking fideism, the church attempts to root its authority in the infallibility word of the Pope (Roman Catholic), the inerrant word of the Bible (Protestant) or the infallible word of Tradition (Eastern Orthodox). And those outside the church attempt to root authority in the doubting subject (Descartes) or “erase” any claim to authority altogether (Derrida). Francis points to a different way. In his commitment to absolute poverty, he detaches intrinsic authority from extrinsic power. He grounds authority in love, dependence and brotherhood rather than domination, coercion and prestige. Authority is offered, not imposed. It speaks to Augustine’s notion of authority as “trustworthy.”
Ultimately, the authority promoted by Francis was not rooted in word but in God, God who communicates to humanity not only in human language but also in human flesh. He who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2:6-11).
Francis grasped that this high authority, as Jesus shows us, is revealed at the bottom. Following this authority, Francis sold his possessions, begged his bread, and, with the stigmata on his hands and feet, he died naked on the ground at the Porziuncula.
There are some icons that are, paradoxically, iconoclastic. This is most obvious in the cross. It is also true of the Porziuncula. The Porziuncula was among those churches that Francis rebuilt after he heard the Lord speak to him before the San Damiano crucifix: “Francis, Francis, go and repair My house which, as you can see, is falling into ruins.” We know that Francis initially understood this as a commission to buy bricks and to restore the churches in disrepair. But later he realized this as a call to restore the spirituality of the church. Still, there is something important and prophetic in Francis’ selling his father’s wealth in order to buy bricks and mortar so that he could renovate church buildings.
When we think about building churches, we may think of structures large enough to hold the inhabitants of a parish or having enough room for the congregation to grow. In the last few decades, one of the dominant models of church growth is the mega-church. This large, programmed model was not Francis’ – although he had a mega impact on the church and the surrounding cultures. The Porziuncula is tiny. It is only 40 feet long by 13 feet wide by 18 feet high. There is room for 20 to sit and maybe 10 to stand before the altar. This is the place where Francis and the first friars lived, prayed and died. This small, insignificant chapel that stands in the shadow of Assisi was the place where this amazing and reviving movement began.
Today, however, the Porziuncula is the center piece of a large ornate church. In the midst of marble and gold, the Porziuncula is an obstruction. The view of the altar is impeded by the Porziuncula for those sitting in the back pews. Its walls of old rock and its faded icons stand in contrast to the shine of the church that encases it. And so the Porziuncula, almost 1000 years later, continues to speak prophetically and powerfully about who God is and how God works in a world and even in a church that is entangled by greed, power and grandiosity.
Although the Porziuncula speaks against the church when it succumbs to these entanglements, it also speaks of Francis’ commitment to follow God in and with the church. He never rejected the church; rather, he only proceeded in ministry in as much as he had the blessing of the church.
The Porziuncula is an iconoclastic icon. It is an image that subverts attachment to images. It is an attraction that contradicts our notions of attractive. It invites the church to worship through renunciation and sacrifice, and yet it is inviting.