|Cross at Church of San Damiano in Assisi|
As his early biographers recall as Francis was kneeling in prayer he felt the Lord speaking to him from the cross in these words. "Francis, Go and rebuild my house which, as you see, is falling into ruin."
He and his companions (They were not yet established as an order, and they were lay people.) heeded this call and began to literally repair several small churches in the Assisi region. Within a short time they realized that God was not calling them to repair building but to spiritually renew the Church of those times. Within a few years the results of that renewal were evident. Francis insisted on being loyal to the Church. He would not leave. At the same time he saw his mission as living the Gospel simply within the Church. His protest was not in the form of demonstrations and marches or letters to the Pope and bishops but simply the lived example of his followers.
A few years after this wonderful encounter with the Lord Francis received verbal approval for his order from Pope Innocent III. Our order at the beginning though was more of a movement than a canonical institution. The Franciscan family included people who did not profess formal religious vows (what are now called the Secular Franciscans) as well as those who did. Most of the earliest ones who did take vows were not priests.
There has been a lot of discussion lately about needed structural reform of the Church, especially the need for giving lay people a greater voice in decision making, about moving away from a model of hierarchy that goes back to the time of the emperor Constantine. I agree with all of those desires in the strongest terms. At the same time can we not all commit ourselves to rebuilding the house of the Lord by committing ourselves to living the Gospel more radically, by heeding the call of the Second Vatican Council to a universal call to holiness, a call which means that the laity are not any less or more called to holiness than the clergy. I do not propose this as a weak, pious alternative to the hard work that needs to be done to reform Church structures, but rather as the spiritual fire which will spark that reform.