Franziskus was the highest ranking Catholic on the Wittenberg 2017 council. He is a retired bishop, a gifted retreat leader, a brilliant intellect, and perhaps the most childlike soul I know. To my shame, I did not speak with Franziskus the first two years of our gatherings. I felt intimidated. Just looking at him from across the room, I could feel his genius. He was often deep in thought, quiet, thin with sharp facial features. Franziskus was not comfortable conversing in English, and I was too shy to find a translator and engage him. After all, what did I have to say to a bishop?
But our relationship changed in Rome. Franziskus was given the difficult task of presenting the Catholic doctrine of indulgences to an audience composed mostly of Protestants. The talk was scheduled early in our meeting, just after lunch on our first full day. I made my way early to the meeting room to pray, as did Franziskus. We met in the hallway and he pulled me aside, asking me to pray for him. Me? Pray for a bishop? I was uncomfortable to say the least. But how could I refuse? So I put my hand on his shoulder, the Holy Spirit came and met with us both. I will never forget his talk that day. It was full of humility and grace. It opened hearts, conversations, and understanding which paved the way for beautiful times of repentance and worship later in the week. Those brief moments in prayer also forged a bridge in my soul to my brother, an open door which has led to an ever deeper love.
Franziskus carries the sensitivity of a poet along with his more academic gifts. The way he interprets scripture fascinates me. He feels the movement of the gospel – where the Spirit is coming from and where it is going, what the Spirit is emphasizing in the moment. He also notices details. I have learned from him that nothing is wasted in scripture. Details are not to be overanalyzed or fit neatly into symbols. But they serve the mystery. In March of 2017, I worked up the courage to ask Franziskus to pray for me, to ask the Lord for the grace he carries in understanding scripture. He did, and he reminded me, “Amy, the Word of God is Living and Active.” Immediately I understood – Jesus is the Word, He is active, and He is available to teach us scripture Himself.
At our final Wittenberg gathering, Franziskus and I taught together, one message in two parts - God is Preparing a Wedding Feast. Franziksus went first. The lighting on the stage was bright and rather disorienting. At one point in his talk, Franziksus looked out at the audience and forgot where he was. But it did not phase him. He had his notes, so he carried on to the end, sat down and recovered his bearings.
Two days later, Franziskus led prayer for our group in the Wittenberg Catholic parish. When our meeting was over, Franziskus walked out into the street, took one of our fellow council members by the arm and asked, “Excuse me, sir. I do not know where I am. Could you tell me what town I am in and help me find my hotel room?” Franziskus did not recognize his friend and had no memory of the day’s events.
Thomas and I received a message that Franziskus was not well. We rushed down to the courtyard of the building where we stayed to meet him. Our friend Cecily was with him. Together we recounted the day’s events – we had walked in procession with a cross through the town, first to the Lutheran church and then to the Catholic church. Sr. Joela spoke in the Stadtkirche and then he prayed blessings on the Catholics in Wittenberg at St. Mary’s. The whole time Franziskus smiled broadly, saying “Oh, that sounds very good!” But he remembered nothing. We asked if he needed medical attention, but those who knew him better assured us he needed rest most of all. This had happened before.
We were concerned for our friend, but early the next morning at our leadership meeting, Franziskus showed up, ready to lead the final commissioning service. Verena smiled when she saw him and said, “It is the resurrection!”
All the members of the council stayed in Wittenberg an extra day after the meetings. To quote Verena again, we needed “a meal together and a good cry.” After a leisurely breakfast, we gathered for one last debrief, the final meeting of our seven year journey together. Sixteen of us sat around a large conference table sharing our most treasured memories from the gathering. What Franziskus said that day became one of mine.
“Well,” he recalled, “Losing my memory was a rather fine experience. On the first day I spoke about becoming a living icon – a picture of God’s grace. And so I am thankful for a chance to practice what I believe. Someday my body and my brain will shut off. Someone will come to lead me home, and then I will hear friends say, ‘This is the resurrection!’”
The whole time he spoke, he was grinning like a happy child. His body was perfectly relaxed, at rest in his Lord. Franziskus had indeed become a living icon to us, his glory almost visible like a halo. Here was a brilliant man who had no fear of losing his mind because he knew Jesus held him in safety. His peace glorified Jesus, challenged us all, and drew us together in love. That morning we all stepped into the mystery of John 17. “I have given them the glory that You have given Me, that they may be one as we are one.” Thank you, Franziskus, for leading the way!