Gospel and Human Rights Today

This year we are celebrating the anniversaries of two ‘sets of rules’ that are of great importance to us as a Franciscan Family. On 29 November 1223, the Rule of the Franciscan Order was approved by Pope Honorius III. On 10 December 1948, the UN General Assembly proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Although both dates – 29 November and 10 December – are very close to each other on the calendar, they are also separated by just over seven centuries. And it is not only the number of years that initially distinguishes the texts. While the Franciscan Rule was written only for a very small number of men who belonged to the Catholic Church and made the conscious choice to live in community without marriage and family, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights applies to all people who live and will live on this earth, regardless of their religious, ethnic, or national affiliation.

Another essential and fundamental difference is the character of the texts: one is a rule – that is, it establishes rules and obligations for those who accept it. The other enshrines rights that belong to every individual, by virtue of being a human being.

Yet, of course, rights and duties go hand in hand: my rights always include the duty to bestow the same right on others and to respect it.

Gospel and human dignity

So, beyond the date, what is the unifying factor of these two texts and what is their meaning to us as a Franciscan family?

If we try to boil down the respective texts to just a few key words, we can discover their commonality and the meaning and demands that they place on us as Franciscans. Those key words are ‘Gospel’ and ‘human dignity’. The Rule of the Franciscan Order is about “observing the Gospel”. The Declaration of Human Rights is about “respecting the dignity” of every person. Human dignity and the Gospel are intimately intertwined and thus fundamental to the Franciscan spirituality and way of life.

In his ‘first sermon’ in his home synagogue in Nazareth, Jesus explains what his mission is. He does this by quoting the prophet Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free …” (Luke 4:18).

With this, Jesus makes it clear to whom this good news is addressed: the ‘poor’. Today, we would perhaps also say, “those who are marginalized and discriminated against by society.” At the United Nations, we often speak about those who are “particularly vulnerable” or “at risk”.

He also makes it clear what this good news consists of: the release of the prisoners, sight for the blind, and freedom for the oppressed.

Furthermore, Jesus makes it clear that this Gospel – this good news – is happening today. “Today” means during the life and work of Jesus. “Today” also means during the time of Francis and Clare – in their work and life, the Gospel happened. And “today” also means today – in our days. Everywhere where we proclaim the Gospel in word and deed.

The good news of today

The list of examples in Jesus’ sermon, and also in the words of the prophet Isiah, are only examples of all the ways it is possible to stand up for justice and against exclusion. Certainly, we can say that they are examples that stand for all human rights.

In the defense of human rights and human dignity through the work of the United Nations and the work of countless human rights organizations, the “today” of the Gospel is also taking place. That is why we see it as our duty and as a way of living our Franciscan vocation – the defense of human rights at the UN.

When the Franciscan family decided to get involved at the UN and applied for accreditation, Robert Muller, the UN Assistant General Secretary at the time, remarked, “What took you so long? We were waiting for you.” As Brother Michael Perry, former Minister General of the Friars Minor and current President of our International Board of Directors, remarked during the 30th anniversary of FI, “The core values enshrined in the founding document of the United Nations reflect Francis and Clare’s commitment to peace, to the poor, and to the planet. It’s a commitment that holds us accountable.”

So it’s more than just the date that brings these two foundational rule texts close together. It is their fundamental message and mission: to proclaim the Gospel through the defense of human dignity and human rights. May these two anniversaries motivate and inspire us anew.

By Markus Heinze OFM, August 2023.

This article was originally published in ITE Magazine.

Leadership in the ‘Franciscan’ world

On 8 November, friends, partners, and colleagues of Franciscans International gathered in Geneva to say goodbye to outgoing Executive Director Markus Heinze OFM and welcome Blair Matheson TSSF as his successor.

Reflecting on the change Brother Michael Perry OFM, as President of FI’s International Board of Directors, delivered the following address exploring leadership in a Franciscan context.

One of the most striking things about leadership in the ‘Franciscan’ world – if such a world really exists – is the intuitive sense that true authority is derived from the bottom, from being among the least, sharing their experience, and engaging with them, rather than seeking to occupy a place at the top of society. This approach is reflected in the lifelong evangelical project of St. Francis of Assisi who at age 44, when nearing death, invited the followers of his fledgling movement to gather close to him and listen to a story about servant leadership revealed in the life and service of a Palestinian-born rabbi named Jesus of Nazareth.

The text that St. Francis requested be read aloud is found in Chapter 13 of the Gospel of St. John in the Christian scriptures. Written after 90 A.D., it reflects a vision of leadership that in recent times has gained traction as essential to the promotion of an effective, engaging, and transformative approach to management and performance. I am, of course, speaking about servant leadership. In the 13th Chapter of gospel of St. John, we meet Jesus and his followers gathered around a table to share fraternity and prepare themselves for what was coming: rejection of Jesus as a religious leader, a rejection that would precipitate his death.

During the meal, Jesus rose from table, stripped his outer garments, bowed down, and began to wash the feet of his disciples. Peter, one of the first and most respected of his followers, protested that he would never allow the one who was his rabbi and leader to wash his feet. Jesus reasons with him and manages to convince him and the others to allow him to wash their feet. At the end of this humble act, Jesus invites them to reflect on the true nature of leadership: service, the washing of the feet of others, placing others in the center, and stepping out of the limelight in order that others might come to discover their authentic self-worth, their capacities and gifts, gifts from the Creator to be placed in service of others.

This is the message about leadership that St. Francis of Assisi wanted to impart to his fellow sojourners, the brothers, to all who sought to follow his example, and to all those who exercise roles of leadership: political, economic, social/cultural, and religious, inviting them to embrace the way of servant leadership.

It is worth noting that one of the first public acts of Cardinal Bergoglio who became Pope Francis was to go to the central prison in Rome and there, at a special religious celebration, bend down and wash the feet of prisoners, including those of a Muslim woman, signaling to the world his understanding of the nature of authentic leadership. He repeated this gesture in the at the Vatican in the presence of two leaders in open conflict with one another, provoking tremendous suffering among their people. I am speaking about President Salva Kiir and Vice-President Riek Machar of South Sudan.

But one might ask: “What has talk about servant leadership to do with the work of Franciscans International, its trusted and beloved partner NGOs, or the U.N. for that matter?”  My response: How else might the actions of defending human rights, placing the needs and legitimate concerns of others front and center, seeking to promote care for the environment and for all sectors of the global human community be defined, except through the lens of servant leadership.

Servant leadership, in the context of our work at the U.N., is about promoting the dignity of all people, of all living reality. It is about celebrating fundamental human rights that all people enjoy irrespective of their religious, economic, socio-cultural, geographical or other origins and identity. Servant leadership is about doing all in one’s capacity to promote and defend universal freedom, justice, and peace. We have known for a very long time the deep cry of human suffering in so many parts of the world, cries oftentimes left unanswered. More recent events now oblige us to take up with renewed resolve the mantle of freedom, justice, and lasting peace, and to do so with profound humility and with the conviction that good will win over evil, love over hatred, and mercy over vengeance.

Servant Leadership in a Franciscan mode recognizes and celebrates beauty: the beauty of each creature – human, and all other creatures inhabiting this tiny, fragile planet Earth. Franciscan leadership does not promote the path of self-advancement. Rather, it seeks to engage in the mutual act of raising up each person in a way that is empowering, that engages the person whose rights and dignity have been denied or limited, allowing them to assume their rightful place as principal agents and protagonists of their lives, their local communities, and, ultimately, of the world community.

Franciscan leadership – indeed, our work in human rights – is about living out the ideal of servant leadership. We are called to be experts in understanding the legal mechanisms related to national and international law, the mechanisms of the UN Charter, the Human Rights Council, and those of the Security Council with the goal of encouraging all nations to respect and promote the well-being of their citizens. At the same time, we also are called to be experts in listening, capable of engendering trust, building relationships of mutual respect and collaboration, valuing the ideas and contributions of every person, not only because of their technical or other contributions to our work but because of their inherent dignity and value.

Franciscan servant leadership never runs away from difficult challenges but faces them with faith, hope, and loving attention. Franciscan leadership is about accompaniment: accompanying those who seek conditions that render their lives more humane, allowing them to achieve their full potential. It is about being accompanied: allowing ourselves to be mentored by those who by all standards are not counted by society, that “throw-away” people, just as St. Francis allowed the leper to mentor him and open his eyes to a much larger world, the world of the excluded.

In closing, I am reminded of a servant leader who worked at the U.N. promoting active engagement of all peoples in pursuit of the dream of a new world order. He not only ‘dreamed’ about this new world order; he used his position and energy to help begin to set in motion all the necessary actors and means favoring its construction. This servant leader is the former and now deceased Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

He enjoyed a level of global recognition and respect most national leaders could only envy. This was due in large measure to the decency and care he showed towards all whom he met. His was an instinctive respect shown toward others, even those who disagreed with him. His leadership style brought out the best in others, especially his colleagues. He could laugh with them and at himself, and cry with them, cry with all of humanity suffering the consequences of conflicts, war, disease, and human loss.

Such servant leaders as St. Francis of Assisi and Kofi Annan inspire others to act in selfless ways, placing the needs of others at the center, promoting an integral vision of the unity of all of humanity. To each of their credits, their visions of servant leadership has served to inspire young people – and those not so young- to once again believe in life, in the goodness of others, and in the hope that a new world is possible if people come together and work for the common good.

Be praised for our Sister, Mother Earth

To mark the observance of international days that have a particularly deep resonance within the Franciscan family, sisters and brothers collaborating with Franciscans International have provided spiritual reflections on the intersection between their faith and their human rights work. For Mother Earth Day, Brother Christopher John SSF, Minister General of the Society of Saint Francis, explores the topic of environmental justice.

FI collaborates closely with the Society of Saint Francis to address the negative impacts of logging in the Solomon Islands: at the United Nations, we support their grassroots work using a human-rights based approach. You can find our most recent work on environmental justice at the UN here.

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Franciscans are rightly concerned with the needs of the environment in which we live. Francis might have turned into the saint of birdbaths in popular thought, but his approach to creation was much richer than that simple image. He affirmed the value of creation and saw that God entered the world in human form in the humility of frail human flesh. And he recognized too that God continues to dwell among us in the bread and wine of Christ’s body and blood. The world we live in is a sacramental encounter with the divine.

The things of our physical world are important; in other words, “matter matters.” Justice is a rich concept in biblical terms. More than the punishment of wrongdoing, it means giving people their rights, and especially to those most vulnerable.

If we bring environment and justice together as environmental justice, Franciscans have a powerful lens to look at the world. We love and care for the material things of creation, since they are for us signs of the divine presence. But we also hear the voices of the suffering. The poor, the marginalized, the oppressed peoples of the world. Just as we hear these human voices, we also need to hear the voices of the whole created order crying out for justice because the voices of the rivers, lakes and forests and so on, these are the voices of the vulnerable.

But justice requires more than just listening. The biblical phrase is to “do justice”; justice is action. The action done by Franciscans International is to take the voices of the vulnerable (of humans – and of all creation) and to let these voices speak in the UN gatherings where policies can be set and programmes initiated.

Our best witnesses to the cry of the environment are those living most closely to the land and sea and rivers. They see and know the daily changes caused by climate change or rising sea levels. They know what it is when their land no longer produces the crops it has for generations, or when their fresh water supplies become undrinkable.

They have no alternative supplies. Their daily food comes from the land and sea round them—or it doesn’t.

As an example of this, we’ve visited villages in Solomon Islands and heard the stories of the environmental, social and spiritual damage caused by logging. We’ve taken these stories to the UN and used them to lobby successfully for improvement in management of logging. There’s much to follow up, and environmental matters at local level interact with global concerns. It’s just a start, but we are driven by the voices we have heard. And as Franciscans we are committed to continuing to advocate for the needs of Mother Earth.

Franciscans are (or should be) the people who know intimately the needs of those living on the most vulnerable margins. We are privileged by education and status. Let us also be the people who “do justice” for all our sisters and brothers in creation.

Defending a Healthy Planet: Franciscans at the UN Climate Conference

The COP26 was Glasgow will be a pivotal moment for the preservation of our common home and Franciscans are present to demand strong and urgent action. In a briefing directly from the parish of the Friars Minor in Glasgow, we explain how Franciscans around the world are coming together for climate justice and what those not present can do to support this work.

With contributions from:

  • George Smulski OFM (Guardian of Parish of Blessed John Duns Scotus)
  • Budi Tjahjono (Asia Pacific Program Coordinator at Franciscans International)
  • Mylene Saluta (Executive Director of the Fellowship for the Care of Creation of the Philippines)
  • Clark Berge SSF (Guardian of Hilfield Friary)
  • Christopher John SSF (Minister General of Society of Saint Francis)
  • Lindlyn Moma (Director of Advocacy for the Laudato Si’ Movement)
  • Angelito Cortez OFM (Vice-Director of the Justice, Peace, and Integrity of Creation Office in Rome)

    Moderation by Benedict Ayodi OFMCap, Outreach Officer at Franciscans International

Sister Water calls us to the people of El Salvador

In March, Fray René Flores OFM delivered a statement to the Human Rights Council calling on the governments of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras to come to an equitable agreement for sharing their transboundary waters. He is one of the many Franciscan brothers and sisters who have addressed the United Nations of the years. However, their advocacy at the international level builds on years of work in their communities where, in many cases, human rights violations are a daily reality

Fray René himself lives in El Salvador, a country that will run out of drinkable water in just 80 years according to some estimates. The Franciscans have been part of the efforts to avert this impending crisis, including by looking across the borders of the countries that make up the “dry corner” of Central America.  Meanwhile, at the national level, they have successfully pushed for a constitutional amendment that recognizes the rights to water and sanitation, giving people new handholds to take action. Following his statement at the UN, Fray René wrote this short reflection on the human and spiritual dimension behind his work.

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Sister Water calls us to the people of El Salvador

“The human right to water, together with sanitation and adequate food, are deeply felt needs of the population, more than anything else fundamental, and we ask God, that ratification is achieved,” the Archbishop of San Salvador, José Luis Escobar Alas, said in his message in the crypt of the Metropolitan Cathedral”

Diariocolatino. 20-2-2021

On 19 February 2021, the Campaign for the Human Right to Water and Food – which is supported by social organizations, environmentalists and churches defending human rights – made a call to the presidents or general secretaries of the ten political parties that fielded candidates for deputies and mayors in the elections of 28 February. The purpose was for the representatives to sign a public commitment supporting the ratification of the constitutional reform on these rights for the population; this event was held in front of the tomb and the prophetic memory of Saint Romero. Of the ten parties, four representatives of the parties were present, all of them women (why didn’t men come as representatives: is it because women are already a majority in political spaces?)

“Regarding the agreement, the organizations and churches pointed out that the current legislature has approved two reforms to the Constitution of the Republic, one that recognizes the human right to water and its sanitation. And, the second, linked to adequate food. Article 2, first paragraph and Article 69, where these rights that the Salvadoran State must guarantee are added”

Diariocolatino. 20-2-2021

The struggle for the recognition of water and sanitation as a right, as well as the proposal for a general water law, has been fought for more than a decade by civil society and churches. The fight for the determination of food sovereignty has been longer, struggling for food quality to reach the majority. This struggle for environmental justice and against impunity confronts the privatizing and monopolistic interests of the oligarchic groups in the country as well as the guidelines on extractives of the government in power.

In the history of the Salvadoran people this act is transcendent, for seeking that the parties and their representatives publicly commit themselves in favor of the human rights to water and food. That is to say, in favor of the majority and the good of the Common Home in this territory. It was an act of civil responsibility, with citizen participation and collective leadership. It is important to highlight the non-signature of some parties, which we hope will commit themselves in the following days.

The other transcendental aspect is that once again the hierarchy of the Catholic Church and the historic Christian Churches agreed on the defense of the human rights of the people, and the care of creation as a gift from God for all in equality. Water is fundamental in these times of pandemic. Water is integrated to the territories, to biodiversity, to the forests and ecosystems, everything is a relationship of interdependence in the Common Home. Without quality and access to water there is no food for Salvadoran men and women, much less for future generations.

We are part of a single intention of creative love. That is our profession of faith; our God left this “sister Mother Earth” so that life may continue and be transformed into more LIFE. God did not create capitalism, extractivism or the market economy. The divine proposal seeks that life be abundant for all his creatures. Thank you sister water, you summon us and inspire us with your fragility, tenderness and goodness of life!

Lenten Reflections: Social justice and stages of the cross

Sisters and brothers from across the globe came together to explore the different dimensions of their social justice work, the challenges they face, and how we can come together to meet them in a changing world.

With contributions from:

  • Benedict Ayodi OFMCap (Outreach Officer, Franciscans International)
  • Alexandro Rangga OFM (West Papua)
  • Diana Muñoz Alba FMM (Mexico)
  • Joseph Dufe OFMCap (Cameroon)
  • Peter Amendt OFM (Germany)
  • Angelito Cortez OFM (the Philippines)
  • Achieng Anne Celestine FSJ (Kenya)
  • Igor Bastos, Youfra (Brazil)
  • Markus Heinze OFM (Executive Director, Franciscans International)

Franciscan Action at the UN: The responsibility of business on human rights:

Throughout the world, we are witnessing the devastating impact of extractive industries on the communities we live in. It is undeniable that the current methods we use to collect and produce resources are devastating to our Common Home. Together with the OFM’s Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation office in Rome, this event takes a look at the historical engagement of Franciscans on mining issues.

We also hear from brothers in Brazil and the Philippines about our work at the United Nations to establish a new human rights treaty on transnational corporation, and how these efforts could help bring justice to their communities. Examining these issues in the context of Laudato si’, the webinar ends with a discussion exploring new ways in which we can come together and take action.

With contributions from:

  • Sheila Kinsey FCJM
  • Rodrigo Péret OFM
  • Angelito Cortez OFM
  • Markus Heinze OFM (Franciscans International)
  • Benedict Ayodi OFMCap (Franciscans International)
  • Budi Tjahjono (Franciscans International)

Moderation by Moema Miranda OFS

Lenten Reflections: The mandala of Saint Nicolas of Flue

These reflections are based on a “mandala” created in the 15th Century based on the insights of Saint Nicolas of Flue (1417-1487), who was canonized shortly after the Second World War and proclaimed Patron Saint of Peace.

The images of the mandala are sequenced according to the pleas of the “Our Father.” Its structure is that of a wheel which symbolizes the passing of time, and the history of the world and of humanity.

God, the Unmoved Mover, is the center of the wheel and at the same time takes part in the different scenes. Through God’s action, history of the world becomes that of salvation. However, humans are not just the “objects” of salvation. They take active part in salvation, as “subjects,” with their acts of mercy.

Just 70 years ago, after the horrific experiences of the First and Second World Wars, the United Nations adopted and proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, with the hope that this action would prevent such horrors from ever occurring again. Mercy and human rights are interdependent. Without the recognition of the rights of humanity, mercy can be humiliating.

Without mercy, rights can be loveless. Yet, both are rooted in human dignity which is unconditional and inalienable for each and every human being. When the respect of human rights and works of mercy go hand in hand, then history becomes that of salvation.

This reflection booklet looks beyond the original scenes of the mandala, at sisters and brothers of our time, who work together with Franciscans International to bring mercy and rights together in their Franciscan mission.

Let us now become one with them in prayer so that “God’s kingdom come, and His will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

The reflections are available in English, French, German, Italian, and Spanish.