The Story Behind The Francis Project
The abridged version.
April 6, 2022
In many ways it is only in looking back that all the pieces come together.
When I consider all the accidents and near-misses, I am astounded at the unmistakable leading of the Holy Spirit in the conceiving, developing and now birthing of this new ministry that has both deep roots in the Franciscan story, and the breadth to embrace a range of vocations, across denominations. I (Heather) am now almost forty years old, a particular milestone for a woman, and I know that God has been leading me into this new (but old) work He is doing, since I was twelve years old.
Now that I think back, it was even earlier.
On Protestantism and Catholicism
I grew up in an Anglican family as a pastor’s kid. My parents wanted me to have some Christian formation at school, so they sent me to the local Catholic school, which was affordable for them raising three children on a pastor’s stipend. This meant that from a young age I came face-to-face with the fact that my family wasn’t simply Christian, but ‘Protestant’ with a married priest for a father. That made me a bit interesting but also a bit weird to my peers.
Little did I know then that my life was destined to be in relationship with Catholic communities and, not by accident at all. This happened because throughout my schooling I met some of the most faithful and beautiful Christians I have ever known, in the Catholic Church. Even as I wrestled with what from a young age was an obvious aptitude for preaching and Church leadership, as a woman, and later a calling to marriage (gifts that are challenging to reconcile in a Catholic context) my knowledge of Jesus from the very beginning was deeply formed by Catholic and non-Catholic communities. And so, I am a bridge.
In fact, many nights I have pleaded with the Lord to convert me to Catholicism; either that He would call me this way, or close the door on Catholicism, so I could simply be relaxed in my ‘lane’, where the sacramental life might feel compromised at times, but the theology of salvation is the opposite of compromised and the freedom in worship more tangible. He did neither.
In 1990 it was time for my class to make the Sacrament of Reconciliation in preparation to receive their First Communion the following year. It was a time when stone-washed jeans and blue eye-shadow were in fashion and McDonald’s birthday parties were considered the best fun a kid could have. I don’t know that I was a particularly spiritual child. My teachers always said that I treated school like a social event. First Reconciliation was much the same; an opportunity to see my friends outside of school hours.
My parents arranged for me to meet with an Anglican priest who was going to hear my confession. They didn’t want me to miss out on the experience and I guess I was grateful, but I remember struggling to think of something to confess. That has certainly changed over the years!
This lovely man had a little chat with me in the sanctuary of the Anglican church next to my hourse, which was a classic 1970’s blend of bluestone and geometric stained glass shapes. He told me that he had brought a gift to remember this moment. It was a small, wooden, San Damiano cross. It was four years later that I learned about St Francis, after stumbling across a book that recalled his life story. I sat and read that book cover to cover, in one evening. Still a predominantly social child and not a big reader, this was a new experience, but I could not put it down. I was hooked.
The Prayer of a Twelve-Year-Old Girl
I remember praying that night and asking God if one day, He could make it possible for me to go to the place where Francis encountered Jesus speaking to him from the cross at San Damiano. I saw that Assisi was in the region of Umbria, which I remembered learning about it in my Italian class at school. I wanted to fly to Italy and go to that place. More than this, I wanted to know Jesus in this way … this personal, face-to-face way, and I was strangely drawn to this project of ‘rebuilding the Church’.
I was twenty-eight years old when this dream was realised, and my Italian-speaking husband and I made our way to this little church, attached to the original convent of the Poor Clares, on the side of a mountain in Assisi. It was later that same day, at the top of this mountain, that I saw the original cross from the site, and low and behold, it was the same image that had sat in my bedroom from the age of seven, after it was gifted to me by the Anglican priest whose name I don’t remember. I could not believe it.
My teenage years weren’t easy, as is the case for many young people. I was carrying the shame and trauma of abuse that had disrupted my development and set the foundations for crippling levels of performance anxiety. Somehow, in the midst of it all, I discovered that I was a good student, which was a saving grace. I poured myself into my studies, my church youth group and what was an early expression of ‘rebuilding’ chaplaincy in my high school context. I was always starting projects, fundraisers, social-justice campaigns, social events and new opportunities for faith-formation for my peers.
Most of my peers wouldn’t have known the internal darkness I was battling with but would have seen my faith and the way God used me time and again to build community and shift culture. God's Spirit inside of me has always cut into the fearful places and, like surgery, gradually removed those things that were never part of His design or desire for me. His is a purifying love with power to heal. This I know from experience.
Through it all, this little cross from San Damiano always sat above my desk and I would talk to Jesus as I studied and tell Him that I wanted Him to have my life, however He wanted to use me. Years later, I found myself in a theology class, sitting next to the Jesuit priest who had been my former high school chaplain! I told him how I was finally making good on my promise that God could decide the course of my life. I had given away having a legal career to train for ordination. His immediate response was, “It’s always been obvious.”
A Modern-Day San Damiano
I didn’t think about the strange coincidence of having always owned this cross from San Damiano, until a second visit to Assisi, when I started to recognise a theme in my life: ‘rebuilding the Church’. I had been ordained for three years at this stage, and after completing my first curacy had found myself serving in the most run-down Anglican parish I could be in. It was a modern San Damiano, with crumbling walls, termites, years of hoarded opp-shop equipment spilling into the church, a congregation of fifteen (on a good day) and a mounting debt.
I remember after my first day in this appointment, walking around my loungeroom in tears, thanking God over and over for the opportunity to serve in this place and to be a part of rebuilding the Church. God had gifted me the opportunity to cut-my-teeth on restoring relationships, theological foundations, devotion to prayer and connections with the local community. Miracle upon miracle, God showed up, and I was free to test the theory that poverty+the Gospel=boom. It didn’t happen overnight, and it didn’t become a megachurch, but it was rebuilt. I watched person after person return to the Lord or come to know Him for the first time. Hearts were changed, knees were healed, diseases left and demons fled. It changed me too.
It was two years into the process of rebuilding this parish that I became pregnant with our daughter Mary and started to experience a series of dreams and visions. One night the Lord showed me the word ‘poverty’ in a dream. I saw the words of Matthew 10 and images of the early disciples travelling from town to town without sandals or money, relying on donations, people of peace and the move of the Holy Spirit to build the Church. I woke up and wrote down everything I had seen and drafted a Rule of Life for a community dedicated to this practice. I somehow knew it would be Franciscan and it would come together in Assisi.
It was another five years later when this all culminated in what has now become The Francis Project.
How God told me to write a Franciscan pedagogy
After a stint at Church renewal in a parish context, God moved me into a chaplaincy role in a high school, and later, at the Anglican College attached to Melbourne University. This time I was in contexts where there was plenty of money but where the faith foundations of the organisation had almost completely eroded. There is a spiritual poverty that comes with serving as a chaplain in such contexts. You get used to being metaphorically spat on and you suck it up, because the work starts with admitting and grieving the ground that has been lost. Rebuilding trust is skilled work, especially where there has been a legacy of Church leadership that was entitled, privileged, perhaps even a lazy denial of the ‘writing on the wall’, not to mention the reality of abuse by clergy. Society doesn’t trust us anymore, especially academic society.
It was during this season that Franciscan pedagogy was birthed. It all started with a day of fasting and prayer. It was a pretty routine day, because I have been in the habit of marking out a day a month to listen to God, without any fixed agenda. On this particular day I felt led to go to the Trinity College Chapel. I had studied there many years ago, but hadn’t visited in a long time. As I sat there with the sound of passing trams in the background, the words clearly came to me, “write a PhD in Franciscan pedagogy.” I was more confident than usual that it was God and not my imagination, because it was so left of field. I wasn’t planning to study a PhD at all, and if I was going to, I would have been drawn to an evangelical college and a focus on Church planting. I had never considered formally studying Franciscan history and wasn’t even sure how possible that would be to do this in Australia, as a non-Catholic.
I saw a second vision that day, of a group of people gathering at the back of the Chapel. It was an interdenominational community who were somehow connected to the Franciscan vision that I had written down years previously. I saw this community beginning in Melbourne and eventually going on mission to Assisi. I didn’t realise then, that the two words were connected. This group was to be a community of practice in Franciscan pedagogy.
A few months later God opened the door for me to work as a Chaplain at Trinity College, where I served within the international student program. Suddenly my life was connected to hundreds of young people from across Southeast Asia. The Christian students were from a wide range of denominational backgrounds and many were Catholic. So began my journey to reconnecting with the Catholic Church, after many years of having no contact, and beginning to work with a Franciscan friar who was supervising my thesis.
Gradually, through the work of networking with local Christian leaders, building a range of ministries on campus and creating interdenominational student gatherings, God brought people into my life who were to become the founding team for The Francis Project. I would never have met all of these people had I not been positioned in this role for four years.
First, God brought Shiung, who really has been the lynchpin of the whole operation. I met Shiung after guest-preaching at his church one Sunday. Shiung is one of those rare geniuses who has done a bit of everything, started successful businesses, designed buildings around the world, opened a wine bar and served as a worship pastor. God very quickly, supernaturally, gave him a heart for this ministry, and with his business acumen and spiritual maturity, a vague idea became The Francis Project. Shiung is my dear friend and brother.
God also brought Luke, who was reluctant at first. Our friendship was one of the slow-burn kinds. He recently told me that when he first met me he thought I was a crazy lady. Now he is like the younger brother I never had, a true friend in times of trouble, and the Catholic priest the team needed to be legitimately, authentically interdenominational. Luke is a tall guy whose stature holds spiritual integrity, as well as the capacity for big, healing hugs.
After these came Nicole, Claire, Dan, Steph, Justin, Harry, Craig, Kim and Jess. I will let them tell their stories, as the work is no longer mine, but ours.
God also gathered a Board. First there was Matt, who I met through a Gospel movement called RICE, who are championing the asian voice in the Australian Church. Our friendship forged in the midst of shared heartache; the kind that comes in ministry when you love and lose. Secondly, I met Darcy who was the Dean of the neighbouring Catholic College. He began to partner with me in developing ministries for our Catholic students, after assisting us with the pastoral care of students following a tragic student death. The first day I met him I sensed the Holy Spirit say, “This one. Work with this one.”
After Darcy, I accidentally met Andy, when we were invited to speak together at a panel discussion for a Catholic parish event. Andy is exactly what the Project needs: a conservative Catholic voice that is dripping with grace and a love for common humanity, as a well as having worked as a school principal and academic, meaning he really knows his stuff.
Elaine stumbled into my life because of her interest in peacebuilding work with young people, the subject of her doctoral thesis, which she was undertaking at Melbourne University. Honestly, she is probably the smartest person I’ve ever met, with a quirky sense of humour and beautiful smile. She also brings the non-Anglican evangelical experience.
And Bishop Mark, well, he was invited to celebrate Mass at a student event, by one of my co-workers. I knew nothing about him except that he was a very loved bishop amongst young Catholics in Melbourne. Perhaps arrogantly, I couldn’t have cared less, and I remember carrying a natural scepticism about bishops, especially ‘popular’ ones. I was glad to invite him but pretty sure he wasn’t going to be my cup of tea. How wrong I was.
He is my cup of tea. Two of my favourite things to do these days are drink a strong cup of tea and talk to Bishop Mark.
All of this is by way of saying that The Francis Project is a community; one which God has gathered and is growing in His own time, in His own way.
Why the Church needs a pedagogy and a Franciscan one
Franciscan pedagogy, as it turns out, is a thing. It’s true that ‘pedagogy’ is a term used in the context of education, to describe the theory and practice of teaching and learning. Whilst those who work in different contexts, who aren’t teachers, might find the word left-of-field, I believe we are living in a time when the Church needs to focus on studying and developing its pedagogy. In other words, we send a lot of time studying what we believe, and we should, but we spend comparatively very little time learning how we communicate it, or considering the process of learning that is involved in both being discipled and discipling others. I guess I’m saying that on the whole, I don't believe we are very good teachers, or students.
This doesn’t mean we should dispense with theology degrees or attempt to oversimplify the Gospel. Christians can’t agree on everything about what we believe. Though we can meet in the ‘Nicene Creed middle’ when it comes to matters core to Christian belief, in The Francis Project we are not in the business of watering down our significant historical and theological departures as to matters of salvation, ecclesiology or missiology. These have shaped and continue to shape our lives and convictions and deserve to be treated with the weight of gold. We’re not in the camp that says, 'it’s all good because we agree about more than we disagree about'.
What we are doing differently, is placing our differences in a sacred space to be held, whilst we work together on how we do our ministry, and how God is changing us in the process.
How we preach; how we witness; how we heal broken trust in our contexts; how we build teams; how we recruit and manage volunteers; how we write and speak and create; how we lead change; how we sing and worship; how we market; how we build bridges; how we lead people to Christ; how we pray.
How. How. How.
How to … rebuild the ruins.
St Francis knew how, because he did it.
And here’s the kicker … are you ready for this?
Francis’ method was drawn from Matthew 10, which describes the sending of the first Apostles. He distilled it, lived it and finessed it as a charism. This means that his pedagogy for rebuilding the Church, which Jesus gave to him, was drawn from the scripture and directly from the example of Jesus. I didn’t know until I read the history that this passage, which God highlighted to me in a dream in 2013, is the very pedagogy Jesus had already given to His Church, uniquely reimagined by the early Franciscans.
I didn’t realise it was already being filtered into my life and settling into my bones, from the moment a seven-year-old girl attempted her first confession.
I didn’t know. God taught me. And I believe, St Francis is smiling.