By Cindy Wooden
Catholic News Service
VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Calling St. Francis of Assisi "an authentic giant of holiness," Pope Benedict XVI said the 13th-century saint continues to be a model for living simply, respecting God's creation and entering into dialogue with people of other religions.
Continuing a series of talks about theologians and saints of the Middle Ages at his weekly general audience Jan. 27, the pope said St. Francis offers a clear demonstration that "the saints are the best interpreters of the Gospel" for people of every age.
Early in his process of conversion, the pope said, Francis was praying in the crumbling church of St. Damian in Assisi and heard Jesus speaking from the cross, telling him to repair the church. He carried out the work with his own hands.
"But the ruinous state of that church was a symbol of the dramatic, disturbing situation of the entire church of that age with its superficial faith that did not form and transform people's lives and with a clergy that was not zealous," the pope said.
The church "was decomposing from within," he said.
St. Francis dedicated himself to living the Gospel in a radical way, preaching its message far and wide and renewing the whole church, the pope said.
However, as a true saint and member of the church, Francis did not attempt to do anything "without or against the pope, but only with the pope," he said. Francis "knew that every charism given by the Holy Spirit must be placed at the service of the body of Christ, which is the church, therefore he acted in full communion with the ecclesiastical authorities."
In 1219, St. Francis went to Egypt and met with the Muslim leader, Sultan Malik al-Kamil.
"I want to underline this episode in the life of St. Francis because of its great relevance. At a time when there was a conflict between Christianity and Islam, Francis -- armed only with his faith and his personal meekness -- successfully followed the path of dialogue," the pope said.
St. Francis' desire to speak to the sultan and the sultan's cordial welcome is "a model that must inspire relations between Christians and Muslims today as well, promoting a dialogue in truth, mutual respect and understanding," he said.
Among the participants at the audience was a delegation of 79 Jewish, Muslim and Christian students and teachers from the cross-border towns of Eliat, Israel, and Aqabat, Jordan, who were in Rome for a performance of dance and theater about dialogue.
Another lesson St. Francis can teach Christians today, the pope said, is a proper attitude toward money and material comforts.
Although born into a wealthy family, Francis' conversion led him to understand how living the Gospel meant having "a sober lifestyle and a detachment from material goods," the pope said.
St. Francis' continuing popularity also is due to his sensitivity to the work of God through creation, he said.
"Love for other people and for all God's creatures is born from love of Christ," the pope said.
St. Francis' message is "very relevant today," the pope said, because human interventions are sustainable "only if they respect creation and do not damage the environment."
"Francis reminds us that God's wisdom and benevolence is displayed in creation; nature is a language which speaks to us of God and through which God speaks to us," Pope Benedict said.