We tend to love saints—provided they are safely dead.
When they are alive, kicking up a storm, challenging us to live out the Gospel, they act like a thorn in our conscience.
The saints inspire awe. There is nothing more holy—or terrifying—than reading what St. Catherine of Siena wrote about wayward clergy in her searing Dialogue; few sermons in Christendom equal the power of St. Alphonsus Liguori’s on the enticements of the world; and how many of us would have the courage of a St. Charles Borromeo, who, as he implemented the reforms of the Council of Trent, had his life threatened multiple times?
Saints Joan of Arc and Francis Xavier . . . Teresa of Avila and Ignatius of Loyola . . . Damien of Molokai and Kateri Tekakwitha—they blaze across Christian history like wheels of fire.
Intimidated as we are by these towering figures, we downplay their achievements. The full force of their personalities is hard to accept. So we domesticate them, trying to make them suitable for modern times. We pacify, secularize, and ultimately trivialize them, emptying them of their supernatural power. We create imaginary saints—saints in our own image, and not God’s.
No saint has been more a victim of this revisionism than Saint Francis of Assisi. The poverello, or “poor one,” as he is known, was a legend even during his life (1181/2-1226). He was canonized a mere two years after dying, and soon stories about his life—often highly romanticized and of dubious historicity—grew.
There was bound to be a reaction, and it came in the form of Paul Sabitier’s Life of Saint Francis of Assisi (1894), which depicted Francis as a misunderstood humanitarian, crushed by a hidebound and superstitious Church. The book had a lot in common with turn-of-the-century efforts to rationalize Jesus, but was quickly challenged, notably by Franciscan scholar Paschal Robinson, who wrote of Sabatier:
Finding that the St. Francis of history was the contradiction of all his preconceived theological ideas, there were two courses open to him—to take St. Francis as he stood and to abandon his own ideas, or to repaint the portrait of St. Francis according to those ideas. He chose the latter course, which naturally involves the destruction of St. Francis.
For over a century, scholars have debated the “real Saint Francis,” and now an outstanding new work by Father Augustine Thompson, Francis of Assisi: A New Biography, sets a new standard in the quest.
Years of research have brought us much closer to the historical St. Francis, and Thompson sifts through the evidence meticulously.
The first thing to know about Saint Francis, Father Thompson told me in an interview, is that “he was a devout thirteenth-century Italian Catholic.” Any effort to turn him into something else-say, a modern-day pacifist, liberation theologian, feminist or environmentalist—is as anachronistic as it is far-fetched. Further, the spectacle of a young Francis traipsing through the fields without a care in the world—an image immortalized in Franco Zeffirelli’s film, Brother Sun, Sister Moon—may charm audiences, but has little to do with the man.
The historical Francis was actually quite introspective and conscientious, constantly questioning himself about how best to serve the Lord. Far from being a rebel, he was devoted to the pope, the Catholic hierarchy, and the priesthood. He adored the Holy Eucharist, and insisted that his priests follow the books of the Roman Church, and use clean vestments and vessels for Mass. He constantly called his audiences to repentance. He was a passionate defender of orthodoxy and wanted to evangelize the world, even if that meant suffering martyrdom.
The popular idea that Francis, who renounced wealth, only wanted to communicate a spirit of solidarity with the poor—but never addressed sins of the flesh—won’t survive a reading of his writings, which explicitly warn against “carnal desires” and what they can lead to.
St. Francis was spiritually humble, but not weak. Johannes Jorgensen, one of the saint’s early biographers, reminds us that Francis was “an unbending moralist. He was not silent about wrongs that he saw, but gave everything its right name. . . . In his writings there is many a Woe to the sinner, whose wages are eternal fire! He was not afraid to threaten with God’s judgment. His words were compared to a sword that pierces through hearts.” Fr. Thompson concurs, stressing, however, that “Francis never placed himself above anyone,” knowing and fearing that God would judge him, too. “Francis was not a universalist, and clearly thought some people go to hell,” said Father Thompson.
These facts seem to have been lost among some of Francis’s contemporary enthusiasts. Andrew Sullivan’s Easter-week cover story for Newsweek magazine was entitled, “Forget the Church, Follow Jesus.” It mentions Father Thompson’s book and acknowledges the saint’s orthodoxy, but insists that Francis didn’t found an order to “control” anyone, but simply wanted to “reduce ones life to essentials, to ask merely for bread, forgiveness of others, and denial of self,” which represents a “form of liberation” for Sullivan. But as Father Thompson writes, “true freedom of spirit, indeed true Christian freedom, comes from obedience, not autonomy.” And for Francis, that meant, first and foremost, obedience to the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, with all its demanding teachings.
Similarly questionable is the reading Paul Moses gives to the saint in his book, The Saint and the Sultan, about Francis’s encounter with Egypt’s Sultan Malik al-Kamil during the Fifth Crusade. Moses rejects any interpretation of a “combative Francis,” since his “Earlier Rule calls on friars to live peaceably among Muslims and ‘be subject’ to them.” But the text to which Moses refers cites the first letter of Peter, chapter two, which talks about submission within the concept of Christian belief and freedom. Further, Francis explicitly advocates baptizing and converting non-Christians open to it, “so that they may believe in God the Omnipotent, Father and Son and Holy Spirit.”
After Moses’ book appeared, he was interviewed by Melinda Henneberger, and both fretted about how “insensitive” it was to still hold to such notions about Christian conversion. But if the modern takeaway message from Saint Francis is to withhold the Gospel whenever it might seem inconvenient or politically incorrect, we have traveled far away from the great saint’s teaching.
St. Francis’s philosophy was not simply “live and let live,” but rather, “live, love and strive to bring people to Christ.”
By all means, let us be inspired by the lives of the saints, but let us remember who they actually were, and why they became saints in the first place.
William Doino Jr. is a contributor to Inside the Vatican magazine, among many other publications, and writes often about religion, history and politics. He contributed an extensive bibliography of works on Pius XII to The Pius War: Responses to the Critics of Pius XII.
Frances of Assisi: A New Biography by Fr. Augustine Thompson, O.P. (Cornell University Press, 2012)
A Fresh Look at a Familiar Saint by Woodene Koenig-Bricker, Our Sunday Visitor, May 20, 2012
The Writings of St. Francis of Assisi, translated by Fr. Kajetan Esser, O.F.M (The Franciscan Archive, 1999)
Forget the Church, Follow Jesus by Andrew Sullivan, Newsweek, April 2, 2012
Mission Improbable: St. Francis and the Sultan by Paul Moses, Commonweal, September 21, 2009
What Christians and Muslims Can Learn From “The Saint and the Sultan” by Melinda Henneberger, Politics Daily, October 2, 2009
Saint Francis and the Sultan: The Curious History of a Christian-Muslim Encounter by John V. Tolan (Oxford University Press, 2009)
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