How Franciscan is Pope Francis?

St Francis in Ecstasy by Caravaggio

August 2 has come and gone, but it would be a good idea to mark the day in our diaries for next year, for this is the day of the Portiuncula Indulgence, the indulgence granted to St Francis, who lived at the tiny church of Our Lady of the Angels, below Assisi, at a place called Portiuncula, or the ‘Little Portion’.

It seems unquestionable to me that St Francis is the great spiritual giant of the Western Church. And yet, the more one contemplates him, the more he recedes from our clear vision. The Portiuncula is a case in point. It is a tiny chapel, now richly encased in decoration, and covered by the vast Basilica of Our Lady of the Angels. Next to it, also inside the basilica, lies the Chapel of the Transitus, where the saint died. Both these tiny chapels date to the time of Francis, and once stood in the open air, but now one has to perform the mental exercise of removing the accretions of history to get back to the original, if that were possible. So too with the Saint himself: the Francis we are often told about obscures the ‘real’ Francis, in that his story has been told and recrafted many times. One could at this point talk of the recurring controversies of Franciscan history, but there is not time and space enough for that. But reading the sources, all of which are collected in a useful single volume, particularly the First Life and the Second Life of Thomas of Celano, and the Legend of the Three Companions, certain things begin to emerge, and they are rather surprising.

The first is the social setting. Born in 1182, or thereabouts, Francis long predates the Renaissance. In fact he belongs to the time of the Provencal troubadours, which he loved greatly as a youth. He was born over 50 years before Cimabue, the first great Italian artist. Francis belongs not to the dark ages, but at least to the predawn twilight.

He came from a merchant family, and his mother was French. His real name was Giovanni, but he was nicknamed Francesco or ‘Frenchie’, which gives him an international feel. He travelled widely, including all the way to Egypt. Italians love him, but he transcends the bounds of Italy. At the same time he is popularly supposed to be the first poet to write in what is recognisable as Italian.

Francis was a mystic and an ecstatic, as Thomas of Celano makes clear. He spent hours alone, in the caves, praying, as a young man; his conversion came about rather more slowly and less dramatically than we might suppose, according to the Second Life. He received the stigmata in a cave too, a grim cleft in the rock on the desolate peak of Mount La Verna. he practiced the most rigorous austerities. According to archaeologists, his bones show signs of malnutrition.

The Portiuncula Indulgence is our way in sharing in the graces granted to the saint; it was originally only given to people who visited Portiuncula, but has now been extended to every parish church on earth. But, as one contemplates the Saint, one question arises. To what extent is our own Pope Francis a Franciscan Pope?

He certainly ticks the box of internationalism. Pope Francis is an Italian (by blood) who transcends the confines of Italy. His recent involvement in the case of the Orthodox Merriam Ibrahim is a case in point, as is his friendship with the Pentecostals and charismatics of various denominations. He is showing himself a leader of all Christians in his ministry. This represents a clever repositioning of the Papacy, just as St Francis’s mission to Egypt represented a realignment of the Church of his own day. So, Saint and Pope share the same missionary and universalist orientation.

St Francis, born of the mercantile class, and rejecting the same class, foreshadows too the strong critique of capitalism that we have heard from this Pope. The Pope as we all know is a Pope ‘for the poor’, but what does that mean in practice? It means carrying on the critique of unbridled capitalism that goes back to Leo XIII, and which was so strongly upheld by Paul VI and John Paul II. St Francis too, at the dawn of capitalism, was an anti-capitalist radical, unless that is to project too much back into the story. St Francis is greatly admired by sections of the Italian left, and it is on the left of the Christian Democrat movement that we should locate the Pope. This places him in the centre of the political spectrum, something that those from places where Christian Democracy has not flourished, have difficulty understanding.

What perhaps we are not seeing from this Pope is the mystical and ecstatic characteristics of St Francis. A papacy that emphasised these elements of the Christian message would be truly interesting, nay, inspiring. If the Pope, this pope or any pope, were to retreat to a cave and have visions, that would alarm a great many people, I dare say. A pope with the stigmata even more so. These mystical and ecstatic element needs to be stressed, for it they are a constant in Western Christianity, particularly in Franciscans: one thinks of the great St Bonaventure, and also of Padre Pio, who perhaps represents the greatest flowering of mystical and ecstatic prayer in our own time. Padre Pio was of course famously otherworldly, whereas the Holy Father seems very down to earth, a typical Jesuit. Padre Pio did very little in his life, except pray and celebrate the sacraments, which tells us, I think, that this very little is a great deal. He was one of those saints who won many souls for God just by the way he celebrated Mass.

St Francis is patron saint of the environment and was the great lover of animals and nature (and this is a historic fact, given his undoubted authorship of the Canticle of the Sun, and not some romantic backward projection). Here too I do not really see a Franciscan streak in our present Pope, though that streak was clearly apparent in the cat-loving Benedict XVI who wrote some profound things about the theology of environmentalism.

Perhaps I am being too particular. St Francis is the most popular of Christian saints; Pope Francis the most popular of popes. Both communicate effortlessly. Perhaps that is resemblance enough.


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