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St Francis and the Pope: Catalysts for change?

A detail from St Francis in Prayer by Caravaggio

Now that we have Pope Francis (the first) it’s natural for people to write books linking him to his new patron: St Francis of Assisi. Jon M Sweeney has done just this in When St Francis Saved the Church. It is largely about the saint but the implications, teased out in the final chapter, suggest that, in imitating the spirit of the medieval mystic, founder of the Friars Minor and stigmatic, Pope Francis will also have a rejuvenating effect on the Church. “Is it too bold to suggest that another Francis may just be saving the Church again in the 21st century?” he asks.

Sweeney is keen to make the reader aware that St Francis is not the sentimental figure of hagiography, which is a good thing. Instead, he was a “catalyst for rapid change” in embracing poverty and insisting that his friars be mendicants, in his “sacramental vision of the natural world” as demonstrated in his celebrated poem, the Canticle of the Creatures, and in trying to follow Christ as closely as he could.

This portrait of the saint is the one which has come down to us following his death in 1226. And Sweeney is right to ask the question, “What is it about Francis that changed the Church in his own day and what is it that can change the Church in our own day for the better?” Each age produces the saints that are right for their time: St Francis’s life was a reproof to the worldliness of the Church in his day just as the life of, for example, Padre Pio, with all the miracles associated with it, was a rebuke to the scientific 20th century. Speaking at Assisi on the feast of St Francis in 2013, the Pope reminded his listeners that “the Christian cannot coexist with the spirit of the world” – something the saint understood so well and practised with such unremitting austerity in his own life.

However, Sweeney doesn’t manage to avoid the temptation of certain saints’ biographers: focusing so much on one feature that particularly attracts them that they run the danger of remodelling their hero according to their own views (rather than modelling their life on that of the saint, which is a lot harder.) I put it to Sweeney that I sense a slight tension between his portrayal of St Francis – “part troubadour, part shepherd and part ascetic” as he defines him – and the “rule-bound” Church in which, he predicts, Pope Francis will carry out “what is left unfinished from the Vatican II agenda.”. He agrees with me, explaining that “I believe that St Francis was expert at living according to the Gospel, listening to the teachings and the rules of those in ecclesiastical authority, but not dwelling on them too much.” He added, “He was able to live what we might call a Spirit-inspired life and still be faithful to his Church. A great model to follow, I believe!”

It strikes me that separating the “rules” from the Gospel is exactly what Pope Francis’s secular fans do when they write about him as if he is somehow floating above the Church of dogma and magisterial teachings. No wonder there was surprise among these fans when he excommunicated an Australian priest last year for preaching about the possibility of women priests. As with St Francis in this book, there is a desire to put a wedge between the hard sayings and the soft ones, love and the law. But the whole point of sanctity is that you integrate the two. Those who read the Canticle of the Creatures, which Sweeney reproduces on page 68 of his book, always remember Brother Sun and Sister Moon – while forgetting that St Francis wrote in the same poem, “Woe to those who die in mortal sin”.

I ask Sweeney what had attracted him to the saint. He tells me that as a teenager the discovery of “Paul Sabatier’s great biography of Francis…really turned me around. By that I mean, having been raised an evangelical Protestant in a home where it was taught that Catholics were probably not real Christians and, needless to say, without any appreciation for saints, I felt that I was ‘found’ by this most incredible of all saints.” A convert since 2009, Sweeney has a wooden icon of Ss Francis and Clare on the wall above his desk, alongside a framed photograph of Paul Sabatier.

I too discovered Sabatier’s fine book, on the advice of a stranger, when I was once browsing in the – now defunct – Newman-Mowbray bookshop in Oxford. Perhaps Sweeney’s book should be read as a lively introduction to this classic text.