On 4 October 2003, the Feast Day of Saint Francis, I arrived in Santiago de Compostela, having completed the Camino Frances, the pilgrimage route which crosses northern Spain from the Pyrenees. After queuing for our certificates of completion, my walking companions and I hurried to the midday pilgrims’ Mass at the magnificent Gothic cathedral.
It was overwhelming. Having barely ever attended Mass before and speaking no Spanish, I had only the vaguest understanding of what was going on. It was with high drama that the great botafumeiro, a huge thurible almost as tall as a man, was swung from the vaulted ceiling using a complicated system of ropes and pulleys. Incense billowed down the aisle as the thurible swung high up into the transepts. The ropes are said to have failed on more than one occasion – according to legend, once in the presence of Catherine of Aragon – which added a slight frisson of danger to the ceremony.
We were fortunate to see the botafumeiro in action, as it is normally reserved for high days and holidays such the feast of Santiago (St James). Each outing costs several hundred euros, and half a dozen men are required to operate the appropriate ropes.
Ever since then I have looked back fondly on the feast of St Francis. It took a while to become interested in the saint himself, partly I think because of a lurking prejudice, the result of my secular-Protestant religious education. I held the image of St Francis as a proto-hippy, pottering around medieval Italy chatting with animals and chiding uptight religious people.
The association with hippies isn’t entirely misguided. There are certain parallels between St Francis, born circa 1182, and the young affluent Westerners who decided, in the 1960s and 1970s, to turn on, tune in and drop out. Like them, he came to regard his conventional and materialistic life among wealthy elites as hollow and unsatisfying, and ultimately rejected his family’s aspirations in favour of something radically different: the renunciation of worldly status.
However, the parallels begin to break down when we consider the exact nature of Francis’s new life. Not for him was the aimless hedonism and esoteric philosophical dabbling that so often characterised those involved in the counterculture. Francis’s rebellion against the worldliness of his upbringing did not take the form of self-indulgence, but led him into a vocation of service, preaching and peacemaking. He began by rebuilding a ramshackle church outside Assisi, San Damiano. Here he founded a new order dedicated to holy simplicity and poverty – the Franciscans.
The Franciscan orders proliferated, establishing themselves across Christian Europe and in the Holy Land. St Francis travelled to Egypt in an attempt to convert its Islamic ruler, Al-Malik al-Kamil, who was then at war with Christian Europe as part of the Fifth Crusade. He did not succeed but seems to have earnt the respect and liking of the Sultan, and remarkably, he established the Franciscans in the Holy Land, no mean feat at the time.
Considering the career of St Francis, and his particular preoccupations, it is not very surprising that Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio should have taken the name Francis when he was elected Pope in 2013. Our Holy Father has made clear his special concern for the plight of the poor, and has expressed his admiration for St Francis’s scorn for the luxury and vanity that marked fashionable society in the late 12th century.
Indeed, the more we consider the challenges facing the Church in the contemporary world, the more apt the choice of name seems. The great causes with which St Francis is associated – peace, simplicity of life and care for God’s creation – are all areas in which the developed world is in enormous need of the Church’s teaching. As Pope Francis says in his encyclical Laudato si’: “Saint Francis is the example par excellence of care for the vulnerable and of an integral ecology lived out joyfully and authentically … particularly concerned for God’s creation and for the poor and outcast.”
What a stark challenge to the modern world. But the Pope is not alone in citing “the poor man of Assisi” in response to the environmental crises of our time. John Paul II wrote, rather beautifully, in his message for the Day Of Peace in 1990: “It is my hope that the inspiration of Saint Francis will help us to keep ever alive a sense of fraternity with all those good and beautiful things which Almighty God has created.”
Niall Gooch is a Catholic Herald columnist.
This article first appeared in the October 2021 issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe today.
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