This article originally appeared in the online edition of America magazine with the introduction by Fr. James Martin, SJ, that read: “We asked Daniel P. Horan, OFM, a Franciscan author, to respond to Joan Acocella’s long and substantive article in this week’s New Yorker on St. Francis of Assisi. Ms. Acocella, a superb writer, looked at several books on Il Poverello and offered a reflection on his life. Father Horan’s own meditation follows…”
You know that you’re not just a saint but a “big deal” when, in addition to being frequently lauded as the most-popular saint in all of Christian history (after Mary, of course), you are featured in a six-page article in the most recent issue of The New Yorker. Such is the case with Francesco di Bernardone, or “St. Francis of Assisi” as he is known to most of the world.
In what initially appears to be a review of two recent biographies of Francis — Francis of Assisi: The Life and Afterlife of a Medieval Saint (Yale 2012) by the French historian André Vauchez and Francis of Assisi: A New Biography (Cornell 2011) by the Dominican Priest Augustine Thompson — Joan Acocella’s essay, “Rich Man, Poor Man: The Radical Visions of St. Francis,” turns out to be a profile on someone who died almost 800 years ago in the Umbrian region of Italy and whose life, writings, and the religious orders that bear his name continue to influence the world.
What is it about Francis that continues to capture the attention of so many? Why would such a prestigious, if admittedly “secular,” magazine dedicate such a large amount of space to this medieval saint? The answer to these questions comes in the form of Acocella’s depiction of the Poverello, the “little poor man” from Assisi.
This is not the first time that Acocella, a dance and book critic, has dabbled in portraying saints in popular writing. Her 2007 book, Twenty-Eight Artists and Two Saints, a collection of essays, features Mary Magdalene and Joan of Arc. But there is something about this survey of the life of Francis — occasioned by two excellent (if predictably imperfect) new scholarly biographies of the saint — that draws the reader into a world that is both familiar and oddly intriguing.
The story that Acocella tells is, by and large, accurate according to the best in current Franciscan historical scholarship. Sure, there are the minor mix-ups, like when she refers to the “Portiuncula” as “a district” in Assisi (“Portiuncula,” which means “little portion,” was the nickname for the chapel that she later correctly identifies as Santa Maria degli Angeli and not some geographic region) or when she characterizes the deaths of several friars in Morocco as “murder” without the qualification that they provoking hostility by preaching against Islam (something Francis did not condone). However, like the occasional faux pas or stylistic difficulty she notes in the respective works of Vauchez and Thompson, such slight errors in fact can be forgiven easily. Mistakes are easy to make. Presenting the life of Francis in six pages is not easy to do.
Just as the editors of America are sure to get nervous when hearing a non-Jesuit or some non-professional talk about Ignatius Loyola, we Franciscans are likely to feel our blood pressures rise when a piece like Acocella’s hits the newsstands. Yet, what Acocella does here is admirable for its succinctness, while still paying attention to detail. Early into the essay, knowledgeable readers are able to relax a little.
Francis is presented as a unique historical figure, but not one of antiquated value or passé curiosity, like an artifact in the museum of saints to be viewed and admired from afar. Acocella’s Francis, shaped by her reading of Vauchez, Thompson, Thomas of Celano, St. Bonaventure, Octavian Schmucki, Paul Sabatier, and Francis’s own writings, largely withstands the test that Acocella credits to Sabatier for establishing in the late nineteenth century. Those who wish to talk about Francis, let alone present him in biography, must take seriously the scholarly developments of history, paleography (the study of manuscripts), and hagiography (the study of saints’ lives).
One of the highlights of this essay is the way in which Acocella presents Francis as a complex figure who unsettled (and continues to unsettle) both those who wished to make him out to be the champion of their respective agendas including certain iterations of “leftist causes” (Acocella’s term) and those in positions — then and now — of ecclesiastical authority who wish to “neutralize” or tame the “dangerous radicalism of the new Gospel-based theology” introduced by Francis’s life, writings, and religious orders. Francis is both a radical “leftist” and a loyal son of the church. He is also neither of these things.
This is the paradoxical reality of Francis that few have been able to capture adequately in the past. Which seems to explain, in part, his universal appeal and why this medieval mendicant continues to be attractive to religious “conservatives” and “liberals” alike. Who else can claim such a status, especially today?
Acocella is keen to note several of the characteristics about Francis and his way of life that remain universally appealing. One of these is the explicit emphasis his vision of living the Gospel places on universal holiness and the laity. Centuries before the Second Vatican Council will rightly recover and emphasize the “universal call to holiness,” Francis, a layperson (he was never ordained a priest and, contrary to a passing claim in Thompson’s book, contemporary scholarship has cast serious doubt on the legend that said he was ever a deacon), recognized that what it meant to be a Christian was the responsibility of all people.
Another thing that is appealing about Francis is the simultaneous respect he had for the church as an institution and its leaders, while also loyally dissenting and challenging some of the standard teachings and practices of the time. Perhaps the greatest example of this is Francis’s decision to meet with Sultan Malek al-Kamil in Damietta, Egypt, during the height of the Fifth Crusade. Acocella only briefly mentions this historic event, but what most who recall this interreligious moment usually fail to recognize is that Francis disobeyed both Pope Innocent III’s command in calling for all of Christendom’s support of the crusade as well as a cardinal’s order forbidding the would-be saint from crossing the enemy line at the crusader’s camp in Egypt. In an act analogous to civil disobedience — perhaps, “ecclesiastical disobedience” is the right term — Francis’s actions didn’t always reflect what some, like Pope Benedict XVI, would have us believe about this beloved Italian saint (I have written about Benedict XVI’s interpretation and use of Francis in my recent book, Francis of Assisi and the Future of Faith). Acocella seems to get intuitively that Francis was neither an unquestionably loyal son of the church nor a renegade friar.
Still, I think one of the most attractive aspects of Francis’s life and personality is something Acocella presents well in her essay. Francis was a gregarious man that, although ascetic and at-times extreme in his religious practices, could be incredibly generous, forgiving, and patient, even if that patience was occasionally tried. His renunciation of all property, and his insistence that those who wished to follow his way of life do the same, was emblematic of his desire to rid himself of the barriers that interfered with and prevented the building of authentic relationships: one’s relationship to self, one’s relationship to others, and one’s relationship to God. In a keynote address at Siena College some years ago Franciscan theologian Kenneth Himes summarized Francis’s attraction this way: “It was the fact that no one ever had to fear Francis. Francis never sought to dominate, manipulate, or coerce anyone. No person ever looked into the eyes of Francis and saw a lust for power or control.”
Francis’s life provides a model for all Christians, but his own words challenge the sentiments of historian Ernest Renan cited at the end of Acocella’s essay that Francis is proof of what authentic Christianity looks like. Near the end of his life Francis is remembered to have said, “The Lord has shown me what was mine to do, may he show you yours.” While the church collectively and each Christian individually can learn from Francis, the answer is not that true Christianity is achieved only when we all look like little Francis clones. On the contrary, true Christianity is achieved when, in following in the footprints of Jesus Christ, each Christian lives authentically his or her true self as created by God.
Acocella’s New Yorker piece nicely introduces an audience that might otherwise not give much thought to Francis of Assisi to a perennially relevant model of Christian living. Her treatment of his life and legacy will surely disabuse the skeptical nonbeliever as well as the pious churchgoer of the mistaken caricature of Francis that is so popularly reinscribed in the imaginations of those who think first of stone birdbaths, tamed wolves, and other such romantic images when they hear his name.