Getting to Know the Real St. Francis – Crisis Magazine

Getting to Know the Real St. Francis – Crisis Magazine

Getting to Know the Real St. Francis


Franciscan peace is not something saccharine. Hardly! That is not the real Saint Francis! Nor is it a kind of pantheistic harmony with forces of the cosmos. That is not Franciscan either! It is not Franciscan, but a notion that some people have invented!
These words were not articulated by a representative of the Texas oil industry. They were spoken in a homily given by Pope Francis himself during a much-publicized visit to Assisi in October 2013. Moreover, after emphasizing how Saint Francis underscored man’s need to respect the natural world and “help it grow, to become more beautiful and more like what God created it to be,” the Pope added: “above all, Saint Francis witnesses to respect for everyone, he testifies that each of us is called to protect our neighbor, that the human person is at the center of creation, at the place where God—our creator—willed that we should be.”
Such ideas about Saint Francis don’t fit well with some portrayals of the medieval hermit and friar that have emerged in recent decades. Many of these have been developed, as illustrated by the doyen of Italian historians of Francis and the Franciscan movement, Grado G. Merlo, to exploit Francis for numerous contemporary religious and political agendas, ranging from pacifism to radical environmentalism. Franco Zefferelli’s well-known 1972 film Brother Sun, Sister Moon presented the saint, for example, as a type of winsome eccentric who was all about shattering conventionality. In his 1982 book Francis of Assisi: A Model of Human Liberation, the liberation theologian Leonardo Boff portrayed Francis as one who, conceptually speaking, would help us move away from a world dominated by “the bourgeois class that has directed our history for the past five hundred years.”
Then there are the outright myths. Francis of Assisi didn’t author the famous 1967 hymn “Peace Prayer of Saint Francis.” It was written by Sebastian Temple, a twentieth century South African born composer. The prayer on which Temple based the hymn can’t be traced further back than a French magazine published in 1912.
The text to which I always turn whenever claims about Francis of Assisi are made is Augustine Thompson O.P’s meticulously researched Francis of Assisi: A New Biography (2012). The real strength of this biography is the way it rigorously analyzes the documentary record and sources and shifts out what is reliable from that which is hearsay and legend.
So what are some aspects of Saint Francis’s life detailed in Thompson’s book that will surprise many? One is that although he sought radical detachment from the world, Francis believed that he and his followers should engage in manual labor in order to procure necessities like food. Begging was always a secondary alternative (29). Another is that Francis thought that the Church’s sacramental life required careful preparation, use of the finest sacred vessels (32), and proper vestments (62). This is consistent with Francis’s conviction that one’s most direct contact with God was in the Mass, “not in nature or even in service to the poor” (61). While Francis is rightly called a peacemaker and one who loved the poor, Thompson stresses the saint’s “absolute lack of any program of legal or social reforms” (37). The word “poverty” itself appears rarely in Francis’s own writing (246). It seems Francis also thought that it was absolute rather than relative poverty which “always had a claim on compassion” (40).
When it came to Catholic dogma and doctrine, Francis was no proto-dissenter. He was, as Thompson puts it, “fiercely orthodox” (41), even insisting in later life that friars guilty of liturgical abuses or dogmatic deviations should be remanded to higher church authorities (135-136). Hence it shouldn’t surprise us that Francis’s famous conversation in Egypt in 1219 with Sultan al-Kamil and his advisors wasn’t an exercise in interfaith pleasantries. While Francis certainly did not mock Islam, the saint politely told his Muslim interlocutors that he was there to explicate the truth of the Christian faith and save the sultan’s soul (66-70). Nothing more, nothing less.
Francis is of course especially remembered by Christians and others for his love of nature, so much so that another saint, John Paul II, proclaimed him the patron saint of “those who promote ecology” in his 1979 Bula Inter sanctos. Francis’s deep affinity with nature and animals was underscored by those who knew him. The killing of animals or seeing them suffer upset him deeply (56). In this regard and many others, Francis didn’t see the natural world and animals as things to be feared or treated solely as resources for use (57).
Unlike many other medieval religious reformers, however, Francis rejected abstinence from meat and wasn’t a vegetarian. Nor was there a trace of pantheism in Francis’s conception of nature (56). Francis’s references and allusions to nature in his writings, preaching, and instruction were overwhelmingly drawn from the scriptures rather than the environment itself (55). More generally, Francis saw the beauty in nature and the animal world as something that should lead to worship and praise of God (58)—not things to be invested with god-like qualities. G.K. Chesterton’s 1923 popular biographyof Francis makes a similar point: though he loved nature, Francis never worshipped nature itself. Francis’s relationship to nature, Thompson observes, shouldn’t be romanticized. The saint even viewed vermin and mice, for example, as “agents of the devil” (225).
No-one should be stunned by any of this. Saint Francis of Assisi was, after all, a Catholic. He therefore accepted the Jewish and Christian insight that not only is the Creator the Lord of his creation, but that the summit of his created world is man. Awareness of this basic truth, according to Saint Ignatius of Loyola—the founder of the Jesuit order to which Pope Francis belongs—is central to growing closer to God. In hisSpiritual Exercises, Ignatius identifies the “fundamental principle” for overcoming self as knowing that
Man has been created to praise, reverence and serve our Lord God, thereby saving his soul. Everything else on earth has been created for man’s sake, to help him achieve the purpose for which he has been created. So it follows that man has to use them as far as they help and abstain from them where they hinder his purpose.
Neither Ignatius of Loyola nor Francis of Assisi treated the created world as a rosy abstraction. Appreciating and respecting the environment didn’t mean disdaining everything else—including human beings, human work, and human creativity—or forgetting that, as the Church Father, Saint Irenaeus of Lyons, once wrote: “The glory of God is man fully alive.
However much legend and mythology has blurred the real Francis of Assisi over time, the genuine drama of his life and the forces he unleashed in medieval Europe mean that he’s perhaps fated to have any number of ideological programs thrust upon him. In the end, however, we should remember that while Francis of Assisi continues to have many things to say to everyone today, at the core of all those things is the Catholic vision of God, man and the world.
One can safely say that, for Saint Francis himself, any other interpretation would be impossible.

South Carolina Health and Environment-our future

Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2012
DHEC director needs some expertise
THE LAST TIME the board of the Department of Health and Environmental Control needed a new director, it knew exactly where to look: in the office of legislative and constituent services, aka, its lobbyist. The board knew to look there because that’s where it found its previous director. And the one before that. For a quarter-century, the primary job requirement for the director of the state’s chief environmental agency has been a good working relationship with and appreciation for the Legislature.
The line of succession demonstrates more than any discrete action by the board or the agency that DHEC considers itself a child of the Legislative State.
This is an extremely unhealthy situation, as we’ve seen from numerous examples of individual legislators working behind the scenes to extract favors from the agency for their friends and patrons, and the agency making policy changes to please legislative leaders. So it is welcome news that the pattern will not repeat itself yet again. Of the three finalists to replace retiring director Earl Hunter, only one is a DHEC employee, and she is not a lobbyist but a health regulator; that is, someone who has years of experience doing the highly technical work that South Carolinians depend on DHEC to do in order to provide a basic, some would say minimal, level of protection for our environment and the public health. The bad news is that while another finalist has extensive experience as a health administrator, the third, has no background in health or the environment — and there’s good reason to believe she is the favorite: Catherine Templeton is a close ally of Gov. Nikki Haley, who gets a veto over the board’s choice, and while the governor can’t fire the board, she appointed all of its members last year, which suggests that they would be receptive to her suggestions.
We believe the governor should control the Department of Health and Environmental Control, just as the governor should control nearly all of the executive branch of government. But that doesn’t mean South Carolinians should sit quietly by as a governor — or, in this case, the governor and her board — puts someone without any relevant experience in charge of one of the state’s largest and most complex agencies.
Ms. Templeton argues, essentially, that she’s a great manager, and a great manager is a great manager. That’s the same argument the governor used when she brought in someone with no background in transportation to run the much less complex state Transportation Department, and look how well that’s worked so far. We might not object to the idea that agency directors are interchangeable widgets if DHEC didn’t have to enforce such intricate state and federal laws and regulations that rely on understanding precise scientific data. But it does.
Whoever the governor and her board appoint almost certainly will work to make the agency more “business friendly,” which is fine if that simply means cutting out unnecessary delays, not so fine if it means sacrificing what meager environmental protections our state enforces. The governor has every right to appoint people who share her vision, and the people of our state have every responsibility to hold her accountable if they don’t like that vision.
But there are plenty of people who share the governor’s philosophy and also have a scientific background and experience in either health or the environment. Perhaps it’s one of the other two candidates; if they’re ringers, selected to ease Ms. Templeton’s appointment, then the board could consider other candidates.
If Ms. Templeton gets the job, we certainly hope that she’ll prove us wrong about the need for expertise, or at least some passing knowledge, about the areas she will be responsible for. More than that, though, we hope we don’t have to find out, because the decisions that DHEC makes affect the very lives of every South Carolinian.

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