Thursday, January 17, 2013

Creating a culture of vocations

HOMILY FOR THE SECOND SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, National Vocation Awareness Week, January 20, 2013:


A woman went on pilgrimage to the Holy Land and visited the village of Cana where Jesus performed His first miracle.  At the gift shop, they sell a fine vintage of wine which they claim will be the best you’ve ever tasted.  The woman bought several bottles to bring home as gifts for family and friends.  At the end of the pilgrimage, she and her group were at the airport just about to head through security to board their plane when the woman realized that she forgot to put the bottles in her checked luggage and instead had them in her carry-on.  Thinking quickly, she took out a marker and labeled each of the bottles “Water.”  When she got to the security officer, he opened her bag, looked at the bottles and said, “What are these?”  She calmly responded, “They are just water.”  The officer looked suspiciously and said, “Well, we’re going to have to open one to check.”  He opened the bottle and poured some out and of course it was the fine vintage from Cana.  “Ma’am,” he said. “This isn’t water.  It is wine.”  Without missing a beat, the woman threw her arms in the air and cried out, “Hallelujah, Lord, you’ve done it again!” after which the officer waived her through.

As we hear this familiar story of Jesus and Mary at the wedding feast at Cana it is interesting to note that Mary, the mother of Jesus, only makes two appearances in St. John’s Gospel: in the passage we heard today at the beginning of Jesus public ministry; and then again at the crucifixion, the end of His ministry.

As we heard today, as the wedding feast went on, the wine ran out. Mary went out of her way to intercede with Jesus, she encouraged Him, and He performed what John tells us was His very first miracle.  But, if this was Jesus' very first miracle, how did Mary know He could do it?  Well, very simply, good mothers know their children. They know the hidden talents and gifts of their children. There are many young men and women who have gone on to accomplish great things in life because their mothers and fathers believed in them and encouraged them.

You know, we often talk about the need in the Church for more men and women to follow the call of God and accept a vocation to ministry in the Church. We know that there are fewer and fewer priests and religious, and more and more Catholics in our parishes.  But, I want to challenge the notion of a so-called Vocation Crisis.  As you know, I am the Vocation Director for our Franciscan community and personally, I don’t believe there is a Vocation Crisis.  I believe that what we have is a Vocation Awareness Crisis.  I know that God continues to call men and women into service, but I think we have created a point in our Catholic culture where people no longer have the ears to hear that call; or the willingness to follow it.

In vocation circles, we often talk about creating a culture of vocations.  We know it used to exist.  Fifty years ago, there was no greater honor to a family than if one of its members became a priest or a religious, but those times have changed – and they can change again.  If we become the agents of that change.  We all know that aside from complaining that there aren’t enough priests, we don’t really encourage vocations any more.  When someone mentions that they may be considering a vocation today, the regular response is not one of support, but the typical response is, a question, “Why would you want to do that?”  Outside of our church, our secular culture values materialism, wealth, status, position, celebrity and power, far, far above a call to poverty, chastity, obedience and service and so the natural outcome is fewer deacons, priests and religious.  God always calls more than enough workers for harvest, but too often we question that call and to fail to support it. 

And yet a recent study by the U.S. bishops showed that something as simple as having even one person encourage an individual to consider a vocation doubles the likelihood that they will do so, for both men and women. Furthermore, the effect is additive. If three persons offered encouragement, respondents were more than five times more likely to consider a religious vocation. We need to encourage our youth to consider this way of life just as they consider the myriad other ways of life presented to them every day.  Ultimately it is about doing what God wants you to do.  It isn’t that religious and priests never wanted a relationship or marriage or children or a nice big house and a fancy car; rather, it is that we are called to something different.  Each way of life is full of challenges – as any married person can attest to.  But, when it is what you are called to, you cannot imagine doing anything else.  We have to encourage people to be open to the possibility.  To open their hearts to listen to Jesus.

The simple thing that we are all called to do is encourage young people to be open to whatever God has planned for them – whether religious, married, single,  or priest.  When we make Jesus, manifested in our world, manifested in the Eucharist, Reconciliation and all the sacraments, the center of our life, we look at life differently.  You see, it is a domino effect.  When we are open to the presence of Jesus, we become the presence of Jesus in the world.  We leave this church each and every week as walking Tabernacles containing the presence of Jesus for our world. 

So, what can we do for vocations in our own limited way?  First and foremost, we can talk about them, we can talk about a life given fully to God, we can stop being afraid of raising the subject with someone.  In all of my work with young people, I encounter many young men and women who I believe are being touched by God for a special role of service.  I always, always tell them that.  I always encourage discussion about that.  Ask them to at least consider the possibility.  In fact, someone here today could be sensing God’s call. Does this mean that they will pursue a vocation?  Perhaps, but at the very least, it means that if we encourage them, they will not go through life wondering, “was I called?”  And, we can only talk about the issue when we value this way of life.   It is the responsibility of every Catholic.

I’d like to ask you all today – have you ever ad the thought about someone that they might make a good priest, a good religious sister or brother?  If you’ve had that thought, did you tell them? 

In Mary today we are given a great example of how we can all support vocation awareness.  Mary saw something in her Son, she encouraged it, prayed for it, supported it all through His ministry, from the very beginning to the very end.  Mary is the model for us all.  We all have to do the same.   Mary encouraged Jesus and he reached out to the people at the wedding, and – literally - a miracle took place. 

Today, then, is a good day to ask ourselves: Who among us might God be calling?  What can I do to support that call?  How can I be a Vocation Director in my own family, church, community?   How will there continue to be this manifestation of Jesus in our world if no one is encouraged to take up the call.   Let me end with a vocation prayer that was written by Pope John Paul II:

Lord Jesus, as You once called the first disciples to make them fishers of men,
let your sweet invitation continue to resound: Come, follow Me!
Give young men and women the grace of responding quickly to Your voice.
Support your bishops, priests and consecrated people in their apostolic labor.
Grant perseverance to our seminarians and to all those
who are carrying out the ideal of a life totally consecrated to Your service.
Awaken in our community a missionary eagerness.
Lord, send workers to your harvest and do not allow humanity to be lost
for the lack of pastors, missionaries
and people dedicated to the cause of the Gospel.
Mary, Mother of the Church, the model of every vocation,
help us to say "yes" to the Lord Who calls us to cooperate
in the divine plan of salvation.
Amen. 

May God give you peace.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Christ puts on us; we put on Christ

HOMILY FOR THE SOLEMNITY OF THE BAPTISM OF THE LORD, January 13, 2013:
.

A TV quiz show was really close and to break a tie, one contestant was asked to name 2 of Santa's reindeer. The contestant smiled thinking he had finally been given an easy question and answered, "Rudolph and Olive!"  The host asked the contestant, "We'll accept Rudolph but can you explain Olive?" The man looked at the host and said, "You know, 'Olive', the other reindeer, used to laugh and call him names."

Now, Christmas might have ended weeks ago for most of the world, but for us in the Church the Christmas Season comes to an end today with our Solemnity of the Baptism of the Lord.  We have taken these weeks since Christmas Day to reflect on Jesus’ private life – from His birth through the finding in the Temple and last week’s visit of the Magi.  Today’s celebration marks the beginning of His public ministry, a sort of passing of the torch to Jesus from John the Baptist as He seeks out baptism in the Jordan.

Even though we hear such beautiful words in today’s Gospel, the voice of God Himself from Heaven proclaiming, “You are my beloved Son,” it begs a very curious question – why is Jesus being baptized?  Have you ever stopped to think about this?  Baptism, as we know, is for the forgiveness of sins.  Baptism places us in relationship with God.  Jesus – of all people to ever exist – doesn’t need need baptism.  We know this.  He was untouched by sin – “like us in all things, but sin.” After all, He is the Son of God.  You and I, born in a state of Original Sin, are born in desperate need of this sacrament of grace.  We need these saving waters to wash over us and restore in us what was taken away by Adam and Eve.  But, Jesus?  Why would He need baptism?

This is a perplexing theological question and there are many decent answers. But, I came across the best response I have heard a few years ago when the Holy Father, Pope Benedict, released his book, Jesus of Nazareth . Let me share a bit of what the Pope says about the question of Jesus baptism in this wonderfully spiritual book. 

First, the problem. He writes, “The real novelty is the fact that he - Jesus - wants to be baptized, that he blends into the gray mass of sinners waiting on the banks of the Jordan. We have just heard that the confession of sins is a component of Baptism. Baptism itself was a confession of sins and the attempt to put off an old, failed life and to receive a new one. Is that something Jesus could do? How could he confess sins? How could he separate himself from his previous life in order to start a new one?”

The Pope notes that Jesus doesn’t require the newness of life that we all need because of our sin.  So, if the baptism of Jesus isn’t about His own sin, since He has none, who’s sin is it about?  Of course, it is about our sin.  Again, the Pope writes, “The act of descending into the waters of this Baptism implies a confession of guilt and a plea for forgiveness in order to make a new beginning. In a world marked by sin, then, this Yes to the entire will of God also expresses solidarity with men [and women], who have incurred guilt but yearn for righteousness…Looking at the events in light of the Cross and Resurrection, the Christian people realized what happened: Jesus loaded the burden of all [humanity’s] guilt upon his shoulders; he bore it down into the depths of the Jordan. He inaugurated his public activity by stepping into the place of sinners. His inaugural gesture is an anticipation of the Cross…The Baptism is an acceptance of death for the sins of humanity, and the voice that calls out ‘This is my beloved Son’ over the baptismal waters is an anticipatory reference to the Resurrection.”

So, as Jesus begins His public ministry – a ministry that will take Him to the Cross, the grave and to resurrection all for us – He does so by taking on our sins.  It is not on the Cross that Jesus takes on the sins of humanity – it is there that He frees us from them.  It is in the waters of the Jordan that Jesus steps into the place of sinners, into our placeIn the Jordan, Jesus united Himself with us; and in our own personal baptism, we are united again with Him – so that we can be forgiven, we can be healed, we can be saved. Again, the Pope writes, “To accept the invitation to be baptized now means to go to the place of Jesus' Baptism. It is to go where he identifies himself with us and to receive there our identification with him. The point where he anticipates death has now become the point where we anticipate rising again with him. The Baptism that Jesus' disciples have been administering since he spoke those words is an entrance into the Master's own Baptism… That is the way to become a Christian.”

And so baptism is a branding of sort; it is an identification, an initiation, a welcoming.  In Jesus’ baptism and in our own, we have been united, one with the other; welcomed into the Family of God as a brother or sister of Christ.  When we are baptized, the priest or deacon says these words, “You have become a new creation, and have clothed yourself in Christ.”  In the Jordan, Jesus was clothed in us, taking our sins onto Himself so that He could redeem us on the Cross.  In the baptismal fonts of our Churches, we are clothed in Him – in the hopes that we will live lives worthy of the call; worthy of the name we bear – sons and daughters of God. 

In the Jordan, Jesus stepped into our place.  Today, through the grace of our own baptism, He asks us to do the same.  We must now be the ones to step into the place of Christ and be His presence in our world, so that the Father may say of us as He said of Him, “You are my beloved, with you I am well pleased.”

May the Lord give you peace.

Friday, January 11, 2013

US preoccupation with guns is the enemy within | NCR

"Why can't we get reasonable gun control laws through a supposedly civilized Congress? After all, we require the registration of cars, also a potentially lethal weapon, and the leashing of dogs that don't bite at all. Is the control of military weapons too much to ask? Or is it possible that car owners and dog owners don't buy as many members of Congress as gun owners do?"

By Joan Chittister | January 11, 2013 | National Catholic Reporter
.

While 26 graves get colder in Newtown, Conn., and hearts everywhere continue to feel the pain of them, the sales of automatic weapons get hotter in this country by the day. In my own very average, very mild hometown, the local gun show with its proud display of heavy weapons was the biggest draw of Christmas week. In other parts of the country, guns that sold for $700 a few months ago now go for well over $1,000.

Invincibility sells, it seems. The only problem is that, despite the classic arguments in favor of guns, invincibility can't really be guaranteed.

"Guns don't kill people," the National Rifle Association argues on great billboards at great expense, "people do." Clever. At first glance. And even correct, at one level. But any child knows -- even children the age of the ones those guns killed in Connecticut know -- that guns can't kill unless people can get them. Any people. Mentally disturbed people. Distraught and depressed people. Angry people.

Countries in which guns are not so easily available to people do not have anywhere near the rate of gun deaths that we do. Our gun death rate is 10.2 people per 100,000. Japan's gun death rate is one person for every 2 million people. Go figure.

"Hunting is a legal sport," they remind us. Absolutely. I know that's true because I come from a family of hunters. But I also know something else about hunting rifles that is also true. The automatic weapons that are being legalized under the guise of hunting equipment would blow any deer to pieces far too small to eat.

"Only good guys with guns can stop bad guys with guns," one of the newer pro-gun arguments maintains. Really? Check the casualty figures in any wartime operation. Check figures in Iraq and Afghanistan, for instance -- countries in which our own amount and magnitude of firepower far exceeded the enemy's. The numbers of good, young U.S. dead and physically incapacitated and emotionally disabled are in the thousands. If having a gun against an attacker is such an advantage, why do so many of the armed die in the process?

It's true, yes, that being without a gun can get a person killed, but it is also true that simply having a gun does not guarantee survival. On the contrary, to accelerate a conflict is only to increase the damage, not to limit it.

"If we want to protect our children," we're told now, "we need to arm our teachers." Oh, good. By all means let's turn our schools into forts. Let's teach our children that every potential visitor is a potential danger, that every stranger is a potential enemy, and that everyone who is different than we are is a potential killer.

Better yet, rather than teach them to hide, teach them that when the someone appears encased in a flak jacket and helmet, with automatic weapons and 100-round magazines, that some fourth-grade teacher is going to stop the advance with a pistol. Or will they give our teachers AK-47's, too -- in malls and movie theaters and on college campuses -- so that we can be sure that we equalize the mayhem as well as the number of dead innocents caught in crossfire?

Is the size and effect of the gun culture in the United States being exaggerated? According to Paul Helmke, former president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, "In 2004 there were five gun deaths in New Zealand, 37 in Sweden, 56 in Australia, 73 in England, 184 in Canada and 11,344 murders in the United States. It's more than any other industrialized country." Quite a lot more.

According to the United Nations, the United States is first in civilian firearms ownership. In the United States 88.8 people per 100 own a gun. Yemen is in second place with fewer than 55 per 100. And in every other country, the number of gun owners falls precipitously.

Right now we are the most violent developed country on the planet.

Why is that? Is it working for us?

Why can't we get reasonable gun control laws through a supposedly civilized Congress? After all, we require the registration of cars, also a potentially lethal weapon, and the leashing of dogs that don't bite at all. Is the control of military weapons too much to ask? Or is it possible that car owners and dog owners don't buy as many members of Congress as gun owners do?

From where I stand, the situation in Newtown itself is the clearest argument against the casual presence of military weapons in civilian hands. After all, the high-powered weapons that killed 20 small children and six peaceful adults were bought by a woman who was preparing to defend herself, we're told, from impending social chaos.

The irony is that while she concentrated on the enemy outside, it was the enemy within that killed her and 26 others with her guns. Her preoccupation with being armed and its role in her own demise may be a metaphor for the entire country.

[Benedictine Sr. Joan Chittister's column "From Where I Stand" is on the NCR website at NCRonline.org/blogs/where-i-stand.]
This story appeared in the Jan 18-31, 2013 print issue under the headline: US preoccupation with guns is the enemy within .

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Culture Shift | America Magazine




The new evangelization can encourage vocations in a changing church.
When I told my teachers in grade school that I thought I wanted to become a priest, they beamed and did everything possible to encourage me. Their enthusiasm was matched, if not surpassed, by my supportive parents and siblings, my parish priest and even my neighbors. My entire world (as I knew it then) was united in support of my choice of a vocation—even the non-Catholics. And this wasn’t the case only for me. Catholic parents and family members very often found pride in the daughter who chose a life consecrated to Jesus or the son who gave himself to serve the church as a priest. It was an honor for the average Catholic family to have a priest, sister or brother in the family. It was commonplace to find respect for men and women who answered the call to witness Christ in consecrated life; everyone knew that they were among those who helped to make the world a better place to live.
These days there is more skepticism surrounding the prospect of a son or daughter, pupil or friend becoming a priest or religious sister. It sometimes seems that a culture of discouragement has set in, strengthened by scandals in the church. Therefore, one of the tasks of the new evangelization is to build—or better put, rebuild—a culture of vocations in the church. A culture of vocations is one that provides the necessary social supports for each person to hear and respond to the call of God in his or her life. It helps youth and young adults embrace the priesthood or the consecrated life with great enthusiasm and joy.
Much of the emphasis now is rightfully placed on new ways to bring people back into participation in the life and mission of the church. But the new evangelization requires good and effective leadership in the church to achieve its goal—the proclamation of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. As we observe National Vocation Awareness Week during the Year of Faith, it would be good to ask ourselves: How do we rebuild a culture of vocations for the new evangelization?
This past September, the Secretariat of Clergy, Consecrated Life and Vocations of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops released the findings of a major survey of Catholic youth and young adults on their consideration of a vocation—a survey that produced some very telling conclusions. The study, titled “Consideration of Priesthood and Religious Life Among Never-Married U.S. Catholics,” was conducted by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate and was partially funded by a generous grant from the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation. The survey and analysis by CARA provide helpful information for religious communities, dioceses, parishes, schools and families to encourage a culture of vocations.

A Serious Consideration

The good news from the study is that there is no shortage of interest in religious vocations in the United States. Among all the respondents to the scientific survey, 12 percent of never-married Catholic men age 14 and older had considered priesthood or religious life at least “a little seriously.” Similarly, 10 percent of never-married Catholic women of the same age had considered religious life at least “a little seriously.” In raw numbers, that extrapolates to almost 2.7 million people. More significantly, 3 percent and 2 percent of the respondents (men and women) had “very seriously” considered a religious vocation, the highest possible category respondents could choose. This represents more than 600,000 youth and young adults in the U.S. Catholic population. This is encouraging news, perhaps even surprising, when one considers all of the negative press about the church.
The study was designed to discover key factors for the consideration of a vocation among our Catholic youth and young adult population today. In the survey data four key correlations strongly emerge.
1. Catholic education. Among male respondents, those who attended Catholic secondary school (grades 9-12) were more than six times more likely to have considered becoming a priest or a religious than those who did not attend a Catholic secondary school. For women it was attendance in a Catholic primary school that was important. Female respondents who attended Catholic primary school were more than three times more likely to consider being a religious sister than those who did not.
2. Participation in parish religious education programs, youth and young adult groups. Women who participated in a parish high school youth group were more than nine times more likely to consider a religious vocation. For men, the key age was participation in a parish youth group during their primary school years (grades K-8). Those men who participated were more than five times more likely to consider becoming a priest or religious than those who did not.
3. Encouragement from others. Having even one person encourage an individual to consider a religious vocation doubles the likelihood that they will do so, for both men and women. Furthermore, the effect is additive. If three persons offered encouragement, respondents were more than five times more likely to consider a religious vocation.
4. Knowing someone who is a priest, religious sister or brother or seminarian. Individuals who had a personal connection to someone in religious life were one and a half times more likely to consider this vocation for themselves compared to those who did not have this connection. Here, too, the effect was additive. The more religious one knew, the more consideration was given to the religious life.
What is striking here is that in all four key areas that correlated with a greater likelihood of consideration of a vocation, personal relationships are key. The positive influences for a vocation identified in the survey results seem to be more affective than cognitive. This provides an important fact to remember as we continue to promote a culture of vocations in our church.

Cultivating Cultural Sensitivity

Recent surveys show that Hispanics make up about one third of the Catholic population in the United States and that the proportion of Hispanics will continue to grow in the near future. Already, 48 percent of U.S. Catholics under the age of 31 are Hispanic. These figures tell us that the faith and rich culture of Hispanics are and will continue to be a great blessing for the church in our country. But while the vocation survey shows that Hispanic respondents—both male and female—are no less likely than others to say they have considered a vocation at one time or another, the results also highlight some of the serious challenges the church faces when it comes to fostering the call to religious life among our Hispanic population and giving this group the tools they need to succeed.
Simply put, only 3 percent of all Catholic priests in the United States today are Hispanic, according to the book Same Call, Different Men. This low number mirrors the percentage of Hispanic men and women in religious life, which is also at about 3 percent. While the number of Hispanics in the U.S. church’s recent ordination and profession classes is an improvement, much more still needs to be done. Roughly 15 percent of the newly ordained priests in 2012 were Hispanic, but fewer than 5 percent of these men were U.S. born, even though U.S. born (and English-speaking) Hispanics in this age group far outnumber those who immigrated to the United States. This should serve as a wake-up call. Our young, English-speaking, Hispanic population is very much an untapped, rich source of vocations to the priesthood and consecrated life. If more is not done to encourage vocations among this intensely rich ethnic group that makes up nearly half of our young adult Catholic population, the religious vocation picture in the United States will become increasingly cloudy.
The bishops of our country understand this and have made Hispanic vocations a priority. As we develop strategies in this area, I think it is important to highlight once again the four key areas the CARA study found to be correlated to openness to a vocation in our youth. If we desire to strengthen a culture of vocations within our Hispanic communities, the following are the areas indicated by the vocation survey that are in need of some major strategic development:
Catholic Schools. Only 3 percent of Hispanic children and teens attend Catholic grade schools or high schools. There is need for a concerted effort to increase Hispanic involvement in our Catholic schools. In this effort, I draw attention to the University of Notre Dame’s Task Force on the Participation of Latino Children and Families in Catholic Schools. The task force is working to develop demand, access and the necessary leadership to increase Hispanic enrollment in Catholic schools. More efforts like these are needed.
Participation. Studies show that Hispanics have lower participation rates in religious education and parish youth groups. We have to ask ourselves, “Why is this?” Is it because priests, religious sisters, catechists and other key leaders don’t speak Spanish? Not likely, as the vast majority of our Hispanic youth prefer to speak English with their peers. Language does not seem to be the primary obstacle; rather, it is a lack of familiarity with the various Latino cultures that may inadvertently give the impression to our young Hispanics that they are not welcome or should not expect to feel at home in our “integrated” parishes and schools. How do we better incorporate cultural activities, devotions and symbols into our regular programming for parish and campus youth and young adult ministry?
Encouragement. One of the richest blessings in Hispanic culture is the importance and strength of the home and the extended family. Studies show, however, that there is lower encouragement in Hispanic homes for children to consider a vocation to the priesthood or religious life. How do we encourage families—a clear strength in Hispanic culture—to help in building a culture of vocations?
Knowing someone in religious life. In comparison with other ethnic groups, Hispanic teens show similar or even higher percentages of personal familiarity with a religious sister within or outside the family. Hispanics are less likely, however, to know personally a priest either within or outside the family. Perhaps we need to think more carefully about how to help our non-Hispanic priests to become more familiar, more comfortable and more culturally competent, so that they can be truly present to our Hispanic and Latino youth and young adults.

In Search of Joy

The priority on relationship with Christ in the church has great resonance in the new evangelization for which Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI have called. The modern world seeks precisely this: to see the faith tangible in genuine Christians. Our deepest poverty, especially in our own country, is not the lack of material means but rather of spiritual riches. Before his election as pope, our Holy Father made this point in an address to catechists and religion teachers. Pope Benedict XVI said that the most profound type of poverty is “the inability of joy, the tediousness of a life considered absurd and contradictory. This poverty is widespread today, in very different forms in the materially rich as well as the poor countries. The inability of joy presupposes and produces the inability to love…. This is why we are need of a new evangelization.”
In many ways, the CARA study on the consideration of a vocation by Catholic youth and young adults shows that the new evangelization is the basic foundation for a healthy culture of vocations in the church. Catechesis and good instruction are essential, but evangelization demands more. It is relational. It asks that we, as a church, focus on inviting people, especially our young people, to respond in love to the God who is love itself. It means that we accept and revel in the good news of Jesus Christ and radiate a Christian joy that is attractive and infectious.
Most Rev. Robert J. Carlson is the archbishop of St. Louis.

"That man is me": My life-changing encounter with a fictional French bishop

NOTE: Another beautiful "Les Mis"-inspired article. This time from last week's America Magazine. - FT


Twenty years ago, I met an extraordinary man who changed my life. He softened my heart, awakened my imagination and opened new possibilities. He inspired me to think about life in a new way. He made me want to be a priest. Thanks to him, I am now in my 14th year of ministry. Remarkably, this man never really existed.
I speak of the incomparable Monseigneur Bienvenu, the bishop of Digne, from Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables. The new movie has revived the old thrill, as I gratefully reflect on how this story once shook me to my core.
It was the early 1990s. I was at that threshold between boy and man, marked by the promise of so many paths and so much uncertainty, when a life can go anywhere or nowhere. I was a sophomore in college, awakening from the benign cluelessness of adolescence, still groggy but ready for destiny to come knocking, making me some irresistible offer.
It came knocking in the form of one Jean Valjean, on the humble door of an old cottage, after every other door refused him. It was answered by the warmth of one saintly country bishop, was repaid with treachery and, finally, was closed with mercy. Valjean was not the only one who left that day a different man. Like Valjean, my life was forever changed by that encounter.
My relationship with the bishop of Digne and Les Misérables began on a grim March day. I was home for spring break, hanging out with my friend Brooks playing cards. At some point he went to call his girlfriend. Bored with the music we had on, I decided to give his “Les Misérables” soundtrack a listen. Back in high school, our class had gone to see the musical, but I’d missed it because I had been out sick. My classmates had raved about it, even the cool kids.
Guessing that Brooks would not soon return, I absently shuffled the cards. Every now and again, a line stood out. “He treated me like any other/ he gave me his trust/ he called me brother.” “I dreamed a dream in time gone by/ when hope was high/ and life worth living.” General outlines of the story emerged as I perused the libretto, my interest growing. Brooks returned. We went back to our card game.
Fast forward to the following summer. I had begun to suspect I had a mind and a soul, and I thought I needed a good read to test my theory. I went to the public library and kept returning to this enormous hardcover copy of Les Misérables. The book seemed to cry out, “Come, have a look, won’t you?” I objected to its rude length: “There is no way I am reading you.”
Fortunately, the book won. I took it off the shelf and opened it timidly, with a shyness and shame I cannot explain, even to this day. Perhaps I was confounded by the disproportion between my mean and low ignorance and this great literary classic. Such books were not for the likes of me, I thought. Inside, though, were some glossy pictures from the Broadway musical, with pretty girls and interesting captions. “All right, I’ll check you out,” I grumbled. “But that doesn’t mean I’ll read you!” I figured I’d flip through the pages, read some scenes and be done.
It started slowly, page after page describing the bishop’s day-to-day life. “When does he meet Valjean?” I thought impatiently. Even so, I was fascinated. The bishop traded his mansion for the shack next door, which was being used as a hospital. He made house calls around the region, showing courtesy and honor to all, including the village atheist. He lovingly tended his garden, and to critics who called his work a waste of time he replied: “The beautiful is as useful as the useful. More so, perhaps.” He arrived late for the cardinal’s visit, due to a pastoral call, and rode up on his old donkey, begging the mortified prelate’s forgiveness for having the effrontery to ride the same beast as our Lord rode into Jerusalem. By the time Valjean finally knocked on his door, I not only knew this Bienvenu; I loved him.
Valjean is wary of the welcome. Because of the humble trappings, he mistakes the bishop for a simple country priest. Bienvenu offers him food and table fellowship. He repeatedly calls him “Monsieur,” raising Valjean’s head ever higher. “Ignominy thirsts for consideration,” Hugo writes. When Valjean awakens to make off with the silver, he is nearly converted by the sight of the righteous man in his sleep. Nearly.
The cops catch him with his contraband cutlery and drag him before the bishop, who with a word can send Valjean back to prison for life. Instead, he gives truth to Valjean’s lie that the silver was given and offers him the candlesticks too. Valjean is left gaping with a face that “no human tongue can describe.” The police leave. Valjean stands before the merciful gaze of his benefactor. Bienvenu calls him his brother and tells him he has bought his soul for God with the silver; now he must go, using it to become an honest man.
Victor Hugo’s masterful account of Valjean and the bishop moved me almost as much as it moved Valjean. For the next thousand pages, Valjean strives to become what Bienvenu saw in him and to be faithful to what was given. Sacrificial love follows like concentric ripples from that first “stone” dropped in the water, the bishop’s mercy toward Valjean.
I read Les Misérables in a week. It was the perfect book at the perfect time, with soul-shaking impact. For a long time afterward, I went over and over it in my mind and in my heart.
One day I had a revelation: Monseigneur Bienvenu never knew! The heroism of Valjean’s subsequent life was unknown to the bishop. Fantine, Cosette, Marius, Eponine, the Thénardiers, Gavroche, Javert, the barricades, the students, the wedding—all unknown. The bishop sent Valjean off with his silver and a promise, never to see or hear from him again. For all he knew, Valjean went back to his old ways. And yet it did not seem to matter. He treated Valjean as he treated everyone: as Christ would. Bienvenu was the unknowing mover of all that was to follow. But for his act of mercy toward Valjean, the whole beautiful story would not have been.
This was when it hit me. I thought of the bishop, and the impact he made and what his priesthood meant. I can remember praying, “Lord, if that’s what it’s about, if my life can do that…sign me up.” And the rest, as they say, is history.
A later scene describes a man kneeling reverently in the night outside the bishop’s home. We are made to guess that it is Valjean, paying his respects. Twenty years later, may this humble telling of my own encounter with the bishop of Digne serve as my reverent bow, a token of my gratitude and love.
Rev. Charles Klamut is a priest of the diocese of Peoria, Il.

RICH MAN, POOR MAN: The radical visions of St. Francis.


by  | THE NEW YORKER | JANUARY 14, 2013
For the Church, Francis was too revered not to claim, too radical not to neutralize.
For the Church, Francis was too revered not to claim, too radical not to neutralize.
“Why you?” a man asked Francesco di Bernardone, known to us now as St. Francis of Assisi. Francis (1181/2-1226) was scrawny and plain-looking. He wore a filthy tunic, with a piece of rope as a belt, and no shoes. While preaching, he often would dance, weep, make animal sounds, strip to his underwear, or play the zither. His black eyes sparkled. Many people regarded him as mad, or dangerous. They threw dirt at him. Women locked themselves in their houses.
Francis accepted all this serenely, and the qualities that at the beginning had marked him as an eccentric eventually made him seem holy. His words, one writer said, were “soothing, burning, and penetrating.” He had a way of “making his whole body a tongue.” Now, when he arrived in a town, church bells rang. People stole the water in which he had washed his feet; it was said to cure sick cows.
Years before he died, Francis was considered a saint, and in eight centuries he has lost none of his prestige. Apart from the Virgin Mary, he is the best known and the most honored of Catholic saints. In 1986, when Pope John Paul II organized a conference of world religious leaders to promote peace, he held it in Assisi. Francis is especially loved by partisans of leftist causes: the animal-rights movement, feminism, ecology, vegetarianism (though he was not a vegetarian). But you don’t have to be on the left to love Francis. He is the patron saint (with Catherine and Bernardino of Siena) of the nation of Italy.
Consequently, a vast number of books have been written about him. The first of the biographies appeared a few years after his death, and they’ve been coming ever since. Two more have recently appeared in English. One, “Francis of Assisi: The Life and Afterlife of a Medieval Saint” (Yale), is by André Vauchez, a professor emeritus of medieval studies at the University of Paris. The book appeared in France in 2009 and has now been published in English, in a translation by Michael F. Cusato. The other volume, “Francis of Assisi: A New Biography” (Cornell), is by Augustine Thompson, a Dominican priest and professor of history at the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. The two books show that the Church is still trembling from the impact of this great reformer.
Francis came from the nouveau riche. His father, Pietro, was a successful cloth merchant in a time when the mercantile class was on the rise and clothes very much made the man. Francis went to school for only a few years, as was typical for a boy of his circumstances and sufficient for acquiring the skills a cloth merchant needed. As a teen-ager, he belonged to a gang of rowdies from prosperous Assisi families who, of a night, would eat a fine dinner, get drunk, and, in the words of Francis’s first biographer, commit “every kind of debauchery.” Francis, a high-spirited boy, was their leader and paid the bills, which made him popular. Pietro often went on business trips to France, and Francis, in time, probably went with him. On those journeys, he would have learned both French and the troubadour style of poetry, which, scholars say, infused even his most earthy writings, notably the “Canticle of Brother Sun,” said to be the first poem in the Italian language, in which he addresses the sun, the water, and the wind with humble adoration.
Francis’s world was filled with violence—between the papacy and the Holy Roman Empire, between Assisi and other towns, and, in the town itself, between the merchant class and the local nobility. It wouldn’t have been a rare day when Francis saw somebody being knifed. In 1202, around the age of twenty-one, he himself went to war, in a battle between Assisi and Perugia. He was apparently glad to go. He got to wear fine clothes and ride an excellent horse. But Assisi was soon defeated, and Francis spent a year in a dank prison, with rats, before his father was able to ransom him.
It was probably in prison that the change in Francis began. As his friends noticed, he had lost heart for revelry. Outside the city walls he found a little abandoned church, and he spent whole days there, praying. Finally, he began sleeping there as well. Pietro di Bernardone’s business, as Augustine Thompson explains it, may well have been secured by his wife’s dowry. When she died, therefore, a good chunk of the family’s holdings would go to Francis, who, if he was going to be communing with God all day, would be a poor guardian of the enterprise. When Francis was about twenty-five, Pietro took him to the town’s ecclesiastical court and explained how the young man had disregarded his responsibilities. Francis agreed with what his father said, and renounced all claims on his family. Then, we are told by early biographers, he stripped naked, placed his clothes at his father’s feet, and said that from then on God, not Pietro di Bernardone, would be his father. There is no evidence that Francis ever again conversed with his parents.
In a document called his “Testament,” written shortly before he died, Francis said that his conversion was due to his work with lepers, a number of whom lived outside Assisi. He explained, “God allowed me to begin my repentance in this way: when I lived in sin, seeing lepers was a very bitter experience for me. God himself guided me into their midst and among them I performed acts of charity. What appeared bitter to me became sweetness of the soul and body.” Lepers were horrifying to people at the time, not only because of their unsightly affliction—black boils, truncated limbs—but because the disease was thought to be caused by sin. If a leper wanted to approach a town, he had to do so at night and ring a bell to warn people of his presence. In Roberto Rossellini’s “The Flowers of St. Francis” (1950), the best of the many movies made about the saint, a leper, sounding a bell, goes past the hut where Francis and his fellows are bedded down. Francis rouses himself, catches up with the man, and embraces him. We see the leper only darkly: his blackened skin, its clammy sheen. We see Francis’s face directly, with no tears, just an ardent gaze. This is one of the most appalling and thrilling scenes in Western cinema, and it epitomizes the idea that evidently fired the young Francis. As he saw it now, the more a person was despised, the more he or she resembled Jesus in his last agonies, when he was abandoned by almost all the people he had come to save. To obey Jesus, therefore, you had to join those who were abandoned.
At this point, in the words of Francis’s “Testament,” “God gave me brothers.” In 1206, the year that he renounced his inheritance, two young Assisians joined him. By 1208, the group numbered twelve. The Franciscan movement had begun. In Francis’s view, property, by arousing envy and, therefore, conflict, was the one thing most destructive to peace in the world. Thus the community lived, as completely as possible, without property. To be part of the group, a man had to sell all his goods, give the money to the poor, and, like Francis, sever all ties with his family. Francis’s followers dressed the way he did—dirty tunic, no shoes. Their home was a wretched little shack outside the town. When the owner decided he wanted to house his donkey there, they were kicked out. Then, in a district called the Portiuncula, they found a ruined church, Santa Maria degli Angeli, and they built wattle-and-daub cells around it. This remained their headquarters for the rest of Francis’s life.
By day, the brothers did the kinds of work that Francis felt were sanctioned by the Gospel. They renovated churches, tended to lepers, performed manual labor for farmers and artisans, preached, and prayed. They could accept a payment of bread and fruit for their labor, but they were not allowed to have money. Nor could they, in any way, save up for the next day. They could not own any dwelling they lived in. (They rented the church in the Portiuncula from a local abbot.) They could not store up food. They couldn’t soak vegetables overnight.
An entailment of the rule of poverty was humility. In the “Testament,” Francis writes that he and the other friars were subject to all, superior to no one. (He eventually called the group the Friars Minor, as they are still known today.) They were to see themselves as brothers even to people whose lives directly opposed their aims—notably, the rich. Some political reformers who would have loved to embrace Francis have not, because he did not call for social change. The Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, in his prison diaries, holds up Francis, with quiet scorn, as an example of how, in the abuse of the poor by the rich in the Middle Ages, religious devotion led to passivity, “the mattress against the bullet.”
A corollary of Francis’s devotion to humility was his distrust of book learning. Almost proudly, it seems, he called himself “illiteratus.” He never owned a complete Bible. He never became a priest. To him, book learning smelled of wealth—only rich people had books at that time—and thus of arrogance. One medieval source records his response to a novice who asked for a psalter: “When you have a psalter, you will want a breviary; and when you will have a breviary, you will install yourself in a throne like a great prelate, and you will command your brother: ‘Bring me my breviary!’ ” He then took some ashes from the hearth and rubbed them into his body, all the while repeating, “I’m a breviary, I’m a breviary!” Over time, his hostility to scholarship encouraged some people—for example, members of religious orders devoted to education, such as the Dominicans—to regard the Franciscans as a bunch of oddballs and half-wits, which, no doubt, some of them were. Francis accepted into the community anyone who applied. There was no test, no waiting period.
The story about the psalter seems to represent Francis as a man of rigid principles. He was not. To every rule, he made exceptions, on the spot. No friar could ride a horse (a symbol of wealth), but if the friar was sick, all of a sudden a friar could ride a horse. No new entrant, in divesting himself of his goods, could give them to his family, but if it turned out that the man’s giving away his ox would impoverish the family, the ox stayed home. Francis believed in discipline—fasting, hair shirts—but he didn’t eat bugs, and he warned the friars that excessive fasting was harmful to “Brother Body.” Also, he occasionally advised his followers to find their own way to salvation. On his deathbed, he said to them, “I have done what was mine to do. May Christ teach you what is yours!” This is strange, since he had so clear a program for a Christian life. He may not have meant to be permissive, but he often was.
Which was certainly owing in part to another of his characteristics, attested to by everyone who knew him: an extreme natural sweetness. He was courteous, genial, extroverted—he was fun, a quality not always found in saints—and he laid it upon the brothers, as a duty, to be cheerful. That’s why, to Gramsci’s annoyance, he couldn’t hate anyone. You could say he was in a kind of trance. It wasn’t actually a trance—he ran an effective organization for more than a dozen years—but he was different, morally, from most of us. There is a small book from the late fourteenth century, “I Fioretti di San Francesco” (“The Little Flowers of St. Francis”—it’s the text on which Rossellini’s movie is based), that narrates Francis’s life as a series of miracles. One chapter tells of a ferocious wolf that was preying upon the citizens of Gubbio. People were afraid to go outside the city gates. So Francis sought out the wolf and gave the animal a stern lecture, telling him he deserved to be hanged for his crimes. But, Francis added, he knew that the wolf had been driven by hunger. If the townspeople gave him food every day, would he stop attacking them? Would he promise? Francis stretched out his hand, and “the wolf lifted up his right paw before him and laid it gently on the hand of St. Francis, giving thereby such sign of good faith as he was able.” The deal held. When the wolf died, two years later, the townspeople were sad.
In Western Europe, the twelfth and early thirteenth centuries were a high tide of heresy. Penitent groups went from town to town, calling on people to change their lives. Some of these groups, especially those which dwelled on the corruption of the Church, were prosecuted. In 1209, the Pope launched the Albigensian Crusade against the heretics of southern France. Twenty thousand people were slaughtered in the course of one day. In that year or the next, Francis went to Rome to secure Papal approval for his community, and thereby head off any accusation of unorthodoxy. The group’s conspicuous poverty, after all, could easily be seen as a rebuke to the rich, ostentatious Church. You might wonder why Francis thought that he and his men, scarcely known at that time, could walk to Rome in their bare feet and get a hearing from the Pope. Yet, as so often happened in Francis’s early career, what he wanted came true. He had powerful friends all his life, and a couple of them, higher-ups in the Church, interceded with the Pope on his behalf.
The other thing that protected Francis was his sincere obedience to the Church. In this period, many religious radicals claimed that the Church, along with the rest of the material world, was evil. But Francis didn’t hate the world—he loved it—and he said that he would never criticize a priest, because the priests were the only ones empowered to celebrate the Eucharist, that is, to offer us the body and blood of Jesus and thus join us to him.
This was exactly what Rome wanted to hear. At that time, because of the heresy hunt, the leaders of the Church were being accused of persecuting any group consisting primarily of laypeople. Here, however, was a group of evangelical laymen whom they could be seen to endorse. And so the Pope gave them his approval, though in a limited way. The Franciscans were authorized only to preach penance. That permission would not make them a religious order, but it would give them some protection from the charge of heresy.
Francis was now in a position to enlarge his group, to spread his message. By 1217, he was dispatching men to France, Germany, Hungary, Spain, and also to the Middle East. As usual, his preparations were casual. Most of the friars didn’t speak the language of the countries they were going to. In Germany, Augustine Thompson says, they answered Ja to everything, which eventually got them jailed, and worse. In time, they reached North Africa, and in 1220, in Morocco, five of the men were murdered. Others returned to Assisi discouraged. Francis reproached them for not accepting abuse submissively. In 1219, he himself had gone on the road, to Egypt—where the Fifth Crusade was encamped—with the purpose of converting al-Malik al-Kamil, the sultan of Egypt, Syria, and Palestine, to Christianity. Unsurprisingly, he did not succeed, although the two men apparently had a civil conversation.
Like many other radical movements, Franciscanism was bound up with the personality of its founder. The men adored Francis, and he could control them with a glance, a word. But now there were many Franciscans who hadn’t met Francis or who rarely saw him. Under those circumstances, they were bound to deviate from his rules. Sometimes they were forced to. Whatever their devotion to poverty, they could not sleep on the ground in winter when they were in Germany. In time, such exemptions led to further ones. After all, sleeping on the ground was hard in Italy, too. At the same time, Franciscanism had become famous. Beds—and an honored place within the Church hierarchy—were being offered to the friars. Francis’s trip to Egypt took him away from Assisi for less than a year, but, by the time he returned, rules that had seemed to him crucial had been changed, often to make them conform to the practices of other communities. Francis had always felt that the Franciscans had no obligation to be like any other group. This had been his pride, and his followers’ pride. No longer. And what could he do? The brothers now numbered in the thousands, working all across Europe. How could he hold them with his eyes, his words?
He gave up. In 1220, soon after his return, he ceded the direct governance of the community to another friar. A few years later, he allowed a cardinal of the Church to be appointed as protector of the community, which then numbered around five thousand. He was also required to draw up a “rule,” or set of regulations, for the community, which, when the Pope approved it, made the Franciscans a religious order of the Church. This was the development that Francis had always worried about, because it would place the community under Rome’s direct jurisdiction and, again, force it to conform to the practices of other orders. The fact that Francis did not criticize the Church didn’t mean that he always agreed with it.
But the growth of the order was not the only reason for his capitulation. Francis was very ill, as he would be for the remaining six years of his life. He returned from Egypt not just with malaria but with trachoma, a searingly painful eye infection. Also, it is said, he vomited blood, which suggests a gastric ulcer. When he finally allowed himself to be examined, the doctor decided to cauterize Francis’s face from the jaw to the temple, to stop the discharge from his eyes. Seeing the hot iron, Francis said, “My Brother Fire, noble and useful among all creatures the Most High created, be courtly to me in this hour. . . . I pray our Creator who made you, to temper your heat now, so that I may bear it.” The other friars fled the room. The treatment did no good, so it was decided to pierce his eardrums. That had no effect, either. This part of the story is very hard to read.
When he ceded control of the group, Francis hoped that he could still lead the men by example, but his influence quickly waned. This enraged him. “Who are these who have ripped my order and my brothers out of my hands?” he shouted. Once, when he saw a new building that he thought the community had erected for itself, in disregard of the rule of poverty, he climbed up to the roof and began prying off the tiles and throwing them to the ground. Breaking with his earlier, gentle practice, he cursed people who opposed his ideas. Francis was a good example of what, in the annals of history, might be called the “inconvenient elder”: the person who starts the revolution and then, once it succeeds, becomes an inconvenience, even an embarrassment, to the next generation. (Think of Gandhi.) They honor him—they have to—but they wish he would go away, so that they could “work within the system” and relax a little.
The more Francis suffered, the more he withdrew, and at a mountain hermitage, in 1224, he experienced the last great event of his life, the receiving of the stigmata. This happened when Francis was alone, and he kept it a secret, so there are differing versions of the story. Indeed, there is a nearly four-hundred-page book, “The Stigmata of St. Francis of Assisi” (1962), by Octavian Schmucki, a German Franciscan, collecting and analyzing the different versions. Schmucki’s account, widely accepted by others, is that Francis, while praying, looked up into the sky and saw a man (or a seraph, or Jesus) with six wings, suspended from a cross. When the apparition disappeared, Francis found on his body wounds resembling those which Jesus received when he was crucified. On his right side was a slash, which bled. On the palms of his hands and the tops of his feet were black, fleshy protuberances (not bloody holes, as in the paintings) that looked like nail heads, while on the opposite sides—the tops of his hands and the soles of his feet—there were protuberances resembling nail points, but bent back, in a curve.
Some writers have depicted the episode as a great miracle. In Nikos Kazantzakis’s novel “St. Francis,” we get Francis, in a ring of fire, yelling, “More! More!” At the other end of the spectrum are those who think the whole thing is a fraud. A sixteenth-century book by a German Protestant minister, with a preface by Martin Luther, suggests that Francis got his wounds in a fight with St. Dominic, who stabbed him with a roasting spit. In the early twentieth century, there was some support for a psychosomatic interpretation. Today, scholars tend to sidestep the question of cause.
Vauchez believes that the stigmatization—confirmation that Christ recognized his devotion—gave Francis a measure of peace, signalled by his writing the “Canticle of Brother Sun,” with its emphasis on God the Father and his beautiful creation, as opposed to the Son and his torments. Nevertheless, Francis was still in horrible pain. In the dirt cell that he insisted on occupying, he lay shivering with malaria, vomiting blood, his eyes oozing. Before, he rarely spoke of Hell or sin. He said he wanted people to repent, but that mostly meant loving thy neighbor. Now he scolded and cursed and talked of devils. He added two more stanzas to the “Canticle of Brother Sun,” the final one in praise of Sister Death. He clearly wanted her to come, and in 1226, when he was forty-four or forty-five, she did.
The schism that opened between Francis and the centrist members of the order has never healed. The minute he died, the Church redoubled its campaign of annexing this revered man. Within two years of his death, he was canonized, and work began on the basilica to be raised in his honor in Assisi. It eventually became a vast complex. In addition to a double church—one structure laid on top of the other (Francis’s crypt was placed in the lower church)—there was a sort of palace to house visiting dignitaries. Popes stayed there. Later, stained-glass windows and the now famous frescoes by Giotto were added. This was the Church’s tribute to the man who never possessed more than one tunic and who forbade his men to own even the roof over their heads. With the construction of the basilica, Franciscan poverty, the order’s foundational precept, became a pious fiction. Soon the superiors were allowed to handle money; priests within the order were given privileges denied to lay brothers; the yearly “general chapter” was restricted to the friars’ representatives; and so on. It is hard to think of a single important Franciscan principle that was not violated. Vauchez calls this period Francis’s “second death.”
Some of Francis’s companions survived him for many years and remained true to his code, as did other, later recruits who joined the order because of the code. From these loyalists came the so-called Spirituals, who loudly opposed any abandonment of Francis’s rules. The Church eventually disciplined them. In 1323, the Pope declared that anyone who claimed that Jesus and his disciples lived in absolute poverty (part of the inspiration for Francis’s rule) was guilty of heresy. Some of the Spirituals were put to death.
The two parties, in their writings, have gone on justifying their positions ever since. The first widely circulated biography (1263) was by a revered scholar, Bonaventure of Bagnoregio (later, St. Bonaventure). Bonaventure’s Francis is a mystic, a miracle worker, even an angel. (Grasshoppers sing at his command; a falcon wakes him up every night in time to say the Office.) But he is not a thinker or a moralist—that is, a person whose views would have to be taken seriously by the Church. Not incidentally, it was the general chapter that commissioned Bonaventure’s biography, and once the book was finished the order commanded that all previous writings on Francis be destroyed. Fortunately, not everyone obeyed.
In the modern period, the opposite view reached a thundering expression in the “Life of St. Francis” (1893-94) by Paul Sabatier, a French Protestant pastor, who claimed that medieval Church officials had engineered a coverup. They had suppressed some documents and misrepresented others, in order to muffle the dangerous radicalism of a new Gospel-based theology. In softer form, this had been the Spirituals’ opinion from the beginning. What was truly new in Sabatier was his method of making his argument. Most writings about Francis before Sabatier had been hagiographic. Their purpose was to exalt the saint, never mind the evidence. Sabatier, instead, went back to the earliest sources—including Francis’s own writings, which had been widely ignored—and viewed them critically, in order to frame and support his ideas. Sabatier’s book helped inspire a movement on the part of scholars to recover, reëdit, and retranslate Franciscan documents. Writers were now embarrassed to go into print without footnotes. Sabatier ushered in a “historiography of suspicion,” Vauchez says.
Both Vauchez and Thompson are sons of Sabatier. Both are frantic about sources. The life of the saint occupies only the first half of Thompson’s book; most of the second half is a discussion of the documents on which Thompson drew. As for Vauchez, only a third of his book is devoted to biography. The rest consists of essays on how history has treated Francis and his relationship to God, nature, Scripture, and so on.
Thompson’s book is the more conservative. He believes that we can ferret out a “historical Francis.” (Many theologians ceased trying to locate “the historical Jesus” years ago.) In a way, this is good, because Thompson is alert to unglamorous little facts. It is from him that we learn about Francis’s mother’s dowry. On the other hand, he has a corny belief that he can discern “the man behind the legends.” And what he finds behind the legends is someone who underwent crises, frustrations, and depressions. Thompson has a specific indictment of Francis: that he was a poor administrator. The man had no consistent policies; he made decisions on the spur of the moment; he was unwilling to tell people what to do. You might object that ordering people around was inconsistent with his rule of humility, but before you had time to complain about that you would notice that Thompson, from page to page, contradicts himself on this and other matters. On one page he writes that the only thing for which Francis was known to have rebuked the brothers was excessive physical penance. On the next page he says that Francis rebuked the friars for not accepting serenely the abuse they encountered when preaching in foreign lands. And, maddeningly, he blames this back-and-forthing on Francis. He seems to find him a neurotic. He writes that in the camp at Damietta, in Egypt, “the somewhat out-of-place little monk set off, wandering about the camp and loudly voicing his anxieties to the soldiers, with, it seems, no little animation.” Does Thompson recall that this out-of-place little monk was one of the few who managed to get an audience with the sultan? “I admit that I never had much devotion to Saint Francis,” he writes, but he adds that as he wrote his book his respect for the saint increased. Not by much, it seems. One has to have some sympathy with Thompson. He’s trying to resist the sentimentality that so often gushes from treatments of wolf-persuading, leper-hugging Francis. But this sometimes makes for a sour tone.
Vauchez’s is the better book, but at times it is very odd. Though he is a layman, he is far more passionate in his expression of religious sentiments than Thompson, who is a priest. By the end of the book, he identifies Francis as the angel of the sixth seal in Revelations (7:2-3), “ascending from the east . . . saying, Hurt not the earth, neither the sea, nor the trees.”
Still, even more than Thompson, Vauchez has a shameless tendency to equivocate. It’s most painful when he gets to the conflicts within the order. He will fulminate against the people who violated Francis’s beliefs and then, in a mood of pragmatism, say that such violation was necessary, even correct. This is not a new move. Francis’s challenges to the Church’s derelictions have been repeated by many others (the Berrigan brothers; liberation theology). In recent decades, with the discovery of the Gnostic gospels, we have been told once again that the Church silenced competing voices—covered up the fact that some early Christian communities may have had far more stringent requirements than Rome, that they deplored the world, that they routinely had visions. Soon enough, scholars came in and said that the Gnostics may indeed have thought those things but that such views could not serve as the foundation of the Church. It had to have a more practical program.
Always, the objection is the same—that we can’t have radicalism and the Church—and it makes some sense. (Do you want to go around with a begging bowl? Do you want Giotto not to have created his frescoes?) Francis didn’t believe it, though. He insisted that he was a good Catholic and that his principles came straight out of the Bible. Therefore the Church, which was supposedly there to spread the message of the Bible, should align itself with him. Even before he died, most Franciscans rushed to a middle position, but some people noticed, over time, that at least one person had lived by the principles laid down by Christ and by the leaders of most of the world’s major religions. Vauchez takes comfort from this. He cites the nineteenth-century historian Ernest Renan, who said, as Vauchez summarizes it, that the example of Francis “constitutes proof that Christianity, at least once, has been lived by a human being in all its radicality within the context of a historical life: this allows us to sustain the hope that this great movement, taken and distorted by the Church, might be able one day to resume its influence.” But only one person, only once: this is a small sample. 
ART: SASSETTA, “SAINT FRANCIS IN GLORY” (1437-44)/COURTESY BERENSON COLLECTION, VILLA I TATTI, FLORENCE


Read more: http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/books/2013/01/14/130114crbo_books_acocella?printable=true&currentPage=all#ixzz2HPayRwEg