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Spotlight Report


Book sheds new light on St. Francis

By Rich Barlow, 8/2/2003

The installation this week of a Franciscan as Boston's new Catholic archbishop marks the ascension to power of an order whose founder prized humility. St. Francis of Assisi launched his movement as a reform, a return to the simplicity and poverty of Jesus's life, scholar Paul Sabatier wrote a century ago in the first modern biography of the saint. Francis's ideals would serve Boston well now, says Vermont editor Jon M. Sweeney, who has annotated a reissue of Sabatier's book, ''The Road to Assisi: The Essential Biography of St. Francis'' (Paraclete Press).

Amplified with new scholarship reflected in Sweeney's notes, the book shows how the Franciscans evolved from their founder's original vision. Believing that religious faith was a moral rather than intellectual matter, Francis distrusted excessive book-learning as a breeding ground for pride, and the Franciscans' modern involvement in education represented a drift of which he disapproved. Laypeople familiar with pictures of a gentle friar playing with animals may not know that Francis was something of a tragic figure, realizing in his dying days that his movement was moving beyond his control, Sweeney says.

Q: Is there an analogy between Francis's reform movement and Bishop Sean P. O'Malley's taking charge of a scandalized archdiocese?

A: Each spiritual leader has to be judged on his own merits. Certainly, the original ideas that Francis had would serve the Boston Archdiocese very well. Those are things like a disregard for possessions, following Christ in a very faithful way, peace and care in relationships. Francis was devoted to mending rifts between people, whether they're people in power or people who do not have much power. One of the aspects of Francis people don't know about, because it's not the stuff of miracles, is he spends time mediating problems.

Q: What lessons might O'Malley take from Francis's conflict with the clergy and church leaders of his day?

A: I would be hesitant to give the archbishop advice, but Francis in a clever way balanced the appropriate amount of obedience [to] Rome with fidelity to his intention of supporting the poor and preaching the good news and living a very simple life. [During the recent sex abuse scandal], devotion to public relations replaced what should have been the ideal, which would be fixing the wrong. Francis was very wary of being co-opted by the pope. He needed to have the blessing of the pope, but he was hesitant to take anything from Rome -- any money, any official oversight -- because he knew what would happen.

Part of the tragedy of Francis's life is, in the last five years of his life, he knows this co-opting has begun to take place, and he's started to lose control of his own movement. He knows Rome is more interested in quickly making him a saint and bringing his movement under the auspices of Rome than they are to keeping faithful to his ideals.

Q: Was he fanatical in his anti-intellectual leanings?

A: No. I wouldn't use the term anti-intellectual. He knew there wouldn't always be plenty of people devoted to following Christ the way the first disciples were taught by Jesus, with utter simplicity and lack of pretension. It's a weakness of many of us to spend our religious lives studying and doing the stuff of the head, at the expense of doing the spiritual work of the world. His feelings were not a way of saying that being smart is wrong. Francis did a lot of composing of songs and prayers; he probably prayed in Latin, like any priest would; he certainly did things that a smart person does. It's not as if he just walked around like a holy fool all the time. [But] Francis was not happy, towards the end of his life, because he saw that a lot of new brothers were interested in being scholars. The pope had hundreds of scholars at his beck and call.

To the extent that Franciscans today own buildings and have fancy installation ceremonies for archbishops, that has nothing to do with the original ideals of Francis, either. Francis was even more fanatical about money than learning. He didn't want the brothers to even touch a coin.

Q: I suspect modern readers would be surprised by Francis's acquiescence in the Crusades.

A: He probably felt he could convert the sultan if he were to get an audience and tell him what a Christian is really like, instead of those Christians who were trying to kill him. It wasn't successful, and Francis wasn't able to stop the violence. He was rather devastated by it. He never really spoke on those issues. To try to convince the religious authorities that they were wrong wasn't his style.

Q: Did he believe they were wrong?

A: I would be inclined to think he didn't share the religious intolerance of the day, because there are no stories of him trying to convert groups that were not Christian.

Rich Barlow can be reached at

This story ran on page B2 of the Boston Globe on 8/2/2003.
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