St Francis and the Pope: Catalysts for change?

St Francis was not above the magisterial teachings of the Church – and neither is the Pope

Now that we have Pope Francis (the first) it’s natural for people to write books linking him to his new patron: St Francis of Assisi. Jon M Sweeney has done just this in When St Francis Saved the Church. It is largely about the saint but the implications, teased out in the final chapter, suggest that, in imitating the spirit of the medieval mystic, founder of the Friars Minor and stigmatic, Pope Francis will also have a rejuvenating effect on the Church. “Is it too bold to suggest that another Francis may just be saving the Church again in the 21st century?” he asks.

Sweeney is keen to make the reader aware that St Francis is not the sentimental figure of hagiography, which is a good thing. Instead, he was a “catalyst for rapid change” in embracing poverty and insisting that his friars be mendicants, in his “sacramental vision of the natural world” as demonstrated in his celebrated poem, the Canticle of the Creatures, and in trying to follow Christ as closely as he could.

This portrait of the saint is the one which has come down to us following his death in 1226. And Sweeney is right to ask the question, “What is it about Francis that changed the Church in his own day and what is it that can change the Church in our own day for the better?” Each age produces the saints that are right for their time: St Francis’s life was a reproof to the worldliness of the Church in his day just as the life of, for example, Padre Pio, with all the miracles associated with it, was a rebuke to the scientific 20th century. Speaking at Assisi on the feast of St Francis in 2013, the Pope reminded his listeners that “the Christian cannot coexist with the spirit of the world” – something the saint understood so well and practised with such unremitting austerity in his own life.

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