“Except for one thing,” Arthur said, as he sipped from his mug of hot coffee.
“I beg your pardon,” I said in response.
“This article sounds like something Francis would agree with,” Arthur said, waving the sheet of paper from which he had just read. “Except for one thing.”
“And what is that?” I asked.
“The article levels some pointed criticism at the institutional church,” Arthur replied. “From what I’ve read, Francis seems to have criticized the church very little, at least with words. Rather, he seems to have preferred to let his life speak for him.”
“That’s a fair point,” I said. “And one that I had not really thought about before. That would seem contrary to the convictions and strategies of the emergent church these days, wouldn’t it? I mean, haven’t they basically given up on the institutional church altogether?”
“So it would seem,” Arthur replied. “But that was certainly not the way Francis chose to relate to the church. In fact, here’s something I read in First Things about a year ago that might help us maintain perspective in matters like this.”
Arthur opened the back cover of his copy of Chasing Francis and removed a folded sheet of paper, a photocopy of the article he had just mentioned. It was a trait I had observed before when I borrowed a book from his library.
Whenever he read something that referenced a volume which he owned, he would note the reference on the blank page at the back of the book, or, if possible, he would clip or copy the reference, in its context, and tuck the sheet just inside the back cover of the book.
That’s what he had done with the First Things reference to St. Francis. The journal article had not specifically mentioned Chasing Francis, but it did offer some insight into the life of St. Francis that Arthur assumed might prove helpful. He was right.
He unfolded the sheet and then looked at me. “Do you read First Things?” he asked.
“I used to,” I answered. “I haven’t for a long time.”
“I let my subscription expire after Neuhaus died,” Arthur said, referring to the magazine’s founder, Richard John Neuhaus, a Lutheran pastor and theologian who converted to Roman Catholicism a few years before his death in 2009.
“I found it was becoming a bit too conservative for my taste,” Arthur said with a wry smile that made it impossible for me to know if he was being serious. I wanted to ask, but he turned back to the sheet in his hand, and it seemed best to save the inquiry for another time.
“I actually found this online, when I was looking for a fairly recent Francis biography. Listen to this.”
No saint has been more a victim of revisionism than Saint Francis of Assisi. The poverello, or “poor one,” as he is known, was a legend even during his life (1181/2-1226). He was canonized a mere two years after dying, and soon stories about his life—often highly romanticized and of dubious historicity—grew. …
The historical Francis was actually quite introspective and conscientious, constantly questioning himself about how best to serve the Lord. Far from being a rebel, he was devoted to the pope, the Catholic hierarchy, and the priesthood. He adored the Holy Eucharist, and insisted that his priests follow the books of the Roman Church, and use clean vestments and vessels for Mass. He constantly called his audiences to repentance. He was a passionate defender of orthodoxy and wanted to evangelize the world, even if that meant suffering martyrdom.
“By the way,” Arthur noted. “That same article mentions a new biography of Francis. It’s written by a Catholic priest and was well-reviewed. I checked it out of the library, but I didn’t get around to reading it right away, so I returned it. Re-reading Cron’s novel stirred up my interest in Francis again, so I ordered a copy of Father Thompson’s book.”
“For your Kindle?” I asked.
“No, a hard copy. It looks like the sort of book I will want to mark up and have easy access to for later reference.”
“So tell me, Arthur,” I said. “What are the three or four most important truths about St. Francis that you learned by reading Cron’s book?”
“Hmmm, that’s a good question,” Arthur replied, scratching his chin through his scraggly beard. “I guess the first thing would be the irony that, although contemporary Christianity desperately needs somebody like Francis on the scene today, I don’t think Francis, or somebody like him, could get a hearing among Christians in contemporary America.”
“Why not?” I asked.
“He would be medicated,” Arthur answered. “And probably institutionalized.”
“No, I’m completely serious,” Arthur said. “I mean, think about it. If even half the stories about Francis are close to being true, he would be considered delusional in modern America. Schizophrenic. Bi-polar.
“I’m not being funny here. The depth and intensity of Francis’ devotion to Christ and his single-minded focus on following both the teachings and the example of Jesus would relegate him to the periphery of ‘polite society.’ There’s not a single evangelical mega-church that would call him as a pastor or even have him on the Board of Elders.
“Francis would never be invited to pray at the Presidential Inauguration, and you would never find him at the head table of the National Prayer Breakfast.”
“I’m sure you’re right,” I said. “What else do you take away from your re-reading of Chasing Francis?”
“Three things, I think,” Arthur replied. “One, Francis understood the necessary connection between Christians and nature and the value of beauty for its own sake. Most evangelicals would probably consider him an environmentalist.
“Two, Francis appreciated the value of life, and that energized a strong peace-making impulse in him. Were he among us, he would point out the inconsistency in the evangelical opposition to abortion while endorsing drone attacks that murder innocent children. Most evangelicals would probably consider him a pacifist.
“And three, his commitment to a life of simplicity and his disdain for materialism are a conspicuous repudiation of the contemporary ‘prosperity gospel.'”
“That’s interesting,” I said. “Could you say a bit more about that?”
“Sure,” Arthur answered. “Francis would show how silly it is to use Jesus, a man who never owned anything except the robe on his back, as a means to acquire wealth and prestige, which He eschewed. He would likely point out that the things the prosperity preachers tout as available to all believers with sufficient faith are the very things Jesus rejected when the Devil offered them as temptation enticements.”
“That’s helpful,” I said. “Now two final questions, if I may. First, do you think Francis really said, ‘Preach the gospel at all times; when necessary, use words.’? And second, whether he did or not, do you agree with it?”
“We may never know if the quote is authentic or not,” Arthur answered. “But it certainly sounds like something Francis might have said, doesn’t it? As for agreeing with it, yes, I think I do.
“I don’t think the saying means to suggest that the Christian gospel doesn’t require articulation or explanation in words. I think it means that, when it comes time to share the Gospel in verbal form, we should be certain that we have faithfully prepared for that moment through the consistency of our discipleship and the intensity of our love.”
“Thank you for making me aware of this book,” I said, as I closed my copy of Chasing Francis and began making preparations to leave. “And thanks for the wonderful lunch and the stimulating conversation. I could talk about St. Francis all day long. But we might want to move in another direction the next time we meet.”
“That’s probably a good idea,” Arthur said. “But I have a feeling Francis will find his way back into our discussion on numerous occasions in the future.”
“I’m sure you’re right,” I said.
“Oh, before you go,” Arthur asked, “I wonder if we could pray together.”
“Of course, Arthur,” I replied.
“I’ll lead us, if you don’t mind,” Arthur said.
We bowed our heads, and Arthur made the sign of the cross. Then he reached over and took both of my hands in his. After a moment of silence, I heard Arthur repeat these familiar words.
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
and where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
“Amen,” we intoned in unison. I squeezed Arthur’s hands, then put on my jacket and hat and walked out into the brilliant afternoon sun. Nothing else needed to be said.
[To hear a beautiful musical rendition of the Prayer of St. Francis, sung by Susan Boyle and accompanied by an effective slide show, click here.]