I recently decide to start a systematic reading of the primary sources on the life of St. Francis. To guide me, I picked up a copy of a workbook by Br. William Hugo, OFM Cap, Studying the Life of Francis of Assisi, A Beginner’s Workbook. I don’t think I’m a beginner since I’ve read everything Francis himself wrote and large chunks of the early biographies (albeit piecemeal), but I have thought about using this book for Franciscan formation, so I decided to check it out.
Early in the book the author poses his first assignment:
Take some time to answer the question for yourself: What don’t you like about Francis of Assisi?
He motivates this question as follows:
Francis of Assisi was a human being. There have to be things about him that we don’t like or turn us off….[This] question is designed to invite students to say something negative about Francis….Why are such negative recognitions important? Because Francis of Assisi is a canonized saint of the Roman Church! Too often, people want to put saints on a pedestal level with God….If we want to meet the historical Francis, we have to meet his limitations. If we don’t, we will preoccupy ourselves with something that is not human and of doubtful help in our own lives…Aside from the unhelpfulness of the perfect model, it simply isn’t an historical portrayal of Francis or any human being. When we can say something negative about Francis, we have broken through a mental barrier, which allows us to be as objective and honest as we possibly can.
On the one hand, I can definitely understand what he is trying to accomplish: the simplistic hagiography that surrounds St. Francis is both shallow and distorting: it turns him from a saint of God into what I like to call the “bird bath St. Francis”: warm, fuzzy and completely non-threatening to our worldly way of life. Any serious discussion of the life of Francis based on primary sources is going to require students to move beyond this understanding, and it could very well confront them with things that make them uncomfortable, and may in fact actively dislike.It is also clear that the author is trying to introduce the historical-critical method without using those words. The book is intended for a general audience, so maybe it is worth avoiding the technical vocabulary which will only have to be explained anyway. And while part of me is dubious about any “quest for the historical Francis” (or “the Franciscan Question” as it is called in the literature) in the same way that I am somewhat skeptical about the quest for the historical Jesus, I understand that any careful analysis of the sources will require readers to take the bad with the good: the texts say what they say about Francis, and not what we want them to say.
Nevertheless, having said all that, I find myself honestly unable to answer the question. Part of me wants to hide behind my own familiarity with historical and literary criticism: I can give myself distance by asking whether I dislike Francis himself or rather dislike the interpretation of him given by whatever source I am reading. Or I can say (with apologies to Nietzsche) that I am beyond liking and disliking Francis: my goal is simply to try to understand this complex figure in the context of a society that is both very much like and very different from my own.
But I am honest enough with myself to ask if this is not just a clever way of avoiding the question. If I refocus the question on more recent figures, including recent saints, I am quite able to answer the question. Pope St. Pius X made great contributions to eucharistic devotion and laid the groundwork for many positive changes in the 20th century. But I do not like his crusade against modernism, which stunted Catholic scholarship and made Vatican II’s engagement with the modern world that much more difficult. Similarly, I am willing to criticize John Paul II for his failure to respond to the sexual abuse crisis, and for his inability to engage with liberation theology at its pastoral roots.
With Francis, however, I continue to be unable to come up with anything. It is not a lack of familiarity with his life, work and thought: as I said, I have read a lot about them. So is it a bad thing that I can find nothing negative to say?
What do you think? Is there something you dislike about Francis? Is there some other way that the question might be phrased?