Read: Francis of Assisi
By André Vauchez (Yale Press, 2012)
Francis the ecologist, Francis the stigmatic, Francis the peace activist, Francis the crusader. With so many Francis of Assisis, anyone can pick a favorite. In Francis of Assisi: The Life and Afterlife of a Medieval Saint, André Vauchez argues that previous attempts to find the “real” Francis often begin with a version of the saint in mind and then go hunting for evidence to prove that version correct. Unfortunately, the result is not a man or even a saint, but a one-dimensional figure existing outside of history.
Vauchez corrects these past errors by demonstrating that Francis, along with his fellow friars, crafted the Franciscan message for a wide range of audiences. The result of Vauchez’s approach is that it draws a refreshingly complex portrait of one of Catholicism’s most familiar figures.
Describing Francis’ conversion from upper-middle class knight to the poor man of Assisi, Vauchez qualifies the trope of Francis’ radical rejection of wealth and the secular world. Instead Vauchez argues that Francis’ conversion was an evolution of beliefs he already held. The Franciscan vision of a world where there were no rich or poor reflected less the New Testament and more Francis’ love of traditional festivals where the poor were kings while the rich dressed in rags.
The eight centuries separating modern readers from Francis have seen the saint and his message recreated many times, beginning with his death, when the pope, the Franciscans, and the city of Assisi all struggled to control Francis’ cult. During the Great Depression, Mussolini championed an Italian nationalist Francis to remind Italians that joy in the face of deprivation was part of their national patrimony.
Vauchez’s book provides an engaging place to move beyond the pet blessings and the garden statues that constitute much of today’s devotion to Francis of Assisi.
This article appeared on the October 2012 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 77, No. 12, pages 42-43)