Thursday 28 March 2013

Fiercely faithful, by K. M. Grant

After the recent conclave, a commentator said of Cardinal Bergoglio, the new pope, 'he's chosen the name Francis, the gentle saint' or words to that effect.  He certainly used the word 'gentle'.  It's an odd word to use in connection with a saint, since saints are only gentle in Ladybird books and hagiographies.  'Gentle' implies sympathy and the gift of self-effacement. Beth in Little Women is gentle.  Though he may have said pretty things - make me the channel of your peace, etc. -  and, so we're told, been able to silence swallows, St. Francis of Assisi was not gentle.  Like all saints before and after, he was something much more uncomfortable:  singleminded.

Francis determined to take Christ's teachings literally and to their bitterest degree.  'Go and sell all thou hast and give to the poor' left him naked.  'Take nothing for your journey, neither staves, nor scrip, neither bread, neither money, neither have two coats apiece' left him and his followers dependent on the charity of others.  Francis revered poverty.  One follower's remark that it's all very well to be born rich and choose to be poor, but that being born poor is a different matter entirely, may not have raised even a smile.

Single-mindedness was combined with literal-mindedness.  When Christ, through an icon, said 'go and repair my house' Francis began rebuilding a church with his bare hands. When Pope Innocent III told him, on first introduction, to 'go and play with the pigs', Francis did just that.  This last turned out pretty well.  In his delightfully unsaintly style, Matthew Paris, the 13th century chronicler, tells us that the following day Francis smelled so bad the pope hurriedly granted all his requests.

Nor was gentleness a consideration when it came to endorsing, or not, Francis's fledgling order.  Whilst tossing up the options - Francis as holy man or Francis as heretic - Pope Innocent had a dream.  In this dream he saw this rough, smelly and slightly unnerving derelict holding up the Basilica of St. John Lateran.  Holy man, then.  Had the papal dream been otherwise, Francis might have been cast out of the church altogether.  Serendipity.  That's the way it went in the medieval church - may still go.

Yet how we long for our saints to be gentle.  If they're not, it's hard to like them.  But the truth is, saints don't want to be liked.  They want to pursue the path of holiness if it kills them, and it often does.  Take the Forty Martyrs, executed for refusing to recognise any faith but Roman Catholicism.  It's not gentleness that helps you face the crushing door (St. Margaret Clitherow), the lonely death in the Tower (St. Philip Howard) or hanging, drawing and quartering (St. Edmund Arrowsmith - a Jesuit like the new pope).  It's a steely faith and a will of iron, neither of them gentle qualities.

Sometimes, we mistake humility for gentleness.  Certainly Francis of Assisi was humble, although by refusing all comforts, getting a follower to drag him through the streets and leaping into ditches of ice and snow if his flesh 'itched' (erring priests, bishops and cardinals take note), you might say that he took public mortification almost to the point of pride.  Indeed, it was he who told Cardinal Ugolino (later Pope Gregory IX) that the Franciscans' calling was to 'follow in the footsteps of Christ's humility' so that in the end they could be 'exalted above the rest of the saints'.   This is not a gentle message and it wasn't meant to be.

I don't think Francis would have recognised himself in the commentator's remark about the new pope's choice of name.   'Gentle's all very well,' he might have said, 'but if you want to be a real saint, forget it.'


Theresa Breslin said...

What an insightful post, Katie. The Canticle of Brother Sun is the most uplifting literature of the spirit, centuries ahead of its time in its tribute to the natural world.

Ann Turnbull said...

I love this post. I've always thought saints would be infuriating to live with. But we need them!

Annis said...

Too true - many of the saints were a right pain in the whatsit for those who had to deal with them, and ended up becoming sainted martyrs for that very reason. Saints single-mindedly cut straight to the chase – forget the diplomacy the rest of us use to make our way through life.

When I read Pope Francis’ biography, I was struck by the similarity of his vision to that of another saint, the Lombard cardinal archbishop of Milan, Carlo Borromeo, champion of the poor and poster boy for the 16th-century Italian Counter-Reformation. His tenets were austerity, humility and pastoral care as per the gospel of St Matthew, and he walked the talk. When famine and plague struck Milan, the governor and many members of the nobility fled the city, but the bishop remained, to organize the care of those who were stricken and to minister to the dying. Borromeo tried to feed 60,000 to 70,000 people daily. He used up his own funds and went into debt to provide food for the hungry.

Although he was venerated by the people, Borromeo’s toughness in implementing reforms brought him into conflict with secular leaders, priests, and even the pope himself. He had no hesitation in denouncing his confrères for “unnatural” behaviour, either, which didn’t do much for his popularity within the Church. A biographer called him as “An austere, dedicated, humorless and uncompromising personality”, and I think “uncompromising” is probably right up there with “uncomfortable” when it comes to describing saints.

Leslie Wilson said...

Yes, definitely - the word 'obstinate' came to my mind. We don't have official Quaker saints, but George Fox, one of our founders, was a man I am sure I would have crossed the street to avoid. And yet I live with the benefits of what he did. Mind you, some saints persecuted people in ways I cannot approve, myself..