I was raised a Unitarian, but I’ve always been fascinated with the pomp that surrounds Catholicism, and never more when there is an election of a new pope. The conclave, the Sistine Chapel, the red and gold mitres, the plume of white smoke. I’m a clearly an outsider, but it thrills me. And though I admit to dissention on significant views of the Church, I am nonetheless in awe of its liturgical beauty. With the election of Jorge Mario Bergoglio, Pope Francisco as he’ll be called, I’m especially in thrall. Not only is Bergoglio the first non-European pope, but he bears the name of my favorite saint, Francis of Assisi.
This is apparently because Bergoglio is the also the first member of the Jesuit order to be elected. St. Francis, of course, is a most revered figure. The founder of the Franciscans, who like Bergoglio’s Jesuit order, identify strongly with the poor. I’m especially fond of Giotto’s paintings of St. Francis, chief among them, St. Francis Preaching to the Birds, a work that familiarized me with the Saint’s iconic hooded cowl, and the his connection to birds, portrayed in fluttering around him in numerous works of art. So to mark the occasion of the new Pope Francesco, I thought a look at the writings of his namesake might be timely.
Saint Francis was born the son of a wealthy cloth merchant, Pietro di Bernardone, who called him Francesco. In his youth, Francesco was found of military expeditions and troubadours. His spiritual awakening was the result of a serious illness, which was accompanied by visions. Subsequently, against his family’s wishes, the young heir and soldier renounced his father and his patrimony to live as a beggar wandering Assisi, and soon founded the order that bears his name.
The writings of St. Francis, as would any of a founding official’s, deal largely with administrative matters—rules, admonitions, correspondence, etc., but there are also more vivid gems to be found. Consider the Prayer to Obtain Divine Love, and the ecstatic Praises, based on the Lord’s Prayer. There is also the lovely Canticle of the Sun:
Praised be my Lord for brother wind
And for the air and clouds and fair and every kind of weather,
By the which Thou givest to Thy creatures nourishment.
Praised be my Lord for sister water,
The which is greatly helpful and humble and precious and pure.
For about a quarter century, St. Francis served in the order he founded, though was in his lifetime was never venerated by the church. But it is perhaps his connection to nature that is most enduring, and for me, most endearing.
One famous incident concerns the “Fioretti” (or “Little Flowers”), a collection of legends and folklore that sprang up after the Saint’s death. The story goes that while Francis was traveling with companions, they encountered a place in the road where birds filled the trees on either side. Francis asked for his companions to “wait for me while I go to preach to my sisters the birds.” The birds, intrigued by the power of his voice, surrounded him, hence the tradition of painting him with a bird resting in one open hand.