Speculation grew as to whether his namesake was St. Francis Xavier (a fellow Jesuit) or St. Francis of Assisi. The Vatican spokesman, Fr. Lombardi, made it clear that it was the latter. Needless to say, this only endeared the new pope further to many of my colleagues: I work in a university run by very lovely Franciscans, viz., the Sisters of St. Francis of Perpetual Adoration, founded in Germany until Bismarck chased them out and they came to the Mid-West to run hospitals and schools. (Our department just spent a lovely retreat last weekend at the sisters' motherhouse in Mishawaka, IN.)
Among the more idiotic things you hear among some self-appointed fringe apologists for Orthodoxy on the Web is an attack on St. Francis for his supposed prelest, that is, his spiritual and likely demonic delusions which led him to believe he had the stigmata. But these are, as I say, foolish fringe voices, and by no means representative of all Eastern Christians.
A decade ago, Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies, of which I am editor, published a fascinating and wide-ranging article written by an Orthodox theologian looking at the question of sanctoral cycles and hagiographic devotion across many Eastern and Oriental Orthodox, Eastern and Roman Catholic, and Protestants traditions. Written by Ron (Serafim) Grove, it was entitled "Whose Saints? How Much Can We Recognize Holiness beyond the Pale?" Here is the abstract I wrote for the article, published in vol. 43-45 (2004):
The author examines what might be called “cross-confessional” or “trans-jurisdictional” sanctity, i.e., figures accounted as “saints” in one Church who are also venerated as such by another Church which may not be in communion with the canonizing Church and may indeed even be otherwise vigorously opposed to their theology and practices. The author explores this often-contradictory phenomenon as it is found in Oriental and Eastern Orthodox Churches, Eastern and Roman Catholic Churches, and in Protestant bodies, analyzing particularly the liturgical calendars of each. In addition, and by means of contrast, the author also provides a brief analysis of “saint-making” as it occurs in some secular circles and non-Christian religions, especially Judaism and Islam. This analysis reveals several things: that veneration of holy figures is a catholic practice not confined to explicitly religious people but seems almost globally humanly ingrained; that such veneration often proceeds quite independently and “democratically” as people venerate holy figures irrespective of decisions made about them by their leaders; and that such veneration highlights (sometimes almost comically so) a theological incoherence that can be nonetheless ecumenically useful as people today seek out spiritual relationships with those once accounted heretics and enemies. The author concludes with a salutary warning not to assume too blithely that “if our saints are true, yours must be false” because in the search for Christian unity accommodations will eventually have to be made in hagiographical canons and liturgical calendars.Among those analyzed by Grove in this fascinating survey was of course St. Francis of Assisi, to whom a wide array of Eastern Christians--and Muslims, among others--have a deep devotion. A couple of Orthodox friends asked me about Francis in the last few days, and I in turn asked colleagues of mine in the department more conversant with Francis and all things Franciscan for some recommendations on books for those who are interested in learning more about the man whom the new bishop of Rome has chosen as his patron and namesake.
Here are a few, thanks to Sr. Anita Holzmer and Dr. Lance Richey. Of these, I have myself only read one, viz., Mark Galli, Francis of Assisi and His World (IVP, 2002). This is a charming and very accessible biography, made all the more so by its relative brevity and the fact that the author is not a Catholic.
Other recommendations include:
- William J. Short, Poverty and Joy: The Franciscan Tradition (1999).
- Dominic Monti, Francis and His Brothers: A Popular History of the Franciscan Friars (2009).
- Julien Green, God's Fool: The Life of Francis of Assisi (1987). The concept of holy fools is, of course, one that is widely recognized in the East, as I noted previously. About this book, my colleague Lance Richey says that "this is one of the first books I read and still one of my favorites: beautifully written, no footnotes, and it really captures something special about Francis."