"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Pope Francis and His Namesake

In watching Pope Francis emerge on the loggia, I was struck by several things, but one thing seems to have escaped the notice of almost everyone: he opened with an unacknowledged quotation from perhaps the most famous saying of St. Ignatius of Antioch, referring to the Church of Rome as the church "which presides in love." That good note was quickly followed by others: his reference to being bishop of Rome (the most important title, as the Orthodox rightly note) and his concern to meet and care for the Christians of his new see-city; his bowing low and asking the people for prayers that the Lord would bless him; and his simpler vesture. 

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:
More recent treatments would include Lawrence S. Cunningham's Francis of Assisi: Performing the Gospel of Life (2004) and last year's historically rigorous biography by a Dominican of all people: Augustine Thompson, Francis of Assisi: A New Biography.


    1. Dr DeVille,

      I was also very struck by the Pope's initial address and its concentration on his election to the See of Rome and its people, rather than that of Universal Pastor. If I'm not mistaken, he also referred to Pope Benedict as 'Bishop Emeritus' of the Diocese, rather than 'Pope Emeritus'. Obviously, the Bishop of Rome is Pope and the titles could be, and are, used interchangeably, but 'Bishop of Rome' is almost always employed as, practically, a synonym for 'Pope' in lingusitic construction and is very much subservient to it.

      Surely these first words are incredibly telling and packed with significance.

      I would think those Orthodox Christians who are not rabidly anti-Catholic must be quite pleased with this concentration on collegiality.

      Do you think that this looks like the beginning of a new defining of the role of Supreme Pontiff? Please could you say more about this - I would love to hear you expand upon it.

      Yours in Christ,

    2. I remember reading that a 13th century icon of St. Francis was uncovered in an old Orthodox church in Constantinople. It appears to have been written during the Frankish occupation of the city, but the interesting thing is the Orthodox did not paint it over when they returned. The icon was whitewashed after the Turkish occupation, which preserved it to the present day. The fact that the Orthodox permitted an icon of St. Francis to remain is indicative of the respect in which he was held by his Orthodox near-contemporaries.


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