Joan Acocella of The New Yorker reviews two recent books on St. Francis of Assisi, and, in the best tradition of long form book reviews, gives us a crash course on the subject at hand. Of particular interest is the dispute over Francis’ legacy.
The schism that opened between Francis and the centrist members of the order has never healed. The minute he died, the Church redoubled its campaign of annexing this revered man. Within two years of his death, he was canonized, and work began on the basilica to be raised in his honor in Assisi. It eventually became a vast complex. In addition to a double church—one structure laid on top of the other (Francis’s crypt was placed in the lower church)—there was a sort of palace to house visiting dignitaries. Popes stayed there. Later, stained-glass windows and the now famous frescoes by Giotto were added.
This was the Church’s tribute to the man who never possessed more than one tunic and who forbade his men to own even the roof over their heads. With the construction of the basilica, Franciscan poverty, the order’s foundational precept, became a pious fiction. Soon the superiors were allowed to handle money; priests within the order were given privileges denied to lay brothers; the yearly “general chapter” was restricted to the friars’ representatives; and so on. It is hard to think of a single important Franciscan principle that was not violated. Vauchez calls this period Francis’s “second death.”
Some of Francis’s companions survived him for many years and remained true to his code, as did other, later recruits who joined the order because of the code. From these loyalists came the so-called Spirituals, who loudly opposed any abandonment of Francis’s rules. The Church eventually disciplined them. In 1323, the Pope declared that anyone who claimed that Jesus and his disciples lived in absolute poverty (part of the inspiration for Francis’s rule) was guilty of heresy. Some of the Spirituals were put to death.
What images come to your mind when you hear Francis’ name? Why? Do you think they are true to the spirit of the man, or are they the creation of later writers with agendas of their own?