FRANCIS AND THE CHURCHESdi Franco Cardini
I now return to familiar things. I wish to refer – again! – to the Testament of St. Francis starting from a couple of fundamental issues. On one hand, the great essay by the unforgettable Giovanni Miccoli, La proposta cristiana di Francesco d’Assisi, a study from 1983 then republished by the author in Francesco d’Assisi. Realtà e memoria di una presenza cristiana, Torino, Einaudi, 1991, pp. 41-56; on the other hand, a few polemical pages Grado Giovanni Merlo, Tra eremo e città. Studi su Francesco d’Assisi e sul francescanesimo medievale, Assisi, Edizioni Porziuncula, 1991, pp. 82-84; and finally, an essay by Michele Pellegrini, Itinerari dell’inserimento. Riflessioni su minoritismo e chiese locali nella prima stagione francescana, in Il francescanesimo dalle origini alla metà del secolo XVI. Esplorazioni e questioni aperte, edited by F. Bolgiani and G.G. Merlo, Bologna, Il Mulino, 2005, pp. 71-111, particularly the reflections on p. 75. Grado Giovanni Merlo polemically and curtly “denies the idea of a perennial and inevitable opposition between ‘priesthoodism’ and ‘evangelism’: ideal poles that, indeed, precisely because of the irrepressible need felt by the Assisi community for the visibility – eucharistic and therefore institutional – of the Christian divine in history, become compatible and mutually necessary.” And it is not incidental in this regard that Pellegrini refers to the book by C. Vaiani, Vedere e credere. L’esperienza cristiana di Francesco d’Assisi, Milano, Glossa, pp. 133-56, to remind us (this is the sense of the passage of the Testament cited), that “Francis had faith in the material evidence of the churches, as they are the simplest and most quotidian expression in that tangible concreteness of the divine which, for him, is an essential need.”
I know: a passage like the one you have just read is more suitable to being a “footnote” of an essay from a specialised publication than to the simple and colloquial tone of this column and this magazine. But sometimes, even when we speak informally, we need to be precise. And then, just as it is true that – neither for Francis of Assisi, nor objectively, and not even (we should add) for the “Francis of Buenos Aires” who currently guides the Church – there is no opposition between “priesthoodism” and “evangelism”, it is also true that there is no opposition between the scientific study of things and the simple approach to them, the “popular” one, if you will. What I mean is that the simple faithful person, who knows nothing or very little about Francis of Assisi but loves him, can very well try every now and then to read a few pages by Miccoli, or by Merlo, or by Pellegrini, or in short, by the strictest and most accredited scholars.
The assertion that these authors write in “incomprehensible” terms about “inaccessible” things is nonsense. Indeed, it is worse than nonsense: it is the idiotic and criminal alibi of those, with this premise dictated by cowardice and laziness, rely on the much less well-pondered and qualified “opinions” of “experts” who are presented as such in the media but actually are nothing of the sort.
In light of all this, let us truly re-read, without any prejudice and with simplicity, the writings of Francis: all of them, not just the Testament and the Canticle of the Creatures. We will rediscover the Poor Man who loves the churches; after all, everyone knows that his conversion began with repairing a church gone to ruins. Yes, I know, at this point the symbolic and allegorical reading is underscored: repairing the churches as a symbol of restoring (reforming, as from the Latin: it is not a “protestant” verb) the Church. But the Church is loved through the Churches, and certainly one comes to Christ with the spirit but one enters into real contact with him through the concrete humble forms of the bread and the wine, namely (for us Latins) the host of unleavened bread; and the priesthood is the bridge through which the Gospel lives amongst us. Francis never dared to become a priest, and those who assert that he would never have wanted to be one are perhaps right. But there was no shadow of anti-sacerdotalism in this choice, and the golden dalmatic of the deacon, one step from the priesthood, is his full entitlement in Heaven. Because the Model, that is, Christ, is the True Priest and the True Poor Man.
I say this because I am weary of the Christian “right wings” and “left wings”; I am tired of the ignorant, imbecilic, and dishonest polemics of “right” and “left” in regard to the pontificate of Pope Francis. Heaven forbid that in order to love the poor we should forget or undervalue theology, liturgy, and sacraments in the name of a “return to the Gospel”. Heaven forbid that in the name of the royal majesty of the priesthood we should neglect the poor.
Heaven forbid that we should have to choose between a humble shack of miserable folk and a most solemn basilica scented with incense and full of cardinals with their lace surplices and Swiss Guards, as if the two were mutually exclusive or even simply had no need of each other. Francis would never have lived amongst the lepers, finding their company to be so sweet, had he not been moved, inspired, supported, and captivated by love for the True Priest; and it was only in his name that he loved and honoured the “little poor priests”. Even the one who was once brought to him as a sinner by a furious crowd about to lynch him, and in response Francis kissed those hands that had probably sinned horribly, but had transformed the wine and the bread into the Blood and Body of the True Poor Man.
Professore ordinario di storia medievale presso l'Università di Firenze