History is not an easy realm of culture to communicate with the written word. Facts are one thing, but being able to transport the reader into the chronological story is something completely different. Perhaps this is why so many claim to dislike history: They fail to see history as “story”. In essence, history is simply telling the story of what has been, and in ancient times was meant to capture the imagination and enable the reader to travel with the story teller into a place and time of which they were never actually part. The reader becomes part of history and the story becomes part of them. In fact, one could dare say that a true historian is not merely a collaborator of facts, but a teller of stories. This is what author John Sweeney has accomplished with his most recent work, When Saint Francis Saved the Church: How a Converted Medieval Troubadour Created a Spiritual Vision for the Ages.
“I don’t read many books about history,” a friend of Sweeney tells him as they discuss his new book over breakfast. “It isn’t a ‘history’,” was his reply, and so the book begins. This is not a book of history. It is a story whose seeds were planted many hundred years in the past; in a time that was very different, but also so similar that it could have been written on events that have only just transpired. This is what makes this book so accessible. Sweeney writes in a way that brings the history of Francis of Assisi, not only to life, but to reality.
The author tells the story of Francis in such a way that captures the reader’s interest and communicates how his life, teaching and ministry are just as relevant today as they were over 800 years ago; possibly even more so. In a personal manner, Sweeney takes us on a journey, not so much by vehicle of history, but conversation. The reader will feel as if they are sitting across the table from the author in a favorite coffee shop, listening intently to a story that they want to be a part of. In light of the popularity of the Catholic Church’s newly elected Pontiff, Pope Francis, and his refreshingly simplistic and holistic approach to the Gospel, the understanding of Saint Francis’ impact on the Church is even more significant for us today. In fact, one might say that this impact is being felt even more in our time than it was when Francis walked the earth.
Sweeney has created a very accessible and understandable book in the structure in which he has chosen to present it. In three parts, he tells the story of Francis in a realistic and demythologized manner.
Part One: A New Look at Francis
In order to clear the air, Sweeney immediately puts to rest some of the myths and misconceptions about Francis and reveals who he really was. It is much easier to relate to a man than a statue, and it is quite possible that this is the point at which the myths began. There is no real commitment to be made in following a fantasy. But to learn and follow the actions of a man is something that requires more than sentimentality.
So why is the life of a man living on the cusp of a world transitioning to modernity so significant to a culture awakening to the postmodern? Even more specifically, how is this particular segment of “Church” history important to the active work of Christ and a Church that seems to be evolving each day? In a powerful way, Sweeney reveals the deep significance of Francis’ life in the strikingly similar aspects of faith and the critical issues that he confronted within the Church and culture. It is one thing to see a historical figure’s impact on the past, but it is quite another to see that impact being made manifest in the present. The author makes this clear by immediately connecting Francis’ vision for 13th century Christianity with ours in the 21st. What the reader will realize is that the reality of his life and vision for the Church are just as relevant today as they were in his time. The very same problems that Francis confronted are many of the same problems that the postmodern Church faces today.
Part Two: Six Way Francis Quietly Created a Spiritual Vision for the Ages
Building on the deconstruction of some of the myths of St. Francis, Sweeney elaborates by focusing on his humanity. The reader will become familiar with Francis’ high regard for friendship and his all-inclusive holistic view of embracing all of humanity as a gift from God. Even before his conversion to Christianity, Francis had a love for others; a love that eventually found its roots in a friendship with God. Francis’ life was intertwined with friendships and this extended to all aspects of his life, faith and view of the natural world. The author elaborately describes how Francis not only embraced the familiar, but challenged his followers to also the reach out to the “others” of life, the marginalized within society and even the non-believers; most significantly Muslims.
Sweeney also illustrates how Francis’ spiritual vision embraced poverty and living a life that was radically different to the religious leaders of his time. These were the same religious leaders that he insisted did not have a special divine link to the spiritual, but that all people had access to a deeper and more fulfilling spiritual life. The practices of the spiritual were not religious mandates that only pious clergy were called to, but holistic disciplines that each human could live out.
Going further, the author touches on Francis’s natural view of humanity’s spiritual unity with nature and all living things. Francis saw that humanity was not only being called to love one another, but having the natural instinct to care and love nature and the living creatures that populated the earth. This was an active and fluid love that called for care, not simply sentimental emotions. There was a oneness in Francis’s vision to the created order as something to be embraced, a vision that he held to ever in the facing of his own death. Life, death and all of creation was not inherently evil to Francis, but a unity of life created by God in which each human is an intricate part of.
Part Three: Why Francis Matters Right Now
Sweeney concludes by connecting Francis’ vision for ministry and the Church to the here and now. As he does throughout the book, he reiterates that Francis is just as relevant for the post-modern Church as he was in his time. The revolutionary life that he lived is being lived today because of the spiritual simplicity of his message and his example that has transcended time and space. Sweeney calls the readers to reflect on their own “Francis”, in the radically unusual leadership of Pope Francis I. The author calls us to ask the difficult and urgent questions. Is the Church facing the same state of complacency that it faced in the time of Francis? Are we seeing the very beginnings of reforms and deep transformations that will “save” the Church of 2015? Are Christians asking the same questions and desiring the same refreshing wind that blew in the 13th century?
When Saint Francis Saved the Church is a book for anyone who finds themselves trying to find their place in the construct of the post-modern Church. Christianity faces many struggles and complex issues; calling pastors, leaders and the countless faithful who follow Christ to change the way we view the Church. The chaotic world in which we live is forcing us to take a fresh look at the Gospel message and the essential words that Christ has for the world. Francis saw and embraced a similar chaotic world and chose to return to the simplicity of God’s message for all of creation. Is it possible that the message has not changed, but only being rediscovered once again?
Peace and All Good Things!
You can connect with Jon on facebook, twitter or his blog AlmostCatholic.
You can connect with Jon on facebook, twitter or his blog AlmostCatholic.