The Last Franciscan

COMMENTARY: What St. Francis and Pope Francis are trying to show us.

“It has been said that there was only one Christian who died on the cross; it is truer to say, in this sense, that there was only one Franciscan, whose name was Francis.”

— G. K. Chesterton, St. Francis of Assisi, 1923


“You (Scalfari) did not ask me (Pope Francis) for a ranking of their (the saints) cultural and religious importance, but who is closer to my soul. So I’d say: Augustine and Francis.”

— Interview of Eugenio Scalfari with Pope Francis, La Repubblica, Oct. 1, 2013


Pope Francis brings the name of St. Francis to world attention. His visit to Assisi on Oct. 4, the feast of St. Francis, serves to emphasize both men. The greatest “secular” reminder of the saint from Assisi is probably the city of San Francisco itself. No doubt, the confluence of these names and cities is before us all. I would not be surprised if Pope Francis someday visits “our City by the Bay” — to recall the song about where we left our hearts.

Chesterton’s remark that there was only one Francis probably remains true. It was Nietzsche who said that the last Christian died on the cross. This remark was intended to be a slam at Christians who did not live up to Christ’s standards. But Christ came to save sinners. He did not expect to find a world in which the need for forgiveness was no longer urgent.

Certainly, Pope Francis today gives St. Francis a run for his money on being the “only Francis” that the world recognizes.

Several things about Chesterton’s book are worth recalling. He argued that the ancient pagan world had become so corrupted by symbols and myths of the gods that the only way to escape it was to retreat to the desert with the Egyptian Fathers like Anthony and let the world return to itself. Then, we could, when we saw a tree or fountain, say we saw a tree or a fountain, not some obscene myth. One cannot help but think that much in our modern world needs the same cleansing.

Chesterton also compared St. Francis and St. Dominic. He said that Dominic was successful in his war against the heretics, but the world hated him for it. Francis was a failure to incite people to live more simple lives, but the world loved him for it.

St. Paul said: “He who does not work neither let him eat.” This sounds like a cruel doctrine today. We hear talk of “rights” to food. When we think of poverty, something that the figure of Francis vividly recalls, we think of “the poor you will always have with you.”

It sometimes sounds like Christians want everyone to be poor so that they can have someone to take care of. Modern politicians have understood quite well that helping the poor is also a claim for more government, supposedly the chief instrument to meet this problem.

The history of the Franciscan order is torn by controversy over how poor we should be, both how poor monks should be and how poor or not poor everyone else should be. The Church, finally, at one point, had to insist that monks should have at least something to ground their community in. They could not be so absolutely poor that they had nothing and gave away what they received. No vow was intended to deny the reality of human nature and its ordinary necessities.

I was in the city of Assisi once. In those days, it was famous for its communist voting record. One of the great instruments in creating poverty is certainly the modern communist parties. But communism prided itself on being a way out of poverty, not a way to create it.

If we think of poverty as something that we ought to reduce, if not eliminate, there are many ideas and institutions that will not work to this purpose. If we really want to be poor, we should not envy those who are wealthier than we are. The connection of wealth, poverty and envy has been studied, but, I suspect, not closely enough.

St. Francis calls our attention to voluntary poverty, the poverty that chooses without envy to look at the higher things, the things that cannot be bought with wealth anyhow. It is not true that a rich man cannot get to heaven. It is true that he probably has a tougher row to hoe. Nor is it true that a poor man cannot lose his soul. Augustine was quite clear on this. What is true is that the riches of the world were given to us for our well-being. But we do not know, often, how this comes about until we work on it, understand it and know what we are.

A recent essay in The Economist pointed out that, in fact, most of the world’s historically poor countries are getting richer, often quite rapidly. I have never quite understood just why modern discussions of poverty, especially religious discussions, seldom seem to broach the question of “how not to be poor.” The simple and naive answer is always “because the rich are rich.” This mentality next concludes that we must “redistribute” existing wealth.

The problem is envy, the “gap” between rich and poor. Whenever this approach is tried on a national or world scale, the result is usually control by the absolute state that decided who gets what.

We do not think of ideas, creativity or innovations that are the real engines of wealth production, the kind that enables everyone to be richer. We will never get, nor do we want, a world in which everyone has exactly the same thing. This is the famous socialist ideal.

We have to recognize that we need to reward those who actually do make things better and, yes, punish those who make them worse. Instead, what we often do with the poor is to put them in government hands. This compounds things by making them worse.

Francis of Assisi, too, is noted for his love of nature, for the doves that seemed to hover over him. Yet we have developed a love of nature that sets it off against man’s presence on earth. Man is as much at home in this world as the birds and fishes, except, of course, for one thing. He not only has “dominion” over the earth, but the earth is not his final home.

If we see poverty, love of nature or wealth, for that matter, as somehow designed to make us fully at home in the world, we will have missed what St. Francis and Pope Francis are really telling us — the words are the Pope’s to Eugenio Scalfari: “From my point of view, God is the light that illuminates the darkness, even if it does not dissolve it, and as a spark of Divine light is in each of us, our species will end, but the light of God will not; and at that point, it will invade all souls, and it will all be in everyone.”

Jesuit Father James Schall retired from teaching

political philosophy at Georgetown University in 2012.

A prolific essayist and author, his latest book is

Remembering Belloc (St. Augustine Press).