The Pope and the Saint and the Movies

There’s a new documentary film about Pope Francis, by the respected filmmaker Wim Wenders.  It caught my interest because a review mentioned that it incorporated scenes from the life of St. Francis – not just still images but little dramatizations. The reviewer wasn’t impressed. “These papal indulgences start as a novelty and quickly come to seem precious and derivative,” wrote Ty Burr of the Boston Globe. “You’re better off with Roberto Rossellini’s 1950 ‘The Flowers of St. Francis.’” But Burr spoke well of the film on the whole, so I went to see for myself.

What Wenders has done is to shape the movie loosely around the life of Francis, drawing parallels between the pope and the saint. He has a light touch – he doesn’t claim that the pope imitates the saint in every particular. But since the pope has taken the saint as a model, it makes sense to think about how that works.

There are five themes: the life of Saint Francis; poverty; nature and ecology; interfaith relations; and everything else. On the whole the structure works well, I think. The scenes from the life of the saint are interspersed with footage of the pope’s actions and with excerpts from detailed interviews with him. I found the sequence on poverty – or, to make it less abstract, on people who are poor – particularly effective and affecting.

There were a few things, though, that I found cringe-inducing, questionable, or just wrong. And yes, I’m inclined to agree with the reviewer about the scenes of the saint.

The film first presents St. Francis as a “revolutionary” who offers an answer to the question of how we are to live. Then it focuses on the call to Francis to “restore my house…” and if you know the story, you know that the call continues, “which as you see is falling into ruin.” Wenders doesn’t hit us over the head with that – at least not until later. Still, the voiceover solemnly intones that “Francis took the gospel seriously.” That makes me cringe a bit – does it imply that no one else did, or does? I’d argue that you can take the gospel “seriously” without following the Franciscan way. Consider Benedict or Bonhoeffer or Dostoevsky or  Flannery O’Connor. But all right, the point is made that Pope Francis might bring renewal, if not revolution, to the Roman Catholic Church.

Next, the film dwells on poverty. We’ve heard a summary of the story of Saint Francis by this time, so we understand how he embraced it. As I said, I found this segment very affecting. The pope asks if we can all be “a little bit poorer” – not a revolutionary notion, but a pragmatic one. (Or maybe it is revolutionary after all, for some people.) He recommends “a poor church for the poor.” He suggests that the Curia engage in some self-criticism, and the film emphasizes this point by letting the camera linger on sour-looking, sleepy, elaborately garbed cardinals. The viewer could also read this sequence as an indictment of corruption or of the church as institution. But to return to poverty: there are many scenes of Pope Francis’s travels in the developing world, with huge crowds of ordinary people turning out for him: very powerful images. Even more powerful, when the theme turns to ecology and environment, is the footage of people picking over enormous trash heaps.

Nature and ecology are the next theme. The voiceover says that the world was “stunned” by the encyclical Laudato sí. The pope affirms science and notes some ideas that bear repeating, although they are not news – that the creation story in Genesis isn’t meant to be a scientific account, and that the promise of “dominion” implies knowledge and care, not heedless exploitation.

We then turn to Francis and his love of the natural world. Here, I think, the scenes from the life of St. Francis go off the rails. We see Francis sitting at a little desk in the middle of the wilderness, allegedly composing the “Canticle of the Sun.” He gazes upward as if for inspiration, scribbles down a few words on a piece of paper, and returns to his soulful gazing. This, I’m afraid, is nonsense. The best evidence is that the Canticle was oral before it was written. Besides, it’s a sentimental depiction of the writing process, and there’s that inexplicable outdoor desk. Oh, dear.

There follows part of an interview in which the pope reflects on the ways in which Francis represented Christ – as one who listened, who engaged in dialogue, who had patience with human frailty. The film then touches on various gestures of solidarity and concern from the pope – with gays, children, Holocaust victims, refugees – and returns to the story of the saint in connection with Christian-Muslim relations. It sketches Francis’s journey to visit the Sultan, carefully noting that we don’t know what they said to each other, but emphasizing peace and mutual learning. (There is, unfortunately, a historical error despite the filmmakers’ care: the story of Francis and the Sultan takes place in Egypt, not in the Holy Land.) Then the scene shifts to the pope’s visit to the Holy Land and the Dome of the Rock.

The film goes on to show an interfaith ceremony in Assisi and implies that Saint Francis would have been glad to see it. I’m not so sure. He was, after all, a man of his time and place, and pluralism was not really a live concept then. Francis was a follower of the Christian gospel, not of Enlightenment reason or alternative spiritualities. Still, I think his example of direct, respectful conversation with Muslims – when his countrymen were setting out to kill them – is a very important and powerful one. And today, many religious people acknowledge pluralism in a way that was not available to Francis. Pope Francis works within that reality in a way that I think is appropriate and generous.

Despite my quibbles, I think this is a terrific film. The live footage is stunning. And I think Wenders was right to stay in the realm of generalities and not to push too hard for exact or detailed parallels.

Because – precisely – he shows the ways Pope Francis “takes the gospel seriously” for our time.

And postscript: I think it’s really interesting that the credits list a “bird trainer.”

More folklore

Another spurious quote has surfaced in not one, but two books that I’ve read recently. Both are examples of contemporary spiritual writing.

Both claim that Francis said, “Start by doing what is necessary, then do what’s possible, and suddenly you are doing the impossible.”

I first ran across the quotation in Jana Riess’s well-received Flunking Sainthood (Paraclete, 2011). It appears as a sidebar (page 15) in a chapter on fasting, so it’s apposite. But apparently no one checked its authenticity. What I find especially troubling is that the book is about reading – paying attention to written texts. In that context, you would think that the author and her editors would take particular care to verify their sources. Here, they apparently didn’t. Its presence also makes me wonder whether the author has actually read much of Francis. I’d like to think that if she had, she would find this little text suspect in the first place.

Then I saw it again in Anne Lamott’s latest, Hallelujah Anyway (Riverhead, 2017). She uses it to structure the essay “Planes,” which is about listening and trusting, moving with others to deeper spiritual “planes” (see especially pages 110, 112, and 116-17). In the process, she expands on the quote: for example, “St. Francis said we begin with what is necessary: water, food, shade, and a way in.” Shade and a way in? When did Francis say that? What she seems to mean is that those things were necessary in the situation she is writing about – a desert village in need. But her sentence ties them directly to Francis. Here again, the topic is apposite; it’s the attribution that is off base.

I haven’t yet traced the origins of the quote. A quick Web search shows that it’s very widespread, turning up in (among other places) the Obama White House, the Friends Committee on National Legislation, a Catholic high school, and the Congressional Record. The earliest citation I found was the Reader’s Digest in 1987. I wouldn’t consider that the last word, but it does show that the saying has been around for a while. The saying also bears a spooky resemblance to the motto of the U. S. Army Service Forces: “The difficult we do immediately. The impossible takes a little longer.”

I’ll continue to watch for its origins, and I’d welcome any information from readers. My best guesses are that (a) it’s a recent aphorism that got connected to Francis through a folk process; or (b) it appeared in a work of fiction about Francis and was received as authentic; or (c) it’s a deliberate invention, probably with the best of intentions.

But does it matter? Here is what I would like to say to the authors:

Why should I trust your spiritual insights if you can’t get your facts straight? How do I know that you’re telling the truth about spiritual things, which can’t be independently verified, if you’re not telling the truth about things that can be verified? She who is faithful in little is faithful also in much.


Blessing the police animals

Happy St. Francis day, everyone. The Boston Globe this morning features a striking picture of a priest in his vestments beside a line of uniformed police officers on horseback, all glowing in the golden October sun. The priest is a chaplain to the Massachusetts State Police, and he has been blessing the animals – the state police horses and dogs.

This is a marvelous mashup of church, state, and unaffiliated religion. Here are public functionaries, state employees, participating in a religious ceremony conducted by a formally ordained leader from an organized religious body. That’s not unheard of, of course: even Congress opens with prayers. But it still raises a little tension around the First Amendment. Does it point to establishment of religion? I take the priest to be a Roman Catholic, but there is no indication that all the human participants were Catholics – or Christians, or any kind of believers. On the other hand, there’s nothing to say that the blessing couldn’t have been performed by a Protestant or a Jew, for example.

But the rationale is not framed in religious terms at all. It’s presented in terms of the human-animal bond. The commander of the State Police Mounted Unit says that the blessing “served to strengthen the ties between the animals and their troopers and officers” and also “highlight[s] the importance of animals in police work.” “It really makes that bond with your horse and dog just that much stronger,” she said. “Even if you’re not someone who goes to church, just knowing that your animal was blessed brings back that connection.” (By “that connection,” I think she means the connection between human and animal, not the connection between individual and church.)

I’ve suggested elsewhere that the popularity of animal blessings arises in part from a need to recognize and affirm the human-animal bond — not so much an institutional need as an urge that many individual people feel. In developed countries, this need has grown in the last fifty years or so: companion animals have taken on more importance, while everyday contact with working or wild animals has diminished. Here is more evidence for that thesis.

But the sergeant’s comments also provide a hedge against religious meaning – which may be a necessary caution in the public realm. The real effect of the blessing, she says, is on humans. She doesn’t claim that the blessing affects the animal.  Instead, “knowing that your animal was blessed” — the human’s knowledge — is what matters.

There’s also room for “spiritual but not religious” people here. I’d speculate that this event is another example of the idea of blessing as transaction. It’s a circumscribed action without further commitment on either side. If you bring your animal to receive a blessing, you may feel that the blessing has some kind of numinous power – whether divine or holy or just “spiritual,” as the Globe’s photo caption puts it. You may feel that it provide some kind of strength or protection to your animal. But you don’t have to go any further than that – belong to a community or think about the nature of the divine being or anything. Nor does the community ask anything further of you.

And Francis? He wasn’t a big fan of worldly authority figures, but he didn’t go out of his way to reject them, either.  And he paid attention to all kinds of animalswild and domestic, working and merely beautiful.  He’d probably have kind words for a police horse.



Summer of Love

An observant reader, John Bergren, recently questioned my interpretation of Bob Schnepf’s “Summer of Love” poster, which features St. Francis. I’d like to show you an image of the poster, but I don’t have copyright permission to reproduce it here. You can see it in my book on page 119 – but only in black and white, which makes a difference, as we’ll see. There is also a copy on display right now in the de Young Museum in San Francisco; it’s reproduced here and in this article. And read on for another version.

You can read his (very kind) critique on the “About” page of this blog, but the essential point is this:

I was attracted to [this poster] because of its expansive, universal view of St. Francis. Your text seems to miss the main point of the poster: St. Francis and the wolf are presented as a constellation in a starry sky, a la Perseus or Casseopia. The stars form the outline as well as the stigmata of Francis. His head is depicted as the milky way, not just an inkblot as the text indicates. I loved your book, but felt compelled to point this out…

Clearly this required some thought. My first stop was the library. I first encountered the image there, in a facsimile edition of the San Francisco Oracle, an alternative periodical of the late 1960s. That image was the basis of my description:

It [the poster] depicted a stigmatized St. Francis on a background of psychedelic colors: red, hot pink, and deep yellow. Francis stands with his arms extended, with the stigmata clearly visible in his hands and feet. His face is obscured by an irregular inkblot. … (p. 118)

Looking at it again, I can see the stars. I think they are ambiguous, though. For one thing, they’re printed in color, a darkish blue. Then the most conspicuous ones, with the clearest star shapes, appear on Francis’s hands and one foot, which is why they read, to me, as glorified stigmata. (Their presence is interesting in itself, because many non-Catholics have been uneasy about the stigmata.) Other star shapes in the image – around the perimeters of the figures of Francis and the wolf – are a bit blurred, and the smaller, more distant “stars” just read as dots, and dark blue dots at that. All this, perhaps, is why I didn’t see a constellation. And Francis’s face still looks like a blur, a flat, undifferentiated swath of color. This excerpt shows what I mean:


The key to the problem is that the de Young is showing a different version of the image. Theirs is of white figures on a purplish ground with a narrow orange border. The lettering announcing the Summer of Love is in orange, while the lettering of the prayer is white. With its simpler color and finer resolution, this image makes the galaxy at Francis’s head quite visible. Incidentally, I found this image in the library, too, in the very fine catalog just published for the de Young exhibit; see p. 122.

If my correspondent is right – and I think he is – there is a whole new dimension to the poster. Not only does it signify peace and cheerful poverty and self-sacrifice, it makes Francis a cosmic figure. His body is a part of the cosmos; it emerges from it, rests in it, is revealed in it. In this way Schnepf’s poster parallels Nancy Earle’s more recent painting – the one on the cover of my book – in which, again, Francis’s body is melded with the cosmos, the earth and stars are visible in and through him.

As a side note, the constellation is actually fairly clear in the book illustration, ironically enough. Since the illustration is printed in grayscale, we see lines and figures, but we don’t see a multicolored background. So the starry sky is more visible as a whole. On the other hand, the stars register as black.

To make sure I understand this story correctly, I’d like to consult the artist and the museum curator(s). But right now, I think John Bergren is right, and I thank him for pointing it out to me.

The lessons here are two, or perhaps three:

1. Scholarship is a process. A work of research is always open to correction or alternative interpretation.

2. This correction shows why it’s important for the researcher to check the original sources and not rely entirely on secondary sources.

3. This situation is also why some grantmaking agency should give me funding so that I can travel to San Francisco and see the originals.


The San Francisco Oracle, Facsimile Edition, edited by Allen Cohen (Berkeley: Regent Press, 1991)
Jill D’Alessandro and Colleen Terry, Summer of Love: Art, Fashion, and Rock and Roll (San Francisco: Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco; Oakland: University of California press, [2017])

A new movie: the Francis for our time?

Recently I was invited to a screening of a new movie about St. Francis – The Sultan and the Saint, a docudrama about Francis’s visit to the Sultan of Egypt during the fifth crusade. As we know, social groups construct St. Francis in many and various ways, according to the needs of the historical moment. And now I see this construction happening before my very eyes! Will this be the St. Francis for our age – the Brother Sun, Sister Moon of the early twenty-first century?

If so, it’s in the very best of causes. The producer is the Unity Productions Foundation, whose goal is to “counter bigotry and create peace through the media.” Their films are “part of long-term educational campaigns aimed at increasing understanding among people of different faiths and cultures, especially among Muslims and other faiths.” So the intent of the film seems to be to promote peace and understanding between Muslims and Christians. I’m in favor of that; we need more of it. But in this case, it relies on a fairly tenuous reading of the sources.

(Let me hasten to say that I certainly don’t think the historical record about Francis justifies an adversarial or violent relationship between Christians and Muslims. In no way am I advocating for any anti-Muslim sentiment, nor for any anti-Christian sentiment.)

I haven’t seen the movie yet. I can see that the producers consulted very reputable academics for background (although there are some surprising omissions as well, at least in the publicity materials.) On the other hand, I’ve already spotted some anachronisms. The website says that the early Franciscans practiced “nonviolence” – a twentieth-century term and philosophy. And the trailer contains a real howler. It has Francis proclaiming that God intended us to be “instruments of his peace.” For those who haven’t read my book, or the other sources that explain this – the lovely prayer about making us instruments of God’s peace does not come from Francis, but from anonymous twentieth-century sources.

The trailer is also heavy on scenes of violence. Is this for realism and context, or is it to attract mass audiences? Of course, attracting mass audiences might not be a bad idea. As I understand it, the largest numbers of moviegoers are young men, and they often seek out films featuring violence and conflict. Perhaps they are the people who most need to hear a message of peace.

One of the consultants to the movie is Paul Moses. A few years ago, Moses published a book and a number of articles promoting the idea that the encounter between Francis and the Sultan was an early model of peaceful interfaith dialogue (The Saint and the Sultan, Doubleday, 2009). Moses is a distinguished journalist, but not a historian by profession. He recognizes that “interfaith dialogue” is a concept of our time, not Francis’s, and he acknowledges that not all textual sources are equally reliable. Still, as a good journalist, he seems unable to resist telling a good story. He weaves these not-entirely-reliable sources into a compelling narrative in which it’s not always clear where the sources end and imagination begins. Naïve readers, and sympathetic readers, will probably omit the assessment of sources and just remember the story.

Between the book and this movie, I expect to see that story widely repeated as “truth” over the next few years or decades.

For a more nuanced account, readers should look at the introduction of John Tolan’s Saint Francis and the Sultan (Oxford, 2009). Tolan explains clearly what we can and can’t know about this incident, and he is also instructive about what the few surviving primary sources meant in their own context. Readers might also want to note Lawrence Cunningham’s review of Moses’s book, in which he notes that Moses’s idea of Francis still lies under “the long shadow of Sabatier,” the landmark work in modern liberal visions of Francis (America, November 2, 2009).

The main purpose of Tolan’s book was to lay out the diverse ways the incident of Francis and the Sultan has been interpreted over time, and to what purposes. For early Franciscans the story was part of an argument about the purpose of the order. For nineteenth-century Europe, it was about mission and colonialism. In the mid-twentieth century it was about international peace and interpersonal nonviolence, a subject that my book takes up in more detail. The movie’s angle of vision – interfaith encounter – has been around in some form since at least the 1960s, but it really became prominent after 2001.

So, will this be the Zeitgeist movie, the Brother Sun, Sister Moon for our age? We’ll see. When I watched Brother Sun, Sister Moon a few years ago, I found it was better than I expected it to be.


St. Francis statue stolen

My local newspaper, the Daily Hampshire Gazette, recently reported on the theft of a statue of St. Francis from the grounds a local Roman Catholic church.The church is used only for offices these days, as the local diocese closed it in a wave of consolidations of Catholic parishes. The Gazette’s photo shows a statue that’s closer to a Protestant or popular styles than to a traditional Catholic one, a figure surrounded by animals and birds, not gazing at a cross or contemplating a skull. What’s even more remarkable is the story from a local resident who called for the statue’s return via a Facebook page. She told the Gazette that when her cat disappeared some years ago, she left a note in Francis’s flower basket asking for the saint’s help. An hour later, she passed that way again in the midst of a sunshower. The combination of sun and rain caused the statue to be surrounded by rainbows. The resident  associated this manifestation with the Rainbow Bridge story, a bit of folklore that circulates widely in print and on the Web. It says that the souls of deceased pets await the arrival of their human companions at the Rainbow Bridge, where human and animal pass over together into the next life.

It’s not clear whether she is a Catholic parishioner. Christian teaching in general does not affirm any afterlife for animals. Yet the Rainbow Bridge narrative provides comfort for many people, and it’s not limited to non-believers. The religious imagination – “religious” in the sense of concern with life, death, and our ultimate destiny – operates within organized religion as well as outside it.

By the way, the statue reappeared a few days later, wrapped in a plastic trash bag and leaning against a fence. Had it been there all along? Or did some sinner repent? Would that someone would return the lovely Frederick Warren Allen figure, long missing from Meerwood in New Hampshire.


Some interesting reading

Writers Read and The Campaign for the American Reader asked me what I’ve been reading lately. I found that a number of common themes emerged, without my having planned it that way – how we appropriate the past; how history and religion interpret the past; how we come to terms with our personal histories, especially later in life. And I found themes of exile and mystery and ambivalence, and of the particular complexities of women’s lives in disparate cultural settings. Click on the links for more.

Environmental theology before Pope Francis

The terrible events in Paris a few days ago now overshadow the upcoming conference on climate change in that city. Nonetheless, the problem of climate change is not going away, and we can still hope for some fruitful if somber discussion. In that context, Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato Si’ will call for renewed attention. It’s an influential statement and a thoughtful, nuanced document.

But some of what he had to say was not really new. Protestant theologians were discussing similar issues back in the 1960s, often in similar terms. Read more about that conversation in this blog post for the University of North Carolina Press.

The blessing of the animals: why?

Blessings of the animals have become a tradition in many churches. A generation of young adults has grown up with them. And yet this tradition is relatively new. It does have some earlier antecedents, but in its current form, and as a Protestant practice, it’s only thirty years old or so. I’ve wondered why it caught on so quickly, why Protestants find it a good idea, and what kind of “cultural work” it does. Here is a short column that considers these questions. For more, see the book, of course.

Francis in the garden


St. Francis is often sighted in garden centers, so I thought it would be a good idea to have a book signing at one of them. My friend who owns a New Jersey garden center, Perennial Favorites, agreed. It was a beautiful day and we had a great crowd.

St. Francis garden statuary is largely a creation of the twentieth century, born of a historical matrix of landscape, housing patterns, spirituality, garden design, art, wealth, and social concerns. While it’s easy to dismiss garden statuary as a cliché, my research indicates that it has much deeper and more diverse meanings. It can be an expression of intention, a wish or a hope, an opening into a wider world, or a focal point for quiet meditation – itself a countercultural act in our increasingly noisy and hurried society. And for many people, as my friend pointed out, the garden statue is simply a reminder of a favorite spiritual hero or a person who was attuned to nature.