9 June 2013
Let us not imagine that saints are free from the vicissitudes common to human life, which includes moments of happiness and frustration, dangerous temptations and courageous stands. It was no different with Saint Francis, portrayed as «the always happy brother», courteous, who lived a mystical union with all creatures, whom he considered his brothers and sisters. But at the same time, he was a person of great passions and profound rage when he saw his ideals betrayed by his brothers. His foremost biographer, Friar Tommaso da Celano, described with cruel realism that Francis suffered temptations of «violent lust», that he knew how to symbolically sublimate.
There is, however, a fact that pious Franciscan historiography hides, but that is well documented by historical critique, and that is known as «the great temptation». The last five years of Francis' life (he died in 1226) were marked by deep anguish, almost desperation, and the grave illnesses that afflicted him, such as malaria and blindness. The problem was objective: his ideal of life was to live in extreme poverty and radical simplicity, divested of all power, and sustained only by the Gospel read to him without the interpretation that often shroud its revolutionary meaning.
As it happened, in a few years his lifestyle captivated thousands of followers, more than five thousand. How to shelter them? How to feed them? Many were priests and theologians, such as Saint Anthony. His movement had neither structure nor legality. It was purely a dream taken seriously. Francis understood himself as a «novellus pazzus», a «new madman» that God wanted for the very wealthy Church, led by Pope Innocence III, the most powerful of all popes throughout history.
Beginning in the Summer of 1220, he wrote several versions of a rule that were all rejected by the gatherings of the fraternity. They were too utopic. Frustrated and feeling useless, he decided to renounce leadership of the movement. Filled with anguish and without knowing what else to do, he found refuge in the woods for two years, visited only by his intimate friend friar Leo. He waited for a divine illumination that would not come. Meanwhile, a rule was drafted that was marked by the influence of the Roman Curia and the Pope, turning the movement into a religious order: the Order of Friars Minor, with defined structure and purposes. Francis, with pain, humbly accepted it. But he clearly stated that he would no longer discuss it, but would continue giving examples of the primitive dream. Law triumphed over life, power confined charisma. But the spirit of Francis remained: the spirit of poverty, of simplicity, of universal brotherhood that inspires us to this day. Francis died amidst great personal frustration, but without losing his happiness. He died singing Provencal songs of love and the psalms.
Francis of Rome will surely face his own «great temptation», no less than the one of Francis of Assisi. He has to reform the Roman Curia, an institution that is about one thousand years old. In it, the sacred power (sacra potestas) has fossilized into an administrative structure. At any rate, it is a question of administering an institution with a population as large as China's: one billion, two hundred million Catholics. But one must immediately be warned: it is difficult for love and mercy to co-exist with power. It is an empire of doctrine, law and order, that by its nature includes or excludes, approves or condemns.
Where there is power, above all in an absolutist monarchy such as the Vatican State, there always arise anti-power intrigues, career climbers, and power disputes. Thomas Hobbes in his famous Leviatan (1651) saw it clearly: «power can not be guaranteed other than by seeking more and more power». Francis of Rome, presently the local bishop and Pope, must intervene in that power, marked by a thousand tricks, and sometimes, by corruption. We know from previous Popes who also proposed to reform the Curia, the resistance and frustrations they had to endure, including suspicion of the physical elimination of a Pope by people of the ecclesiastic administration. Francis of Rome has the spirit of Francis of Assisi: he is for poverty, simplicity and relinquishing power. But fortunately, he is a Jesuit, with a different background, and endowed with the famous "discernment of spirits" of the Jesuit Order. Francis of Rome manifests an explicit tenderness in everything he does, but he can also show an unusual vigor, as befits a Pope with the mission of restoring the morally bankrupt Church.
Francis of Assisi had a few advisors, dreamers like himself, who did not know how to help him. Francis of Rome has surrounded himself with advisors chosen from every continent, persons of age, that is, with experience in the exercise of the sacred power. This Pope must acquire a different profile: one that is more nearly of service than command, more divested of than adorned with the symbols of palatial power, with more of the "flavor of the lamb" than the perfume of the flowers of the altar. The carrier of the sacred power must be a pastor before he is the carrier of ecclesiastic authority; he must preside more in charity and less with canonical right, he must be brother among his brothers, but with different responsibilities.
Will Francis of Rome face his «great temptation» inspired by his namesake of Assisi? I believe he will know how to have a firm hand and that he will not lack the courage to follow what his "discernment of spirit" dictates is necessary to effectively restore the credibility of the Church, and return the fascination with the figure of Jesus of Nazareth.