Reclaiming Francis, How the Saint  and the Pope are Renewing the Church. (Book Review)

Charles M. Murphy.
Ave Maria Press/Alban Books

This looked an ambitious book so early in the papacy of Francis. However, the American author explained its context: his original manuscript on St. Francis of Assisi (1182-1226) and the new evangelisation, written just before the election of Pope Francis (Preface). A short book (142 pages), it is divided into two main parts: (1) similarities between St. Francis’ world and ours in relation to the challenge of evangelisation; (2) a programme to achieve this evangelisation, founded on St. Francis. In part two, each of the six chapters concludes with “contemporary applications.”

Chapter 9, Love Of Peace Among All Peoples and Religions, relating to St. Francis, Sultan Al-Kamil and Islam, was particularly interesting. We admire Francis’ courage and message of peace communicated largely by his counter-cultural example of a life of poverty, compassion and non-violence. We hear of the Sultan and Francis forming an instant bond and engaging in religious dialogue for eleven days! We’re reminded of Francis’ priority of witness over words. We note that Francis seems to have been enriched by his encounter with Islam. Subsequently in Contemporary Applications the author helpfully summarizes the five actions of Islam. One wonders how St. Francis might have approached the current threat of the Islamic State movement?

Mgr. Murphy quite rightly recognises the need for the so-called “new evangelisation” to be more through conversation, dialogue, and affirmation rather than through confrontation and argument (page 2). I believe our Church has much work to do in adopting this particular Gospel mind and heart-set in relation to those within and outside its membership. Mgr. Murphy accurately identifies the heart of any authentic evangelisation: beauty (page 101). He quotes from the Synod of Bishops on the New Evangelisation: Beauty attracts us to love, through which God reveals to us his face. I understand this to be part of the “secret” of Jesus of Nazareth and His attraction: Jesus sees beauty especially in His sisters and brothers who are poor, marginalised, despised and labelled “sinners”, and then crucially unmasks and reflects their great beauty back to them.

Mgr. Murphy cites Blessed Charles de Foucauld (the French hermit who lived among Muslims in Algeria) as embodying the spirituality of presence: simply being a Christian – without preaching … the tremendous value of personal contact across ethnic and religious lines. This is followed up with a powerful narrative concerning Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman, illustrating the new way of evangelisation. Both St. Francis and Pope Francis are hugely challenging. I uncomfortably identify with Murray Bodo’s self-assessment of his Franciscan vocation (pages 86-87): my own living of the charism of St. Francis has shrunk to shocking proportions (while still recalling God’s great love for him in his weakness). I wish the author had included more information on, and some critical assessment of Pope Francis’ life and achievements before his papal election and any parallels with that of St. Francis. One example: Pope Francis painfully learned from autocratic tendencies in his religious leadership of earlier years. This admirable learning seems to be influential in Pope Francis. It has potentially major consequences for the Church, should it effectively navigate towards replacing a monarchical model with a truly collegial model of service-leadership. The author does not explicitly share any opinions on such important issues (not inseparable from new evangelisation).

I did not find some of the “Contemporary Applications” convincing and more “all-embracing” in terms of evangelisation, but rather something of a hang-over from the previous two papacies which tended to “cater” for a more traditionalist audience. Mgr. Murphy implicitly and correctly distinguishes between “maintenance” and “evangelisation” (page 62). I like his preferred definition of “the Church” as a “movement” (page 62). Personally, I have reservations concerning the term “new” evangelisation.

Both St Francis and Pope Francis have the gift to set people’s hearts on fire. However, valuable as this book is, somehow or other it did not set my heart on fire. It is interesting but somewhat premature to compare and align the remarkable achievements and influences of St. Francis, during his lifetime and in the subsequent eight centuries, in renewing the Church with that of Pope Francis. This Pope is in the early stages of his papacy. We do not know if his positive influence will be short lived, extensive or diluted (parallels with the post Vatican II Church?). Nevertheless, we live in a time of “great expectations,” stimulated by the election of Pope Francis, two of whose particular role-models are St. Francis and Pope Saint John XXIII (initiator of the Second Vatican Council and a Secular Franciscan). Pope Paul VI expresses a perennial truth: people today listen more to witnesses than to teachers (page 4). This book is a positive contribution to “great expectations.”

● Kieran Fitzsimons ofm

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