Reviewed by Eileen Quinn Knight, Ph.D.
In St. Francis Uncensored, Patrick Noonan provokes thoughts on how to indigenize Francis today, how to make Francis at home in all cultures. His method is both dialogical and reflective while challenging the reader to action. To those who claim to be followers of St. Francis, lay or religious, he throws a challenge. Be the Franciscans you claim to be. To leaders in Africa (and elsewhere) he argues that if the immense vision of Francis is accepted by ordinary people leadership will, in turn, be influenced to be more accountable and transparent to all citizens. When you open a book by Patrick Noonan you know you are going to be provoked. The author writes with a spontaneity and freshness that brings the real Francis of Assisi to the audience of today. Gone are the images of birdbaths and pious tales. Instead, the author draws on this own experience of a lifetime spent among the poorest of the poor in Apartheid South Africa to establish fascinating links between the thirteenth century and our own time. His description of Francis as a “loose cannon” making peace with the “Osama Bin Laden” of his day in the Middle East is a challenge to all of us as we face an ever-increasing sense of insecurity about peace in our world. The book essentially compares the new movement St. Francis started with the sort of activists we find today working among the poor of the world, and explores the image that St. Francis has among Muslims after his pastoral visit to Egypt in 1219. The second part of the book dealing with this topic deserves to be widely read, but so to do the other parts. It is a revisionist book with an emphasis on vision.
Father Noonan gives us important dates to incorporate into our knowledge/love of this book. He begins with 1182 when Francis was born to 1212 when Clare flees home to join the Franciscans to 1224 when Francis receives the stigmata on Mount La Verna to 1226 when Francis dies during the reign of King Louis IX of France. In the forward, he gives us a hint of what’s before us: Why is it that Islamists in Africa and the Middle East respect the brown Franciscan habit? (a friar just back from Kenya told me that in certain Islamic areas there he feels safe only when he’s wearing the habit) And how has the violence of Argentina in the 1970s influenced the thinking, and urgency of Pope Francis in his recent bestselling exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium? The author notes that Christ expected all Christians to be teachers and heralds of a better world. Christ expected Christians to be in the business of enthusiastically marketing His life, death, and resurrection as a sign of hope, peace, and salvation for the people of all times-including our own time. Francis set out on an unstoppable journey that would significantly expose him to people and events from every level of feudal society, from popes to paupers, from kings to knaves, from princes to peasants. The Francis of this book comes to us out of torrid family and civil relationships conditioned by ancient feuds, often bitter rivalries and intense tribal loyalties. The conflict areas of our present world show that things don’t change much.
The author notes that Francis and Clare lived the same call, but so equal in radicalism and passion, have fascinated men and women from every social, racial and cultural background over the past 800 years.
The social backgrounds of Francis and Clare, the political allegiances of their families was more like the wild west than the beautiful pictures of stained glass renditions. There was a power struggle between the wealthy business elite on the one side and the nobles on the other. Francis was now a political detainee in a dark stinking Perugian dungeon, while Clare and her family, newly arrived from Assisi, were uptown living in luxury and doing what nobles did at that time. The lives of the two families became the lives of a medieval soap-opera. There was a scandal similar to today’s scandal that invaded the Church. But Francis didn’t allow disloyalty, degenerate priests or corrupt bishops to separate him from the love of God or that of the Church. That’s the profound maturity found only in those living truly close to God and in a personal relationship with Jesus. It is worth remembering too that Francis didn’t ask God to be the founder of an Order. Neither did Clare. They didn’t ask to be born a few doors away from each other. God made it happen and led them to manage the consequences, come what might.
The next section deals with another interesting point of history: a fruit of Francis’s brief Islamic ministry in North Africa. After the Crusade campaigns, the Church was obliged to reassess its evangelizing strategies.
Military solutions had failed something else was needed. Something lasting and acceptable to all sides. Another way. In 1342 the Pope asked the Franciscans to be guardians of the holy places on behalf of Christendom. Today what creative hope would St. Francis bring to a world of Islamophobia Muslims.