There is a point to the popular mythology about Saint Francis of Assisi. Obviously, the emasculated bard of the 1972 film Brother Sun, Sister Moon is a mostly insipid caricature. Saint Francis of Assisi was much more than an animal-loving peacenik with an odd haircut.
But the popular mythology is symbolic of the prevailing reality of Francis of Assisi: He lived a policy of joyful and intense engagement with the real world. He was a missionary disciple of Jesus Christ: alive, open, and convicted. He proclaimed the mercy of God, manifested in the incarnation of Christ His son, and he proclaimed our sinfulness. He was aware of our mortality, and he was aware of our eternal destiny.
Saint Francis was a poet, a pastor, and an evangelist: He stood before sultans and saints, beggars and bishops, and he preached Jesus Christ crucified. And Saint Francis lived a Gospel that was unnuanced, optimistic, and ceaselessly demanding. Saint Francis was the man who said that “pure joy” would come through being tossed from a monastery, left in the snow, denied, and abandoned. Some would say he was insane, a madman — others that he was a passionate Christian. I prefer the latter perspective.
But I think Saint Francis is reduced to a caricature to diminish the radical call of his life. It’s easier to recast the saint as a medieval flower child, preaching unbridled sentimentality, than it is to take seriously the witness of solidarity and fidelity he lived.
Pope Francis’s recently released apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, reflects the charism and dynamism of his namesake. The document sketches an expansive vision of the Church — joyful, missionary, and charitable.
Evangelii Gaudium does not present a new ecclesiology: We’ve long known that the Church is its mission. And the text upholds a hermeneutic of continuity with the historical doctrine of the Catholic faith. But what makes this text remarkable is its candor, breadth, and expectations. No one can read Evangelii Gaudium without being reminded of God’s love.
But like the Gospel that Saint Francis preached, Evangelii Gaudium is demanding. Anyone who reads it honestly will be convicted. The Holy Father unmasks the false rigidity, the relativism, the consumerism, and the complacency that hampers the Christian life. Evangelii Gaudium identifies the temptations and pitfalls of Christians, with insight garnered from decades in leadership. Only a pastor, and a very good one, could have written such a thing.