The Newly Relevant Life of Saint Francis of Assisi

Earlier this month, Pope Francis made his first visit to Assisi, a small town in the hills of central Italy and birthplace of his namesake Saint Francis. Arriving in an open-aired pope-mobile in honor of the saint’s feast day and stopping to personally greet more than 100 disabled children in the chapel of a religious charitable institution, he practiced what his thirteenth-century predecessor preached.

When Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Argentina was elected in March following the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, he announced that he would take the name of the saint beloved for his humility and generosity, usually depicted in a rough robe with a rope for a belt and bare feet. The man intent on Vatican reform in the wake of a scandalized church has urged his fellow Christians to live simply and care for the poor.

That message, gleaned from the life of Francesco di Bernardone (1181–1226), better known as St. Francis of Assisi, is both a breath of fresh air and a timely point of entry back into the exploration of his life.

Online visits to the live webcam on the saint’s tomb recently tallied more than 18 million hits, according to The New York Times, and last month's paperback publication of Francis of Assisi: The Life by Augustine Thompson, O.P. offers a fresh perspective that goes beyond the hagiographic legend of the saint.

Thompson, a Dominican priest and professor of history at the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology at the Graduate Theological Union at the University of California, Berkeley, is focused on the facts and chronology of his subject’s life. Evidence shows that the saint’s life was characterized by contradiction. Born into wealth, he stripped naked before the bishop in a declaration of poverty, associated closely with lepers, and forsook family ties in dedicating his life to God the Father as a young man.

Thompson’s strong handle on the circumstances of medieval Italy, from its laws to details of daily life, provides a broad backdrop for reconsidering this rich and influential life. Against it, as in recent photos depicting the Pope’s visit to Assisi, the saint’s simple moments of connection -- with animals, nature, and the poorest of the poor -- create a favorable and long-lasting impression.