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G.K. Chesterton’s St. Francis of Assisi

CHRISTIAN CLASSICS REVISITED

By James J. Thompson Jr. | October 1984

For many years, I resisted the spell cast by St. Francis of Assisi; at times, I even felt a sharp antip­athy for the Little Poor Man — Il Poverello — of the 13th century. In the 1960s and 1970s, he kept turning up in the oddest of places accompanied by a motley and sometimes villainous crew, many of whom scoffed at the very idea of Christian sancti­ty.

The tatterdemalion hippie armies of the 1960s delighted in Francis’s barefooted affront to propriety and decorum; hailed by some as the first hippie, his name circulated among people more at­tuned to the salvation promised by Timothy Leary than to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. A colorful array of cranks and crackpots, agitators and expostula­tes cavorting on the left side of the fence borrow­ed St. Francis’s name to lend holy authority to their schemes.

Moreover, certain slightly askew environmen­talists, the kind who not only talk to trees but ex­pect a reply, spotted in St. Francis enough goofiness to make him a kindred spirit. And, of course, sentimentalists have habitually memorialized the saint who preached to the birds by erecting plaster statues of him in pet cemeteries in places as im­probable as rural Tennessee.

Catholics of dubious conviction applauded St. Francis for his antagonism to institutionalism and used him to combat the defenders of Church au­thority. Protestants loved him in spite of his Ca­tholicism, humanists in spite of his Christianity; ev­en atheists professed to admire him. Faced with this babel, I decided that while St. Francis might have been a fool for Christ, those who bandied his name about were merely fools.

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