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Book Review: How You Can Meet the Real Francis of Assisi

Franciscan Catechism: Progressives’ Fake News on the Saint from Assisi
Guido Vignelli
Chorabooks
164 pages
$15.61 paperback, $7.80 e-book

If the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the name “Francis” is perhaps not quite the same as it used to be, perhaps a quick read of Guido Vignelli’s Franciscan Catechism: Progressives’ Fake News on the Saint from Assisi (ChoraBooks, 2019, more info here) will be just the thing to restore true Franciscan peace to your heart this summer, with its clear and concise teaching about the truth and witness of the great mendicant saint of Assisi.

The “Q and A” style of this book is straightforward and easy to read: it presents a series of questions about Saint Francis and answers them with “just the facts” about the life of the Poverello, along with a series of blunt assessments about the present state of the Church and a sprinkling of humor. Just a brief scan down the table of contents shows where this little catechism is going with its argument. Was St. Francis a pacifist? Was St. Francis an “ecumenist”? Was St. Francis a friend of Islam? Was St. Francis an ecologist? and so on. The fact-based answers given to each of these questions will leave the reader not only with a substantial amount of historical knowledge of the life of Francis of Assisi, but also the ability to explain to others that the popular image of St. Francis as all of the above is simply, well, not in accord with reality, like many other aspects of ecclesiastical life today.

The opening response to a question about how to understand the saints offers a concise summary of Vignelli’s worldview and “churchview”:

The Christian message is currently being subjected to falsification, promoted by the “spirit of the world” and its subversive agents both inside and outside the Church. When they are unable to slander the figures of the saints, they at least try to diminish their supernatural value[.] … [S]ome of the saints are often falsified in order to spread an evangelical message that conflicts with the truth.

Furthermore, Vignelli maintains:

The most serious case of the falsification of a saint is certainly that of the very well-known son of Pietro di Bernardone[.] … For almost a century, his figure has been distorted by a kind of conspiracy that has taken shape in all sorts of mass media[.] … As a result, St. Francis has been presented to the wider public as though he were a “do-gooder,” a pacifist, an ecumenist, a revolutionary, egalitarian, permissive, and an enemy of culture and civilization.

Vignelli proceeds, point by point, to show the truth of his assertion by a rigorous presentation of the facts of the life of Saint Francis. Francis was no soft, sentimental, permissive person, but rather one who fought manfully against error and sin, who lived a virile and austere life, who rebuked sinners and boldly called men to repentance and penance. There is an abundance of quotations from the primary sources about the life of Saint Francis, the various biographies of the saint that were written contemporaneously with his life or shortly after his death by those who knew him, and also Francis’s own letters to the faithful. Vignelli draws on other more modern studies and commentaries on the life of Francis, including the great G.K. Chesterton’s, as well as various Italian writers’.

From the Crusades to his approach to heretics and Islam, from submission to the Apostolic See to his profession of the Catholic faith in its entirety, if we gaze into Francis of Assisi’s life, we find reflected back a man completely of his age, fully alive and vibrant in his witness to Jesus Christ crucified and also fully Catholic in his faith and testimony. His focus on poverty always remained eminently spiritual, not merely material, a means to the end of coming close to Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Son of God. Vignelli notes that Saint Bonaventure recalled that Francis often said: “we do not need the salvation of bodies but rather that of souls.” Francis was also submissive to the pope and ecclesiastical authority, in contrast to many of the other would-be reformers of his day. Vignelli effectively demonstrates the fully Catholic nature of all of the Franciscan way of life, as well as the manifold effects of the Franciscan movement on the Church and society.

Vignelli offers an interesting study of the connection of the Franciscan Order to the Crusades and the Inquisition, as well as Francis’s clear intention to preach the faith to the Muslim peoples. Vignelli quotes the account of The First Life of St. Francis of Assisi by Tommaso da Celano, who recorded the explicit instructions Francis gave to his friars whom he sent to Morocco:

Jesus Christ has instructed me to send you to the Land of the Saracens, as sheep in the midst of wolves, in order to preach and confess His faith and confront the law of Muhammad. Thus, put yourselves in order to do the will of the Lord!

Vignelli also quotes a modern Egyptian scholar who notes how fitting it is that the custody of the Holy Places in Jerusalem was ultimately entrusted by the popes to the care of the Franciscan Order, thereby “reaping the inheritance of the Crusades” with their enduring witness in the Holy Land.

In one of his more memorable and humorous quotes, Vignelli responds to the question, “Was St. Francis a forerunner to the radical protesters of 1968?” with a categorical denial:

It is completely arbitrary to present St. Francis as a libertarian rebel, as belonging to such an anarchic, miserabilist and tribal life, as a forerunner to that irrational refutation of (true) civilization that has recently expressed itself in phenomena of social pathology of the 1960s such as the “flower children,” hippies, freaks, punk, Metropolitan Indians, no-globals and indignants, among others.

Vignelli offers a refreshing look at Francis with answers that are short enough to be read and digested. This book would make an excellent high school text for introducing young minds to the person of Saint Francis and to the primary medieval sources by which we know about his life.

As John Paul II reminded the Church in his letter on the 8th centenary of the birth of St. Francis in 1982:

[H]e came to joy through suffering, to freedom through obedience and the total recantation of himself, to love through hating himself, that is, according to the language of the Gospel, by overcoming selfishness.

This is the witness that converted Francis’s contemporaries to Christ, and it is no less the witness needed by us and our contemporaries in this confused and confusing time. The Franciscan Catechism will educate you about the great saint of Assisi and perhaps also convert you to Christ. As such, the time you may decide to spend in reading it can certainly be considered a prudent investment.

Editor’s note: This review comes from 1P5’s translator, Giuseppe Pellegrino.

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