Was the Pope Inspired by Chesterton’s St. Francis?

I came upon the following passage in the course of a web search yesterday: “On 28 May 1995 the lead article in the Sunday Telegraph’s Review section was headlined ‘A Saint among journalists?’ The article was prompted by a letter from Argentina signed by politicians, diplomats and an archbishop and addressed to Cardinal Hume of Westminster. The letter called for the ‘initiation of the formal procedures towards the eventual canonization of Gilbert Keith Chesterton’.”

I had been told that Pope Francis was an admirer of Chesterton and was googling around trying to see if there was anything out there that might confirm it. I suddenly realized that it was I myself who over 15 years ago had written that Sunday Telegraph article. Suddenly I wondered: who was the archbishop who had signed the letter? Not a certain Archbishop Bergoglio, by any chance? If so, my own ambition that procedures towards Chesterton’s canonization should indeed be initiated had just taken a major step towards being realized. But no: Pope Francis became archbishop only in 1998. But he was in 1995 a close colleague of his predecessor, as an auxiliary bishop of Buenos Aires: did he too sign the letter?

The web yielded just one nugget of possibly accurate information, and if anyone can verify it, it would be of considerable interest to me. It’s a little circuitous; according to the Italian Chesterton Society, the Societa Chestertoniana Italiana: “Pare che Papa Francesco sia socio della Società Chestertoniana Argentina”: “It seems that Pope Francis is a member of the Argentine Chesterton Society.” Unfortunately, that society’s website says nothing of this, but it looks to me as though it hasn’t been touched for some time, and may be moribund (it happens).

It wouldn’t, however, surprise me at all if the claim were true. The obvious link could be Chesterton’s great work on St Francis. I thought immediately of one passage which seemed to be directly relevant to the Pope’s clear determination not to be steered spiritually off course by the power and dignity of his new position. It begins with a discussion of why St Francis called his followers friars (which Chesterton translates as “Little Brothers”) rather than monks:

Presumably he was already resolved… that they should take the three vows of poverty, chastity and obedience which had always been the mark of a monk. But it would seem that he was not so much afraid of the idea of a monk as of the idea of an abbot. He was afraid that the great spiritual magistracies which had given even to their holiest possessors at least a sort of impersonal and corporate pride, would import an element of pomposity that would spoil his extremely and almost extravagantly simple version of the life of humility. But the supreme difference was concerned, of course, with the idea that [his] monks were to become migratory and almost nomadic instead of stationary. They were to mingle with the world; and to this the more old-fashioned monk would naturally reply by asking how they were to mingle with the world without becoming entangled with the world. It was a much more real question than a loose religiosity is likely to realize; but St. Francis had his answer to it, of his own individual sort; and the interest of the problem is in that highly individual answer.

Monastic humility, says Chesterton, in this new Franciscan version, is to be attained by mingling with the world: St Francis, too, doubtless, would have taken public transport rather than the official limos which would no doubt today be offered, and he certainly lived simply (as did Archbishop Bergoglio) rather than in the luxury he could have had.

Another Franciscan parallel is in the new Holy Father’s emphasis on our responsibility to protect the Creation. Indeed, he specifically invoked St Francis’s teaching at this point in his very touching inauguration homily: “The vocation of being a “protector”… is not just something involving us Christians alone,” he said; it also has a prior dimension which is simply human, involving everyone. It means protecting all creation, the beauty of the created world, as the Book of Genesis tells us and as St Francis of Assisi showed us. It means respecting each of God’s creatures and respecting the environment in which we live. It means protecting people, showing loving concern for each and every person, especially children, the elderly, those in need, who are often the last we think about. It means caring for one another in our families: husbands and wives first protect one another, and then, as parents, they care for their children, and children themselves, in time, protect their parents. It means building sincere friendships in which we protect one another in trust, respect, and goodness. In the end, everything has been entrusted to our protection, and all of us are responsible for it. Be protectors of God’s gifts!”

When the Pope placed his remarks on Creation in the context of “what St Francis showed us,” he was pointing towards something very profound. God is love: and in his love he created everything that is, ex nihilo, out of nothing. That, Chesterton tells us, was at the heart of Francis’s own love of the created world: “When we say that a poet praises the whole creation,” he expounds, “we commonly mean only that he praises the whole cosmos. But this sort of poet does really praise creation, in the sense of the act of creation. He praises the passage or transition from nonentity to entity; there falls here also the shadow of that archetypal image of the bridge, which has given to the priest his archaic and mysterious name. The mystic who passes through the moment when there is nothing but God does in some sense behold the beginningless beginnings in which there was really nothing else. He not only appreciates everything but the nothing of which everything was made.”

It would not surprise me at all if it were in fact true that Pope Francis is “socio della Società Chestertoniana Argentina” (if anyone reading this can confirm it I would be greatly interested to know); but I would be even less surprised if it were somehow to be confirmed that Chesterton’s book on St Francis were indeed well-known to Pope Francis. It is, after all, widely accepted as being one of the most profound books on St Francis—whose very name he has taken as his own pontifical name—ever written: why would it not be?

Editor’s note: This column first appeared Wednesday, March 20, 2013 in the Catholic Herald of London, and is reprinted with permission.

Dr. William Oddie


Dr. William Oddie is a leading English Catholic writer and broadcaster. He edited The Catholic Herald from 1998 to 2004 and is the author of The Roman Option and Chesterton and the Romance of Orthodoxy.

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