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Friday, October 6, 2017

St. Francis, America's most popular saint

What do we know about St. Francis, America's most popular saint?
How did this upstart from Assisi become a beloved saint?

After the Virgin Mary, St. Francis of Assisi is probably Catholicism's most popular saint. Sure, other saints do more practical things: St. Anthony can help you find lost car keys, and St. Joseph can help you sell your house. St. Sebastian stuck full of arrows, shaggy wild man John the Baptist, or a barely clothed Mary Magdalene might be the most visually interesting. 

But can anyone really match the array of settings in which we find the Poor Man of Assisi? Name another saint whose likeness exists in media as varied as frescos, film, graphic novels, and urns for cremated pet remains. Every diocese has a parish named for him. Any museum with a medieval art collection has a St. Francis tucked away somewhere. Several saints may have hospitals named after them, but Francis is likely the only one to be the patron of hospitals for both humans and animals. Francis' Italian hometown draws tourists and world leaders. In the United States San Francisco is named for him. Further down the California coast the city of Nuestra Senora de los Angeles de la Porciuncula is named for the first Franciscan church and the place where Francis died in 1226. That, however, is a lot to fit on city letterhead, so for simplicity's sake we call it Los Angeles. 

When I teach History 101 to college freshmen, St. Francis of Assisi has a starring role in our lecture about medieval religious life. His costar is the lesser-known religious reformer, Peter Waldo.

The outlines of the two men's lives are remarkably similar. Both were born in the 12th century, about a generation apart. Waldo was French; Francis was Italian. Each was a wealthy cloth merchant. As young professionals, both men had spiritual epiphanies that prompted them to renounce all their possessions. Taking as their lodestar the poverty and simplicity of Christ, each preached a message that was sharply at odds with the opulence and arcana of medieval liturgy. Each man's ministry faced scrutiny from church authorities leery of religious upstarts.

Francis went on to found a successful religious order. Waldo was excommunicated, several of his followers were executed, and the exact circumstances of his death are a matter of historical speculation. For two men with such similar origins and messages, what caused their paths to diverge so dramatically? 

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