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Posted February 21, 2006

Book: Living our Future: Francis of Assisi and the Church Tomorrow
Author: Mario von Galli, S.J.
Franciscan Herald Press, Chicago, IL, 1972, pp. 239

An Excerpt from the Introduction:

So how did the idea of writing a book about Francis of Assisi come to me? It grew – as is so often true – out of a series of accidental circumstances. First of all, Dennis Stock’s photographs of the Umbrian landscape were before me, such peerless reproductions they almost make you believe you can hear the clear voice of the Poverello of Assisi. He was the Provencal minstrel of these woods and fields and streams; of these gnarled, tapering olive trees and cypresses and thistles; of these oxen, sheep, and doves. . . .

So the pictures were the occasion and also the starting pont of this book. I saw them and they appealed to me. But I had not thought then of writing a book.

. . .[Friends] wanted a book of spontaneous impressions such as a man of today might be able to offer. . . .Although I began the study of Francis of Assisi helf-heartedly, I proceeded to fall under his spell.

. . .In so doing I realize that not everyone who is enthusiastic about Francis is really acquainted with him. The name Francis reminds many people only of pretty little flowers, lambs, and well-behaved birds. They don’t know the incredible toughness of his passionate love of poverty. Others, who studied him more closely, have sought to present him as an anti-Catholic. Tis is wholly unjustified, even though he represents a truly Christian desire for reform, espoused by reformers in his own and later times, which all too often was driven from its rightful place. Still others believe that they can interpret him purely in psychoanalytic terms. Such apparent or only half-right interpretations deserve mention at best on the fringes.

It is something else which concerns us here. Namely, our future, which we would like to measure against Francis as he really was. Certainly he was a man of his time, and much in him was conditioned by that time. It could not be otherwise. Still a timeless element came to light in his time-bound figure, became clear and tangible as never before. That can be said of every saint of course. But it cannot be said of them all that their peculiar timelessness is relevant precisely for our own age. But with Francis this seems to be true. So more than others he is a guide to the future for us. Since the days of John XXIII, Pope and Council have been urging us to intepret the signs of the time. The unexpected and surprising thing to me was that the longer I studied Francis of Assisi, the more that study helped me to read the signs of the time. Although our critical juncture in history is not the same as that faced seven hundred years ago, the same figure stands “on a little hill above the city, dark against the fading darkness.” He stands with raised hands, and around him the songs of birds echo, and behind him is the dawn. That is why I have tried to write this book.

An Excerpt from the Book:

What does cortesia mean here? It is decency, courtesy, nobleness, attentiveness, magnanimity, or knightliness?

I have used the French word noblesse as the title of this chapter. As far as I know, it does not appear in writings by or about Francis. Its meaning is related to the German word Adel (nobility) chosen by Joseph Bernhart to translate cortesia — except that it plays down the connotation of class standing, which also surfaces irritatingly in the words cortesia gentilezza, and “knightliness.” All these expressions of a feudal age which we no longer know how to deal with at all. What is more, they are repugnant to us because we feel that the remnants of feudal thinking are one of the greatest obstacles on the pathway to a new age, especially in the Church. So we are led to reject all talk about cortesia out of hand even in the case of Francis; it seems to be too bound up with a different age. In doing so, however, we are throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Of course Francis’ language was tied to his own age. But the meaning which he gave to the word cortesia, and the basic attitude which lay behind it as he saw it, are things that go far beyond feudal thinking.

The word noblesse better expresses what Francis realized as cortesia. Perhaps we must go further and say that everything we designate today as solidarity with the suffering and the oppressed corresponds to the cortesia of Francis or, at the very least, does not run counter to it. I refer to real solidarity with those whose human dignity has been violated, so that we are prepared to share their lot and to fashion a community of disestablished people for the purpose of initiating effective action and bringing about structural change. But I do not want to equate solidarity completely with cortesia. For the latter signifies a very specific kind of solidarity that is essentially Christian in Francis’ eyes.

The English word “gentleman” might well be brought up here, for it suggests a certain self-awareness. The gentleman knows his worth and does not give undue weight to what others say or think about him. Thus no one can insult him or get him angry. Desire for revenge is as alien to him as the jealousy which, in its countless witting and unwitting forms, poisons the world. Francis was such a gentleman through and through: always self-confident and self-possessed, never envious. The world “gentleman,” however, does not give adequate expression to th social aspect. Indeed, it bespeaks a certain cynicism towards human beings. For all his correctness, there is a certain lack of personal affection. The gentleman is always cool, and that certainly cannot be said of Frnacis. He was a social being through and through, oriented towards the “Thou” that others were.

This whole discussion of terminology may seem to be meaningless, but it actually leads us to a correct understanding of the cortesia of Francis. It contains much delicate reverence, but real involvement rather than standoffishness. It bespeaks a highly personal relationship, a concern for the person of one’s fellow man. One’s fellow man is valued objectively, but as a free person. His potential for good is recognized and appealed to, first and foremost; and his reprehensible traits are candidly and harshly described for what they are. Francis threatens people with the judgment of God astonishingly often. He warns people about the self-deception of the unrepentant sinner, of those who go to the sacraments mechanically without using their money for real social good. But such fulminations ever remain background phenomena. The main theme is awakening people to generosity – not to righteousness: for, Francis tells them that cortesia takes precedence over righteousness.

The most highly personal and existential affection for God and man, unconditional trust in them, a joyous appeal to their generosity: here lies the secret and the authentic merit of cortesia of Francis’ invincible charm.

Table of Contents:

1. Why I wrote this book

2. His father’s child

3. Living the Gospel

4. Poverty: the future of the Church

5. Francis: the revolutionary

6. Noblesse


8. Bibliography