Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa, preacher of the pontifical household, is releasing a book titled “In Love With Christ,” in which he reflects on the real St. Francis.
Who actually was St. Francis of Assisi? To what extent did the patron saint of Italy change the history of the Church? Was he a revolutionary or an advocate of evangelical radicalism? Why is he a figure still relevant today? Why has Jorge Mario Bergoglio chosen his name as Roman Pontiff?
These and other questions have been answered by Father Cantalamessa in “In Love With Christ: The Secret of Saint Francis of Assisi” (ZENIT Books).
In this interview, the preacher discuesses the work, which is expected to be one of the most in depth works about one of the most loved saints in the world.
ZENIT: Father Raniero, what is the secret of St. Francis?
Father Cantalamessa: The Secret of St. Francis is not an idea, but a person with a precise name ‘Jesus Christ and this crucifix.’ In other words, his secret is an extraordinary love for Christ. Adding other explanations could undermine the strength of this passionate core of his personality.
ZENIT: St. Francis was neither an intellectual nor a faith healer: so what is the source of his charisma and popularity?
Father Cantalamessa: His young disciple, Anthony of Padua, outweighs him in terms of miracles and healings, and, to a certain level, even in terms of popularity. The reasons for the popularity of St. Francis are more complex. It is his person and his actions as a whole that make him one of the most accomplished and fascinating human beings, and this is also according to the psychologists themselves. When asked by his companion Frate Masseo: ‘Why does all the world run after you?’, St Francis answered one day, ‘Because God has not found on earth a sinner viler than me.’ He was honest, but he did not tell the truth! Actually all the world, after more than eight centuries, still runs after him because he achieved those values that all of us, believers and non-believers, secretly aspire to: joy, peace and fraternity.
ZENIT: What drove him to live the Gospel so radically?
Father Cantalamessa: We shall come back to the theme of St. Francis’ secret. What led him to a radical discipleship of the Gospel was a radical love for the author of the Gospel. Radical is the brand of all saints. They go all the way, they do not even conceive that we can stop halfway. In Francis the radical has a historical reason too: the observation of how easy it was to water down the Gospel with what he called the “glosse,” in other words the legalistic interpretations. Hence his cry, sometimes violent: “Sine glossa! Sine glossa!” which means “without any distinction.”
ZENIT: From where was born his ability to love suffering and embrace sinners?
Father Cantalamess: In his testament, Francis says it clearly, “The Lord Himself led me among them.” It was the love for Jesus that drove him towards the most wounded parts of his Body. There are some that from the love for the poor reached the love for Christ (like Simone Weil), there are others that from the love for Christ reached the love for the poor.
ZENIT: Recently, someone described St. Francis as ‘the first environmentalist in history’: but is not this an anachronistic definition?
Father Cantalamessa: In fact, St. Francis did and preached what today goes under the name of environmentalism, but the reason of his environmentalism is different from the one of today. St. Francis saw in the creation the endeavour and the reflection of God. His attitude towards the environment that God created was not sociological but doxological; therefore it is an approach of contemplation and glorification and not of utilitarianism. For him the skies and the earth, just like the Bible, were full of the glory of God and he felt the need to convey this eulogy. Restoring something from this religious approach would be extremely helpful for modern environmentalism, which otherwise loses one of the strongest incentives for respecting the environment.
ZENIT: What was the relationship between St. Francis and Islam, particularly within the context of the Crusades? Is his message still present?
Father Cantalamessa: A well-known story, which is narrated in the Franciscan sources and is attested by contemporary sources, is his peaceful encounter with the Sultan of Egypt during the crusade in which he participated. Man of peace, he never complained with anyone, nor with the heretics nor with the Saracens. He only wanted to show the true face of the Gospel and of Christ. The fact that John Paul II chose Assisi as a meeting place for different religions is a recognition of this pioneering role of the ‘Poverello.’
ZENIT: Why has Pope Bergoglio chosen the name of the Saint from Assisi?
Father Cantalamessa: We know the explanation he has given. At the moment of his election a cardinal that was a friend of his, the Brazilian Claudio Hummes, whispered in his ear: ‘Do not forget the poor’ and he immediately thought about St. Francis. However I am convinced that his name was given to him by Someone much higher than the cardinal. Anyway it is certain that this name could not have been given to someone more worthy of it than him. The facts are demonstrating this.
ZENIT: What are the similarities between the poverty preached by Pope Francis and the one preached by the patron saint of Italy?
Father Cantalamessa: The form of poverty is different (which is unavoidable because they live in very different contexts and epochs), but the spirit of poverty that expresses simplicity and sobriety and the love for the poor is identical. I believe that St. Francis in heaven is very happy for being represented so well on earth and by the one to which he, when alive, addressed with endless respect and devotion, referring to him as the “Lord pope.”