Growing up in a Protestant church, I wasn’t exposed to many saints. Sure, St. Andrew’s United, our congregation in Sudbury, Ont., celebrated its namesake in late November each year. But other than that, I lumped saints in with other mysteries of the Roman Catholic world, like separate schools, crucifixes and the pope.
It wasn’t until my teens that I watched Franco Zeffirelli’s classic 1972 film, “Brother Sun, Sister Moon.” The movie details the life of St. Francis of Assisi, the son of a wealthy Italian silk merchant, who renounced materialism and embraced a life of poverty, asceticism and simplicity.
Critics panned the movie, calling the script vapid and the cinematography excessive. But I loved Zeffirelli’s depiction of young Francesco as the original flower child, rejecting his parents’ institutions, talking to birds and prancing gleefully through sunlit fields of red and purple blooms. The film also planted an unsettling question in my soul: what would it mean to give up everything and live with complete faith in God?
The real Francis became the patron saint of animals and nature, and the orders that grew from his ministry now boast tens of thousands of priests. Franciscans are known for social justice and for living in solidarity with the poor. And, like most 800-year-old Christian movements, they also have a troubled history — presiding over the Inquisition in the 13th century and helping to colonize New Spain in the 16th century and onward.
But it’s the founder of the movement that I’m drawn to. St. Francis’s faith, to me, seems pure and unadorned, and courageously aligned with Jesus’ teachings. And ever since “Brother Sun, Sister Moon,” St. Francis of Assisi has been my favourite saint.
In this issue, we asked four writers to tell us about their favourite saint, and how these long-dead people continue to shape and guide their lives. Whatever your feelings about canonizing mere mortals, the essays illuminate our need to see the holy in one another, to believe that it’s possible to be so filled with faith that you radiate something rare and unique.
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In the final scene of “Brother Sun,” Francis and his ragtag followers go to the Vatican seeking Pope Innocent III’s blessing on their ministry. Dismayed by the opulence of the supreme pontiff’s chambers, Francis borrows Jesus’ words, advising the pope to “consider the lilies of the field.”
The group is cast out for being insolent, but then the pope calls them back. Wideeyed and chastened by Francis’s outburst, he kneels to kiss the young man’s feet, in a grand gesture of honour and humility, as hundreds of stunned clergy look on. Francis walks out into the countryside. The music soars.
Is the scene overwrought and melodramatic? Probably. But I don’t care. In that cinematic moment, my heart cracked open, and St. Francis has had a home there ever since.
Jocelyn Bell is the editor/publisher of Broadview.
This editorial first appeared in the July/August 2021 issue of Broadview with the title “St. Francis and Me.”
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