Featured Reviews, VOLUME 7

Jon M. Sweeney – When Saint Francis Saved the Church [Review]

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A Feature Review of

When Saint Francis Saved the Church: How a Converted Medieval Troubadour Created a Spiritual Vision for the Ages

Jon M. Sweeney

Hardback: Ave Maria Press; 2014
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Reviewed by Adam P. Newton


Anyone attempting to write a book about St. Francis must face this key issue at some point: we know very little about him outside of a few hagiographic biographies that his followers penned in the decades after he died. He left behind a limited written record of his own intentions for how Franciscans should live, and his ideas were so radical that even his own brothers strayed from those principles while he was still alive. Is it a good idea for us to adopt his standards of living in the 21st century as a way to evoke a more Christ-like way of operating in the world? Certainly, but the ideas of Francis are so potent that they’ve superseded the facts about his life, transcended reality, moved to the world of myth and legend.


And this is what makes When Saint Francis Saved the Church, the new book by Jon M. Sweeney so difficult and fantastical. He makes ambitious claims about the lasting impact of Francis, but fails to fulfill them effectively. To be sure, this is a noble, worthy goal, and Sweeney almost succeeds. Throughout the book, the author performs valiant somersaults attempting to prove his subtitle – “How a Converted Medieval Troubadour Created a Spiritual Vision for the Ages” – by distilling various biographical and theological claims into grand generalizations that are alternately punchy, glowing, and sweeping. The result is a heartfelt, passionate, yet incomplete book filled with wonderful stories about Francis that were simply turned into “object lessons” designed to update the saint’s credos for this century.


The bulk of the book addresses six key themes in the life of Francis and his ministry: “Friendship,” “The Other,” “Poverty,” “Spirituality,” “Care for Creatures,” and “Death.” Each topic receives its own chapter, which provided ample space to showcase the important ways Francis emphasized orthopraxy over orthodoxy. The guiding metaphor for the author’s journey through the Franciscan ethos is that of troubadour who displayed radical, straight-from-the-Gospels love for every aspect of Creation.


As a friend, Francis subverted norms by seeking to make connections with everyone up and down the social ladder, including breaking barriers between how men and women interacted. In terms of “the other,” they didn’t exist for Francis, as he sought harmony between everyone and everything, no matter how misunderstood – including the journey to visit Sultan Malik al-Kamil during the height of the Fifth Crusade. He also believed in true poverty, encouraging his followers to beg for their food each day, instead of working for a wage and accumulating money – coming across more like an humble mendicant than a traditional monk.


Sweeney makes the assertion that Francis introduced the world to what we refer to as “spirituality” simply by rejecting the idea that there was no difference between religious and regular life. While the image of Francis adorned with birds populates garden statuary, the actual Francis actively demonstrated a love of practical creation (not idealistic “nature”), which is borne out by many themes in Francis’ poetry. Finally, he embraced death as few do – he used quiet reflection to prepare for the ending of this life and beginning a new one that would be a deeper understanding of God.


The life of Francis remains an inspiration to many people, especially how his love of everyone and everything as described in The Beatitudes remains the best, most cogent way to truly love God. Yet, while Sweeney does a great job of presenting that vision of Francis to his readers, he fails to prove his thesis – specifically never proving exactly “when Francis saved the church.” He conveniently points towards how Pope Francis I has re-introduced the Roman Catholic Church (and the world at large) to what true Franciscan living can be, but that doesn’t mean the Church (Roman Catholic or otherwise) has been changed or saved by the life of Francis. I wish that it were different, simply because the world would be vastly improved if we spent more time taking care of “the other” instead of improving our own lot in life.


Maybe it’s simply an issue with wording, phrasing, or semantics. If Sweeney had titled his book Can Saint Francis Save the Church?, there would be much less cynical equivocating on my part, and his high-concept approach to discussing the life and ministry of Francis would make more sense. While I would recommend the 6 chapters at the heart of this work as a potential small group study guide for how the Church could take Franciscan idealism into reality, the book didn’t hold up to its own claims about the renewed impact of Francis upon the Church.


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C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com

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