Sunday, February 19, 2006

Brother Sun, Sister Moon

A parishinor at St. Anthony's lent me this movie about the early years of St. Francis' life. According to the Yahoo Movies review, director Franco Zeffirelli attempted to draw parellels between the simple poverty embraced by Francis and his followers and the hippie movement of the 1960's and 70's. I've been assured Zeffirelli didn't turn Francis into a pot-smokin' flag-burnin' rebel... in other words, nothing like this guy.


Okay, I've seen the movie now. It does a good job portraying the abuse Francis suffered under his father, Pietro, as he slowly rejected the world of wealth and comfort in favor of the life of servanthood and preaching the Gospel. Church hierarchy is portrayed in an appropriately corrupt light, nor did it overromanticize the simple life of Francis and his followers. They lived a rough life, subjecting themselves to snowy winters and spring rains with little shelter. While some of the details weren't exactly accurate, that usually happens with movies. I guess they didn't have the technology in 1973 to make the cross of San Damiano move and speak.

There is only one inaccuracy that particularly bothered me. The movie ends with Francis' audience with Pope Innocent III, who blesses the brothers and commissions them to go out and spread the Gospel. Innocent leans over to kiss Francis' hands, then kneels before him and kisses his bare feet. That is all very beautiful and moving, but in the movie two of the cardinals are questioning what's happening before them and one of them confidently remarks, "The Pope knows what he's doing. They will draw the poor back into the Church." The clear implication is that Pope Innocent III wasn't so innocent after all, but merely saw these humble Franciscans as a clever way of drawing the poor into the oppressive influence of "Holy Mother Church."

Well, that little bit creative script writing may have sold more tickets during the early 70's when everyone questioned the authority of any institution and their right to judge right and wrong. Unlike the Reformers, Francis was sincerely concerned about avoiding heresy and this is why he went to Rome to receive the Pope's counsel and seek his blessing. Naturally, Hollywood fails to write a better story than what really happened....

Francis did not have just one audience with a less-than-truthful Pope. The first meeting was rather uneventful, if a group of brothers dressed in rough tunics visiting the Pope can be uneventful. He explained the brotherhood's controversial mission and left. During the night, Innocent dreamed a vision of the Basilica of St. John Lateran leaning on its side and beginning to fall to the ground when a beggar, whom he recognized as St. Francis, came up and supported the whole church on his shoulders. Calling Francis back to the papal court the next day, he didn't talk about his own troublesome dream, but merely listened again to Francis' own dream of literally living out the Gospel. Innocent came down from the papal thrown and embraced Francis.

Innocent gave up bearing a son of his own when he took on Holy Orders; Francis left his earthly father when he proclaimed in the Assisi square "From now on, I desire only to say, 'Our Father, who art in Heaven." In their embrace, Francis gained an earthly father and Innocent gained "many times as [many sons] and eternal life." (Matt. 19:29) And Innocent sent them out, saying "Go with God, little brothers, and announce salvation for all, as the Lord reveals it to you! And when the Almighty has multiplied your number, then come back to me and I will charge you with a greater inheritance."

The real story is that the humble Francis and powerful Pope Innocent III shared a father-son relationship and Innocent was always counted among the Lesser Brothers of Jesus. Together God used them to spiritually rebuild a fragile Church, like Francis had restored stone-by-stone the crumbling San Damiano Church.

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