A Saint in the City: St. Francis of Assisi visits New York

The Canticle of the Creatures by Saint Francis of Assisi at Brooklyn Borough Hall

The world’s most popular saint has much to say for our times and was, in a way, “saying” some of it in Brooklyn this winter. This is not magical realism, but a point of fact. An exceedingly rare exhibit of textual artifacts related to the life of St. Francis of Assisi and the formation of the Franciscan order was on display for one month at Brooklyn’s Borough Hall. The stated purpose of “Friar Francis: Traces, Words, Metaphors” was to bring the saint’s message to ordinary people, which helps explain the non-curatorial, easily accessible venue. The exhibit was not on tour. When they packed everything up in mid-January, it was straight back to Assisi.

This extraordinary collection of early books, letters and papal documents was carefully presented upstairs in Borough Hall in what is known as the Courtroom—an old appellate courtroom once used for filming episodes of “Law & Order,” now mostly reserved for ceremonial functions. How appropriate, then, that one of the first texts on display was an early copy of Francis’ letter to government officials, written in 1220, in which he asks them to allow their subjects time during the workday to take a break and “offer their prayers and thanksgivings to the one, all-powerful God.”

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This letter, among the few we know for certain Francis wrote, was central to his commitment that the spiritual life is much more than what goes on inside of us. Francis believed that salvation extended to more than human souls. His spirituality had little to do with practices that make us feel better. He consistently taught—here, even to “mayors, councilmen, magistrates, and governors”—that we are all responsible for supporting the salvation of those in our care.

Sitting near that prophetic letter was a rather different example of early Franciscan spirituality. I lingered long at the late 15th-century codex, a gorgeous example, of The Little Flowers on display. A late medieval text penned by Franciscans well after Francis’ death, The Little Flowers cemented the legends of this unusual man, who loved birds and exhorted fish, who reached out not only to lepers but to robbers, and who was able to broker peace between a wild animal and a frightened town. This is also where we find stories of Francis’ holy foolery, as when he instructs his brother friars to preach in their underwear, then does so himself, and his dedication to strict poverty. Millions of people have come to love Francis through The Little Flowers. It has been read by more people than all other Franciscan books combined. Perhaps pondering that lovely early example of it drew even more to him and the Gospel he lived and loved.

Also well-displayed and described in the courtroom were 18 other items, including the earliest extant copies of the biographies of St. Francis by Thomas of Celano and St. Bonaventure, and an exquisite early copy of Ubertino of Casale’s Arbor Vitae Crucifixae Jesu Christi, a work that exhorts any would-be religious change-maker to remember that Jesus must remain at the center of any reforming movement. Seeing these three displayed so close together gave me pause.

Thomas of Celano’s Life was published only two years after St. Francis’ death, and it is surely the closest biography we have to the real man. But three decades later, Bonaventure became minister general of the Franciscan order, wrote a new life of Francis and ordered that all the earlier biographies be destroyed. Thank God they were not, and this one even made it to Brooklyn. After Bonaventure, serious dissension took place within the order between friars who wanted to remain faithful to the original ideals of their founder, a small group, and the majority faction who wanted to make changes. Ubertino of Casale, who was born at about the time Bonaventure’s Life was published, became the leader of the faithful remnant. He became almost fanatical in the strictness of his idealism.

None of the textual artifacts on display contained the actual autograph of St. Francis, but some were written during his lifetime, including two letters from Pope Honorius III to the friar from 1220 and 1222. Special attention was given throughout the exhibit to emphasize the human Francis rather than the canonized saint, and as a result it was also easy to begin seeing a man who stood apart from his era. We see him playing with animals and worrying about their safety, asking worldly leaders to allow their subjects to take time from work to pray and worship God, and who was such a lover of people that he needed to be reminded by Pope Honorius, 11 years after his first rule had been approved by a previous pope, that there should be at least one year of testing before a man could be admitted to the order. Francis was known for accepting everyone.

The exhibit also featured the papal bull of April 1230 from Pope Gregory IX, another character central to the story of Francis’ life, who probably would not have been elected pope had he not been Francis’ close associate. The bull assigned the Hill of Paradise, formerly a much-despised place, as the setting for a new basilica to honor the recently deceased, canonized friar. The name referred to what then became the Basilica of San Francesco, one of the great pilgrimage places in all Christendom to this day. Reading that bull one could only wonder in amazement what Francis would have thought of what they did with his legacy after he was gone. He might have felt uncomfortable in the basilica that many of us have admired.

In one more case sat the most original document in the exhibit: the 1253 will of “Picardo and Giovannetto, children and heirs of the late Angelo son of Pica, agreeing to the division of all their movable and immovable property.” Angelo is believed to have been Francis’ brother; Picardo and Giovannetto would therefore have been Francis’ nephews. This was prime evidence that the man we so often reduce to an image on a holy card was a real man who left family behind when he heard God speaking, saying, “Go and rebuild my church.”

There was no catalog. And I was disappointed how descriptions of items often stuck to generalizations. For instance, as I scrutinized that copy of The Little Flowers, I noted that it measured about 6” x 8” and was 2 ½” thick, but I wanted to know details of binding, parchment, provenance and so on. This was no museum. But that was also its charm. The Brooklyn Borough president was proud to have overseen the coming of St. Francis to New York. He said, “Brooklyn is well-versed in making history, and history is certainly being made with our first-ever public display in the United States of the manuscripts of St. Francis of Assisi, a figure universally known and appreciated regardless of the borders drawn among our various affiliations.” And he was right.

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