Many of you no doubt immediately thought of St. Damian who ministered to lepers in Molokai from 1865 till his death in 1889 at age 49. That’s what I would have thought but that’s not who it is. Believe it or not it is St. Francis of Assisi . In reading Jon Sweeney’s new book, When Saint Francis Saved the Church, I discovered that he also cared for lepers. He writes, “Next, he befriended lepers. In the early thirteenth century in Italy, lepers were separated from communities, indeed from all healthy people. They were forced to live apart in lepers’ hospitals, which were not really hospitals at all. We’d shudder to see the conditions there. So there is nothing unusual about the fact that Francis grew up to loath to touch any leprous person. No sane person did. But he overcame this fear and decided to befriend even these outcasts, touching them and carrying water to wash their sores, all of which was actually forbidden by law. We have no evidence that he served from a sense of pity, feeling sorry for himself or the lepers, but only that he was being a friend. As Simone Weil wrote in Gravity and Grace, ‘Love is not consolation, it is light.’” (pp. 37-38)
Now that that puzzle piece is in place you probably have guessed who the first female “brother” was—St. Clare of Assisi. She joined Francis’ group on Palm Sunday in 1212 becoming the first female “brother”. (p. 41) Sweeney says this “relationship between Francis and Clare has confused people for centuries.” (p. 42) How could they just be friends without any sex involved? Such is the mindset we have from too much Hollywood. Yet it happens all the time. The night she joined his group Francis “cut her hair. This procedure was (and is still) called a tonsure, and made Clare a ‘friar’ like the others. Francis, in fact, called her one of his ‘brothers,’ not because he didn’t realize that she was a young woman but because he had not other, better word for what her relationship with the other friars would be.” (p. 43) But both realized this relationship could not last for long and would ultimately hurt their potential for ministry. “They knew that the world wasn’t ready for women and men to do God’s work side by side, and they couldn’t risk jeopardizing their work by upsetting too many cultural norms at once.” (p. 43) The women eventually moved to a convent and eventually ended up at “the Benedictine convent of Saint’Angelo upon Mount Subasio.” (p. 43). Sweeney nicely summarizes their relationship by saying, “They needed each other. Throughout their lives together—because friends don’t have to live near-by in order to be close—she was like a deep, still well to his full, fast-flowing river.” (p. 44)
By the way, did you know that other than Jesus more books have been written about St. Francis than any other person? (p. 17) Just a bit of trivia to impress your friends and relatives.
When Saint Francis Saved the Church is from Ave Maria Press. It is a hardcover with 192 pages and sells for $22.00.
Jon M. Sweeney is an independent scholar and one of religion’s most respected writers. His work has been hailed by everyone from PBS and James Martin, S.J., to Fox News and Dan Savage. Several of his books have become History Book Club, Book-of-the-Month Club, Crossings Book Club, and Quality Paperback Book Club selections. His 2012 popular history, The Pope Who Quit, was published by Image/Random House. He is also the coauthor with Phyllis Tickle of The Age of the Spirit, from Baker Books. Sweeney is the editor in chief and publisher of Paraclete Press in Massachusetts.