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Discovering Francis Wherever He Went

Q U I C K S C A N

ON THE ROAD WITH FRANCIS OF ASSISI: A Timeless Journey Through Umbria and Tuscany
AMERICA AND THE CHALLENGES OF RELIGIOUS DIVERSITY
SAINT FRANCIS AND THE WOLF
A MILLION REASONS: Why I Fought for the Rights of the Disabled
Following Francis



ON THE ROAD WITH FRANCIS OF ASSISI: A Timeless Journey Through Umbria and Tuscany, and Beyond, by Linda Bird Francke. Random House. 266 pp. $25.95.

Reviewed by MURRAY BODO, O.F.M., author of Francis: The Journey and the Dream and Clare: A Light in the Garden (St. Anthony Messenger Press) and many other books.

FOR YEARS I have been a guide for Franciscan Pilgrimage Programs, which began with two American friars studying in Rome, who decided to spend their summer vacation traveling to the sites of St. Francis in Italy and taking as their only guide the Omnibus of Franciscan Sources, medieval texts by and about St. Francis.

Award-winning journalist and former editor of Newsweek Linda Bird Francke does much the same in this entertaining and well-researched book. With her husband, photographer Harvey Loomis, she journeys to all of the places made holy by St. Francis and St. Clare.

What struck me immediately was how much her journey is about St. Francis and St. Clare, and how little is about Francke and her husband. Her book is in the tradition of the true pilgrim’s guide, which enables the reader to experience vicariously the sacred places of the author’s pilgrimage of discovery. Francke uses mainly sources from Thomas of Celano, St. Francis’ first biographer, and at the various sites she relies on keen observation and interviews with friars or others.

Nor is her book limited to Italy. Francke takes us as far as Damietta in Egypt, where Francis befriended the Muslim sultan, Malik al-Kamil, in the effort to make peace during the Fifth Crusade. She writes, “The Crusaders, some 60,000 strong, were camped on the west bank of the Nile, near the convergence of the river and the sea. That happens to be our exact location on modern Ras el-Bar. It is entirely possible that [in Francis’ time] our balcony view of the resort’s palm-shaded esplanade along the river and behind the hotel...would have been of thousands of tents and pavilions that sprawled through the dusty Crusader camp.” Then, Francke goes on to describe in detail the realities of the Fifth Crusade during Francis’ stay there.

All through the book, Francke parallels the medieval and present-day realities of the site she and her husband are visiting. For example, when Francis returns from Damietta, he stops at Isola del Deserto in Venice. When Francke visits the friary there, she is greeted by Friar Antonino.

“If the late actor Walter Matthau had been cloned, he would have reappeared as the 82-year-old Friar Antonino. The friar carries an English script in his hand about the convent’s history, which he delights in reading rapidly, theatrically and virtually unintelligibly.”

Francke’s book is filled with delightful anecdotes like this one, but they are always springboards into the medieval story of what happened at the site. “It is easy to see why Francis lingered on this serene island before tackling the problems that lay ahead. He began by writing a defiant letter of support to Clare, who was fighting the Church for her ‘right’ to live in extreme poverty.” Francke then quotes the letter Francis wrote and journeys on to Bologna where Francis went next in his determination to tear down the elegant residence the friars had built for themselves while he was away on the Fifth Crusade.

Place after place mentioned in the early sources is visited by Francke and her husband, who took the 30 photos included in the book. There are also two pages of helpful maps and extensive notes and bibliography. The strength of this book is the fresh and entertaining way the stories of Francis and Clare are told through the eyes of a 21st-century pilgrim who finds her way to and around the places of Francis and Clare.

She is also a pilgrim who knows her away around words. The last page of the book contains these: “We leave the reconstructed chapel where Francis died...only to be met by the jarring sound of music, albeit sacred, being broadcast over the loudspeakers. After all the hundreds of miles we have traveled with Francis, however, I have learned to blot out intrusions into the simple spaces we have shared with this extraordinary man and his legend. And so I don’t hear the canned music. I hear the sound of larks.”

If the reader learns only that, this will be a worthwhile, marvelous journey.

You can order ON THE ROAD WITH FRANCIS OF ASSISI: A Timeless Journey Through Umbria and Tuscany, and Beyond, from St. Francis Bookshop.

 

AMERICA AND THE CHALLENGES OF RELIGIOUS DIVERSITY, by Robert Wuthnow. Princeton University Press. 448 pp. $29.95, hardcover; $18.95, paperback.

Reviewed by MICHAEL J. DALEY, a teacher and writer at St. Xavier High School in Cincinnati, Ohio. He edited (with Bill Madges) Vatican II: Forty Personal Stories and The Many Marks of the Church (both from Twenty-Third Publications).

LATE LAST YEAR, Keith Ellison was elected to Congress, the first Muslim to be elected. Adding a note of controversy, Ellison chose to be sworn in using not a Bible, but a Quran—interestingly enough, one owned by Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States. Many people objected to this, saying it was but another example of the breakdown of America’s Judeo-Christian heritage.

In his most recent book, America and the Challenges of Religious Diversity, Robert Wuthnow, professor of sociology at Princeton University, examines “how we as individuals and as a nation are responding to the challenges of increasing religious and cultural diversity.”

Our national tension arises from being founded upon Christian principles, yet also celebrating a tradition of religious freedom. This diversity of belief was easier to accept when it was within the Christian tradition. Now, unlike the Hindu, Buddhist or Muslim geographic distance of the past, religious diversity is across the street, or in the next office cubicle, or at the evening school event.

If Christopher Columbus and subsequent American history are any example, though, it must be admitted that America has long struggled to view itself by any other lens besides the Christian one. Eventually, over time, the nation tended to downplay religious differences among Protestants, Catholics and Jews and, by the middle of the 20th century, arrived at what has been termed the “tripartite settlement.” In this process, cultural assimilation became more defining of identity than of religious tradition.

Now with increasing numbers of Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims, the question of religious diversity has arisen anew. As Wuthnow writes, “Diversity raises the specter of a frayed society, drawn in different directions by competing lifestyles, ethnic identities, national loyalties, customs, and beliefs. But it also evokes new opportunities for rethinking the United States’ vision of itself.”

Looking at how most Christian Americans respond to religious diversity, Wuthnow divides them into three groups: spiritual shoppers, Christian exclusivists and Christian inclusivists.

The spiritual shoppers, for the most part, still believe in God but have a difficult time privileging one religious tradition over another. This very openness to new ideas, experiences and lifestyles, Wuthnow argues, leaves them with little commitment and, as a result, does not build up religious and societal institutions.

Christian exclusivists, on the other hand, believe that only Christianity is true and that one is ultimately saved by faith in Jesus Christ, God’s only son. Here Wuthnow is careful not to caricature these persons, but he does admit that Christian exclusivism may lead to prejudice and discrimination.

The last group Wuthnow describes is the Christian inclusivists. Though he doesn’t go into any detail explicitly, given the teachings of Vatican II, this is where one might expect to find the majority of Catholics. Inclusivists are strongly committed to one religious tradition, yet recognize appreciatively that God (and truth) is found among the other world religions.

Admittedly, this position calls for good balance which “involves maintaining a fine course between opposing forces, one of which is to veer toward believing that only the Christian way is true after all, the other being the view that what one thinks and does religiously is of little consequence because all religions are the same.”

In light of these three positions, Wuthnow explores how churches are managing diversity with all of its practical, legal and theological issues. One of his major concerns is that lack of engagement with those of other faiths is leading to surface toleration rather than genuine understanding and conversation.

To address this, Wuthnow calls for the need to practice “reflective pluralism.” It is described as “acknowledging how and why people are different (and the same), and it requires having good reasons for engaging with people and groups whose religious practices are fundamentally different from one’s own.”

Wuthnow communicates well the tension, risk and gift of our national motto—E pluribus unum—“one out of many.”

You can order AMERICA AND THE CHALLENGES OF RELIGIOUS DIVERSITY from St. Francis Bookshop.

 

SAINT FRANCIS AND THE WOLF, by Jane Langton. Illustrated by Ilse Plume. David R. Godine Publisher. 32 pp. $16.95.

Reviewed by SUSAN HINES-BRIGGER, an assistant editor of this publication, and her five-year-old son, Alex.

BECAUSE OF ITS long and storied history, I’m sure many people have already heard the story of St. Francis and the wolf of Gubbio. I know my kids have, which is why my son, Alex, was a bit hesitant when I told him what our nighttime book was going to be about. But, fortunately, Jane Langton offers a new version of the classic story in which St. Francis convinces a wolf terrorizing a town to live in peace with the townspeople in return for food supplied by them.

This book is beautifully illustrated by Ilse Plume with very simple, yet compelling drawings. Langton and Plume have previously worked together on three picture books of adapted folktales.

Langton has also written mystery novels for adults, including Emily Dickinson Is Dead.

Both the opening and back inside cover contain St. Francis’ The Canticle of the Sun, a nice added bonus to the book. The reader is also given a small summary of the life of St. Francis at the end of the book.

The dust jacket of the book recommends this book as a “perfect gift for Easter and for anyone who embraces the relationship between mankind and the natural world.” I certainly agree with the second part, but also think this book would make a perfect gift anytime throughout the year.

You can order SAINT FRANCIS AND THE WOLF from St. Francis Bookshop.

 

A MILLION REASONS: Why I Fought for the Rights of the Disabled, by Alan Labonte, with Brock Brower. HotHouse Press. 236 pp. $26.

Reviewed by MARY LYNNE RAPIEN, a writer for Homily Helps and Weekday Homily Helps and a practicing licensed clinical counselor in Cincinnati, Ohio. She was the youth columnist for St. Anthony Messenger for 40 years and is a wife, mother of six and grandmother of 19.

IN THIS BOOK, Alan Labonte chronicles in detail the legal battle he fought and the risks he took in taking a stand for the rights of disabled persons to have reasonable accommodations in the workplace.

The book is an easy read, although more details about the “he said/she said” of the trial were included than this reviewer needed. At times it seemed that Labonte was putting the reader in the jury seat, and that he was trying to convince us of his case.

One might think that Labonte’s problems began in July 1991 when he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS). A bigger blow, however, was termination from his job as executive director of the prestigious law firm of Hutchins and Wheeler (H&W). In January 1992, six months after making known his condition, Labonte was let go without warning. He was a 52-year-old man with a master’s degree. He had been with H&W for 18 months and had commanded a salary well into six figures.

After he disclosed his MS, no accommodations were made for the author, such as an office closer to the elevator, more frequent breaks or shorter days. Instead, H&W fired him and offered a severance package of $60,000—provided that he would not sue and would maintain confidentiality.

Labonte procured the services of David Rapaport, a lawyer. He declined the offer and countered for an amount that, he believed, reflected actual losses—$168,000. H&W declined. There began the legal battle which took them to the Supreme Court of Massachusetts.

The book includes in tedious detail major projects the author worked on for H&W. We read of the infighting and office politics. We are told the questions for the mock jury and the details of the author’s presentation.

After the firing, the author got partial disability from the Union Mutual Insurance Company (H&W’s Ltd. policy), but as debts were mounting, his sense of hopelessness was on the increase, too. The book takes us through the roller coaster of emotions of someone with MS, financial problems and the pressures of a long legal battle.

Interwoven in the court case is Labonte’s spiritual growth and return to the sacraments. We follow him on several trips to Medjugorje and the adoption of a child from there.

As the case progressed up the courts, H&W offered settlements of $500,000, $1,750,000 and then $3,000,000. Labonte knew he could lose all, but acceptance of the offer would mean that he would not be doing all he could for the rights of disabled people. Also, it would mean he would not be able to tell his story.

On May 5, 1997, more than five years after termination, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court made a decision that ultimately led to Labonte receiving almost $2,000,000—a sacrifice of a million dollars (hence, the book’s title). The court decision gave disabled employees the right to file a claim of employment discrimination even if they had received disability benefits.

The final chapter updates the reader on Labonte’s life after the trial. He earned a doctorate at Boston University where he is on the faculty, thus proving his continuing capability of holding down a job. Presently, he serves as a senior research associate. Physically, he gets around with a specially equipped motor vehicle which accommodates his electric scooter. As for his adaptation to his disability, he says, “Living with MS has become for me like living with a friend.”

This book would be of special interest to those fighting for justice with their own disabilities, and for those who enjoy the details of legal cases from beginning to final gavel.

At the end of the day, Labonte did get to tell his story.

You can order A MILLION REASONS: Why I Fought for the Rights of the Disabled from St. Francis Bookshop.

 

 

 

Following Francis

The saint’s life inspires us still about how to live the gospel fully.

LIGHT IN THE DARK AGES: The Friendship of Francis and Clare of Assisi, by Jon M. Sweeney (Paraclete Press, 220 pp., $16.95). Any time people are preoccupied with power is a “dark age,” Sweeney says, and suggests that changes Francis and Clare inspired brought light to their age—and our age as well. This book goes further than most biographies into such areas as the bitter conflicts among Franciscans after their founder’s death.

LABORERS OF THE HARVEST and HALOES AND HEROES (of the Americas), by Father Cormac Antram, O.F.M. (Catholic Mission, P.O. Box 48, Houck, AZ 86506, 198 pp. and 166 pp., $13 each). These are collections of columns this pastor has written over the years for the Gallup diocesan newspaper. (He also had a radio program, The Padre’s Hour.) The first contains stories of the first 100 years of the Catholic and Franciscan presence among the Navajos. The second has stories of canonized saints and heroes, like Bishop Rembert Kowalski, O.F.M., imprisoned by the Communists in China.

CHASING FRANCIS: A Pilgrim’s Tale, by Ian Morgan Cron (Nav-Press, 253 pp., $12.99), is a novel about a pastor of an evangelical mega-church who loses his faith after the death of a young parishioner. The pastor finds it again in St. Francis and comes back with a new vision for the Church for the 21st century.


Books can be obtained through St. Francis Bookshop on the Web or at 8621 Winton Road, Cincinnati, OH 45231, phone 1-800-241-6392. All orders must be prepaid. Add $4 for postage and handling, $2 more for each additional book. Ohio residents should also add 6.5 percent for sales tax. The Bookshop offers a free catalog.


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