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St. Francis for Seekers View Comments
By Barbara Beckwith

Father Murray Bodo stands in front of the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi. He first saw the basilica in 1972 when he came to Assisi to write Francis: The Journey and the Dream.

FORTY YEARS AGO a gentle Franciscan high school teacher penned a seminal book about St. Francis. It wasn’t a biography or a treatise on the little Poor Man of Assisi but a romantic, imaginative work that presents the saint from the inside out. Francis is a saint for seekers because he was one himself. He first set out to be a knight, fighting with the army of Walter of Brienne, was captured and taken prisoner in Perugia. He returned to Assisi, a sick and melancholy 22-year-old who didn’t know what to do with himself.

So he prayed harder and listened deeper to his dream of glory for the Lord. It eventually led him to kiss a leper, rebuild chapels, renounce his father’s wealth and privilege, embrace Lady Poverty and turn his friends into fellow travelers radically committed to the gospel. They preached by their words and by their lives.

In the end, Francis allied himself so closely with Jesus Christ that he came to share his wounds (the stigmata) and died covered only by another friar’s habit. Within a couple of years he was declared a saint by the Catholic Church, and his followers numbered into the thousands.

This is the story Father Murray Bodo, O.F.M., tells in his book and reflected on in an April interview with St. Anthony Messenger. Born in Gallup, New Mexico, he was an English teacher at St. Francis High School Seminary in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1970 when Father Jeremy Harrington, O.F.M., editor of St. Anthony Messenger magazine, asked him to write a book about St. Francis. Father Jeremy had heard about Franco Zeffirelli’s new movie project about St. Francis that became Brother Sun, Sister Moon, and wanted to capitalize on it, while presenting a thoroughly Franciscan view.

Father Murray devoted the spring and summer of 1972 to writing his book. He went to Italy to absorb firsthand something of the geography and atmosphere (“the spirituality of place”) Sts. Francis and Clare knew. In traveling to Assisi, the priest says he found he was not just moving geographically, but also moving back in time. It freed his right brain to deal with Francis, not the analytical Ph.D. side of him.

But at whom exactly was the book aimed? “When the writing was happening, I realized that I was the audience,” Father Murray remembers. “If it worked for me, then I was praying it was going to work for someone else.”

He next came to see his audience as the young men of the boarding school with whom he lived 24 hours a day, nine months of the year.

Finally came the idea that the book might have a larger reach: “I was writing somehow deeply from within. It was almost—I don’t want to be dramatic or false here—like I was an instrument of something that was coming from deep within me and from within the Franciscan tradition. From the fact of being in Assisi, I could almost feel Francis and Clare on the streets, and all of that, I think, was forming and informing the book.”

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Barbara Beckwith is the retired managing editor of St. Anthony Messenger magazine. She was a proofreader for the second printing of Father Murray’s Francis: The Journey and the Dream, and says that that book’s vision inspired her then and sustained her throughout the ensuing 37 years.

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Rose Philippine Duchesne: Born in Grenoble, France, of a family that was among the new rich, Philippine learned political skills from her father and a love of the poor from her mother. The dominant feature of her temperament was a strong and dauntless will, which became the material—and the battlefield—of her holiness. She entered the convent at 19 and remained despite their opposition. As the French Revolution broke, the convent was closed, and she began taking care of the poor and sick, opened a school for homeless children and risked her life helping priests in the underground. 
<p>When the situation cooled, she personally rented her old convent, now a shambles, and tried to revive its religious life. The spirit was gone, and soon there were only four nuns left. They joined the infant Society of the Sacred Heart, whose young superior, St. Madeleine Sophie Barat, would be her lifelong friend. In a short time Philippine was a superior and supervisor of the novitiate and a school. But her ambition, since hearing tales of missionary work in Louisiana as a little girl, was to go to America and work among the Indians. At 49, she thought this would be her work. With four nuns, she spent 11 weeks at sea en route to New Orleans, and seven weeks more on the Mississippi to St. Louis. She then met one of the many disappointments of her life. The bishop had no place for them to live and work among Native Americans. Instead, he sent her to what she sadly called "the remotest village in the U.S.," St. Charles, Missouri. With characteristic drive and courage, she founded the first free school for girls west of the Mississippi. </p><p>It was a mistake. Though she was as hardy as any of the pioneer women in the wagons rolling west, cold and hunger drove them out—to Florissant, Missouri, where she founded the first Catholic Indian school, adding others in the territory. "In her first decade in America, Mother Duchesne suffered practically every hardship the frontier had to offer, except the threat of Indian massacre—poor lodging, shortages of food, drinking water, fuel and money, forest fires and blazing chimneys, the vagaries of the Missouri climate, cramped living quarters and the privation of all privacy, and the crude manners of children reared in rough surroundings and with only the slightest training in courtesy" (Louise Callan, R.S.C.J., <i>Philippine Duchesne</i>). </p><p>Finally at 72, in poor health and retired, she got her lifelong wish. A mission was founded at Sugar Creek, Kansas, among the Potawatomi. She was taken along. Though she could not learn their language, they soon named her "Woman-Who-Prays-Always." While others taught, she prayed. Legend has it that Native American children sneaked behind her as she knelt and sprinkled bits of paper on her habit, and came back hours later to find them undisturbed. She died in 1852 at the age of 83 and was canonized in 1988.</p> American Catholic Blog It was important for some saints to vanish from view, to “decrease” so that God could “increase” in the scheme of things. Many saints actively fought promotions. If obedience required embracing them, they found other ways to remain lowly.

 
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