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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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John Henry Newman: John Henry Newman, the 19th-century's most important English-speaking Roman Catholic theologian, spent the first half of his life as an Anglican and the second half as a Roman Catholic. He was a priest, popular preacher, writer, and eminent theologian in both Churches. <br /><br />Born in London, England, he studied at Oxford's Trinity College, was a tutor at Oriel College and for 17 years was vicar of the university church, St. Mary the Virgin. He eventually published eight volumes of <i>Parochial and Plain Sermons</i> as well as two novels. His poem, "Dream of Gerontius," was set to music by Sir Edward Elgar.<br /> <br />After 1833, Newman was a prominent member of the Oxford Movement, which emphasized the Church's debt to the Church Fathers and challenged any tendency to consider truth as completely subjective.<br /> <br />Historical research made Newman suspect that the Roman Catholic Church was in closest continuity with the Church that Jesus established. In 1845, he was received into full communion as a Catholic. Two years later he was ordained a Catholic priest in Rome and joined the Congregation of the Oratory, founded three centuries earlier by St. Philip Neri. Returning to England, Newman founded Oratory houses in Birmingham and London and for seven years served as rector of the Catholic University of Ireland. <br /><br />Before Newman, Catholic theology tended to ignore history, preferring instead to draw deductions from first principles—much as plane geometry does. After Newman, the lived experience of believers was recognized as a key part of theological reflection.<br /> <br />Newman eventually wrote 40 books and 21,000 letters that survive. Most famous are his book-length <i>Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine</i>, <i>On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine</i>, <i>Apologia Pro Vita Sua</i> (his spiritual autobiography up to 1864) and <i>Essay on the Grammar of Assent</i>. He accepted Vatican I's teaching on papal infallibility while noting its limits, which many people who favored that definition were reluctant to do.<br /><br />When Newman was named a cardinal in 1879, he took as his motto <i>"Cor ad cor loquitur"</i> (Heart speaks to heart). He was buried in Rednal (near Birmingham) 11 years later. After his grave was exhumed in 2008, a new tomb was prepared at the Oratory church in Birmingham.<br /><br />Three years after Newman died, a Newman Club for Catholic students began at the University of Pittsburgh. In time, his name was linked to ministry centers at many public and private colleges and universities in the United States.<br /><br />Pope Benedict XVI beatified Newman on September 19, 2010, at Crofton Park (near Birmingham). The pope noted Newman's emphasis on the vital place of revealed religion in civilized society but also praised his pastoral zeal for the sick, the poor, the bereaved and those in prison. American Catholic Blog God’s job, I think, is to keep lovingly disrupting our lives, and our job is to see if there are fresh opportunities for faith hidden within those disruptions. As a result, God keeps finding fresh ways to shake up our complacencies and challenge us to resist the seductive temptation to play the victim.

 
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