The process of Saint Francis of Assisi

Image: Jason Youngman


Francisco can be an example of a contemporary life linked to its form in such a way that it would exceed the current state of permanent exception of bourgeois right.

This text is dedicated to my Aunt Delmaria Possidônio and my uncle Ziroco

Different themes can be discussed and thought about the life of Saint Francis of Assisi (1181–1226). The medieval saint had remarkable moments in his life story and in his way of living. His horizontal relationship with animals, his meeting with the Sultan of Egypt in 1219, his renunciation of the right to own and own property, his mysticism, his “madness”, his “poverty”, are themes that could already mark profound anthropological, ethical-political, legal, theological, psychological and even economic reflections.

These reflections could overcome medieval and Catholic assumptions, even being able to be operated from contemporary philosophy. As examples, someone could dare to reflect: on the way Francis dealt with animals, a challenging way for Western philosophical anthropology, which has difficulty thinking from multispecific categories, or from an animal cosmopolitics (Haraway, Fausto, Borba Filho ); or about their way of living, which could be thought of from another relationship between action and rule, form and life (Agamben); or, still, about when his life is thought from the economy (Luigino Bruni).

In this essay, I intend to reflect on a specific possible theme, about one of the most dramatic moments in the biography of San Francisco: the legal process under which he was submitted, having his father Pietro di Bernardone — or, as it is said in Portuguese, Pedro de Bernardone—as his accuser. In one of the classic biographies about the Saint, Saint Francis of Assisi (1907), Johannes Joergensen describes this dramatic moment in a very poetic way. The biographer recalls that Francisco’s father, after having imprisoned his own son, as a way of “putting an end to his son’s new madness”, his “firstborn for whom he had dreamed of such great things, and in whom he had placed such bright hopes”. decided to resort to legal action. He asked the consuls of his city that “the prodigal son be disinherited and expelled from the region”, and also asked for the reinstitution of the financial values ​​invested in him.

With a more modern, serious and rigorous biography, the famous medievalist historian Jaques Le Goff, in Saint Francis of Assisi (1998) also reports this episode, the quarrel between Francisco and his father. Upon seeing a poor priest unable to renovate a dilapidated “little church of San Damião” (Santo Damião), Francisco sells his father’s horse and textile goods in Foligno, and “returns on foot to Assisi and gives all the proceeds of the sale to the poor priest”. This fact would have been the specific cause of Francisco's father's lawsuit against his son.

Returning to the biography written by Joergensen, the author gives an important detail. He recalls that the Saint “refused to obey this subpoena, saying: 'By the grace of God, I am now a free man, and I no longer consider myself obliged to appear before the consuls, since I have no lord but God'” . For more details about Francisco's jurisdiction of the process, in his version of Francisco's biography, at Saint Francis of Assisi (1923), the conservative Catholic essayist GK Chesterton points out that the Saint would have "refused the authority of all legal courts", and that was why he and his father "were called to the bishop's court".

In the cinebiography, or better, in the cine-hagiography, Francesco (1989), directed by the Italian director Lilana Cavani, the divergence about the competence to judge Francis is also portrayed. It is a very beautiful film, with an emotional soundtrack by the recently deceased Greek composer Vangelis, starring the, until then, not so famous, actress Helena Bonham Carter, in the role of Santa Clara, and starring one of the biggest heartthrobs of cinema. of the time, actor Mickey Rourke, in the role of San Francisco — highlight for his breathtaking interpretation, in a role very different from the ones he had been playing in that decade.

This is the moment when the character who advocated for Francisco says that he is a “penitent”, even though he is not a priest or monk. Jokingly, his father's legal representative, on the other hand, replies: “Penitente! Penitent towards his father, perhaps.” The sentence is said with sarcasm, referring to the penance imposed by the financial and also social damage to Francisco's father, this “prodigal” son. Pedro de Bernardone loved Francisco and dreamed of obtaining a title of nobility through him. This would justify Francisco's investment in armor and a horse, with the aim of returning from foreign battles with the noble glory that his merchant, bourgeois, rising family still aspired to have.

The outcome of this process is commented on by all the biographers cited so far, as well as by San Francisco's most classic biographer: Tomás de Celano. With the Second life of San Francisco (1248), the medieval author reports that the bishop advised Francis to deliver “to his father the money that the man of God (1Kings 13,1,5) wanted to have spent on the work of the said church”, because “it was not lawful to spend things ill-acquired for sacred uses.” Faced with this advice, Francis gave a strong response, citing passages from Apostles' acts, book of job e Mateus: “Now I will say (cf. Jn 13, 19) freely: Our Father who art in heaven (Mt 6,9), not Father Pedro Bernardone, to whom I return – here it is – not only the money, but also all the garments . Therefore, I will go naked to the Lord.”

This scene is also reported by Joergensen, with his own poetics. In his version of the biography of Saint Francis, he says that in this “curious process between one of the most important men of Assisi and the son who seemed to have gone mad”, “an astonishing thing happened, something that had never happened in the history of the world”, a moment when “for centuries, painters would paint, poets would sing and priests celebrate in their sermons”: Francisco's nakedness in front of his father, followed by the iconic phrase, “[a]till here I called Pietro father di Bernardone, but now that I have given you the money and all the clothes you gave me, I will never say again: Pietro di Bernardone, my father! But yes: Our Father, who art in heaven!

One last comment by Joergensen is about the commotion that this scene would have caused in those present at that process. Francisco, naked, declaring that his Father is the one who resides in the heavens, Joergensen comments that “[all] present were deeply moved; many of them wept and the bishop himself had eyes full of tears. Only Pietro de Bernardone remained impassive. In Cavani's film, Francesco (1989), however, this scene tries to show something else. Francisco's earthly father seemed to have tried to provoke his son to stop his “madness” of “poverty”. Bernardone looked more disappointed, grieving the death of his fantasy of a handsome, rich, Dionysian son, a noble knight who might win a count.

Based on this episode, in this essay I propose other possible interpretations. Contrary to what Joergensen thinks, Francisco's nudity during his trial before the bishop, against his earthly father, may be analogous to another trial, of another man. The process of Jesus – a man who was God and Holy Spirit at the same time. In symmetrical opposition, in opposite analogy, instead of facing a pagan authority, as was Pilate – despite also being “Caesar’s vicar” (Agamben) –, Francis, in turn, was facing a bishop – who also dialectically represents Rome in some way.

Thus, while Jesus was tried by a Roman, pagan authority, rather than by the Jewish Sanhedrin, Francis is tried by an ecclesiastical, religious authority, refusing to answer to his father in a secular court. Jesus and Francis were humiliated by the crowds, mocked. They were reduced to nudity before gaining a red tunic, on the one hand, and, on the other, gaining the bishop's “own cloak”, “in whose wide folds he hid the boy's nakedness”, as Joergensen says.

And beyond the symmetrical opposition between their competent judgments, I also propose another possible analogy. It can be between the rhetoric of Jesus and Francis, before their judges. His defense pieces, his arguments before his accusers and judges have the same structure, but in opposite ways. Jesus was accused of blasphemy against God and lese-majesty against the Emperor, while Francisco was accused of illegality in his father's business, for having improperly appropriated it, even though he had not destined the values ​​for his own enrichment.

Their defenses are analogous because Jesus and Francis both renounce a certain personal condition. Jesus answers Pilate's question about whether he does not understand that he has the power to release him or to crucify him (John 19,8:19,11), with the argument that his Kingdom is not of this world, contesting, his still alleged judge, then: "You would have no authority over me if it had not been given from above" (John, 22,21). Similarly, Francis also refuses a man's power over himself. The Saint renounces the paternal power of his earthly father, Pedro de Bernardone, to whom he returns his clothes, as if saying, like Jesus, “[p]earn the things of Caesar to Caesar; and the things of God to God” (Matthew XNUMX:XNUMX).

So, just as Pilate and Caesar have no power over Jesus, so a secular court and Francis' father had no power over the Saint. For the true paternal power over Francis comes from the Heavenly Father. Francisco's clothes, coins and other goods are returned to the rightful owner: Pedro de Bernardone.

Like Jesus, at the limit of his humanity, Francis opposes this world. He opposes his way of life, which later on will become the Regula of his Order of Friars Minor. Renounce earthly goods because, as Francis says in his Fragments of the unbullated rule: "nothing belongs to us", "let us attribute all goods to the Lord God most high and supreme and acknowledge that all goods are his". And this is best defined in your Bulled Rule, when he instructs the Friars Minor: “The brothers should not appropriate anything, not a house, not a place, not anything”.

Coming to the end of this essay, I make one last comment, quoting one of the volumes of the project Homo sapiens, by the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben. in your book extreme poverty, the contemporary philosopher recalls that Saint Francis, by renouncing the ownership of earthly goods, renounces the very right to have rights, according to human laws, according to the positive law of men. As Agamben says, “what is at stake, whether for the order or for its founder, is the abdicatio omnis iuris, that is, the possibility of a human existence outside the law”. And this is so because such renunciation is not just a mere monastic office for the lesser brothers, but a true way of life, forma vitae, way of living, understood as a syntagm, a way of life, while being a true paradigm, a unique ethical-political example that challenges the legal devices that capture our bodies.

What Francis does is take the passage from the New Testament, in which Jesus says about “[c]o how difficult it is for those who have money to enter the kingdom of God!” (Matthew, 10, 23), to everyday human practice. With this, faced with the evangelical imperative to sell everything he has, to give to beggars (Matthew, 10, 22), abandoning home, brothers, sisters, father and son (Matthew, 10,30, XNUMX), Francis inaugurates a way of life that defies the law and also capitalism. And in these times when capitalism has become a religion (Walter Benjamin), Agamben, in his recent text, Forgive us our debts (2022), reminds us that God did not die, he became money: the bank, a substitute for the churches, and that “it works by playing with the credit – that is, with the faith – of men”.

Against this state of affairs, San Francisco can be our example, our paradigmatic case of life, of a way of life. He reminds us how much we are not owners of the goods of this Earth, despite being allowed by God to use it (Genesis 1:29–30), for our maintenance here. So, what remains for us is to try to find out what use we can give to the Earth, our bodies, the natural resources, of which we are not the owners. Another use, another form of life, and also another right are necessary, possible. A new ethic, one that can have Francis as an example, and not necessarily a religious one.

Francisco can be an example of a contemporary life linked to its form in such a way that it would exceed the current state of permanent exception of bourgeois law. Its permanent state of necessity could generate an “exception to the exception” of the emergency measures by which the rule of law governs our lives, to the point of making this life something impossible to sustain without its own form, impossible to be separated from life by any other ethical, legal measure, by decree or law. for your ethos is linked to your action. Form united with life. Francisco is an example of life inseparable from its form, to the point that any other form, or heteronomous rule, becomes unnecessary, at least in terms of its common use, juridical, patrimonial, inquisitive, etc.

As Agamben explains, a life whose acting and saying, rule and action, are united in the very sense of Life form by Ludwig Wittgenstein. A sense of life that overcomes the abyss between norm and application, universal and particular, because “[a] way of life would be, therefore, the set of constitutive rules that define it”.

San Francisco is an example of how to renounce a life dependent on money, how to renounce violence against humans and animals other than humans. Finally, the example of renouncing a life captured by the power of capital, the State and its legal provisions. He is a Saint who makes us understand an ethic of caring for one's own life. With the life that is, in its practice, an ethic, a gospel.

Ricardo Evandro S. Martins is a professor at the Faculty of Law of the Federal University of Pará (UFPA).


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