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Augustine Thompson O.P. Francis of Assisi – a new Biography

Augustine Thompson, O.P.

Francis of Assisi – A new Biography

ISBN: 9780 8014 5070 9

Cornell University Press, 2012, 312 pp, £18.50

And now for something different! A biography of St Francis by a Dominican scholar, with a clear purpose in presenting him to us in a strictly historical vein. So careful is he to provide his sources that for the convenience of the reader the first half of his work is the Life (pages 3-141), a short middle section on what is traditionally referred to as the ‘Franciscan Question’ (p154-170). This is followed by a section of Sources and Debates (p171-278) under similar subheadings as the life, and an extensive (11 page) bibliography. This book earns its place in the modern scholarship bracket on this favoured subject.

Fr Augustine certainly had something new to say to me. He dismisses any emphasis on Francis’ determination to observe the strictest poverty on principle. Rather, we are introduced to Francis from the time he first began to minister to lepers where he experienced his conversion as a call to subject his own will wholly to God, and therefore to the church and to all others. He traces Francis’ response through a period as a penitent, as he was sent brothers, and as he struggled with leadership of the Order. His compelling desire to be a ‘lesser brother’ and subject to all dominated every other single factor, and the central place in his life of the Eucharist and of Scripture.

The author shows the deepest respect for the Saint but tests every story for the authentic character of Francis the man, suspicious of all hagiographic gloss – of which I now realise there are very many. Be prepared to lose some of your favourite stories and in its place meet the impulsive man who struggled with a vocation to live the Gospel calling and to follow solidly into the footsteps of Christ.

There are some compensations! Peter Bernadone’s is a nicer character than sometimes portrayed, and Elias too. But this is a critical and masterly work, free of sentimentality, legend and the craft of saintliness.

Damian SSF