Over 10,000 people have already signed an open letter, recently posted on the internet, petitioning Mel Gibson to make his next movie on history's greatest imitator of Christ: St. Francis of Assisi.

The writers of the letter are members of the Community of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal and the Franciscan Sisters of the Renewal. These modern friars know, of course, that Francis has been translated onto the screen before, in movies like Franco Zeffirelli's 1972 "Brother Sun, Sister Moon" or the 1989 docudrama "Francesco," starring Mickey Rourke. But that, they point out, is precisely the problem: "This powerful figure who shaped and changed the course of history has too often been reduced to a pious, peace-loving character cast in plaster." No film on Francis, they claim, has yet been able to plumb the "true identity and authentic spirituality" of this "Man of the Passion."

Certainly Francis was no plaster saint. Consider the scene described by Mark Galli, former Christian History editor and present managing editor at our sister publication Christianity Today, in his readable, well-illustrated compact biography, Francis of Assisi and His World (IVP, 2002):

One night, a group of high-spirited Assisian youths arrived at the house of their friend Francis, a young swell of legendary high spirits and good cheer. They "handed him a mock scepter, and announced that they had made him 'king of youth.'"

"What they really wanted," recounts Galli, "was for him to foot the bill for another wild night on the town." Thanks to his well-to-do cloth-merchant father Peter Bernadone, "Francis obliged, as usual. After a gluttonous banquet, the group spilled out into the Assisi streets, singing drunken refrains late into the night."

But their young friend had recently been challenged, in a dream, to begin reconsidering his lifestyle. And so, "Francis, scepter in hand, dragged behind the rest, preoccupied."

"Suddenly, while considering the vanity of his life, Francis was filled with an inexplicable sensation. 'He was unable to speak or move,' says The Legend of the Three Companions. 'He could only feel and hear this marvelous tenderness,' which he attributed to God."

"His friends had blithely gone on ahead. When they noticed his absence, they turned around to find him. They found him transfixed, and they began teasing him, asking if he was daydreaming about a woman he might marry. Francis came back in kind: 'You are right! I was thinking about taking a wife more noble, wealthier, and more beautiful than you have ever seen.'"

"Everyone laughed at Francis's characteristic bravado. But a few thought they had detected a change in him. What they did not understand, and what Francis himself still did not fully grasp for years, was that he was speaking of his future marriage to 'Lady Poverty.' Though he still had no idea what all this meant, this much was clear: 'He began to consider himself of little value,' says The Legend of the Three Companions, 'and to despise those things which he had previously held in love.'"

"To work out what was going on inside him, Francis began spending more time with one friend, whom the biographers never name. Together, they would walk outside the city to a certain cave, into which Francis would enter to pray, sometimes for hours at a time. He implored God to show him his will. He trembled as he recalled his sins, and repeatedly repented of them. He worried that he would be unable to resist future temptations."

This was the beginning of the fascinating career not of a bland, angelic tree-hugger, floating several feet off of the ground, but of a bold, over-the-top crusader whose single passion was to follow and imitate Christ with all of his heart and might. Francis was no more meek and mild than the Jesus of the gospels. As Galli tells it, he spoke the stern challenge to high and low: "Repent!"

Nor did Francis preach as a man untouched by fault or failure. Rather, he struggled throughout his whole life with the pride and vanity that had made him a teen ringleader (more charitably we might call this trait "dramatic flair"—but all of our brightest gifts have a dark side).

Again and again, in the service both of this battle and of the larger church, he exposed himself to public ridicule: The rich merchant's son begging in rags for the money to build up his neighborhood's broken-down churches. The laughing-stock visionary, mocked by village sages and stoned by children. The man so set on maintaining humility and obedience before his Lord that when he felt himself over-pleased with some compliment he had received, he was known to ask one of his brother friars to tie him and drag him through the city, shouting out the charge of pridefulness so all would know what a worthless fellow was Francis of Assisi.

As Galli observes, even in such acts of mortification Francis's motives never quite sorted themselves out. It was as if he were forever proclaiming: "Look at me! I'm the most humble man in the world!"

Yet, no one can question the depth of Francis's devotion or the tremendous inspiration he has provided to Christians from his day to ours. He applied to the Christian life the same fervent commitment that had launched him into battle as a young man seeking knightly glory (an escapade that succeeded only in landing him in a rival prince's jail for a year, where, true to his irrepressible nature, he laughed, poked fun at his chains, and tried to cheer everyone up).

This reckless wholeheartedness marked everything Francis did. Faced with his father's implacable resistance to his newfound lifestyle of poverty and service, he responded to a summons and went before his father, a bishop, and a crowd of onlookers. There he stripped himself of his clothes, folded them with dramatic deliberateness, put all of his money in a bag on top of them, and handed them over to his father. As he did so, he called out, "Listen to me, all of you, and understand: Until now, I have called Peter Bernadone my father. But, because I have proposed to serve God, I say from now on, 'My father who is in heaven,' and not 'My father, Peter Bernadone.'"

Afraid of lepers from childhood, Francis forced himself to clothe them, kiss them, and eventually live with them. Burning with devotion to his Lord, he wept, practiced mortifications, saw visions, and eventually received in his own body the marks of the crucifixion: the stigmata.

I asked Mark Galli what he thought of this best-known of the miraculous signs surrounding Francis's life. Did it really have a miraculous origin? Mark said, "I'm not so skeptical as to dismiss the miracle outright," but added that if it were some day proved that Francis had somehow inflicted them on himself, he would have no trouble believing this either. "I could imagine him in his sleep," he mused, "out of the intense devotion to the Passion of Christ that always gripped him, digging at himself until he bled."

These are some of the complexities of a life well worth faithful screen treatment. We can only hope that if not Gibson, someone of similar vision and talent takes up the challenge of the Franciscan petition and renders Francis's life in the many, powerful, inspiring dimensions that it really had.

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