I remember so distinctly all those years ago as a student hearing one of my tutors claiming that St Francis was a successful heretic. It seemed so deliciously iconoclastic in those days, and it makes a lot of sense. The saint, whom we celebrated yesterday, managed to keep within the Church – just – when those around him who were saying very similar things fell foul of the authorities.
On holiday recently by Lake Garda, I found a simple little church currently used by the Alpini – the mountain regiment. Apparently Fra Dolcino preached there in the early C14th. Now Fra Dolcino is well-known from The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco’s novel that was made into a film starring Sean Connery. Some of the inmates of the monastery it features were charged with being among his heretical followers. Dolcino was a radical anti-clerical preacher who lambasted the wealthy churchmen of his age and tried to create a new world. He and his followers ended up stealing and fighting and trashing any community that resisted them; also, reputedly, indulging in free love. He met a very nasty end at the hands of the Inquisition.
The Franciscans were all too easily tarred with the same brush by forces in the Church who squirmed at their critique of wealth and power – this was the context of Eco’s murder mystery, and they strove to disassociate themselves from radicals like Dolcino. But what constituted their innocence? Holding an idea that in the wrong hands could become dangerous and unlawful but which was good in itself – like the need for the Church to be poor and to side with the outcasts in society? Are we responsible for the use that people make of our ideas?