So how could I resist? I bought a copy, and have been busily (and happily) working through it.
Thompson's perspective is especially worthwhile, in that it offers a twofold approach to the Franciscan legacy: the first part of the book is an easy-to-read, tightly written, and very enjoyable narrative telling of Francis's life; the second part is a modern and annotated look at biographical and other related sources. It's a great read for anyone eager to explore the factual details of a saintly life—one that, although legendary, is shown to deserve, in fact, the great veneration given to it.
While the media has snapped up Thompson's book on crasser grounds, the advent of a documentary-style retelling of Francis's life is especially apropos in light of Bergoglio's selection of the same name for his pontificate. The "honeymoon period" of Francis's early papacy has been driven by a parallel with the legendary Francis of Assisi—a total embrace of poverty, a visible affection for the sick and suffering, concern for God's creation, and a message of pax et bonum to all. As Thompson shows us, all of these things are true and verifiable. But there's more to the story of Francis than these; and it's the "more" that we should keep in mind as the elation wears off, and as Pope Francis grows to fill his namesake's shoes (or lack thereof) in the day to day realities of ecclesial leadership.
One striking theme from Thompson's book is the reminder that Francis's spirituality of evangelical poverty was rooted firmly in a deep love for the Eucharist. In fact, a bulk of the saint's correspondence to the early order of "lesser brothers" concerned directly a reverence for the Eucharist, and for clerics whose duty it was to procure it. It's little known, by most fans of the popular Francis, that he was himself a deacon, and charged with retaining special devotion to the Blessed Sacrament, as well as praying the Divine Office under obedience. (Shawn Tribe at New Liturgical Movement has a good article on St. Francis's relationship to the liturgy and sacraments worth reading.)
Equally interesting, according to Thompson, was Francis's style of rule. Again, legend downplays the poverello's influence in this regard, making him out to care more about sermonizing to birds than leading his confreres. The facts indicate otherwise: namely, that Francis—although somewhat uncomfortably and only with a great deal of help—took up the work of writing a rule by his own volition, and even without coercion from Church officials. Moreover, while he protested always to be regarded as lower than all, his compulsive care for the order forced him to retain a real degree of authority, even after his official resignation and the appointment of subsequent vicars and superiors.
A last noteworthy observation, here, sees the saint in perpetual struggle with the influence of the Church hierarchy on the integrity of his evangelical work. Francis's first instinct was to seek papal approval for his life of poverty and penance, which was granted almost immediately (with some additional conditions that, while not foreseen, were received with filial devotion). The early community of brothers depended directly on papal support and the patronage of cardinals to guarantee its success and safety. Indeed, however, Francis was severe with later brothers who sought too much share in this power for themselves—even to the point of publicly berating them and witnessing their departure from the order. Nevertheless, Francis always knew the utility of maintaining good relations, and seems to have considered it a necessary evil if the evangelical work of the brotherhood was to progress outward. (The Poverty Controversy of the 14th Century shows just how dependent the Franciscans would become on the institutional Church, and the degree to which they'd go in keeping it that way.)
All of this to say, then, that the name "Francis" brings with it more than meets the eye. If the poor man from Assisi was a great lover of lepers in his early days, he was also a churchman—albeit a modest and mostly unwilling one—in his last. The saint's devotion to poverty never inhibited his appreciation for the richness of the Church—certainly when it came to the sacraments and his basic obligations, but also even with respect to the material complexities and fineries of the Church visible and solemnly governed. Francis's highest aspiration, it seems, was reminding himself of his lowliness before the throne of Christ the King, to whom the unfaithful, he was wont to remind his brothers, would be accountable on the day of judgement.
Thanks to Fr. Thompson, we have a new angle on the story of Francis—a story that simply never gets old, and that benefits greatly from this latest and careful retelling. It's a story that we're also privileged to follow in "real time" with our own Francis, who surely knows more about the man of Assisi than legend permits. That the pope understands the crux of a Franciscan identity is clear; that he aims to show us an ever broader picture of it is, I think, something we can eagerly expect.