Book Review: Franciscan Footprints by Sr. Helen Julian, CSF
As the oldest child in a Congolese family of 20 brothers and sisters, Muambule Tchipanga was the apple of her father’s eye. Unlike the rest of her brothers and sisters, she was not expected to do housework. Even after she became a Poor Clare in 1979, taking the name Claire of the Eucharist, she was reluctant to do the daily chores expected of a sister. Cooking, housework, and gardening had little spiritual value, she thought. Doing them seemed a waste of time, especially given her great love and preference for prayer. It was only after a profound religious experience with a visiting American missionary in 1983 that Claire began finding God in these mundane tasks. A slow but gradual peace found its way into her life. This joy, however, was cut short when, in late 1983, a cancerous growth was found in Claire’s jaw. The surgery left her fatigued with poor eyesight and the inability to chew her food. Yet, in the midst of her physical suffering, she received many visitors who sought her spiritual insight. Concerning her failing health, “Brother Cancer is doing his work, and I’m doing mine. My work is to praise God, to praise him in joy, in suffering, in all that I am!”
Claire’s story is one of the several dozen Franciscan biographies included in Sister Helen Julian’s new book Franciscan Footprints (The Bible Reading Fellowship, 134 pages, $7.66). Sister Helen Julian’s book begins with the story of St. Francis laying on his deathbed, surrounded by his brothers in the year 1226. His last words are traditionally remembered as, “I have done what is mine. May Christ show you what is yours.” What follows in Franciscan Footsteps is a series of short and accessible biographies of many prominent and lesser well-known Franciscan saints. Some figures will be familiar to the general public, particularly to Franciscans or those with a Franciscan heart. Pope John the XXIII, Bonaventure, Elizabeth of Hungary, Jean Vianney, Ilia Delio, Richard Rohr, Mychal Judge, and others find their way into her book. Other stories of lesser well-known saints, particularly the stories of women Franciscans, are included as well. I found myself wanting to know more about Franciscan women like Caritas Pirckheimer whose education, background, and personality allowed her to hold her own against the attacks leveled at the religious life by Martin Luther and other Protestant reformers in her home city of Nuremberg. For example, when the entire city of Nuremberg adopted Lutheranism in March 1525, Roman Catholic priests were no longer allowed to minister the sacraments to the women’s communities like Caritas’. Instead, Lutheran ministers were assigned to preach to the sisters. Caritas records in her journal, with perhaps a sigh of exasperation, “We have now heard 111 of these sermons.”
Throughout her book, Sr. Helen Julian weaves an impressive tapestry of the Franciscan experience. Men and women from all walks of life are represented and their stories told. Most interesting of all are the stories of “modern” Franciscans saints, particularly within the Anglican Franciscan family. Brothers Ramon, Giles, Algy, Douglas, and Sisters Rosina and Ruth all have their story told in Franciscan Footprints. Reading about these brothers and sisters reminds me that, even though I am not perfect, neither were they. Yet, their story is shared alongside spiritual giants like John Duns Scotus, Maximilian Kolbe, and Isabel of Portugal. Taken together, their stories remind us that everyone, no matter how small or how humble their background, is called to holiness. Each one of us, like St Francis, is called by Christ to do that work which he calls us to do.
Brother James Nathaniel can be reached at email@example.com