Twelfth century Italy faced many of the same tendencies and upheavals as modern day America.
An affluent society with burgeoning travel and trade at home, the Crusades causing constant conflict abroad, a wealthy church that many felt had lost touch with the people, and everywhere a “pleasure-seeking culture,” according to Glenn Myers, professor of church history at Crown College in Minnesota.
Onto that landscape strode St. Francis of Assisi, who was born into affluence, but in a dramatic moment in the town square tore off his clothes and broke with his old ways and embraced a new life of poverty. Christianity would never be the same.
Eight years after his ministry was blessed by the pope, Francis had assembled 5,000 itinerant priests who crisscrossed Europe, spreading faith through example and sparking zeal for Christian teachings. He’s been called the savior of the church.
Religious revivals have happened throughout history, including in the U.S., where two of them earned the title of Great Awakening.
As the religious today ponder the future and the rising number of Americans who reject formalized faith, they’re wondering whether it’s time for one of those revivals.
“We are in a bad way. At the same time as an historian, one of the things I always say is the study of history disabuses you of the arrogance to believe we live in a uniquely good or a uniquely bad time,” said the Rev. Stephen M. Koeth, a Catholic priest and Ph.D. candidate in history at Columbia University. “I don’t think it’s unfair to say we’re in a moment of decline and scandal transformation, but I think it would be despairing to think we never come out of this.”
The question, then, is whence the revival will come.
For now, the trend lines are headed in the wrong direction for a revival. The rate of Americans who reject religion has grown by a percentage point each year this decade and shows no sign of slowing.
Yet Mr. Myers said those in the 12th century might have recognized that same apathy — and would not have expected what came next.
“I don’t think Assisi was particularly ready for it any more than America is today. We’re happy being entertained, leading comfortable lives. But he was so radical in this passionate devotion and self-sacrifice that it just rocked the boat,” Mr. Myers said.
The Rev. Koeth said hinging a revival on one person is probably unrealistic. St. Francis had his army of priests, and there were other major reformers operating within the church at the same time, such as St. Dominic.
“Those individual people helped the institution change, they helped the institution evolve in models of dealing with these things. At first the institution resists, but eventually there’s this realization they’re onto something,” he said.
Mr. Myers agreed, pointing out that St. Francis, while challenging the church, worked within it. He went to Rome to ask for the pope’s approval.
Both the Rev. Koeth and Mr. Myers mentioned Mother Teresa, now St. Teresa of Calcutta, as a Francis-like figure whose radical commitment to her simple message of charity touched so many.
“My sense is that something similar will happen,” he said. “There will be people like modern day Francises, whether that be Mother Teresa or these types of people who are doing great work on the ground. They are themselves holy, they develop a ministerial approach that is highly effective. People are drawn to that, the institution takes notice and eventually sanctions and propagates that.”
And people are trying new things that could be sparks, Mr. Myers said, such as the Dominican Sisters of Mary in Michigan, dubbed the Singing Nuns, whose music became a surprise hit earlier this decade.
• Stephen Dinan can be reached at email@example.com.
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