I am thinking today, on his feast day, of one of the most remarkable men in Christian history, St. Francis of Assisi, in part because of a solid new biography of the saint by Augustine Thompson, who tries to find the real man beneath the legends that have surrounded him.
Francis, a troubled man who changed history, presumably met Frederick II Hohenstaufen, Holy Roman Emperor, before the saint's death in 1226. Whether or not this encounter between two radically different men occurred, it is interesting, as Richard Bressler notes in his recent biography of Frederick, that the worldly emperor, with his love of Eastern (Muslim) customs and language, saw in Francis a condemnation of the worldly corruption, power and wealth of the Catholic hierarchy of the thirteenth century. Although we can say little with absolute certainty about a man of those times, Frederick believed that a church closer to the simple Franciscan model was necessary.
One point in comparing these two divergent figures is that being a Catholic is, and never has been, as monolithic and uniform as it is often portrayed, as I, in fact, was educated to believe--not even in the Middle Ages. The diversity and independence of each of these men, combined with their respect for the spiritual power of the pope and the church, makes them important representatives of an important era in the church's emergence as a world power.
Frederick, called in his time a heretic, even the Antichrist, for oppposing several popes, nevertheless remained a faithful Catholic Christian. At his death, he wore the habit of a Cistercian monk, renouncing the wordly glory he had pursued. What emerges from the books I have read about Frederick, called in his time the Wonder of the World, was that he was a highly energetic and independent thinker, interested in languages, science, poetry, law, and kingship and open to both the Jewish and Islamic worlds as he encountered them in the cultivated kingdom of Sicily, which he inherited in 1197.
In believing that the spiritual aspect of Christendom should be in the hands of the papacy, but that the church should not be about land, money and power politics, he may be seen as a forerunner of the Reformation. Francis, too, disturbed by the worldly excesses of the church but always respectful of its spiritual authority, is an interesting counterpart to his contemporary, the emperor. I would like to think they met and respected each other.
I am glad that both men, revered for many reasons by many people, have found biographers able to sift through the myths of the centuries to try to find out what they really were like. In doing so, we find some amazing correspondences between Francis, the least aggressive reformer of all times, and Frederick, who fought the church for the sake of an empire that never succeeded yet who is valued nevertheless for his tolerance of non-Christian cultures. Both were sons of the church, which like all vast institutions, needs criticism and ongoing reform.
I am glad that I happened to discover books about them at the same time.