Francesco, va’ e ripara la mia casa;
Now go, Francesco, and repair my house
(From The Major Legend, St. Bonaventure, XIII century)
For those who still consider him as the saint who talked to animals, or, as historian Lynn White Jr. suggests, “the patron saint of ecologists” (14), it may be surprising to learn that in 2020, Francis of Assisi is primarily being regarded as a lens for conducting a critical observation on the present-day world, and as a model for repairing some critical issues affecting our time. These aspects have emerged clearly from The Economy of Francesco, the international conference convened by Pope Francis, which took place from 19 to 21 November 2020. While it was originally – and symbolically – scheduled in Assisi, Italy, the city of il Poverello, the conference later became digital due to the pandemic. However, just like many other events during these past few months, this choice revealed a silver lining regarding the fact that it allowed for a more successful alignment with the spirit of (global) connectedness for which it aimed. Hearing the different accents in English during several transcultural discussions among international participants reminded us how English could eventually become a real lingua franca, both inclusive and depoliticized, which will be able to bring together worlds often perceived as being apart.
The Economy of Francesco saw the presence of some distinguished intellectuals from around the world, and its main purpose was to discuss and adjust the current dominant economic model(s) in order to imagine more ethical, sustainable, and inclusive versions of them. Keynote speakers including the Nobel Peace Prize recipient, Muhammad Yunus, as well as Jeffrey Sachs and Vandana Shiva, among many others, joined a team of more than 2000 under-35 researchers, economists, and change-makers from 115 different nations who responded to the Pope’s call to reflect critically on the status of our current global economy – and to develop alternatives to it. On a planet in which 1% of the population possesses more wealth than the remaining 99% (Oxfam.org), it is evident how a re-conversion of the system, its connected thoughts, and its values can no longer be overlooked.
By establishing the life of a thirteenth-century man as a cornerstone for developing a critique of advanced capitalism, Pope Francis proposes a possible response – and a useful narrative – for re-evaluating the logic of individual profit, whose inequalities and injustices have now become unequivocally clear, both among humans and in relation to the nonhuman world. Through his Encyclical Letter, titled Laudato Si’ (2015), Pope Francis introduced Catholic discourse into the wider, international debate that has been addressing the urgency of the current ecological crisis. By “supplementing Catholic dogma on Natural Law, with Naomi Klein’s analysis of the destructive role of Capitalism” (Braidotti 66), Bergoglio traced the direction towards an ‘ecological conversion’ that “calls for a number of attitudes which together foster a spirit of generous care, full of tenderness” (Vatican.va). His work does not appear as a mere greenwashing strategy that winks at the growing environmental movements that have appeared worldwide. Rather, the Pope joined the chorus of contemporary critics who are endorsing a reflection on the very meaning(s) of the notion of ‘human’ while highlighting its inextricable entanglement with other forms of life. The image of the ‘common home’ discussed in his Encyclical – which refers to the very household evoked by the Greek word oikos – has become a powerful eco-logical trope, and it has paved the way for the core eco-nomically oriented discussion that occurred at the conference.
Among the most interesting aspects characterizing the event, the adoption of an affirmative rhetoric remains pivotal: The Economy of Francesco, in fact, did not represent just another apocalyptic account of the future of planet Earth, with which the notion of the Anthropocene often pairs. Rather, the conference revealed a keen proactive standpoint that allows problems to be re(con)figured into challenges, for which one can – and should – find a solution. Similarly, attention was placed on the idea that – albeit being characterized by major inequalities and discriminations – the current dominant economic model can still represent a useful baseline for developing new solutions. Along these lines, Pope Francis appointed the younger generation as the primary addressee of this effort: this choice suggests how hopes are pinned on generational change, which is capable of pouring new creative energy into the effort of providing (possible) responses to the many crises – from climate change to the global pandemic – that the world is undergoing.
It is not possible to summarize the many insights that emerged during the conference in just a few words. In fact, they did not come only from the well-known speakers mentioned above, but also from the many participants attending the event, the working groups, and other workshops organized during the months before the conference, among which a real international debate flourished. Sustainability, accountability, fraternity, and inclusivity remain part of a long list of keywords that resounded during the three days of intensive, stimulating discussions that comprised the event. Yet I would like to avoid proposing another soporific rhyme of ‘big words’, which often runs the risk of emptying valuable concepts of their deepest sense. In its place, I propose one word – a verb, specifically – which, better than many others, epitomizes Saint Francis’s life, and which may also become useful for inspiring the widely discussed changes in current economic discourse(s) along more ethical assumptions: the verb is to repair.
This term connects to a mystical experience, which, while not necessarily in a strict sense, but, rather, in a more intimate one, was fundamental in the process of young Francis’s conversion. While in contemplation in the tiny church of San Damiano, a crumbling building next to a leprosarium that had been disregarded by the local population, the saint suddenly heard the crucifix providing him with a demand: Francesco, va’ e ripara la mia casa; “Now go, Francesco, and repair my house” (Caroli 609). The rest is history, in a literal sense. The effects of this command are still visible after eight centuries in the livelihood of the Franciscan movement that brings together hundreds of people and many spiritual and material experiences.
‘To repair’, rather than building up something new from scratch – resonates with the idea of amending something already existing for responding to new necessities. The fact of reinventing an entire economic system, which is often invoked as the only possible, utopic solution, appears as a challenge too demanding to even be properly conceived – let alone achieved – within the limits of humans’ capacities. The idea of ‘repairing’ our economy, instead, scales down this challenge by inspiring everyone, everywhere, to get involved in creating a much-invoked change and within the limits of one’s own experimentality and network. Just like Francis did.
The time for awaiting (a) new economic model(s) to be lowered ‘from above’ is over. The momentum, Francis seems to suggest, must come from below, and, right now, through a shared eco-logical perspective on the world that can inspire the development of a new eco-nomic process, that is, how its resources should be managed. Words like ‘entrepreneur’, ‘finance’ and ‘investment’ will not disappear in the dictionary of the new economy; rather, attention will be dedicated to how new meanings will have to be assumed by repairing old understandings along more pluralistic and inclusive postulations, according to profits that cannot be singular (i.e. individual), but that apply to all those inhabiting the common house: the entire human-nonhuman community of planet Earth.
Braidotti, Rosi. Posthuman Knowledge. Polity, 2019.
Caroli, Ernesto (Editor). Fonti Francescane. Padova Editrici Francescane, 2011.
White, Lynn, Jr. “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis”. The Ecocriticism Reader: Landmarks in Literary Ecology. Edited by Cheryll Glotfelty and Harold Fromm, University of Georgia Press, pp. 3-14, 1996. .
Stefano Rozzoni is a PhD Candidate in “Transcultural Studies in Humanities” at the University of Bergamo, Italy, in cotutelle with Justus-Liebig-Universität Gießen, Germany, where he is a member of the International PhD Programme “Literary and Cultural Studies”, and an affiliate member of the European doctoral program PhdNet. He is also a member of the Research Group “Oikos. Ecology and the Study of Culture” at the Graduate Center for the Study of Culture (GCSC) in Gießen. His research interests focus on Ecocriticism, Posthuman Studies, English Modernism, Virginia Woolf, and pastoral poetry. His dissertation project proposes an ecocritical reading of English Georgian pastoral poetry (1911-1926) for a critical reevaluation of this trend.