There’s no doubt that Pope Francis has had (and continues to have) a tremendous impact on the world. There is also no doubt that G.K. Chesterton has had (and continues to have) a tremendous impact on Pope Francis.
I think it’s safe to say that had these two great men met, they would have been good friends.
Now here are seven points to illustrate Pope Francis’ appreciation of the work, life and joy of Gilbert Keith Chesterton; which are also seven reasons that suggest these two Catholic gentlemen might have been great friends:
1. Pope Francis has quoted Chesterton. In October of 2013, the president of the American Chesterton Society, Dale Ahlquist, said in an interview:
“I’m waiting for him to quote Chesterton. That’s what I’m waiting for the pope to do. One of the interviews with him describes his study and describes the Chesterton books on the shelf behind him. We know there’s that connection. We haven’t found a quote yet. We have people looking for it.”
Only a couple of months later, Ahlquist joyfully reported:
“An Italian paper reported last December 5 that on that day Pope Francis said Mass at the Church of St. Martha in Rome, and in his homily, he quoted G.K. Chesterton. Yes, I know. There was great rejoicing.”
The Vatican website confirms via an article from L’Osservatore Romano :
The Pontiff then quoted the English author G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936), when speaking about heresy once said that a heresy is a truth, a word, a truth gone mad.“When Christian words lack Christ, they begin to head down the road of madness”. The prophet Isaiah, he added, clearly describes the nature of this madness. He says: “The Lord is an everlasting rock. For he has brought low the inhabitants of the height, the lofty city” (26:4-5). “The inhabitants of the height. A Christian word without Christ leads to vanity, to self assuredness, to pride, and to power for power’s sake. And the Lord brings these people low”.
For more of Dale Ahlquist’s response to Pope Francis quoting Chesterton, read this.
2. St. Francis of Assisi has been a profound influence on both men. Pope Francis made it clear following his election to the papacy that his name – Francis – was inspired by St. Francis of Assisi, a man he described as “the man of poverty, the man of peace, the man who loves and protects creation.” He also added immediately, ““How I would like a church that is poor and that is for the poor.”
As author Joseph Pearce points out, Chesterton was singing St. Francis’ praises before he was even Catholic. Here is a line from an article published in The Speaker:
“[St. Francis] never forgot to take pleasure in a bird as it flashed past him, or a drop of water as it fell from his finger: he was, perhaps, the happiest of the sons of men. Yet this man undoubtedly founded his whole polity on the negation of what we think the most imperious necessities; in his three vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, he denied to himself and those he loved most, property, love, and liberty. Why was it that the most large-hearted and poetic spirits in that age found their most congenial atmosphere in these awful renunciations? Why did he who loved where all men were blind, seek to blind himself where all men loved? Why was he a monk and not a troubadour? These questions are far too large to be answered fully here, but in any life of Francis they ought at least to have been asked; we have a suspicion that if they were answered we should suddenly find that much of the enigma of this sullen time of ours was answered also.” (see “Chesterton and Saint Francis”)
3. Chesterton’s influence on Pope Francis is evident in his encyclical, Laudato Si. Hints of Chesterton-inspired wordsmithing are evident in Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical. He kicks off his letter to the universal Church by referring to nature as our “sister”:
“Praise be to you, my Lord”. In the words of this beautiful canticle, Saint Francis of Assisi reminds us that our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us. “Praise be to you, my Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with coloured flowers and herbs”. This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her.
In much the same fashion, Chesterton writes in Orthodoxy:
“The essence of all pantheism, evolutionism, and modern cosmic religion is really in this
proposition: that Nature is our mother. Unfortunately, if you regard Nature as a mother, you discover that she is a step-mother. The main point of Christianity was this: that Nature is not our mother: Nature is our sister. We can be proud of her beauty, since we have the same father; but she has no authority over us; we have to admire, but not to imitate. This gives to the typically Christian pleasure in this earth a strange touch of lightness that is almost frivolity. Nature was a solemn mother to the worshippers of Isis and Cybele. Nature was a solemn mother to Wordsworth or to Emerson. But Nature is not solemn to Francis of Assisi or to George Herbert. To St. Francis, Nature is a sister, and even a younger sister: a little, dancing sister, to be laughed at as well as loved.”
4. Pope Francis’ favorite writer was a faithful quoter of Chestertonian wisdom. Jorge Luis Borges quoted Chesterton before Chesterton was cool; and Cardinal Bergoglio loved it. Therefore Cardinal Bergoglio, our future pope, loved Chesterton before loving Chesterton was cool. Dale Ahlquist, confirms:
“Chesterton is very well-known in Argentina–you know why? Because the guy that always used to quote him in Argentina is Jorge Luis Borges, and Borges is the pope’s favorite writer, even though (Borges was not) a Christian, but because he’s an Argentine man of letters and truly a great social critic and observer of mankind. Pope Francis was always very attracted to Jorge Luis Borges, who quoted Chesterton in the 1970s, when people didn’t quote Chesterton.”
5. Before being elected to the papacy, Pope Francis was involved with his local Chesterton society. William Doino Jr at First Things, confirms this in a great article on “Chesterton’s Pursuit Of Holiness”:
“Before becoming pope , Cardinal Bergoglio served as an honorary chairman of a Chesterton conference in Argentina and encouraged the country’s Chesterton Society to continue its fruitful work. ”
Dale Ahlquist, also confirms this.
6. Pope Francis is a supporter of G.K. Chesterton’s cause for canonization. Ahlquist had this to say in 2013:
“I think he’s out in front. We do know that the Argentine president of the Chesterton society, who was an ambassador, Miguel Angel Espeche Gil, wrote a letter to one of the Chesterton societies in England. In that letter, he said that ‘Our cardinal has just approved a prayer for Chesterton’s intercession.’ Well, that cardinal, three days later, became pope.”
7. Like Chesterton, Pope Francis is an advocate—and witness—to the joy of the Gospel. Professor of Religion, David Fagerberg, writes:
“‘The test of all happiness is gratitude,’ Chesterton wrote, and many of us have flunked that test. ‘Children are grateful when Santa Claus puts in their stockings gifts of toys or sweets. Could I not be grateful to Santa Claus when he put in my stockings the gift of two miraculous legs?’ We feel no wonder at ordinary things; it is no wonder that ordinary things disappoint us. Chesterton could be made happy by the sudden yellowness of a dandelion, but we do not find dandelions delightful if we are constantly comparing them to orchids.”
If you read anything that his friends ever wrote about him, there is one thing that they all acknowledged in Gilbert: his radiant joy.
Now just watch Pope Francis. Find any video on YouTube where he encounters others: especially the young, sick, poor or lowly. He radiates joy. He is for the Church an example of Christian joy lived out as it should be—and where it should be: at the periphery of humanity.
Like Chesterton, the pope sees the importance in finding joy in the little things; the ordinary things of daily life which are really and truly, themselves, gifts from God. He writes in Evangelii Gaudium or The Joy Of The Gospel:
“This is the joy which we experience daily, amid the little things of life, as a response to the loving invitation of God our Father: “My child, treat yourself well, according to your means… Do not deprive yourself of the day’s enjoyment” (Sir 14:11, 14). What tender paternal love echoes in these words! The Gospel, radiant with the glory of Christ’s cross, constantly invites us to rejoice.”