Times Past

Pope Francis, like the historic Brother Juniper, believes in simplicity

Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Argentina is the first Roman Catholic pope to take the name Francis. He is noted for leading a life of simplicity just like the original Francis of Assisi.

St. Francis of Assisi is probably the best known and most beloved of the medieval saints. His early followers, like Francis himself, became legends in their own life time.

The 13th century was the age of the troubadours. Francis and his band of “little brothers” quickly became the stuff that poets sang about. These stories were eventually written down. In medieval Italian the most popular account was known as the “Fioretti,” or, “The Little Flowers of St. Francis.”

Among that band was a brother named Juniper, after the evergreen tree with the sweet-smelling berries. Francis trusted him completely, despite his occasional acts of foolishness. He consoled St. Clare, founder of the Poor Claires order, as she lay dying.

There are comedic stories of Juniper in “The Little Flowers.” Many deal with his unbridled generosity. The friars got tired of having to replace his monk’s habit, which he gave away at least twice.

Brother Juniper told a beggar, “My dear man, I have nothing to give you except my habit and my superior has told me . . . not to give it to anyone. But if you pull it off my back, I will certainly not prevent you.”

The friars knew not to leave anything lying around, for Juniper would surely give it to the poor.

A sick friar had a craving for pig’s feet. Juniper went to a neighboring farm and subdued a pig. He cut off one foot, cooked it and then tenderly served it. The angry farmer complained to St. Francis.

Juniper did not immediately see his error. He was only doing the ailing monk a service. The farmer called Juniper a “fool, a lunatic and the worst kind of criminal.” St. Francis offered restitution for the pig and insisted that Juniper apologize. Juniper then ran after the farmer.

Apologizing, he tried to explain why he cut off the pig’s foot. The farmer only got angrier.

“Juniper embraced the man, explaining how it had only been out of love, and urging the man to congratulate him for doing such a good deed, and even invited the man to give the rest for the same purpose.” Overcome by Juniper’s simplicity, the farmer butchered the pig and gave it to the friars!

Francis sometimes exclaimed, “Would to God, my brothers, I had a whole forest of such Junipers.” Juniper made Francis laugh, and in Juniper, we see true humility.

In 1730, when Miguel Joseph Serra was asked by his Franciscan superior to take a religious name by which he would be known, he chose the name Junipero. This year we are celebrating the 300th anniversary of Serra’s birth.

For 31 years in the 20th century, Fred McCarthy’s beloved “Brother Juniper” was syndicated internationally in magazines and newspapers. Juniper’s well meaning antics touched the hearts of two generations.

Dan Krieger’s column is special to The Tribune. He is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and past president of the California Mission Studies Association.