Rockers in the sacristy: Book recounts St. Francis' famous fans

Tue Feb 18, 2014 5:55am EST

* Rockers, politicians, popes and penitents, all flock to Francis' tomb

* Saint who died in 1226 associated with peace, environment, the poor

* Monks stopped Tareq Aziz bodyguards from entering convent with machine guns

By Philip Pullella

ROME, Feb 17 (Reuters) - What do Bruce Springsteen, Mick Jagger's daughter, Carlos Santana and Patti Smith have in common? It's not only rock and roll: all of them are fans of a saint who lived 800 years ago.

St. Francis of Assisi, known worldwide for his simple spirituality, his closeness to the poor, his love of nature and his preaching of peace, has some unlikely admirers.

Father Enzo Fortunato, the spokesman and public face of the convent complex in Assisi where the Francis is buried, has written a new book on the people who have been influenced by the teachings of the gentle saint who gave up his worldly goods.

"Vado da Francesco" (I am going to Francis), takes the reader on a historical trip through accounts of the visitors to the basilica in the past few decades.

They include popes who sought solace in prayer and politicians who sought picture opportunities. But they also include artists and rockers, most of whom came and went quietly, sometimes even secretly.

On October 6, 2006, for example, the monks reopened the upper basilica, scene of the famous 13th century frescoes by Giotto depicting scenes from the life of St. Francis, for a nocturnal visit by Bruce Springsteen.

Springsteen, who was playing in nearby Perugia, badly wanted to visit the basilica but feared the media and the public would have spoiled the place's spiritual nature if he visited during the day, Fortunato explains in the 179-page book.

So, in one of the few times in its history, the basilica was reopened and its lights turned on at about 10:30 p.m. for Springsteen and his group, the Seeger Sessions Band.

Springsteen wrote in the guest book: "This basilica has the colours of the Resurrection," which Fortunato calls "an almost theological, masterful synthesis" of what the basilica is about.

"THE BOSS" AND THE SAINT

As Springsteen was leaving Fortunato mentioned that the saint's tomb was on the other side of a wall but they could not go in because it was nearly midnight. Springsteen stopped in his tracks, turned in the direction of the tomb and bowed his head in respect.

The book also reproduces a letter by Jade Jagger, Mick Jagger's daughter, telling the monks that she named her own daughter Assisi because "for me he (Francis) was always the first environmentalist and hippy and was a true inspiration to me from my early years.".

Another rocker who thinks Francis rocks is Carlos Santana. On July 20, 2011, he was playing at the Umbria Jazz Festival in Perugia. Between songs he told his audience that he felt a "feeling of love (in Umbria) because in this place long time ago was a gentleman named Francis of Assisi".

But perhaps the most surreal visit to Assisi by a rocker came on July 25, 2012, when Patti Smith, the "godmother of punk," meditated before St. Francis's tomb and even helped restore a fresco by Giotto.

"When I think of St Francis I don't think of religion, I don't think of any rules and regulations," she said that day after a visit of several hours to the convent complex which included a frugal lunch with the monks.

St. Francis inspired "Constantine's Dream", one track of Smith's 2012 album Banga.

"I think of his love of nature. I think of his absolute love of life and I think any human being can relate to that ... If you approach St Francis with love, you receive love in return," Smith, 67, said.

Of course, rockers are not the only famous people who have gone to Assisi and Fortunato paints vignettes of about 50 visits.

When Iraqi Foreign Minister Tareq Aziz, a Christian, visited on the eve of the Iraq war in 2003, his bodyguards wanted to bring their machine guns into the refectory where Aziz ate with the monks.

The monks said 'no,' and the guns stayed outside. (Reporting By Philip Pullella)