The American Chesterton Society's thrilling experience of being in Rome during Pope Francis' election has led the group's leader to reflect on the connections between the Pope, G.K. Chesterton and St. Francis.
Pope Francis has “that Franciscan humility and he’s not afraid to do things that the world may consider foolish,” president Dale Ahlquist told CNA April 24.
“Even certain people in the Church are surprised by the things he's doing,” he added, citing Pope Francis’ washing the feet of prisoners and his decision not to move into the papal apartments.
Ahlquist said this similarity between Pope Francis and St. Francis is clear in Chesterton's biography of the saint, which presents him as “someone willing to be a fool for Christ, but also willing to be a mirror of Christ.”
He said he sees this characteristic “absolutely” reflected in the first month of Pope Francis’ papacy.
Ahlquist noted that he considers Chesterton “one of the great English writers of the 20th century” who was “very prolific and very profound.”
“He was an important Catholic convert who turned a lot of heads, being a major literary figure who converted to the Catholic faith.”
“I think his importance is as a defender of the faith and as someone who articulates traditional values in a very witty, and certainly appealing way,” Ahlquist said. “There’s something about Chesterton that just draws in his own enemies.”
Ahlquist recalled that he knew immediately that Pope Francis was “a Chestertonian Pope,” a reaction later supported by Pope Francis’ history.
As archbishop of Buenos Aires, Pope Francis was a member of an honorary committee of a conference for the Argentine Chesterton Society and celebrated a Mass for the conference. He owns several books by Chesterton.
Pope Francis’ March 13 election to the papacy coincided with the beginning of the American Chesterton Society’s March 13-23 pilgrimage to Rome. They followed in the footsteps of G.K. Chesterton, who made a three-month visit to Italy in 1929 for the beatification of the English Martyrs.
About 70 students and society members made the trip, which included an international conference with the Italian Chesterton Society.
“We had planned the conference and the pilgrimage for months ahead of time. It just so happened that we landed in Rome right in the midst of the new Pope,” Ahlquist said. “Everyone was thrilled.”
Students from Chesterton Academy, a private Catholic high school near Minneapolis and St. Paul, had a “once-in-a-lifetime experience” attending the new Pope’s installation Mass.
“They got to see the Pope from just a few feet away. They were absolutely thrilled,” said Ahlquist, a co-founder of the academy.
One girl said being in Rome was “the first time she had really internalized her faith...Coming to Rome was like coming home, but it also brought the faith itself home to them,” Ahlquist said of the students.
The International Chesterton Conference March 16 hosted about 150 people, mostly Italian. It focused on Chesterton’s writings on Rome and Italy as well as his past and present influence in the country, where there is “growing enthusiasm” for the writer.
Ahlquist suggested that this interest is rooted in the same features of Chesterton that have helped revive interest in the U.S., such as his “prophetic qualities”
“He seems to be describing exactly the problems that our modern society is going through, with a greater accuracy than some of the present commentators are,” Ahlquist said
He said Chesterton was a critic of “the attack on the family” and the “runaway big business and big government oppression of the common man.”
Chesterton also created “surprising interest” in the Catholic faith in “a world that is always ready to dismiss it.”