For a man who lived almost 800 years ago, Saint Francis of Assisi still has a pervasive influence on the Western world, more pervasive perhaps than any religious figure except Jesus and the Virgin Mary. Many people know him only through pious legends that have him chatting with gentle forest creatures and rebuking wild wolves, or as the ceramic presence that adorns countless backyard birdbaths. But a deeper reason for Francis’s longevity may be the fact that his guileless, open approach to the world and its problems can strike a responsive chord in the people of any era.

At least that was the insight that hit Father Willard Jabusch ten years ago when he visited Assisi, Italy. The Chicago priest and hymn writer, who has been teaching future priests how to preach for 20 years, later created a musical drama that expressed on a grand scale what Saint Francis was all about. “As I read and studied I saw so many parallels between Saint Francis’s world and our own that I couldn’t resist putting something together,” he says. The creation, the opera Francesco, is complete, and its full-scale premiere will be this weekend in the 700-seat auditorium of the University of Saint Mary of the Lake in Mundelein.

Jabusch is quick to point out that the events in the opera are based on historical facts about Francis and his world–a great many of which are known–not on the fanciful, talk-to-the-animals myths that have grown up around the saint. The 13th century, he notes, was beset with wars, religious fanaticism, commercial greed, and a widespread fear of incurable diseases–in short, a century not unlike our own. To each of these challenges Francis brought his own brand of honesty and compassion–and confounded his contemporaries.

For example, says Jabusch, Francis became a one-man peace movement, vigorously opposing the Crusades, which were universally endorsed by the pope, bishops, and people. He even traveled to Turkey in an effort to persuade the marauding Crusaders to come home. When that didn’t work, he made his way through the battle lines and held an unprecedented, unauthorized conference and interfaith prayer session with the leader of the enemy forces, Sultan Malid al Kamil.

Saint Francis was also unquestionably a pioneer ecologist in an era that thought little of sanitation or the preservation of natural resources, says Jabusch. His persistent message that creation–even in its most insignificant parts–is good and valuable came as a kind of thunderclap to the people of his time. According to a contemporary biographer, so did Francis’s attitude toward leprosy, the AIDS of the 13th century. As an irresponsible free-living young man, he had been frightened and disgusted by the disease. Then one day he was moved to publicly embrace a leper, a man he had avoided on the street many times. That embrace, says Jabusch, marked Francis’s transformation into a charismatic figure, even as it led to fierce conflict with his father, a wealthy merchant who expected his son to follow in his footsteps.

To put all this into musical form, the 58-year-old Jabusch collaborated with Robert Kreutz, a classical composer and former Chicagoan who now lives in California. As the writer of some 200 published church hymns (“Whatsoever You Do” and “The King of Glory” among the most popular), Jabusch had worked before with Kreutz, who is also a hymn writer (“Gift of Finest Wheat” is his best-known work) and who was the composer commissioned to produce music for a 1,000-voice chorus during the pope’s 1987 visit to the United States. In fact, says Edward McKenna, a Chicago priest-musician, the Jabusch-Kreutz duo have worked so well together that they are “approaching a kind of church version of a latter-day Rodgers and Hammerstein.”

Over a period of several years–with most of the collaboration done on the phone and by mail–Francesco was put together. “What we wanted,” explains Jabusch, “is something a wide, general audience could appreciate–not a rock opera or musical and not something overly heavy and boring like Wagner either, and I believe we achieved it.” The style of the music is buoyant and lyrical, somewhat reminiscent of Gian Carlo Menotti’s evergreen opera, Amahl and the Night Visitors. The action moves along at a brisk pace.

Francesco was first performed as a concert piece in 1987 at Orchestra Hall, with a 38-piece orchestra and the William Ferris Chorale, but without costumes and staging. That one-time production, which cost close to $50,000, was backed by Franciscan sisters from Saint Francis Hospital in Evanston.

The performance this weekend will have costumes, scenery, and a large cast and chorus, including professional singers from the Lyric Opera and Chicago Symphony choruses–but no orchestra. The accompaniment will be supplied by pianos and the university’s great pipe organ, which once resounded through the Chicago Theatre. The director of the production is Ken Smouse, resident director of the Bowen Park Theatre Company in Waukegan, and the role of Francis will be sung by baritone Victor Benedetti.

The cost of this production, too, is steep. Some backing has come from Chicago-area businesses and banks. There have been “nibbles” of interest from professional companies for future productions, says Jabusch, but as yet “the pieces have not come together.” Staging opera, he readily acknowledges, requires more than good music, great lyrics, and a compelling story.

“I believe people who see this will be surprised,” he says. “It’s not just entertainment about a plaster saint. We’ve tried to make something that’s moving, that presents a challenge to our age from a man who is still very real.”

Francesco will be presented Friday and Saturday, January 27 and 28 at 7:30 PM, and Sunday, January 29 at 2:30 PM, at the Cardinal Mundelein Auditorium on the grounds of the University of Saint Mary of the Lake in Mundelein, on Route 176 east of Route 45. Tickets are $10, $8 for seniors and students. For reservations or further information call 367-3787.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.