Mikhail Gorbachev recently spent a half hour on his knees in Assisi before the tomb of St. Francis, according to news reports. Whether the former Communist leader was praying or just being an exceptionally thorough tourist is not clear.The Telegraph, under the headline "Mikhail Gorbachev admits he is a Christian,"quoted him as saying, "It was through St Francis that I arrived at the Church, so it was important that I came to visit his tomb." But the Chicago Tribune said he told the Russian media otherwise:"Over the last few days some media have been disseminating fantasiesI can't use any other wordabout my secret Catholicism, citing my visit to the Sacro Convento friary, where the remains of St. Francis of Assisi lie," Gorbachev told the Russian news agency Interfax. "To sum up and avoid any misunderstandings, let me say that I have been and remain an atheist."He would not be the first politician having trouble explaining his religious beliefs. Whatever the truth is, the detail I found most interesting is that, as The Telegraph reported, Gorbachev was especially interested in viewing art of Francis' dream at Spoleto. That was a turning point for Francis, who was on his way to go to war when, as the early biographies say, he encountered God in a dream. Just a night before, he had dreamt of a glorious palace filled with glittering weapons. But now, he turned back home, got rid of his weaponry and began to change his life. Perhaps Mikhail Gorbachev had looked at his arsenal and come to feel the same way about it.
Paul Moses, a contributing writer at Commonweal, is the author of The Saint and the Sultan: The Crusades, Islam and Francis of Assisi's Mission of Peace (Doubleday, 2009) and An Unlikely Union: The Love-Hate Story of New York's Irish and Italians (NYU Press, 2015). Follow him on Twitter @PaulBMoses.