Why, only now, a pope named Francis?

See Also: Visions of the Apocalypse. Receptions of John's Revelation in Western Imagination (Baylor University Press, 2013).

By Bruce Chilton
Bernard Iddings Bell Professor of Religion
Bard College
October 2013

When Jorge Mario Bergoglio took the name Francis on his election to the papacy, he broke with tradition. His immediate predecessor was the sixteenth Benedict; before that the second John Paul used names repeated many times in papal lists. Saint Francis practiced voluntary poverty to a point that made him controversial during his life, and at the time of his election Pope Francis expressed his endorsement of the saint’s care for the poor as a vocation of the Church.

Deliberate humility, a relative lack of ostentation, and an everyman style have characterized Jorge Mario Bergoglio both before and after he took his new office. All those traits have appealed widely, and they are consonant with the reputation of Saint Francis. His concern for all creatures, including especially animals, and his “Canticle of Brother Sun,” largely a paraphrase of Psalm 148 written shortly before his death in 1226, remain famous.

The popular reputation of the saint, however, makes it difficult to understand why only now a pope has taken the name of Francis. To appreciate that, a darker feature of the saint’s legacy needs consideration. At the close of his “Canticle of Brother Sun,” Francis of Assisi praises death, because when she takes the bodily life of those who conduct their lives according to God’s will, “the second death shall have no power to do them harm.” The conception of “the second death” is found in the New Testament only in the Apocalypse, as part of its scenario of the saints being raised from the dead to reign with Christ for a thousand years, after which a “second death” will destroy the wicked (Revelation 20:6, 14: 21:8). Francis was not unusual in appropriating the language and imagery of the Apocalypse as his own; the Middle Ages saw a great deal of usage of this kind. But after his death, Francis himself was portrayed as a figure out of the Apocalypse, that development greatly disturbed Catholic opinion during the thirteenth century.

Francis’s older contemporary, Joachim of Fiore (1135–1202), was also an Italian monk who practiced poverty, but in a more contemplative, less socially engaged way. Joachim produced a commentary on the Apocalypse that has proven one of the most influential of all time. (His contribution, among others, is detailed in a study that Baylor University Press is to publish in November: http://www.baylorpress.com/en/Book/392/Visions_of_the_
.) Joachim lived during a period of vision, at a time when Hildegard of Bingen (1098–1179) portrayed “the woman clothed with the sun” in Revelation 12, not merely as the church (the traditional interpretation), but also as Eve and the Virgin Mary. Where Hildegard conveyed her visionary message by illustrations, as well as written works and music, Joachim’s approach was analytic.

Joachim believed he understood the mystery of the seven-headed beast in Revelation 17:3. When the seven heads had run their course, there would be a rest of a thousand years—a symbolic number in Joachim’s thought as it had been in Augustine’s. This will be an entirely new state of existence, governed by the Holy Spirit. At that point, evil will have depleted all of its vast resources, as Joachim predicted in his Book of Figures, a richly illustrated work:

Many impious kings and false prophets and antichrists precede the one Antichrist who will pretend to be king and priest and prophet. . . . Yet after the downfall of this Antichrist there will be justice on earth and the abundance of peace; and the Lord will rule from sea to sea and from river to the ends of the earth. . . . The Jews too and many infidel peoples will be converted to the Lord and the whole population will delight in the beauty of peace. For the heads of the great dragon will be crushed down, and the dragon itself will be imprisoned in the abyss.

Joachim’s imagination was visually charged, and he supervised the production of illustrations for his oracular project.

Joachim’s forecasts produced excited speculation, especially in the Franciscan order after the death of Saint Francis. A Franciscan teacher named Gerardo di Borgo San Donnino published a commentary on Joachim’s writings called Introduction to the Eternal Gospel (1254). Gerardo identified Joachim’s writings as the eternal gospel that John of Patmos had in mind when he said in Revelation 14:6-7:

And I saw another angel flying in midheaven, having an eternal gospel to announce over those dwelling on the earth—even over every nation and tribe and language and people, saying in a great voice, Fear God and give him glory, because the hour of his judgment has come, and worship him who made the heaven and the earth, and sea and springs of water.

According to Gerardo, Joachim was that angel, and his preaching superseded both the Old and the New Testaments in the third and final epoch of existence. As he interpreted Joachim’s perspective, where the Father dominated in the Old Testament and the Son in the New Testament, Spirit would be the preeminent reality of the final age.

In Gerardo’s bold amalgam of vision and exegesis, the spiritual leaders—exemplified by Francis and predicted by Joachim—were to replace the worldly rule of the hierarchical church. Taken together, John of Patmos, Joachim of Fiore, and Francis of Assisi provided Gerardo with a template of prophetic transition, revolution, and millennial realization.

Gerardo also read key passages in the Revelation in order to determine just when the rule of the poor, spiritual contemplatives was to begin. He proceeded on the assumption, pervasive during his period (as it had been before and would be after his time), that the “days” mentioned in the Revelation are really years. In the Revelation, chapter 12, the woman, who must be the church (as Gerardo agreed with many other commentators), flees into the wilderness and is protected from the seven-headed dragon for a total of 1,260 days (Revelation 12:6). Then a war breaks out in heaven that heralds Satan’s consignment to the pit and the thousand-year reign of those who reign with Christ: these are Joachim’s spiritual men according to Gerardo. The association of images, numbers, and patterns made it obvious to Gerardo and his supporters that the millennial reign of the spiritual Franciscans would begin in the year 1260.

All other claimants to authority, including the papacy, would correspondingly disappear from the scene, buried under the mountains that fall with the opening of the sixth seal. As Gerardo read the Revelation of John, Francis of Assisi was also an angel, the angel of the sixth seal in Revelation 6:12-17. The result was to portray the saint, not as the gentle-to-animals pantheist of modern depictions, but as a key figure of apocalyptic fury. When the sixth seal is opened in the vision of John of Patmos, the powerful on earth are crushed:

And the kings of the earth and the magnates and the generals and the rich and the powerful and every servant and free person hid themselves in the caves and in the rocks of the mountains. And they say to the mountains and to the rocks, Fall upon us and hide us from the face of the one who sits upon the Throne and from the wrath of the Lamb. Because the great day of their wrath has come, and who is able to stand? (Revelation 6:15-16)

This was to be the dawn of the poor, identified by Gerardo di Borgo San Donnino as those Franciscans who upheld the commitment to poverty of St. Francis against the compromise of those in the order who accepted the conventions of this world. Gerardo made Joachim into a literalist millenarian; the epoch of the Spirit became a new temporal age, whose coming followed an apocalyptic calendar.

The year after the publication of Gerardo’s Introduction to the Eternal Gospel, Pope Alexander set up a commission of cardinals to condemn the work. The book was burned and its recalcitrant author later put in prison, where he died in 1276. The head of the Franciscans, John of Parma (1209–89), was for his part deposed for supporting Gerardo and continuing to esteem Joachim’s teaching despite its increased association with attacks on the papacy. Centuries before Luther, the radical Franciscans were calling for the reformatio of the Church and the replacement of the papacy with spiritual leadership.

The Franciscan order itself was able to survive under the more moderate guidance of Saint Bonaventure. Bonaventure, in turn, helps explain what it means to have a pope calling himself Francis. Bonaventure’s view of history was the topic of Joseph Ratzinzger’s doctoral dissertation long before he became Pope Benedict XVI. His work caused disagreements among the examiners at the time it was submitted, and Ratzinger had to submit a revised version, with many cuts and additions, in order to pass the examination. In his view, the papacy is not the enemy or the Anti-Christ, but the vehicle of spiritual teaching. As Benedict XVI, he reinforced this reading of Francis through Bonaventure, and his book has been republished in several languages.

An interview with Pope Francis in America Magazine recently called for less divisive emphasis on Catholic teaching in regard to birth control and homosexuality (http://www.americamagazine.org/pope-interview). The scent of change in the air has moved many observers. The great Liberation theologian Leonardo Boff voiced the view that the church does actually need a pope, and that Francis could move the Vatican in that direction (http://www.dw.de/leonardo-boff-this-pope-will-change-the-church/a-16970…). Yet while the America interview spoke of women’s place in the Church in an exploratory way, and Francis has recently endorsed the excommunication of a Catholic priest who favors ordaining women (http://ncronline.org/news/global/australian-priest-advocate-womens-ordi…). He speaks of himself as dedicated to “discernment,” which might be seen as a lean toward the status quo. On the other hand, Francis also refers to those in all religious orders (including his own, the Jesuits) as “prophets” in purpose, and even makes the claim that Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, was more a mystic than as ascetic. Historically, that is a somewhat odd claim, but it perhaps sums up Pope Francis’ desire to serve as the focal point of a newly spiritual papacy, which is not to be replaced, but transformed. His continuity with Pope Benedict is much greater than many observers have supposed, but then Benedict himself proves a more transformational leader than his reputation would suggest.

Comments (3)

The Catholic Church, and the Papacy, is the last of the medieval absolute monarchies. Time it fell like the rest. I have no issue with Catholics, but do not understand how women, young families (re. contraception), or LBGT folks can remain in the church.

#1 - Edward Mills - 10/23/2013 - 21:25

This being a site devoted to the Bible and interpretation - I was wondering whether you think that a novel interpretation of the Bible is taking hold in the Vatican?

#2 - Martin - 10/28/2013 - 20:45

Martin's observation is astute. At the time Joseph Ratzinger submitted his thesis, his adviser believed his argument was novel, and that it should be rejected. But as Pope Benedict he maintained his position, and it now seems that Pope Francis is working with a modified version of Joachim of Fiore's approach.

#3 - Bruce Chilton - 10/28/2013 - 21:42

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