The Dream of Pope Innocent III
February 20, 2022
It was the year 1209 and Pope Innocent III was sitting in the chair of Peter as supreme pontiff of the Catholic Church. St. Francis and his brothers had travelled to Rome in order to seek papal approval, but the pope wasn't really interested in these men. He had been having problems with the Waldensians and other similar sects who, amongst other things, weren't willing to accept the local bishop's authority over the content of their preaching, and who like Francis, preached a very radical poverty. Because of this, the Pope was quite hesitant in matters concerning Francis and his followers.
But providentially, Francis bumped into Cardinal Bishop of Sabina who was confessor to the Pope and upon hearing these men recount their story, he was immediately sympathetic to their cause. This cardinal managed to convince the pope to meet with Francis at least once before they returned home. Pope Innocent reluctantly did so but after having heard them out, he very cautiously granted the group temporary informal approval. It was a start.
One night, not much later, the Pope received a message via a surprising medium. The Lord granted him a dream. In this dream, he saw the Basilica of St. John Lateran, the cathedral church of the Diocese of Rome – and it was falling over, collapsing on itself. But a small man in plain peasant's clothing came up and stood in the breach: it was Francis, the young leader of the strange new group that he had recently met. The man took the weight of the church and held it up with his shoulder. The church was straightened and was set solidly on the ground. It had been saved.
It was because of this very dream that Pope Innocent III, about a year after meeting with Francis and his men, officially recognized the new Order of Friars Minor or, as they became known, the Franciscans. We have no idea what the Pope's dream life was like, but it is certain that when he had this dream, he recognized it as a clear message given to him by God. There was a certain weight to this dream that could not be denied and even to this day, when we hear about the dream, we can discern the work of the Holy Spirit in and through this heavenly message. The Lord had made his intentions clear through this night vision.
What I find interesting in all of this is that the Pope had no difficulty in understanding the symbolism of the dream. He obviously recognized St. Francis but he knew the symbolic significance of the church that was being held up by him. This church was the Basilica of St. John Lateran, which has always been, since its foundation in 324 A.D., the principal seat (cathedra) of the bishop of Rome. When a new Pope is elected, he will always go to the Basilica of St. John Lateran to take possession of his episcopal church since he also becomes the Bishop of Rome. Therefore, when Francis appears and holds up the Church with his shoulder, the Pope knew that this represented not only the roman basilica itself, but the entire Church. He understood that Francis and his men would have a very important part to play in the restoration of the Catholic Church; they would help to steady it and set it straight again on a firm foundation and help secure the papacy.
God had spoken. Prophetically. Through a dream. To a Pope. The Order of Friars Minor had a profound influence upon the Church of its times and indeed throughout the subsequent centuries. Their order and their spirituality exist to this day.
If you wish to read about St. Francis' dreams, please click on the following link: The Dreams of St. Francis of Assisi.