A Message from Father Nick 16 – 4th July 2020

The dream of Innocent III, fresco by Giotto (13th century)

Another dream, another dreamer…

In a way this week’s picture encapsulates the story of the Church. The dreamer is Pope Innocent III, one of the most gifted men ever to have been elected to the chair of St Peter.

He was from the noble de Conti family and was made pope in 1198 when he was not yet forty. By now the long term effects of Constantine’s conversion had fully changed the world of Old Rome. Problems of Barbarian incursion were a thing of the past, Europe was settling into a landscape of prosperous towns, and new schools and universities offered unheard of possibilities for learning – unheard of, at least, in the previously backward Christian west. In all of this the Church was supreme, and young Lothario  de Conti was ideally suited to its corridors of power.

He was not corrupt or greedy for his own glory. On the contrary, as the Church grew in size and scope he recognised its need for proper leadership. In his eyes, not to use his talent for power would have been a sinful failure of responsibility. He established the need for “Easter duties”, first used the word “transubstantiation” in an official document, and summoned the Fourth Lateran Council of the Church. He also shared the prejudices of his time, including its anti-Semitism; he sponsored the disastrous Fourth (and Fifth) Crusade; and he fought – literally – against the heretics of southern France.

But power brought its own troubles and the time was full of apocalyptic imaginings. It seems that one night in 1209, when he was asleep in the Lateran Palace, Innocent dreamed that the basilica, “head and mother of all churches”, was about to topple over. Suddenly a little man wearing a kind of sack ran up and put his shoulder against the building until it stood up straight again – that was just before Francis and his companions, the “Twelve Penitents of Assisi”, arrived in Rome seeking permission to found an order based on absolute poverty. They were asking to be allowed to own nothing.

Innocent thought the idea impossible, but he recognised a moment of grace.  He saw that Francis was no rebel and gave him his blessing. And the poor man Francis came to love Innocent, just as Innocent came to love Francis. By a supreme irony, Innocent eventually died in Assisi’s neighbouring city, Perugia, where his body was laid out overnight in the very finest papal vestments, complete with tiara and crosier. In the morning it was found to have been stripped by thieves who left it almost naked and already putrefying. Francis was the one who took off his habit to cover the pope’s corpse.

Our picture this week, from the basilica of St Francis in Assisi, is one of a cycle of beautiful frescoes by Giotto – an enduring treasure of our faith and the beginning of a new kind of realism in art. And today in Rome, across a perilously busy set of city roads facing the church of St John Lateran, there now stands a large bronze group of figures. They are the Penitents from Assisi – Francis with arms outstretched and palms held up to support the building – affirming their loyalty and love, and giving perfect witness to the Gospel.