|Pope Innocent III|
In the last decades of the 12th century, the Church had lost many members to new movements arising out of an evangelical zeal for discipleship that had seized the Middle Class. A wealthy merchant of Lyon (in what is today France but at the time was more culturally tied to Lombardy in northern Italy) by the name of Peter Waldo had been seized with fervor by the gospels and had taken literally the words of Christ to go sell all you possess, give to the poor, and to then come and follow him. Waldo, who had been immensely wealthy, did precisely that and became a street beggar preaching in the towns and villages around Lyon. The Archbishop of that city, embarrassed by his wealth in contrast to Waldo’s poverty had ordered him to stop preaching. Waldo went to the Pope, Alexander III, who commended his dedication to live in the poverty of Christ but, as Waldo was not in Holy Orders, supported the Archbishop’s ban on Waldo’s preaching. In the end, Waldo and his followers separated from the Church over this ban on lay preaching.
The Church was facing a steady drain of some of its most zealous members precisely because their evangelical fervor was a threat to the comfort and luxury of the bishops and some priests. Men like Waldo were considered fanatics and extremists by clergy and hierarchs who wanted to enjoy the privileges their status brought them. In addition to Waldo and his followers, sometimes called the Poor Men of Lyon, or the Poor Men of Lombardy (to which they had spread from Lyon) there were other groups such as the Umiliati. Still others were seduced into a form of Gnosticism called Catharism which, unlike Waldo’s followers or the Umiliati, crossed the boundaries into heresy.
In 1199 one of the greatest—if not the greatest—of men to occupy the Chair of Peter was elected to the papacy. Lotario, Count of Segni, was elected Pope and took the name Innocent III. The new pope had studied Theology in Paris, the premier theological faculty of the time known for its liberal thought, and then had studied law in Bologna, the leading faculty for civil and canon law. Moreover, not only was he highly educated, he was personally holy. Despite his high office, Innocent led an austere personal life (sound familiar?) wearing the simplest of robes, made of wool rather than silk and expensive fabrics. He ate spartanly and his private apartments were plain. He upheld the dignity of the papal office by integrity rather than by pomp. At the same time he was a strong leader who brooked no opposition. One of his first acts was to distinguish between canonical preaching (doctrine) and giving what we might call today “witness talks.” Laity could, with the permission of the bishop, inspire others by being given the opportunity even in church to speak of what the Gospels meant to them and how they might better live out the teachings of Jesus. This role of lay preaching was especially entrusted to these lay hermits.
The Lay hermit movement was especially taken by the sentence attributed to Saint Jerome in his vocation—“naked to follow the naked Christ.” Lay hermit groups sprung up all over Europe as these men renounced material possessions to voluntarily live in the most abject poverty, to minister to the least of Christ’s brothers and sisters—especially the lepers—and to speak to others of making the Gospels real in one’s life. This is what Francis sought to do. He returned to his ruined church of San Damiano where he lived, spending the nights in prayer. By day he ministered to the lepers and other social outcasts, all the time slowly rebuilding the ruined chapel. His former friends came to see him. Some brought him help in his projects. A few joined him, taking the habit of hermits themselves. They were not, at this point, religious but they did have canonical standing, blessed by the Bishop of Assisi.
In the popular and lovely 1972 Zeffirelli film, Brother Sun, Sister Moon, Bishop Guido of Assisi is portrayed as an obese and slothful prelate who doesn’t take Francis seriously. Nothing could have been further from the truth. Guido, a friend of the reforming Innocent, was enthused by Francis’ vision and anxious to help him. He provided the necessary introductions to have Francis meet the Pope. Now the Pope, while ardent in programs to reform the Church, did not at first see Francis as a serious aid in this project. For an educated man used to the corridors of power, how could this repentant playboy from a mediocre Umbrian hill-town with no theological training be of any real help in cleaning out the nest of sycophants and parasites into which both the Roman Curia and local hierarchy had, for the most part, degenerated? (If this sounds familiar, remember that the past gives us insight into the present.) The story goes that the Pope had a dream in which he saw Francis holding up the crumbling Lateran Basilica. (The Lateran was, at the time, the papal residence. The Popes only moved to the Vatican in the 15th century and even then it didn’t become the primary papal residence until the 19th.) It is a lovely story and there may be some truth to it but it is more likely that in the interview that Innocent gave to Francis, the Pope’s mind was changed and he saw the potential this hermit had to give the Church new spiritual energy.
An important question is why Francis did not choose to enter a traditional religious order of his day. He certainly had options, there were monasteries—Benedictine and Cistercian as well as Carthusian—that would have permitted him traditional religious life. There were also the Canons Regular—religious, mostly clerics, who led a community life while doing pastoral work in parishes and preaching. We can see by the choices he made why traditional religious life did not attract him. Religious had security. Their monasteries provided a roof over their head and food on their table as well as winning them a respected place in society. As Francis’ brotherhood developed he forbad them to own property, even the houses in which they lived. They lived in the neighborhoods of the poor, outside the city walls and the protection those walls afforded. They wore the patched clothing of the poor, not proper religious habits. They didn’t aim for the respect of the Middle Class—far from it, they went out of their way to identify with the poor who were held in contempt by the merchants and business owners. In fact, however, their integrity in embracing the poverty of Christ did win them the respect of almost all in society and they drew vocations in great numbers from the very classes whose values and lifestyle they were rejecting.
Francis started a revolution that reformed the Church. Thousands of men took up his lifestyle. Eventually this small band of lay hermits in Umbria grew into an Order of tens of thousands of brothers spread across the known world. Francis’ spiritual sons would go off to Muslim lands and die as martyrs; they would go on expedition to Peking and the court of the great Kahn. They would accompany Cortes and Pizzaro in the Americas. A son of Saint Francis would be the first white man to see the great cataracts of Niagara. Franciscans would sit on the throne of Peter—some as good popes, others as bad. Most important though was that the work of Francis and his brothers among the poor and working classes probably staved off a Luther or a Calvin for three hundred years. It was an evangelical renewal of the Church—something we could use today.