Today is the feast day of Saint Francis of Assisi. Like most very great men and women, legends began to cluster about him even while he lived. One of these involved his meeting with Pope Innocent III.
While the Vicar of Christ listened attentively to a parable told by Francis and its interpretation, he was quite amazed and recognised without a doubt that Christ had spoken in this man. But he also confirmed a vision he had recently received from heaven, that, as the Divine Spirit indicated, would be fulfilled in this man. He saw in a dream, as he recounted, the Lateran basilica almost ready to fall down. A little poor man, small and scorned, was propping it up with his own back bent so that it would not fall. “I’m sure,” he said, “he is the one who will hold up Christ’s Church by what he does and what he teaches.” Because of this, filled with exceptional devotion, he bowed to the request in everything and always loved Christ’s servant with special love. Then he granted what was asked and promised even more. He approved the rule, gave them a mandate to preach penance, and had small tonsures given to all the lay brothers, who were accompanying the servant of God, so that they could freely preach the word of God.
Cf. St. Bonaventure’s Major Legend of St. Francis, III:10
Saint Francis is probably the most popular Catholic saint among non-Catholics. It is always pleasing of course for Catholics when non-Catholics recognize the heroic sanctity of one of their champions, but in the case of Saint Francis, I fear this popularity among non-Catholics is largely due to a fundamental misunderstanding about Saint Francis. Saint Francis is often portrayed as a precursor of the modern environmental movement, a pantheist and a pacifist, someone, in short, who was preaching a message in the thirteenth century that accords nicely with twenty-first century liberal secular sensibilities.
Of course none of this is true. Saint Francis never preached any doctrines in accord with the modern ecological movement and simply was not concerned with those types of issues that were absolutely foreign to his time. Saint Francis was a completely orthodox Catholic who worshiped God with such intensity that he was the first to receive the stigmata. Saint Francis never breathed a word against the Crusades and participated in the Fifth Crusade to Egypt.
As popular as Saint Francis is with non-Catholics, Innocent III would likely be equally unpopular if historical ignorance were not so wide-spread today. He was the most powerful pope in secular matters in the history of the Church. He made and unmade kings and emperors; in his pontificate Constantinople fell to western crusaders, although he opposed this; he began the Albigensian Crusade; he dominated his age as no pope before or since. To many moderns Innocent III would be the anti-Saint Francis.
Yet nothing could be further from the truth. Saint Francis was recognized as a Saint by his contemporaries even while he lived. His orthodoxy, his dedication to poverty, his burning desire to spread the faith, and the miracles that sprang up about him all represented to medieval Catholics what a saint should be. Innocent III likewise represented to medieval Catholics what a pope should be: an unrelenting champion of orthodoxy, a vigilant guardian of the Church ever willing to call for swords about the Cross to protect the Faith, a personal life marked by piety and charity. Innocent III was ever the patron of Saint Francis and his new order, seeing in him and his Friars Minor an ardent attempt to live out the perfect way of life called for by Christ.
A Protestant historian, Thomas Babington Macaulay, sums up the partnership that is constantly formed between popes and great saints like Saint Francis throughout the history of the Church:
Far different is the policy of Rome. The ignorant enthusiast whom the Anglican Church makes an enemy, and whatever the polite and learned may think, a most dangerous enemy, the Catholic Church makes a champion. She bids him nurse his beard, covers him with a gown and hood of coarse dark stuff, ties a rope round his waist, and sends him forth to teach in her name. He costs her nothing. He takes not a ducat away from the revenues of her beneficed clergy. He lives by the alms of those who respect his spiritual character, and are grateful for his instructions. He preaches, not exactly in the style of Massillon, but in a way which moves the passions of uneducated hearers; and all his influence is employed to strengthen the Church of which he is a minister. To that Church he becomes as strongly attached as any of the cardinals whose scarlet carriages and liveries crowd the entrance of the palace on the Quirinal. In this way the Church of Rome unites in herself all the strength of establishment, and all the strength of dissent. With the utmost pomp of a dominant hierarchy above, she has all the energy of the voluntary system below. It would be easy to mention very recent instances in which the hearts of hundreds of thousands, estranged from her by the selfishness, sloth, and cowardice of the beneficed clergy, have been brought back by the zeal of the begging friars.
Macaulay saw the lyrics but could not hear the tune. God makes use in His Church both of great popes and great saints, and wise popes and wise saints understand this, and both Saint Francis and Pope Innocent III were very wise indeed. So when we remember today a great Saint, let us also recall the great Pope who was ever his friend and advocate.