The people of St. Francis’ time, both the hierarchy and the simple faithful, recognized him as a particular prophetic instrument of the Holy Spirit. He created a movement that set the world on fire and it spread like fire. His movement was both traditional and innovative. I wonder if in the providence of God Pope Francis’ name has a significance beyond what even himself might have anticipated. St. Francis was an instrument of the Holy Spirit to reform the Church in difficult times. But his innovation was not without its own problems. Reform typically initiates a crisis from which equilibrium only emerges after time and much difficulty.
St. Francis’ spirit of obedience to the Church manifested itself, not only in an evangelical desire for reform and the simple gospel life. It also showed itself in a docility to the prescriptions of reform promulgated by the Fourth Lateran Council. In fact, St. Francis made sure that the simple gospel life of the friars was protected from pride and error by his instance, stated at both the beginning and end of his Rule, that the friars remain humble and submissive to the Holy Roman Pontiff.
Unfortunately, after St. Francis’ death the heresy of the Cistercian Abbot, Joachim of Fiore, infected the minds of certain friars, who interpreted the charism of St. Francis as an anti-ecclesial movement. According to Joachim, history was divided into three ages: The Age of the Father (Old Testament); the Age of the Son (New Testament); the Age of the Holy Spirit (the Post-Ecclesial Age). For Joachim, the Age of the Father was the time of the law and severity. The Age of the Son was the time of grace. But the Age of the Holy Spirit is the time of glory. Joachim believed that this last age was about to begin, in which the Church and the sacraments would no longer be necessary, for there would be a new dispensation of love. He also believed that the in this last age the Kingdom of the Holy Spirit would be announced by a great prophet and be ruled by new type of monasticism, “Order of the Just.”
The Franciscans who followed Joachim, known as “the Spirituals,” believed that St. Francis was the prophet of the Age of the Holy Spirit and that the Franciscan Oder was the “Order of the Just.” This was the reason why within only a few decades after the death of St. Francis, the Order was being attacked by many in the secular clergy and was on the verge of being suppressed. St. Bonaventure is sometimes referred to as the second founder of the Franciscan Order because he defended it against both Joachimism and the attacks against the legitimacy of the newness of the charism.
Benedict XVI is an expert on St. Bonaventure and the Spiritualist controversy. His exposition of St. Bonaventure’s defense of the order as both traditional and innovative is very important:
The Fathers of the Church considered the six or seven days of the Creation narrative as a prophecy of the history of the world, of humanity. For them, the seven days represented seven periods of history, later also interpreted as seven millennia. With Christ we should have entered the last, that is, the sixth period of history that was to be followed by the great sabbath of God. St Bonaventure hypothesizes this historical interpretation of the account of the days of the Creation, but in a very free and innovative way. To his mind two phenomena of his time required a new interpretation of the course of history.
The first: the figure of St Francis, the man totally united with Christ even to communion with the stigmata, almost an alter Christus, and, with St Francis, the new community he created, different from the monasticism known until then. This phenomenon called for a new interpretation, as an innovation of God which appeared at that moment.
The second: the position of Joachim of Fiore who announced a new monasticism and a totally new period of history, going beyond the revelation of the New Testament, demanded a response. As Minister General of the Franciscan Order, St Bonaventure had immediately realized that with the spiritualistic conception inspired by Joachim of Fiore, the Order would become ungovernable and logically move towards anarchy. In his opinion this had two consequences:
The first, the practical need for structures and for insertion into the reality of the hierarchical Church, of the real Church, required a theological foundation. This was partly because the others, those who followed the spiritualist concept, upheld what seemed to have a theological foundation.
The second, while taking into account the necessary realism, made it essential not to lose the newness of the figure of St Francis.
So in order to defend the charism of St. Francis from both the false interpretation of the Spirituals and from the secular clergy who were reacting against the Spirituals, St. Bonaventure, took the teaching of the Fathers of the Church and developed it. The result was “innovation in continuity.” The theology of St. Bonaventure, by which he translated the thought of St. Francis into scholastic theology, he further translated into wise legalization for the friars. In fact, St. Bonaventure provided another innovation by writing the first set of constitutions of any religious order. Prior to this, religious had only their rule and superiors to guide them. Now, beside these, the friars had a body of legislation that would interpret the Rule and allow for adaptation based on the needs of particular times and places. Today all religious institutes have their own particular constitutions.
The reason all of this is so important is because of the way Pope Benedict applies this lesson from history to our times:
At this point it might be useful to say that today too there are views that see the entire history of the Church in the second millennium as a gradual decline. Some see this decline as having already begun immediately after the New Testament. In fact, “Opera Christi non deficiunt, sed proficiunt”: Christ’s works do not go backwards but forwards. What would the Church be without the new spirituality of the Cistercians, the Franciscans and the Dominicans, the spirituality of St Teresa of Avila and St John of the Cross and so forth? This affirmation applies today too: “Opera Christi non deficiunt, sed proficiunt”, they move forward. St Bonaventure teaches us the need for overall, even strict discernment, sober realism and openness to the newness, which Christ gives his Church through the Holy Spirit. And while this idea of decline is repeated, another idea, this “spiritualistic utopianism” is also reiterated. Indeed, we know that after the Second Vatican Council some were convinced that everything was new, that there was a different Church, that the pre-Conciliar Church was finished and that we had another, totally “other” Church an anarchic utopianism! And thanks be to God the wise helmsmen of the Barque of St Peter, Pope Paul VI and Pope John Paul II, on the one hand defended the newness of the Council, and on the other, defended the oneness and continuity of the Church, which is always a Church of sinners and always a place of grace.
With this in mind, I recommend that we pay close attention to the words of Pope Francis, delivered to the Cardinals just a few days ago.
Dear Brother Cardinals, this meeting of ours is meant to be the continuation of that intense ecclesial communion we experienced during this period. Animated by a profound sense of responsibility and sustained by a great love for Christ and for the Church, we prayed together, fraternally sharing our feelings, our experiences and reflections. In this very cordial atmosphere our reciprocal knowledge of one another and mutual openness to one another, grew. And this is good because we are brothers. As someone told me: the Cardinals are the Holy Father’s priests. But we are that community, that friendship, that closeness, that will do good for every one of us. That mutual knowledge and openness to one another helped us to be open to the action of Holy Spirit. He, the Paraclete, is the supreme protagonist of every initiative and manifestation of faith. It’s interesting and it makes me think. The Paraclete creates all the differences in the Church and seems like an apostle of Babel. On the other hand, the Paraclete unifies all these differences – not making them equal – but in harmony with one another. I remember a Church father who described it like this: “Ipse harmonia est.” The Paraclete gives each one of us a different charism, and unites us in this community of the Church that adores the Father, the Son, and Him – the Holy Spirit.
Starting from the authentic collegial affection that united the College of Cardinals, I express my desire to serve the Gospel with renewed love, helping the Church to become ever more in Christ and with Christ, the fruitful life of the Lord. Stimulated by the Year of Faith, all together, pastors and faithful, we will make an effort to respond faithfully to the eternal mission: to bring Jesus Christ to humanity, and to lead humanity to an encounter with Jesus Christ: the Way, the Truth and the Life, truly present in the Church and, at the same time, in every person. This encounter makes us become new men in the mystery of Grace, provoking in our hearts the Christian joy that is a hundredfold that given us by Christ to those who welcome Him into their lives.
As Pope Benedict XVI reminded us so many times in his teachings and, finally, with that courageous and humble gesture, it is Christ who guides the Church through His Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the soul of the Church, with His life-giving and unifying strength. Of many He makes a single body – the mystical Body of Christ. Let us never give in to pessimism, to that bitterness that the devil tempts us with every day. Let us not give into pessimism and let us not be discouraged. We have the certainty that the Holy Spirit gives His Church, with His powerful breath, the courage to persevere, the courage to persevere and to search for new ways to evangelise, to bring the Gospel to the ends of the earth. Christian truth is attractive and convincing because it responds to the deep need of human existence, announcing in a convincing way that Christ is the one Saviour of the whole of man and of all men. This announcement is as valid today as it was at the beginning of Christianity when the Church worked for the great missionary expansion of the Gospel.
All this provides further reason to consider the pontificate of Francis as one that will likely capitalize on innovation in continuity. And if this is the case, his decisions will be in direct continuity with the teaching of Pope Benedict.
Think about it.