There is a very well known story, depicted numerous times by famous painters, about how Pope Innocent III approved the Rule of St. Francis. It was after his meeting with him that the Pope saw the great church of St. John Lateran collapsing on itself. Just as it was about to fall, a small man appeared dressed in the clothes of a peasant. He took the weight of the falling church, held it up with his shoulder, and then straightened it back again. It was by this dream that convinced the Pope about St. Francis and the Franciscans.
There is a great deal of symbolism in this dream. The Church of St. John Lateran is the primary basilica of the Roman Pontiff. When the Pope takes possession of his episcopal church following his coronation, he always goes to St. John Lateran since he is the bishop of Rome. The Basilica of St. John Lateran is also one of the most ancient churches in all of Rome and the building which Pope Innocent knew was from the time of St. Constantine.
The problem during Pope Innocent’s time was that there were many heretics that were attacking the Church. There were the Albigensians and the Cathari. If people would like to believe that the Middle Ages were a golden time for the Catholic Church, then they would be wrong. Things were very much like they are now, but God always manages to change things at the most opportune time. Just as in past centuries, he raised up great saints like St. Athanasius the Great of Alexandria and St. Basil the Great, he did so again in the 13th century with Sts. Dominic and Francis.
In the dream, St. Francis appears and hold up the entire collapsing basilica on his shoulder. Yet the basilica is not simply the Roman basilica, but the entire Catholic Church. In a way, Pope Innocent’s dream was a repetition of the message that St. Francis himself had heard at San Damiano: “Rebuild my church.”
In a way, the dream of Pope Innocent III should spur us to action in our own times. Who else, but St. Francis can help to restore the current crises in the Church? If he could straighten up an entire basilica in a dream, he most certainly can do it and has done it in reality. Look at all of the great saints that have come either from the Franciscan Order itself or the Franciscan Third Order. Great founders and reformers as well as meek shepherds have come from this Order.
Let us then pray to God, Our Lady, and St. Francis to restore the Church.