Popes in the time of St. Francis, who promoted crusades, had great earthly power as well as spiritual dominance. It seemed to them that they had no alternative to making Christian institutions expand and become the trendsetters for the whole known world. One of these Popes, when St. Francis was a teenager, had a nightmare in which he dreamed he saw all the pillars of wise leadership, new cathedrals and their staff, the cosy life-style of canons and the hierarchy tumbling down in a whirlwind of failure.
But within this dream there appeared a scruffy little man, not a member of the hierarchy, not a priest, just a lay preacher, who seemed to be able to prop up whatever it was that made a Christian society deserving of God’s help. This crowning carving of one of the columns in the Brussels Franciscan Church shows the dreaming Pope, the whirling wind and the tumbling buildings.
Franciscans who set out to explain the dream, such as Thomas of Celano, said that Francis of Assisi was the amazing new presence in central Italian society who would pour hope into people’s hearts, and bring back the fundamentals of Christian community. That community of eager compassion towards suffering neighbours, including the friars with their studies and musical skills, would boost the hopes of many. A tottering society would discover its new caring direction through a new awakening of gospel-based relationships. The hierarchy might have a lot to learn about simplicity, honesty, and closeness to the ordinary workaday believers, but love could now begin again.