Feast of the Dedication of Lateran Basilica, St. Francis, and the Catholic Church in 2021

Fr. Nicholas Rokitka, OFM Conv.
6 min readNov 10, 2021


Dream of Pope Innocent III of St. Francis holding up the Lateran Basilica https://www.wikiart.org/en/giotto/the-dream-of-innocent-iii-1299

There are 2 main points to this article.

  1. In 1206, St. Francis went to the Lateran Basilica to get his rule approved by Pope Innocent III because he heard Jesus speak to him from the crucifix.
  2. The Catholic Church is the largest, most powerful, and oldest institution in the world because it was established by Jesus Christ and guided by the Holy Spirit.

Francis and Pope Innocent III and the Lateran Basilica

After being generally terrible at war and giving up his dreams to be a solider, Francis became a new, and darker person. Before he was outgoing, loved to party, was well known in a relatively small town, and generally seems like the kind of guy you would want to hang out with. After traveling for war, spending time as a prisoner, and presumably all the violence he saw, he came back to Assisi changed. Now longer regularly socializing, he went outside of the protection of the town walls for quiet. Eventually he would start spending more times in forgotten chapels and taking care of forgotten people. One of the three chapels he rebuilt was the chapel of San Damiano. About a kilometer or so outside of the town, this chapel was forgotten about and over time started to fall apart.

By 1203, Francis spent time in the chapel, praying, possibly trying to figure out what to do with his life. One time in prayer, he had a mystical experience of Jesus Christ and heard Jesus say, “Francis, go rebuild my Church which is falling into ruin.” Taking this literally, Francis started collecting money and stones to rebuild this chapel and two others. He would still take care of the sick and poor when he could, and eventually started dressing like them. Other men in the town were inspired by this and started looking for some direction.

It is difficult to judge the leadership style or quality of Francis, but he knew that if this life of rebuilding churches and taking care of the poor was going to become “legitimate”, he wanted approval from the Church. I say “legitimate” because although I don’t think Francis intended to start a solemnly professed religious order as it exists today in the various forms of the Order of Friars Minor (I am in the branch of the Order of Friars Minor, Conventual FWIW), he did want approval from the Church for a way of life. With that, Francis and his 12 earliest followers went to Rome.

Innocent III is usually considered the most powerful pope in the history of the Church. He certainly was a “church man” in so far as he started an ecumenical council and was generally heavily involved with the administration of the Church (which isn’t something all popes have done) but also was a civil ruler who exerted his power freely.

This didn’t seem to bother Francis. When Francis and the early brothers approached the Lateran Basilica, dressed as beggars without any real plan, it caused a commotion. Again, it is difficult to measure what kind or how big of a commotion this caused, but it was enough that somehow or another word got to Pope Innocent III, probably by way of some bishop or cardinal, that Francis and the early brothers were there.

Francis wasn’t the first or last to go to Pope Innocent III for permission to start an order, the Dominicans were founded shortly after the Order of Friars Minor. So this wasn’t entirely new. Maybe out of curiosity, maybe to make an example of Francis, but for reasons not totally known, Pope Innocent III was willing to listen to Francis.

Dressed in the clothing of a beggar, Francis and the early brothers walked through the palatial court of Innocent III. What is usually pictured as an enormous room flanked by the most powerful men in the Church leading up to the Vicar of Christ himself, Francis and the early brothers walked up to the pope to explain what they were about.

Who knows what they said for sure, but the accounts tell us that Francis and the early brothers were listened to and ask to leave. Instead of going straight back to Assisi, they stayed around the basilica to beg for food, probably giving some to the poor.

While Francis spending his days in Rome, Innocent III had a dream of Francis holding up the Lateran Basilica which was falling down. It is hard to summarize the state of the Catholic Church in 1206, but with the schism in the East in 1054, other worldly powers threatening the Holy Roman Empire, and a Church being arguably more focused on the things of earth as opposed to the things of heaven, it’s not a big jump to think of the Church falling apart in various ways.

This dream of Innocent III stirred him enough to get Francis brought back to him. Who knows exactly what the formal process would have looked like at that point, but Francis was given the blessing of the Vicar of Christ (the Pope) to follow his dream of living a Gospel life of living the poverty of Jesus while taking care of the poor. Of the twelve early brothers, only one was a priest who presumably ministered to the brothers. So the early brothers were not a “clerical” order which they became shortly afterwards, but a group of men who wanted to live together, pray together, and take care of the poor, all with the approval of the Church.

Francis is often seen as very focused on nature, the goodness of creation, which is all well and good. But first and foremost I see him as a man of prayer who wanted to take care of the poor but also wanted approval from the Church. Throughout his writings Francis writes beautifully about the Eucharist, and the priests that bring us the Eucharist, and the Church who protects the Eucharist. More on that later.

The Roman Catholic Church in 2021

Where to start. I’m a priest and Franciscan friar and generally a positive guy. I don’t say the following lightly. Also, I’m not smart enough or perceptive enough to go into this in detail. But at least for the Church in the USA, a lot of Europe, and probably other parts of the world, it isn’t pretty. The sex abuse scandals are long-standing, evil, and the biggest stain on the Church I can think of. Vocations are down, dioceses are declaring bankruptcy, and parishes are closing rapidly. I don’t know what else to say, it’s not pretty. It’s ugly. Not even to speak of all the infighting I see between people of the Church (at least on social media).

Those are all horrible and bad things. And I’ve sort of become numb to them for various reasons. But the thing that still hits my heart is whenever I hear people treated poorly by priests or religious or church employees. Sometimes it is rudeness from a parish secretary. Other times it is the pastor firing an employee without any evident cause. Again I don’t want to get into it too much but too often I hear about people being treated poorly by the Church.


I bring up these practical matters of how people of the Church are being treated by the Church because I think this feast of the Lateran Basilica points to the importance of the earthly Church. If Pentecost is the beginning THE CHURCH as Church, today’s feast points to a physical building in Rome that’s been there for 1700 years. And the popes who have sat in the papal chair, the bishops, the priests, the religious and lay men and women all who build up the church. And all the administration of the Church goods.

I put these two points together because the practical things matter. Francis went to Pope Innocent III because he was the Vicar of Christ. In 1206 the Church was falling into ruins in various ways, and Innocent III was part of that to some extent, but Francis still wanted the approval of the boss. The blessing of the Vicar of Christ. And with that, Francis embraced a life of poverty and followed the example of Jesus Christ. This certainly isn’t the first thing that comes to the minds of most people but St. Francis was a great administrator of goods and people. Maybe I’m projecting because I have an MBA, but administration of goods and people is a service and a gift. And Francis, in his own way, had that quality, and had that quality because he was inspired by Jesus Christ.

One of the lines I remember most clearly from studying theology is, “The Church makes the Eucharist, and the Eucharist makes the Church”. Clearly we need the Eucharist, we need the presence of Jesus Christ in our lives in Sacramental form in order to be Church. And we need to take care of the Church, most particularly the people of the Church, the best we can in order to serve God and bring other people to Jesus Christ.



Fr. Nicholas Rokitka, OFM Conv.

I am a Catholic Priest and Conventual Franciscan Friar currently serving as a formation director in Silver Spring, MD as well as Province Treasurer.