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Understanding the Apocalyptic Vision of Pope Francis

AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino

Fr Dwight Longenecker - published on 01/29/15

The Church at war with the world underlies all

Many Catholics in the developed world have problems fitting Pope Francis into their conventional thought patterns. He breaks the mould. He surprises us with new perspectives and fresh combinations. As the first Pope from the developing world he has a different set of priorities, perceptions and principles, and (if they are really listening to him) his way of looking at the world and behaving as a Catholic in the world today can be disconcerting and  confusing for Catholics in the developed world.

So, for example, more progressive Catholics have been delighted with Pope Francis’ focus on the poor and his statements on economic justice. They have been pleased with what seems to be an open attitude to those with same sex attraction. They have lauded his compassion for immigrants, his endorsement of reform in the Vatican and his concern for the environment. But then he surprises them by speaking more than any other recent pope of the reality of the devil and the spiritual battle against supernatural forces. Progressive Western Catholics were surprised and chagrined when Pope Francis, in his recent trip to the Philippines spoke out strongly against abortion, stood up for the Catholic ban on artificial contraception and inveighed against the injustice and perversion of same sex marriage. They were disappointed when he said clearly that the door to women’s ordination was closed. How could a Pope who was so progressive turn out to be so backward and repressive?

Conservative Catholics in the developed world have a similar problem. They applaud when Pope Francis supports traditional morality and upholds the family. They are pleased when he excommunicates a priest who supports women’s ordination. They nod in agreement when Pope Francis speaks of spiritual warfare, the need for frequent confession and for increased reverence at Mass. But conservative Catholics in the West are jolted when the pope phones a divorced and remarried woman and allegedly says she should go to communion. They are nervous when the pope’s favorites in the Synod on the Family seems to take a liberal stance. They dislike it when he embraces liberation theologians, makes friendly with atheists, gets chummy with Protestants and leaders of other world religions. “How can the pope do such things?” They say. “What is going on?”

I believe the best way to overcome the blind spots many Western Catholics have about the pope is to think outside the box because Pope Francis doesn’t fit into any of the boxes. I am convinced that the way to understand Pope Francis is to listen carefully to a reference he has made many times to a novel by an English convert clergyman named Robert Hugh Benson.

Benson published Lord of the World in 1907 as a response to the utopian, atheistic vision of British author H.G.Wells. In Lord of the World  a socialist and humanist society has come to dominate human society. Religion has been suppressed. People have no hope so euthanasia is legal and encouraged. A one world, secular, atheistic government is in place and an anti-Christ world leader has emerged.

Pope Francis has referred to Benson’s novel numerous times during his papacy, and I believe this work is the key to understanding Francis. It would be wrong to take Benson’s dystopic vision literally and in too much detail. Instead it is the larger themes and underlying truths which give us the framework to understand Francis’ mindset.

Pope Francis, like Benedict before him, sees the Church in conflict with the world. His regular references to the battle against Satan and his call to stand up to the evil and corrupt powers of the world reveal a pope who is apocalyptic in his vision. Pope Francis refers to Benson’s novel because he wants Catholics to take notice that the Church is in conflict with the spirit of the age and with the Lord of this World who is Satan, the Father of Lies, the Great Deceiver, the Hater of Humanity and the Destroyer of All Things.

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