Some years ago I read a children’s biography of St. Dominic (1170–1221) that included mention of a dream that Dominic was said to have been granted by God. In the weeks since Pope Benedict’s election, I have been reminded of the story of that dream and have been pondering it again.
In his dream, Dominic saw Jesus, furious and ready to hurl spears toward the earth as punishment for the wickedness of mankind that he was witnessing. The Blessed Virgin approached Jesus and begged him to have mercy on mankind. “My Son,” she said, “I have two witnesses who will convert them.” Jesus glanced at her and asked, “Who are they?” She replied, “Love and truth,” and brought forward two men. Dominic recognized one to be him. The other man he did not recognize until he later met St. Francis of Assisi (1181–1226). St. Francis of Assisi was the embodiment of love, and St. Dominic was the embodiment of truth.
Francis, known for his love of all mankind and for all creation, is beloved throughout the world, even by non-Catholics. And yet he is often misunderstood. The popular image of him is of a pantheistic tree hugger, whose idea of love might be summed up as “Don’t worry, be happy.” Such an image couldn’t be further from the truth. Francis, often called the Catholic Man, was highly devoted to the Eucharist, to the Blessed Virgin, and the love he displayed for his neighbor was grounded upon his devotion to God (not the other way around). He was the Catholic Man in the universal sense because his love for all mankind was all-encompassing, but he was also the Catholic Man in the particular sense. He was an exemplary Catholic.
Dominic, when remembered today, is usually seen as a grim figure who fought heretics, was involved in the Inquisition, and who founded an order that would give the world the Grand Inquisitor Torquemada (1420–1498). Generally forgotten is a love for the poor that compelled him to sell his own hand-annotated books, his willingness to stay up all night talking to a heretic to show the heretic through reason the error of his ways, his love for the Blessed Virgin that inspired his order to promote the rosary in his name.
In other words, Francis and Dominic are often seen as caricatures of their true selves, molded to fit the biases of the individual.
What does this have to do with Pope Benedict’s election? It occurs to me that we are seeing a similar phenomenon with John Paul II and Benedict XVI.
John Paul, especially in the halcyon glow surrounding his eulogies, is popularly thought of in much the same way as Francis of Assisi. John Paul reached out to men and women around the world, emphasizing to them the beauty and goodness of love and brotherhood. Indeed, his motto was a declaration of love, Totus tuus (“Totally yours”). But John Paul also firmly upheld Catholic doctrine, especially on matters of life and death and on the dignity of the human person.
Benedict, on the other hand, is seen as the spiritual incarnation of Dominic—an inquisitor, ready to crack down on the heretics. After all, his motto is an assertion of truth, Cooperatores veritatis (“Fellow workers in the truth”). We keep having to be reminded by those who know him personally that Benedict is a gentle person, a good listener, genuinely interested in the ideas of others. They report that his love of his priesthood is profound and his reverence during celebrations of the liturgy transparent.
Although, to the best of my knowledge, Dominic’s dream is a pious legend attached to the saint, I think it may contain something we should consider. If Dominic’s time was in such sad shape that Love and Truth needed embodiment to convert humanity, how much more desperate is our own time?
Perhaps John Paul’s mission was, in part, to gather mankind around the See of Peter—much as Jesus gathered a large crowd of followers—so that they may listen to truth as expounded by Benedict. Indeed, the truth Benedict expounds will likely be the hard sayings of the faith. As Jesus had to confront his apostles after the large crowds left him in disgust over the doctrine of the Eucharist, Benedict may also be forced to ask of us Christ’s question “Will you also go away?” (John 6:67).
How appropriate it then becomes when we remember that this papal transition has taken place in the Year of the Eucharist.
(Image: Mural of recent popes, including John Paul II and Benedict XVI; Pixabay.)