It’s no secret that certain quotes that are falsely attributed to St. Francis of Assisi have worked their way into popular consciousness. Most people realize that the famous Peace Prayer of St. Francis was likely written in the 19th century, and that the quote “Preach the Gospel. If necessary, use words,” is a lovely sentiment but was most likely never uttered by the seraphic saint. Unfortunately, there are many quotes falsely attributed to Francis of Assisi that can mislead the faithful, promote doctrinal error, and fuel dangerous ideological narratives. Two recent articles on LifeSiteNews rely on a such a quote, and in a video on the website, LifeSite founder John Henry Westen asserts twice that the quote is unquestionably authentic.
In one of Archbishop Viganò’s recent apocalyptic-themed tracts published on LifeSiteNews, he asserts that the current pontificate is a stage rehearsal for the coming of the Antichrist, strongly implying that Pope Francis is the ultimate embodiment of the biblical False Prophet described in Revelation 13. This recent Viganò interview follows swiftly on the heels of another article on this subject published by LifeSiteNews by Fr. Frank Unterhalt, titled The False Prophet of the Apocalypse. Here, Fr. Unterhalt uses a spurious prophecy attributed to St. Francis of Assisi in order to further suggest that its fulfilment is found by Pope Francis infecting the Church with perfidious doctrinal errors. As I have argued at length elsewhere, the idea that a pope could fulfil the role of the False Prophet of the Apocalypse contradicts the de fide tenenda dogma of the indefectibility of the Apostolic See, and has been repudiated by the Magisterium of the Church on several different occasions, most notably in the Dogmatic Constitution of the Church Pastor Aeternus.
In the above article, instead of relying on primary sources which can be reliably traced back to St. Francis of Assisi himself, Fr. Unterhalt quotes from a secondary text by the Franciscan chronicler Bartolomeo da Pisa (Bartholomew Rinonico), titled De conformitate vitae Beati Francisci ad vitam Domini Iesu, which was published towards the end of the 14th century. Rinonico’s work attributes a prophecy to St. Francis concerning an “uncanonically elected pope” who usurps the chair of St. Peter and poisons the Church with heretical teachings, all in order to act as a type of “anti-Elijah” to pave the way for the coming of the Antichrist.
The above prophecy closely parallels another text which was widely circulated around the time of the ascension of Pope Francis to the papacy, which was also falsely attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, and similarly equates the False Prophet of the Apocalypse with a future Pseudopope. This work is cited in Works of the Seraphic Father, St. Francis of Assisi, (London: R. Washbourne, 1882), which is taken from Friar Luke Waddings’ 17th century work Annales ord. minorum. Fr. Solanus Benfatti has demonstrated that the source of Waddings’ material originates in a collection of sayings contained in the works of Conrad of Offida, dating back to the early 14th century. (See Fr. Solanus Benfatti, “On the paternity of a medieval report of Francis of Assisi foretelling a non-canonically elected pope,” New York: 2018). Here, St. Francis of Assisi is said to have foretold the coming of an uncanonically elected “destroyer pope” who will seek to dismantle the Church from within by teaching heretical doctrines:
“At the time of this tribulation a man, not canonically elected, will be raised to the Pontificate, who, by his cunning, will endeavour to draw many into error and death. Then scandals will be multiplied, our Order will be divided, and many others will be entirely destroyed, because they will consent to error instead of opposing it.
“There will be such diversity of opinions and schisms among the people, the religious and the clergy, that, except those days were shortened, according to the words of the Gospel, even the elect would be led into error, were they not specially guided, amid such great confusion, by the immense mercy of God….
“Those who persevere in their fervor and adhere to virtue with love and zeal for the truth, will suffer injuries and persecutions as rebels and schismatics; for their persecutors, urged on by the evil spirits, will say they are rendering a great service to God by destroying such pestilent men from the face of the earth…
“Some preachers will keep silent about the truth, and others will trample it under foot and deny it. Sanctity of life will be held in derision even by those who outwardly profess it, for in those days Our Lord Jesus Christ will send them, not a true Pastor, but a destroyer.”
The provenance of the uncanonically elected “destroyer pope” prophecy is not found among the authentic writings of St. Francis of Assisi however, but instead emanates from the millenarian Franciscan Spirituals who were condemned as heretical by several popes during the Middles Ages. As Fr. Benfatti states:
“There is a robust and well-populated academic field of Franciscan historiography, which has been vigorous and rigorous for well over a century. And of the scholars who have made up and do now make up that field, publishing continuously in multitudes of peer-reviewed journals devoted exclusively to such matters, there is not one who has attributed or now attributes the contents of the report to the Poor Man of Assisi.”
The reference to the uncanonically elected “destroyer pope” mentioned in this text was actually aimed against Pope Boniface VIII in order to attack his attempts to supress the Franciscan Spirituals, and the origins of this bogus prophecy can be traced back to the writings of one of their founding figures, Peter Olivi.
After the death of St. Francis in 1226, the Franciscan Order was heavily divided over the course of their future direction, especially in relation to their embracement of poverty in reaction to the worldly aspirations of some of their fellow ecclesiastics. The extent to which the vows of poverty should be applied within the Order left the Franciscans divided along the lines of strict and lax observation of the Rule. After several popes gave their backing to the lax party within the Franciscan Order, those who adhered to the strict rule of observance became radicalised against the papacy, and looked towards the apocalyptic writings of Joachim de Fiore for inspiration concerning his ideas on how a pope was destined to fulfil the role of the False Prophet of the Apocalypse.
Towards the end of his career at the close of the 13th century, Olivi had composed a commentary on the Book of Revelation that was heavily reliant on the millenarian eschatology of Abbot Joachim, whose work had been condemned by the Church during the Councils of Arles in 1260 and 1264. In order to continue to propose their heretical beliefs, the Franciscan Spirituals argued that the abdication of Pope Celestine V in 1294 was invalid, and in their attempts to reject papal authority, they argued that Boniface VIII was “uncanonically elected,” depicting the pope as the False Prophet of Revelation 13. It is here that we find the origins of the papal antichrist theory, which was used to devastating effect by the Protestant Reformers in the 16th century. We can also see close parallels in this case with the modern rise of “Benevacantism,” which rejects the validity of the abdication of Pope Benedict XVI in order to depict Pope Francis as some sort of precursor to the Antichrist.
In his commentary on Revelation, Olivi asserts the unsubstantiated claim that St. Francis of Assisi had secretly revealed his material concerning a heretical Pseudopope to his faithful companion Brother Leo and a select number of his inner-circle. Here, we are told that an apocalyptic Pseudopope figure equated with the False Prophet as the “Mystical Antichrist” (Antichristus Mysticus) would arise and set about conducting a persecution of the Franciscan Spirituals alongside the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, who they equated with the Antichristus Magnus (Great Antichrist):
From the many things which Joachim wrote about Frederick II and his seed, and from the things which St. Francis is thought to have revealed secretly to Brother Leo and some of his other companions, they think that Frederick with his seed is like the slain head in this age, and that he will revive at the time of the Mystical Antichrist in someone from his seed in such a manner that he not only will obtain the Roman empire, but will conquer the French and their kingdom. Five other kings will be joined to him. He will set up as Pseudopope a certain false religious who will contrive something against the Evangelical Rule. He will make an evil dispensation, promoting to bishops those who professed in this Rule who consent to him and expelling clerics and earlier bishops who were opposed to the seed of Frederick and especially to that emperor himself, as well as to him and his state of life. He will persecute all who wish to observe and defend the Rule purely and fully… But who these men will be or not be is to be left to divine direction, I think. The aforementioned scholars add that at that time the saying of the apostle in 2 Thess. 2:3, “unless the falling away comes,” will be in part fulfilled. Then almost all will depart from the obedience of the true pope and will follow the false pope. He will indeed be false, because he will heretically err against the truth of evangelical poverty and perfection, and perhaps because beyond this, he will not be canonically elected, but be put in by schism.
(Peter Olivi, Commentary on Revelation, Trans. Bernard McGinn, Visions of the End: Apocalyptic Traditions in the Middle Ages, p211)
Given that the “prophecy” which Olivi attributes to St. Francis of Assisi is patently false, which is proven by its assertion that Frederick II and Boniface VIII were the Antichrist and False Prophet of Revelation, we can similarly dismiss the variants of Olivi’s commentary which made their way in the later works by Bartolomeo da Pisa, Luke Wadding, and Mark of Lisbon. The vast majority of Olivi’s works where burned after his commentary on Revelation was formally condemned by Pope John XXII in 1336. Olivi was held in such esteem by the Franciscan Spirituals that many of his works were conflated with those of St. Francis of Assisi himself, and fragments of his commentary on the Book of Revelation found its way into several prophetic miscellanies of the later Middle Ages, such as those collated by the Franciscan writers Mark of Lisbon (d.1591) and Luke Wadding (1588-1697), which were stripped of this original context.
Olivi’s prophecy of a “uncanonically elected” pope assuming the role of the biblical False Prophet stands in stark contrast to the ecclesiology espoused by his renowned Dominican contemporaries, St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Albertus Magnus, who did not allow for the possibility of a heretical pope, based on the long-standing tradition of the indefectibility of the Apostolic See. As St. Thomas states in his commentary on Matthew 16:18:
And the gates of hell will not prevail against it. And they will fight against you, and will not prevail (Jer 1:19). And who are the gates of hell? Heretics, because just as one enters into a house through a gate, so one enters into hell through these. Also tyrants, demons, sins. And although other churches can be reproached for heretics, yet the Roman church was not corrupted by heretics, because it was founded upon the rock. Hence there were heretics in Constantinople, and the apostles’ labor was lost; only Peter’s church remained inviolate. Hence, but I have prayed for you, that your faith fail not (Luke 22:32). And this does not only refer to Peter’s church, but to Peter’s faith, and to the whole western church. Hence I believe that those in the west owe more reverence to Peter than to the other apostles.
The position of St. Thomas and St. Albert on the indefectibility of the Petrine See was further developed by St. Robert Bellarmine and Francisco Suarez, and was eventually reinforced during the First Vatican Council, which taught that the Christ himself established by divine law “that blessed Peter should have perpetual successors in the primacy over the whole church.” The same council also taught that the “see of St. Peter always remains unblemished by any error, in accordance with the divine promise of our Lord and Saviour to the prince of his disciples.” Thus the idea of a pope assuming the role of the False Prophet of the Book of Revelation by binding the entirety of the faithful to heresy is thus to be firmly rejected as a heterodox teaching which contradicts the dogma of the indefectibility of the Apostolic See, which places the adherents of this position outside of communion with the Catholic Church.
Image: The Pope approuving the statutes of the order of the Franciscans. By Giotti, 1295-1300. Personal photograph in Le Louvre. By PHGCOM – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4390575