Towards Understanding Revelation


Good morning! Today we take a look at the Franciscans, and Peter Olivi in particular.

As some of you may be aware, St. Francis started off life as Giovanni di Pietro di Bernardone, the son of a rich merchant in Assisi, Italy. He had a series of religious experiences that led him away from his father’s riches and his big house, and brought him into a life of religious poverty. He believed so intensely in what he was doing that he started to gather followers, and eventually got papal permission to start a new order (he actually started several of them). His official rule called on the friars to “observe the Holy Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, living in obedience without anything of our own and in chastity.”

We turn now to  APOCALYPTIC SPIRITUALITY by Bernard McGinn:

“Disputes about the rule of poverty among the Franciscans began before the death of Francis himself. In the Testament he wrote shortly before his death in 1226, the founder had given express orders that no glosses or modifications of his own practice of poverty were to be allowed, but the first papal bull regulating the Franciscan way of life…of 1230, declared the Testament null and void and began the process of accommodating Francis’ poverty to the demands of a large and growing international organization.”

We can recognize what was happening here based on what happens in our world.  The powers-that-be loved that Francis was attracting a lot of followers, so it became important to them to take over the organization and change the goals and practices to what was important to them, but using Francis’ name and draw. The membership recognized what was happening and from about 1280 to 1330 divided into factions, the main two being the Spirituals and the Conventuals.

Here’s a quote from Bernard McGinn’s VISIONS OF THE END about the Conventuals vs the Spirituals:

“The majority party, called Conventuals, favored practical accommodations of the practice of poverty and were generally supported in this by the papacy. From the time of the death of Francis, however, a vocal minority had strenuously opposed any relaxation in poverty. Other orders had accommodated their original ideals to the service of the Church —  why did this  problem cause the Franciscans such particular anguish? The answer lies in the fact that the Franciscans based their uniqueness precisely upon the supposition that they and they alone practiced the ‘apostolic poverty’ of Christ and his disciples, the poverty revived by Francis. The Conventuals were generally content to have established the claim in law and have it recognized by the papacy; the opposed minority, called the Zealots, or Spirituals, continued to think that any relaxation was a betrayal of the essence of the order. To many in this group, apostolic poverty became the unique apocalyptic sign, the mark of their identification as the ‘spiritual men’ who were to rule the Church age to come. For these men poverty was the outward sign of their inner devotion to the naked and crucified Christ, and the very center of Francis’ devotion…The opposed Conventual and Spiritual parties almost tore the order apart. Their contention provoked continued papal interventions, and produced one of the most striking chapters in the history of medieval apocalypticism.”

The meat of the paragraph is in the sentence: “The Conventuals were generally content to have established the claim in law and have it recognized by the papacy; the opposed minority…continued to think that any relaxation was a betrayal of the essence of the order.”  While I generally agree with Mr. McGinn’s assessment regarding why the Spirituals believed what they did, he steadfastly (in both books) refuses to look at what was happening on the other side. Here were the Conventuals just trying to get along. As long as the papacy gave them credit for being into poverty, that was good enough: one doesn’t need to actually do it. Does this attitude remind you of something? How about the serpent in the Garden? It’s okay to eat the fruit, God didn’t really mean you that you would die…  If you’re paying attention you will see similar watering-down of the Gospel all over the place, and you know where it’s coming from.

And I should say a word against the Spirituals. They were being poor as “an outward sign”; in other words, it was important to them that they be seen as in poverty. This wasn’t poverty that came from God, this was poverty that they chose, and they chose it for appearances. That isn’t what Jesus did. Jesus did not say to his Apostles: Let’s be poor! The point was supposed to be that things of this world don’t really matter, and that God will take care of all our needs if we just trust in Him…thus allowing yourself to be poor gives God room to work. If you read even a brief account of St. Francis’ life, it certainly appears that he was trusting Christ in his life and in his poverty. While I’m not opposed to a practice of poverty, Francis’ followers often seem more like rebels.


“The Spiritual Franciscans of the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries…looked back on a long history of struggle within the order over the issue of poverty, though it is not correct to speak of a full-fledged Spiritual movement much before 1280…[there was] an ambiguity present from the beginning. How could the Franciscans both be completely poor in the manner of Francis and yet of service to the Church in the myriad ways demanded of them? Was poverty or obedience the greater good? Other religious groups in the history of Western Christianity have had to deal with similar problems, the Franciscan case was the more extreme at least in part because of their greater success.”

The questions brought up in this last paragraph are interesting to untangle, and go to the heart of what I was commenting on from the previous quote. The Bible and Christ do not require absolute poverty, yet the kind of wealth that the Church was amassing is (and was) decidedly unbiblical. I don’t see it said in my reading, but it would appear that by advocating such extreme poverty, St. Francis may have been reacting to the wealth of his father, and perhaps of the Church itself. So maybe it’s because I’m just naive, but it seems to me that the question here is more about who do you serve: Christ or the Church? Are poverty and obedience really on opposite sides of the spectrum? Because the Church had already set itself up as the mediator to Christ in the world, they saw themselves as the ones to be obeyed (rather than looking to Scripture or Christ), and for them, poverty did not work. In following Christ, poverty can work very well. As previously stated, He requires radical faith in Him, and that we pay little attention to the problems of the world. Also, the acquisition of wealth often involves idolatry, and, as Christ said, you cannot obey or love two masters. 

An additional interesting point is the implication that while pursuing poverty, the Franciscans could not  be “of service to the Church in the myriad ways demanded of them.”  They certainly could not gather wealth for the Church while living in absolute poverty. But, there are so many ways to serve either the Church or Christ. For instance, St. Francis rebuilt, by hand, several run-down chapels near Assisi, carrying one stone at a time. How could that not be a service?  So, the ultimate implication here is that the Church had definitive ways in mind that a religious order could provide service…and an order living in poverty could not provide those services. Makes you think, doesn’t it?


“From about 1240 on those in favor of the most rigorous observance of poverty within the order began to make use of elements of Joachite apocalyptic to further their case. Many of the treatises ascribed to Joachim but written in the thirteenth century probably originated in Franciscan circles. A distinctive Franciscan Joachite apocalyptic was developed whose basic elements continued to influence…the later Spirituals. From the broader Joachite tradition these Franciscans absorbed not only the expectation of the imminence of the end of the present age, but also the belief in a current confrontation within the Church between the agents of good and the Antichrist and his followers. Like Joachim, too, the Franciscan Joachites looked forward to the defeat of the dread Last Enemy and the establishment of the contemplative Church of the perfect in the third status or seventh age of history about to dawn. More distinctive of the Franciscan version of this scenario were three themes: the identification of the Franciscans and  the Dominicans with the two groups of vireo spirituales prophesied by Joachim, the specification of poverty as the special sign of the spiritual men, and the belief that Saint Francis was the Angel of the Sixth Seal of Apocalypse 7:2, whose advent marked the beginning of the critical period of history immediately preceding the coming of the Antichrist…Unfortunately, some of the less balanced Franciscan Joachites pushed these apocalyptic ideas to a radical conclusion that predicted the collapse of the present Church in 1260 and its replacement by a totally new Joachite world order…”

And I saw another angel ascending from the east, having the seal of the living God: and he cried with a loud voice to the four angels, to whom it was given to hurt the earth and the sea, Saying, Hurt not the earth, neither the sea, nor the trees, till we have sealed the servants of our God in their foreheads. (Revelation 7:2-3; KJV)

This radical view led to a life sentence in prison for one follower and the resignation of the leader, John of Parma, in 1255. Giovanni di Fidanza took over the leadership, becoming known as Bonaventure. He was canonized in 1482. He succeeded in maintaining a tolerance for poverty in his lifetime, but after his death the majority overruled the idea.

So all of that (and more of course) was happening in Italy. Meanwhile, in Provence, France there was a Spiritual Franciscan group as well.


“…the whole Spiritual movement…[was] deeply influenced by the more complex and mysterious figure of the Provencal Franciscan Peter John Oivi [aka Peter Olivi, and Peter of John Olivi] (c.1248-1298). Olivi did not live to see the fate of the Spirituals. He remained loyal to the hierarchy of the order during his life, and…preached and practiced obedience to the papacy; yet more than any other figure he was the intellectual and charismatic center of the whole Zealot cause.

“Olivi studied theology at Paris where he heard and was influenced by Bonaventure. Most of his life was devoted to academic concerns; he taught theology at Florence (1287-1289)…Denounced for unsound theological and philosophical views, he was condemned by the order in 1283, but vindicated in 1287.  It is clear that he remained under suspicion in many circles for the rest of his life. Most of the issues advanced against him were highly technical theological and philosophical questions, but a number involved his interpretations of Franciscan poverty. Olivi was no radical. He defended the legitimacy of earlier papal bulls abrogating Francis’s Testament and defining the nature of Franciscan poverty, but he took a clear stand for the usus pauper ‘poor use’ [a distinction made between ownership and use], that is, the most stringent observance of the law of poverty in everyday life…what was truly dangerous about Olivi’s thought was the apocalyptic theology of history he worked out during his lifetime. His final book, the LECTURE ON THE APOCALYPSE, written in 1297, summarized his apocalyptic theories and was the most important statement of the underlying theory of history common to most of the Spiritual party…”

A quick addition from VISIONS OF THE END:

“The invective that Olivi directs against the evidences of the carnal Church is concerned not only with the ecclesiastical abuses of the day, especially avarice and simony, but also, like Bonaventure before him, with the use of Aristotle in theology.” [This is interesting as it predates Luther’s Reformation by at least 200 years.]


“…Olivi maintained a division of Church history into seven periods, seeing his own era as that of the overlapping of the Fifth Age of laxity and the Sixth Age, inaugurated by Saint Francis, of evangelical renewal. The conflict between the carnal Church and the spiritual Church comprised of the adherents of true poverty would culminate in the onslaught of a double Antichrist, the first, Mystical Antichrist, a false pope who would attack the Franciscan Rule, and the second, Great Antichrist, who would openly slaughter the faithful. After Christ’s defeat of these foes a spiritualized Church under the direction of the Franciscan order and coming holy popes would rule the world in the millennial Seventh Age before the end of history. Olivi believed that these events were imminent. Though he did not identify any living ecclesiastical figure, even Boniface VIII, with the Antichrist or his agents, it was almost impossible for the later Spirituals not to see in his view of the future a prophecy of the activities of John XXII in persecuting the Spirituals and condemning the Franciscan interpretation of the Rule of Francis.

“…The radical Franciscans tended to be hero-worshippers, always prone to create a pantheon of charismatic servants of absolute poverty. In this pantheon Olivi ranked second only to Francis himself…among his Provencal followers Olivi’s grave became a place of pilgrimage and miracle until it was destroyed by ecclesiastical authority. The influence of the LECTURE ON THE APOCALYPSE, translated into the vernacular and eagerly read by the laity, was not quashed even by its condemnation by John XXII in 1326.”

And a bit more from VISIONS OF THE END:

“After his death, Olivi’s followers, far less cautious than the master in their criticism of the contemporary Church, venerated him as almost the equal of Francis. As the campaign against the Spirituals and their sympathizers…grew warmer, so did the attacks on Olivi’s memory. His books were burned at a Franciscan chapter in 1299, some propositions drawn from his writings were condemned by Clement V at the Council of Vienne in 1312, and after a series of investigations at Avignon his great work on Revelation was condemned by Pope John XXII in 1326. Although influenced by the Joachite tradition and especially by Bonaventure, Olivi was an original thinker of great power. His writings deserve to be read on their own account, not through the haze occasioned by later controversy and misinterpretation.”

[In 1979, Bernard McGinn wrote that no modern edition of Olivi’s commentary existed. Of course, I had to look, and I found that the Franciscans have recently made the first English translation available for LECTURE ON THE APOCALYPSE, so I’ve ordered it. It’s going to take about a month to get here, so I’ll be using it in the verse by verse hopefully.]

As you can see, the Spiritual Franciscans had a rather self-involved interpretation of the Apocalypse. I don’t know what their current thoughts are, but they have to be somewhat different because clearly Olivi’s ideas for the future didn’t work out. I wanted to talk about Olivi here, and use his interpretations in the verse by verse, because I think that it’s important to see these types of ideas (and there are many of them!). Sometimes in our own lives we begin to feel that everything is about us, and that certainly this or that prophecy must be speaking directly to us and/or about us. Reading things like this can wake us up a bit to the fact that none of us are the center of the universe, not even the Franciscans, that no prophecy has anything to do with us personally, and that even our whole hemisphere may not appear in prophecy. But that doesn’t mean we won’t be affected by it.

That’s more than enough for today.  I haven’t looked ahead yet, so I’m not sure what’s coming up next, but the Renaissance is almost here. Until next time, I’ll be praying for your ability to trust in God, and that He is meeting all your needs.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: