Yesterday Pope Francis preached one of the most extraordinary sermons ever delivered by a pope, one that demonstrates the laziness of those commentators who think he is a typical Latin American liberal. It put centre stage a teaching of the Church that I've never heard discussed in a Catholic homily: the physical resurrection of all saved Christians at the Apocalypse.
The Pope told the early-morning congregation in his hostel that Catholics are afraid to contemplate the doctrine – of overwhelming importance to the early Christians – that their bodies (however physically destroyed on earth) will rise from the dead:
This is the future that awaits us and this is the fact that brings us to pose so much resistance: resistance to the transformation of our bodies. Also - resistance to Christian identity. I'll say more: perhaps we are not so much afraid of the Apocalypse of the Evil One, of the Antichrist who must come first - perhaps we are not so afraid [of him]. Perhaps we are not so afraid of the voice of the Archangel or the sound of his trumpet - that shall sound the victory of the Lord. Fear of our resurrection, however, we have: we shall all be transformed. That transformation shall be the end of our Christian journey.
The Antichrist who precedes the Second Coming; the last trumpet; the voice of the Archangel; the rising of the dead – these are topics thoroughly familiar to born-again Christians. The painting above depicts 'the Rapture', the moment when, according to fundamentalists, the saved will be plucked into the air to meet Christ when we least expect it. Look at the graves opening and white-shrouded people being ejected heavenwards. Pity, too, the unsaved passengers of cars and plans whose pilots and drivers are Christians and therefore – whoosh! – no longer at the controls. (The Rapture forms the prelude to the bestselling Left Behind novels, which depict the struggles of yet-to-be-saved citizens against the Antichrist, disguised as the secretary-general of the United Nations.)
The Rapture is a Protestant concept, formulated by fundamentalists who devised a complicated timetable of the End Times known as premillennial dispensationalism. I'm not really suggesting that Pope Francis subscribes to it. But, as his sermon yesterday shows, he believes in the literal truth of St Paul's declaration that 'if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised' (I Corinthians 15:16). And also he believes that 'the dead in Christ will raise first; then we who are alive, who are left, shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air...' That is from Paul's First Letter to the Thessalonians (4:16-17) which is thought to be the oldest surviving Christian document, predating the Gospels. The Church may not believe in the Rapture, but Paul is describing something very like it.
The truth is, though, that Catholics rarely ponder these prophecies. The institutional Church has sidelined the Apocalypse, the subject that preoccupied the first Christians more than any other.
Francis is therefore saying something that should make his flock very uncomfortable: 'Oh, you expect us to believe that?' Liberal Catholics who think they can materialise the Kingdom of Heaven by establishing 'justice and peace' on earth will be puzzled, even dismayed, by such literalism (which is not to say that Francis doesn't fight for justice and peace: he does). But the evangelical Protestants with whom Cardinal Bergoglio forged such close ties in Argentina will know exactly what he is talking about.
What an unusual pope he is: not only does he mention the Devil with unnerving frequency, but he also views the Evil One in the context of the Bible's detailed (if baffling) narrative of the End Times. He reminds us that orthodox Christianity is far stranger than one would gather by attending the average Mass, at which congregations mumble the words 'the resurrection of the dead' without imagining themselves clothed in celestial garments before the Lamb. Seen in this light, Francis – despite his distaste for fancy vestments and Old Rite ceremonial – has proved his traditionalist credentials by reviving the oldest Christian tradition of all.