February 2007 – On Poverty

Focus on the spirituality of St. Francis

February 2007

Dear Friend of Saint Francis:

May the Lord give you Peace!

He gave up all he had, and took the nature of a servant

So accustomed are we to associating these words with Saint Francis, that we may momentarily overlook the fact they are about Jesus, written in a letter by Saint Paul to the Philippians. Throughout his life as a penitent and as the founder of a tradition that is at once ancient and contemporary, Saint Francis sought to faithfully follow in the footsteps of Jesus Christ.

Perhaps the most controversial aspect of his discipleship was the poverello’s insistence on strict adherence to the principle of evangelical poverty. Though intense, his insistence was purposeful, not obsessive. “The call to a life according to the Gospel, which began with the renunciation of all earthly goods, was for Francis at the same time the call to a life of total poverty. Yet, poverty, however deeply he loved it and however sincerely he pledged himself to it, was not an object in itself, but an integral part of the life of a disciple of Christ. (Cf. Cajetan Esser,Origins of the Franciscan Order)

Indeed, his focus on poverty was neither singular nor original. It was in continuity with religious movements that were underway long before he was born. Chroniclers had noted the presence of various “sects”, such as the Humiliati and the Poor Men of Lyons, striving to follow the examples of Jesus and the disciples, basing their actions on the Gospels and the Book of Acts. But these had led to abuses, for the most part. Most had fallen away from obedience to the Pope.

For Saint Francis, the life of poverty had to be aligned with the Church because it was not a protest movement per se. It was intended to assist the penitent in conforming his life to the teachings of Holy Scripture and Church tradition. While it was not designed to protest existing practices, it did serve to show a different way from the dominant style of ecclesial life.

In effect, the early fraternity’s manner of espousing evangelical and apostolic poverty was for Saint Francis the Catholic antidote to the heretical movement of the early thirteenth century. But also, it expressed the saint’s prophetic vision at San Damiano, “Francis, repair my church”, by reminding everyone of the primitive Church in the most constructive manner possible.

With regard to the benefits of poverty freely chosen for religious reasons, we read in Saint Bonaventure’s biography of Saint Francis, “When the friars asked them privately what virtue made one dearest to Christ, he replied as if revealing his closest secret, “Believe me, my brothers, poverty is the special way of salvation. It is at the source of humility and the root of all perfection and its fruit is manifold, though unseen. This is the treasure hidden in the field in the Gospel to buy for which we must sell all – and anything that cannot be sold should be abandoned for love if it.”

Sacrum Commercium, probably written in 1227, the year following the poverello’s death, contains numerous references to his motives for imitation of the poverty that marked both the birth and the death of Jesus. In one contemporary introduction, we read this, “Francis was deeply impressed with what he saw of Christ’s love of poverty and he was deeply grieved to see Lady Poverty no longer wanted on the earth, and outcast among men. Poverty therefore became for Francis, one might almost say, the essence of his Gospel way of life, or at least the foundation upon which evangelical perfection was to be raised. It could not, of course, to be the final end of his striving; the final end could only be God. But poverty was essential to his Gospel way of life and it was the rock upon which his whole spiritual life and that of his brothers was to be founded.”

Foxes have holes, and birds have nests,
but the Son of Man has so place to lie down and rest
(Matthew 8: 20)

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In his Praises of God, Saint Francis writes, “You are all our riches, and you suffice for us.”

This perspective and firm belief explains, in part, the necessity to remove all reliance on other riches and other sources of sufficiency. Rejection of earthly riches and self-sufficiency was, for Saint Francis, a test of confidence in Providence: “Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?” (Matthew 6: 26)

Saint Francis thought himself unworthy to live more comfortably that Jesus had. He sought no possession or privilege that Jesus did not have. Moreover, he understood Jesus to have chosen this life because it best suited his desire to do the Father’s will. Saint Francis renounced the heritage of his own father’s wealth in order to inherent something of greater value. His heart was fixed upon the vision of Saint Paul’s letter to the Colossians: “If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hid with Christ in God. When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.”

You know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ; rich as he was,
he made himself poor for your sake, in order to make you rich by means of his poverty.
(2 Corinthians 8: 9)

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The life of poverty that Saint Francis chose was not universally acclaimed, neither in his day nor during the 800 years of Franciscan spiritual tradition. During his lifetime, he faced opposition from friars who wished to live a more monastic than mendicant lifestyle. The division between friars who were faithful to the original rule regarding poverty and those who desired greater security only deepened as time went on. During the early 14th century, the order grew phenomenally into one of the great religious orders of the church. In part due to its rapid expansion and in part a result of opposing interpretations of gospel poverty, tensions became almost unbearable. Two factions threatened to tear apart the order that had incarnated the poverello’s religious intuition and dream. These were the ‘spirituals’ and the ‘conventuals’.

The Spirituals tended to adhere most strictly to the admonitions of Saint Francis regarding poverty. Not surprisingly, they were regarded with suspicion not only by the ‘conventuals’ but also by many leaders of the church who saw them as radical zealots. The Conventuals, on the other hand, occupied permanent houses (1,408 of them in 1316) and, at least in some isolated cases, had personal property.

Saint Clare of Assisi was granted the “privilege of poverty” for the order that she founded along with Saint Francis but the battle was hard-fought. An excellent article by Patricia Ranft, appearing in the Journal of Medieval Historyin 1991, reveals the significance of poverty in the life of Saint Francis’ spiritual sibling and the struggle that she waged to maintain it: “(Seraphic poverty) was a privilege which allowed these women to practice individual and corporate poverty unmolested…Within years of Innocent III’s death, Clare and her Poor Ladies were force to abandon their privilege.”

Even the secular Franciscans, sometimes known as Third Order Franciscans, had various ways of understanding relevant requirements regarding modesty of dress and lifestyle. Today, the Secular Franciscan rule addresses the question of “poverty” in very general terms, placing the emphasis on purity of heart: “Secular Franciscans should pledge themselves to live the spirit of the Beatitudes and, in a special way, the spirit of poverty. Evangelical poverty demonstrates confidence in the Father, affects interior freedom, and disposes them to promote a more just distribution of wealth.

“Secular Franciscans, who must provide for their own families and serve society by means of their work and material goods, have a particular manner of living evangelical poverty. To understand and achieve it requires a strong personal commitment and the stimulation of the fraternity in prayer and dialogue, communal review of life, and attentiveness to the instructions of the Church, and the demands of society.

“Secular Franciscans should pledge themselves to reduce their own personal needs so as to be better able to share spiritual and material goods with their brothers and sisters, especially those most in need. They should give thanks to God for the goods they have received, using them as good stewards and not as owners. They should take a firm position against consumerism and against ideologies and practices which prefer riches over human and religious values and which permit the exploitation of the human person. They should love and practice purity of heart, the source of true fraternity.”

For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.
(Luke 12: 34)

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May the mercy of Jesus, who gave up all he had and took the nature of a servant, fill your heart with all that it good. May his wisdom, manifest in the humility of his Incarnation, give you joy. And may his love, shining through the poverty of his passion and death, then crowned by his Resurrection, give you peace.



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