May 2006 – On Begging

Focus on the spirituality of St. Francis

May 2006

Dear Friend of Saint Francis:

May the Lord give you Peace!

In my youth, I did everything that I could to avoid going door-to-door to raise money for my school and for my cub or scout group. Later, as a parent, I would buy whatever quota of chocolate bars my sons would be assigned to fund preschool or primary school activities. I did this to avoid the dreaded task of selling them at the office.

Part of the reason was shyness but a larger part, I know, was pride. As I grew up, my parents insidiously instilled into us a feeling that what we lacked in money we needed to earn in respect. This is an attitude common among people whose financial standing compares unfavorably to that of others around them.

My tendency to avoid fundraising served me reasonably well until two years ago when I was confronted by the plight of the poor in Africa. Because of the work that I do with a humanitarian organization that delivers medicines to the least developed countries of the world, I traveled to remote regions in four African countries. I was particularly touched by the sight of a young girl who, before I left Malawi, died of an ailment that would have been easily treated in my own country. I immediately felt that a transformation had begun in my heart.

Once home again, I struggled to seek guidance from the Lord about the response that is the most appropriate for me. My attention turned – as it often does – to the poverello. What began as a faint whisper became an audible admonition: Beg in the name of the helpless child.

“Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me.”– Matthew 25: 45

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Begging aids in the purgation of pride and the expansion of humility. So says a Hindu website that I visited recently. This attitude is also reminiscent of the life and teaching of Saint Francis.

The little poor man of Assisi was the founder of a religious order that is part of a wider Medieval category of communities called the Mendicants. The word means “beggars.” This aspect of their lifestyle is key to their spirituality. They would possess nothing but rather work and, if necessary, beg to meet their essential needs. They would also do so in the name of the poor they served in the name of Christ.

His first act as a beggar was neither in his own name nor in the name of the poor. Rather, it was in the name of God whose sanctuary was falling shamefully into disrepair. Returning from Gubbio, after deciding to conform his own life to life of Jesus, Saint Francis traveled the nearby area begging stones for the restoration of St. Damian’s Church.

Later, once others had joined him, the new community lived by working alongside laborers in the fields, and when none gave them work, the brothers would beg.

According to Thomas of Celano, in his second account of the life of the saint, Francis said, “Go humbly begging alms. Don’t be ashamed, because after sin everything comes to us as an alms, and the Great Almsgiver gives generously and kindly to all…”

In his Testament, Saint Francis refers to begging as being inspired by the Lord’s own example. One study that I read recently included this observation: “To resort to begging is to ‘have recourse to table of the Lord,’ because Our Lord Himself was fed by others during His public ministry.” Saint Francis’ construction of this sentence, which employs the imperfect subjunctive in the initial clause, indicates that the friars should have recourse to begging, not on every occasion that they do not receive alms in exchange for their work, but only if this is a habitual circumstance of their work.

This would seem to suggest that begging – particularly when it is done for the sake of the poor – should neither be a substitute for productive work nor a cause for shame.

Francis, the servant of God, returned to Saint Damian Church. He set to begging for the stones with which to restore the church. He called to passersby: “Whoever gives me one stone will have one reward; two stones, two rewards; three stones, a triple reward!”

– The Three Companions, 21

“The brothers shall not acquire anything as their own, neither a house nor a place, not anything at all. Instead, as pilgrims and strangers in this world who serve the Lord in poverty and humility, let them go begging for alms with full trust.”

– Rule of Saint Francis

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Though lived out differently today, what remains a vital part of the Franciscan charism is the call to live without property, and to share what we have – material and otherwise – with the poor. Secular Franciscans, in the world with their families, are not required to live without property, but we are urged to live modestly and to share God’s provisions with the poor.

Among secular Franciscans is the widespread practice of raising money for the poor, sometimes called “St. Anthony’s Bread.” Different legends or stories account for the donation. According to St. Anthony’s Messenger,one account goes back to 1263, when it is said a child drowned near the Basilica of St. Anthony, which was still being built. His mother promised that if the child were restored to her she would give for the poor an amount of corn equal to the child’s weight. Her prayer and promise were rewarded with the boy’s return to life.

Another account of the practice is traced back to Louise Bouffier, a shopkeeper in Toulon, France. A locksmith was prepared to break open her shop door after no key would open it. Bouffier asked the locksmith to try his keys one more time after she prayed and promised to give bread to the poor in honor of St. Anthony if the door would open without force. The door then opened. After others received favors through the intercession of St. Anthony, they joined Louise Bouffier in founding the charity of St. Anthony’s Bread.

“Saint Anthony of Padua, lover of the poor, pray for us.”

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If God gives alms to me, as Saint Francis claims in Celano’s biography, why would I not share the fruit of his mercy with persons who are – in most cases – needier than I? If Francis says, “Don’t be ashamed,” and Jesus says, “Don’t be afraid,” why should I be afraid or ashamed of begging for the benefit of “the least of these” in the name of God who commands me to love my neighbor as myself and to be compassionate as He is compassionate?

My own experience in begging is focused on the people of Africa. In particular, my attention has been drawn to the AIDS orphans in the north of Malawi, one of the poorest countries in the world.

Last fall, I organized a parish mission at which we raised $38,000 to support the work of Sister Beatrice, a dedicated sister of the Holy Rosary working in the remote district of Karonga. As some of you are aware of this project, I use this reflection to share with you some exciting news.

Older orphans in the region will now have the possibility of earning a living, however modest, because donors have built a training school that offers them classes in sewing and carpentry. In June, the school will be officially named and signed “St. Thomas à Becket Skills Training Centre” in honor of the parishioners who gave so generously to make this possible.

Through Health Partners International of Canada, a Canadian humanitarian organization that provides free medical aid without discrimination for the world’s most needy by operating through partnership and the motivation of Christian love, you are sending five Physician Travel Packs that will treat more than 5,000 AIDS orphans. These medicines are vitally important in a country where access to basic medicines is virtually impossible because of poverty.

Also through HPIC, where I work, a major donation has been received from KIDZUP, a publisher of children’s books and tapes. This will allow us to ship more than $250,000 worth of nutritional supplements and medicines to be dispensed by the Rosarian Sisters at hospitals and clinics throughout the Northern Malawi.

A balance of over $14,000 is being held in trust by the Sisters of Immaculate Conception who work with the Rosarians Sisters in Malawi, pending a trip to determine the best mechanism to provide food supplements to the AIDS orphans in the Karonga district.

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May the Lord who gave us an example of trust in the Father’s goodness bless you with joy in His benevolence and peace in His safekeeping.



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