Saint Francis and poverty

Saint Francis is often called “Il Poverello,” the Little Poor Man of Assisi – and rightly so. He sought to be poor as Christ was poor and, slightly modifying the word of Lawrence Cunningham, the poor Christ was “the hermeneutic lens through which he read the Gospel.”

For Francis, possessions keep us from responding to Christ and to the poor. If we have possessions, he said, we will seek arms to defend them.

This radical approach is a major challenge to me and to many in the Church. But it first of all means that we realize that we cannot be self-sufficient. Autonomy is a temptation of the devil.

What we need to develop is a real poverty of spirit and then respond in our lives to the call of the poor Christ. It is to become small, the minor, the lesser one.

André Vauchez, in Francis of Assisi: The life and afterlife of a medieval saint, puts it plainly:

But the more one is minor (small, humble), the more one is a brother of others and, first of all, of those with whom one lives. The ideal is thus not to seek to be sufficient unto oneself but to share what one receives and to accept that one needs others in the smallest details of daily life. The absolute poverty desired by Francis set up a new type of relationship— to goods, but also between persons, founded on genuine solidarity. The care of the other was indeed fundamental in the early community…

Openness to the other, putting oneself and all one has available for all – that’s a challenge.

But Vauchez sees Francis’s life as more than just a call to personal poverty, or at least a radical generosity. As he writes:

the project of Francis… was to give birth in the heart of the world a society without money and without goods, where an “economy of poverty” would prevail, characterized by liberality and the redistribution to disadvantaged persons of all that was not strictly indispensable to the survival of the community.

How can we build an “economy of poverty” in the midst of a world that glorifies wealth and power? How can we build a “civilization of poverty” (in the word of the martyred Jesuit Ignacio Ellacuría) in a civilization of consumption and accumulation?

francis leperThe first step, I think, is to do what Francis did and that St. Paul urged the Romans, “make friends with the poor – associate with the lowly” (Romans 12:16).

Do we know people who are impoverished by name?

Do we let ourselves be taught by the poor?

Do we look at life through the hermeneutical lens of the poor?

In the last century, a Hindu holy man, Mahatma Gandhi, left us a message that will help us recover and live the poverty of Francis.

I will give you a talisman. Whenever you are in doubt, or when the self becomes too much with you, apply the following test.
Recall the face of the poorest and weakest person whom you have seen, and ask yourself if the next step you contemplate is going to be of any use to that person. Will that person gain anything by it? Will it restore the person to a control over his or her own life and destiny? On other words, will it lead to freedom for the hungry and spiritually starving millions?
Then you will find your doubts and your self melting away.

One response to “Saint Francis and poverty

  1. Pingback: The Upside-Down World of St. Francis | walk the way

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