Saturday, March 16, 2013

St. Francis, Pope Francis, and poverty

St. Francis has been on my mind for quite some time (probably at least 55 years), especially in the last few months, leading up to my visit to Assisi in February.

But now that our new pope is named Francis, I decided to write the blog I have been putting of for several weeks.

It is even more fitting to write this since Pope Francis told journalists, Me gustaría una Iglesia pobre y para los pobres”. – "How I would like a poor Church, and [a Church] for the poor."

This is not new. In the early 1960s Pope John XXIII and Cardinal Giacomo Lercaro called for a “poor Church” and a “Church of the poor.”

The difference between a Church of the poor and for the poor may need some discussion. To start: There’s a fascinating 2010 article by Jon Sobrino on the Church of the Poor in the National Catholic Reporter here.

St. Francis by Girolamo Muziano
But today I’d like to write about St. Francis and poverty.

Preparing for my pilgrimage to Assisi in February, I read Francis of Assisi: the life and afterlife of a medieval saint, by Andre Vauchez, which opened up for me a deeper understanding of Franciscan poverty.

In the course of the history of the Franciscans there were many arguments about poverty, which often centered around the question of whether the communities could hold property.

But the question of poverty is not merely a question about owning property.

I don’t wish to reduce this to a call for “spiritual poverty” which I sometime feel is a First World way of avoiding the question: “If we are just detached from what we own, that’s what God is asking.” I think this is to trivialize the Lucan beatitude “Blessed are you who are poor…”

Nor is poverty merely a question of how much one can own, though I firmly believe – as does the tradition and magisterium of the Catholic Church – that maldistribution of the goods of the earth is sinful and must be changed.

But I think Francis had a very different, much more radical understanding that flowed from his faith in God.

Why did Francis disdain owning property, intellectual pursuits, and calling anything one’s own?

I think it’s because he saw that possessions may prevent us from following Christ and seeing the radical poverty of Christ.

Francis had a great devotion to the Infant Jesus. He is credited with the first Christmas crib. He also was deeply moved by the crucified Lord. He is the first recorded to have the stigmata of Jesus.

Both these events present us with a poor Jesus.

The precariousness of life which the poor experience every day is what Jesus chose.

The words of St. Paul to the Corinthians (2 Corinthians 8: 9) boldly state:

“Although he was rich, he made himself poor to make you rich through his poverty.”

St. Francis, in his Letter to the Faithful, put it this way:

It is from [the] womb [of the Virgin Mary] that the Word received the true flesh of our humanity and our fragility. The one who was rich above all others wanted, along with the most holy Virgin Mary his mother, to choose poverty in this world.

Property, books, learning are ways we seek security, to defend ourselves against the precariousness of life.

But Jesus shared in the precariousness of the poor, not having even a place to lay his head.

Things become security blankets, preventing us from living as true children of God, following Jesus.

When we leave behind things, when we give to the poor and depend on others, we are more like Christ.

We are called to put our trust in the Providence of God and doing this we are also called to live lives of solidarity.

In many ways this means that we are re-creating a new way of being Church.

As Andre Vauchez wrote (p. 335):

Francis chose to follow a poor and begging Christ, always on the road and sharing with the marginalized the precariousness of their conditions of life, and to worship a God full of mercy who made the sun shine and the rain fall on the good and the bad alike. In doing this, he was not replicating a model: he was creating one by virtue of his own personal sensibility, which was keen and which made for its originality. 

May we, with Pope Francis, begin to create this poor Church, a Church of the poor and for the poor. It will not be easy, but it may be what God wants of us now.

It will demand of us living the precariousness of life with the poor, with trust in the loving Providence of God, sharing in solidarity with all those in need.

Vauchez describes how Francis saw this (p. 107):

…the project of Francis, which 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. 

Though this may not be possible for all the world, maybe we should revisit the suggestion of the Jesuit martyr, Ignacio Ellacuría, of the need to seek a “civilization of poverty.” More on that later.


Mike Allison said...

Thanks for sharing John.

John (Juan) Donaghy said...

Here's the context of Pope Francis' statement on the poor:
Some people wanted to know why the Bishop of Rome wished to be called Francis. Some thought of Francis Xavier, Francis De Sales, and also Francis of Assisi. I will tell you the story. During the election, I was seated next to the Archbishop Emeritus of São Paolo and Prefect Emeritus of the Congregation for the Clergy, Cardinal Claudio Hummes [OFM]: a good friend, a good friend! When things were looking dangerous, he encouraged me. And when the votes reached two thirds, there was the usual applause, because the Pope had been elected. And he gave me a hug and a kiss, and said: "Don't forget the poor!" And those words came to me: the poor, the poor. Then, right away, thinking of the poor, I thought of Francis of Assisi. Then I thought of all the wars, as the votes were still being counted, till the end. Francis is also the man of peace. That is how the name came into my heart: Francis of Assisi. For me, he is the man of poverty, the man of peace, the man who loves and protects creation; these days we do not have a very good relationship with creation, do we? He is the man who gives us this spirit of peace, the poor man … How I would like a Church which is poor and for the poor!

Charles said...

This is off-topic, but maybe not entirely.

Have you seen Visual Meditations by ArtWay? This week is Stations of the Cross #7, a painting.

I do hope that Francis means that he wants a Church less burdened with material possessions. So many of its parishioners, as those Brother John knows personally, would have their lives transformed by things costing very little. So many of their wealthy parishioners would have their lives transformed if they just gave a small fraction of their wealth in the right way, by going and serving. So, may his statement on the poor be what we hope it means.