History of Religious Life
St. Francis of Assisi and the
Witness to Evangelical Poverty - Part 1
by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
First, the sources of Franciscan spirituality. There are
three sets of rules,
the first two are not official, the last one is. The 1209 rule is the rule that
just poured out of the heart of St. Francis with no thought of structure or organization. 1221 is more
structured, 1223 is of course the big one. The testament especially points out what he would
like to have his followers do, it's a kind of "this is my inheritance to you, this is my charism."
One of the remarkable things about Francis: the gentle Francis could admonish and
when he admonished
you knew it. In fact, I've watched great people; they are a rare combination
of gentleness and firmness. Some people seem to be great because they are so
kind and gentle, but in the showdown they lack firmness. Some people may seem to be great because they
are strict, austere, orthodox, but there is no give, no flexibility. The great
men and women of God have the rare combination of constancy and adaptability. Francis had both.
And his admonitions reveal the firm side of his character which you might not get from the birds that
he told to stop chirping or the wolves
that he tamed.
The rule of the Poor Clares was of course St. Clare's,
but inspired by St. Francis.
Letters, there are not many authentic letters of Francis, all breathe a deep piety and easy communication with God that he lived.
His prayers you
may be somewhat disappointed when you read the Omnibus: you may find one or
of your favorite prayers of St. Francis about which the 'specialists' have at least some slight
doubt whether it is authentic. Well, as one who is not a Franciscan, I take much of that scholarship, pardon
me, with a grain of salt. I feel if something over the centuries has
been considered as coming from someone, well why not
give Francis credit?
The Office of the Passion is of St. Francis' spirit. We
don't usually think of
the gentle Francis, the smiling Francis as one who is so devoted to Christ's
passion. He was the first whose stigmata the Church officially
approved as having
been genuine. And the Canticle of the Sun - his great canticle of praise.
The early biographies. The most
important single life of Francis is by Chlano. The most theological of the lives is that of St. Bonaventure. "The
Mirror of Perfection"
is of a very early production, some would say within months of St. Francis' death. It does describe the spirituality of Francis, because
it is somewhat analytic, it is a theme - Christian perfection.
How to reach it? In following in the footsteps
of Francis. And the two legends I think are misnamed legends. That doesn't mean they are mythological; but the name has struck.
In other words a legend does not
mean what we skeptical Americans associate with the word - something that is
not true, though it of course contains many stories that we cannot verify from other sources; but they were written by the
early companions of Francis and have high credibility. The Fioretti I suppose
are the best known of the anecdotes
about St. Francis. This is one place where piety smiles at logic. People who love Francis don't read anything else, the
Fioretti are enough for them. Sure there are things that might never have happened,
so what? I believe it. The Fioretti
I dare say are in all the modern languages in the world; they
run in all collections of great literature of the nations. Sabatier was a French Calvinist but a great admirer of Francis, so he
proceeded to 'protestantize' Francis,
and he is a little different than the Francis you are accustomed to; but what
do you expect from a Calvinist? But Sabatier is highly respected
in the non-Catholic world as a biographer and commentator on Franciscan spirituality. At any rate, Francis has deeply influenced
the whole world and not just the Catholic Church.
The two papal documents of Leo
XIII and Pius X need, I think, to be seen, because they talk about on the one hand the history
of the Franciscan Order and summarize a great
deal in a short space, they are also the Holy See's efforts to do something to somehow reduce the divisions or somehow calm the troubled
waters that have arisen in
seven hundred years of Franciscan history. Franciscans all deeply love, in fact
sometimes are violently in love with, St. Francis. They will brook no criticism of what they think St. Francis
really meant and how they thought he thought they should live. That, by the
way, is the first in logical sequence.
The second in the logical sequence is the analysis of Franciscan
spirituality. I have been modifying my analysis of the main features of Franciscan spirituality
each year that I
teach it. The prayer of praise lays the groundwork for St. Francis. For
him God not only comes first, He remains first. And within the worship of God the most important posture that
the human spirit can assume in the presence of its Creator is one of adoration and praise. All
other prayers or forms of communication
with God are dependent on and derivative from this one.
Devotion to Christ's Passion. Francis could never stop
marveling that God became man in order to suffer. That is why, by the way, that
Francis was so in love
with the Cross: it was the Cross that his Master embraced. And he was very down-to-earth,
very practical and he did not exclude what for most religious is their
principal source of suffering - other people and sometimes the people they love the most dearly.
The Holy Eucharist. To get this across is to understand
Francis. For Francis,
Jesus never left the earth. He never did. He's here. He talked about the Eucharist like you talk about Christ: He's here. You
don't speak about him being
before the Blessed Sacrament. What do you mean before the Blessed Sacrament?
Before Christ. And many of the virtues of Francis he saw shown by Jesus in the
Eucharist: His humility, His obedience, His simplicity,
His poverty. Poverty means giving up what you have a right to. Christ as God
has a right to the glory
of His Divinity and as Man has the right to the acceptance and recognition of
His being Who He really is. He hides both.
Spiritual Joy. Oh how spiritual that joy was! In fact some
of the experiences and anecdotes that Francis describes! What is this joy? Some
terrible humiliation, You
make a fool of yourself, or usually somebody else makes a fool of you, and that's joy. Now Francis, are you talking the same language
that we are? Not quite.
If we were describe man in concentric circles: This is body, within that are emotions, within that is soul, and within that is spirit.
Now there are all kinds
of pleasures and joys of the body - a good meal, a nice rest, food, drink, the
of sex. Then emotions.
When I was in Cincinnati the Rector asked me, "Would
you mind going with Father Evely to the Cincinnati Symphony? otherwise he would
have to go alone; and
he wants a companion." I had never been to a symphony in my life. It lasted
about three hours.
I prayed, and I counted the number of musicians, and I fell asleep. Every once in a while I would look
at Father Evely - just in ecstasy. I'm sure it was beautiful, but it was simply
lost on me. So there are pleasures and joys in the emotions. Which, by the way wouldn't impress
say an animal. I'm sure a cow wouldn't
know the difference between Beethoven anti Mozart.
Then the soul - pleasures in the mind, achievements in the
will: the conquering
of empires by a man like Napoleon or the discoveries of the great geniuses of
history: joys of the mind and will.
Then down deep inside is the spirit. This spiritual joy
of Francis, I hope I'm
clear. You may have anything but joy in the soul or in the emotions or in the body and you can still be ecstatically happy in spirit.
That's the hard one, when
by all human calculations the person should be in despair. Ah! but there is
more to man than just body, emotions and even soul. There
is a spirit where God dwells.
Charity. To this day there are three Orders of men Franciscans in
the world that are under solemn vows: Friars Minor, Capuchins, and Conventuals.
In any case, Francis stressed the importance of fraternal charity as the
manifestation of one's love for God. Francis was very strict in reprimanding
and even evicting
people who failed in charity.
Loyalty to the Church, to the Holy Father, the bishops
and to the Church's teaching.
I had occasion to preach the sermon at the funeral, with the Bishop there, of the former Mother General before that community
secularized. In fact she
died of a broken heart; she died way before her time, just crushed by what she saw happening in a Franciscan community. The Chaplain
begged off, saying, "No
matter what I say would be held against me." So I preached for fifteen
minutes. Among the things that I said, and this was one
of the problems the community
faced, they just were not listening to the directives of the Church. So I said, "There are three qualities of St. Francis
that I think the Mother General
whom we are burying today beautifully exemplified. Like Francis, she was a great lover of poverty." I know nobody recorded
that sermon. "Like Francis,
she was a great lover of simplicity, which means she did not like duplicity. And like Francis, she was very loyal to the Holy See.
And this community will
survive only if you return to the spirit of St. Francis on whose charism you
were founded." I've never been called back.
So loyalty to the Church. Finally, universal apostolate.
It is not common knowledge
that Francis really opened the modern missionary work of the Catholic Church with his ideas, his method, his stress on understanding
and being sympathetic with the people you want to evangelize, and his idea that
you are supposed
to evangelize and just go and not even take money for your journey.
Franciscan poverty. The definition: The poverty of St. Francis
imitation of Christ in His attribute of humility as an expression of the love
of God and a more effective love of one's neighbor. Notice,
poverty on earth is to
be a reflection of an attribute of God in heaven. Now the attribute of God in heaven Who became man is of course His humility. There
are three words we should
always keep together: poverty, humility, kenosis, which means emptying self.
In other words the practice of poverty is very closely identified with God having
humiliated Himself in becoming man; because whatever else poverty means, it
means that one does not display or put to use
things that I have a right to.
In any case, it is the imitation of Christ's humility as
an expression of my
love for God. As with all great founders, some external feature of their spiritual life was rooted in some attributes of Christ.
Thus with Ignatius it was Christ's obedience; with Dominic it was
Christ's wisdom; with Francis it was Christ's
humility. The moment we say that we give the doctrinal basis for the practice
of poverty, which is first and mainly to become like Christ Who is God by imitating Christ as man. For Francis, therefore,
if there was one passage in the New Testament that synthesized his spirituality
it was the phrase of St. Paul in his letter to the Philippians, that Christ
Who is equal to God in nature, emptied Himself - the word kenosis - Christ emptied
Himself to take upon Himself as God the form of a man. For Francis, therefore,
the Incarnation of the Son of God was God's humility, of which then all
the externals of Christ's humility as man
are only the human manifestations of the fundamental attribute of Christ in
becoming humble through the Incarnation.
In other words, His being born of a woman, the nine months
humble hiddenness in the womb of His Mother, the birth in a stable at Bethlehem,
the trough in which He was lain, the rags in which He was wrapped, and the long
years of His hidden life
at Nazareth; and in His Passion the humiliation, the buffeting, the scourging, the ridicule: all of these are only, in Francis' vocabulary,
the unwinding, the unfolding of the fundamental humility or humiliation of the
See, for Francis God became man and He is man. He made
none of the subtle distinctions
that theologians commonly make between the God Who became incarnate and the God Who did not. For Francis, that's nonsense, There's
only one God. Now
sure only One of the Three Persons became man; but didn't we hear that each
Person is true God? So Who became man? God became man.
So God is now humble. How
did He humiliate Himself? By hiding, by not revealing, by not manifesting.
Pride wants the world to know what we've got; and if we
don't have enough, we deceive the world by
pretending we've got more.
Now the insight on poverty that Francis gives is that even
what you have you
don't manifest. Christ had His divinity; He didn't manifest it except sufficiently to prove that He was God to His skeptical contemporaries.
Above all He
had joy and He embraced the Cross. All spiritualities approved by the Church
focus on one or another attribute of the God-Man. For Francis, it's Christ's
If that is the fact, what's the motive? We are still analyzing
the definition. The
motive in Francis' mind was twofold. The first was directed towards God, it was an expression of the love of
God. If I love someone I want to become
like him. If I love Christ Who humiliated Himself, I want to humiliate myself. Secondly, that I might thus be more
effective in loving my neighbor. While I can
love my neighbor without practicing poverty, you might say, but I am most effective
when I practice poverty which is external as a symbol of my humility which is interior. In fact, if I want to do any effective
work with or for others, I either
decide to be humble or I will never win souls for God. The only successful people in influencing others
are those who are humble.
In the sacristy in the convent of the Missionary Sisters
of Charity in the Bronx is a silhouette of Christ and the question: Who except
God loves the poor? Isn't
that nice. If we wish to be God-like and we wish to win the poor, and most of the human race is poor, dreadfully poor, either
we identify with them or they will never identify
with us. So much for the definition.
Now the perceptible features of the poverty of St. Francis,
which is applicable,
and the Church tells us is imitable by all the followers of Christ. Whatever else poverty means, as Francis understood this
practice, it means expropriation.
The Latin word for my own, what belongs to me is proprium. We have the English word proper, property, it belongs to me.
Insofar as a human being can say something is mine that's what property in the
broadest sense means. When I practice poverty I somehow disown what I own: I
give up what I have a right to.
Now notice, it is not as though I give up absolutely speaking
the natural right;
we cannot do that. All three of the vows that a religious takes of poverty, chastity and obedience are indeed sacrifices,
they are a giving up; but no less than with poverty I do not give up the natural
right to possess - it's
God-given - so I cannot give up the natural right to marry and to procreate
the natural right to exercise my own autonomous will within the limits of God's
moral law. But I can give up the exercise of even the natural right. But
except for Christ having done it, which means God having practiced
it, we would not know that the giving up the use or the exercise of a natural
right was pleasing to God. It took God to practice poverty and chastity and
the kind of total obedience which Christ practiced towards Mary and Joseph.
The expropriation can take on two forms. Now here this
is Francis' great contribution to Christian
spirituality. Like Benedict, Francis also required of his followers the expropriation of possession.
Notice: expropriation - I give up, I actually deprived myself of what
I have. For Francis, the teaching and the practice of Christ is to be taken,
as far as a human being can live this out, literally. Christ told the rich young man, as described in Matthew's
gospel, when he asked Him, after
having been told to keep the commandments and he said, "I've kept all of these from my youth, what
more can I do?" that famous hypothesis: "If you wish to be perfect," or as I prefer the translation "If
you want to go the whole way, then
..." The first question the rich young man asked Him was not "what may I do"; "What must I do to be saved?"
Then Christ told him, no ifs, no hypotheses,
"Keep the commandments." But if you want to go beyond the keeping of the commandments then go sell what you have, give the proceeds
to the poor, and only then
did Christ use the adverb "then" - "Then follow Me." For
Francis that meant that you give up what you own, you dispossess, you
disfranchise, you expropriate, you deprive yourself of what you
However Francis, for the first time in the Church's history,
went beyond the monastic
Orders that by this time had become widespread and had done great work in the Church beyond Benedict, Bernard, Romuald and the
rest of them. Francis, though
like them, said, "If you want to be poor as I understand poverty, you must dispossess yourself of everything you own - you."
But then he went beyond that and he said, "You
must also dispossess yourself as a community."
As a result, from now upwards seven centuries there has
been in the Catholic Church
a spirituality still lived out as far as it can be within the Church's canonical
limits, a form of community life in which not only may the individual not own anything
but even the institutes, the community. All Franciscan property held by the Friars Minor is held only as the steward
of the Holy See.
Both kinds of expropriation are
real. Both mean just what they say: actual deprivation. Now as you know, having
read the rules of St. Francis - 1221, 1223 especially, those two, Francis' original
rule of 1221 was absolute. The rule of 1223
was absolute in terms of what we are saying here but modified in that they would not totally
live on the alms or donations; even though they could not own, nevertheless
they could have or use things and not be constantly, for example
not even know where the next day's meals would come from. In
the 1221 rule for Francis it was complete, and he meant complete dependence
By the time the Holy See entered the picture it did not
really tamper with the essence of his spirit, and in the Franciscan Friars Minor
tradition it is both personal and communal
Now since then, just to make it clear so that we have this
somewhat up to date, there are now tens
of thousands of Franciscans who do not practice either total personal or less still communal dispossession. The three strictly Franciscan
Orders are the Friars Minor, the Capuchin and the
Conference transcription from a talk that Father Hardon gave to the
Institute on Religious Life
Institute on Religious Life, Inc.
P.O. Box 410007
Chicago, Illinois 60641
Copyright © 1998 by Inter Mirifica