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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 other 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 pleasure 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.

Fraternal 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 stresses the 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 Incarnation.

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 humility.

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 or 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 actually possess.

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 on providence.

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 dispossession.

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 Conventual.

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

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