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History of Religious Life
St. Francis of Assisi and the
Witness to Evangelical Poverty - Part 2

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

Now the Poor Clares are of course the Second Order, but they identify themselves completely as far as possible with the Friars Minor in terms of personal and communal dispossession. But conservatively there are three hundred Franciscan Institutes recognized by the Church. There are four thousand religious communities in the Catholic Church, and I am confident that at least three hundred follow a Franciscan way of life. But the vast majority except for the three of men and the Poor Clares for women, most of them are not Orders but Congregations; they therefore do not take solemn vows of poverty; they therefore do not dispossess themselves of what they own even as individuals, less still as communities.

Yet the mind of the Roman Catholic Church is to get closer and closer to the spirit of St. Francis for all and not just the Franciscan Institutes. That's why the Holy See has asked the Institute on Religious Life to publish their documentations. We will have at least three hundred, maybe four hundred documents - sixteen years of documentation. I would especially recommend to all of you but particularly those in the Franciscan tradition to read the documents of the Holy See addressed to Franciscans and made the pleas of the Holy Father to practice the poverty of St. Francis. And this goes for all religious.

This actual deprivation, as you know, the Constitutions of most communities do not require - that one give up his or her ownership when they take their vows. You retain ownership. But the mind of the Church is that at least after last vows that the Constitutions provide for the liberty of giving up also the ownership. My hope is that what is now optional will in time become obligatory. Having taken a solemn vow of poverty when I took my final vows, I can tell you it makes a big difference to know that you own absolutely nothing and you vowed never to own anything.

But also as far as communal possessions go, how sadly well I know in working with Constitutions and Chapters, the security a community finds in owning large property and real estate, investments all according to canon law, all legitimate; but frankly, it does not express the spirit that St. Francis wanted his followers to follow in imitation of the poor Christ. Dependence on God's providence, dependence on people's generosity including that embarrassing word begging is part of the spirit of the gospels. So much for expropriation. The first perceptible feature, therefore, of Franciscan spirituality is expropriation. You give up what you own as an individual and as a community.

Dependence. Dependence on the community through superiors. No community in the Catholic Church has ever been approved unless there are in the rule of life provisions for practicing at least this poverty of dependence. And this is the inhuman thing that so many communities have done by allowing their religious to go on what they call open placement, to be paid a salary for the work they do, because in the process anyone who earns a salary to the extent to which you earn you are not dependent on superiors. And I know exactly what I'm talking about. There's one book I will never publish and that is my life in the Society of Jesus since the Second Vatican Council. Pray for the Jesuits, they have lost over ten thousand men since the Council; this is the main reason. In fact, if I can share a motive, that's why I come over a thousand miles twice a month - to spare you, to help you. And the Holy See encourages me because I know from experience what happens to religious life once dependence on superiors is replaced by making a salary or running your own life financially.

Religious life, in spite of all the brightly colored books and the fancy brochures, religious life disappears; all that's left is the ghost.

But Francis was never one to do things half-measure. For Francis, dependence was not only on the community, it was also on the faithful. I cannot tell you how much religious communities deprive the faithful of the merit they would otherwise gain, of the sense of solidarity between faithful and communities by making so sure financially that they are safely provided for by investment in General Motors or General Electric and not depend on the generosity of the faithful, including begging – which need not mean going around with a tin cup. I've done a lot of begging in my life and I've never once gone out with a tin cup.

Third feature of this poverty: Independence of external cohersion. For Francis, the poverty that he wanted those who wished to follow the poor Christ literally is to be poor in such a way as not to be beholden to anyone including one's benefactors. And of course it just never entered Francis' mind to depend on the State.

In our last Executive meeting of the Institute here, the day after Christmas, among the decisions that we reached was that the Institute would begin to sponsor in different parts of the country, with the help of the Bishops, conferences on the relationship of Church and State as effecting religious institutes, particularly the growing encroachment to a point in many cases of almost total domination. Every community must look very hard to this feature: dependence on the faithful and independence of external cohersion, So that you are free to do what you are supposed to do. The Jesuits are not. We've got twenty-eight universities in United States; everyone is controlled by the State, every one. There is not one Jesuit College or University in America where the Provincial can send a man and know he will be teaching at a particular university. The Provincial in Chicago no longer has that authority. He cannot remove any Jesuit from the faculty of any university in the country.

Pope Paul VI must have given at least twenty major addresses to various Franciscans during his years of Pontificate, to General Chapters, and he kept stressing, hinting, insisting: Go back to your poverty. This is not piety, believe me, it is survival.

There is an article in the current Review for Religious on the relationship of the State to religious communities and the threat to our existence, because the Internal Revenue does not believe that welfare institutions, schools, hospitals, homes for the aged or the retarded conducted by religious have a right to exist. I've sat at national meetings discussing this. My principal work of course is in education. All I know is that our future is at stake. And the Church keeps telling us: Go back to the charism of your founder.

Independence external cohersion and from the government which has cohersive powers. They can close right now all our institutions, they have that kind of power in their hands legally.

Forth major feature: adaptability to apostolic needs. This of course was again a distinctive Franciscan feature. In the monastic tradition, though of course places like Monte Cassino or Montserrat or any of the great Benedictine monastic foundations they could do apostolic work, but at least one major adaptability which they could not practice was to adapt themselves to different kinds of people than those who were surrounding the monastery, because by prior definition the monastic tradition means what it says: you're there. For Francis, you go out.

Finally, laboriousness. If there is one thing that we can safely say was anathema in the vocabulary of St. Francis it was laziness. The gentle Francis did not like lazy monks or nuns. Poor people work. So we are poor, so we work. So we get tired, so what! What do you expect?

Now the purpose. There are three levels of purpose as Francis envisioned his poverty. Some of these belong to every religious tradition and are simply inherent in the practice of poverty at all, others are more distinctively Franciscan. Let me go over each and point out where necessary the distinctive Franciscan perspective.

First let me note when we speak of the purpose being religious, moral and apostolic, to know what we are talking about. Religious has to do with God, moral has to do with behavior, and the apostolic has to do with others. What is the religious value of poverty? In other words what has poverty got to do with my relationship with God? Francis would say: Plenty. First poverty gives a person freedom for and in prayer. Who would you say prays more, the rich people or the poor people, in general? The poor. Why? Because they are in need. Again, speaking in general, who would you say prayed more, the successful people or the unsuccessful people? Who do you think would pray more, the people who are honored and respected or those who are humiliated and despised? Poverty brings you to God on your knees; in fact, poverty bends your knees.

I have in my life as a priest dealt with some very wealthy people. I've dealt with poor people. Unless the wealthy people are extraordinarily gifted with God's grace, and they are the exception, they make you feel their wealth and their power from the first minute of conversation. Like what? Like making you wait; and you can see them on their conditions. And the poor: grateful for a letter, for a phone call, for the least favor. So it makes us free. Poverty insures a sense of dependence on God. For Francis that's the main purpose of the religious life - to pray. Why become a religious? To pray. Can you not pray without becoming a religious? Sure you can. But Francis would say, if you practice poverty especially the kind that he urged on his followers, you can pray better.

Secondly, increased love of God. Now you might say: What has poverty got to do with the increased love of God? Well I would say everything. What would you say if a person was not poor? Increase love of what? Creatures. We tend to love what we have. And the more we have of this world's goods it is very hard to have the heart detached from what you know is yours.

Thirdly, humility of spirit. There is only one, as A Kempis tells us, royal road to humility and that is humiliations. If humility is the goal, humiliations are the means. Which people are more humiliated, the poor or the rich? Which people are more humiliated, the educated or the uneducated? Which people are more humiliated, the intelligent or the ignorant? Which people are more humiliated, those who have a standing in society, a lot of property or those who have no standing and no property? Those who have no standing and no property.

I was writing on the Protestants and I wanted to buy some books at the Baptist bookstore. I got twenty-five dollars from superiors to buy books - that was to both pay for my transportation, about$2.50 each way and buy twenty dollars worth of books. I should have bought a roundtrip ticket; I didn't. I saw so many wonderful books in the Baptist bookstore and by the time I got back to the Greyhound station I was about a dollar and a half short of the $2.50 that I needed for the bus trip. So I figured, well, I'm a priest so I'll talk to the ticket agent. I said, "I don't have the $2.50 for the ticket. I'm a Catholic priest; I think I have about $1.25; could you trust me for the other $1.25 and I'll make sure that you get it back by return mail? He said, "No!" There were people standing behind me, so I didn't want to argue with him. He saw that I was still standing there. He said, "If you are a priest, there is a Cathedral down the road." So I figured I had to get home, so I went to the Cathedral rectory. I pressed the doorbell and a young priest came to the door. I had never been there before. I said, "Father, you've probably heard this story before, but I need about $1.25 for my trip back to Indiana; I'm short on money for my return trip." He looked at me and then he couldn't keep his eyes off the bag that I was carrying. Those Baptists, they had a great big sign all over this bag: Baptist Bookstore.

Then he said, "Come in." I literally recited the prayers at the foot of the altar in Latin to convince him I was a priest. He gave me $2.00. I could tell the way he was looking he never thought he would see that money again.

Sometimes it would be good just to ask for a few handouts, to see how it feels. Humility of spirit. Poor people are humiliated, believe me. I've missed a couple of flights on planes through either overbooking or whatever. They paid me recently $50 for missing a flight. Another time they gave me a dinner ticket and a first class seat on the next flight. I've waited hours for a bus, with a lot of people especially blacks; no apologies, because the poor people ride busses and the rich people fly planes.

Humility of spirit. Trust in God's providence. Oh! how you have to trust if you don't have. And here I really believe the future of religious life is in the balance. In the twenty-first century people are going to talk about the community that used to exist in the twentieth century; not a few will disappear.

Our Institute has signed a contract with the Society of St. Paul in Rome for translation rights of their what will be an eight volume encyclopedia on Religious Institutes in the Catholic Church. It has been twenty years in the making; they are to the letter R or S; they are not finished with the alphabet; they are going from A to Z. The editor, with whom I had a conversation a year ago in Rome when I was there on business including this, said, "One of our problems is that by the time we get to the next letter in the alphabet, once flourishing communities lower down in the alphabet have disappeared." Unless we look to our poverty, and I say this without being prophetic - I'm no Ezekiel - unless we look to our poverty our institutes are going to disappear. That is the verdict of history. Most religious communities in the Church's history have disappeared; all we have is the record of their past.

And that's why Francis was so concerned, because he saw then so many religious institutes in the monastic tradition with large square miles of holdings and abbots who were often bishops and prince bishops, civil rulers. It was not coincidental that the one who split the Church in half - Martin Luther was a monk, because the Augustinians in his day were not practicing poverty. No wonder before Luther's death every room in his monastery in Wittenberg was occupied by former Augustinians and their wives. No wonder. And this is a period in history we are going through now, exactly the same. We must look to our poverty, otherwise the judgment of God stands as it has stood in the past and will not allow religious, unless they witness to poverty, to survive. They have lost their purpose of existence, which is to witness first to the poor Christ, trusting in God's providence and not in everything and every one but.

Let me make a blasphemous substitute: Not a few communities are trusting, not in God's providence, but in the Federal government.

Moral. This of course has mainly to do with our behavior as human beings. What then is the purpose as Francis envisioned it? And the Church has been eloquent for seven centuries in telling us: If you want to know as religious how to practice poverty, go to Francis. Whether you are Franciscans or not, it makes no difference. First, mastery of one's desires. We need hardly tell ourselves that we desire what we know we can get. Provided a person is still rational, we may, for example, vaguely, not even a desire just a stupid thought, desire say to go to the Opera. For five years I've been in New York City, the opera capitol of the world, I've been told. By now my brethren know that I've never been to an Opera in my life. They think I'm uncultured, uneducated, I just haven't grown up. So one month ago - I didn't go to the Opera - a priest who has been especially hard on me - how uncultured I must be - we went just to visit an opera house. I gave him the satisfaction that I went near the place. The box seats are $37.50, the lowest priced tickets are $12, and the box tickets this Spring will be $60.

Women go window shopping, as I watch some of the women shopping along 5th Avenue, just lost in admiration at gowns. They don't even have a price tag on them, they start around $300. Well, those are hardly desires, because in order to make a desire rational you must have the means of fulfilling it. See what I'm driving at? Consequently to master desires, if you don't have the money, the desires take care of themselves.

And it's not only bodily desires but spiritual too. For example, the academic, the cultural, the traveling. To travel costs money. I've never been to Lourdes and I've had opportunity several times as a religious, but I did not think it was consistent with my poverty just to visit there out of devotion.

Second: Self-conquest, and we're back at the same term, through humiliations. It's remarkable what self-conquest you can achieve if you've been sufficiently humiliated. You reach a point where frankly almost nothing else counts. What else, you might say, can they do to me? In fact there are humiliations that are worse than physical death.

Finally and most importantly, by our poverty we merit grace. Because to practice poverty faithfully we must call on a lot of grace from God, and every grace cooperated with is a source of merit.

Then, the apostolic purpose. This has to do with one's neighbor. First, and this is Francis, he doesn't say much, but what he says is profound. People who are poor in material possessions and show that they are poor witness to possessing in things of the spirit, especially, and how important this is, if your poverty is a matter of choice and especially if you are happy in being poor and people don't think that although you are poor canonically you envy what other people have, or you are sorry what you lack. You must be poor but enjoy your poverty. Many people find that the only satisfaction they get in life is from the material things they possess and enjoy. To find persons, hopefully like ourselves, who are poor but happy, they will say to themselves: there is either something wrong or there is something right. Now what's wrong is: she's not normal, she's queer, she's an oddball, or as the lingo now goes, she's a psycho. For many people it is considered psychotic. But if they see that we are normal intellectually, have a normal IQ and are poor and enjoy it, it bothers them, they get worried. We witness to things that are more important than what money can buy.

Second. Francis couldn't have so diversified and universalized his apostolate – before he died he had his men all over Europe. Do you know why? Very simple. He'd just tell them to go. No provisions, no money, no food, just go. And they changed the face of Europe. In other words, we make ourselves available to anyone and everyone if we do not bind ourselves to earthly possessions. Take a thing like this: St. Bernard, who preceded St. Francis by about a century, in one of his sermons he said, "Anyone who demands money for the service he renders his neighbor is committing the crime of simony." There are many people who have many needs, if the condition of my meeting those needs is their paying me for my service, do I cut down and limit my apostolic opportunity? I sure do. I'm not judging; I'm stating a fact.

Loyola school where I live in New York – there are three schools on the premises: Loyola school which is co-ed, Regis High School which is for boys, and a grammar school for children up to the eighth grade – Loyola school's tuition – it's a day school – is twenty-two hundred dollars a year; that's a high school. And that's no food, no lunch, no fees, no books, just for the privilege of going to that school. That's a lot of money.

In New York City, no one knows the exact figures, it is upwards of one half million children of school age that are getting no religious instruction whatsoever, and the national figure is over six million. I would give you the word of God if you pay me. Am I clear? And Francis saw what was going on.

Two weeks ago I was in Cleveland giving some lectures. I had breakfast with the father of one of the sisters, a man who had pretty much given up the practice of the faith. Do you know why? As a young boy his mother who had always supported the Church faithfully - his father had died earlier - had only three dollars in her pocket. She wanted a Mass said for her husband, the anniversary of his death. She went to the pastor; he told her, "The price is ten dollars, not three." The boy never forgot that and later in life he gave up everything. Every one of our institutes must make a deep reexamination of conscience.

Third: the merit of grace for others. It is not only, as we earlier said, that grace is merited for ourselves, it is also merited for those we serve by the fact that we serve because we want to please the Master and not because we are working to gain money.

Finally, freedom from secular constraints. The limitations that the State places, the demands that the State makes for every penny you receive you pay through the nose, or better, you pay with the blood of your names. It is now five years since I've known Mother Teresa; she has by now deeply influenced my life. All I know is she says, "Father, just tell the religious you speak to that they are becoming more and more victims of those on whose financial support they depend. Tell them. There is a lot of good they can do for souls; maybe not the way they used to do it, maybe not with the same kind of physical comfort they are used to, maybe not with as much psychological satisfaction as they used to; but to do it with the means at their disposal and not to allow themselves to be beholden to anyone."

About two years ago I was in conversation with her in the Bronx when she excused herself and in about seven minutes; came back smiling. "Well," she said, "I just turned down seven hundred thousand dollars.” A person who knew that I was in the United States was offering me this amount of money, but I asked, 'Are there any conditions attached to that money?' 'Well, of course. And we will explain how we want this money to be used and a letter will accompany the check.' So I said, 'No thanks, I don't want the check.'"

So much then for the analysis of St. Francis' poverty.

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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