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St. Francis of Assisi set a radical example for religious orders to embrace poverty as a way to promote the common good. CNS photo/Sydney Clark

Poverty and giving has a long history

  • November 16, 2019

Poverty isn’t always misfortune or bad luck. Sometimes it’s a vocation.

Catholic religious — nuns, monks, members of religious orders — have been taking vows of poverty, chastity and obedience for nearly two millennia. 

Each religious order has put a lot of thought into what exactly they mean by poverty. Much of the way the Church thinks about poverty today can be traced back to a revolution in religious life that occurred 800 years ago, when the mendicant orders emerged.

The Dominican and Franciscan friars who reformed and rebuilt the Church in the 13th century were the first mendicants, or beggars — meaning that they survived and fulfilled their vocations entirely by relying on the free gifts of other Christians. Unlike the monks who had modelled Christian life for 1,000 years before the mendicants came along, in this new kind of religious life wandering Franciscans and Dominicans left behind the safety net of productive land that sustained wealthy and powerful monasteries.

The first Franciscans, following the austere example of St. Francis, went out into the streets of Assisi with little wooden bowls to collect the food they would eat and share with the poor that day. The next day, they started again with nothing. This wasn’t poor planning — it was a radical sense of providence, said Fransciscan Capuchin Br. Alan Gaebel.

Providence is not the same thing as mere good luck and it doesn’t just drop from Heaven, explained Gaebel. “Providential dependence on God and our neighbour” is the basis of Franciscan life.

“It demands relationship. You cannot be isolated,” Gaebel said. 

Religious poverty hinges upon a sense of duty to the common good.

“Giving to mendicants, or giving to the poor, was part of social responsibility in a time when you didn’t have social service networks,” said Dominican Fr. Darren Dias. “Early donations to mendicants — it was given because it was part of the social and cultural world in which they lived. People saw a responsibility to one another, a responsibility to the mendicants who certainly, early-on, owned nothing.”

The early Franciscans “found providence from Heaven, yes, from God. But it’s through the people of Assisi. It’s not something that falls from Heaven, or this anonymous, amorphous thing up in the sky,” said Gaebel.

The Franciscans and Dominicans came along at an unsettled time, when European society was shifting. In the high Middle Ages, the old feudal system was breaking down. New urban centres were creating wealth of their own and a huge gap began to open between rich and poor.

“The early mendicant movements were urban movements. They weren’t rural or feudal. They were very much city-oriented,” said Dias. “They were often at the gates of the city, which were the most dangerous areas, but also the areas where many things passed — different ideas, different cultures, all kinds of things.”

To embrace instability and poverty in unstable times was dangerous, but it also inspired other Christians.

“People could see that there was a need because of the way that they dressed, their simple living, their simple churches,” said Dias.

The authenticity and obvious commitment of the mendicant orders attracted some very serious donors, such as the financial and political powerhouse of the Medici family.

“The Medici would have cells in the monastery and the priory, where they would come and make retreats and get spiritual advice,” said Dias. “So they were sort of part of the extended community. Likewise the community would pray for benefactors and donors, which we still do.”

While communities of dedicated mendicants may have inspired the rich to build and decorate elaborate renaissance churches in Florence, the idea of providence was never the preserve of the rich. Ordinary people of ordinary means knew what it means to rely on providence.

“It rewrites the idea of the common good,” said Gaebel. “It gives us another focus. The common good is not just the preserve of the wealthy, but it’s everybody’s. That was one of the societal changes of the day back then. I think it is even still.”

As provincial superior for the Capuchins of Central Canada, which makes him in some ways the chief fund-raiser, Gaebel never raises money just for his own needs or even the needs of his community. He is the steward of whatever gifts he receives, but also the steward of the cares, wants and needs of others. Gaebel links the idea of stewardship with providence by talking about our collective responsibility to care for each other.

“As Christians, one of the most important tasks we have is that of faithful stewardship,” Gaebel writes in a newsletter for donors. “This is beautifully expressed in St. Francis’ Canticle of the Creatures, which gives thanks for our interdependent relationship with all of God’s creation and all which we share.”

Relying on providence is always a little bit scandalous. It wasn’t immediately understood or embraced in St. Francis’ time, said Dias.

“Francis himself, he wouldn’t have been seen as a prophet or some great saint in his time. He would have been seen in the way we might respond to a homeless person who doesn’t have access to bathing facilities and clean clothes sitting beside us on the subway,” Dias said. “He was really so radical, so out there and so jarring around poverty, that people would have almost been scandalized by his very presence.”

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