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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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,
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.
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
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.'"
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