Francis and Poverty


I have some concerns about the idea of a Pope taking the name of Francis. Let us be clear, this is something the then Cardinal Bergoglio decided before being named as Pope and stepping out to greet the public. Further, I wish not to criticise His Holiness's actions hitherto, just to suggest, tentatively, that the Holy Father, while making gestures bound to make the Church more 'populist', are also a little dangerous.

Hot on the heels of the abandonment of the red shoes, I hear that His Holiness is to receive at his inauguration a second hand fisherman's ring which has been converted from a ring originally worn by Pope Paul VI's secretary. His Holiness obviously sees Francis as a name that connotes divesting if not the authority of the Papacy, then at least the signs and symbols of what we have become familiar with in the Papacy. Could not His Holiness, for instance, invest in some cheap red shoes, if His Holiness did not want expensive ones?

First, it is hard not to love and admire St Francis of Assisi. He was and is everything we love in the Saints. However, let's clear up a matter. Francis was not a Pope, nor a Bishop, nor a Priest. He was, in fact, a lay man who became a friar. Indeed, he felt himself unworthy even to become a Priest and we can therefore assume that he never even touched with his venerable hands the Blessed Host. Pope Francis does this daily.

Francis's charism was new and his Order grew in numbers quickly because of his charisma and people's total lack of doubt that he was a living Saint. People were not attracted to his poverty. They were attracted to his holiness, something which is always attractive. However, he remained in his station as a mendicant, as a friar and as a poor brother of Jesus Christ. His mission was one of total abandonment to Providence and to Jesus.

Francis readily greeted insults and humiliations. He did the kind of things that would see anyone who imitated his life story be sectioned in the modern World. He exchanged places with a beggar, swapped clothes with him and continued where the beggar left off, in his place. He exalted in his spirit when people poured forth insults at him because he felt closer to his Lord Who, in His Bitter Passion, was insulted and spat upon. To him, to be humiliated was to draw closer to the God Who loved him.

There is a whole spirituality about Francis which was about taking the very lowest place - about being cast out of respectable society for the love of Jesus in order to be pleasing to the society of Heaven. Jesus took the lowest place, even embracing the gore and horror of death and the Cross. During His Ministry, Our Lord had nowhere to lay His Sacred Head and relied upon the generosity of others, with His Apostles, in order to live.

As God and Man, Our Lord had no need for earthly riches. His Ministry was one of self-emptying, self-giving. He was the Rich One. Rich in mercy, love, justice, grace and truth. St Francis, being like a 'second Christ' and wishing to conform his whole life to that of his Lord, we can assume, at some point saw the earthly possessions were to him like dust, money a contemptible thing to be desired since it did not increase one bit a person's ability to be saved or to love God more.

His habit was a patchwork of brown rags. Most of the time, he and his disciples ate what God provided them with and we can assume that much of the time they fasted because there was no food for them. Yet, for Francis if all this was about preaching then it was only about preaching in as much as his actions spoke of the truth that only God's love can satisfy us.

Francis's spirituality was about poverty, but not for its own sake. It was about poverty for the sake of loving nothing more than doing God's will, loving nothing more than God, loving God above all things. Francis saw in poverty, not only the imitation of his Brother and Saviour Jesus, but the gift of detachment from passing pleasures and glories which were empty. Detachment from the world is necessary for those who seek to devote their life to prayer, contemplation and seeking the face of God. He was not a fool for being a fool's sake. He was a fool for Christ's sake, in the eyes, at least, of the onlooking Christian world.

To my mind, Francis's great gift is not just the fact that he endured harsh and bitter poverty for the sake of Christ, but that he gave a new meaning to the Church's mission as a lay man who became a religious missionary in his homeland and beyond. Like Pope Francis, St Francis of Assisi had the 'common touch' and took the Gospel to the streets - to the people - to anyone in his orbit, but unlike any Pope can do, Francis divested himself of himself. He had no ecclesiastical authority or tradition to give away or renounce. His renunciation was himself.

Francis's ascent was spiritual - he grew in holiness and love for Jesus, having cast off his fine robes, to be clothed in Christ's glory. Those in love with Jesus have no need for earthly riches because they are rich even if they are poor in spirit. The ones to feel truly sorry for are those who revel in their earthly riches or glories but forget their oncoming death and judgment, because earthly riches you cannot take with you to Heaven or even Hell and all you take with you is the charity and almsgiving you have stored in wait. Why store up treasure on earth with death approaching if you have no treasure in Heaven, that place that will abide for eternity?

Francis wished for his Order to always be poor, simple, humble and detached from the World. He would certainly have chastised the rich who heap up for themselves gold and riches but who treat the poor with contempt and indifference, but his vision of a 'poor' Church was one that was limited to his own Order - that which we would come to know as the Franciscans.

St Francis was all about self-emptying in order to be filled with Christ - so that Christ may be 'all in all' in him. Having nothing meant not that he was able to give nothing to others, but that he had nothing to give but Jesus Christ. 

It is very difficult to take the name of Francis as a Pope and model yourself on St Francis because St Francis was a man who sought no rank within the Church whereas the Papacy is the highest Office in the Church. His was a mission particular to St Francis and to his followers - that is - those who joined his Order. He was about self-emptying - not the emptying of the Church, nor of the Church's treasures, or Her traditions, which all are employed at the service of Almighty God for His Glory. St Francis wished his lifestyle and spirituality for himself and for all those who wished to follow Jesus Christ perfectly as friars. He did not wish his lifestyle and spirituality for the Papacy, the great Office of which he esteemed so much that he walked to Rome to have his Order's constitution be given the approval of Pope Innocent III.

A man could start out as a Franciscan and be elected Pope, but it is very hard for a man to start out as Pope and become a Franciscan unless that man is going to be a Pope who is also something akin to a tramp or a troubadour. If Pope Francis is to achieve something of what St Francis of Assisi achieved, in imitation of the hero of the Faith, then I look forward, at least, to the day when the Cardinals of the Curia will be placed outside in St Peter's, buried in dung for days, to be asked finally by Pope Francis, 'Are you dead to self-will, yet?' Why? Because that is what St Francis did to those disciples of his who resisted total abandonment to God's will.

Pray for His Holiness, Pope Francis, that his great love of this popular Saint and his desire to see the Church become a Church that is 'for the poor' will lead to His Holiness emptying himself in love for the Papacy and the whole Church and rejecting as false and dangerous the temptation to empty or divest the Papacy or the Church either for himself or for others.

Comments

Jacopo said…
Thank you for this well-thought out reflection.
Elizabeth said…
Thank you. Excellent analysis and I appreciate your remaining cautiously optimistic about our new Holy Father.
Gregory said…
Regarding the choice of the name Francis, you said: "Let us be clear, this is something the then Cardinal Bergoglio decided before being named as Pope and stepping out to greet the public."

Well, yes, like every other Pope has done for some 1,500 years. It would be quite odd had he not decided on his name prior to being named Pope and stepping out to greet people. Of course he did.

But I rather think that the heart of the matter is exactly when he chose or settled upon the name Francis. It seems clear, from his own words, that His Holiness was inspired to choose the name Francis only in the moments immediately prior to the conclusion of the Conclave, when it became obvious that he would accrue the required majority in the ballot.

From His Holiness' address to journalists last weekend (talking about the precise moments prior to the inevitability that he would pass 77 votes): [Cardinal Hummes] “embraced me and kissed me and said: ‘Don’t forget the poor’… and that struck me… the poor…Immediately I thought of St Francis of Assisi. Francis was a man of peace, a man of poverty, a man who loved and protected creation."

I share your concerns about the use of Francis. Only, however, in so far as it may indicate that His Holiness is trying, somewhat ungainly, to live up to that name on-the-hoof, as it were.

For are we to infer from his own words that His Holiness, prior to Cardinal Hummes' intervention, had another name in mind? For he certainly, in the precise micro-seconds prior to Cardinal Hummes' plea, must, presumably like everyone else in the room, have realised he was going to be asked to be Pope. Surely Pope Francis - if he only decided on his chosen regnal name right at the last moment - must therefore have entered the Conclave with a different name? Or perhaps he really didn't?

Either way, I do think the precise and pedantic examination of those moments immediately prior to becoming Pope is worth some scrutiny. For it seems to me that he has chosen the name Francis somewhat on a whim and now feels beholden to live up to the name any which way he can and is opportunistically applying his judgment as he goes without too much forethought ("I won't wear the mozetta - Francis wouldn't have...I won't wear the red shoes - Franics wouldn't have...etc etc").

If wonder how much did he really think through the implications of "being Francis" in the papal office?

Put it this way, a great catechetical moment has been lost now by choosing not to wear the red shoes. With a bit of forethought he could have said something like: "Well, my instinct was not to wear the red shoes, for I wonder whether Francis would have done so? However, there is an important symbolism, here, for the Pope's feet walk through the spilt blood of Christ, St Peter's here at the Vatican pavement and the countless martyrs and these red feet bear testimony to that." Or better words to that effect.

No pun, but he's rather shoehorned himself out of ever wearing the red shoes now, for he will be a sitting PR-gaffe target if ever he decides to do so.

Inevitably, though, he will have to get into a posh car sooner or later (heavens, he's even flying by helicopter to Castel Gandolfo on Saturday to see Pope Emeritus Benedict!) and you can just see the headlines: "Papal humility lasts only 10 days" etc etc. And then it will be open season on him.

If His Holiness had made it clear that he had, perhaps, chosen the name Francis as long ago as 2005 when he first feared he would be Pope, and has since had many years to reflect on the implications of such, then that would have cast a different aspect on things.

But by making it clear that even at this stage last week the name Francis hadn't occurred to him - and he's since sent so many, frankly odd, scattergun signals to us - I can't help thinking that this is all going to become somewhat problematic for him.

I guess we need to pray to St Francis to guide him!
The Bones said…
Precisely. Good comment, bro.
Annie said…
It would have made more sense for him to go with St. Francis Xavier with his example of evangelization.
Humble Queen said…
I hope you don't mind me making a suggestion, but so many people really have no idea about the symbolism of the church that they might be alienated by the ceremonial aspects. Perhaps he is reaching out to the spiritually poor by allowing a kind of communication which speaks by image as well as word? I'm not sure, and I'm not saying I agree either way, but surely to reach out to the many, lace and red shoes, albeit speak of rich holiness and symbolism to Catholics, might not necessarily speak the language of the Spirit to say people in inner city Glasgow. Maybe ? Just an idea, hope it is not to controversial :/
poetcomic1 said…
To quote Kenelm Digby:

"To love the weak and humble is easy for us and our pride; but to love even the rich and mighty as St. Francis did is a triumph of Christian charity."

-MORES CATHOLICI Vol. 3, Pg. 229
Lynda said…
The answer to ignorance about Christian symbols and rites is education - not "dumbing down" our liturgical heritage.
Anonymous said…
Hello, Lawrence

Lovely post on St Francis. However, we must remember that whilst the Holy Father has an attachment to St Francis and the call for corporal works of mercy is universal, his apostolate is not necessarily from a Franciscan perspective but, Ignatian. Worth noting as well that we have had Franciscan Popes in the past and none did what some are apprehensive over with regards Church assets. To understand the Holy Father’s simplicity of form is to remember that he is above all a Jesuit. I have brothers and sisters who belong to religious orders (Salesians, Canossians and cloistered Carmelites) and, like the Holy Father, all are bound by the vow of poverty as well as chastity and obedience to the rule/charism of their order. The religious are not concerned with externals but, substance.

As to the Extraordinary Form, one must also look into the fourth vow of the Society of Jesus and take on board that the Holy Father is an orthodox Jesuit. Those, as well as reasons you have already mentioned in your previous entries with regards thereto should assure supporters of the continuity for EF Mass. Hope that helps.

God bless.
Sonia
What I do not like is that people are using Pope Francis's renunciation of traditional papal garb as a way to beat up former Pope Benedict. I wish the Good Pope would clarify his reasons for doing these things because they've already begun to be misinterpreted.