Poverty of all sorts will be with us until the end of time, precisely because it is fueled by two rock-bottom facts of life: nature is unpredictable and mankind is sinful. The idea that we will stamp out poverty under the reign of a particular pope or the leadership of a particular political movement is utopian. Here in Central Florida we are observing the anniversary of Hurricane Charley (August 14, 2004), the first of three hurricanes that struck this region in six weeks. Hurricanes of much greater intensity have caused more death, destruction, and personal disruption in many places; ironically, the existence of hurricanes is a planetary necessity, relocating intensive heat near the equator to the northern regions of our hemisphere.
While nature itself can be and is a cause of temporary or permanent poverty, the conduct of human beings, individually and communally, is an equal if greater cause of human suffering and want. Until the classic landmark decision Brown vs, the Topeka Board of Education (1954) black American children were segregated from the benefits of generally better equipped while school facilities. This pre-1954 state of affairs had many fathers: courts, local jurisdictions, and public sentiment. The substandard educations provided in many “black” schools effectively shut the door for advanced ambition and opportunity. Today there are countless reports of situations where, to use the old phrase, “the fix is in” and individuals, societies, and nations remain shut out of the necessities of life and the opportunity of competition.
One of the finest books I have read this year is Francis of Assisi: A New Biography by Augustine Thompson, O.P. (2012). (See my review at book’s site.) Thompson, a Dominican friar and scholar, developed his biography by isolating the factual and historical writings of Francis’s own time from the interpretations already beginning to appear in his lifetime, including from his own hand. I was struck by the fact that (1) Francis’ earliest post conversion desire was to live alone as a hermit; (2) that his initial spiritual impulse was repentance of and penance for his sins, and (3) that for Francis, at least, the traditional vows of poverty, chastity and obedience were not his natural categories of thought, but rather the full imitation of Christ as revealed in the Gospels.
Modern scholarship has uncovered a vast number of brotherhoods and sisterhoods in the medieval era who resembled the troop with St. Francis, groups living at the margins of urban life in great simplicity. Their motivation was penitential. We forget that one of the main preoccupations of the Medieval Church, in fact, was life after death and eternal destiny. In 1095, just before Francis appeared on the scene, Pope Urban II called the First Crusade with the promise of a plenary indulgence for anyone who took up the cross (and the sword) to recover Jerusalem and the Holy Land, meaning that any post-confession punishments in Purgatory would be absolved.
Thus Francis and his followers, whom he did not actively recruit (“and the Lord sent me brothers…”) lived a life of poverty, and while they shared their countrymen’s hope of redemption after the grave, they could not help but notice the theme of poverty that runs through the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. Francis paid keen attention to Jesus’s instruction to sell all in order to follow Jesus more closely. Francis feared that possessions would distract from the brothers’ true call: he embraced what I would call a “practical poverty,” a means to an end.
Francis was not a social worker. His works of charity for lepers and others were evangelical, signs of God’s love for the most unfortunate. Such works focused Francis himself on the reality of his bond with Christ. In today’s language, we would say he saw Christ in every suffering soul, but he saw that living a poor life himself would make him ever mindful of what he preached.
Again, Francis never saw the friars as eradicators of poverty. He was wise enough to understand that a total abandonment to the task of alleviating poverty would destroy the soul and the psyche first because of the pride involved and eventually because of poverty's endlessness. Consequently he budgeted the priorities of the friars’ time, with prayer—notably the Eucharist and the Divine Office—the care of churches, preaching, fraternity, the richness of nature, poetry—creating the template for the next generation of friars to live among the next generation of the poor. Francis, the man who embraced a life of sorrow for sin, knew that sinners of the next generation and the fruits of their sins would guarantee that “the poor are always among us.”