Why do Franciscans Take a Vow of Poverty?

St. Francis, and Franciscans, are known for working with the poor. The Gospel Passage of the 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (Mk 12:38-44), helps us see why.

Often we hear the gospel passage known as the “Widow’s Mite” (Mk: 12:41-44) preached as example of how we should give; “from our livelihood” rather than from our “surplus wealth”. But this passage might be less about giving, and more about the plight of the poor in our societies. (I give credit to Fr. Jude Siciliano, OP, in his excellent weekly commentaries on the Sunday readings at: http://www.preacherexchange.com/latest.htm, for the insight that this passage might be more about justice). In verses 38-40 of the Gospel of Mark, immediately prior to the “Widow’s Mite” passage, Jesus has just accused the Scribes of “devouring the houses of widows” (vs. 40), then He sits at the temple treasury, and calls his disciples to see an example of exactly that; a poor widow, giving all she had, to support the Priests, Scribes and the system of Temple worship! It seems likely that Jesus is not so much holding up the widow as a great example of generosity and trust in God (although this is indeed the case), but rather He is pointing out to his disciples the injustices of a system that causes the poor to suffer and carry a disproportionate share of the burden, while the rich are isolated from the suffering (as they only gave from their “surplus wealth”).

This lesson applies thought human history. The injustices of our worldly systems too often cause the poor to shoulder a greater burden than the rich. This is one of the messages of Pope Francis’ recent Encyclical about the Environment. (Find the entire text of “Laudato Si; on the Care for our Common Home” at; http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/encyclicals/documents/papa-francesco_20150524_enciclica-laudato-si.html). Not only are the richer nations contributing more to the pollution of the planet, but it is the poorer peoples, and nations, who share a greater burden of the suffering. (They cannot move or pay for cleaning the environment, but more so; they cannot effectively advocate for their own interests against powerful corporations and nations.) Similarly, if you look at our many social/political systems, the injustices often affect the poor much more harshly than the rich. International debt of poorer countries causes them to become effective slave states of richer nations and corporations. Disparities of housing, employment, education and can be more easily avoided by those with wealth and money, than those without. Our criminal justice system ends up incarcerating disproportionately higher numbers of our poor and non-white citizens.

Solidarity with the poor is an essential element of Franciscan Spirituality. Franciscans take a vow of poverty, and work with the poor, not because poverty is good, but because it allows us to not be isolated from the suffering of the poor, and hence the injustices of our society. DSC_0478MA28250085-0037 In the gospel passage we are discussing, Jesus sees the burden of the system on the poor widow, AND He calls his disciples to see it too! This is important. We cannot solve all the world’s problems. But the first step in addressing injustice, is to SEE! To look, to observe. To see and hear the injustices of our systems, we need to look and listen, and be in solidarity with the poor. Their voices, cry out to God. He hears, and so must we. St. Francis served the poor, because he found Christ in them. It brought him closer to the Crucified Christ. For Christ himself, was poor, and always showed a special love and concern for the poor. (Compassion after all, comes from “com” and “passion” meaning to “suffer with”).

Franciscans today, continue to attempt to live poorly, and in solidarity with the poor, as an important part of our Spirituality. DSC_0441MA28250085-0030 Our ministries have a special concern and connection with the poor, and feature both charity in giving (in our many direct services to the poor) and in advocacy and justice work, as we become the voice of many of the poor we serve. E.g. Franciscans International, a Non-Governmental Organization (NGO)of the United Nations, seeks to shape world policy that effects the poor. See; http://www.franciscansinternational.org/

For Franciscans, we are all children of the One God we call Our Father. That makes us all Sisters and Brothers; rich and poor, and the Love of Christ compels us to Love all, especially the poorest. We are even Sisters and Brothers with all Creation; animals and non-living “creatures”. All God’s creation has dignity, and a purpose. We are all Called to Care for one and other, and our Common Home. When we do this, we give God the Highest Praise and Glory, and we all become holier, and we all benefit. So why do Franciscans take a vow of poverty? Because Jesus noticed the poor, and made a special effort to notice, and be with, the poor. Francis imitated Christ, so he did the same. Franciscans today do the same, to be in solidarity with all humanity and creation. To bring Hope to others, especially those most in need, and to advocate on their behalf for justice, and the well-being of all of us.

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