Solidarity — Center for Action and Contemplation

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Franciscan Spirituality: Week 1

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Francis went beyond voluntary poverty in his effort to find a way out of the world of comparison, competition, greed, and the violence that comes with it. He also felt that he had to live in close proximity to and even solidarity with the excluded ones in his society. If we are not marginalized ourselves in some way, we normally need to associate with some marginalized group to have an enlightened Gospel perspective and to be converted to compassion. We call this “the preferential option for the poor.” Jesus himself both lived and taught this quite explicitly. Francis was one of the first well known Christians to make this practice clear, and this very phrase is now included in the official documents of many religious communities around the world.

Francis literally changed sides or teams. He was raised in upper Assisi, as one of those who considered themselves the majores or upper class. In the lower part of town lived the minores or the lower class. Francis actually moved even further down, into the plain below Assisi where there was a leper colony. (The word “leper” generally refers to the excluded ones. “Lepers” did not always have the contagious disease of leprosy, but they were the people society deemed unacceptable, unworthy, or shameful for any number of reasons.)

On that plain was an abandoned, ruined church, which Francis physically rebuilt. The “Portiuncula,” or “little portion” of the large Benedictine holdings, is the birthplace and home of the Franciscan Order. Although Franciscans do not legally own the church, each year, on August 2, we piously pay the good Benedictines with a basket of fish to be allowed to “use” it for another year.

Members of religious communities usually place initials after their names to indicate their particular Order. We Franciscans use O.F.M., Ordo Fratum Minorum—Latin for the little brothers, or the “Order of the Minor Brothers.” Francis told us to move down the social class ladder. We were not to identify with the upper class, nor with the climb toward success, power, and money. We were to find our place not in climbing but in descending. This Franciscan vision is utterly countercultural to the worldview of Western society. We were to be mendicants, or beggars, which would help keep us as humble receivers rather than ecclesiastical consumers and producers.

Francis resisted priesthood because, I believe, he was deeply aware of all that invariably comes with priestly ordination (education, titles, privilege, human respect, income, special clothing, and the need to protect the establishment or institution). He wanted his followers to be “blue collar” ministers who lived close to the people in every way rather than “white collar” superiors. However, poor Francis was not long in his grave before the Church started ordaining as many Franciscan men as possible—who soon wore stiff white Roman collars. It gave us access, credibility, status, and stipends in academia, church, and society. I know that it was probably inevitable, and not all bad, but it is indeed dangerous for the soul.

Gateway to Silence:
Who are you, God? And who am I?

Adapted from Richard Rohr, Eager to Love: The Alternative Way of Francis of Assisi (Franciscan Media: 2014), Chapters 2, 3, and Afterword.

Image credit: Saint Francis of Assisi Is Wed to Lady Poverty (detail), Fresco attributed to Giotto di Bondone, c. 1330, Basilica di San Francesco (lower level, over the altar), Assisi, Italy.
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