Our Seraphic Father Saint Francis declared that he wanted to follow “the life of poverty of our most high Lord Jesus Christ and His most holy Mother,” and commanded his sons and to do the same.
This is why in Chapter VI of the Holy Rule for the friars (the Regula Bullata) he wrote that his brothers should “not appropriate anything to themselves, neither house, nor place, nor anything,” but rather should be “as pilgrims in this world, serving the Lord in poverty and humility, confidently begging alms.”
We are permitted nothing of our own, therefore, neither in private nor in common, neither in desire nor in actuality, neither internally nor externally. Why? Because Our Lord Jesus Christ and His most holy Mother chose poverty.
This is the “sublime height of exalted poverty” which is the most distinguishing characteristic of Franciscan life, and the only jealously guarded possession of the Order of Friars Minor! We, the sons of the Poverello (THE “LITTLE POOR MAN”) of Assisi, in imitation of him, ought to be fit witnesses of the poverty of Jesus and His Mother.
Pope Paul VI, in a discourse to the Franciscan Order given on July 12, 1966, asked, “Which virtue should chiefly distinguish your religious life? Whoever knows the Franciscans answers: poverty, a poverty that changes into love, which wants to imitate and love the poor Christ, and which considers God to be the only true riches of the religious soul.” We can sum up our life of poverty in this way: to live like truly poor people, happy with what is strictly necessary and purely indispensable for supporting ourselves and doing our work, that is, in the words of our Holy Mother Saint Clare, “always to practice the poverty and humility of our Lord Jesus Christ and His most holy Mother.” We therefore forsake any right to the effective ownership of anything, either as individuals or in common. Even strictly necessary things are not ours, but charitably entrusted to us by our benefactors for our use. St. Maximilian explained in a conference to the brothers on May 6, 1937,
“We of the Order take the vow of poverty, in virtue of which we cannot own anything and must furthermore ask permission for the use of things. At the same time, we cannot lend anything of our own accord. None of us can have even a cent. Not even what we wear is ours. It is only given us for use.”
While the materially poor in the world can strive to better their condition in society, we must rule out every possibility of bettering ourselves, of raising our level from being poor. “Let our houses always be so poor,” St. Maximilian wrote in an article, “that if St. Francis were to return, they could be chosen by him to dwell in.” Like the poor, we make use of only poor things for our personal needs, our dwelling, and for the necessary means to carry on the apostolate. Hence, all purchases of comforts, everything intended merely for pleasure and light diversion are ruled out, such as tobacco products, sightseeing tours, cameras, television sets and radios, vacations, etc. Our friaries, according to the desire of St. Maximilian, must be simple and modest, with frugally furnished cells, wooden beds with straw mattresses, chairs and tables of rough wood, walls painted or plastered unpretentiously, in the refectory the greatest simplicity and frugality (tables of rough material without tablecloths, with plain utensils and dishware).
“We forsake any right to the effective ownership of anything, either as individuals or in common. Even strictly necessary things are not ours, but charitably entrusted to us by our benefactors for our use.”
As for money, it is unthinkable for us to have a reserve of money in safekeeping, or a bank account in our possession. We are to use only the money necessary for the present needs; the remainder goes to the poor. We ordinarily cannot accept projects and work that have a fixed income attached, such as a school or parish. In this way we share intimately the economic insecurity of the poor and keep untouched our availability to serve the bishop and clergy. We refuse inheritances, perpetual legacies, fixed incomes, insurance that is not required by law, and anything else of value that does not match our condition as poor persons. For the application of Holy Masses, for the work of the sacred ministry, and for any other work we do, we take no offering unless it be a mere alms. We are ready and glad to give all without receiving anything. And in case of true necessity, we trustfully have recourse to what our Blessed Father Francis called “the table of the Lord,” that is, asking alms for the love of God.
Franciscan poverty is the source of great joy and peace for us, since it is, in the words of St. Maximilian, “the bottomless money-box of Divine Providence.” It is “a virtue of royal rank,” our Holy Father Saint Francis insisted, “for above every other it shone in the King and Queen,” and “truly makes us heirs and kings of the kingdom of heaven, poor in earthly goods, but rich in virtues” (HOLY RULE, CH. VI).
Our Life of Penance
In the Testament which he dictated shortly before he died in 1226, our Blessed Father St. Francis makes reference to the beginnings of his religious life in these terms: The Lord granted me, Brother Francis, to begin to do penance in this way… And at his death, he gave this exhortation to us, his sons: Do penance with the blessing of God. The first companions and the early friars, in obedience to and in imitation of their Father who had become, in Brother Elias’ words, a living crucifix, did just that, and with what fervor! And we mean to do the same, with the help of Our Lady.
St. Maximilian, whom Pope Paul VI called, in beatifying him, Francis come alive again for our age, that is, because of his perfect imitation of our Blessed Father, said: Penance, penance, penance! the Immaculate repeated this to Bernadette. And is not this the goal of our Order, the Order of Penitents? Is it not above all fitting for us to accept the Immaculate Virgin’s invitation to this and carry this invitation all over the world as something for all times?
What must be the motive of our life of penance, of our daily penances? conforming to Jesus Crucified, completing in our flesh what is wanting in the Passion of Jesus (viz. our cooperation, our sharing in His sufferings), suffering for the salvation of souls, paying the penalty for our sins and those of others.
It is not simply a matter of doing this penance or that individual acts of penance, but rather of willingly and lovingly imposing upon ourselves a continuing program of penitential living which puts us in a state of being continually offered as victims with Christ. What is costly and displeasing to fallen nature must stand out among our choices and our behavior so that we may chastise our bodies and bring them into subjection (1 COR. 9:27) and always bear about in our bodies the dying of Jesus, that the life of Jesus may also be made manifest in our bodies (II COR. 4:10).
“We willingly and lovingly impose upon ourselves a continuing program of penitential living which puts us in a state of being continually offered as victims with Christ.”
In the words of St. Maximilian: Our immolation must be total, without reservations. This evangelical spirit of penance shapes and animates our common life: rising in the dark before dawn; extended hours of prayer in common; uninterrupted silence throughout the friary; faithfulness and punctuality in the common exercises; hard work with no thought to fatigue; fasting during two Lents (one in preparation for Christmas, one in preparation for Easter) and on the vigils of Our Lady’s feasts; a frugal, plain diet, eating “of whatever is put before us” according to the Holy Rule; the use of the discipline; no shunning of discomfort and hardship and, on the contrary, avoidance of ease and convenience; frugality in all the areas of the friary enclosure.
Penance must shine in our whole person as we go always clothed in the habit, day and night, a habit of penance in the form of a cross, a perceptible sign of our death to the world and our conformity to Christ Crucified, as we keep our hair cut very short, wear sandals on sockless feet summer and winter, dressed in a habit and underclothes of cheap material and, according to the Rule, patched with the blessing of God, ridding ourselves of all that merely gratifies (smoking, liquor, vacations, theater-going, sports events, etc.) as not being reconcilable with our vocation of penance and victimhood.
Indeed, we wish ever more and more fervently to answer the invitation Our Lady has given us to live the life of the Friars Minor according to its most primitive spirit, expressed so poignantly by St. Maximilian in a letter to another friar of the Order who was desirous of joining him: Come with us to die of hunger, of fatigue, of humiliations, and of suffering for the Immaculate. CH. VI).