by Father Francis X. Russo, OFMCap
And that brings us to a second strong theme in the life of Francis of Assisi. He was insistent on following a life of poverty. The Son of God had come down from the splendid court of heaven and was born in a poor stable. He was brought up, not as a wealthy prince in a royal palace, but in a humble home in Nazareth as a carpenter’s son. He became an itinerant preacher with no place to lay his head, and died totally stripped of his clothing and naked upon rough wood of a cross. To imitate him, Francis would become poor, too.
And so, he gave the very clothes that he was wearing back to his father and dressed himself in a castoff tunic, and placed a rope around his waist to serve as a belt – never realizing that soon a version of that dress would become the habit of all the friars of his Order.
As a sign of his detachment from material things and what he wanted his brothers’ detachment to be as well (in Chapter IV of his Rule) he commanded all the friars “not to receive coins or money in any way, either personally or through the medium of others.”
His prohibition against the use of money was a prophetic symbol for the clergy of all time. Throughout history, with few exceptions, whenever clerics of any church have become truly wealthy, they have had to struggle to stay on the road that leads to Him who said that HE was “the way.” And all too often they have veered from it.
Francis desire to avoid the use of money so that he would be a poor man following the poor Jesus had an added dimension. Money was the symbol of the power wielded in society by the wealthy and upper class, and he had begun the organization of a band of brothers who were to be called the Order of Friars Minor. “Friars Minor” is really an anglicized term for the LATIN—“fratres minores”—and a better translation would be and IS—“LESSER BROTHERS.” The LESSER BROTHERS were to belong to the lower class of people, humble men who were to walk with the powerless and poor and were to be poor and powerless themselves. Francis saw in Jesus the prophesized Messiah who was “despised and rejected” (Is 53, 3-5), and that’s where he wanted to be. He walked that walk so well that the people soon began to call him “il Poverello”—“the little Poor Man.”