Monasticism, more than any other way of life on earth, inspires a love of poverty. One man who epitomizes the monastic way of life, arguably more than any other, is St. Francis of Assisi. God raised him up just as the Catholic culture in Italy was beginning to prosper. As Pope Leo XIII said, “Amidst the effeminacy and over-fastidiousness of the time, he is seen to go about careless and roughly clad, begging his food from door to door, not only enduring what is generally deemed most hard to bear, the senseless ridicule of the crowd, but even to welcome it with a wondrous readiness and pleasure…”
Careless and roughly clad, St. Francis preached the Gospel in such a way that redirected the people’s attention to the poverty and simplicity of Christ. To his brothers, St. Francis of Assisi used to say: "You know, my brothers, that poverty is the queen of virtues, because it is shone so brightly in the King of kings, and in the queen, his mother. Know my brothers, that poverty is the straight road to salvation, the nurse of humility, the root of perfection; its fruits are numerous, but hidden."
However, since the early 1970s, we have had fewer religious brothers and sisters showing the way to this virtue. The love of poverty is seldom understood, let alone loved. Materialism, socialism, and a misguided interpretation of social justice within some Catholic circles have made poverty out to be the worst of evils and wealth a basic human right. With this, people are more apt to place the highest value on material things and on issues relating to the economy.
Sadly, among some in the religious life, the love of poverty has been lost as well. St. Francis predicted that his order would not be exempt from this: “As Brother Leo writes, holy Father Francis used to say in front of the lord of Ostia and many brothers and clerics and lay people, and also preached frequently to the people, that his brothers, at the instigation of evil spirits, would depart from the way of holy simplicity and highest poverty.” (source: Francis of Assisi: The Prophet The Early Documents)
Indeed, the Church has long taught that coveting material things eventually divides people and inspires envy among the classes; whereas the religious life or monasticism – when inspired by the ideals of Francis of Assisi – binds souls together and inspires a generosity unknown to people outside of the Christian world. In the first several centuries of Church history, it was the religious communities that created hospitals, hospices, cathedral-schools, orphanages and the universities. According to Rodney Starks, author of The Victory of Reason: How Christianity led to Freedom, Capitalism and Western Success, it was the monastic estates that inspired a cash economy and lending money on interest. So many of the institutions and enterprises we take for granted can be traced back to men and women who renounced everything to follow Christ.
By the late twelfth century, St. Francis of Assisi took up this cause and renewed it. Even though the medieval culture in which he lived was refined and delicate, he made the love of poverty honorable again. He was a soul the Lord raised up to prune and to foster growth within the Church. Pope Innocent III had a vision “wherein it seemed to him that St. Francis was supporting on his shoulders the falling walls of the Lateran Basilica.” Unbeknownst to many Catholics of his day, this roughly clad beggar was pretty important to the Church, to say the least.
St. Francis teaches us there is something holy about being rejected by people for Christ’s sake. And there is something holy about being less dependent on material things. Why is this? So that we can be all the more dependent on God. Again, to quote Pope Leo XIII:
“Bereft of all, mocked, cast off by his own, he had again this great point in common with Jesus Christ – he would not have a corner wherein he might lay his head. As a last mark of resemblance, he received on his Calvary, Mt. Alvernus (by a miracle till then unheard of) the sacred stigmata, and was thus, so to speak, crucified.”
The spiritual and moral implications of St. Francis of Assisi and all who follow his example are enormous. But so are the historic contributions and social implications. Monasticism or the religious life is not just a calling that benefits those who are called, nor does it exclusively benefit the religious order he or she is called to. It also has a profound effect on society. Religious orders exemplify the Christian standard and hold it high for all to see. And through their ongoing prayers, they appease the justice of God and set free many blessings for heaven; not just for themselves, but for all of us.
It would seem that this special calling from God – the consequences of which are cosmic – needs to be explained to Catholics from the pulpit, in the classroom and elsewhere. People need to know why this man from Assisi, careless and roughly clad, is so important for souls, for the Church and for society.