Helping the Needy

October 11 2021 | by

SCRIPTURE repeatedly exhorts us to help the poor. John the Evangelist sums up in these words, “If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need, but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue, but with actions and in truth” (1 John 3:17-18).

Francis of Assisi’s first biographer, Thomas of Celano, wrote that “He was no deaf hearer of the Gospel [cf James 1:22]; rather he committed everything he heard to his excellent memory and was careful to carry it out to the letter” (The Life of Saint Francis, Chapter IX).

Anthony also made practical charity a driving force of his life. The first life of Saint Anthony, the Assidua (Chapter 13), records that “he called back to brotherly peace those who disagreed with each other and gave freedom to those who were imprisoned. He required that whatever was taken in usury or through violence be restituted. It reached the point that many, having mortgaged houses and fields, placed the money at his feet and, with his counsel, gave back to those who had been defrauded whatever had been gained by extortion or bribery. He freed prostitutes from sinful and disgraceful activities and restrained thieves, notorious for their misdeeds, from coming into illegal contact with what belonged to others.”


The 1221 Rule


Just as Anthony and Francis helped the needy, so the Rule of 1221 exhorted penitents to action. Newcomers learned this immediately. “When anybody wishes to enter this brotherhood, the ministers shall carefully inquire into his standing and occupation, and they shall explain to him the obligations of the brotherhood, especially that of restoring what belongs to others. And if he is content with it, let him be vested according to the prescribed way, and he must make satisfaction for his debts, paying money according to what pledged provision is given. They are to reconcile themselves with their neighbors and to pay up their tithes.” Tithing was the primary way to give alms. Penitents not only had to pay past tithes, but they were also required to “pay future tithes.”


The Common Fund


Penitents were to practice charity by practicing peace. “They are not to take up lethal weapons, or bear them about, against anybody.”

Their local gathering, which had elected officers, collected alms from the members. “And every member is to give the treasurer one ordinary denar. The treasurer is to collect this money and distribute it on the advice of the ministers among the poor brothers and sisters, especially the sick and those who may have nothing for their funeral services, and thereupon among the poor; and they are to offer something of the money to the aforesaid church.” Most Franciscan Third Orders follow a similar pattern, the Secular Franciscans still calling the money collected “The Common Fund.”

Penitents were to be especially attentive to the sick, not only with friendship and prayer, but also with material support. “Whenever any brother or sister happens to fall ill, the ministers, if the patient let them know of it, shall in person or through others visit the patient once a week, and remind him of penance; and if they find it expedient, they are to supply him from the common fund with what he may need for the body.”


Small bees


Penitents were busy helping the poor. Anthony used the image of bees to make a startling comparison between penitents and worldly religious. “Natural History tells us that small bees are the ones that do the most work… The fancy bees are the kind that do nothing. The small bees are penitents, who are small in their own eyes. They work hard and are always busy with something, lest the devil find their house empty and idle… The fancy bees, however, are lukewarm and foolish religious, who glory in the ornateness of their dress, who display their lives like phylacteries, and broaden the fringes of their holiness” (Sermons for Sundays and Festivals I, pp. 169-171; Edizioni Messaggero Padova – translated by Paul Spilsbury).

Anthony exhorts penitents to be concerned with others. “Alms are a great treasure… He who gives to Christ lays up treasure in heaven. He who succors the poor, gives to Christ… There are many sins and iniquities, and so there should be many alms and works of mercy to the poor” (Sermons IV, pp. 153-54).


Covert piety


Jesus had admonished his listeners to hide their good works. “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:1-4).

Reflecting this idea, Anthony penned, “Penitents are beyond the river of worldly pleasure… the Lord shaves from them all presumption of good works. Who can presume or glory in a good work, when he sees the Son of the Father, his power and wisdom [cf. 1 Cor 1.24], fastened to the Cross and hanging between thieves?... He that glorieth, let him glory in the Lord [1 Cor 1.31; 2Cor 10.17], not in himself” (Sermons IV, p. 244).

As Saint Francis strove to imitate Christ so must all penitents. Anthony wrote, “Christ… hath not walked in the counsel of the ungodly, etc. [Ps 1.1]. The pattern is his life, and our tents should be pitched and constructed according to it” (Sermons II, p. 233).

Updated on October 11 2021