Helping the Poor

September 13 2020 | by

“THE POOR you will always have with you,” Jesus said (John 12:8). While most people would rather minister to the poor than be poor, Saint Francis of Assisi and his friars voluntarily became poor while ministering to the poor. One friar who thoroughly embraced voluntary poverty was Saint Anthony of Padua, who eloquently captured Francis’ vision when he wrote, “When wretched man abounds in pleasure and expands in riches, he actually decreases, because he loses his freedom. Care for riches makes him a slave, and while he serves riches, he shrinks down into himself… there is no freedom, save in voluntary poverty… in the land of my poverty, not of my abundance, God made me grow” (Sermons for Sundays and Festivals III, pp. 292-93; translated by Paul Spilsbury; Edizioni Messaggero Padova).

Francis and Anthony had a keen sense that, as Saint Teresa of Calcutta put it, “Let him [God] use you to spread his love and compassion… we need your hand to serve the poor, we need your heart to love the poor.”

The poor are highly visible in all underprivileged areas just as they were in medieval Italy. Beggars peppered the streets. The healthy isolated lepers. Exorbitant interest rates thrust the poor deeply into debt. Although both Francis and Anthony had become voluntarily poor, they could, at any time, relinquish their poverty and return to their privileged families. Their hearts burned with compassion for the poor who had no such choice.


Francis’ charity


Thomas of Celano, in Vita Prima di San Francesco, published three years after the saint’s death, wrote, “The father of the poor, the poor Francis, conforming himself to the poor in all things, was distressed to see anyone poorer than himself, not out of any desire for empty glory, but from a feeling of simple compassion. Though he was content with a ragged and rough tunic, he often wished to divide it with some poor person.”  Celano explains how Francis used to ask the wealthy to “loan him their cloaks or furs,” telling them, “I shall accept this from you only on the condition that you never expect to have it returned.” He would then give the garment to the first poor person he’d meet. He did this not only with ‘borrowed’ garments but also with his own mantle and tunic, so that the friars who accompanied Francis used to carry extra clothing.


Anthony’s charity


Anthony’s charity differed. The wine goblet story, for example, tells how Anthony and a fellow friar stopped to beg at a poor woman’s house. Having heard about the famous preacher, the flustered housewife hurried to her wine cellar to draw wine from her single barrel and served it to the saint in her single fine glass goblet. Then, quite suddenly she recalled that she had not turned off the wine barrel tap. Racing to her wine cellar, she found her wine seeping into the dirt floor. Distressed, she turned off the tap only to discover that Anthony’s traveling companion had accidentally dropped the goblet and broken the stem. Apologizing, Anthony handed the goblet back to the woman. It was mended. Then Anthony instructed her to check the wine barrel again. She found it full (Saint Anthony: Words of Fire, Life of Light, pp. 219-25 by Madeline Pecora Nugent;  Pauline Books).

Both Francis’ giving warm garments to the poor and Anthony restoring a woman’s wine supply and family heirloom did more than give the poor something needed but unaffordable. Their gifts affirmed the dignity of those helped while showing compassion and love. Pitying the poor is a noble feeling, but helping them requires attention and sacrifice, including the sacrifice of time. Francis and Anthony constantly and willingly made this sacrifice.


Hard words


Both saints could be merciless with those who ignored or misused the poor. Francis wrote, “And no matter where, when, or how a person dies in the guilt of sin without penance and satisfaction, if he can perform an act of satisfaction and does not do so, the devil snatches his soul from its body with such anguish and distress that no one can know [what it is like] except the one receiving it. And every talent, ability, knowledge, and wisdom they think they have will be taken away from them. And they leave their wealth to their relatives and friends who take it and divide it, and afterwards say, ‘May his soul be cursed because he could have given us more and acquired more than what he distributed to us.’ Worms eat his body, and so body and soul perish in this brief world, and they will go to hell where they will be tormented forever” (Early Documents I, pp. 43-4).

Anthony had equally sharp words for those who grew wealthy at the poor’s expense. “The ‘deaf’ are the avaricious and usurers, whose ears are blocked up with the filth of money… it is said that a serpent, so as not to hear the snake charmer’s voice, puts one ear to the ground and stops the other with its tail. The ‘ear’ listens ear-nestly as it h-ears a sound. The unhappy miser or usurer deprives himself of such a great gift of nature and grace, when, so as not to earnestly listen to or hear the sound of the preacher, he stops up the ears of his heart with the ‘earth’ (money that he has already got) and his ‘tail’ (his vile ambition to get more)” (Sermons III, p. 241). Anthony actively worked in Padua to bring about relief for the poor and end debtors’ prisons. On June 13, his feast day, the custom of Anthony’s bread persists. This taking home after the Memorial Mass a blessed loaf of bread recalls Anthony’s blessing of bread and then distributing it to the Paduan poor.


Feed my lambs


Francis, a deacon, had high regard for the clergy because, through their hands, Christ became tangible in the flesh in the Blessed Sacrament. Anthony, himself a priest, was quick to correct fellow but errant clergy, particularly those taking advantage of the poor. “What shall I say of our effeminate modern prelates, who dress up like a woman going to her wedding, wearing all kinds of furs, luxuriating in painted carriages, ornaments and trappings for their horses, which they redden with Christ blood?” (Sermons IV, p. 291). Anthony expounds on this theme in a homily for the feast of the holy apostles Peter and Paul. He talks about Christ commending the Church to St. Peter with the words “Feed my lambs” in John 21. “Note that ‘feed’ is said three times, but not once ‘shear’ or ‘milk’… love of God is proved in love of neighbor. Woe to the man who does not feed even once, but shears and milks three or four times… the Lord curses such a shepherd (or rather, wolf), who feeds himself (Sermons IV, p. 291).

Thus, the poor for both saints are those impoverished materially and/or spiritually.

Updated on September 13 2020