The Saint & the Poor

One of the most touching aspects in the life of our saint was his extraordinary love for the poor, expressed most often in his sermons and by feeding the hungry
June 11 2017 | by

JESUS SAID, “The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me” (Mark 14:7). He also said, “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40). Thus, Jesus identifies himself with the poor, to whom we should be doing good.

Although declining worldwide, poverty is still widespread. The dictionary defines poverty as “general scarcity or the state of one who lacks a certain amount of material possessions or money.” Poverty involves lack of goods, choices, and opportunities. Not only are the poor lacking necessities, but they also often lack schools, medical clinics, jobs, homes, and credit. Insecure, powerless, and excluded from society, the poor often they live in marginal, unsanitary environments.

What percentage of the world is poor? One estimate says that 37 percent of the world’s population is living in poverty. Another estimate says that 59 percent of the world’s population is living on less than five dollars a day.

Poor people have higher death rates and shorter life-spans than other people. One third of deaths – some 18 million people a year or 50,000 per day – are due to poverty-related causes. Almost 90 percent of maternal deaths are poverty related. Every year nearly 11 million children living in poverty die before their fifth birthday. 1.02 billion people go to bed hungry every night.

A glance at Internet photos puts faces to these statistics. These images show: a painfully thin woman covered with the dust of the streets, eating something from a plate; a homeless man guarding a shopping cart filled with his possessions; children filling water jars in a stream clogged with trash and garbage; families scavenging through garbage dumps; parents holding small children, standing in front of tumbledown, makeshift houses fabricated from trash bags, plastic, and cast-off lumber; people sleeping on the sidewalk; malnourished children, their ribs showing, all but naked, some dying, some dead.


Generosity cure


In Anthony’s time, the poor were in the streets mingling with the rich who encountered them daily. In today’s developed nations, many people can live their entire lives without meeting the poor.

Like the Holy Father, St. Francis had ‘a preferential option for the poor.’ He and his friars would tend to people in alms houses and leper hospitals on the outskirts of cities where most people could forget about them. While the Church has always advocated supporting the needy, many citizens of Francis’ time, just like today, did little more than give occasional alms to salve their consciences. To combat this, Anthony preached repeatedly on the benefits of almsgiving. “There is no more effective cure then generosity in alms giving; for he vainly stretches out his hands to God, asking for his sins, if he will not extend them as far as he can to the poor.” (Sermons for Sundays and Festivals, vol IV, p. 138; Edizoni Messaggero Padova)

Francis forbade his friars to handle money unless absolutely necessary to help someone. The friars’ almsgiving consisted in their work. Regularly they bathed the poor, tended their sores, and begged food and clothing for them.


Debtors’ prisons


At the time of Francis and Anthony, the economy was changing from a land-based economy to a money economy. Money was portable wealth so cities minted their own coinage. Some coinage was stable and others not so stable. Generally, wealthy people had access to more stable money while poor people were paid with less stable money. Usurers were loaning money at exorbitant interests, so only desperate individuals would consult a usurer. Who are more desperate than the poor? When the poor could not repay their loans, usurers’ put them into debtors’ prisons.

Citizens would consider themselves generous if they gave the poor left over scraps of food and old clothing. Anthony called for greater generosity. Although he had no money to give, Anthony gave compassion. Hagiography tells the story of a wealthy benefactor sending a kitchen maid to bring vegetables to the friary where St. Anthony was staying. The maid commonly made this trip, but one day it was pouring rain. When the maid returned to her mistress after delivering the vegetables, she discovered that her clothes were completely dry. Another incident talks about a peasant woman who had St. Anthony in her house as a guest, probably because he was passing through on a journey. Wanting to give him the best she had, she served him wine in a wine glass which accidentally fell and broke. Anthony not only restored the glass to her, whole, but also miraculously refilled the wine keg whose nozzle the poor woman had forgotten to close when she went to get the wine. After Anthony’s death, one friar told a story related to him by a former robber whom Anthony had converted. Poverty is the root cause of robbery.


Anthony’s statute


Anthony’s greatest works for the poor were his sermons against usury. It is written that in Florence he preached a sermon at a usurer’s funeral, taking as his text Matthew 6:21 and Luke 12:34, “Where your treasure is, there shall your heart be.” So moved were his listeners that they went to the usurer’s treasure boxes and found his heart among the coins. Similar sermons caused conversion in Padua, inspiring city officials to enact a statute on March 15, 1231, just a few months before Anthony died. Prior to this, usurers were regularly charging 20 percent to 30 percent interest, while the greediest ones extorted up to 75 percent interest. Debtors who had been unable to pay were stripped of their property, condemned to punishment, and/or jailed. The statute, “enacted at the instance of the venerable brother and blessed Anthony, confessor of the order of Friars Minor,” stated that “no one henceforth should be held in prison for money debts, past, present, or future, if he forfeited his goods. And this applies to both debtors and their bondsmen” (St. Anthony: Words of Fire, Life of Light; Madeline Pecora Nugent; Pauline Books and Media, p 325).


Powerful sermons


We can imagine Anthony’s words ringing in the ears of the people of Padua. Perhaps one of his sermons dealt with the rich man and Lazarus, the beggar at his gate. “The medicine of poverty may avail to cure the sickness of sin. God executes a double judgment… when a rich man sees a poor man and has no pity on him, he heaps up damnation to himself; while when a poor man sees the rich each day, he is tested and proved. It is a great trial, the experience of poverty and sickness on the one hand, and the sight of a rich man’s wealth, who brings him no comfort, on the other” (Sermons II, p. 12).  “‘When a man shall die, beasts and servants and worms shall inherit him.’ [cf. Ecclus 10.13] The beasts are his rapacious children, the serpents are the demons, and then there are the worms! Such is the burial of the rich man clad in purple, who was buried in hell” (Sermons II, p. 23). What rich usurer could resist the lure of a sermon like this?


Our precious souls


Anthony’s preaching both supported the poor and addressed the sinner. He cared equally for rich and poor alike because God did. Anthony was fond of telling a story from the Passion of St. Sebastian. “A certain king had a gold ring, set with a precious jewel, very dear to him. It fell from his finger into the sewer, and he was very sad about it. When he could not find anyone who might be able to get the ring out, he put aside his royal robes and clothed himself with sacking, to go down into the sewer. He searched for a long time, and in the end found the ring, and when he had found it, took it back joyfully to his palace. The king is the Son of God, the ring is the human race. The jewel in the ring is the precious soul in man” (Sermons IV, p. 181).

Therefore, because you, whoever you are, are precious to God, return to Him. “What goodness! What a paradise! Run, then, you famished, you avaricious and usurious people to whom money is dearer than God… Oh poverty! Oh humility! The Lord of all is wrapped in a scrap of cloth! The King of angels lies down in a stable! Blush, insatiable avarice! Be ashamed, human pride!” (Sermons IV, pp 5-6).


Light inaccessible


Anthony’s sermons would end with prayer because he recognized that, although he was preaching, God’s grace, obtained through prayer, wrought conversion. “We pray you then, Lord Jesus Christ, to grant us love for you and our neighbor; to make us children of light; and to rescue us from the snare of sin and the temptation of the devil so that we may be able to rise to the glory of light inaccessible. Grant this, you who are blessed forever and ever. Amen.” (Sermons II, p. 230).

St. Anthony’s generosity in helping the poor was heroic. Today, his friars from the Basilica in Padua are actively engaged in the task of continuing his great mission in favor of the poor in our troubled world. For information on the June 2017 project see the next article.

Updated on June 12 2017