Domhan gan airgead

It was 1961 or 1962 when I saw Francis of Assisi in the cinema. This biopic starred Bradford Dillman as the medieval monk who founded the Franciscan order and became a popular saint after his death in 1226.

Several scenes stand out in my mind, particularly the one where a scruffy-looking Francis pleads with Pope Innocent III (played by Finlay Currie) to approve his plan for a new religious order. The pope expresses doubts, telling Francis that the proposed rule for his new order is “too ambitiously severe”. One of the pope’s aides agrees, saying to Francis that “your strict adherence to absolute poverty is unrealistic”.[1]  Eventually, however, the pope relents and gives his approval to Francis’ request and so the Franciscans came into being.

Elsewhere I have argued that Jesus in his public ministry sought to wean us off our dependence on money. He could see that as long as we regarded money as essential to life itself we would never free ourselves from evil’s grip. However, a clear sign of how little impact Jesus’ message had is the obvious wealth of the Church, in Francis’ day and ours. 

But all is not lost. Throughout history individuals have popped up from time to time to remind us of Jesus’ teaching about money. One such was Francis of Assisi.

When, as the gospels report, Jesus advised a young man to “sell what you possess and give to the poor”, Francis took it personally. He did not regard Jesus’ words as directed only at someone who lived a long time ago in a far off country. Francis believed they applied to himself, and to anyone else who wanted to follow Jesus - including the Church's top leaders. This is what the pope and his advisors found hard to swallow. 

In his own writings Francis demonstrated how much he shared Christ’s contempt for money:

The true brother values money no more than a pebble; in fact, if he values money as much as a pebble, he is running a real risk. It would be a terrible thing for those who have chosen the road of abandonment to lose the whole kingdom of heaven for such a trivial thing.[2] 

But the Church did not think that money is a trivial thing, and nor did the Franciscans. Within Francis’ lifetime the order he founded was already watering down his rule. This is illustrated during a scene in the movie when Francis, just returned after a long absence and appalled at the luxurious trappings he finds at Franciscan HQ, confronts the order’s new head, Brother Elias. 

Elias tries to persuade Francis that, as a rapidly-growing organisation, the order needed a lot more than their founder’s example could provide. In fact, Elias states, “Without property or power the order can’t exist”. Francis disagrees, citing the simplicity of his original rule: 

Our lord himself dictated our rule and therefore it should be obeyed literally, without interpretation. Without interpretation![3] 

But whether he did so consciously or not, even Francis of Assisi had to interpret the scriptures. This was because, as I indicated here, Jesus did not explain how his followers could disengage from the world’s money system. So in writing a rule for his new religious order, Francis felt he had to figure out a practical way for himself and his fellow monks to live. His solution was for the brothers to become mendicants, or beggars. 

When the need arises, [the brothers] are to beg without any sense of shame, remembering our Lord, who “set his face like a flint stone” and was not ashamed. Jesus, like Mary and the disciples, was a poor man and a wanderer; he was not above accepting charity.[4] 

Francis followed his own injunction, begging from those with enough to spare so that he and his companions could eat.[5]  But did Francis fully understand what Jesus was getting at? 

The gospels record that Jesus accepted gifts and hospitality from various benefactors.[6] So, as Francis observed, he was certainly “not above accepting charity”. But there is no mention of Jesus actually begging for anything for himself or his followers. To do so would have meant becoming dependent on the financial system he abhorred. Instead Jesus relied on God’s beneficence, as manifested through the kindness of others.  

When he told his apostles to go about the country preaching, Jesus did not instruct them to seek their “daily bread” with hand outstretched to those they met. Like Jesus himself, they could accept whatever hospitality they were offered, but they were not to barter their favours for money, or whatever money could buy.[7]  In a key sentence, he told them that, “You received without pay, give without pay”.[8] 

Francis undoubtedly had the best intentions when he set down his goal of poverty for himself and his brothers. But when he could find no explicit guidance in the gospels for their day-to-day upkeep, he improvised. 

Francis may have succeeded in his personal ambition to emulate Christ but he could not impart his faith to the organisation he founded. One of Francis’ biographers concluded, “the Franciscan order had been unfaithful to its origins”.[9] 

Was a different outcome likely, or even possible? As a Church official states in the film, “In this world we have to be reasonable or fail”.[10] 

Are we too destined to fail? Or can we yet discover how to step off the “ruler of this world’s” financial treadmill and learn to thrive and even be happy in a world without money?

[1] YouTube, Arch Crusader1, 26 May 2013, "FRANCIS OF ASSISI" (45:48),  [], 19 Feb. 2022.

[2] Lawrence Cunningham (ed.), Brother Francis : an anthology of writings by and about St. Francis of Assisi (New York 1972), p. 102.

[3] YouTube, "FRANCIS OF ASSISI" (1:23:34).

[4] Cunningham, Brother Francis, p. 103.

[5] Ibid., pp. 112-3.

[6] See for example Luke, 8:3.

[7] Luke, 10:7-8.

[8] Matthew, 10:8.

[9] Quoted in Cunningham, Brother Francis, p. 6.

[10] YouTube, "FRANCIS OF ASSISI" (46:45).