|St. Francis of Assisi, lover of poverty|
15th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Mark 6:7-13
He instructed them to take nothing for the journey but a walking stick – no food, no sack, no money in their belts. They were, however, to wear sandals but not a second tunic.
When our Savior sent forth the twelve Apostles in pairs to preach the Gospel to the Jews, he bade them to carry no earthly provisions for their ministry, but simply to rely wholly upon the good will of the people to whom they preached. Through the centuries, many saints have imitated the letter of this precept – the obvious example is of St. Francis of Assisi.
However, it is most common today for both the parish priest and the apostolic preacher to carry not only a walking stick, but even several tunics. While bishops and priests surely do rely upon the free-will offerings of the people (generally through the Sunday collection), they now have not only shoes (as opposed to merely sandals), but even cars!
What shall we say of this? Are the Catholic bishops and priests of the modern day failing to observe Christ’s precept of poverty?
The eleven precepts
In the tenth chapter of St. Matthew’s Gospel, our Savior gives eleven precepts to his Apostles before sending them forth in the first mission. This passage is the parallel to this Sunday’s from St. Mark.
Here follow the eleven precepts:
1) That they must go only to the Jews and not to the Gentiles.
2) That they should preach the Kingdom and compel men to enter in.
3) To use the power of Christ to work miracles and heal the sick.
4) That they must give freely, as they have freely received.
5) Not to take money or worldly provisions, but to rely upon the support of the people.
6) To receive hospitality only from those worthy persons who are members of the household of faith.
7) That they must pray for peace for their host.
8) That they ought not to become discouraged when faced with difficulties, but rather to shake the dust from their feet.
9) To be meek in bearing sufferings patiently.
10) That they must beware of men, so as not to fall from the faith on account of persecution or threats.
11) Not to be anxious about how to answer the threats of infidels.
These precepts were given by Christ when he sent out his disciples in their first mission, but not all of them hold today. Indeed, it is very clear and quite obvious that the first precept (to preach only to the Jews) is no longer in force – our Savior expressly commanded the Apostles to preach the Gospel to all peoples after his Resurrection.
Several Fathers, Doctors and theologians are of the opinion that the fifth precept concerning not possessing money, shoes, staff, or two tunics was given as perpetual command – among them, Sts. Hilary, Jerome, Ambrose, and Austin, as well as Maldonatus. However, the majority opinion is that this precept was only temporary and was no longer binding after the Resurrection.
Obviously, the command that the preacher must carry neither food, nor money, nor sack, and wear only sandals was only temporarily biding upon the Apostles. Indeed, it is directly related to their mission to the Jews, but could not possibly be strictly observed by all in the mission to the Gentiles.
Our Savior himself makes this clear when he says, later on (at the Last Supper): When I sent you without purse, and scrip, and shoes, did you want anything? But they said: Nothing. Then said he unto them: But now he that hath a purse, let him take it, and likewise a scrip; and he that hath not, let him sell his coat, and buy a sword. (Luke 22:35-36)
The fact that our Lord tells the Apostles, When I sent you … But now, indicates that there has been a change from the first mission (to the Jews only) to the second mission (to the whole world).
The change in precept is given on account of a great change in circumstances. For, while the Jews were at first relatively open to accepting the preaching of Christ and of the Apostles in the early part of our Lord’s ministry, all this had radically changed by the time of the Crucifixion. And the Gentiles would be even more insistent on persecuting the infant Church than were the Jews!
Hence, because our Lord had foreseen and known of the many trials and persecutions which the first Christian preachers would undergo, he bade them no longer to observe the precept of total poverty. The early Christian preacher could not rely on the hospitality of the Romans, since the Gentile-world would unite against Christ and his martyrs!
Why this precept is no longer in force, and how it still remains
Thus, we see that this precept of total poverty is no longer in force – because the preacher must have some means of caring for himself when traveling to pagan lands, since there will be none to greet him and succor him until after the Church is established there.
Still, there is a sense in which the precept does remain, though not according to its strict letter. While the preacher (be he bishop or priest or deacon) is not strictly required to abandon all things and embrace total abject poverty, the Church still enjoins upon all clerics a life of simplicity.
While diocesan priests make no vow of poverty, they are still called to the interior esteem of the evangelic counsels. Every Christian must strive for perfection according to their state in life, and this means that each must at least aspire to that interior detachment which the vow of poverty protects and nurtures. If the ordinary Christian ought not to be attached to worldly riches, it is quite obvious that this obligation rests even more so upon the priest!
Thus, although the priest may possess food and cloths and even shoes (in addition to sandals), he must not be so attached to any of these goods as to sacrifice his priestly ministry on their account. For example: A priest must never compromise his preaching out of fear that he will not be invited out to a parishioner’s home for dinner.
Hear the words of the great Dominican, Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange (from Three Ages of the Interior Life, I.14):
“Since a religious (even a simple lay brother or a sister) has a special obligation to tend to perfection, with even greater reason the same obligation holds for a priest, even though he is not a religious. True, the priest who lives in the midst of the world is not, properly speaking, in the ‘state of perfection’ [i.e. through religious vows]; if he became a religious, he would have an additional merit, that of the vows of poverty and obedience. Nevertheless he ought to tend to perfection, properly so called, by reason of his ordination and of his holy functions, which demand a greater interior sanctity than that required by the religious state in a lay brother or a sister.
“This special obligation is not distinct from that of accomplishing holily and worthily the various duties of the priestly life. In virtue of the supreme precept [of charity], they must even be fulfilled more and more perfectly with the progress of charity, which ought to grow until death.
“The basis of this obligation is ordination to the priesthood and the lofty character of the acts for which it is conferred. This ordination requires, not only the state of grace and special aptitudes, but an initial perfection (bonitas vitae) superior to that required for entering religion. The priest, in fact, ought to enlighten others, and it would be fitting that he himself should be in the illuminative way, as it would be fitting that the bishop should be in the unitive way of the perfect.”
Let us pray for our dear, poor priests!