There are many ideas that people hold about what it means to be Franciscan. I was once asked, “Where do you friars keep the animals?” I was living in the Soundview area of the Bronx at the time. The person assumed that our way of life would always be surrounded by furry friends. Later, another person wondered why we were not living out our vow of poverty by spending our day begging for alms?
Almsgiving is a common Biblical practice that recognizes God’s blessings to the whole community and God’s love for each person in the community. When the community and its members recognize those blessings, it is called to understand it in relationship to the poor of the community through care and compassion for the most vulnerable among them (e.g. Proverbs 14:21, 31 and Isaiah 58:6-8). The community achieved this by instances of individual charity for one’s neighbor, a required tithe for the poor every three years (Dt 14:28-29), and the leaving of produce at harvest for the poor to glean from the fields (Deut. 24:19-22). It is perhaps noteworthy that there is virtually no mention of beggars in the Old Testament, perhaps pointing to communal care of the poor among them. The New Testament also commends the practice of almsgiving (Matt. 6:1-4), calling it by a word that comes from the Greek word for “mercy,” and we see evidence of that mercy as the early Christian community cared for its poor (Acts 6; 2 Cor. 8-9). There is, perhaps, no more vivid reminder of that Christian call and duty than the parable of the sheep and the goats (Matt. 25:31-46), in which final judgment depends on care given to the needy. This is the Biblical background presented to medieval Christians as part of their formation as Disciples of Christ.
The secular milieu presented many opportunities for exercise of the giving of alms. In Francis’ day, Western Europe was in a transition from the feudal age to an emerging modern economy largely based in the city-communes – in place such as Assisi. Trade was flourishing, barter was beginning to give way to a monetary system of trade, the merchant class and tradesmen were flourishing, the poor were becoming poorer and more importantly becoming disconnected from castle and land. The poor were on the roadways and in the city streets. But unlike the communitarian response of old, these poor were not connected to a community, nor did a community wish to take on responsibility for them. The poor were forced to live outside the walls of the city-commune or to move on to another locale.
In the time after Francis’ military adventures and captivity, but before he found his vocation in God, Francis was given to hiding in his bedroom for days, brooding and given to compulsive acts of hoarding food, then suddenly rushing out to give the food away to beggars. The same was true of his father’s merchandise, as Francis would suddenly give away clothing. His parents seemed to indulge Francis to a degree, perhaps worried their son was slipping from eccentricity into madness. It is at this point that Francis – in a typically medieval fashion – went on pilgrimage to Rome to pray at the Tomb of St. Peter. While there, he cast an extraordinary sum of money through the grates towards the altar, went outside, exchanged his well-to-do clothing with a beggar and took up begging in the streets of Rome. Were these the acts of typical medieval penance: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving – or perhaps desperate acts of a soul increasingly lost?
One of the earliest accounts of Francis’ unfolding conversion is his encounter with a poor man begging alms. Francis was accustomed to giving alms, but on this occasion he rebuked the poor man. Immediately he was “led to penance” or, as we would describe it, came to a moment of conversion. He described the experience as though he had rebuked the “Great King.” Immediately Francis experienced great disgrace before his Lord. That day, he vowed to never again refuse to give to the one who asks “for the love of God.” “Give to the one who begs from you and do not turn away from one who wants to borrow.” (cf. Mt 5:42)
Many assume that the Franciscan perspective on almsgiving is largely connected to its perspective on poverty. But just as the above story indicates, the perspective is on giving, not receiving. In the Early Rule of Franciscan life, the chapter titled “Manner of Serving and Working” placed the priority on work. Work was the means to be with and among the people, the support the common life among the friars, and to have the means to support the poor by almsgiving. Only when a friar is unable to work or find work, may a friar beg for alms. Even then, those very alms were, in part, destined for almsgiving. Even in the instance when a friar was seeking to provide on the behalf of others, work took a priority over begging. So consistent is this view that Francis expressed it in The Testament, a final written exhortation for his brothers as he lay dying.
In Francis’ perspective, alms were not a means of supporting the Franciscan way of life of poverty, but were the means to serve and draw closer to God. In the same Earlier Rule, in Chapter 10, Begging Alms, the practice is described as following the humility and poverty of Jesus, but in the sense that the purpose was to serve the poor. “Alms are a legacy and justice due to the poor that our Lord Jesus Christ acquired for us.”
That legacy was recalled when his friend Bishop Hugolino, now Pope Gregory IX, placed the Basilica of St. Francis under the protection of the pope and made the grand piazza a place where alms could always be received by the poor, “for the love of God.”