If there is one word that is immediately associated with Francis and the Franciscans, it is poverty. Talk about it within the ecclesial circles and the Franciscans come to mind with its external expressions of simplicity and austerity. Even as it is the most identifying characteristic of our spirituality. It is also the most conflictual, hence the most divisive. The historical reason why there are at least three major Franciscan Orders (Capuchins, Conventual and Friars minor) is precisely because of the interpretation of poverty in Franciscan spirituality. In the time of Francis up to now that the issue of the spirit of poverty in the context of the times remains elusive. Franciscans at all level will always remain divided when living out of Franciscan poverty is concern. As a Province in the Philippines, there was a time that a group intended to secede from the mainstream to found their own congregation in the belief that the present set up is not any more faithful to the spirit of Francis. Many would drop our present parish commitments as they thought parochial work is inimical to fraternal and simple life. Even this parish was not spared from this excruciating dilemma in arriving at the air conditioning of the Church. Individually all of us has the burden of continuously discerning the manner of living poverty as we adopt to the signs of the times at the same time be faithful to the spirit of Francis. Behind all these divisions and dilemma is the too materialistic orientation and interpretation of living out poverty.
For Francis poverty is not the first experience; it is not so much material deprivation as in simplicity and austerity .The first and primordial experience is the generosity and abundance of God’s love as Father. Hence, the appropriate response to the generosity of God is gratitude. “Gratias tibi Deo agere”. Thanksgiving and praise is the first attitude of man before a generous Father. After thanksgiving, poverty follows. Poverty is therefore not so much material deprivation and its accompanying variants of simplicity and austerity. It is fundamentally humbling recognition that all good things comes from God. He is the source of all that is good. He is the proprietor of all goods, the owner of all. Hence in the Franciscan vocabulary, poverty is defined as “sine propio” which means “ without calling anything as one’s own “; better yet not appropriating anything as one’s own. We are not the owners! God is. It is in this context of non-ownership that all the material ramifications should be reframed. Non-ownership means we are God’s stewards and as such goods of this earth meant for the enjoyment of the common good, not only for the indigestion of the few; it means a more equitable distribution of the earth’s resources which has been appropriated by the few. Poverty implies then a life of solidarity with the disposed in the search for just society. Solidarity includes being one in their pursuit of liberation from material poverty which in turn is the result of appropriative and acquisitive nature of man, legitimized by the systems and structures of society. Poverty is not only a negative protest but a calculated, political strategy against organized appropriation and selfishness.
Within a small community like a Church groups or religious congregation, it implies common property, sharing and accountability. It means sharing the Church’s resources for the use of the common good. The challenge of the present government for the Church to help in the drug problem by way of sharing its resources, expertise, counseling is in place. We are not owners of what we have and possess. Individually however poverty must be an expression of our interior liberation from mammon. In other words ,the voluntary poverty of the religious is only liberative if by our personal lives we are freed from the grip of mammon.