Category Archives: Franciscan thought

The Way of St Francis: poverty or littleness?

717520Kenneth Baxter Wolf, The Poverty of Riches: St Francis of Assisi reconsidered, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.


ISBN 9780195182804. Paperback 165 pages.

$52 online, $40 used. In State Library system.


Reviewed by Ted Witham tssf


Being a Franciscan is all about poverty. Right? Kenneth Baxter Wolf’s study of poverty in relationship to Saint Francis challenges our common conception.

Maybe it shouldn’t.

Many of the early Brothers came from the same class as Saint Francis. More to the point, the roll-call of those early Franciscans who became saints includes royalty and nobles. We hear of sainted King Louis IX and his sister the Blessed Princess Isabelle of France. Elizabeth of Hungary was the wife of a king. We visit Assisi and puzzle over the dazzling riches of basilicas and churches dedicated to the poor man of Assisi.

There are ironies here.

Kenneth Baxter Wolf walks us through the early sources and shows that Francis was about a different sort of poverty: a poverty that was more attractive to the wealthy burghers of Assisi than to the involuntary poor. Wolf teaches history at Pomona College in California and is well placed to compare Francis with other medieval saints. His ideas in this book, however, are controversial among fellow-historians.

Dr Wolf says that Saint Francis chose poverty; a strange choice because, firstly, his poverty did not help the poor. What he begged decreased the total possible alms in the area and may therefore have resulted in fewer resources available to the poor.

Secondly, choosing poverty romanticised it to some extent.

Thirdly, to ‘become poor’ was (and is) an aspiration open only to the wealthy, the middle class in particular. The involuntary poor cannot aspire to ‘become poor’!

As Wolf claims: “The point is not that Francis and his friars were never charitable toward the poor. The point is that charitable distribution was clearly ancillary to the Franciscan spiritual program, a program that put much more emphasis on the virtue that followed from acting poor than the virtue that came from relieving the poverty of others. “ [p. 25]

Wolf argues that Francis chose poverty as the concrete way of imitatio Christi, of identifying with Christ. What is crucial is not the poverty, but the imitation of Christ. For St Francis, poverty ‘was simply the most direct means of achieving a personal identification with Jesus, the practitioner of voluntary poverty par excellence.’ (p. 43)

Wolf contrasts St Francis with his near contemporary St Raymond of Piacenza (1140 – 1200), who became poor so that he could live with the poor and alleviate their poverty. From a similar background to Raymond, Francis began his ministry helping lepers, but it soon changed to be largely preaching to the wealthy.

This is one of those points where Professor Wolf may be criticised. The early biographers of St Francis most likely assumed that the ministry to the lepers continued while they described other aspects of his life, not that it disappeared with the descriptions of preaching missions and Chapters.

Why was Saint Francis so popular? Wolf argues he offered the wealthy a way to repent and return to God. Saint Francis used the techniques of entertainers and of merchants, attracting attention with strange antics, and then selling them the benefits of a renewed life with God.

Francis offered a way of being Christian which was ‘about redefining poverty altogether in such a way that only Christians of means could really appreciate it and aspire to it.’ (p. 89)

We read this text as First World Christians. Our nations’ welfare sytems make it difficult for us to really divest ourselves of our wealth. I found it helpful to be reminded by Professor Wolf that Franciscan poverty is not an end but the means to a deeper connection with Christ.

To those of us who live in relative wealth and privilege, the Franciscan call is not that we should live in abject poverty, but that we should repent our privileged view of ourselves and live in humility. Saint Francis appeals to us because he uses the language of commerce, the 13th Century equivalent of capitalism, to draw us in to a counter-cultural, liberating and humble way of living our faith.



Saint, Patron of the Third Order

From the age of Saints, Louis IX of France was genuine in his piety, and is one of the three traditional patrons of the Third Order. We give thanks today for the example of saintliness he left us and for the encouragement he provides.

Enjoy this book review on the life of Saint Louis which is re-posted from 2013.

Defending Bonaventure

The Critics

I feel compelled to defend Bonaventure against his critics. I have always felt drawn to the attractive saint and scholar of 13th Century Paris.

Critics dislike three things about Bonaventure. Firstly, they claim that as Minister General Number 7, he compromised important values of St Francis, especially that of poverty.

They also complain that his standing as a scholar ruled him out of the Friars Minor. Francis, after all, was uncomfortable with academic learning, and wanted the brothers to preach from the heart – not the head. Leave that to the Dominican friars!

Thirdly, Bonaventure’s critics point at the Cardinal’s red hat Bonaventure accepted. They grumble that although he had always honoured the offices of priest and bishop, Francis believed that parts of the church hierarchy were corrupt. Cardinal Bonaventure had joined the enemy!

Poverty and our Distance from the Lie of Materialism

Did Bonaventure compromise the central Franciscan value of poverty? The friars elected Bonaventure Minister General because they believed he could hold together the grievously divided Order. Bonaventure had personal authority with both the spirituali and the relaxati.

The spirituali wanted to keep alive the tradition of begging and living in small hermitages.

The relaxati, however, were content to live in convents inside the cities. As they grew in numbers, begging and refusing cash became less practical. Living in convents made the brothers’ pastoral ministry more effective and provided security for precious books and liturgical items. (Cusato, 136)

The problems were obvious. When they lived outside the towns, the Little Brothers distanced themselves physically and spiritually from the economic system of the towns. When they moved physically, they risked losing the spiritual importance of staying out of the materialistic world.

Bonaventure, a realist, recognises the risk of spiritual dilution. He also knows that the Order will not survive in small insecure hermitages.

Bonaventure chooses survival. Without his diplomacy, the Order may have collapsed. Bonaventure could claim that with careful discipline, even in convents friars could remain true to Lady Poverty, but the ‘spiritualising’ party continued to believe that the heart of the Franciscan charism was lost.

Sociological theory about movements started by charismatic people charts their process:

  • Man
  • Movement
  • Machine
  • Monument

A Movement will die when as institution (“a Machine”) it loses its sense of purpose. But a movement is fluid, dynamic, in itself uncontrollable. Even Francis was frustrated when he tried to bring his movement back to his original vision.

Bonaventure understood the need for the Machine (the Order) to provide structure for the Movement. If you spend all your energy on the processes within the institution, both Machine and Movement are very soon a Monument, a Memory – dead. The ALP in our day is playing out these dynamics; the Anglican Church is learning its rules.

So to survive you need to intervene not in the Movement, nor in the Machine. You need to focus on the Man, the charismatic founder, and so inspire people again to follow the Man, to take up his ideals, to be the Movement.

Bonaventure spent much of his academic energy re-vitalising the Order’s picture of Francis. He wrote Francis’ biography. His writings capture the meaning of Francis’ spiritual experience. He enthused readers to become energetic participants in the movement with the vision Francis bequeathed.

Did he succeed? The answer can only be in terms of the Order he tried to save. The Order survived, but remained divided. Today’s Friars Minor, Capuchins and Conventuals are all children of the original Franciscan movement.

The questions raised by the critics of Bonaventure still need asking. Have we arranged our lives as an expression of the Franciscan virtue of poverty?

There have always been some who have literally given away their worldly wealth to live “in extreme simplicity” as acknowledged in the Third Order Principles. For most of us, the answer is that we, in First World countries, live more or less in affluence.

Do we let our wealth blur our vision of what God calls us to as Franciscans? Does our wealth distance us from “the lie” – Western society’s belief that materialism will save us? Does our wealth make it easy to forget to be “aware of the poverty in the world and its claim on us?” (Third Order Principles).

Thanks to Bonaventure’s critics, we need to keep on asking those questions.


Master of Paris or Betrayer of the Heart?

Dominican friar Thomas Aquinas and Franciscan friar Bonaventure were both academics at the University of Paris. Both were brilliant scholars. Bonaventure was a lesser light only because of the extraordinary radiance of Thomas’ intellect.

But didn’t Father Francis warn his brothers not to be seduced by academia? He allowed Antony to preach at Padua only when convinced that Antony’s learning supported preaching from the heart. Francis’ treatment of Antony exposes Francis’ real objection. He objects not to scholarship in itself, but because scholars easily lose the heart.

I guess that Francis would have tolerated Bonaventure’s scholarship, because it led to the heart. In the Itinerarium, Bonaventure describes how the spiritual journey requires us to leave intellect behind and enter the arena of the heart and of direct experience of God. Francis’ spiritual journey reached its climax on Mount Averna when he received the stigmata… at least, that’s the story that we have, and one of its earliest tellings is by Bonaventure!

Many Franciscans today are addicted to the buying, collecting and reading of books. So it is ironic that Bonaventure warns us to watch out for this addiction.

I know how easily I get into cycles of reading, and reading, and reading more books. Reading becomes a frenzy of accumulating new ideas and information.

I need to read less and to live more.

It is ironic that Bonaventure the great scholar is the one who recalls how Francis’ ambivalence to intellectual endeavour. Let him maintain that discomfort!

The Cardinal and the corruption

Bonaventure could have refused the red hat. Thomas Aquinas did.

But Bonaventure was different. Well-respected and liked by his brothers and the wider Church, Bonaventure as Cardinal could witness to an integrity forgotten by the Church’s princes.

Bonaventure was reluctant to be elevated. He turned down the Pope’s earlier offer to be Archbishop of York. After the Cardinals had called him in as a mediator in their disputes, he acquiesced to Gregory X’s invitation to be Cardinal-bishop of Albano. He was washing up, the story goes, when the messenger bearing the news arrived, and he directed the messenger to hang the red hat on a tree until he had finished his kitchen duties.

At Gregory’s request Bonaventure prepared the theological quaestiones for the Council at Lyons. Bonaventure chaired some sessions and used his diplomatic skills to negotiate, with some success, with the Greek Orthodox delegates.

It was perhaps inevitable that Brother Bonaventure became a Cardinal. His skills as a mediator were needed in all the councils of the Church, and his integrity was never compromised by his diplomacy. One admirer even declared that Bonaventure was not tainted by original sin!

A successful mediator must take the way of littleness. The task of mediation is to present the view of one party in such a way that the other party can hear their opponent’s viewpoint with sympathy. Mediators hold the space open for the contenders and so create the best environment for a non-coercive dialogue.

These themes: littleness; non-violence; dialogue; holding space open all resonate with the Franciscan tradition.

The challenge for all Franciscans in positions of power is to exercise authority in the way of littleness: renouncing the use of force to gain compliance and acknowledging heart as well as head.

I would like to know more about Bonaventure as leader. His demeanour should shape Franciscan officials in any century.


St Bonaventure in Catholic Encyclopedia, New Advent, accessed 21/03/2006.

G.K. Chesterton (1956) Saint Thomas Aquinas, “The Dumb Ox”, New York: Image Books.

Michael J. Cusato OFM, (1997) Hermitage or Marketplace? The search for an authentic Franciscan locus in the world. Spirit and Life: A Journal of Contemporary Franciscanism, Vol.7, 1997, 125-148.

Brother Michael SSF (date not known) For the Time Being: a memoir, London: Gracewing.

Harrison Owen (2003) The Practice of Peace, New York: Open Space Institutes (on holding space open in non-violent conflict resolution)

Paul Rout OFM (1996)Francis and Bonaventure, London: Fount.

A shorter version of this article was published in Franciscan Angles, the publication of the Society of Saint Francis, Province of the Divine Compassion

Review of “Interpreting Francis and Clare”

Mews, Constant J. and Claire Renkin, eds. Interpreting Francis and Clare from the Middle Ages to the Present.  Mulgrave (Australia):

Broughton Publishing, 2010.  Pp.  xi, 416.  $89.00 (AUS). ISBN: 978-0- 9806634-6-4.

Reviewed by Lezlie Knox, Marquette University,

Published in The Medieval Review <>,  21 September 2011

This volume publishes the proceedings of an Australian conference held to mark the eight hundredth centenary of the founding of the Franciscan Order.  A generation ago that occasion would have focused primarily on the friars and their work.  This collection reflects the degree to which questions about how religious women and the laity participated in the Franciscan movement have become a central concern to both scholars and contemporary religious leaders inspired by the past.  Indeed, the specific organizing theme of the conference considered how the spiritual ideals of Francis and Clare have been interpreted from the Middle Ages up to the present day.

Unsurprisingly, given both this chronological range and the complexity of responses to the Franciscan charism of poverty and simplicity, the resulting twenty chapters offer disparate glimpses at the subject.

About two-thirds of the volume consists of academic analyses of texts and art produced in Franciscan contexts.  The remainder feature narrative accounts including personal testimonies from Poor Clares living in an Irish hermitage, a contemporary interfaith missionary in Egypt, and Third Order Anglican Franciscans in Australia.  These chapters will interest those working in ministry especially.  This assessment, though, will focus on the historical studies of the Franciscan Order through the fifteenth century as fitting the purview of The Medieval Review. [1]

Like many conference proceedings, the essays vary in both scope and depth.  Some chapters offer broad overviews that may interest generalists, while others offer new material for specialists in Franciscan history and later medieval religious movements.  Following the brief introduction, there are two (perhaps three) plenary addresses.  The remainder of the essays are then organized according to the chronology of their subjects and grouped loosely by geography and medium (text, art).  In their published form, there is little dialogue between the authors about the varied uses of Francis’ and Clare’s ideals, which is unfortunate.  Stepping back from the essays, it is certainly true that the “needs of the present” (xiii) influenced the different interpretations of their spiritual ideas, as the editors suggest in the introduction.  However, the essays together raise questions about differences not only of time and place, but also how responses are conditioned by gender and institutional identity.

The plenary chapters address key issues for both the medieval Franciscan Order and modern scholars: Francis and Clare’s relationship and Franciscan attitudes toward poverty.  First Jacques Dalarun emphasizes that Clare of Assisi was a significant figure in her own right, challenging both the idea that she was simply Francis’ follower, as well as the romantic image of the two saints of Assisi as star-crossed lovers (of poverty).  Drawing on his earlier studies of their writings, Dalarun explains how the differences in Francis and Clare’s expressions of their shared spiritual ideals resulted from their own sexual identities and use of gendered categories.  Michael Cusato also uses his work on Franciscan attitudes toward wealth to suggest that the evolution of the friars’ attitudes toward money can be read not as betrayal of Francis’ ideals, but rather as a response to changing economics.  This argument is a clear challenge, interestingly unstated, to Kenneth Wolf’s claim that the Franciscan embrace of “holy poverty” caused harm to the truly poor by siphoning alms and other support from them. [2]  Cusato shows how, for example, restrictions on handling coinage in the friars’ first rule and hagiographic references to coins as dung functioned as a social critique of the contemporary money system which exploited the poor through arbitrary devaluations of silver coinage especially.  As minting stabilized and the market economy became normative, the Order moved away from this social critique toward positive uses of money.

The third chapter, which the introduction groups with the two preceding ones, compares the image of Lady Poverty in the Sacrum Commercium to other poor ladies from medieval literature.

Juxtaposed to Cusato’s essay, Anne M. Scott’s discussion helps contextualize Franciscan interpretations of poverty as an ideal.

These three chapters are rich with examples from medieval texts and readers unfamiliar with the medieval Franciscans will find much to think about in each essay.  Dalarun and Cusato’s chapters also are recommended as effective introductions to their scholarship on the topic.

The rest of the volume’s chapters focus on specific works or figures.

Three essays address the fraternal tradition.  Anne Holloway and Anna Welch evaluate the alter Christus theme in hagiographic writings on Francis (the suffering Christ) and Dominic (Christ as preacher par excellence).  Cal Ledsham and Constant J. Mews use the writings of Duns Scotus and Durand of Champagne to rehabilitate the reputation of Franciscan philosophy from the late thirteenth and early fourteen centuries.  Often characterized as reactionary and anti-Thomistic, they show instead how Franciscan scholasticism, while radically Christocentric, was nonetheless characterized by a diversity of thought as friars engaged with the prophetic tradition descending from Francis and the limits of academic reason.  Judith Collard considers what Matthew of Paris can tell us about the Friars Minor’s reception in England.  She demonstrates how his writings and illustrations show an ambivalent response to the friars with Paris’ respect for Francis and his ideals and a close friendship with a Brother William challenged by institutional rivalries and the Franciscans’ role as papal tax collectors.  Both her essay and Ledsham and Mews’ chapter are especially recommended as they reach outside their specific cases to address larger issues that contextualize the Order’s significance within their society.

Several chapters focus on well-known texts to examine the female Franciscan movement in its institutional form.  Peta Hills and Julie Ann Smith each use the sisters’ legislation to review the ideals and practices of poverty and obedience respectively.  Rina Lahav discusses Gilbert of Tournai’s letter of spiritual direction addressed to Isabelle of France as an example of the friars’ appeal to religious women.  Clare Renkin examines Sybilla von Bonsdorf’s richly illuminated vita of Clare to ask questions about how the sisters would have used the manuscript as part of their devotional practices.  Each of these four chapters addresses a subject with a well developed scholarly literature although they do not engage directly with it, perhaps due to the limitations of a conference format.  This means, however, that interesting suggestions–such as Lahav’s claim that the friars’ combination of reason and emotion made them more flexible ministers toward women–are not developed to the extent that specialists on medieval religious women would like to read.

The most interesting chapter on the female tradition comes from Robert Curry, a musicologist interested in Clarissan houses in Central Europe.  He demonstrates that the model of “double houses” in which a community of friars provided care to the sisters was common through Bohemia, Silesia, and other places where Agnes of Prague and her relatives founded Franciscan houses.  This model goes back to the sisters’ original community at San Damiano.  While there are other examples in Italy, their significance has been overlooked.  As Curry suggests, they may have provided some friars with a means to achieve their vocations.  His article also makes excellent use of newer scholarship in German, Czech, and Polish, and he is to be thanked for bringing this research to a wider audience.

Finally, two articles consider how Franciscan spirituality interacted with lay piety.  Janice Pinder analyzes two early French verse accounts of the life of Francis.  While one was clearly meant for an audience of friars, the other seems to have been used by a community of sisters or laity.  Her discussion reflects on the ways the texts show affinity with urban spirituality.  Hugh Hudson evaluates a diptych by Fra Pietro Teutonico now in the National Gallery of Victoria.  He considers how this piece, typical of the type of work friar-artists produced to sell to pilgrims visiting Assisi, would have been used as a devotional aid by the purchasers (although the Victoria Diptych has some personalized features for a patron).

In sum, these essays on diverse aspects of Franciscanism raise important questions about how the medieval Order negotiated the ideals of their so-remembered founders in varied contexts.  While most readers will likely seek out an individual essay on a subject of interest to them, chapters also could usefully be paired to reflect shared analytical categories including gender, vernacular translation, or medium.



1. There are three other historical essays: Maurice Carmody surveys the Order’s institutional history as the background and context for the friars’ coming to Australia, Patrick Colbourne offers a case study of a Capuchin reformer, and Jim Fitzgerald and Dianne Reilly study a Franciscan bishop in nineteenth-century Melbourne.  The final chapter discusses a series of tapestries illustrating scenes from the life of Francis of Assisi designed by the twentieth-century artist, Arthur Boyd.  The authors, Ursula Betka and Margarent Pont, include a brief summary of early representations of Francis and Clare, and also identify textual sources for Boyd’s imagery.

2. Kenneth Baxter Wolf, The Poverty of Riches: Saint Francis of Assisi Reconsidered (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003).