The Word Among Us

Lent 2016 Issue

Beggars for Christ

The Church’s Mendicant Tradition

By: Jim Cavnar

Beggars for Christ: The Church’s Mendicant Tradition by Jim Cavnar

Like St. Francis of Assisi before her, St. Jeanne Jugan relied on daily begging, or “collecting,” to obtain the resources for her charitable mission to the indigent elderly.

Like the Franciscans, Carmelites, Dominicans, and Augustinians, the Little Sisters of the Poor are mendicants—one of hundreds of religious communities that depend primarily or exclusively on charity for their support.

So far as I know, only the Little Sisters of the Poor still go collecting door-to-door. But many Catholic religious orders are still mendicants, as are many Catholic nonprofit organizations. They may use the mail, the Internet, or the telephone to appeal for financial support, but they rely on God through the generosity of the faithful for the help that their ministries need.

Is there an alternative? The history of the Little Sisters of the Poor illustrates one of them. Early in their development, they were offered endowments that would provide ongoing regular income. They turned down such offers because they wanted to preserve their trust that God would provide day by day through their begging. Since they were doing God’s work, they believed that God would take care of them and the poor they served.

Another alternative would have been to work to earn the money for their own support and their mission. St. Benedict, for example, urged his brothers to both work and pray. They ran farms and vineyards and many other enterprises to earn the funds they needed; this became part of their spiritual discipline: ora et labora, “pray and work.” Many Catholic teaching orders have relied primarily on the often meager salaries they are paid. The Little Sisters have followed the mendicant tradition, including the practice of not charging for their services.

The mendicant tradition has special relevance for us during Lent. Since prayer, fasting, and almsgiving are the traditional spiritual disiplines for observing Lent, it gives us both a reminder and the opportunity to give alms. The next time you are asked to give to a Catholic charity or religious community, remember that the “beggar” is following in the sainted Catholic tradition of the mendicant. And consider the words of Jesus:

Sell your belongings and give alms. Provide money bags for yourselves that do not wear out, an inexhaustible treasure in heaven that no thief can reach nor moth destroy. For where your treasure is, there also will your heart be. (Luke 12:33-34)