There's a lot of begging in Rome. There are scammers too, but with the scams that I usually get, I guess because I look like a good 'ugly American' mark, I've grown wise and I turn the tables and frustrate the person and try to playfully shame him."What would your mama say? Going around tricking foreigners!"
But it's the begging that troubles me more.
I realize that some people are fakers and scammers. Others lose my compassion by rudeness, like the man stationed outside Santa Maria della Vittoria who got mad at me when I gave him a twenty eurocents, which was quite honestly all I had on me. I told him, well, if you're going to be like that, from now on I will consider this church ingresso libero (free admission). And I have.
Or the man working San Giuseppe al Trionfale, with whom I tried to contract for a six-month subscription to enter without paying with a one-time donation of twenty euro. A lovely plan that backfired spectacularly. The next time I went, there he was, and in an even more aggressive manner he demanded fifty euro. When I explained that I had already paid for unlimited access to the church for six months with only a buongiorno, Signore, the gentleman carefully explained how the current request was on a different level entirely and so didn't fall under the previous terms. Indeed.
So now I don't go to that church anymore, which is a pity, because it's very convenient to one of my regular appointments, and has ongoing exposition of the Blessed Sacrament and a bathroom. (2018 update: bathroom is no longer available.) After all, we are an embodied soul, or an ensouled body, however you like to look at it. So now I go to Santa Maria del Rosario in Prati, which is a very nice, peaceful church, of the Dominicans. It has very comfy kneelers by Rome standards.
I also realize that a significant part of the begging culture in Rome has to do with just that, cultural questions, for example the culture of the Roma people in their life among the Italians. Since I'm neither Italian nor Roma, I try not to have too much of an opinion about that.
But all that aside, it's still troubling. Almost every church that gets any traffic at all has someone posted outside. Outside every coffee bar and supermarket there's a guy holding out his inverted baseball cap. Everywhere there are folks with pictures of allegedly hungry families or pleas written on signs, often much too long to be effective on passers-by, I would think. It's just the volume of people that strikes me so much. The other day I was walking from the Lepanto Metro station to Piazza Mazzini and it seemed like there were two or three people set up with signs and begging bowls (or equivalent containers) along each block.
I know that Italy is a tough place economically, especially from Rome to points south. Unemployment is high, and life is all the more difficult for migrating people who arrive here and don't manage to get to another part of Europe where there is more opportunity and social services that are easier to access.
That said, there are lots of places where someone can get a meal in Rome, and some possibilities for a place to stay. In fact, I think both sorts of services are more abundant than a casual visitor to Rome might guess when he or she sees so many people begging. Thanks to Pope Francis, you can go to St. Peter's and have a shower on most days, and even get a haircut (on Mondays, I think).
But I think what really troubles me is that people identify me easily as someone who has money and who, especially if I'm wearing the religious habit, might be disposed to give them some of it. And they're right, at least about the first part. That's what bothers me so much.
Folks who are begging correctly identify me as one of the 'haves,' and even more, a 'have' who, perhaps because of religious ideas, could be willing to give to a 'have not.'
Yes, I probably have a little money on me. Not a lot, but something. If I'm on my standard Vatican errand of satisfying the unending appetite of the Toronto area for apostolic blessing 'parchments' (who knew?) I might even have forty or sixty euro destined for the Office of Papal Charities.
For us friars, most things one needs are provided in the house. Room and board, health care (though you are urged to take care of your teeth and eyes in your home country), toiletries, laundry facilities, stuff to clean your room. I think they will also pay for clothing and shoes if you need them but I've never asked. But they also give you a little monthly allowance for which you don't have to account, I guess for recreation and so they don't have to worry about requests for every little thing like cups of coffee, etc.
So I have that little monthly allowance so I can go to the movies sometimes or go out to dinner with some friar or an American priest-friend once in a while. I also use it for stationery, treats for Roman cats that I meet, for my mobile data plan (ten euros every four weeks for four gigabytes), and for certain other things that seem necessary or at least indispensable to me but which the community doesn't feel obligated to provide, like tic tacs to deploy before certain interactions with other humans and chili peppers and hot sauces. There are a few of us in the house who appreciate those latter, and we take turns buying this or that and sharing. (tip: a great shop for this is the Discount International Food Store at Via Carlo Alberto, 55, by the Piazza Vittorio Emanuele II.)
So I'm a 'have' and easily so identified by either genuine or would-be 'have nots.' And whatever things or material security I have, I have because I'm a member of the Capuchin Order, which has also provided me with the cultural capital of some post-graduate education, opportunities to study languages, etc.
So I entered the Franciscan world to embrace Holy Poverty and then I became rich? Of course I don't mean rich rich, but rich in comparison to most of humanity.
* * *
The problem is that I wanted to become a Franciscan precisely to refuse this distinction, to step outside of this system.
What does it mean to be Franciscan? Maybe there as many replies as there are Franciscans. So what does it mean for me?
For me it doesn't mean 'helping the poor' and thus even less, 'doing social justice', as necessary and beautiful as these things may be. To me being Franciscan doesn't mean these things because both imply the position of someone with resources, whether these be in the form of money or political capital or whatever else, arranging to use them for the benefit of those who lack these things.
And so to me, 'helping the poor' and 'doing social justice' both presume the system in which somebody has something and somebody else does not. Of course both aim to redress the injustice of this situation, but their practice presumes a position of having something to begin with.
Early on in my religious life I helped out in a food pantry. Bags were prepared from what was given in donations and what could be had from local food banks. Needy folks could come get them. Very good, very beautiful. But I got into some tension with the folks who were in charge of me. I was too 'gullible'; I gave things away too easily, I didn't do the work of judging who really needed something and who was undeserving because, who knows, he's probably going to trade it for drugs, etc.
I also didn't want to do these interactions from behind a table, like some important person sitting behind his desk in his office, and this concern of mine was dismissed as worrying about nothing. But I didn't think it was nothing, neither then nor now.
I wondered to myself about how I didn't think I entered Franciscan life in order to administrate goods and judge who was worthy of them. What of the God who makes his sun shine and his rain fall on the just and the unjust without distinction? Well God has all the sun and rain that he wants, and we only have so many groceries, and we can't be foolish. The Gospel isn't very practical I guess.
To me being Franciscan is the desire to step out of this framework altogether. St. Francis went to the lepers, it seems to me, not first with the idea of helping them, and still less to try to address the injustice of their exclusion from the rest of human society, but simply, as he says, because the Lord led him there. Then, finding himself there, he had mercy on them, and when he left what had been bitter was changed into sweetness of soul and body.
But what had been bitter to St. Francis when he saw lepers? Was he disgusted by their condition, their poverty? Did he fear their disease or how they were stuck at the bottom of society, he who hoped to move up?
I don't know if we can know this for certain. But for me I resonate in my own little crisis of conscience back in college, around the time of the Gulf War. How was it that the world was set up such that certain people were getting killed or maimed and yet I enjoyed a peaceful college campus with all the beer, drugs, rock and roll, girls, and intellectual stimulation somebody could want? Why was I here and others there? Why should I be safe and someone else suffering a war?
I wanted out of a world that was set up in order to tolerate this distinction between me in college paradise and someone else suffering in a war. When I met St. Francis in a history class, I felt like I had found a kindred spirit. He checked out of the system, went to the lepers, refused to touch money, the whole thing. He left 'the world.'
I saw that St. Francis found something by pushing himself to the bottom of society in his going to the lepers. He found God, he found Christ Crucified. And I wanted that too.
Or better, for Christ Crucified, who had wanted me for himself all along, it was the way to invite me in.
With the lepers St. Francis found mercy. With those who joined him he found fraternitas. He found that in leaving 'the world' for the Gospel and to follow in the footsteps of Christ Poor and Crucified there was something kinder, more gentle, more sweet. And I wanted that too.
St. Francis became poor. Holy Poverty, evangelical poverty, became his thing. He married Lady Poverty, 'the feminine face of the Crucified,' as one of my teachers used to call her.
But this Franciscan Poverty was and is not, it seems to me, exactly the same thing as the poverty of the materially poor. Among other things, it seems to me, it was a decision not to be a participant in the system that tolerated some having and others not having, that provided for the distinctions that made some people 'the poor.' It was a decision to imitate the humility of the Son of God in the Incarnation and Passion, God the vulnerable infant, God the powerless, executed King. The same God who makes his sun shine and his rain fall on the just and unjust alike.
The mystery of the birth, life, suffering, and death of Jesus Christ is the inversion and subversion of all our worldly ideas about power and ownership, about domination and appropriation. To me being a Franciscan is stepping into that mystery without making any other provision or compromise with the 'world.'
Yes, I know that being Church implies the exercise of authority and governance, and in that sense power. But it is my theological contention, as I have written elsewhere, that after the Passion of Christ, all human authority, and Christian authority a fortiori, is to be exercised in an ironic sense, that is, towards the undermining of our worldly tendency to dominate, to create the conditions of haves and have nots, whether of material, religious, or any other nature.
* * *
But as I get older and start to see twenty-five years of this Franciscan journey on the horizon, I ask myself, has it worked out? By becoming a Franciscan friar have I found what I first desired in the model of St. Francis? Have I found Lady Poverty? I'm not sure.
The folks who beg in Rome, in identifying me correctly as a 'have' in contrast to their 'have-not', tell me that I haven't. Their easy identification tells me that I'm rich in some sense, a person who has found security in the world.
As the old friar joke goes,
'I came to do good and I've done quite well.'
This isn't to say that I haven't found much grace and fulfillment in my religious life, and that's certainly why I stay, together with still being convinced that this is what God wills for me. Then there's also the reality of becoming a priest, which the Order helped me discern myself into, which is at once a whole other thing and a very intertwined journey in which I have found much grace and redemption.
But the original dream? Maybe it isn't even possible. I worry about that. Some say it's impossible to do anything in the world without recognizing that you have some kind of capital or power, whether material, political, spiritual, or otherwise. I've never wanted to go down that road, because of what I have described, but maybe they're right.
Back in the college crisis I have described someone said to me, well, listen, you get a regular job, take care of yourself, have a family, and then you volunteer one weekend a month to help people. That's the best thing. But no. I wanted something total, uncompromising, radical. As total as St. Francis going to the lepers and so rendering himself--like them--unfit for proper society, for the life of regular, decent people in town. As total as the self-emptying of God in the Incarnation, as total as the suffering love of Christ Crucified.
But now I wonder if it can be done. And sometimes I wonder if Franciscan religious life as I have found it is the way to do it.
On the one hand I think of the character King in Platoon, who responded to Taylor's admission that he had dropped out of college and volunteered for combat by saying,
"What we got here is a crusader. You gotta be rich in the first place to think like that."
Does that critique go for me too? Was my dream of a Franciscan stepping out of the system of the world hopelessly embedded in rich-person perspective? I wonder.
On the other hand, the saints did it. St. Francis did it. St. Benedict Joseph Labre did it. The martyrs, in a condensed and acute way, did it too.
I think of St. Francis and how when he heard of the martyrdom of the Protomartyrs of the Order he is said to have exclaimed, now at last I have some true friars minor. True lesser brothers, those who become nothing and nobody in Christ in this world that is so intent on dividing the somebodies from the nobodies.
So I have to hope that I can still become a lesser brother too.