The way St. Francis of Assisi broke with his previous life was quite dramatic. He stripped off all his clothes and returned them to his father. It was a clear statement. He publicly rejected both the privileges and the responsibilities that came with his birth as the son of a wealthy merchant. This scene unfolded before the bishop of Assisi, and he immediately covered Francis with his mantle. This was to show that Francis was now under his protection and authority.
From this point on, Francis was a man of the Church. But his life would be something entirely new. Francis sought poverty. He sought absolute poverty. He wanted to own not even the clothes on his back. When meeting a beggar who would be even more poorly dressed, he would even give these away. By being entirely poor, he became completely dependent on the kindness of others.
This is how Francis wanted to live closer to Christ. Francis had a special devotion both to the birth of Christ, as a human baby that was naked and needy, and to the crucified Lord, who had given up all divine power to take on human suffering by dying on the cross. These two events entirely shaped the spirituality of Francis. For him, complete dependence on others and being able to accept whatever might result from this was true and perfect joy.
Today, when a man chooses to make final vows as a Franciscan, things unfold with much less drama. I am not about to strip naked in a public square. My Franciscan brothers would most certainly stop me if I tried to do anything so outrageous. Money, however, is a different matter. We are to give it away. My brothers want me to be poor and to accept the fact that I am dependent on others so that others can depend on me.
I worked for 20 years to ensure my financial independence. Now it all goes to Development and Peace. They asked me to write about myself; they think it is a story worth sharing. Why am I doing this? It is because I came to share in Francis’s vision how the meaning of human life is in following Christ in poverty and humility.
This is not at all to deny that poverty is a wretched injustice that must be fought rather than sought. Quite the opposite. Poverty, even relative poverty in the midst of material wealth is unacceptable to a Christian. Poverty is a destructive evil. There is nothing good about it.
I am deeply grateful to those who continue to draw our attention to this injustice. Development and Peace is one such organization, and I am glad that they will apply their expertise to distribute my funds where they will do the most good. I am grateful for the many Catholic lay members of Development and Peace that support and run this organization. I am grateful to the Catholic bishops who provide oversight to ensure that the work done by Development and Peace remains a true expression of Catholic Christian faith.
Of course, I know that the economy is not a zero-sum game. I believe in trade, international and properly regulated, as the best way to distribute wealth to the benefit of all. I believe in economic development. If it were all about the practical means of alleviating poverty, I ought to return to my previous work as a scientist and manager. I ought to invest my money into the most promising business proposals so that I would have even more money to give away.
However, I concluded that this is not for me. I am to take the lead of Francis of Assisi. Just as my choice to live in obedience and chastity, my choice to live in poverty is a signal and a response to my specific calling. Notwithstanding the importance of the practicalities of life, some of us are called to live differently. It is to show that the final goal of human development is not found in material well-being. “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” Some have to take this seriously lest it gets forgotten.
So that I can live by this maxim, and so that others can share in the bread that I was lucky to have received in abundance, and so that I can seek true and perfect joy, I am happy to have had the opportunity to hand over my assets to Development and Peace.
Joachim Ostermann, OFM
Brother Joachim recently professed his solemn vows in the Western Canadian province of the Franciscan Order, or the Order of Friars Minor. Prior to entering the religious life, he graduated with a PhD in biochemistry from the University of Munich and worked as a faculty members in US and Canadian universities and as a manager in the biotechnology industry.