Integrating A Franciscan Spirituality of Work Into the Leadership1 of the Workplace


Tiny differences in input quickly become overwhelming differences in output - a
phenomenon given the name 'sensitive dependence on initial conditions.' In
weather, for example, this translates into what is only half-jokingly known as
the Butterfly Effect - the notion that a butterfly stirring the air today in Peking
can transform storm systems next month in New York.2

I contend that St. Francis of Assisi was, in effect, a butterfly who spread his wings in the early 1200's and created currents of spirituality that continue to affect the world to this very day.


St. Francis is probably the world's best known, most recognized, and respected saint. Yet it is difficult to imagine that a spirituality of work could evolve from a saint immortalized all too frequently as a concrete yard ornament with a bird perched on his shoulder and several wild animals gazing at him admiringly. This over romanticized caricature of the person of Francis could lead one to believe that Francis wasn't much of a man at all, but some lyric, almost mythic figure who's only love was animals. Quite to the contrary however, Francis was a man of multiple spiritual insights who left a legacy that continues to impact the world in a profound and meaningful way.

Perhaps the most familiar theme in Franciscan spirituality is the sensitivity to all created things and the kinship they share with each other. Francis came to the realization that everything was good and interconnected. He developed this thought to the point where he referred to nature's constituent parts as brother and sister. His Canticle of Brother Sun3 is the best expression of this theme and is a synthesis of Francis' own spiritual life.

It is his celebration of God's goodness experienced concretely in a world that is
seen and received as gift. The canticle expresses Francis' understanding and
appreciation of the created world as reconciled space in fraternity. In it he
expresses his vision, what he sees, in words: in its brotherhood and sisterhood,
in its reconciliation, peace, and humility, creation reflects the poor and crucified

Early in his conversion experience, while praying before an old icon of a crucifix in the abandoned and dilapidated Church of St. Damian, Francis experienced something most unusual. The painted image of the risen Christ crucified moved its lips and spoke. Calling him by name, Christ said: "Francis, go, repair my house, which, as you see, is falling completely to ruin."5

Francis, interpreting the command very literally, began the arduous work of piling stone upon stone to repair the foundation and the walls of the building where he had been praying. It wasn't until later that the full understanding and impact of the words spoken from the cross began to penetrate and enliven his heart. The words, as he later realized, referred to the universal Church "that Christ had purchased with his own blood,..."6 The real meaning of the message was, "Francis, go, rebuild my Church!"

The words spoken by Christ from the San Damiano cross, when understood in as broad a context as St. Francis grew to understand them, are a universal call to action to rebuild and to reinvigorate the Church as a sign pointing towards the realization of the kingdom of God on earth. And now, after nearly eight centuries, this command to rebuild the Church continues to resound around the globe with its need as great as ever

. Today the concept of Church is understood in a broader context than it was in the time of Francis. With the advent of Vatican II and the Church viewed as the "holy People of God shar[ing] Christ's prophetic office."7 They are "...a living witness to Him, especially by means of a life of faith and charity..."8 As a prophetic people, the People of God are expected to lead the way, to become prophets and leaders in the rebuilding process.

I propose that it is through the leadership9 activities of the laity in the workplace, when done in collaboration with the sacred vocation of the ministers of the Church, that the rebuilding of the Church, the People of God, will most effectively be carried out. However, this will not happen until the "stained glass window," which too often separates personal spirituality from its application in the work place, is shattered.

Contained in a Franciscan spirituality of work are the seeds to begin the process of shattering the "stained glass window" and rebuilding the Church. The integration of a Franciscan spirituality of work into the workplace is most appropriate because of its heritage. It has always been a basic tenet of Franciscan spirituality that the world is their cloister.10 Therefore, there never have been any boundaries between the dimensions of a Franciscan's spirituality and any other aspect of their life. This concept gives permission and, I could say, demands that we carry our spirituality with us wherever we go, and yes, even into the work place.


Quite probably, Francis was not born with the best of work habits. His father was a prosperous cloth merchant who wanted nothing but the best for his favorite son and, as one might imagine, was very generous towards him. As a young man, Francis was more preoccupied with living the life of a troubadour and becoming a gallant knight than with working for his father. In fact, he never did apply himself to his father's business. After his conversion and the gathering of some early followers, Francis became serious about work, but it was now the work of his heavenly Father.

Francis quickly learned that work was holy and provided a pathway to achieving sanctity. In the midst of the hard working townsfolk, Francis and the first friars devoted themselves to the task of sanctifying daily labor and bringing it back to the right relationship with God. The true meaning and value of work had been destroyed by love of gain and personal ambition.11 There were practically no limitations to where his brothers, the friars worked or the type of work they did. Every field of activity was open to them, including intellectual work.12Chronicle of the 24 Generals. The Words of St. Francis, James Meyer, OFM, Franciscan Herald Press, Chicago, IL, 1952. # 55 The only prerequisites were that the work be directed toward the community rather than the individual, that the work be carried out faithfully and with a sense of dedication as the Rule required, and that the work not destroy a spirit of prayer and devotion to God.13


A Franciscan spirituality of work evolves from three fundamental concepts of an underlying Franciscan spirituality, namely, a focus on the humanity of Christ who is recognized especially in the poor; a sense of the mystery of God experienced in generous, creative love; and a distinctive familial understanding of the created world.14 Franciscans recognize the world as good and as gift from a loving creator.

The foundation for an articulation of a Franciscan spirituality of work for the lay person is contained in the Rule and Constitutions of the Secular Franciscan Order (SFO).15

Article XVI of the Rule states:

Let them esteem work both as a gift and as a sharing in the creation, re-
demption, and service of the human community.16

Article 21 of the Constitutions further develop the concept of work.

For St. Francis, work was a gift and to work was a grace. Daily work is not
only the means of livelihood, but the opportunity to serve God and neighbor as
well as a way to develop one's own personality. In the conviction that work is
a right and a duty and that every form of occupation deserves respect, the
brothers and sisters should commit themselves to collaborate so that all persons
may have the possibility to work and so that working conditions may always be
more humane.17
While these words were written for the members of the Secular Franciscan Order, their application is universal in nature. They provide the basis for a spirituality of work that can be followed by any lay person living in the secular world seeking to more effectively integrate their personal spirituality into the work place.

Beginning with the concept of human work as pure gift given to us by our creator, it is our unmerited opportunity to reflect the image of Jesus, who, by working as a humble carpenter and itinerant preacher, joined in the stream of work initiated by his Father at the beginning of time.

Work, as an unmerited gift, is effective for our growth and on-going conversion as followers of Jesus and is therefore a grace contributing to our sanctification. In his Rule for the friars, Francis stated very emphatically,

Those brothers, to whom the Lord has given the grace of working, should do
their work faithfully...18
The need for human work is imbedded into our very nature. Even before the fall of humanity as recorded in the poetry of the story of creation, "The Lord God took the man and settled him in the garden of Eden, to cultivate and care for it" (Gen 2:15). The invitation to cultivate and care for the garden, this work, was part of God's mystery of generous, creative love.

The garden is replete with a treasury of all that is necessary for the further creative development of our home on this planet. Everything has been provided: Brother Sun, Sister Moon and the stars, Brother Wind, Sister Water, Brother Fire, and Sister Mother Earth.19 We, as Sisters and Brothers of Creation, have been endowed with the capacity to use our skills and abilities to combine, modify, and adapt these resources through the gift of work. It is through our work that God provides us the opportunity to become co-creators.

The co-creative capacity with which we have been endowed is also evident in the arts, music, literature, the sciences, the various structures of society that regulate the relationships between human beings, and other arenas of human consciousness. These all serve to enliven the human spirit and add meaning to our existence.

Our human work not only provides an opportunity for us to be co-creators but also to be "co- redeemers." Christ came to "...make all things new (Rev 21:5)." During his ministry on earth, he accomplished the redemption of humankind. However, there continue to be areas that need to be made new, to be set free, and, in essence, to be redeemed. We, as the Mystical Body of Christ, continue his presence in the world and his ministry of on- going redemption.

Franciscan spirituality recognizes the face of the crucified Christ in the poor and the marginalized, the suffering, and the lonely. This realization provides the motivation to apply our creative energies and resources to relieve the distress and deprivation of the all too many people who are in need. As stated in the Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, "Indeed, we hold that through labor [work] offered to God, man is associated with the redemptive work of Jesus Christ."20

With this in mind, the Christian is challenged to be of service to others. We are to be of the same spirit as Christ, who Matthew defines as "...the son of Man who has come, not to be served by others, but to serve... (Mt. 20: 28)." In the spirit of universal kinship, we serve others by our work. Work unites us with our brothers and sisters around the world. Our collaborative efforts to be of service to one another by our work provides the goods and services needed by the world community to sustain and enhance its existence as the creative expression of God.

The fathers of the Second Vatican Council stated in the Constitution on the Church in the Modern World that, "[Jesus Christ] conferred an eminent dignity on labor when at Nazareth He worked with his own hands. From this there follows for every person the duty of working faithfully and also the right to work."21 Francis knew that all should work. Those that could work but chose not to, were, in effect, stealing from those that did work. The following story deals with the brother who never worked.

...and yet [he] ate more than several at table. When the saint [Francis]
observed that he was a friend of the belly, one who shared the fruits without
sharing the labor, he once said to him: "Go your way, brother fly, for you want
to eat the sweat of your brothers and to do nothing in God's work. You are like
brother drone who wants to be first to eat the honey, though he does not do the
work of the bees."22

If work is a duty then to work is a right. There must be opportunities for a person to work so the duty to work can be fulfilled. When there is a scarcity of work, we are to be concerned enough about the welfare of our brothers and sisters to do whatever is necessary to provide meaningful employment. For without work, it is not possible to confront a primary reality of living in the secular world, namely, that work is the means to provide the basic human necessities such as food, shelter, clothing, health care and education to name a few. Additionally, there are other needs which, while not necessities in the strictest sense, are still desirable and humanizing.

In providing for our own livelihood, however, consideration must be given to the needs of the common good. Work is not meant to be a means by which we maximize our wealth and possessions at the expense of others. It is an opportunity to practice the virtue of moderation out of a concern for the poor in whose face we find Christ.

Integral to providing a means of livelihood is the concept of a just remuneration for the work accomplished. The parallel concern is for the remuneration to be earned by a contribution of the appropriate amount of work effort. Both are a matter of justice.

There is another sense to the meaning of the word livelihood and that is the sense of liveliness, to be more fully alive, to be more fully human. From this alternate meaning, we can recognize that livelihood is not only measured in terms of possessions and dollars. It is also measured in terms of personal identity, self esteem, self worth, and personal growth. These qualities are of critical importance to the overall well-being of the individual. Work should contribute to whatever makes a person more human and not be demeaning.

In the distinctive familial understanding of the world of creation, it is an injustice to our sisters and brothers to show disrespect to an individual because of the type of work she/he does. This is especially true when disrespect is shown to the poor and the marginalized of our society who, too often, have the least desirable of jobs. James R. Jennings, Associate Director, Campaign for Human Development comments on Pope John Paul II's encyclical on work, LABOREM EXERCENS, as follows:

The ancient world put people into classes according to their work. Manual
work, considered unworthy of free men, was given to slaves. Christians
changed all of this by taking the Gospel as their point of departure. The one
who, while being God, became like everyone else in all things, did manual
work at a carpenter's bench. This is the eloquent expression of the "Gospel of
work": the value of work is not measured by the kind of work, but by the fact
that the one who does it is a person.23

Out of respect for the person of Christ reflected in all workers, our places of work should be places of safety, comfort, and convenience appropriate to the type of work being done. It is the responsibility of all to work together in an effort to obtain the best possible working conditions.

In summary, St. Francis esteemed work as a gift from a benevolent and loving creator. A center-piece of a Franciscan spirituality of work is the humanity of Christ as reflected in the worker. In essence, workers are in collaboration with their co-worker and brother, Jesus Christ, in continuing the creative-redemptive process.


A Franciscan spirituality of work is not meant to be some ethereal, pious statement to be bound in a document and set on a library shelf. It is an invitation and a source of spiritual motivation to help bring about the fulfillment of the Christian disciple's prayer: "thy kingdom come... on earth as it is in heaven." With the vast majority of the laity involved in some type of human work, it can be postulated that the arena of work should be the primary target and focus for the action of "kingdom building."

[Pope John Paul II's] reflections [on work] are not a repeat of what the church
has said in the past. Rather, they highlight, more than in the past, the fact that
work is probably the essential key to the social question. If the solution to the
social questions is to make life more human, then, the key - human work - is
fundamental and decisive.24

If work is such an essential, fundamental, and decisive element in making life more human, the question naturally arises as to why has it only been recently that the importance of the place of work in the process of Kingdom building has been recognized. The answer is that

...a theology [for work] did not emerge chiefly because of the widespread
attitude, derived largely from the monastic tradition, that life in the world and
"worldly" work inhibited and did not contribute to the "spiritual life" of the

In the medieval era of St. Francis, the world was thought to be evil in nature and the natural world a place from which to escape.26 However, Francis managed to overcame the temptation to leave the world for the security of monastery walls.27 This dark view of the world was in direct contrast to Francis' view of the goodness of creation and the spiritual value of work in the lives of the people of the day.

The Vatican II document, Gaudium et Spes, continues to lament the division between our faith and work in our daily lives and comments on its consequences as follows:

The split between the faith which many profess and their daily lives is to be
counted among the more serious errors of our age...Let there be no false
opposition between professional and social activities on the one hand, and
religious life on the other. The Christian who neglects his temporal duties,
neglects his duties toward his neighbor and even God, which jeopardizes his
eternal salvation.28

The justification for the continued separation between personal sanctity and work as historically existed is now seriously called into question.

Worship, sacraments and devotions are important for preparation and reflection,
but the mandate of Christianity is the work of building the kingdom.29

Let the Christian who listens to the living word of God, uniting work with
prayer, know the place work has not only in earthly progress but also in the
development of the kingdom of God, to which we are all called through the
power of the Holy Spirit and through the word of the gospel.30

It is now time for the barrier separating a person's spiritual life from their work, the "stained glass window" I referred to earlier, to be completely shattered if the building of the kingdom is to continue more effectively.

I suggest that we can begin the process of bringing the values of our faith into the workplace by first evangelizing ourselves and then, as individuals and groups of individuals, we return to the excitement of our founding story as a Christian people. We must believe that, in this present day and age,