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  • Endowments and Pious Wills:To Rebuild the Church
  • Sean O. Sheridan, TOR (bio)


More than 800 years ago, in the dilapidated Church of San Damiano, a young man named Giovanni Bernardone, who was known to the world by the nickname his father gave him, Francesco in Italian or Francis in English, heard a voice from the cross say to him: "Francis, go rebuild My house." The medieval Franciscan biographer Thomas of Celano described the event in these words:

With his heart already completely changed—soon his body was also to be changed—he was walking one day by the church of San Damiano, which was abandoned by everyone and almost in ruins. Led by the Spirit he went in to pray and knelt down devoutly before the crucifix. He was shaken by unusual experiences and discovered that he was different from when he had entered. As soon as he had this feeling, there occurred something unheard of in previous ages: with the lips of the painting, the image of Christ crucified spoke to him, "Francis," it said, calling him by name, "go rebuild My house; as you see, it is all being destroyed." Francis was more than a little stunned, trembling, and stuttering like a man out of his senses. He prepared himself to obey and pulled himself together to carry out the command.1

Although he desired with all his heart to be obedient to the voice from the cross, Francis was not quite sure how to respond to this request for what [End Page 130] we would call today a building project. His initial understanding of the command was to use stones and mortar to repair the Church of San Damiano, which had been abandoned and was falling to pieces. Yet, he also knew that he would need money for such a building project and he looked to his source of money in the past—the resources of his father Pietro Bernardone the cloth merchant. Francis decided to sell (and even give away) the fabrics that were in his father's storeroom. Gathering the money he collected, he gave it to the priest at the Church of San Damiano to rebuild the Church.

Today, we understand that Francis wanted to make a donation to start the building fund for the Church of San Damiano. More specifically, using the terminology of the 1983 Code of Canon Law, Francis intended to use the instrument of a pious will to make an inter vivos gift to the Church that was to be restricted for the contemplated building project. Unfortunately for Francis, his father Pietro saw things a little differently since the money that Francis gave to the Church actually belonged to his father. With the assistance of the Bishop of Assisi, Francis returned to his father the money that he had given away. He then embarked on a fundraising campaign, moving about the streets of Assisi begging for stones to rebuild the Church and begging for food to feed himself and the lepers who lived outside of the town.2

These concepts—fund raising, giving gifts for the Church, contributing for and administering the temporal goods of the various apostolic works in which the Church engages, whether those contributions are during one's lifetime or at the time of one's death—are not new concepts. From the early days of the Church, members of the Christian faithful have contributed to the needs of the Church. In the Acts of the Apostles, Saint Paul tells us:

They devoted themselves to the communal life, to the breaking of the bread and to the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, and many wonders and signs [End Page 131] were done through the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their property and possessions and divide them among all according to each one's need. Every day they devoted themselves to meeting together in the temple area and to breaking bread in their homes. They ate their meals with exultation and sincerity of heart, praising God and enjoying favor with all the people. And every day the Lord added to their number those who were being...


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pp. 130-163
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