by Bob Lupton
“We don’t need more soup kitchens…we need businesses,” Peter Faber muttered to himself as he stepped around sick and homeless souls huddled in the back alleys of the city. He had risen early to pray in the quiet predawn hours. He assumed the dark streets would be silent and deserted. Instead, he encountered scores of destitute beggars – some shivering in ragged coats behind trash bins, others pleading with outstretched hands for a coin or a morsel.
Peter, a Jesuit priest, was both shocked and appalled by the depth of poverty he encountered on his night walk. His mission in Mainz (Germany) was saving lost souls, but he was totally unprepared for this level of “lost-ness.” He confided to his fellow priests: "Perhaps if we [Jesuits] had a flair for business ... and we had not such a [spiritual] harvest to be reaped ... we could concern ourselves more with this problem." It was a heretical thought!
To even consider commerce as a tool of ministry was a radical departure from the prevailing doctrines of the church which looked askance at secular business. The year was 1541, more than two centuries before Adam Smith unveiled his revolutionary economic theory in The Wealth of Nations.
But Peter was unable to dismiss from his mind the wretched images he had seen. In his personal reflections he wrote, "I felt strongly inspired to do my very utmost to provide for the needy and homeless sick wandering about the city of Mainz." The challenge was more immense than he imagined. Around 6,500 homeless souls inhabited his city. Honorable work was what they needed, not more handouts. And business, Peter concluded, was the best source for such employment.
His insights, though centuries old, are remarkably contemporary. He recognized that business, when done well, plays an unparalleled role in enabling individuals to support themselves and their families with dignity. To be sure, this did not mean an end to charity. “We need soup kitchens,” he affirmed. But business, not hand-outs, has the unique capacity to create positive, long-term societal change.
Peter also observed that successful business people are imaginative, willing to take risks, energized by new ideas, diligent in execution, and able to inspire others. He called this “flair.” These talents are gifts from God and should be affirmed as such, Faber boldly declared. It is no sin to succeed in business by employing these talents fully.
Business instincts as spiritual gifts?! Profit-making equated with sacred practice?! Blasphemy! Little wonder that this courageous young priest would be sidelined to the periphery of the dominant mainstream of orthodoxy.
Only now has Peter’s ennobling vision of business been officially affirmed by the church. It has taken five centuries for his radical ideas to gain sufficient credence to permit his acceptance as a saint. In 2013, with little fanfare, Pope Francis quietly conferred sainthood upon this co-founder of the Jesuit order.
But even as he signed the bull of canonization, the pope issued cautions about the dangers of money, which he likened to a modern day golden calf. And once again, age old debates were ignited. Some on the right wagged their heads, accusing the pope of a naïve understanding of how the markets really work. Others on the left viewed his words as an endorsement for increasing socialistic policies. St. Peter Faber, a man undaunted by controversy, may well emerge as patron saint of business people.