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Finding Francesco: A Communion of Gifts and Talents


Written by Paul Gillam (Saint Louis University) | Edited by Ariel Hobbs

The following was a college essay written by Paul Gillam. It has been edited and approved by Ariel Hobbs. If you have a Theology essay that you would like published that received a grade of an A- or higher, please be sure to contact us.

In 1999, Andy Gustafson began buying and refurbishing run-down, vacant houses. This was the foundation of Communion Properties; a business Andy still runs along principles of Catholic Social Teaching. Twenty years later on May 1, 2019, Pope Francis sent a letter to young economists and entrepreneurs across the world inviting them to join him in pursuit of the Economy of Francesco, a new economy that “brings life not death, one that is inclusive and not exclusive, humane and not dehumanizing, one that cares for the environment and does not despoil it.”[1] The purpose of this paper is to explore what Francis means by the Economy of Francesco and to show the relationship between it and Communion Properties. I will argue that the Economy of Francesco contains key elements of Catholic Social teaching and is most effectively pursued through a communion of gifts and talents and that Andy Gustafson’s Communion Properties contains these key traits of the Economy of Francesco and provides an example, but not a blueprint, of how to effectively pursue the Economy of Francesco through a communion of gifts and talents.

The Economy of Francesco possesses the Catholic social teaching elements of human dignity, sustainability, and subsidiarity and is best pursued through a communion of one’s God-given gifts and talents. The first principle of this new economy is human dignity, or the innate, uncompromisable value of human life. Rather than use the term ‘human dignity’ to define this economy, Francis paints the picture with other descriptors: “life … inclusive … humane … cares.”[2] Because human dignity is “rooted in [man’s] creation in the image and likeness of God,” it is impossible to apply these descriptors and reject human dignity, for the purpose of being created in the image of God is to “enjoy personal communion with the Father, Son and holy Spirit and with one another in them.[3],[4] Francis calls the new economic model he seeks “the fruit of a culture of communion.”[5] Indeed communion, inclusivity as Francis often says, is at the heart of this economy, but such communion ultimately arises through mutual acknowledgement of the image of God in one another, through respect and recognition of human dignity. The Economy of Francesco’s principle of human dignity also incorporates the Church’s preferential option for the poor, or the “primacy in the exercise of Christian charity” and promotion of dignity to “the marginalized and … those whose living conditions interfere with their proper growth”.[6] Francis promotes a global change, a new economy that is inspired by “an ideal of fraternity attentive above all to the poor and the excluded.”[7] The Economy of Francesco in many ways is an economic embodiment of this preferential option for the poor and thus a structure rooted in the recognition and promotion of human dignity. Francis says, “as long as the economy still produces one victim and there is still a single discarded person, communion has not been realized; the celebration of universal fraternity is not full.” The Economy of Francesco seeks to not only eradicate poverty but also prevent it. In this way, the Economy of Francesco is also sustainable.

The second principle of this new economy is sustainability, or consistent current and future promotion of the good. In Laudato Si’, regarded by many as an earth-shattering ecological encyclical, Francis calls for protection of the earth through “sustainable” development.[8] Twelve times in the encyclical he references sustainable development, growth, or progress.[9] The future-oriented Francis certainly has the environment in mind, perhaps even in its forefront, when considering sustainability, as the environment has been a central theme of his papacy. But we must keep in mind that sustainability has a much broader meaning than just ecological. Sustainability is about humanity. “Human beings are at the centre of sustainable practices. They are entitled to a healthy and productive life” the United Nations declared in 1992.[10] This human entitlement to a healthy and productive life comes from innate human dignity. Thus, sustainability is concerned with anything that aids human growth and productivity, such as the economy, as Francis not so subtly suggests. But what is a sustainable economy? In Laudato Si’, Francis calls out a frequent misunderstanding of economics. Often, he claims, maximization of profits, which is “frequently isolated from other considerations, represents a misunderstanding of the very concept of the economy.”[11] As profits are maximized and production increases, little concern is given to future costs. In short, the future is abused for the sake of the present. Francis often cites the environment as an example. Yet how much worse is it when another human being is abused for the profit of another? Francis says “no to an economy of exclusion” in which “human beings are themselves considered consumer goods to be used and discarded.”[12] The “‘throw away’ culture” we have created produces outcasts, “leftovers” who are excluded participating in society.[13] An economy that excludes is in and of itself unsustainable, as human dignity, is at the heart of sustainability. Exclusion seeks to erase, cover up, ignore, the dignity of the excluded. It follows then, that an economy must always seek to include and not exclude, and thus be sustainable.

The third principle of this new economy is subsidiarity. The principle of subsidiarity is how the economy of Francesco becomes and stays sustainable. This principle “directs leaders to place decision-making at the most appropriate level of an organization so as to utilize the gifts” of individuals for the common good.[14] The supportive rather than authoritative role of a higher association promotes dignity, for “[i]t is impossible to promote the dignity of the person without showing concern for” the association he or she is a part of.[15] Subsidiarity is also only possible with a recognition that humans are gifted with intelligence and freedom, which we actualize by pursuing our own goods. In pursuit of these goods, one leaves the “impression of his personality” on the goods he pursues, such as a project or a community of persons.[16] The simple having of gifts and talents makes subsidiarity necessary, for without subsidiary one’s gifts and talents can be easily overlooked and disregarded. Thus, it follows, that because subsidiarity is rooted in respect for one’s gifts and talents and because subsidiarity allows for sustainability which promotes dignity, one’s gifts and talents must be utilized if the principles of the Economy of Francesco are to be achieved, for the “spiritual communion of hearts” through the intersection of faith and business is “even fuller when it becomes the communion of goods, of talents, of profits.” Thus, the Economy of Francesco best pursued through a communion of God-given gifts and talents

Andy Gustafson’s Communion Properties contains key elements of the Economy of Francesco and provides an example, but not a blueprint, of how to effectively pursue the Economy of Francesco through a communion of one’s gifts and talents. The key elements of the Economy of Francesco that Communion Properties contains are human dignity, sustainability, and subsidiarity. In 1999, while in graduate school and motivated by a love and gift for working with his hands, Andy began buying and refurbishing run-down houses. He saw his beautification projects as a way to put his faith in action, as “lived practical theology”.[17] Andy began renting the properties to low income families or individuals. As a byproduct of his work, he befriended some of the locals, many of which had homelessness or addiction problems. Some of “the guys,” as he calls them, were future tenants, others employees, and all were friends.[18] It’s clear he doesn’t try to solve all their problems, rather he gives them a stable home or job and some dignity, which is the first element he shares with the Economy of Francesco.

Just as Francis seeks an economy that gives life, is inclusive and humane, and cares, Andy does too with Communion Properties. Andy operates “relationally, not transitionally,”[19] making sure to put people first, and cherishes the human interaction his work gives him. Communion Properties has a strict tenant first philosophy, even if it means being taken advantage of occasionally. “I don’t run my business in a professional manner—if by professional one means that I run it with policies and rules and treat human beings as a means to profit,” Andy wrote. “And, of course, sometimes this means that I end up forgoing what is owed to me,” such as paying a disruptive tenant to move out rather than evict him.[20] The name of Andy’s business, Communion Properties, is also a testament to this central element of dignity. As mentioned, communion is at the heart of the Economy of Francesco and communion comes through mutual acknowledgement of dignity. Communion Properties is a reflection of this truth. As its name suggests, Communion Properties is more so a people, an extended family, than a business. This was the case for Izzy, a man who was homeless when Andy met him and ended up fifteen years later on hospice care in Andy’s living room. Izzy became more than a tenant and employee; he became family. Additionally, in an effort to help show his recognition of dignity, Andy himself does the dirty work, such as cleaning up cat feces in a cat-hoarders house or removing broken toilets which people continued to use. “Who was I to ask them to do such degrading work? And them seeing me take on those less dignified tasks helped them realize my respect for them as persons.”[21] In short, through Communion Properties Andy does not work for people, he works with them and in this way shows them dignity.

The second aspect by which Communion Properties resembles the Economy of Francesco is in its sustainability; it allows for consistent current and future promotion of the good, both ecologically and economically. Ecologically, the Communion Properties business model of fixing old houses, of which Andy strives to keep as much of the original structure as possible, saves an incredible amount of resources. This model reflects the ecological sustainability consistently emphasized by Pope Francis. Furthermore, the Economy of Francesco seeks to right the wrongs of a throw away culture, in which the ‘trash’ thrown away is often more than a house: it is a person. Communion Properties, in line with this goal, includes the excluded and seeks out the discarded through affordable rent and reliable employment. Additionally, Communion Properties provides a foundation for further growth. The affordable, coming in at about half the rent of other local realtors, allows tenants to allocate money elsewhere and further their own good. Communion Properties allows previously homeless tenants to escape the cycle of homelessness and become a participating and productive member of society. To Andy,

“Business is seen as a means not so much to profit (although that is necessary) but actually to communion, in the sense of bringing dignity to all through including them in society through work and productive activities which give them a place and a means of sustainable self-support.”[22]

Just as with the Economy of Francesco, Andy also ensures sustainability is maintained through a recognition of individual autonomy and people’s gifts and talents.

The third principle by which Communion Properties shares with the Economy of Francesco is the principle of subsidiarity. There are three notable ways in which Andy manages Communion Properties that promote subsidiarity. The first concerns its hired work. Andy keeps work local, oftentimes, hiring neighbors or even tenants to do work if he himself cannot. In this way he gives the decision making to associations most intimate to the problems. Only when necessary does Communion Properties outsource work to large companies. The second way Communion Properties practices subsidiarity is found in Andy’s relationship with his tenants. Often, if a problem arises in an apartment, such as a leaky faucet or a faulty showerhead, Andy will encourage the tenant to fix it himself. In this way, the tenant takes ownership of his apartment and impresses his personality on it. The third way is through utilization of gifts and talents. Izzy was a stonemason, so Andy had him do masonry. Richard was a good painter, so Andy had him paint. “Every person I have encountered has differing gifts, and an important part of managing them was to discover what they could and couldn’t do,” wrote Andy.[23] Furthermore, Andy contributes his own gifts and talents. His business began out of a talent and love for working with his hands. But this business is more than a just business. As the name suggests, it is a communion, it is a sharing. And what is shared but the gifts one has to offer to another. Ultimately, through this communion, through this sharing of gifts and talents, Communion Properties achieves the principles set forth by Pope Francis and the Economy of Francesco: human dignity, sustainability, and subsidiarity.

In conclusion, we have learned that Communion Properties is not a blueprint to follow—rather an example. Francis provides no step-by-step instruction of how to implement this economy. He merely provides principles for the Economy of Francesco because reform “must reflect the needs and circumstances of individual societies” so the Church provides principles and recommendations to help solve the problems that cause injustice.[24] A blueprint would be inefficient and frankly ineffective as we live in an incredibly diverse world. Thus, it would be foolish to attempt to do exactly what Andy did. Instead we look to him as an example. Interestingly, Andy did not discover Catholic Social Teaching until a decade into Communion Properties. From the very beginning Communion Properties was an attempt to be a good Christian and use his God-given gifts and talents to do good.[25] So it follows that through this example, by bringing our own God-given gifts and talents into communion with others, we can find the Economy of Francesco.

Works Cited

Catechism of the Catholic Church. Liguori, MO: Liguori Publications, 1994.

“Communion and Stewardship: Human Persons Created in the Image of God.” Accessed May 9, 2020. http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/cti_documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_20040723_communion-stewardship_en.html.

Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church. Citta del Vaticano: Libreria Ed. Vaticana, 2004.

Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, Vatican Press, 2013.

Francis, Laudato Si’, Vatican Press, 2015.

Francis, “Letter of His Holiness Pope Francis to Young Economists and Entrepreneurs Worldwide,” The Vatican, May 1, 2019.

Garvey, George E. “A Catholic Social Teaching Critique of Law and Economics.” In Christian Perspectives on Legal Thought. Yale University Press, 2001.

Gustafson, Andrew. Interview by Paul Gillam. Video call, April 28, 2020.

Gustafson, Andrew. “The Economy of Communion: Catholic Social Thought Put to Work,” (forthcoming in the Journal of Religion and Society summer 2020).

Gustafson, Andrew. “Practicing Entrepreneurship as an Agent of Communion,” (To be published summer of 2020 in Journal of Jesuit Business Education).

Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum, 1891.

Naughton, Michael J., Jeanne Buckeye, Kenneth Goodpaster, Dean Maines. Respect in Action: Applying Subsidiarity in Business. University of St. Thomas publication, 2015.

Report of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, Stockholm, 5-16 June 1972 (United Nations publication, Sales No. E.73.II.A.14 and corrigendum), chap. I.


[1] Francis, “Letter of His Holiness Pope Francis to Young Economists and Entrepreneurs Worldwide”

[2] Ibid.

[3] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1700

[4] “Communion and Stewardship: Human Persons Created in the Image of God,” 4 (emphasis added)

[5] Francis, “Letter of His Holiness Pope Francis to Young Economists and Entrepreneurs Worldwide”

[6] Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, 182.

[7] Francis, “Letter of His Holiness Pope Francis to Young Economists and Entrepreneurs Worldwide”

[8] Francis, Laudato Si’, 2

[9] Francis, Laudato Si’.

[10] Rio Declaration on Environment and Development (14 June 1992), Principle 1.

[11] Francis, Laudato Si’, 195.

[12] Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, 53.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Naughton et al, Respect in Action: Applying Subsidiarity in Business, 2.

[15] Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, 185.

[16] Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum, 9.

[17] Gustafson, “The Economy of Communion: Catholic Social Thought Put to Work”, 3.

[18] Gustafson, Andrew. Interview by Paul Gillam.

[19] Gustafson, “The Economy of Communion: Catholic Social Thought Put to Work”, 10.

[20] Gustafson, “The Economy of Communion: Catholic Social Thought Put to Work”, 15.

[21] Gustafson, “The Economy of Communion: Catholic Social Thought Put to Work”, 17.

[22] Gustafson, “Practicing Entrepreneurship as an Agent of Communion,” 3.

[23] Gustafson, “The Economy of Communion: Catholic Social Thought Put to Work”, 17.

[24] Garvey, George E. “A Catholic Social Teaching Critique of Law and Economics,” 234.

[25] Gustafson, Andrew. Interview by Paul Gillam.

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