This post recalls a talk given by Michael Fallon MSC on the final day of our 2011 - 2012 Marist retreat. Michael began his presentation on Poverty by looking at a definition. Poverty is not about 'having what is necessary for a meaningful human existence'. This obviously includes food, clothing, housing, but most importantly, it includes love. However important economic factors are, we cannot limit poverty to economic poverty without limiting human need.
Michael pointed out that poverty, as defined here, has never been the object of the religious vow. When religious suffered poverty, there was always an attempt to remove it by begging, working and carefully handling resources. Detachment, simplicity of life, the common life and accountability are required of religious by their vow. But these virtues are exactly what they say: they are not poverty.
Religious vow to be poor like Jesus.
a. For the most part Jesus had what was necessary for a meaningful human existence (love, food, lodging). There was no poverty in Jesus' time thanks to subsistence farming, unlike today's world.
b. Jesus was 'poor' in the sense that he shared in the human condition of being totally dependent on love and so on the free choices of others to give love or not to give it.
c. He was 'poor' in that he shared the human condition of having to undergo experiences which he could integrate and in which he could remain sinless only with a struggle. Jesus 'came with a nature like our sinful nature, to do away with sin' (Rom 8:3). 'Christ was without sin, but for our sake God made him share our sin in order that in union with him we might share the righteousness of God' (2Cor 5:21). Michael reminded us to take Jesus' humanity seriously. Original sin is the sin of our fathers. Jesus was without sin, but was human.
d. Jesus was ‘poor’ in that he lived in intimate communion with his Father who is Yahweh, the one who hears the cry of the poor. He chose therefore to be with people in so far as they were poor and to take up their cause. He was willing to be counted among them and to suffer the consequences.
e. Jesus was faithful to his commitment to the poor even when it meant that he was excommunicated, ostracized, and stripped of human dignity, power and reputation, disturbed by fear, racked by pain, facing an apparently meaningless death and even experiencing being abandoned by his Father.
To be poor-like-Jesus is to accept (a matter of belief) and live out (a matter of life-style) my total dependence on love: the love that is God.
Michael summarised religious poverty in the following way:
a: being willing to give myself to any person insofar as that person is deprived of anything he or she needs to live a dignified human existence.
b: It is a matter of sympathy, compassion: Being with, feeling with, and offering one’s self to poor persons, while accepting their offering of themselves to us.
c: It is a matter of doing what one can, accepting inability with them, and continuing to affirm that death is not the end. Our horizon, like that of Jesus, goes beyond death, for we do believe in the justice of God. We do what must be done now, while hoping for what only God can give beyond the realm of human injustice and sin.
d: As religious we must pray for the grace that the many advantages we have received, will not put a barrier between us and those who have not received these advantages.
Pope Paul VI in 1968 in Bogata spoke about the poor this way: 'But you too are a sacrament - a sacred image of the Lord among us, as it were a revealing, unconcealed reflection of his human and divine countenance … All the Church’s tradition recognises in the poor the sacrament of Christ - a mystical correspondence with the Eucharist.’
Pope John Paul II also spoke about the poor in Puebla in 1979 (#1145) ‘When we draw near the poor in order to accompany them and serve them, we are doing what Christ taught us to do when he became our brother, poor like us. Hence service of the poor is the privileged, though not the exclusive, gauge of our following of Christ.’
Recognising our need to believe in the world, and our responsibility for its desecration, our religious poverty invites us as follows:
a. Jesus said 'I assure you that unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven' (Matt 18:3). Hence we must do our thinking in the presence of the poor.
b. Material riches: Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, 'Listen, Sir! I will give half my belongings to the poor, and if I have cheated anyone, I will pay back four times as much' (Luke 19:8). 'When the man heard this, gloom spread over his face, and he went away sad, because he was very rich' (Mark 10:22).
c. Worries: 'The seeds that fell among thorn bushes stand for those who hear; but the worries and riches and pleasures of this life crowd in and choke them, and their fruit never ripens (Luke 8:14). 'Martha was upset over all the work she had to do, so she came and said, "Lord, don't you care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her to come and help me" '(Luke 10.40)!
d. Pride: 'He has stretched out his mighty arm and scattered the proud with all their plans. He has brought down mighty kings from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly' (Luke 1:51-53).
e. Unrepentance: 'Crowds of people came out to John to be baptised by him. "You snakes!" he said to them. "Who told you that you could escape from the punishment God is about to send? Do those things that will show that you have turned from your sins. And don't start saying among yourselves that Abraham is your ancestor (Luke 3:7-9).
f. Preconceptions: 'He said to them, "I am sure that you will quote this proverb to me, 'Doctor, heal yourself.' You will also tell me to do here in my home town the same things you heard were done in Capernaum. I tell you this," Jesus added, "prophets are never welcomed in their home town (Luke 4:23-24).
g. Power and Prestige: 'For those who make themselves great will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be made great' (Luke 14:11).
Michael concluded this, his final presentation with this passage from Abbe Pierre on The Poor 'Let us never lose our living conviction that it is not necessary to wait until we are splendid people before we can do splendid things. That would probably mean waiting a long time, too long in fact! We need only to understand one splendid thing and then try to base our whole life upon it: and that thing is that the person we must help in all things is the person who is suffering the most.’