Monday, February 24, 2014

The Spirit of Poverty

After discussing how poverty is a defining quality of Christ, Pope Francis takes his Lenten message to its next logical conclusion, which is to say that poverty is a trait that all Christians should emulate.   Archbishop Óscar A. Romero of El Salvador explicitly states the call, explaining that “Poverty is a spirituality, a Christian attitude and the soul’s openness to God.”  The powerful “are on their knees before—and, trust in—false idols” of money, power, and pleasure, Romero says.  But, “you who are destitute of everything, know that the poorer you are, the more you possess God’s kingdom, provided you truly live that spirituality” (Feb. 17, 1980 sermon).  The poor are not distracted by or subservient to earthly idols and are therefore more receptive to the call to holiness of the true God.

Although Pope Francis’ call for a “poor church for the poor” has been viewed by some through a political lens (as was Archbishop Romero’s ministry), the identification with the poor dates back to the days of the early Church.  Msgr. Ricardo Urioste recalls being given some radical literature by Archbishop Romero.  One day I was visiting him in his rooms. He had a book in his hands,” Urioste recalled.  At Archbishop Romero’s behest, Urioste read the following passage from the tome:

Do you want to honor the body of Christ? Don’t ignore Him then, when you find Him naked in the poor. Do not honor Him in the temple with clothes of silk if, on your way out, you abandon Him in his cold nakedness [in the poor] … Is it good to decorate Christ's table with vessels of gold if the same Christ is dying of hunger? First, feed the hungry and then, with what is left over, you may decorate Christ's table.

Surely the words of a Vatican II enemy of traditional liturgy, right?  Lest Msgr. Urioste get that idea, Archbishop Romero set him straight: “It is from St. John Chrysostom, from the fourth century. He was canonized. He is a saint. The Church needs saints like him.”  Like Romero, St. John Chrysostom was a radical Christian.  John said things like: “Not to share one’s wealth with the poor is to steal from them” and “The poor exist for the salvation of the rich,” and he did not say them for dramatic effect or for emphasis.  Rather, he said it as a necessary expression of the Christian faith.  Romero did, too.  This is because, “historically, Romero is situated solidly in the patristic, episcopal tradition of the Church, alongside Basil the Great of Capadocia, Saint Ambrose of Milan, and Saint John Chrysostom of Constantinople,” the great fathers of the Church, whom Romero studied and admired.  These were men who were not shy about stating the radical implications of the faith that fly in the face of all worldly concerns.

Although these teaching are, in a sense, quite remarkable and even shocking, they are absolutely orthodox as Church doctrine.  In fact, it is an article of canon law that certain religious communities in the Church are to take a vow of poverty, precisely because  of the recognition of the spiritual qualities of poverty in God’s plan of salvation (see Code of Canon Law § 600).  Through the centuries, such vows have been fervently embraced by the saints.  Such vows have been especially effective as means to combat spiritual stagnation and corruption within the Church.  The reform of St. Francis of Assisi is an example.  Nor is the view that poverty purifies us and pushes us to perfection something that the Church invented.  Rather, it is the teaching of Christ himself, who counsels the young man who professes to already have a compliant spiritual life, “If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor …” (Matthew 19:21).  It is one of Christ’s three “counsels of perfection.”

Therefore we become holy,” preached Archbishop Romero, “according to the degree to which we make poverty a part of our spirituality and to the degree in which we hand ourselves over to the Lord and show our openness to God.”

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