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Poverty in the Modern World

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

If there is one theme that permeates the Gospels, it is the practice and praise of poverty.

When the Word became flesh and the infinite God entered our world as Man, He was born in a stable. His Mother wrapped Him in swaddling clothes, literally "rags," and laid Him in a manger, literally in a "trough." He lived in the poor village of Nazareth where His foster father was a carpenter.

When Jesus began His public life, He told the people that He had come "to preach the Gospel to the poor" (Luke 4:18). During His three years of preaching, He admitted that "the foxes have holes, and the birds of the air nests, but the Son of Man does not have whereon to lay His head" (Matthew 8:20). He celebrated the Last Supper at the house of a benefactor. And after His crucifixion and death, He was buried in a stranger's tomb.

Throughout His ministry, He stressed the primacy of poverty, the danger of riches, and the nobility of giving up everything to follow Him.

As we read the lives of the saints, we are struck by what seems like excessive stress on being poor.

"Let us consider ...what the community of believers did in the time of the Apostles ...They sold their houses and farms and gladly and generously gave to the Apostles the proceeds to be dispensed to the poor" (St. Cyprian).

"Destitute yourself to follow a destitute Christ" (St. Jerome).

"Poverty was not to be found in heaven ...Therefore the Son of God, longing after it, came down from heaven to choose it for Himself, and to make it precious to us" (St. Bernard).

"Poverty is good and contains within itself all the good things in the world. It is a great domain. I mean that he who cares for nothing for the good things of this world has dominion over them all" (St. Teresa of Avila).


The Modern Dilemma

So the panegyric on poverty goes on, from apostolic times to the present. Then we ask ourselves: How are we in our day, at the close of the twentieth century, to practice poverty?

This is our dilemma. We are living in the most affluent society of human history. We have access to so much of this world's comforts and pleasures and ease and leisure and food and entertainment, that the very word "poverty" has become a label for backwardness. And our way of life is called progress. Yet all the while we are haunted by the example and teachings of Christ who "being rich became poor for our sake" (II Corinthians 8:9). We are warned by the unanswerable question, "Has not God chosen the poor in this world, rich in faith and heirs of the Kingdom which God has promised to those who love Him" (James 2:25).

There is no option. Either we practice poverty or we shall not only not be sanctified; we shall not even be saved. It was not a pious platitude but a sober truth when Jesus said how hard it is for the rich person to enter heaven.


How to Practice Poverty Today

Certainly, the Gospels were meant to be lived not only in first century Palestine, but in twentieth century North America. The crucial question is how. The following are some directives. While referring directly to poverty, their underlying principles apply equally to the practice of Christian chastity and charity. Along with poverty, they form the triad of virtues that are mainly on trial in the affluent, sexual and self-preoccupied societies of our times.

  1. We must be convinced on faith that the First Beatitude of Christ's Sermon on the Mount is a divinely revealed truth. Only the poor in spirit will inherit the Kingdom of heaven. We shall be only as zealous about practicing poverty as we are convinced that our salvation depends on our being, and not merely professing to be, poor in spirit.

  2. It is not quite true to say that an abundance of worldly possessions is no hindrance to salvation. It is.

  3. We must pray to understand how we, in our state of life, with our possessions of money, property, living facilities, food, clothing, means of travel and entertainment are nevertheless to remain poor in spirit.

  4. We must be sincere with God in telling Him that we are interiorly detached from the material things we possess or have access to. Self-deception is easy when I have all that I want of earthly satisfactions and then verbally tell God that my heart is not addicted to what I enjoy.

  5. We should examine our conscience daily on this internal detachment from what may externally surround us like the air that we breathe. Poverty of spirit is not a figure of speech. It is a living reality. If I am truly practicing the First Beatitude, I will experience something of what it means to be poor.

  6. If I am practicing poverty of spirit, I will be industrious. Poor people have to work for a living. "To labor is to pray," says St. Benedict. And Thomas à Kempis asks, "Why do you want to rest, since you are born to labor."

  7. If I am practicing poverty of spirit, I will be sensitive to the material needs of others. Poverty of spirit means charity of spirit. I want to share what I have with others; and not only of my superfluities, but even of my necessities.

  8. A good index of how poor we are is how peaceful we are in spirit. Worry and anxiety about the things of this world are, on Christ's own testimony, signs of a lack of trust in God's providence. According to St. Alphonsus Liguori, this means detachment "not only from what is valuable, but also from what is trifling."

  9. Internal detachment from worldly things frees the human heart for attachment to heavenly things. The more time we have in our leisure society, the more time we should give to prayer.

  10. The world in which we live needs our witness of poverty. People who know what we believe should see our faith put into practice. It will take much light from God to live among the affluent and yet remain internally poor. We must call upon all the resources of grace to be patient and prudent and kind in our dealings with others without compromising our fidelity to Christ who became a poor Child to show us the way to heaven.

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