Seventh and Tenth Commandments
and Consecrated Poverty
by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
Our present meditation is on consecrated poverty.
When God became man He divinized everything in human nature. Since the incarnation,
the human race is no longer the same. Mankind took on a superhuman dignity
and human conduct took on what we casually call a supernatural sublimity.
Remember, Christ spoke as a man in audible words but His teaching was literally,
we should say hypostatically, the teaching and the words of God. The vocables
were heard by human ears, but the concepts were those of God speaking in human
language. When, then, Jesus contrasted the old law given through Moses with
the new law that He was personally enacting, much more, much more, was taking
place than any of us is liable to think.
Regarding the seventh and tenth commandments
of the Decalogue we may, because that’s our vocabulary, we may say that Christ
was enacting or legislating, giving laws. Moses gave laws from God and Christ
was giving laws, but watch this, not from God but as God. That is why, as
we meditate on consecrated poverty, we are looking at an actual reality. God
not only in His incarnation became poor; God was, we may say, poverty living
in the world. Ever since, Christ lived a poor life in Palestine from the stable
in which He was born to the borrowed grave in which He was buried. He has
never ceased giving some of His followers the grace to live like Him.
Call it voluntary poverty, call it poverty of dependence, call it consecrated
poverty. By whatever name, this is Christianity at its noblest. It is also
a Christianity that the modern world desperately, and I mean desperately,
As we did regarding consecrated chastity,
so here with consecrated poverty we shall examine at close range the teaching
of the Twenty-First General Council of the Church and it’s decree on religious
life; again, Perfectae Caritatis. I suppose it takes a lifetime of
teaching theology to really appreciate what the Second Vatican Council did.
Never done before, never, at the most solemn assembly of the whole hierarchy,
the Successors of the Apostles under the Successor of Peter. Thousands of
words on religious life unknown in nineteen centuries. The full text of the
Second Vatican Council on consecrated poverty is six short paragraphs long,
but they are worth quoting in full. I’ll quote and I’ll comment as I go along.
“Voluntary poverty, in the footsteps of Christ,
is a symbol of Christ which is much esteemed, especially nowadays. Religious
should cultivate poverty diligently and, if need be, express it in new forms.
It enables them to share in the poverty of Christ who for our sake became
poor, though He was rich, so that we might become rich through His poverty.”
“They should each in his own assigned task, consider
themselves bound by the common law of labor, and while by this means they
are provided with whatever they need for their sustenance or their
work, they should reject all undo solicitude, putting their trust in the providence
of the heavenly Father.”
“Religious congregations may, in their constitutions,
permit their members to renounce their inheritances, both those which they
have already acquired and those which may be acquired in the future.”
“The institutes themselves should endeavor, taking
local conditions into account, to bear a quasi-collective witness to poverty.
They should willingly contribute part of what they possess for the needs of
the Church and for the support of the poor, whom all religious should love
with the deep yearning of Christ. Provinces and houses of the different institutes
should share their poverty with one another, those who have more helping those
who are in need.”
“While institutes have the right, provided this
is allowed by their rules and constitutions, to possess whatever they need
for their temporal life and work, they should avoid any semblance of luxury,
excessive wealth and accumulation of property.”
So far the quotations, minus one, which after
I quoted from the council I realized (read it for yourselves), it’s the second
paragraph in the section on consecrated poverty. We’ll explain it when we
come to number two.
First then, by way of introduction, what I
would like to do is to explain each of these statements of the Second Vatican
Council, make some practical application to ourselves, and then end with a
few choice maxims on poverty of the saints.
First, consecrated poverty is inspired by the poverty of Christ.
This is the bedrock of consecrated poverty. That’s what makes it consecrated,
sacred. Because God became poor to remind ourselves God became man for two
reasons: to die for our salvation on Calvary but also to live for our imitation
today. This is the first law of sanctity - the imitation of Jesus Christ,
His Holiness, His Godlikeness.
How do you become more and more like God?
You might say by reflecting on His Divine Attributes. Fine. By begging God
to make us more and more like Him. Fine, but concretely, since holiness is
Godlikeness, how do you become like God? By imitating God made man who became
man precisely that by imitating His virtues as man we might share in His attributes
as God. The foundation of this imitation of Christ is following in Christ’s
footsteps by living a consciously and deliberately poor life. Of course not
just consciously and deliberately or even just willingly, but enjoyably. If
there is anything that is contrary to the spirit of the world it is to like
what the world detests. What is that? Poverty.
Number 2. Consecrated poverty should be, the Council tells us,
actual poverty. It should indeed be poverty of spirit, but not only. It should
also be poverty in fact. In other words, consecrated poverty is not some starry
ideal. It is not poetry or rhetoric. It is reality, as we’ve said more than
once in this retreat, the breakdown of once flourishing religious institutes,
scores of them and worldwide hundreds. My Vatican superiors tell me over eight
hundred new religious institutes have come into existence since the close
of the Vatican Council. Why? Because somebody had better still be an authentic
Number 3. Consecrated
poverty implies labor. Poor people work. You might say they have to. Of course,
but that is precisely why those consecrated to a life of evangelical poverty
should be models of hard work, and the hard work need not mean crushing stone.
The hard work is doing what naturally we don’t like to do. A cynic coined
the expression, “What is common sense? Work is that which people don’t want
to do.” That’s a good theological definition of work - what people don’t like
to do. Having taught for enough years to say it, most people, I’m convinced,
most dislike to think. That’s hard labor. My favorite definition of meditation
is: thinking in the presence of God. That’s a double load of work. First of
all, it’s work to be in God’s presence. It is much more pleasant, much easier
to be in the presence of you know who then to think. The labor of those consecrated
to evangelical poverty should be laborious. What does that add? Well, you
should sweat. Their labor should make them tired. As I have told so many people,
for me the great inspiration of mysticism is when Christ is said to have been
exhausted. Thanks, Lord, thanks! I like that! He got tired. How many people
I’ve told, “Any day you go to bed without being tired confess it the next
time you receive the sacrament.” The labor of those consecrated to voluntary
poverty should be an example to others and, the deepest sense, edifying others,
building up their spiritual life; first of all, the members of our own community
and then everyone who enters our lives.
This takes on special urgency in the fact
that the faithful are often generous in their contributions to religious.
Fine, but religious are to be models of work. How the wisdom, the prudence,
the sound judgment to be provided only, finally, by God’s grace if we are
going to be and not just profess to be poor after the example of Our Lord.
What makes it so extremely difficult (I know!) is that we are living in the
most affluent society not just of the world now but of human history. As I’ve
touched on it before, and I’ll underline it, the most devastating breakdown
of consecrated life has been and is in affluent, what the world calls, developed
nations. Christ told us we cannot compromise in following Him. Either
we love mammon which stands for earthly, worldly possessions or we surrender
them and then, but only then, are we authentic, bonafide, consecrated religious.
Number 4. Trust in providence. Provided a community is doing the
work of the Lord, He will provide for with sustenance and His apostolate.
I like Thomas Aquinas’ definition of the perfection of consecrated poverty:
“Consecrated poverty is as perfect as it corresponds to the needs of that
institute. Depending on the purpose for which the religious institute was
founded,” says Aquinas, “if poverty is as perfect as it corresponds, but it
only corresponds, to the needs of that community.” How much self-examination,
both individually and collectively, religious institutes have to make. For
many, the examination of conscious is too late. They will not survive. The
key, of course, is to be faithful to the charism of the founder, to what we
casually call the spirit of the institute. That, and only that, is what the
Church meant when, in one document after another especially in the two on
the Church and the decree on religious life, when we are told that religious
institutes should be renewed. What’s renovation? Renovation means going back
to the spirit of the founder.
Number 5. Poverty of dispossession. Before the sixteenth
century no other kind of poverty was known in consecrated life. All religious;
men, women, monastic, active apostolic, no exception, all religious took vows
of dispossession. Then, with the cataclysm of the sixteenth century when,
in Britain alone, some two thousand religious houses were taken over by you
know whom - that loving, lecherous scoundrel, Henry VIII. Then when six whole
nations were lost to Catholic unity, religious life was wiped out. God, of
course, provided. All kinds of new institutes came into existence including,
I am happy to report, the Society of Jesus. As a consequence, after the so-called
Protestant Reformation (there was no Protestant Reformation; Protestant revolution
and a Catholic reformation), when the Church approved institutes whose poverty,
consecrated poverty indeed, under vows was no longer the poverty of dispossession
but, rather, the poverty of dependence with the rise especially of women’s
communities. A few communities engaged in active apostolic work. Consecrated
poverty, as I’ve just said, became more and more a matter of dependence rather
than dispossession; dependence on the community, dependence on the superiors.
One of the historic innovations of the Second
Vatican Council, I know of none that is more important, was to restore the
pristine practice of poverty of dispossession. What kind of dispossession
could that be? The language we read gives you some idea of how carefully the
Council proceeded in bringing back what had practically lapsed excepting those
called religious orders that still had poverty of dispossession. All of the
wording was very carefully done by the Second Vatican Council. The doors were
opened for the restoration, after almost five hundred years, of consecrated
poverty of dispossession. My comment, “Thank God!” Canonically speaking, this
poverty of dispossession can be purely voluntary. In other words, in some
institutes since Vatican II the religious are free, if they want to, dispossess
themselves of what they have or this poverty of dispossession could be postponed
even years after final vows. Here again, this poverty of dispossession could
be obligatory at the final profession and require giving up all ownership
of what is possessed at the time of final vows and what will be possessed
in the future until death. One reason I come back to the same theme, one reason
for the widespread breakdown of once flourishing institutes in affluent countries
has been the clear and uncompromising doctrine of the Second Vatican Council
on the practice of poverty including the poverty of dispossession. The last
thing that thousands of religious, the last thing they wanted to do (oh no!)
were the Bishops and the Pope authorized Perfectae Caritatis. Were
they sober! Were they sane? Nobody, but nobody, in their right mind gives
up what they own! Acquire more, that’s good economics, but you don’t give
away. Twenty-two years in working for the Holy See has taught me an awful
lot including what I’m sharing with you.
Number 6. Religious communities should witness to poverty. This
is crucially important; indeed, it is imperative. Note what we are being told.
Not only are individuals in religious life to bear witness to poverty, but
the communities themselves are to testify to what the Church calls collective
poverty. How do you do this? By giving to the needs of the Church and, with
emphasis, to the Holy Father. As I may have told you, when the Holy Father
invited all the bishops of the world to send in their observations and comments
back to Rome on the proposed draft for the Catechism of the Catholic Church,
he received 40,000 manuscripts from all over the world. Only one problem,
the Holy See had no way of coping with those manuscripts. No way! I think
I may share this, even publicly, so I have the present task of finding benefactors;
first to find people who could speak several languages to go to Rome, all
expenses paid, to live in Rome. The Vatican didn’t have, pardon me, a dollar,
didn’t have a lire, for their room and board. Holy See did not have a computer
to cope with those manuscripts. I believe one of the best kept secrets in
contemporary history is the desperate poverty of the Holy Father and the crying
need (I’ll use that adjective deliberately), the crying need of the Holy See.
We still call it Peter’s pence. I am told, on good authority, there are dioceses
which take a cut from the Peter’s pence. How are communities to give collective
witness to consecrated poverty? By helping poor people, either locally or
even internationally, by sharing with other houses or branches of one’s community.
I still have Commentary number 7. We
are told by the Church to avoid, as consecrated religious, any semblance of
luxury. This is a real problem in affluent countries like our own. We are
so accustomed; just take for granted, so many things. Most people don’t even
have the faintest idea of how most other people outside especially of North
America and, let me add, and north of the Rio Grande river live. You can walk
from San Diego to Tijuana, assuming that you have a passport. You leave San
Diego and you enter Tijuana in Mexico and, I mean it, you are in a totally
different world. I use my words advisedly; reeking affluence in San Diego,
destitution in Tijuana. Understandably, and how understandably, those who
have consecrated themselves to following Christ in His poverty had better
give witness and not the kind of witness which is one reason both for the
breakdown of religious life and for the shortage of vocations. Forty-five
years in the priesthood, counting by now, believe me no merit of my own, thousands
of religious and would-be religious. If there is one thing that the young
want in wealthy countries like our own, if they have a genuine religious vocation,
they want to live a life of poverty. I mean it! I had a girl whom I was counseling.
She wanted to become a religious from a wealthy family. She was a strong-willed
person finishing college. She told her parents she was going to enter a community,
a good bonafide religious institute. To help dissuade her, these are good
Catholics; they bought her a brand new bright red corvette. That was in June.
By January, the corvette was back in the garage of her parents, and she had
entered that community. This giving witness to poverty and avoiding any semblance
of luxury is more than just giving a good example. It means becoming, both
as individuals and for our present purpose as communities, a collective channel
of grace. Remember, grace is given both to individuals and to societies here
to institute consecrated to voluntary poverty.
I like to say this, back in the early thirteenth
century, imagine (probably the late twelfth or the early thirteenth century),
for avoiding any semblance of luxury the Church, by the early thirteenth century,
was in need of drastic reform. Francis of Assisi, under Divine Inspiration,
decided to form, well, a community of poor religious. He invented (what an
invention!) the practice of not only individual dispossession but collective,
communal dispossession. In other words, the communities themselves would not
own anything. I am pleased to report, among the work that I have been given
by the Church, help on the drafting of the constitutions of a new institute,
deciding on exactly that; collective, communal dispossession. Depend absolutely
and totally on Divine Providence.
I said I had a few maxims of the saints. I’ve
“No one should commend poverty save the poor. Nobody should praise poverty.
Nobody should preach on poverty. Nobody should, (well), try to influence other
people to live a life of poverty except one, who himself, is poor.”
Second quotation, two words. Saint Dominic:
“Possess poverty.” Isn’t that great! “Possess poverty.”
Saint Frances DeSales:
“To desire to be poor but not to be inconvenienced by poverty is to desire
the honor of poverty and the convenience of riches.” These worth repeating,
“To desire to be poor but not to be inconvenienced by poverty is to desire
the honor of poverty and the convenience of riches.”
My own Father in God, St. Ignatius, my
first week in the Society of Jesus you are told, quoting St. Ignatius, “Love
poverty as a mother.”
Lord Jesus, there is so much we need to ask
You, so much we have to understand about the meaning of Your own revealed
poverty in our affluent, materially suffocated world. Teach us, dear Jesus,
deep in our hearts to love You by loving Your poverty. Amen.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son,
and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Copyright © 1999 Inter Mirifica