Retreat - The Essentials of the Religious Life
Religious Vows: Consecrated Practice of Poverty
December 27, 1983 Homily
by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
We are as you know concentrating on the religious vows and specifically
how the Church's new Code of Canon Law legislates how the vows are to
be observed. There is no single aspect of consecrated life on which the
Church's Code of Law spends more time, devotes more canons, is more explicit
than on the practice of poverty.
For our reflections, we will first and mainly examine the
one single code in which Consecrated Poverty is identified and then more
briefly explain how the rest of the code applies the meaning of religious
Poverty to practice in daily life.
First then the meaning of Evangelical
Poverty. "The Evangelical Counsel of Poverty in imitation of Christ,
Who for our sake was made poor when He was rich, entails a life which
is poor in reality and in spirit, sober and industrious, and a stranger
to earthly riches. It also involves dependence and limitations in the
use and disposition of goods in accordance with each institutes own law."
As we begin to explain this definition
of Consecrated Evangelical Poverty we should first note its broad sweep
and precise language. Both are necessary especially in our days when institutes
of consecrated life are a hard port to practice true Christ-like poverty
in affluent countries like the United States.
My Jesuit confrere, St. Robert Bellarmine,
writing in the early seventeenth century after whole nations had been
lost to the Catholic Church where literally thousands of monasteries and
convents were put out of existence, Bellarmine's verdict as he looked
back to the shambles of our once flourishing religious life now lying
in ruins, he wrote: in my judgment the single principle reason for the
destruction of religious life in so many parts of the Catholic world in
the sixteenth century, the main reason was the failure of religious to
practice authentic poverty" and that my friend is going on today
--- square miles of land and property owned by religious communities,
beautiful buildings, ravishing grounds. Unless modern religious practice
poverty that will happen to them what happened in the sixteenth century.
As before, we shall take the Church's definition, here of Evangelical
Poverty and analyze in sequence. I ended up with nine distinct aspects
for prayerful reflection.
- The Church calls our poverty the Evangelical
Counsel of Poverty. Consecrated Poverty therefore is evangelical because
taught not only in the four gospels but throughout the New Testament and
with emphasis, taught by the Holy Spirit writing through St. Luke who
wrote the Acts of the Apostles the way the early Church practiced poverty.
It is not just quoted words that are part of revelation; it is also the
facts of history. Consecrated Poverty is a counsel, to distinguish it
from the precept therefore, and what a consequential therefore, religious
are to go beyond the Commandment of poverty as found in Divine revelation.
The Old Testament demands poverty in the prohibition to steal or
to covet, and in the New Testament this is a Commandment the followers
of Christ are obliged to share with those in need. But if I share with
somebody in need I will have to give up; my dear friend, that's the whole
idea. The only one whom Christ consigned to hell was the rich man, Divus.
He didn't steal anything, he just refused to share. But our Consecrated
Poverty goes beyond, beyond the Commandment, not to steal, not to covet
and the Commandment to share. As we go on in reflecting on the Church's
explanation, we'll see what that beyond, beyond the commandment, really
- We are told by the Church the Evangelical Counsel
of Poverty is undertaken in imitation of Christ. This is the fundamental
motive for the practice of Consecrated Poverty. Christ was, to coin a
term, the all-possessing God. He made the universe to Whom therefore all
things belong, yet as the Church tells us and we believe, He became poor
for our sake. That's what Bethlehem is all about. A baby wrapped in rags.
When then we say that He became poor for our sakes we are to
become poor for His sake. His poverty is the reason for our poverty. And
I've watched it, I've counseled too many religious, I know too many consciences
of people ostensibly living a life of poverty not to know they will be
just as faithful in the practice of this counsel as their faith
Christ's poverty is the source of our
poverty. It was His practice of poverty which merited the grace for us
even to undertake to live a life of Evangelical Poverty. His poverty is
the standard and norm of how we should live. And here let me tell you
we should examine our consciences collectively as communities and individually
as persons. The strongest language I will use I will use in this conference
and it is the language animated by love.
- Our poverty is to be
actual poverty and poverty of spirit. The Church's careful identification
of Consecrated Poverty as both actual and in spirit is crucial. I hope
I'll be clear to show how the two differ and how they are related.
Christ could not have been plainer
when remembering His conversation with the rich young man and Christ made
sure it was a rich young man, "If you wish to be perfect," you
don't have to do this to keep out of hell, but if you wish to go the whole
way, "go and sell what you own and don't keep the money but "give
the money to the poor and you will have treasure in Heaven," finally
the adverb, "and then come follow Me". That adverb spells the
difference between survival and dissolution of many once strong communities
in the modern world.
- Poverty of Spirit - this is expressed in the first Beatitude "Blessed are the poor in spirit for
theirs is the kingdom of Heaven." To be poor in spirit is to be poor
interiorly even though a person may be actually wealthy. To be poor in
spirit means to be interiorly detached, to be interiorly free from inordinate
love of money or earthly goods - to be poor in spirit means to be poor
in heart. Both the rich and the actually poor are to be poor in spirit.
For those who possess things it means not to be jealous not to hug or
to hoard what they've got. It means to be ready to give; it means to be
ready to share. For those who do not possess and they are the majority
of the human race, they too are to be poor in spirit; it means not to
envy those who have. Poverty of spirit prohibits jealousy in those who
have; prohibits envy in those who have not. And let me tell you poverty
of spirit is very, very hard to practice.
- Poverty in reality or actual poverty - is the
key to Consecrated Poverty. It assumes that a person either actually possesses
things or has a right to possess but voluntarily gives up, watch this,
not only in ones heart but with ones hands.
What Matthew adds under divine inspiration
is important: "But when the young man heard these words he went away
sad for he was a man of great wealth." Actual poverty is objective
poverty, it is real poverty, it is external poverty, it is sensibly perceptible
poverty, it is physical and not only psychological poverty. I've exhausted
my vocabulary in finding adjectives to make this as clear as I
- Consecrated Poverty is
sober. What a strange word. Well it's simply a literal translation of
the Latin. What kind of poverty is sober poverty? It means that our poverty
is to be controlled, even-tempered, well-balanced, temperate in action
and thoughts, satiate, and what are we saying, not intoxicating. There
is great wisdom behind that adjective.
We are Christians not Buddhists or Hindus. We believe that poverty
is a means to an end. The end being a more perfect love of God. There
is no inherent value of itself in not having; it is the reason why. We
are not to consider possessions as of themselves sinful or evil nor are
we to look on those who may be wealthy as living in sin, in a word, we
are not to be angry with the rich Marxism is intoxicated poverty - hating
- Consecrated Poverty the Church tells us, and remember this is legislation, obliges us to be industrious. Religious are to be
hard working. Oh how I want to underline, italicize, and encircle and
etch in bronze, we are not, dear God, to be people of leisure.
Ease, comfort, leisure for religious is a sin. It's a sin!
Poor people work; you might say they have to. Either we are serious about
following Christ or we are not. Christ worked. The Latin vulgate translation
of Greek identifies Jesus as the reputed son of a "faber" a
hard working laboring man. Who is this Christ we're following anyhow.
It is on these premises only then we shall give the witness that the Church
wants us religious to give to the poor and even in wealthy America, believe
you me; there is much extensive and dire poverty. Eight years of teaching
Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity in the Bronx, five hours every
Thursday, meeting those people over two million in the Bronx, the word
poor is the wrong word they are destitute. What a shock to the system
to look over the hovels of the Bronx and see in the distant horizon the
Empire State Building, a symbol of affluence Whatever else, and I trust
under Divine guidance, I will share much with you in this week; whatever
else you learn, learn the imperative of the word 'WORK'. And the hardest
effort we have to expend is not only with the body but with the mind and
the will and the emotions. To pray as we should, to love as we should,
to care as we should, to be kind and gentle as we should means work. Laboring
to conquer distinctively selfish ego.
The fifth feature of our poverty is that it be laborious,
industrious, that we work.
- Consecrated poverty is a stranger to earthly riches.
This, let's remind ourselves, refers to both individuals and to communities.
It is not enough for individual religious to practice poverty; the community
should also give evidence of avoiding even the appearance of wealth. They
are to look poor and people coming into our quarters are to say, I feel
comfortable this is a community that practices what it preaches.
- Consecrated poverty is dependent. Dependence we might
ask on whom. On the community to furnish, on superiors to provide, on
other members of the community to share, on persons outside the community
to donate. Of course, the community should provide, superiors are in duty
bound to provide, our fellow religious are to share and people outside
are expected to donate. But our own habitual disposition should be a sense
- Consecrated poverty means limitation. Limitations
in what we use, how we dispose of what we have, because we are to look
on everything in our lives as merely entrusted to us by the Lord. Consecrated
poverty must lack, it must do without, in a word - it must want. If we
have everything then our poverty is paper poverty.
Either there are limitations to what we use, to what we have
or we are not really poor religious.
- Finally, the Church tells us each institutes law
is normative. No two religious communities interpret or understand Evangelical
Poverty in precisely the same way. The classic definition of perfect poverty
goes like this: "the poverty of a community is perfect if it corresponds
to the purpose for which that institute was founded." But the constitutions
of each community are to spell out how the members of that community are
to practice their poverty.
One provision of the Second Vatican Council needs to be emphasized
regarding the Counsel of Poverty. The Second Vatican Council remarkably
not only as often to but encourages religious not only to surrender use
or disposition of things but to give up actual ownership. What until recent
years had been the prerogative of religious orders under solemn vows is
now available also to institutes which are the majority under simple vows
their members may, if so provided in the constitutions, give up actual
ownership to whatever they possess, or have a right to, or might acquire
in the future. Let me strongly recommend to religious today to seriously
think about not only living poverty of spirit but actually surrendering
the ownership of what they have a right to in order to be more conformed
to the poor Jesus Christ.
The Practice of Evangelical Poverty of Counsel
As we said earlier the Code of Canon Law which went into
affect this year, is detailed in the extreme in spelling out how Consecrated
Poverty is to be observed. There are no less than seven distinct canons
on the subject and within the canon seventeen subdivisions, each detailed
laws covering our conceivable aspect of our poverty.
One provision, I think needs to be quoted, it says: "Institutes
are to make a special effort to give a collective testimony of charity
and poverty." In other words, Consecrated Poverty applies to religious
as persons and to religious communities and institutes. We are to witness
to Christs presence in the world today; to the Christ who opened His public ministry,
remember by quoting from the prophet when he says
about the coming Messiah, "He would be the one Who would preach the
gospel to the poor".
In the degree to which we as individuals and communities portray
the poor Christ in today's world to that extent and to that extent alone
are we going to win souls for Christ. The poor are powerful with the Almighty.
Jesus, You gave us the example of the poverty we should practice,
help us, dear Savior, to not only profess to be poor but to be poor because
it is the poor that You came to preach the Good News, it is the poor who
identify with You and it's the poor who will join Your company for all
Retreat given to and recorded by the
Handmaids of the Precious Blood
Copyright © 1998 by Inter Mirifica