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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.
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