Pope St John Paul II stated in his 1996 post-synodal apostolic exhortation Vita Consecrata; “evangelical poverty proclaims God as man’s only real treasure.” This statement challenges every Christian to reflect on what he or she values. While this challenge applies in a special way to consecrated religious by virtue of their public profession of the evangelical counsels, the challenge also applies to all Christians (mutatis mutandis) in so far as they have to make choices concerning the goods of this world. After all, many goods compete for our attention.
The theology of evangelical poverty concerns poverty as freely chosen detachment from the things of this world. Such detachment stems from a subordination of earthly goods to those of heaven. The goal of such poverty is greater knowledge and love of God as possessed and enjoyed.
Historically,religious life comes from eremitic monasticism, generally considered as beginning in Africa with St. Anthony of the desert. Anthony took to heart the words of Jesus to the rich young man in the Gospel of Matthew; “if you wish to be perfect, sell all that you have and give to the poor, then come follow me” (Mt 19:21). This Gospel passage presents a mutually exclusive choice; pursue material goods or be perfect in the sight of the Lord. Monasticism and religious life developed as a response to this choice, a personal renunciation of worldly goods.
Self-sustenance involves an individual or community providing for its own material needs. It necessarily involves the accumulation of material goods. At first glance evangelical poverty seems to oppose self-sustenance. However, this apparent opposition involves the difference between goods. Evangelical poverty involves the sacrifice of lower goods in order to attain higher ones. Over the years, this distinction became one of ownership, namely communal ownership for the good of the community versus private ownership for the good of the individual.
I contend that evangelical poverty and self-sustenance complement each other. While private accumulation of goods for personal gratification opposes evangelical poverty, communal accumulation of goods for the sake of the common good can facilitate it. The key is love. Monasteries created much wealth because of assiduous work and creativity, while the individual monks survived on a bare minimum. It is not a mystery that they accumulated great wealth. When one produces more than one uses one naturally accumulates wealth. Such wealth becomes available for works of charity, propagation of the Gospel, upkeep and care for the elderly, and the formation of new monks.
Sadly evangelical poverty does not guide the thinking of all religious men and women. After all, we are but frail human beings susceptible to worldly temptations and the fear of insecurity. Such attitudes suffocate the spirit of evangelical poverty. Consequently reforms in religious life have occurred throughout the history of the Church. Recently pope Francis appointed the Australian Cardinal, George Pell, to the newly created dicastery of Vatican finances. Credible allegations of serious financial malfeasance have arisen such as embezzlement of the Vatican bank (cf. zenith, 25th Feb 2014, Rachel Sanderson, FT, Dec 6, 2013). Even here in Kenya we have such scandalsas witnessed by the financial mismanagement of the Catholic University of Eastern Africa (Cf. Sunday Nation (NN) 4th Dec 2016).
When the spirit of evangelical poverty is suffocateda disordered desire for material goods naturally results. Such a disordered desire inevitably leads to an attempt to amass worldly goods without the attendant hard work and living by the bare minimum.Though not immoral in itself, if the personal accumulation of material wealth takes precedence over the subordination of the individual to the good of the community, then this competition will quickly become tragic. Such an attitude becomes a breeding ground for other vices such as theft.
Theft involves a disregard for the community and human relationship. When one chooses theft as the means to obtain wealth, one not only damages one’s relationship with God, but also one’s relationship with others in the community.Theft reflects the fact that one values things more than relationships, and thus remains the antithesis of love.
The profession of evangelical poverty acts as an antidote to such disorder. It addresses the root of sin, namely lack of love. Evangelical poverty declares that God is the highest good, our greatest possession, and that our love of Him requires us to seek Him above all else. As pope St John Paul II states in Vita Consecrata, evangelical poverty “challenges the sense of materialism which craves possessions, heedless of the needs and sufferings of the weakest, and lacking any concern for the balance of natural resources” (Cf. Vita Consecrata, 89).
Because of original sin human beings harbor inordinate desires for recognition, vainglory and power. In a materialistic society accumulation of wealth fulfills such disordered desires. The spirit of evangelical poverty moves one to seek the good of others as more important than one’s own. It reflects“a preferential love for the poor shown especially by sharing the conditions of life of the most neglected.” Far from sacralizing material poverty, the spirit of evangelical poverty creates the condition for society to create sufficient wealth for all her members. It also remains an asset in the work of self-sustenance. The spirit of evangelical poverty shifts the basis of hope from material goods to the goods of relationship, from secular humanism to graced humanism offered by faith in Jesus.
Restoration of the spirit of evangelical poverty begins as a challenge to us religious to re-examine the thinking that underlies our actions. Do we think as the world thinks or have we put on the mind of Christ? The spirit of evangelical poverty requires us to think like Christ if we will bring about redemption to a fallen world.
Unfortunately secularism fails to recognize the ultimate goal of human life which is spiritual in nature, namely divine beatitude. No amount of material possessions can attain that goal. When we implicitly make material things the source of happiness, we easily fall into greed and disregard for the needs of others. “Whatever you did to the least of my brothers, you did to me.” If we cannot help the poor and needy, then what good are our possessions? We end up instead with a false religious life.
The spirit of evangelical poverty requires that we put to good use the many material and technological provisions available to us. Christian faith places those goods within the economy of salvation. Christian hope recognizes that bodily well-being, while necessary, is not sufficient for human happiness. Christian love moves us to put love of God above every other good (summum bonum). Only then may those who publicly profess evangelical poverty effectively propagate the Gospel and attain self-sustenance.
Fr. Leo S.I Mwenda, OP