It is often jokingly said, “Religious profess poverty and the laity practise it.” Poverty is not a nice word. Governments and social organisations have declared war against it. They are trying their best to eradicate poverty from the face of the earth. And still, the religious profess to practise poverty in their life. Thus the concept of poverty causes confusion among people.
The vow of poverty which religious profess does not mean destitution, which is not desirable for anyone. In fact, the religious are not poor and they do not live as the poor do. Religious communities provide for its members all their necessities like food, shelter, clothes, education, medical care etc. Then what is the meaning of the vow of poverty?
The Vow of Poverty
Poverty as an evangelical virtue is a protest against the tyranny of having or possessing, and of pure self assertion. It impels those practising it, to practice solidarity with those who are poor, whose poverty is not a matter of virtue but is their condition of life and the situation exacted of them by society. Hence, I think it will be more meaningful and unambiguous if we call this as the ‘vow of evangelical detachment.’
By this vow the religious commit themselves to pool resources, to give their earnings to their religious communities and to live a common life. They are doing it in order to free themselves from the burden that goes with acquiring and accumulating wealth, so that they can wholeheartedly pursue the Christian ideal – the love of God and the service of the neighbour.
Religious poverty, properly understood, is the desire of the religious to be responsible stewards of creation and to accept an unwavering responsibility for the needs of others who are unable to help themselves. A religious is not dedicating self to a life of physical poverty. S/he is, rather, expressing a concern and love for people who suffer from lack of ordinary and necessary material blessings.
Meaning and Purpose of Evangelical Poverty
Physical poverty is itself, has nothing of value. It can only take on meaning and challenge according to the circumstances and mental attitudes of those affected by it. Physical poverty, in its harsher forms, is a sort of social disease. It needs to be cured. The religious in India are not physically poor, in the sense of radical weakness and need. They possess much and because of their background, education and work they can’t be classified as physically poor. Even when religious live and work among the poor they are not poor. They share the strength and security of the religious community to which they belong.
Religious poverty has a mystical dimension, which is seeking God who is the absolute goodness. This leads the religious to the realization of everything that is not God; it brings detachment from and freedom of spirit with regard to all that has been created. It includes not only material goods but also social standing, honours, even one’s very life. Religious freely give up what they have, renounce what they possess and live in frugality because of God who is the one and only absolute good.
Hence religious poverty is an encounter with God who is absolute good. Religious are poor and do not have possession because they possess God who is the source of all riches.
Evangelical poverty is a witness to the Divine providence. According to Abraham Maslow, to have a sense of security is one f the strongest needs of human beings. Lack of security adds to anxiety which is among the most common causes of mental disorder. People in the world hope to have a sense of security, by possessing material wealth. For the religious, the strongest security is in not having material possessions because their security is in God. For security they depend on God’s providence and the support of their community. St. Francis of Assisi and Bl. Mother Teresa are great models of absolute reliance on the providence of God.
A practical motive suggested for evangelical detachment is the facilitation of the apostolic life undertaken by religious. Possession of minimum things enables one to move more freely and facilitates greater apostolic availability to others. Jesus and his disciples went from city to city, from town to town announcing and proclaiming the good news of the Kingdom of God. If we want to imitate Jesus who was an itinerant preacher without a permanent home, we have to follow his instructions regarding apostolic ministry. Jesus instructed the apostles to take nothing on the journey but a walking stick – no food, no travel bag, not even a coin in their purse belts. (Mk 6:7-9). Thus according to the missionary rules that Jesus laid down for His followers, they are forbidden to take the bare minimum of luggage that even the poorest people would rely on.
Vow of poverty can facilitate solidarity and fraternity among religious, who live community life. A peaceful and loving life may be assured where no one can ‘claim anything as his/her own’ and when there are fewer material objects to interfere with community interactions. Material goods pose a strong temptation to be things-oriented rather than person-oriented.
Identification with Jesus the Poor
Jesus Christ, though He was rich, made Himself poor in order to enrich us through His poverty. When He was in the world, He did not project Himself with the prerogatives, which by right, belonged to Him. He did not pose as the Lord but as servant. Jesus and His disciples lived frugally from a common purse and ministered to the poor.
In the Sermon on the Mount He attributed blessedness to the poor and challenged the rich young man to sell everything and follow Him. He categorically declared that the individual who loves his father or mother or family more than Him is not worthy of discipleship. Through His life and teachings Jesus proposed a way of life which remedies human desire for power and wealth. He reminds us that in order to follow Him we must leave all things to live a contemplative life in action.
Therefore, living according to the gospels necessarily implies poverty. For the religious, poverty is a share in Christ’s life who became poor for our sake so that we might be enriched by His poverty. Hence to be an authentic religious, the counsel of poverty and detachment is indispensable.
for the Poor
Jesus was deeply moved by the evils that afflicted the people of His time. Today, as then, unfortunate people come to us for various helps. Are we convinced that Jesus is present in these “very little ones?” As ‘Vita Consecrata’ states, “When millions of people are poor struggling for life with integrity and dignity, consecrated poverty may be lived with relevance and according to its profound evangelical roots, by emphasising its dimension of solidarity.” Solidarity is not superficial accompaniment but profound being together, acting together, feeling together, thinking together, walking together towards the fullness of life.
Jesus Christ is the motive and supreme model of consecrated poverty. A fundamental characteristic of Christ’s poverty is solidarity with the humanity. His incarnation is a decisive and complete plunge into the human situation. Hence this Jesus whom the consecrated persons must proclaim and manifest through their witness of life and works is the Jesus who is in total solidarity and humanity, especially the poor; the one who became poor like us so that we may have life and have it abundantly.
Therefore, the consecrated person, especially in India, is one who from his/her inner goodness and overflowing love chooses to be poor so that s/he can be in total solidarity with the least of her/his brothers and sisters; to be with them, work with them, struggle and hope with them for a better life until they attain the fullness of life promised by the Lord. As disciples of Jesus we ought to continue to reveal the Father’s solicitude for the downtrodden by giving first place to the more unfortunate people in our midst.
The prophetic description of the last judgement (Mt.25:35-36) gives a list of unfortunate people, who live in various conditions of suffering, and not just those in economic want. Since the categories unfortunate people are unlimited, we obliged have to make some choices. Religious, taking the charism of each into account, should come forward to help the most unfortunate in our society.
Poverty and Lifestyle
Religious are called to bear witness to radical detachment reflecting it in their life style. I feel that there is an urgent need for greater simplicity in their life – both at the individual and the community levels. Sad to say that often lay people do not see any appreciable difference between the life style of some religious and their secular friends. It seems to me that religious are being faced with a new and demanding challenge – how to give a compelling and attractive example of a simple life style in a society with its emphasis on material prosperity and comforts.
Simplicity of life which has to be an essential part our religious poverty. It tells us to avoid unnecessary expenditures, travels, expensive celebrations, entertainments etc. There are lots of things – big and small – that need not be part of religious life. Only a sense of detachment and responsibility can help us to do away with them. It simply has to grow out of a desire and will, born of prayer and contemplation, of love of neighbour, to show a sense of solidarity with the poor, in ways which can be realised.
Sometimes certain attitudes contrary to evangelical detachment are noticed in religious communities: a salary-conscious religious who considers oneself more privileged than a non- salaried ones, doctors and professors with a “status image”; our immature, undisciplined approach to material things, our external expressions (clothes, vehicles, buildings, furnishings); a definite choice of lifestyle arbitrarily independent of acceptable community standards; manipulation of family and friends for one’s personal gain and satisfaction etc. In the light of the above mentioned observations, the religious ought to evaluate the spirit of evangelical poverty.
1.Is our religious poverty congruous with the example of Christ?
2.Do we respond with love and esteem, to the statutes and prescriptions specifically elaborated in the Constitutions of religious congregations for better following of Christ?
3.Is our poverty congruent with the contemporary social situations?
4.Does our life indicate identification with the poor?
5.Do we have sensitivity to the frustrations and insecurities of the poor around us?
Poverty: Breeding Irresponsibility?
It is sometimes said that religious poverty breeds irresponsibility and unhealthy dependency among religious. The religious can act as if s/he were emancipated from insecurity, from the need of creating the conditions of his/her life. Since everything is provided by the community, s/he can have a tension-free life. S/he risks becoming a responsible, independent person. Overdependence on the community can arrest his/her psychological maturity. To avoid this problem, religious communities should avoid becoming “communities of supply” to the members. They should help the members become adult persons who are capable of managing their life, without overdependence. The purpose of evangelical poverty is not to form religious to become “eternal babies,” but mature adults.