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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 institute’s 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.

  1. 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 means.

  2. 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 is strong.

    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.

  3. 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.

    1. 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.

    2. 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.

    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.

    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 could.

  4. 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 the wealthy.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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 of dependence.

  8. 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.

  9. Finally, the Church tells us each institute’s 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 Christ’s 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 eternity. Amen.

Retreat given to and recorded by the
Handmaids of the Precious Blood

Copyright © 1998 by Inter Mirifica

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