Evangelical Counsels: Poverty

Michael A. Hayes

Pope Francis established a special Year of Consecrated Life to run from Advent 2014 to the Feast of the Presentation on 2 February 2016. In his letter1 establishing this special year he outlined three aims: to look at the past with gratitude, a call to live the present with passion, and to embrace the future with hope.

In this context a relevant chapter in the Vatican II document on the Church, Lumen Gentium, is chapter five: ?The Call to Holiness?. Here we have the universal call to all the faithful to be holy, taking the impetus from St Paul?s declaration: ?for this is the will of God, your sanctification? (1Th. 4.3). ?This holiness of the Church is constantly shown forth in the fruits of grace which the Spirit produces in the faithful and so it must be; it is expressed in many ways by individuals who, each in his own state of life, tend to the perfection of love, thus sanctifying others; it appears in a certain way of its own in the practice of the counsels which have been usually called ?evangelical?? (LG. 39). These evangelical counsels are traditionally, in the Christian tradition, identified as poverty, chastity, and obedience. In reflecting on poverty, the counsel is to be understood not in terms of simply of not having possessions, but rather as a deliberate and radical renunciation of them to challenge how possessions stand in the way of equitable sharing.

In vowed religious communities, poverty is the renunciation of ownership of material goods for personal use, and the holding of all goods in common. While that in itself is a laudable witness, it must be understood in the context of a modelling on the life of Christ. Evangelical poverty is a deliberate choice to enter into solidarity with the poor precisely in order to follow Jesus? example of self-emptying: ?For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich? (2 Cor.8.9) and again ?but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men? (2 Phil. 2.7). Understood in this way poverty is not perceived as something negative but rather as a positive disposition. It is a positive because it aims at following Jesus more closely, of adopting his options and identifying with him in his identification with the poor, as in the striking parable of the sheep and goats: ?Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me? (Mt. 25.40). That statement of Jesus is unqualified, and as such demands to be taken seriously ? the choice of living that out through the evangelical counsels is a strong witness to the power of that call.

The decision for poverty on the part of some is a choice of solidarity with the poor, and a challenge to the wider Church for what is called ?the preferential option for the poor?. The deliberate witness of the religious expresses therefore a call which is not just for the few but a requirement of all who follow Christ.

Since the beginning of his ministry Pope Francis has repeatedly given voice to those who suffer the plight of poverty:

?Among our tasks as witnesses to the love of Christ, is that of giving a voice to the cry of the poor.?2 ?Poverty?, he states elsewhere, ?calls us to sow hope?. Poverty is the flesh of the poor Jesus, in that child who is hungry, in the one who is sick, in those unjust social structures.?3 Furthermore poverty he states is unacceptable in today?s world: ?the times talk to us of so much poverty in the world and this is a scandal. Poverty in the world is a scandal. In a world where there is so much wealth, so many resources to feed everyone, it is unfathomable that there are so many hungry children, that there are so many children without an education, so many poor persons. Poverty today is a cry.?4
The call of Pope Francis to attend to the poor is the call of the gospel; in today?s world of mass communication it is clearer than ever because the reality of poverty alongside great wealth is so apparent. It is also a call which is not just spoken but which is made incarnate by the choice of women and men to identify with Jesus? message and their brothers and sisters through the choice of living out the choice of poverty in an affluent world.???

1 ??? Pope Francis, Letter for the Year of Consecrated Life, 21st November 2014
2 ??? Pope Francis, Address to the Archbishop of Canterbury, 6/14/13
3 ??? Pope Francis, Meeting with Students of Jesuit Schools ? Q&A, 6/7/13
4 ??? Pope Francis, Meeting with Students of Jesuit Schools ? Q&A, 6/7/13