Arts and Culture

Two Meanings Of Poverty

10th and last in a series

It is almost impossible to read a story about Pope Francis that does not mention that he emphasizes the needs of the poor. Many religious leaders have spoken about the poor and about our obligation to be concerned about the poor and to help the poor, but somehow Pope Francis’ message seems to be having a special impact. The attractiveness and appeal of the pope seem to help greatly in conveying his message.

During the last few months I have come to believe that one way to enter more deeply into the Holy Father’s vision of humanity is to reflect on two meanings of poverty that shed light on his profound understanding of human nature and on his grasp of world problems, and also how to solve those problems.

One meaning of poverty I describe as “poverty in being,” the other I call “poverty in having.” Every human person is poor in being. To be finite is to be fragile and limited. We are fragile physically, psychologically and spiritually. None of us is God. We have no choice about being poor in being. This is how we find ourselves. This is how God made us. We are created for a loving relationship with God and with our brothers and sisters and nothing less will fulfill us. On this side of heaven not even those loving relationships will totally fulfill us.

Poverty in having is to lack sufficient goods and possessions to lead a decent human life. One third of the human race is poor in having. Because that portion of the human race does not have enough to eat, many are starving to death. Billionaires are not poor in having. Probably some billionaires are so rich they do not even know how much money they have. However, on the level of being, billionaires are as poor as the rest of us, as fragile and finite as the rest of us. If a billionaire does not know that he or she is as poor in being as the rest of us, that person’s life might turn out to be a spiritual disaster. Such a person might implicitly think they are “quasi-divine,” in no need of any kind of help from anyone, including God. Such a person might not even believe that he or she needs redemption.

Free from Illusions

Perhaps one reason that Jesus talks so much in Scripture about the poor in having is that their experience of physical poverty might help them to be aware of how needy they are in being. I suspect that this is one reason that members of religious orders take vows of poverty. The vow is a powerful sign and reminder that they – like the rest of us – are dependent on God. The vow of poverty should free those who take it from any inordinate attachment to possessions. For those who take a vow of poverty, the illusion that our society promotes – namely that things are going to free us, save us and redeem us, and that our value as persons can be seen by what we possess – should be exposed as an illusion.

Reflecting on our poverty in being can help us see more deeply into God’s love for us. No one of us had the right to be created. Each of us is created from nothing by God’s love. All of creation is a product of Divine Love. Every second of our lives, God’s love keeps us in existence. The crucifixion of Jesus is the great sign of God’s love. The Son of God identified with us even unto death. Divine providence surrounds us because of God’s love for us.

I am saddened every time I hear that large numbers of Catholics have stopped attending Mass regularly. Somehow the truths that the Church teaches about the celebration of the Eucharist are not appreciated by many. How could anyone who believes that the Risen Christ is offering Himself to the Father at every Eucharist, and that those present can receive the Risen Christ, not attend Mass regularly?

Reflecting on our poverty in being can help us to see how the virtue of hope dictates our way of relating to God. I agree completely with St. Paul that love is the greatest of the three virtues, but the longer I live, the more I appreciate how important hope is. We are called to place our trust, our very lives in the loving embrace of God. We don’t save or redeem ourselves. We are saved and redeemed by the Incarnate God’s life, death and resurrection. Nothing is more powerful than God’s love for us, Nothing! Pope Francis tells us this profound truth, at least implicitly, in everything he writes and every time he speaks.