In several places in the New Testament, Jesus meets up with people who ask Him what they should do to gain eternal life. Jesus invariably tells them that, in addition to obeying the Commandments, if they want to be perfect, they should sell all that they have and follow Him. In other words, they ought to impoverish themselves in order to obtain the Kingdom of God and to be able to proclaim the Gospel to the poor. St. Paul tells us that God became poor, taking on the form of a human being, shedding all of the advantages of divinity. He lived the greater part of his life as a poor carpenter, one like many other men of his village, sanctifying daily life and giving it value. Nevertheless, neither Jesus nor any of the first Christians ever said that being poor was a good thing. To live on the margins of society was not a desirable thing in itself. On the contrary, the Gospel is a call to the poor to unite themselves with the Christian community and to share everything in common, recognizing that everything has come from God.
Choosing poverty is something entirely different. To choose it for the sake of the Kingdom of God is the most radical form of following Jesus Christ. A relationship is formed of total dependence on the goodness and mercy of God. It is an acceptance in total humility of the fact that I am not god, that I receive everything and so therefore I owe everything to God. Humility, gratitude and thankfulness are not attitudes that are greatly valued in our world of today. How many times do we thank someone and we don’t really feel gratitude? When can we accept without envy that others have their own gifts? Humility is nothing more than the acceptance of reality as it is rather than how we want it to be. For that reason, true poverty is a gift from God. It is not a gift only for those of us who opt for a life in a religious community. I know several people who have formed communities of a simple lifestyle, or families who try to maintain a style of life that respects the environment. They contribute according to their abilities and resources to the common welfare. They certainly demonstrate their poverty although it might not be with a poster. Poverty only requires that you know who you are before God and everyone else.
Poverty has been something practical and important for all of my apostolic life as a Jesuit. From the beginning of my life as a religious, I wanted to work among the poor and especially among the poor Hispanics of the United States. When I was ordained as a priest almost 45 years ago, this ministry took up all of my time, forming parish communities, working in jails and teaching adults. Later, I got my license as an attorney precisely so that I could supply to the poor a service that was so necessary. It was my own poverty that empowered me and allowed me to do the ministry of law. I did not have to charge the money necessary to maintain the office because I knew that others were going to provide it. If this were truly a ministry from the Lord, then it was up to the Lord to maintain it. For more than 30 years, I never lacked anything. I always had the necessary resources in order to keep going. I never had to look for clients because the Lord guided them to my poor office from all parts of the world without my ever having to publicize my services. Nothing would have been possible if it were not for poverty. For me poverty was liberational.
And exactly for that reason, freedom, poverty is a gift of the Holy Spirit of God. I think that many people believe that poverty is something that restricts them, that puts ropes on possibilities. It doesn’t allow for a person to do what he or she wants or to realize their dreams. They are correct up to a certain point. Nevertheless, voluntary poverty, or what is sometimes called the spirit of poverty, liberates a person from the pursuit of acquisition, from looking to possess more and more, from the unending race to get things that are superfluous, comfortability, or the newest thing. Today having a portable phone is a necessity, but that does not mean that you need the most expensive phone. You have to have shoes, but shoes in the latest style that will be changed in a few months? The poor and humble of the whole world have learned how to accept what they receive from the hand of God, and that is a lesson that should be learned by others.
We have been made aware by the scientists and analysts that the resources that we can extract from the planet are limited and that we are consuming them at such a rapid rate that they will soon all be used up. At the same time, we are destroying the environment of the Earth, we are creating changes in the climate that are not sustainable, and we are wasting energy, food and water. Species of animals that developed over millions of years are disappearing. We are not leaving behind for the coming generations the world that we have inherited from our ancestors. Why? Because we have not yet learned what poverty can teach us? The Second Person of the Holy Trinity became poor so that we could have life in abundance. The gift of poverty leads us to despoil ourselves, to conserve and utilize well what we have received and to recognize that creation is not just to be enjoyed by the privileged, whether they be individuals or nations.
There is another important benefit that the gift of poverty brings us: peace. How many people spend their lives running from one place to another trying to earn more, acquire more, be more popular or more famous, to have more prestige, to enjoy more the pleasures that the world can offer? They are never still, they are never at peace, because they do not seem to be happy ever. On the other hand, the person who has the gift of poverty is in tune with the world, lives in harmony with nature and does not treat others as objects or as enemies who it is necessary to conquer or to relegate to a lower place. To accept life as it is, to receive with humility the good and the bad, and to live knowing oneself results in profound peace.
One last thing. I understand that poverty is a different thing for an American, a Honduran, a Congolese and an Indian. I would never say that it is acceptable that someone has to live without enough food or without a home. One of the goals of the gift of poverty is to level the large discrepancies that exist with regard to wealth. But that will never happen if those who possess more are not content with less. As with every gift, the gift of poverty is not given to everyone. One can ask for it, but that does not guarantee its being given. It is up to us who receive it to embrace it and to live according to what God asks of us.