Poverty as an Evil and Poverty as a Good
by Philip Trower
On 19th November the Church will celebrate the first “World Day of the Poor” which the Holy Father instituted last year at the end of the Jubilee of Mercy by means of the Apostolic Letter “Misericordia et misera”. Then on the 13th June he issued a Papal Message entitled “Do not be resigned to the scandal of poverty” to prepare more immediately for the event. Here he said that in the week before the World Day he wants Christian communities to “make every effort to create moments of encounter and friendship, solidarity and concrete assistance” with the poor.
No one, I think could deny that Poverty is the subject nearest his heart. I always remember how he told people in Buenos Aires not to spend money on coming to his inauguration in Rome, but to give it to the poor.
However, the Holy Father is not a systematic thinker. Indeed I think one can in fairness say that he has to some degree a positive dislike of systematic thought --- or at any rate of too much of it --- so one finds that there is more to his Message than the ‘scandal of poverty'. Poverty has two faces, one bad and ugly, the other beautiful and good. His thinking swings backwards and forward between these two poles. Perhaps we can simplify things if we think of the former as ‘destitution’ and the latter as poverty in an evangelical sense. It is destitution which is the scandal and which we must do our best to eliminate in so far as that is possible.
(For the impossibility of bringing about an earthly utopia this side of the last day in the teaching of St Thomas and v. Balthasar, see Catholic Theology by Prof. Tracey Rowland, Bloomsbury London, 2017. Prof. Rowland is a member of the International Theological Commission.)
Here is an example of the way the Holy Father’s thinking swings between two poles. He begins by roasting us over the fires of St John Chrysostom’s prose for a few lines. “If you want to honour the body of Christ, do not scorn it when it is naked; do not honour the Eucharistic Christ with silk vestments, and then, leaving the Church, neglect the other Christ suffering from cold and nakedness.” But this is followed by an about-turn. “Their outstretched hand,” he continues “is also an invitation to step out of our certainties and comforts, and to acknowledge the value of poverty in itself….. Poverty means having a humble heart that accepts our creaturely limitations and sinfulness and thus enables us to overcome the temptation to feel omnipotent and immortal. Poverty is an interior attitude that avoids looking upon money, career and luxury as our goal in life and the condition for our happiness. Poverty instead creates the conditions for freely shouldering our personal and social responsibilites, despite our limitations….. Poverty understood in this way, is the yardstick that allows us to judge how best to use material goods and to build relationships that are neither selfish nor possessive (CCC 25-45).”
Then comes a passage in which the two kinds of poverty are juxtaposed in a single brief paragraph.
“If we want to change history and promote real development, we need to hear the cry of the poor and commit ourselves to ending their marginalization. At the same time, I ask the poor in our cities and our communities not to lose the sense of evangelical poverty that is part of their daily life.”
The Message ends with the statement that “sharing with the poor enables us to understand the deepest truth of the Gospel. The poor are not a problem; they are a resource from which to draw as we strive to accept and practice in our lives the essence of the Gospel.”
Where does all this leave us? Are we to say that only voluntary poverty is acceptable. I don’t think this is the Holy Father’s meaning. He seems to be talking about the non-destitute poor who were born poor and have not been able to lift themselves out of that condition.
It will be interesting to see if the Holy Father throws any further light on this question during the course of the year.
I quoted the Holy Father just now as saying that if we want to change history and end the marginalisation of the poor we must promote development and with this word we reach an idea which only entered the teaching of the papal magisterium, or its social teaching in the last sixty years or so.
Promoting ‘human development’ is not just a matter of coming to the relief of the destitute or championing the legal rights workers and the poor generally within your own country. Such had been the focus of the Catholic social movement in modern times; that is since the mid-nineteenth century, when it was initiated by a group of apostolic French and German laymen who gained the ear of Pope Leo XIII with his first and famous social encyclical Rerum Novarum as the result.
The call for “ human development” is something different. Mother Church has been telling us for some years now that the economically, scientifically and technically prosperous nations of the world have a moral obligation to help poor or Third World countries as a whole to reach the same level of prosperity education and technical know-how without if possible destroying anything good in their culture at the same time.
For this to work well, or without provoking opposition in the donor countries, it is important that the rulers or politicians of the recipient countries should act honestly --- a point St John Paul II makes in his social encyclical Re Sollicitudo Socialis. Nevertheless The Pope does not see the possibility or even likelihood of some unlawful Swiss bank accounts as invalidating the undertaking as a whole.
I am now going to describe a new religious order devoted to the service of the poor which I came across a few years ago because it illustrates so well what the Church is already doing for the poor in addition to what still needs to be done. Called The Missionary Servants of the Poor of the Third World, it began in Peru in the high Andes and most of its work is still in South America, although it has now spread to Cuba, Mexico and Hungary as well.
Founded in 1986 by a Sicilian Augustinian priest called Fr. Giovanni Salerno, he was appropriately enough inspired by reading Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Populorum Progressio. Also, having always wanted to serve the poor in mission lands, he early in his career persuaded his superiors to let him train as a doctor. Initially destined for the Belgian Congo, he was subsequently switched to Peru in 1968 when his superiors were asked to undertake missionary work there. Here he worked as a missionary doctor for the next 18 years in the High Andes, before making Cuzco the headquarters of his own order.
A booklet published by the order, On Mission with God in the Andes gives a good idea of just how tough the conditions for missionaries are there and how desperately poor and down-trodden many of the people.
Example One. “As I mentioned earlier, I became gravely ill in Tambo-bamba after a long trip on horseback undertaken to treat a young layman who was sick and alone. I was consumed by fever shivering with cold and spitting up blood. There was no highway into the village or any medicines.” Earlier, “while crossing a river by a very narrow bridge made of interlaced branches, my saddle girth broke and I was in danger of falling off the horse and into the river.” Fortunately “that capable animal knelt forward on his own and let me down in front of him. So I finished crossing the bridge on foot.” On another occasion having lost his way in the dark on what he thought was a level plain he spent the night sleeping in the wet on the ground, only to find on waking that he was on the edge of a precipice.
Example Two. “I have suffered much because of the baptisms I administered in the mountains of Apurimac where according to the custom of that region baptism was the official ceremony by which a child became practically the slave of the godfather. The godfather by right of the tie created by the baptism could assume not only the rights of the godchild but the entire family. Because of the danger of this exploitation of poor people, I didn’t administer a single baptism in Tambobamba for two years.” Eventually the local bishop gave him permission to celebrate baptisms without godparents.
Volunteers from all over the world come to help him and on one occasion two from Austria “went into the mountains to visit people in their poor huts. And in one of them, with no mattress, blankets or anything they had found a little girl named Lourdes, barely nine years old, with a tumour on her knee that weighed three kilos and prevented her from walking. She lived practically abandoned. Only a neighbour brought her a bowl of soup every once in a while.”
None of this, of course is unique to Peru, but it seems a not inappropriate reminder of the degree of so much Third World poverty.
Another characteristic of Fr. Giovanni and his missionaries is their concern for remedying spiritual as much as material poverty. The order now has schools and convents run by priests, brothers and nuns where the children and young people are not only educated and taught trades but given a sound formation in the faith and spiritual life. There are also groups of contemplatives, clerical and lay who support all this work by their prayers.
In I968 Fr Giovanni was received by St John Paul II who already knew about and admired the movement, saying “It is really Opus Christi salvatoris mundi”. Fr. Giovanni has adopted this as a complementary name for his order. (1)
To conclude I will return briefly to our present Holy Father again.
Speaking of the appointment by St Peter of the 7 deacons to care for the poor, he says: “This is certainly one of the first signs of the entrance of the Christian community upon the world’s stage: the service of the poor. The earliest community realised that being a disciple of Jesus meant demonstrating fraternity and solidarity, in obedience to the Master’s proclamation that the poor are blessed and heirs to the Kingdom of heaven (Mt 5:3).”
Then quoting St James: “ Listen, my beloved brethren. Has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? ”
Finally: “Over two thousand years how many pages of Church history have been written by Christians who, in utter simplicity and humility, and with generous and creative charity, have served their poorest brothers and sisters.”
The mystery of the inter-relationship between the two poverties is not resolved. But that, surely, is hardly surprising. If it could be it would no longer be a mystery.
1. For anyone wishing to send a donation, the addresses are (a) for the USA: Friends of the Missionary Servants of the Poor TW, 5800 W. Monastery Rd, Hulbert, OK 74441.
(b) For England:Missionary Servants of the Poor TW, 1Willow Dene, Pinner, HA5 3LT
Copyright © Philip Trower 2017
Version: 5th September 2017