Pope Francis has been getting a bit of criticism recently for his critique of the “culture of prosperity.” But his critique is not without precedent. Not only did Jesus warn about “filthy mammon,” but so did many of His followers.
When St. John Bosco went off for the seminary, his poor illiterate mother warned him, “If you have the misfortune to get rich, I shan’t set foot in your house again.”
Don Bosco remembered this and dedicated his life to poor youth, especially in the industrialized cities of northern Italy in the nineteenth century. The congregation he founded, the Salesians, still devotes itself to the education and care of the young, even though in some places their school are havens for the rich. But Don Bosco maintained a commitment to the poor. As he noted:
I have promised God that until my last breath I shall have lived for my poor young people. I study for you, I work for you, I am also ready to give my life for you.
In fourth century Rome, St. Marcella had come from a wealthy family and married a wealthy Roman. After only seven months of marriage he died. As a widow she devoted herself to prayer and study of the Scriptures. She gave away her wealth, preferring to store her money in the stomachs of the needy than hide it in a purse.”
On January 31, 1915, Thomas Merton was born. He subsequently entered the Trappists and became one of the most important spiritual writers of the twentieth century.
Though Merton lived in a monastery, he too was aware of the dangers of wealth. As he wrote in 1949 to Sister Marialein Lorenz’s class,
I believe sometimes that God is sick of the rich people and the powerful and wise men of the world and that He is going to look elsewhere and find the underprivileged, those who are poor and have things very hard; even those who find it most difficult to avoid sin; and God is going to come down and walk among the poor people of the earth, among those who are unhappy and sinful and distressed and raise them up and make them the greatest saints and send them walking all over the universe with the steps of angels and the voices of prophets to bring his light back into the world again.
Like Don Bosco, St. Marcella, and Thomas Merton, Pope Francis is warning us about the dangers of wealth, as he writes in Evangelii Gaudium, ¶ 54:
To sustain a lifestyle which excludes others, or to sustain enthusiasm for that selfish ideal, a globalization of indifference has developed. Almost without being aware of it, we end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, the poor, weeping for other people’s pain, and feeling a need to help them, as though all this were someone else’s responsibility and not our own. The culture of prosperity deadens us…
This is a danger for all of us – no matter how much or how little we have. This merits our prayer and careful examination of our lives and our hearts.