Tag Archives: Poverty

Saints and the spirit of the poor

Blessed are the poor in spirit, theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

When I tried to think of holy men and women who exemplified poverty of spirit and even actually poverty, I found myself overwhelmed by the vast majority of saints who exemplified this virtue. But today I want to mention two holy women and a man.


Today is the feast of Saint Martin de Porres, a Dominican lay-brother who lived in Lima, Perú. Born of a Spanish nobleman and a freed black woman, he was disinherited by his father. Trained as a barber and a surgeon, he entered the Dominicans. There he served in the most humble task but soon his gifts of healing were recognized. But he also cared for the poor and sick outside the Dominican friary. He would bring them to his cell and care for them. But his superior ordered him to stop this practice. When Martin continued caring for the poor in his cell and was reprimanded, he responded: “Forgive my mistake, and please be kind enough to instruct me. I did not know that the precept of obedience took precedence over that of charity.”

He was truly, as his contemporaries noted, a “father of the poor.”

The second saint I thought of was Saint Clare of Assisi. Though she was from a rich family, she followed Christ, in the footsteps of Saint Francis, much to the consternation of her family. She was soon followed by other women who lived together by the church of San Damiano outside Assisi. These “Poor Ladies” sought to live in poverty – by the works of their hands and begging. They did not want to take up the practice of benefices and property that many convents of nuns had. She fought for this all her life and only shortly before death did she received confirmation from the pope for the Privilege of Poverty.

She not only advocated poverty but lived it. When the sisters came back from begging, she would wash their feet.


The third exemplar of poverty is not yet officially canonized, though Pope Francis spoke highly of her before the US Congress when he visited the US. Dorothy Day started out living a radical and bohemian life, but a life committed to justice. After her conversion, she sought to find a way to live out her faith and her commitment to the poor. After meeting Peter Maurin, they formed the Catholic Worker, first of all starting out with a newspaper. Later, they welcomed the poor. Catholic Worker houses of hospitality still dot the US landscape, serving the poor and marginalized in many ways.

Meditating on the lives of these three holy people of God, we may be able to discover how we ourselves may be called to live out the beatitude of the poor in spirit.

Francis and Gandhi: poverty and nonviolence

“Earth provides enough to satisfy every one’s need, but not every one’s greed.”

Today, the birthday of Mohandas Karamchad Gandhi, the Mahatma, in 1869, is the international day of nonviolence.


Though St. Francis never would have used the term “nonviolence,” he was an advocate of all that leads to peace.

In particular, St. Francis saw the relationship between possessions and war, taking seriously the words of Saint James (4:1-2):

Where do the wars and where do the conflicts among you come from? Is it not from your passions that make war within your members? You covet but do not possess. You kill and envy but you cannot obtain; you fight and wage war.

Because of this Francis sought a life of poverty for himself and his companions, a truly shocking proposal in the thirteenth century and even more so now.

The response of the church officials was strong. As G. K. Chesterton notes in Saint Francis of Assisi:

“The good Bishop of Assisi expressed a sort of horror at the hard life which the Little Brothers lived at the Portiuncula, without comforts, without possessions, eating anything they could get and sleeping anyhow on the ground. St. Francis answered him with that curious and almost stunning shrewdness which the unworldly can sometimes wield like a club of stone. He said, ‘If we had any possessions, we should need weapons and laws to defend them.”

There are few of us who have the courage and the trust in God to give up all, but we can start by trying to live lives of austerity.

I am not talking of the mandatory austerity that has often been imposed on countries since such austerity measures most often affect the poor.

I refer to the voluntary austerity that we see in Francis, in Gandhi, and in many who accompany the poor. This is what Pope Francis writes about in Gaudete et Exsultate, ¶70, commenting on the Beatitudes in Saint Luke’s Gospel :

Luke does not speak of poverty “of spirit” but simply of those who are “poor” (cf. Lk 6:20). In this way, he too invites us to live a plain and austere life. He calls us to share in the life of those most in need, the life lived by the Apostles, and ultimately to configure ourselves to Jesus who, though rich, “made himself poor” (2 Cor 8:9).

I believe that developing a spirituality of austerity, trying to live “a plain and austere life” is what will help us work to peace. Austerity, “sufficiency for all as the first priority,” is a personal commitment to the poor and can be,  in the words of Denis Goulet, “the economic expression of a society’s commitment to placing the needs of all above the wants of the few” (The Uncertain Promise,  p. 164).

When we learn to live austerely – as persons, as communities, as nations – we begin to live nonviolently, in the spirit of Francis and Gandhi.


The sculptures are found in a park south of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City.

Saint Francis and poverty

Saint Francis is often called “Il Poverello,” the Little Poor Man of Assisi – and rightly so. He sought to be poor as Christ was poor and, slightly modifying the word of Lawrence Cunningham, the poor Christ was “the hermeneutic lens through which he read the Gospel.”

For Francis, possessions keep us from responding to Christ and to the poor. If we have possessions, he said, we will seek arms to defend them.

This radical approach is a major challenge to me and to many in the Church. But it first of all means that we realize that we cannot be self-sufficient. Autonomy is a temptation of the devil.

What we need to develop is a real poverty of spirit and then respond in our lives to the call of the poor Christ. It is to become small, the minor, the lesser one.

André Vauchez, in Francis of Assisi: The life and afterlife of a medieval saint, puts it plainly:

But the more one is minor (small, humble), the more one is a brother of others and, first of all, of those with whom one lives. The ideal is thus not to seek to be sufficient unto oneself but to share what one receives and to accept that one needs others in the smallest details of daily life. The absolute poverty desired by Francis set up a new type of relationship— to goods, but also between persons, founded on genuine solidarity. The care of the other was indeed fundamental in the early community…

Openness to the other, putting oneself and all one has available for all – that’s a challenge.

But Vauchez sees Francis’s life as more than just a call to personal poverty, or at least a radical generosity. As he writes:

the project of Francis… was to give birth in the heart of the world a society without money and without goods, where an “economy of poverty” would prevail, characterized by liberality and the redistribution to disadvantaged persons of all that was not strictly indispensable to the survival of the community.

How can we build an “economy of poverty” in the midst of a world that glorifies wealth and power? How can we build a “civilization of poverty” (in the word of the martyred Jesuit Ignacio Ellacuría) in a civilization of consumption and accumulation?

francis leperThe first step, I think, is to do what Francis did and that St. Paul urged the Romans, “make friends with the poor – associate with the lowly” (Romans 12:16).

Do we know people who are impoverished by name?

Do we let ourselves be taught by the poor?

Do we look at life through the hermeneutical lens of the poor?

In the last century, a Hindu holy man, Mahatma Gandhi, left us a message that will help us recover and live the poverty of Francis.

I will give you a talisman. Whenever you are in doubt, or when the self becomes too much with you, apply the following test.
Recall the face of the poorest and weakest person whom you have seen, and ask yourself if the next step you contemplate is going to be of any use to that person. Will that person gain anything by it? Will it restore the person to a control over his or her own life and destiny? On other words, will it lead to freedom for the hungry and spiritually starving millions?
Then you will find your doubts and your self melting away.

Poverty, contemplation, and Charles de Foucauld

One hundred years ago today, on December 1, 1916, Charles de Foucauld was killed by Tuareg rebels in Tamanrasset, Algeria.

DSC06472My white diaconal stole bears his symbol of the heart of Jesus with the Cross. Why does he appeal to me so much?

When I lived in New York City in the early 1970s, I came across the Little Brothers of the Gospel, a community inspired by his life and spirituality. Their life of contemplation combined with living and working among the poor, inspired me. Their simplicity and their evangelization by the witness of their lives still challenge me.

This combination of accompanying the poor and living a contemplative life can be found in other heroes of mine – Saint Francis of Assisi, Servant of God Dorothy Day, and Saint Benedict the Black. There is no opposition between a life with Jesus and a life with the poor.

I hardly live a life like the poor, even though I live among them. I also fail to spend enough time in contemplation with the Lord. But these are the challenges of my life. These are the challenges that Blessed Charles de Foucauld gives me.

But I believe that I cannot respond well to these challenges until I can pray with conviction Charles de Foucauld’s Prayer of Abandonment:

Father, I put myself in your hands;
Father, I abandon myself to you.
I entrust myself to you.
Father, do with me as it pleases you.
Whatever you do with me,
I will thank you for it.
Giving thanks for anything, I am ready for anything.
As long as your will, O God, is done in me,
as long as your will is done in all your creatures,
I ask for nothing else, O God.
I put my soul into your hands.
I give it to you, O God,
with all the love of my heart,
because I love you,
and because my love requires me to give myself,
I put myself unreservedly in your hands
with infinite confidence,
because you are my Father.


Thanksgiving in difficult times

Almost twenty-fie years ago, I learned a profound lesson in thanksgiving in the midst of poverty.

In 1992 I spent a seven-month sabbatical in El Salvador, six months helping in the parish of Santa Lucía, Suchitoto, where I assisted the Salvadoran pastor and five US women religious.

They sent me out to the furthest part of the parish – a four hours walk from Suchitoto. They arranged for me to stay with Esteban Clavel (May he rest in peace) and his wife, Rosa Elbia, for several days each week.

EstebanRosaElbia copy.JPG

Esteban and Rosa Elbia 

The Clavel family had recently moved into the community of Haciendita II and had made a home in the ruins of cattle stalls. The family was large and eight of the children were living there at the time. To avoid displacing someone from a bed I brought a hammock to sleep in.

Life was simple. Each morning I heard Esteban waking the girls to go and fetch water from a source about 30 minutes away. Later the boys would go out with their father to work in the fields. Meals were simple: tortillas and beans (usually with too much salt). I would often bring coffee and a few fruits or vegetables when I came, but the diet was very boring – except when the mangos were ripe. In the rainy season water would come into the house, under the door, and there would be a small river beneath my hammock.

I helped train catechists, visited other nearby communities, and sought to be a pastoral presence. I also went out a few times to help dig the trench for the village’s water project.

What I most remember – beside the love and the hospitality the people showed me – was my experience upon awakening.

When I work up in my hammock, my first thought was “Thanks be to God.”

It wasn’t for the discomfort or the food. It was just a thank you for being there – even in the midst of the poverty. I could even say thank you when my bowels were not functioning well.

I didn’t need to have things work well to be able to give thanks.

This past month I feel as if I am re-learning this message. I have had one funeral for a couple who were killed in their home. I went with my neighbors to the site of two men killed in Plan Grande and prayed at the side of the coffin of one of them. I visited the prison for a workshop on nonviolence and met one young man who has been in prison for more than a year without a trial and two other young men who seem to be imprisoned for what in the US we might have labeled legitimate defense. Yesterday I visited a seventeen-year old who is bedridden, possibly from kidney failure and an inflamed liver, and who suffers from anemia. Her nine-month old child, though, is doing well.

These days it is cold and rainy – with lots of mud.

Yet I feel grateful – to these people who welcome me and respond to me with such generosity. The other day someone gave me a bag of oranges and would not take any money for them. Yesterday, after giving a ride to a few guys returning from their coffee fields, one gave me two oranges.

In all this, God is present, sustaining me.

And for all this I give thanks.

The poor Christ of St. Teresa


A critical moment in the life of Saint Teresa of Avila was her contemplation of Christ Crucified. She later wrote on this encounter with the suffering, poor Christ:

“When I fell to prayer again and looked at Christ hanging poor and naked upon the Cross, I felt I could not bear to be rich. So I besought him with tears to bring it to pass that I might be as poor as he.”

In her reform of the Carmelites, poverty and begging were important. They were called “Dsicalced” because they wore hemp sandals, not fancy shoes.

She wanted to be poor like the poor Christ.

But this was not only a message for her sisters – and for her fellow Carmelite reformer, St. John of the Cross. It was a message that she saw as important for all believers, for the whole Body of Christ. As she wrote in  Conceptions of the Love of God,

 “Some people have all they need and a good sum of money shut up in their safe as well. Because they avoid serious sins, they think they have done their duty, They enjoy their riches and give an occasional alms, yet never consider that their property is not their own, but that God has entrusted it to them to share with the poor. . . . We have no concern with this except to ask God to enlighten such people. . . and to thank him for making us poor, which we should hold as a special favor on his part.”

This is quite a challenge for most of us, but reminds me of the call of Pope Francis to be a poor church, a church for the poor – or, as Pope Saint John XXIII hoped, a church of the poor.


The gift of the humble

As I sat down to eat breakfast this morning I heard a knock on my door. Eliú, a neighbor’s son, brought me some cookies that his aunt Rosaura had sent.

Last night was the novenario, the night and final night of prayer for Rosaura’s husband who died nine days ago.

I went to the rosary in her house and said a few words, but I did not stay around for the long night but walked home.

The gift this morning of a widow touched me deeply, especially after reading the first verse of today’s Gospel, Luke 10:21:

“I give you praise, Father, Lord of heaven and earth,
for you have hidden these things from the wise and the learned
and revealed them to the children.”

Truly the wisdom of God comes from the poor, as Pope Francis has said.

cross-foucauldThis was made even clearer to me this morning when I read a selection from the autobiography of Blessed Charles de Foucauld, who was killed on December 2, 1916, in Tamanrasset, in what is now Algeria.

He had sought to live among the poor as Jesus lived in Nazareth – not preaching, but being a living witness.

He sought to found a community but the Little Brothers and Sisters of Jesus and the Little Brothers and Sisters of the Gospel emerged years after his death. They live their lives, working as the poor, living among them. Brother Charles and the Little Brothers and Little Sisters have been a inspiration to me since I first met several of them in New York City in the early 1970s.

Blessed Charles’s reflection from June 17, 1916, touches me deeply and offers me a challenge for Advent – how to live more humbly among the poor.

      “The first worshippers, the first company it pleased our Lord to have at his manger, were the most humble, unsophisticated, unimportant and simple people — shepherds.
“He did not merely accept them: he called them, having them called by pure spirits, the angels…
“We should have infinite regard for the most unimportant, humble and unsophisticated people, our brothers [and sisters], honoring them as Jesus’ intimates, realizing that they deserve to be, for they are generally the simplest and purest people, least wrapped in pride. We should mix with them and so far as God wills, be one of them. We should do all possible for their bodies and souls, treating them with honor for the honor of Jesus, and fraternally, so as to have the honor and good fortune of being reckoned one of them. Unhappy is he whose insensate pride despises them whom God puts in the first ranks — ‘as long as you did it to one of these my least brethren, you did it to me.’”



A living Gospel

Yo quiero ser un evangelio viviente
I want to be a living Gospel

Last night in El Zapote Santa Rosa, celebrating St. Francis their patron, the first hymn they sang in their procession had this refrain – “I want to be a living Gospel.”

El Zapote St Francis

In a way that is what Saint Francis is about, being a living Gospel, incarnate in the reality where people live. The subtitle of Lawrence Cunningham’s work Saint Francis  puts it well: “Performing the Gospel Life.”

But for Francis it was not an easy incarnation since it involved following the poor Christ, the God who became poor in Jesus.

How incredible is the Christian faith. We believe in a God who became flesh, who was born poor and lived poor. He could have had anything and saved us in any way, but he became one of us, one of the poor among us.

This week I spent a night with the volunteers at Amigos de Jesús, a home and school for children near Maquelizo, Santa Bárbara. I had shared with them a reading from Padre Pedro Arrupe about the poverty of Christ, part of which can be found here.

One of the women shared with us what she had been reading from a book called The Imitation of Mary. She noted that Mary, saying yes to the Incarnation of Jesus in her body, could have asked God for anything, but she chose poverty.

That remark reflects what Francis wrote in his Letter to All the Faithful:

Though rich beyond counting, He chose poverty, as did His blessed Mother.

How can we, the privileged from the United States, be a living Gospel, be Good News to the poor?

Francis was in many ways like many of us from the north – privileged. But he chose to serve the lepers, to live as one of the marginalized, and to follow the poor Christ by living poor.

What can we do?


On October 7, 1772, John Woolman, a Quaker tailor and writer, died in England of smallpox.

He had lived, worked, and traveled around the Philadelphia area, but had gone to England to spread his message of the incompatibility of Christianity and slavery.

Many years ago I read his Diary and was impressed by his simplicity as well as his fervor in visiting other Quakers with his message of resisting oppression by refusing to cooperate with slavery.

He consistently refused to stay with slave owners; he also ate no sugar or molasses since they were the products of slave labor.

In his plea for the poor he wrote:

O that we who declare against wars, and acknowledge our trust to be in God only, may walk in the light, and therein examine our foundations and motives in holding great estates! May we look upon our treasures, the furniture of our houses, and our garments, and try whether the seeds of war have nourishment in these our possessions.

Though few of us are as consistent as he was but we should keep his example in mind as we seek to live as disciples of the peaceful Christ.

Preaching, poverty, and prayer

Saint Dominic – Domingo Guzman – was a contemporary of Saint Francis. Like his contemporary he saw the necessity to preach the Gospel while living in poverty and simplicity.

Dominic began his ministry in southern France, where the dualist Cathars had attracted many, especially by their simple way of life. Dominic saw preaching effectively should include a simple way of life. He and his bishop preached barefoot and did not travel in the fancy carriages of other preachers. They also established a house for women which became the source of the Dominican sisters.

Eventually Dominic and male followers established the Order of Friars Preachers, first with diocesan approval and then later with the approval of the pope.

In one sense Francis sought to personify the Gospel by his life and his preaching, which we witness especially in the stigmata which he bore in the last two years of his life.

Dominic, on the other hand, sought to preach the Good News and saw his followers as disciples and missionaries. For this task, he saw the need for study, something that distinguished him from St. Francis.

But both Francis and Dominic saw the need to live poorly, to witness to the Gospel in the way their friars lived – wandering about preaching, living simply, and begging.

Dominic’s legacy includes great theologians, like St. Albert the Great and St. Thomas Aquinas. The mystic St. Catherine of Siena was a lay Dominican. Bishop Bartolomé de las Casas, the great advocate of the indigenous in the Americas, joined the Dominicans, probably in part because of their strong preaching against slavery. In our days, the liberation theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez joined the Dominicans after many years as a diocesan priest in Perú.

Preaching the Gospel does not only demand knowledge of the scriptures. It is not only nurtured by careful study. Preaching the Gospel demands a simple life, a life where poverty has a part.

As he lay dying, Dominic addressed these words to his brothers, as cited in Richard McBrien’s Lives of the Saints :

My dear sons, there are my bequests: practice charity in common, remain humble, stay poor willingly.

Robert Ellsberg, in All Saints, has a slightly different version:

 All my children, what I leave to you: have charity, guard humility, and make your treasure out of voluntary poverty.

If we would follow these words, our witness and our preaching would be much more credible. Perhaps that is why Pope Francis is so inspiring.

But such ministry must also be based in deep prayer.

In the Dominican friary of San Marco in Florence, Fra Angelico and his students painted frescoes on the walls of the friars’ cell. In the bottom of a fresco of the Mocking of Christ is found the image of Dominic, sitting, meditating on the Scriptures.

St. Dominic (by Fra Angelico)

St. Dominic (by Fra Angelico)

In the sight of the suffering Christ, we are called to meditate on God’s Word – listening to the voice of God.

With this base, we can live the Good News as Francis and Dominic did – in the light of God’s love for us.