Poverty is on my mind today. As an American, I do not think that I fully understand true material poverty. I have always had food to eat and a roof over my head. But this isn’t the only type of poverty. There is spiritual poverty. I have been debating which is worse: material poverty or spiritual poverty?
I have some experience with material poverty. Being in a large family, I saw all the sacrifices my parents made to ensure that our needs were met, yet we definitely had no excess. My mom stayed home with us while dad worked long hours. When other children came to our home, they couldn’t understand why each person was limited to 2 slices of pizza (homemade, of course!) My older sister and I shared clothing. I remember a time when all I had was a uniform which I wore to school, a pair of jeans, a top, a Sunday church outfit and hand-me-down pajamas.
I also have experience with spiritual poverty. As a liberal arts major at a public college, I was given a heavy dose of Marxism and Existentialism which rocked my world view. I was not wise enough to question these philosophies, nor was I formed enough in my own faith to combat the questions they raised. I actually believed my professors who said things like, “Forget everything that your parents have taught you. Their ideas are outdated. We are open-minded here and consider all thoughts.” These statements were lies on a very fundamental level which I won’t go into now. However, I did believe these professors and I let their agenda influence me. Over time, I found myself in a deep spiritual poverty. The choices I made during this dark time of my life were harrowing to say the least.
I guess in the end I would look to two world figures who probably know poverty better than most people, or at least show by their actions that they care for the poor. First, there is Blessed Mother Teresa. In A Simple Path: Mother Teresa, she says: “There are many in the world who are dying for a piece of bread but there are many more dying for a little love. The poverty in the West is a different kind of poverty — it is not only a poverty of loneliness but also of spirituality. There’s a hunger for love, as there is a hunger for God.”
Blessed Mother Teresa would visit America only out of obedience. It was very hard for her to be amidst such spiritual poverty. The material of poverty in India was easier for her to deal with than the spiritual poverty here. I feel her pain. I believe that spiritual poverty is much more challenging than material poverty. As I typed that last sentence, I am realizing that now that I have written this, God will probably let me experience true material poverty, which is scary indeed!
But the real difference in the types of poverty and how to respond to them is wonderfuly stated by the second world figure who I think deserves to be listened to because of his actions. That is Pope Francis. I think this excerpt from Pope Francis’ Lenten message for 2014 sums it up quite nicely:
“In imitation of our Master, we Christians are called to confront the poverty of our brothers and sisters, to touch it, to make it our own and to take practical steps to alleviate it. Destitution is not the same as poverty: destitution is poverty without faith, without support, without hope. There are three types of destitution: material, moral and spiritual. Material destitution is what is normally called poverty, and affects those living in conditions opposed to human dignity: those who lack basic rights and needs such as food, water, hygiene, work and the opportunity to develop and grow culturally. In response to this destitution, the Church offers her help, her diakonia, in meeting these needs and binding these wounds which disfigure the face of humanity. In the poor and outcast we see Christ’s face; by loving and helping the poor, we love and serve Christ. Our efforts are also directed to ending violations of human dignity, discrimination and abuse in the world, for these are so often the cause of destitution. When power, luxury and money become idols, they take priority over the need for a fair distribution of wealth. Our consciences thus need to be converted to justice, equality, simplicity and sharing.
No less a concern is moral destitution, which consists in slavery to vice and sin. How much pain is caused in families because one of their members – often a young person – is in thrall to alcohol, drugs, gambling or pornography! How many people no longer see meaning in life or prospects for the future, how many have lost hope! And how many are plunged into this destitution by unjust social conditions, by unemployment, which takes away their dignity as breadwinners, and by lack of equal access to education and health care. In such cases, moral destitution can be considered impending suicide. This type of destitution, which also causes financial ruin, is invariably linked to the spiritual destitution which we experience when we turn away from God and reject his love. If we think we don’t need God who reaches out to us though Christ, because we believe we can make do on our own, we are headed for a fall. God alone can truly save and free us.
The Gospel is the real antidote to spiritual destitution: wherever we go, we are called as Christians to proclaim the liberating news that forgiveness for sins committed is possible, that God is greater than our sinfulness, that he freely loves us at all times and that we were made for communion and eternal life. The Lord asks us to be joyous heralds of this message of mercy and hope! It is thrilling to experience the joy of spreading this good news, sharing the treasure entrusted to us, consoling broken hearts and offering hope to our brothers and sisters experiencing darkness. It means following and imitating Jesus, who sought out the poor and sinners as a shepherd lovingly seeks his lost sheep. In union with Jesus, we can courageously open up new paths of evangelisation and human promotion.