I have been reading one of those tough Catholic books that is designed to make you quake in your shoes and re-examine your life. It’s called “Happy Are You Poor: The Simple Life and Spiritual Freedom”. It is by Fr Thomas Dubay and is published by Ignatius Press. Why do I quake? Because I am taken out of my comfort zone and invited to follow Christ in voluntary poverty of life. Poverty, as the author says, is not the same as destitution – but neither is it just ordinary thrift and economy.
Dubay reminds us that “Evangelical poverty is radical and it is radical for all.” It is not just charitable giving of the kind that salves our conscience but does not actually get us out of our armchair and onto our knees. The author, who is writing for a western readership, obviously, not the residents of the slums of e.g. Buenos Aires, states that “An immense immobility characterises the whole problem of getting members of an affluent society even to discuss voluntary poverty in a manner that leads to practice.”
In this respect, Catholics in this country (I include myself) are not really distinguishable from their secular neighbours; yet we should be. We should be different – and in the manner of our lives, not just in our quaint beliefs. As always, being a tough book, Dubay brings up the example of the saints – those members of the mystical body who are set up as examples of the way we are really meant to live. With no exceptions, he says, the saints lived “a sparing-sharing lifestyle” i.e. severely sparing in their own lives and sharing what they had with others less fortunate.
We are inclined to think that voluntary poverty of the kind described here is really for members of the stricter religious orders, such as the Carthusians or the Poor Clares, and not for the vast majority of the Church composed of lay people. Dubay does make a distinction between levels of voluntary poverty embraced for the love of Christ according to whether one is married, single or living a vocation to the priesthood or religious life, but no-one is let off the hook. For married saints who understood the radical call of the Gospel, he cites the lives of St Elizabeth of Hungary, St Margaret of Scotland and St Thomas More. For saints who embraced the priesthood or religious life he has loads of examples of joyful poverty: Philip Neri, Francis of Assisi, Benedict Joseph Labre, Vincent de Paul, Charles Borromeo and so on.
Dubay asks, “If we wonder why, despite the millions of us who follow Christ, the world has not long ago been converted, we need not look far for one solution. We are not perceived as men on fire.” Ah. The Holy Spirit again. This brings me back to my Wednesday blog and Cardinal-designate Vincent Nichols. It’s not enough to talk about the evils of poverty, as experienced in Britain today under the Coalition government. Dubay explains: “People see a connection between dedicated celibacy on the one hand and frugality on the other.” He sees an “intrinsic relationship” between chastity and poverty – because of the life and example of Our Lord. His implication is that priests (and this includes those higher up the hierarchy, like archbishops and cardinals)who are celibate for the sake of the kingdom of heaven have greater freedom to live voluntary poverty in a radical fashion than married people – and should live accordingly.
According to Cardinal Murphy O’Connor in The Guardian for 18th February, Pope Francis and Nichols will get on well because “both pride themselves on their simple lives.” We all now know of the simple life led by the then Cardinal Archbishop Bergoglio of Buenos Aires: living in a small apartment rather than the episcopal palace; often travelling on the bus or on foot; frequently visiting the slums and celebrating Mass with their inhabitants; sharing his apartment with an elderly cleric and cooking for both of them. On his election as Pope, he was reminded by a friend “not to forget the poor” and thus decided on the entirely untraditional papal name of “Francis” – after the saint famous for his love of “Lady Poverty”.
Perhaps our new Cardinal could imitate the former Cardinal Archbishop of Buenos Aires and show his compassion for those forced to use food banks by living, not in Archbishop’s House, Westminster, but in a simple apartment nearby? Perhaps he could share this apartment with an elderly (and possibly difficult) retired cleric and cook his favourite Liverpudlian recipes for them both?
I have read that thousands of the dockland poor people lined the streets of London when Cardinal Manning died – because they knew he loved them. Could this be Nichols’ own legacy?
Lastly, here is advice for Archbishop Nichols and his recent political intervention taken from the back of Dubay’s book and written by that fine Catholic writer, Fr George Rutler: “Here finally is a systematic, practical – and rare – proclamation of Gospel poverty. It is a blatantly neglected element of Christian life, among the clergy and laity alike. Our spiritually superficial generation has defined poverty in political terms and has known it only as a thing to be cured. The blessed poverty of Christ is the radical cure”. The italics are mine.