Sunday, April 19, 2009

Ready for Poverty?

Archbishop Timothy Dolan, now of New York, mentioned the following story in his book, Priests for the 3rd Millenium. I highly recommend it. He has such a great way of mixing storytelling with the faith in order to challenge seminarians, and even the faithful in this book, to live the Christian Gospel.

When I was doing graduate studies in Church history at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., I used to drive back to St. Louis at Christmas and summer for a visit home. The midway point on that fourteen-hour drive was Zanesville, Ohio. Except for it’s “Y” bridge and the Zane Grey Museum, not worth much of a stop, but I enjoyed spending the night with the Dominican fathers at their parish right off Highway 70. I always relished a visit with a crusty but wise old Dominican assigned there, and we would usually chat for a half-hour or so after supper. The frugality of his room always amazed me: one room, which served as his bedroom and study, one closet with all his clothing, one bookshelf, a desk, a crucifix, a few religious and family pictures, a reading chair, and lamp. That was it. One visit I asked, “Your room is so plain. Where do you keep the rest of your stuff?” “This is it,” he replied. “But it is so simple,” I countered. “Well, if I walk down to your room all you’ve got is your suitcase!” “Well, sure, but, after all, I’m just passing through.” Never will I forget his reply, “Aren’t we all?"

I've been struck recently by the reality that as seminarians and future priests, we are called to a life of simplicity. But I do not think we generally take this point seriously enough. In my wanderings through the lives of different priests and seminarians, I have always found they tend to collect something or indulge in this one thing as though they had a right to it. I find myself doing it as well. But I think the radicalness (I sure hope that is a word) of our ministry as alter Christus calls for an intense simplicity. Yeah, I have been told that we do not take a vow of poverty but I think our challenge is to get as close to that vow as we can in what things we own and the spirit in which we live with the things we do have. Archbishop Dolan makes a good point here mentioning Fr. Benedict Groeschel who says:

Poverty is the fundamental virtue because all things flow from that: poverty of the will, that we call obedience; poverty of the desires of the body, that we call chastity; and then the obvious poverty, freedom from material possessions. Poverty is the ultimate freedom.

And I am pretty sure as priests we are called to obedience and celibacy and therefore if they are so bound together, we should take this simplicity challenge more seriously. By the way, did you know Fr. Benedict Groeschel took the name Benedict after St. Benedict Joseph Labre? Check out his story. His life of poverty is amazing.

The question I think we should ask ourselves is, are we able to surrender things if they get in the way or someone else takes them from us? It's always hard. I realize this every time I go to a store and say to myself, I could use this or that. There is always that lingering temptation to buy buy buy. This past year or so has been a real challenge for me to simplify. I remember arriving in Rome with just 2 checked bags and 2 carry-ons. And that is what I have basically lived on for the past 8 months. And I am doing just fine. Yes, it would be nice to have a couple extra books or another jacket, but is it really all that important? Perhaps that should be the measure of how much we should have. Can I pack up in a day or so and move across the world and not force my diocese to pay hundreds of dollars in shipping fees. :)

I think the the model for us is the life of a diocesan priest, St. Jean Vianney, whose radicality in terms of simplicity meant he had practically nothing. And anything he did have, his coat or bed, he would freely give away. I think it is this simplicity, so radical to the point of utter poverty, that we are called to embrace even as diocesan priests. I can only begin to imagine the effect it can and will have on the faithful when they see their priests truly living the words of the Gospel and staking everything on Christ. And even more, how many men will be attracted to this truly authentic life of the Gospel.

Archbishop Dolan mentions 5 main reasons for simplicity: Keeps us close to God, keeps us close to the poor, reminds us that God is our ultimate possession, forces us to trust in God alone, and finally, it's a witness to the faithful. It's this last one I am focusing on.

And when it comes to evangelizing young people and especially in encouraging vocations, simplicity of the priest has such a strong role to play. This is from Pastores Dabo Vobis in which JP2 writes:

The lure of the so - called "consumer society" is so strong among young people that they become totally dominated and imprisoned by an individualistic, materialistic and hedonistic interpretation of human existence. Material "well - being," which is so intensely sought after, becomes the one ideal to be striven for in life, a well-being which is to be attained in any way and at any price. There is a refusal of anything that speaks of sacrifice and a rejection of any effort to look for and to practice spiritual and religious values. The all - determining "concern" for having supplants the primacy of being, and consequently personal and interpersonal values are interpreted and lived not according to the logic of giving and generosity but according to the logic of selfish possession and the exploitation of others.

This is especially important considering the world in which we live. Young people are disillusioned by the culture of materialism and consumerism where having more is the ultimate goal in life, even if it is not explicitly stated. You always have to have the nicer car or the good food or the designer clothing. The desire is there. And if we as seminarians and priests, show the faithful, that we buy into that same culture, our message will fall short of the recipients. They will see us for what we are, hypocrites. If we are going to stand and be messengers of Christ, we must do it with everything we have and every moment. Obviously we fall short and we continually call upon God's grace. But I think we must desire this simplicity that goes beyond the bare minimum of donating some of our salary to the Church and assuming that our lives of service as priests is enough. Especially today, when seminarians and priests are the ones who do not feel the direct effects of the economic recession in the pocket, are we not called to witness with not only our words but our actions, the poverty of Jesus Christ?

Hope you are all enjoying your Easter season. Christ is risen! Alleluia! AMDG.

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