A plea and challenge to Jesuits: Embrace authentic poverty

Pope Francis greets an elderly woman as he meets with people of Banado Norte, a poor neighborhood in Asuncion, Paraguay, July 12, 2015. (CNS photo/Paul Haring) 

On Feb. 19, the Society of Jesus sent out to its members a letter detailing four “universal apostolic preferences,” approved by Pope Francis, that are to guide the life and work of the Jesuits over the next 10 years. They center around Ignatian spirituality, poverty, youth and the environment. The second preference, walking with the poor, provides an opportunity for the Jesuits to change their way of life and make their mission more credible.

St. Ignatius explains the 30-day retreat he calls Spiritual Exercises as a “way of preparing and disposing the soul to rid itself of all inordinate attachments, and, after their removal, of seeking and finding the will of God in the disposition of our life for the salvation of our soul.” Anything that can help people find the will of God is of universal and permanent value for all believers.

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The apostolic preference of “walk[ing] with the poor, the outcasts of the world, those whose dignity has been violated, in a mission of reconciliation and justice” follows from two key meditations in the Spiritual Exercises. But the meaning of that preference could be missed. It is not about directly working for the poor, although it certainly includes that. Essentially, it is living like the poor.

The second preference, walking with the poor, provides an opportunity for the Jesuits to change their way of life and make their mission more credible.

Because Jesuit life is based on the Exercises, my assumption is that this preference is grounded, first, on the “Kingdom meditation,” in which Jesus invites us to “labor with” him to establish the reign of God on earth. But the response Ignatius proposes makes clear that the invitation is more to a way of life than to a particular kind of work: “Eternal Lord of all things...this is the offering of myself which I make...to imitate you in bearing all wrongs and all abuse and poverty, both actual and spiritual, should your most holy majesty choose to admit me to such a state and way of life” (emphasis added).

This is reinforced in the meditation on the “Two Standards,” in which Ignatius identifies the respective strategies of the devil and of Jesus. The devil tempts people to two things that are not in and of themselves sinful—to seek wealth and prestige—but nevertheless set people up for the sin of all sins, pride.

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The strategy of Jesus to combat pride is to urge people to embrace two things that in and of themselves are not good but that together lead to one great good. The first, writes Ignatius, is “poverty as opposed to affluence”; the second is “insults or contempt as opposed to the prestige of this world.” These prepare the ground for us to receive the third virtue: “humility as opposed to pride.” This strategic insight may be St. Ignatius’ greatest contribution to theology.

If the clergy follows Pope Francis’ example, the public image of the church might be transformed from one of wealth and prestige to one of poverty and humility.

We see a sterling example of humility in Pope Francis. One of his first notable acts when elected was to move out of the papal palace. The first Jesuit pope refused the honorific titles and trappings of papal protocol and made himself available to the poor. Francis has changed the entire image of the papacy and our expectation of how a pope should act. If the hierarchy and clergy follow his example, the public image of the entire church might be transformed from its image of wealth and prestige to one of poverty and humility.

I was a Jesuit for 32 years. I left because I felt called to help form a new religious order (which did not work out). Though I was critical of the way we Jesuits were living out our vow of poverty and made my criticism known in talks and in the Jesuit publication Studies in the Spirituality of Jesuits,” my issues with poverty were not the reason I left. I was satisfied I could live personal poverty, even if communal poverty was not all that it should be. But since St. Ignatius calls poverty the “outer bulwark” of religious life, I believed then and still do that the Jesuits needed to defend it as a first priority.

It is to this that the Jesuits have dedicated themselves: to “walk with the poor and outcasts of the world” by living like them in “bearing all wrongs and all abuse and poverty,” according to the Spiritual Exercises. And in this way to embrace the “mission of reconciliation and justice.”

It is to this that the Jesuits have dedicated themselves: to “walk with the poor and outcasts of the world.”

To “walk with” is to accompany. It is to do for the poor what God did for the human race by becoming one of us. Jesus validated humanity by becoming Emmanuel, “God with us.” Henceforth, nothing human can be despised. By becoming poor with the poor, the Jesuits will validate the “outcasts of the world, those whose dignity has been violated.”

To paraphrase Philippians 2:5 and Hebrews 4:15, to “walk with the poor” is to let the same mind be in us that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was rich, emptied himself, being born in poverty. It is to give to the poor ministers able to sympathize with what they experience, being in every respect as they are, except in what is dehumanizing or detrimental to the greater good.

Jesuit poverty should be as dramatically visible and shocking as the incarnation of Jesus. This statement only repeats Pope Paul VI, who defined Christian witness as a lifestyle that “stirs up irresistible questions in the hearts of those who see how they live: Why are they like this? Why do they live in this way?” Jesuits should live in a way that raises eyebrows. Anybody who sees a Jesuit on the street should be able to identify him as one who is at home with “the poor and outcasts of the world.”

Jesuit poverty should be as dramatically visible and shocking as the incarnation of Jesus.

Many Jesuit schools educate primarily the wealthy. True, these high schools and colleges work hard to enroll as many poor students as possible. Nevertheless, in working with the sons and daughters of the upper classes, one can easily slip into the trappings of the upper classes. Should the Society take its men out of these schools or accept the challenge of living a poor lifestyle within them?

Living a poor lifestyle is a communal challenge. Rick Thomas, S.J., who worked with the poor in El Paso, Tex., told me of his frustration when, at a Jesuit meeting in Mobile Ala., he was served steak. “The people I work with get a piece of meat like this maybe once a year,” Father Thomas said. “I don’t want to eat steak. But it’s all there is.” Not uncommon is the story of a college faculty member who was regularly invited to dinner at a Jesuit community and told one of his hosts: “I love dinner with the Jesuits. I can’t afford to eat like that myself.”

So how does one live poverty when it is not a communal commitment? That is the gauntlet the Jesuits have just taken up. Their second apostolic preference, as I understand it, is to make poverty real.

Making poverty real can be done, beginning with individual choices. Though surrounded by Vatican affluence, Pope Francis lives simply. In Father Thomas’s biography, the photo of his room is austere. Unlike most Franciscans, Jesuits don’t wear a habit, but nothing would keep them from wearing inexpensive clothes from the Goodwill store.

Making poverty real can be done, beginning with individual choices.

Do these examples sound ridiculous? Is this unrealistic? Here is where the call to discernment comes in. When he was a missionary in Japan in the 1500s, St. Francis Xavier discovered he could only win over the Japanese for Christianity by converting the ruling class. To do this, he and his companions presented themselves as dignitaries. It bore fruit by gaining them access to scholars and other religious and civil leaders they would not have encountered otherwise.

 

But each situation calls for a new discernment. The benefits and witness of authentic poverty in our time and place and culture are too predictable to be abandoned lightly. And discernment demands detachment. A few years ago, a Jesuit province in the United States decided it had to close one of its high schools because of the low number of Jesuits available for that ministry. It wasn’t clear, however, which school should be closed. The faculty of each school in the province was asked to engage in communal discernment to determine whether their school was the one that should be closed. A Jesuit priest said that in prayer he came to believe that the school where he lived should remain open.

But at breakfast the next morning, this priest reported a change of heart. He said to his fellow Jesuits: “It occurred to me when I was shaving this morning that this is the only school we staff where I would have a private bathroom. I think that had a lot to do with my discernment!”

The Jesuits will only be able to bring about significant changes in the Society of Jesus—and in the world—through a communal conversion to overcome individualism and develop a visible lifestyle that gives concrete credibility to their decision to “walk with the poor.”

This is the challenge the Jesuits have embraced. That they will be equal to it is my prayer for them and my plea.

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J. Calpezzo
3 months 1 week ago

Is this serious? Has anyone seen how the Jesuits in Chicago, Baltimore and South Bed live?

Dale Athlon
3 months 1 week ago

They live faaaaaaaaabbulously!!!! Imagine being single one's whole life, access to the finest libraries, travel and food. No problems of kids to raise, no work in a formal sense that involves profit/loss, fear of getting fired, fierce competion, etc. One could then prep oneself in the entire Liberal, liberal Catholic, and Marxist world and be oh, so prepared to cleverly put down that working dad who has no opportunity to really prep his concerns, even though he knows deep down that the Catholic family man is in the right. I met an archdiocesan priest who was so educated in his hateful liberal clever knowledge, that he inspired me to read and study more, because I knew he was wrong and anti-Catholic. It takes some time, but ultimately it's easy top beat the liberal weasel clever little clerics, because truth is not on their side.

Rhett Segall
3 months 1 week ago

As you mention, Fr. Knight, poverty is not a good in itself. The spirit of poverty , i.e. relying on God, is good. Perhaps one needs a taste of destitution to gain poverty of spirit. But it’s disingenuous to think people will see Jesuits who live without things as really physically poor. Why? Because they always, always, have a safety net. If they need a doctor’s help they can get it. If they don’t have a house they can get it. The actual poor has to choose between a doctor and supper. Far, far, better to see their connection with the poor in terms of simplicity. The Jesuit vow of poverty, I presume, means not personally owning anything but being willing to share everything the community owns. Sharing is hard. Besides, the Jesuits need to have money for an education that will enable them to work with leaders in ways to root out the causes of deep poverty. That’s social justice.

Boreta Singleton
3 months 1 week ago

Over a decade ago, I worked in a Jesuit sponsored Pre K-8 school in Harlem. The Jesuits with whom I ministered lived the simple life that our students and their families lived. I now work in a Jesuit sponsored high school where we have a very varied socio-economic student population. Again, the Jesuits with whom I minister live simply to mirror not only an attentiveness to the neighborhood they live in, but also, as I see it, a witness to all of us that encounter them each day.

Boreta Singleton
3 months 1 week ago

Over a decade ago, I worked in a Jesuit sponsored Pre K-8 school in Harlem. The Jesuits with whom I ministered lived the simple life that our students and their families lived. I now work in a Jesuit sponsored high school where we have a very varied socio-economic student population. Again, the Jesuits with whom I minister live simply to mirror not only an attentiveness to the neighborhood they live in, but also, as I see it, a witness to all of us that encounter them each day.

Slayton Helm
3 months 1 week ago

It would be a LOT more honest if you shot for "simplicity," rather than "poverty." Who wants to be poor? I've never met a poor person who wants to be poor. I certainly don't want to be poor. Genuine poverty is without beauty, it's dirty, it smells, and it's hungry. Who would want to live like that? It is also frankly insulting to those who are actually poor. Poor means not having a choice between the Apostolic Palace and the Doma Sanctae Marta. It isn't a choice between red shoes or black ones. If you've got "three hots and a cot," you ain't poor. If you have access to water to wash your body or your clothes, you ain't poor. If you have health insurance, you ain't poor. And you should NOT be. Hell, even the Holy One wasn't as poor as some of you religious want to romanticize Him as having been. Luke said that Joanna, Susanna, and others supported Him and the Apostles out of their own means. Camping may have been involved to a degree, but I'm betting He and His spent plenty of nights as guests in others' homes and at their tables, and shouldn't it have been that way? Please, call it something else. Poverty, it ain't

Joe S.
3 months 1 week ago

Slayton, it seems that you have a misunderstanding of how the Church has always understood poverty, which is a lack of superfluities. You are confusing poverty with “destitution.”

Slayton Helm
3 months ago

"Slayton, it seems that you have a misunderstanding of how the Church has always understood poverty, which is a lack of superfluities. You are confusing poverty with “destitution.” If the Church's understanding of poverty was real poverty, then I know a lot of poor people who would jump at the chance to be that kind of poor. Call it something else.

Michael Sheridan
3 months 1 week ago

The ow of poverty is not being poor in the sense of having nothing. It is not being attached to anything. I can jump into my car and drive anywhere. As a Benedictine, I did not own a car if I wanted to go somewhere I had to ask. If I needed to visit my family I had to ask for the money to buy the train ticket. If I was a smoker I had to ask for cigarettes. In essense, I had to follow the Rule of St Benedict. I would agree that there are many people who have nothing and do not have choices about what they do. Anyone who chooses to enter a Religious Order does so because they believe that they want to dedicate their life to God and all people, rich and poor. Any of us Religious or Lay also has a duty to embrace poverty in the true religious sense of the word; to not envy those who have much and, to recognise that we are stewards of all that we possess and to work with and for the poor who have very little.

John Mack
3 months 1 week ago

Some serious consideration should be given to how the poor live in a proper social democracy where extreme poverty is eliminated. Shouldn't the poor and everyone get free/affordable health care. free/affordable daycare. free/affordable elderly care, free/affordable transportation and free/affordable higher education? And decent affordable housing. And above all a decent income, from work of welfare. Rather than living with the acceptance of the misery that the poor too often endure, it would be better if the Jesuits developed an affordable housing rental land trust, its energy/utilities from renewable energy sources, lived in it, had poor people live in it, and thus model a decent way for the poor to be served and to live. The housuing could be surrounded with services to help the residents advance, perhaps with chapters of the Family Independence Initiative among the resident families. The Jesuits could also serve young adults, especailly in high rent cities with good jobs, by developing rental land trusts that are dormitory style, with single residents getting their own private rooms, with every three rooms sharing a well appointed bathroom. Tghese dorm residence could also be developed next to universities to provide lpow income students on scholarship with an affordable living space with study facilities. Homelessness among college students is well documented.

The Jesuits could also form social enterprise businesses such as the Jesuit founded Homeboy Enterprises in Los Angeles and the priest founded Mondragon Cooperatives in Spain.

Merely imitating the unjust conditions of the poor seems misguided, and even spiritually self-serving Poverty as misery and unnecessary deprivation is a structural choice made by a society and it is is not a good one. And making oneself a victim (who can always opt out) of poverty is a strange concept.

It was better when Jesuit schools taught rigorous lessons in Distributive Justice rather than the current and dubious "men for others" ethic. Poverty is a wrong and should not be glorified as morally superior to a decent middle class way of living. The Jesuits need to figure out a way to put the principles of distributive justice into practice. That would be serving the poor in a more authentic way that imitating SOME aspects of poverty, a erstaz poverty that lacks the rigid lack of choice that real poverty entails.

All of these suggestions embrace both conservative values (traditional, not hate filled) and liberal values.

Jane Lawson
3 months 1 week ago

So agree with this. This was roughly the situation in the UK from after WWII until the present pernicious Tory government came to power. We still have free healthcare but even that is being undermined by predatory American companies hunting big profits. Every citizen should have free healthcare and the other things you mention. If you’re poor you don’t want charity, you need a job which enables you to buy or rent good quality housing, access to a cheap public transport system, free health care and well funded schools. Of course that means that the Jesuits - and indeed all the people of God - need to be politically active to achieve these ends. It’s good to set a personal example, but only by collective action that change is effected.

Will Nier
3 months 1 week ago

I didn't know the Pope left the Jesuits to establish a different religious community. To bad it didn't work out. Maybe they should take the approach to poverty like Mother Theresa of Calcutta Religious Order. I do like the Pope's poetic style is explaining his approach to religious life in general.

Joe S.
3 months 1 week ago

Will, the author is saying that the author left the Jesuits to establish a religious community. Pope Francis never left the Jesuits.

Joe S.
3 months 1 week ago

Will, the author is saying that the author left the Jesuits to establish a religious community. Pope Francis never left the Jesuits.

Crystal Watson
3 months 1 week ago

I agree with Fr. Knight. The Spiritual Exercises are taught at luxurious retreat centers like Eastern Point Retreat House on the East coast, and St. Beuno's in the UK ... it costs quite a lot to make those retreats and the Jesuits there have staff who make their food, clean, etc. Jesuit colleges in the US are some of the most expensive to attend. Campion Hall in Oxford is like a museum. Jesuits have bank accounts, credit cards, and the order itself has a lot of money and real estate.

Michael Sheridan
3 months 1 week ago

You say that the "Spiritual Exercises are taught at luxurious retreat centres". If you choose to go to a retreat centre you expect a certain level of accommodation where you are able to have peace and quiet. I have attended many retreats and all of the places I have stayed at have been basic. I had rooms with a desk, chair and armchair. In recent times there have been private bathrooms. The last retreat I attended was at Manresa in Spain. Manresa is where St Ignatius wrote the Spiritual Exercises. The Cave is now used for daily morning Mass. Manresa is an impressive building but the number of people who visit from all over the world would not say it was luxurious. It is fairly basic. It has a lot of facilities for those who are there to do the Spiritual Exercises over 30 days. As with many religious houses, cleanliness and food are excellent. One attends a Retreat to be able to spend time, without any distractions. Having areas in a Centre where you are able to spend time in prayer are very important. A comfortable bed is one less distraction and not a luxury.

Crystal Watson
3 months ago

Most Jesuit retreat centers are on expensive pieces of real estate, they have staffs from cooks to maids to gardeners, and they charge a lot of money. The Eastern Point Retreat Hose, on the shore of the Atlantic in in Gloucester, Mass. charges almost $800 for an 8 day retreat, and for a typical 30 day SE retreat - $3,500. Where are the retreat centers for the poor people that the Jesuits care so much about?

Crystal Watson
3 months ago

PS - Years ago I went on a three week retreat at the Diamond Sangha zendo in Hawaii to learn zen meditation - Robert Aitken was the roshi (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Baker_Aitken). It cost almost nothing. We the students prepared our food, did our laundry, did the gardening, cleaned the zendo. And we learned meditation. It was great and someone like me could actually afford to do it.

Dr.Cajetan Coelho
3 months 1 week ago

Thus wrote Mahatma Gandhi: "Be the change you wish to see in the world."

William Murphy
3 months 1 week ago

I am reminded of the comment by a disgruntled Indian supporter of Gandhi on how much it cost to keep the Mahatma in holy poverty. Similarly with Pope Francis. Anyone who can choose between living in a palace and living in a hotel suite is seriously wealthy, whatever the legal ownership of the properties concerned. The Church still has to maintain the palace in case the next Pope wants to return to the previous Papal accommodation. That would almost certainly be a saving, as the accommodation at Casa Santa Marta is seriously costly - I have seen an estimate of $400K per year. Pope Francis still enjoys extensive security, catering, cleaning, etc. wherever he lives.

Reyanna Rice
3 months 1 week ago

Even if he lived in the Apostolic Palace he’d still have extensive security and it would require extra staff to cook and clean etc. It would also use more electricity, heating, water etc. At Casa Santa Marta that kind of infrastructure is already in place because of the others who still live there and the guests that stay there. It’s still operating as a guest house. There are no extra “catering” services for the pope. He eats in the self serve cafeteria along with everyone else staying in Casa Santa Marta, going through the food line carrying his own tray. I don’t know where you got that report but I think they don’t have their facts straight. And he chose to stay in Casa Santa Marta not out of some notion of or to display humility but because he wants to have people around. He also knew the Apostolic Palace was an inverted funnel with “gate keepers” who had complete control of who he would see. At Casa Santa Marta in the afternoons he sees who he chooses to see, keeping his own appointment book. In the Apostolic Palace the Prefecture of the Papal Household was in control and the system of greasing palms to get a “private audience” with the pope was still very much in place. This was especially a problem under JP2. And the Apostolic Palace is not the fancy digs you think they are. The actual living quarters of the pope there are very basic and spartan. The only modernization to it in recent years was the bathroom.

Vincent Gaglione
3 months 1 week ago

There are several good points provided in the comments section on this article. Thank you.

I would suggest that the poverty to which we all aspire should be satisfaction with all of the basic needs that we have…a roof over our heads, enough space under that roof to provide for all who live there, a job that provides a living wage for the worker and his/her dependents, health and social care, a safe and secure environment by any and all measures, a government that does not intrude on people’s personal lives but provides for the common good. Having all that, the burden falls upon us then to provide from our surplus and in charity from our needs to insure that others have the same.

I think one of the deterrents to Christians to living a life of poverty is the great fear that we will fall into destitution, knowing that a cold world, humanity, our government, fellow Christians, and even ourselves will not seek to support others or us in destitution. And that begets hoarding and greed and disdain for those less fortunate. And for that, I fear that God’s judgement of us will be severe.

Christopher Lochner
3 months 1 week ago

Well said.

Charles Erlinger
3 months 1 week ago

I commend both the author and most of the commenters that have contributed so far. The ideas are thoughtful and presented courteously.

arthur mccaffrey
3 months 1 week ago

who the hell wants to be poor?--the poor certainly don't want to be poor--they want to live like Jesuits! Silly articles like this that romanticise poverty are written by people who have never known real poverty. Instead of wasting your time asking Jesuits to be poor, why not ask Jesuits to adopt or support a poor family and bring them into the middle class. It is hard to contemplate Jesus on an empty stomach.

E. Commerce
3 months 1 week ago

Today's reading about Jesus sending out the 72 without any of the normal "necessities" means that they are totally open to what is happening in front of them--for better or for worse. In some sense, that is how the poor must live. When someone brings a bag of clothes for your family, you cannot realistically shun it. You must go through it in humility and gratitude, because that is how you get the clothes for your family. If there is a loaf of bread for free, you take it--and you are grateful. In that reality, you are wide open to the present, because the present provides your sustenance. I see the power of doing that deliberately in order to become closer to God and to be present to others in a more radical way. I have also wondered why the Church seems to closet much of its wealth, instead of releasing it to the glory of God, in a radical kind of trust. If the Church itself became poor, wouldn't God provide?

E. Commerce
3 months 1 week ago

Of course, I cannot even seem to "release" the extra junk I have in my house, so I already have my answer...

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