Pope Francis has charmed us.
We are impressed by his warm style and simple caring. Yet we may be failing to see the serious challenge of his message. From the moment he walked upon the world stage in his plain black shoes—shunning the traditional red papal shoes—Pope Francis began telling us we must set aside luxury so we can serve the poor more fully. He has said repeatedly that his vision is a Church “of the poor and for the poor.”
No one is excused from his plea for simplicity. He has encouraged bishops to give up affluent lifestyles, and has told schoolchildren, “All of us today must think about how we can become a little poorer.” He wants us to take less for ourselves so we can share more with the poor.
In speaking of his concern for the poor, our Holy Father has quoted St. John Chrysostom, archbishop of Constantinople and one of the early Fathers of the Church: “Not to share one’s goods with the poor is to rob them and to deprive them of life. It is not our goods that we possess, but theirs.”
We may not feel we are robbing the poor, especially if they live a continent away. Yet we cannot deny that a multibillion-dollar advertising industry has taught us to envy and covet the goods other people have. We want all we see advertised, all our friends have, and all that grabs our attention in shopping malls.
We may think we need so much because we compare ourselves to those who have more than we do. However, we would quickly realize we have more than enough if we would compare ourselves, instead, to those who have less than we do. Pope Francis is a powerful voice, gently encouraging us to stop looking with envy at our rich neighbor and to start looking with compassion at our neighbor who is poor.
Accepting Our Responsibility
If we would be willing to voluntarily become a little poorer ourselves, we could help provide basic necessities for those who truly suffer from physical hunger, lack of work, and destitute living conditions. Are we willing to do that? Can we sacrifice some of what we take for granted in our own lifestyles to improve the lifestyles of others? In a world that encourages us to take all we can for ourselves, sacrifice is often seen as a distasteful and negative word. Yet, if we want to help the poor, we must embrace some personal sacrifice.
Sadly, we may be like the rich young man in the Gospel of Matthew (19:16-26). Jesus told this man, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to [the] poor.” Scripture tells us the young man “went away sad, for he had many possessions.”
We, too, have many possessions. Will we eventually walk away sad from the message Pope Francis is teaching? Will we become bored with his simplicity and stop paying attention?
A key word to remember in the story of the rich young man is the word perfect. Jesus told the young man, “If you wish to be perfect. . .” None of us can be perfect. Only God is perfect. But most of us can probably do better at loving and caring for the poor.
Being Poor in Spirit The strongest motivation for becoming poorer can be found in Our Lord’s teaching of the eight Beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5:3-12). The first beatitude Jesus declares is, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
Pope Francis used this first beatitude as the theme for his 2014 message for World Youth Day. He stressed that there are three ways we can be poor in spirit.
“Let us learn to be detached from possessiveness and from the idolatry of money and lavish spending. Let us put Jesus first.
“We have to learn to be on the side of the poor. . . . Let us go out to meet them, look into their eyes and listen to them.
“We have to learn from the wisdom of the poor. . . . They show us that people’s value is not measured by their possessions or how much money they have in the bank. . . . The most beautiful and spontaneous expressions of joy which I have seen during my life were by poor people who had little to hold on to.”
Regardless of our own financial situation, we all can be poor in spirit. Being poor in spirit means realizing that God owns everything. We personally own no more than the beggar on the street. No matter what financial and material riches we may have accumulated in this life, if we are poor in spirit we claim no credit for what we have acquired. We see everything as a gift from God, entrusted to us for both our benefit and the benefit of the world.
We know we are not entitled to an overabundance while others live with crippling scarcity. We hear the call to share our gifts with those who do not have what they need. We are willing to give up some luxuries so we can share more with the poor of the world. We live in solidarity with them.
What We Have Failed to Do
Many of Our Lord’s parables stress the importance of living in solidarity with the poor. Two, in particular, which are worth reading carefully, are the judgment of the nations (Mt 25:31-46) and the rich man and Lazarus (Lk 16:19-31). It is interesting to note in both these stories that Jesus talks of people who are condemned not for what they had done wrong, but for what caring and compassion they had failed to show.
We may pat ourselves on the back for doing nothing bad, but if we have done nothing good, we might need to reconsider how well we are living out the Gospels. There is a valid reason why the penitential rite, which we often pray at Mass, asks God to forgive all that we have done and all that we have failed to do.
Through his lived witness and his words, Pope Francis inspires us to consider what we are failing to do. He is calling us to a new kind of action. He is telling us to let go of excessive consumption. He reminds us we can never find true happiness and peace in any material object. Anything we possess simply lures us to want more.
Because we are all one in Christ, more stuff will never soothe our hearts while our brothers and sisters throughout the world continue to suffer hunger, neglect, and inhumane poverty. When one of us suffers, we all suffer. Abundant possessions cannot shield us from this inner sadness of the soul.
We need to think less about our own personal comforts and more about the pain of those who are suffering. We need to stop being wasteful. We need to look into the face of the poor and see Christ there. Those in need are not a burden. They are gifts given by God so we have opportunities to share and to serve.
Pope Francis tells us our money must serve us, not rule us. We must find joy in using our money to become better people, not more stylish people. The Holy Father says, “The culture of comfort, which makes us think only of ourselves, makes us insensitive to the cries of other people, makes us live in soap bubbles which, however lovely, are insubstantial; they offer a fleeting and empty illusion which results in indifference to others.”
Are we willing to pop the lovely bubble in which we live? Has this amazingly simple and humble pope inspired us to change our lives?
We may hope Pope Francis will change the world. However, the world will only change if each of us is willing to change in some way. Having chosen the name of St. Francis of Assisi, our Holy Father will not let us forget our obligation to the poor. Are we willing to meet that obligation? Are we willing to be transformed by our pope’s call to simplicity? Can we give up the fleeting satisfaction that comes from possessions for the lasting joy of generous compassion? Can we become poorer? It is, after all, the only response worthy of us.
5 Tips for ‘Becoming Poorer’
1 Avoid being tempted by unsolicited advertising. Throw away consumeristic mail-order catalogs and newspaper ad fliers, without even looking at them. Their sole purpose is to make us think we need things we do not.
2 Cancel subscriptions to magazines that breed envy and discontent by constantly encouraging us to update our wardrobe, remodel our house, try the latest electronics, or purchase new sports gear.
3 Delete or unsubscribe to e-mails that offer limited-time bargains for things we were not planning to buy.
4 When tempted to buy more, stop and think, “How blessed I am that I do not need any of this!” 5 Seek out some of the many inspiring books and articles on voluntary simplicity.
5 Seek out some of the many inspiring books and articles on voluntary simplicity.
5 Tips for ‘Giving More’
1 Spending less and adopting a simpler lifestyle does not automatically translate into giving more to the poor. We need to make a committed effort to expand our giving, or we will simply end up building a bigger bank account.
2 We can calculate what percentage of total income we give away by dividing annual charitable donations by total annual income. Thus, if one makes $50,000 a year and gives away $500, divide $500 by $50,000. Only one percent of the income was given away! When we do the math, most of us are shocked by what a small percent we give away each year.
3 Keep in mind that sacred Scripture teaches us to give away at least 10 percent. If we are not yet giving a tithe, we should begin to add increased giving into our budget.
4 Plan our giving. It is helpful to pick five to 10 organizations that truly touch our hearts. Concentrate on giving to these organizations. Learn about their work. If possible, become personally—as well as financially—active and invested in their mission. We should be as abundantly generous as possible with both our time and our treasure to the special causes that match our Christian responsibilities and passions. Organizations to consider adopting might include your parish, your diocese, an organization that feeds the poor, an organization that provides Catholic education, or an organization that cares for the sick. When we do make financial gifts, strive to have every dollar go directly to the work of the organization.
5 Try making a direct sacrifice by giving up some specific luxury and donating the cost of that luxury to a special cause. If we are not able to support our chosen organizations as much as we would like now, consider making a bequest or planned gift. Consult with an attorney about the options of leaving either designated amounts or percentage gifts to chosen charities.
Sue Erschen writes from St. Louis, Missouri. She specializes in Catholic stewardship, spirituality, discipleship, and gratitude. Her work has appeared in several Catholic publications including Our Sunday Visitor, The Priest, America, and Today’s Catholic Teacher. This article first appeared in St. Anthony Messenger.