The poverty of Lent

Here is another Lenten reflection question for you: What do St. Francis of Assisi, Pope Francis, and belonging have in common? It was almost six years ago, in March 2013, that Pope Francis famously, and perhaps controversially, said that he wanted a “poor church for the poor.” Not surprisingly, this raised an eyebrow or two. Many online commentaries excoriated the pope as an opponent of capitalism, socialist-in-religious clothing, or another South-American-reactionary-liberation theologian. Equally, many have concluded that Pope Francis wants Catholics to devote greater attention to poverty-alleviation social programs. Both miss the deeper meaning Pope Francis attaches to poverty.

No one should be surprised Pope Francis is so vocal about material poverty. After all, he comes from Latin America: a part of the world in which millions seem locked into dire poverty. You would have to be less-than-human not to be disturbed by the contrast between Buenos Aires’s beautiful Recoleta district, which gives the city the appellation “Paris of the South,” and the misery of a Buenos Aires slum like Villa Rodrigo Bueno. The pope has made it clear that indifference in the face of such disparities is not optional. But in understanding Francis’s words about poverty, we should remember his conception of poverty and the poor goes far beyond conventional secular understandings of these subjects.

Pope Francis said this about Christianity and poverty: “For us Christians, poverty is not a sociological, philosophical, or cultural category. No, it is a theological category. I would say, perhaps the first category, because God, the Son of God, abased Himself, made Himself poor to walk with us on the road. And this is our poverty: the poverty of the flesh of Christ, the poverty that the Son of God brought us with His Incarnation. A poor Church for the poor begins by going to the flesh of Christ. If we go to the flesh of Christ, we begin to understand something, to understand what this poverty is, the poverty of the Lord.”

It is strange to think about the “poverty of the flesh of Christ,” but in this view, the pope and St. Francis share a common view. The pope uses the language of the humility of Christ who came to take on our flesh; St. Francis speaks of the condescending of Christ using the Latin condescendere – the stepping down to the posture of a servant. Both paint a verbal portrait of the beloved Son of our Heavenly Father becoming one of us to serve us that we might join the table. Both point to the Eucharist as the earthly invitation to the table. Both challenge us to our own condescendere in the way we invite others. Pope Francis posed two questions to his listeners: “Tell me, when you give alms do you look into the eyes of the man or woman to whom you give alms? And when you give alms, do you touch the hand of the one to whom you give alms, or do you toss the coin?”

What do St. Francis, Pope Francis, and Belonging have in common? I hope you weren’t expecting a one-sentence summary – I am still working on it. But I can see a way forward. There is a part of the Eucharistic prayer said in silence during the Mass. That’s too bad, because it is amazing. It comes as the priest adds a small part of water to the chalice of wine. “Through the mysteries of this water and wine, may we come to share in the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share in our humanity.” It is a moment of poverty by Christ, mercy towards us, and the call to belong and inherit the divine mystery awaiting each of us. Christ came to serve, to call us to a deep belonging, to point us to the way home – and his first step was to take on the poverty of our lives – that we might become rich beyond measure. It is the moment that we are called to replicate in the world, to be Christ for others.


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