"At his last breath the multimillionaire is just as penniless as the dying beggar in a Calcutta street."
Thomas Dubay, Happy Are You Poor
What the Church desperately needs today is for its followers to give authentic witness to the truths of the Gospel. Over Lent, we were profoundly blessed by God to be given another simple, loving man with deep personal holiness to help us as our Papa: Pope Francis. His namesake, St. Francis of Assisi, being one of the most remarkable Christian men of all time -- remembered for his love, purity, peace, and of course, poverty.
By all accounts Pope Francis embodies what it means to walk in the spirit of evangelical poverty that Jesus calls His followers to embrace, that Francis of Assisi lived, and that Thomas Dubay outlines in his book, Happy Are You Poor. Catholics all over the world are thrilled with his simplicity and embrace of only the bare minimum to sustain himself and do his job. I, too, am so very encouraged and enlivened by his example! I eagerly look forward to all that God will say and do through him.
But -- and I have no doubt Pope Francis would agree -- our admiration is not useful unless we, too, follow his example in our daily lives. It is imperative for us as professing Catholic Christians not simply to stop at lauding the humility of a Pope, declaring what a great message he is giving to the Church at large, and hoping that more bishops and priests follow his example. Those sentiments are understandable, yes! But after we have done those things, we must go take the next step. We must pause to consider what Jesus Christ is saying to us personally through this man we consider our appointed shepherd and spiritual father. Can we in good conscience nod our heads in approval, call for others within the Church to imitate him, and then continue to spend large sums of our own money (or money we don't even have!) on acquiring fancier homes and cars, the latest in fashionable home decor, the newest electronics, artificial tans and wrinkle creams, toys/gear/supplies for our numerous hobbies, and the like?
Dubay's chapter entitled Pilgrim Witness opens up with this:
"There is much in Scripture to which a theist has little difficulty in giving theoretical assent but to which in concrete daily life he grants almost no assent at all. No convinced theist has any problem in admitting that idle talk is reprehensible for several reasons, one of which is that it impedes the biblical call to continual prayer. But in daily living few give any thought at all to the problem of continual chatter and the account we are to render of it on Judgement Day (Mt. 12:36).
Most of us have heard over and over in liturgical readings the admonition of Jesus that we must give up all that we possess to be his disciples (Lk. 14:33), but few in the humdrum of the day-by-day round even advert to detachment, let alone practice it with any approximation of totality." [p. 81]We have a particular problem here in the United States with the dominant value of our culture being economic: "the American dream" and "the good life" being two popular phrases where obtaining wealth and the indiscriminate spending of that wealth is the unsaid principle. For the Christian this should pose a serious dilemma, as this ideology flies in the face of the entire Gospel ideal. But the value of the economic "good life" is so pervasive that the ordinary American Christian has become utterly desensitized to Jesus' call to "give up all that we possess." We have been lulled to sleep -- by our education system, the media, our peers, sadly even our own family members and churches -- and we've convincingly assured ourselves that we can arrange our lives around the things of the world (possessions and pleasure seeking) and yet still have all the treasures of heaven added on to us as well.
Dubay relates a specific excellent example about how the underlying economic ideal forms our decisions as Christians:
At Mass one Sunday morning in October a serious, deeply religious couple hear that the following week there is going to be a collection for the foreign missions. As they drive home Mrs. Jones is likely to say, "Bill, do you think we could afford something like $20 or $30 for this collection?" After some musing Mr. Jones may well respond that he, too, thinks they could afford that amount as their contribution. While most would indeed consider Mr. and Mrs. Jones a generous couple, we must note something significant. When both of them used the expression "we could afford", they meant "without changing significantly our level of consuming." They did not mean "we could afford $20 or $30 if we dine out less frequently or give up smoking and cocktails, or if we cancel our vacation trip, or sell one of our sports cars."
Even in serious people the good life ideology is operative, and it profoundly influences what they do and do not do on the operational level. If Mr. and Mrs. Jones were to give up the good life ideal, they could give far more to the foreign missions. [p. 84]Ethicist Richard McCormick wrote something similar: "It can be argued that the single dominating and organizing value in American culture is economic... This means that other values will be pursued and promoted only within this overriding priority. Thus, justice in education, housing, medical services, job opportunity is promoted within the dominance of the financial criterion -- 'if we can afford it', where 'afford' refers to the retention of a high level of consumership."
As Christians we are told plainly that we're merely pilgrims in this world (1 Peter 2:11, Heb 11:13-16), but we rarely live as if that's our reality. "We assume that we belong here, that this is our fatherland, that our security is enhanced by a higher salary, a paid-up mortgage, and adequate coverage by insurance," writes Dubay. We need to rediscover the great freedom and joy that we are offered in Christ when we arrange our daily living like pilgrims! We need it not only for our own souls, but for the sake of the conversion of the world -- a world that desperately needs and even desires to discover authentic pilgrim witnesses.
Dubay said in his book that the world and those of us in the world need "lived prophecy." Indeed. The lived prophecy has to be spoken through each of us, whatever our state in life, not just through our dear Pope, our parish priest, and some monks and nuns living in the cloister.
Before Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio became Pope Francis he gave an interview where he spoke on some very relevant points pertaining to this consumerist idolatry that threatens so many of us in our quest for God. I want to end with a few of his quotes (and please, listen to the entire interview -- it's fantastic):
"In today's society new idols are continuously established and driven by consumerism... There is where people get hooked. Indeed there is a strong need to renew the faith."
"Only Jesus provides the answer to this rampant idolatry. And he reigns from the Cross. If we deny the Cross of Jesus, we deny Jesus."
"An interesting fact is the amount spent on non-necessities world wide... On those things that are not necessities, or superfluous things, the greatest amount is spent on pets. The most unnecessary spending is made on pets. Pets are idolized... And the second largest amount of money is spent on cosmetology. Cosmetics. ...There are millions and millions spent on these two things. Meanwhile the Pope is talking about children who are dying of hunger in underdeveloped continents like Africa, Asia and America. First come pets. And then if there is something left, we throw it to the children."
"If you don't worship God, you will have something else. I don't know which one: A pet. Cosmetics. I don't know."
(Last year in the United States alone, over $53 billion was spent on pets and at least $33 billion on cosmetics.)
This post is part of a continuing series of posts on the book Happy Are You Poor. Go here for the first post of the series!