Christ as Model of
Priestly Poverty and
General Audience of Wednesday July 21, 1993
As all Christís followers, priests must cultivate an interior detachment from earthly goods and a generous openness to the needs of others.
1. One of the renunciations requested by Jesus of his disciples is that of earthly goods, particularly wealth.1 It is a request directed to all Christians in regard to the spirit of poverty, that is, the interior detachment from earthly goods which makes them generous in sharing these goods with others. Poverty is required of a life inspired by faith in Christ and by love for him. It is a spirit that also demands a practice, with each oneís renunciation of these goods corresponding to his condition both in civil life and his state in the Church by virtue of the Christian vocation, both as an individual and as a determinate group of people. The spirit of poverty is valid for all; a certain practice of it in conformity with the Gospel is necessary for everyone.
2. The poverty Jesus requested of the Apostles is a current of spirituality that could not end with them or be reduced to particular groups: the spirit of poverty is necessary for everyone in every time and place; its lack would be a betrayal of the Gospel. Faithfulness to the spirit, however, does not require of Christians in general or of priests the practice of a radical poverty with the renunciation of all property or even the abolition of this human right. The Churchís Magisterium has frequently condemned those who claimed this was necessary;2 she has sought to lead thought and practice on a course of moderation.
It is comforting to note, however, that over the course of time and under the influence of ancient and modern saints, the clergy has acquired an increasing awareness of a call to Gospel poverty, both as a spirit and as a practice corresponding to the demands of priestly consecration. The social and economic situation in which the clergy of almost all the countries of the world live has helped to concretize the condition of real poverty for individuals and institutions, even when the latter by their very nature need many means to carry out their work. In many cases it is a difficult and distressing condition, which the Church strives to overcome in various ways, mainly by appealing to the charity of the faithful to receive their necessary contribution in order to provide for worship, works of charity, support for the pastors of souls and for missionary projects.
However, achieving a new sense of poverty is a blessing for priestly life, as for that of all Christians, because it allows them to conform themselves better to Jesusí counsels and suggestions.
In the World but Not of It
3. Gospel povertyóit should be made clearóentails no disdam for earthly goods, which God has put at manís disposal for his life and his cooperation in the plan of creation. According to the Second Vatican Council, the presbyter, like every other Christian, having a mission of praise and thanksgiving, must acknowledge and glorify the generosity of the heavenly Father who is revealed in created goods.3
Nevertheless, the Council goes on to say that priests, although living in the midst of the world, must always keep in mind that, as the Lord said, they do not belong to the world,4 and therefore, they must be freed from every disordered attachment in order to obtain "that spiritual insight through which is found a right attitude to the world and to earthly goods."5 It must be recognized that this is a delicate problem.
On the one hand, "the Churchís mission is carried out in the midst of the world and created goods are absolutely necessary for manís personal progress." Jesus did not forbid his Apostles from accepting the goods necessary for their earthly life. Rather he asserted their right in this matter when he said in a discourse on mission: "Eat and drink what is offered to you, for the laborer deserves his payment."6
St. Paul reminds the Corinthians that "the Lord ordered that those who preach the Gospel should live by the Gospel."7 He himself insisted on the rule that "one who is being instructed in the word should share all good things with his instructor."8 It is right then that presbyters have earthly goods and use them "for those purposes to which the teaching of Christ and the direction of the Church allow them to be devoted."9 The Council did not fail to give practical directions in this regard.
Above all, the management of ecclesiastical property, properly so called, must be guaranteed "according to the norm of ecclesiastical laws and with the help, as far as possible, of skilled lay people." This property is always to be used for "the organization of divine worship, the provision of decent support for the clergy, and the exercise of works of the apostolate and of charity, especially for the benefit of those in need."10
The goods acquired by the exercise of any ecclesiastical office must be used primarily "for their own decent support and the fulfillment of the duties of their state. They should be willing to devote whatever is left over to the good of the Church or to works of charity." This must be particularly stressed: neither for priests nor for bishops can ecclesiastical office be an occasion of personal enrichment or of profit for their own family. "Hence priests, far from setting their hearts on riches must always avoid all avarice and carefully refrain from all appearance of trafficking."11 In any case, it must be kept in mind that all possessions must be used in the light of the Gospel.
4. The same must be said about the priestís involvement in secular activities or those pertaining to the management of earthly affairs outside of a religious, sacred context. The 1971 Synod of Bishops stated that "as a general rule, the priestly ministry shall be a full-time occupation. Sharing in the secular activities of men is by no means to be considered the principal end nor can such participation suffice to give expression to the priestsí specific responsibility."12 This was a stance taken in response to a tendency appearing here and there toward the secularization of the priestís activity in the sense that he could be involved, as are lay people, in exercising a trade or secular profession.
Like the Good Shepherd
In truth there are circumstances in which the only effective way for the Church to re-establish links with a workplace that ignores Christ can be the presence of priests who exercise a trade in that environment, e.g., by becoming workers with the workers. The generosity of these priests deserves to be praised. It should be noted, however, that by taking on secular lay tasks and positions the priest runs the risk of reducing his own sacred ministry to a secondary role or even of eliminating it.
Because of this risk, confirmed by experience, the Council had already stressed the need of approval by the competent authority for engaging in manual labor and sharing the living conditions of workers.13 The Synod gave as a practical rule the appropriateness, or less, of a certain secular occupation with the purposes of the priesthood; "this is to be judged by the local bishop with his presbyterate, and if necessary in with his presbyterate, and if necessary in consultation with the Episcopal Conference."14
On the other hand, clearly there are special cases today, as in the past, in which some particularly talented and well-trained presbyters can be involved in labor and cultural activities that are not directly Church-related. However, care must be taken so that these cases remain exceptional. Even then the criterion determined by the Synod must always be applied, in order to be faithful to the Gospel and the Church.
5. We shall conclude this catechesis by turning once again to the figure of Jesus Christ, the High Priest, the Good Shepherd and supreme model for priests. He is the presbyterís example of being stripped of oneís earthly goods, if he wants to be conformed to the demand of evangelical poverty. Jesus was indeed born in poverty and he lived in it. St. Paul admonished: "He made himself poor though he was rich."15 To someone who wanted to follow him, Jesus said of himself: "The foxes have lairs, the birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head."16 These words show a complete detachment from all earthly comforts. However, one should not conclude that Jesus lived in destitution. Other Gospel passages state that he received and accepted invitations to the homes of rich people,17 he had women who helped support him in his financial needs,18 and he was able to give alms to the poor.19 Nevertheless, there is no doubt about the spirit and life of poverty that distinguished him.
Open to the Poor
The same spirit of poverty should inspire the priestís behavior, characterizing his attitude, life and very image as a pastor and man of God. It is expressed in disinterest and detachment towards money, in renunciation of all greed for possessing earthly goods, in a simple lifestyle, in the choice of a modest dwelling accessible to all, in rejecting everything that is or appears to be luxurious, while striving to give himself more and more freely to the service of God and the faithful.
6. Finally, let us add that, having been called by Jesus to preach Good News to the poor" and in accordance with his example, "priests and bishops alike are to avoid everything that might in any way antagonize the poor."20 Instead, by fostering in themselves the Gospel spirit of poverty, they will be in a position to show their own preferential option for the poor, translating it into sharing, into personal and community works of assistance, including material aid, to the needy. It is a witness to the Poor Christ, which is given today by so many priests, poor themselves and the friends of the poor. It is a great flame of love enkindled in the life of the clergy and the Church. If occasionally in the past the clergy could in some places appear among the ranks of the wealthy, today they feel honored, with the whole Church, in being found in the first row among the "new poor." This is great progress in following Christ on the path of the Gospel.
1. Cf. Mt 19:21; Mk 10:21, Lk 12:33,18:22
2. Cf. DS 760, 930f, 1097
3. Presbyterorum Ordinis, n. 17
4. Cf. In 17:14-16
5. Ibid.; cf. Pa stores dabo vobis, n. 30
6. Lk 10:7 cf. Mt 10:10
7. l Cor9:14
8. Gal 6:6
9. Presbyterorum ordinis, n. 17
12. Enchiridion Vaticanum, IV, 1191
13. Cf. Presbyterorum ordinis, n. 8
14. Enchiridion Vaticanum, IV, 1192
15. 2 Cor 8:9
16. Lk 9:58
17. Cf. Mt 9:10- 11, Mk 2:15-16, Lk 5:29-7:36, 19:5-6
18. Lk 8:2-3, cf. Mt 2 7:55, Mk 15:40, Lk 23:55-56
19. Cf. Jn 13:29
20. Presbyterorum ordinis, n. 17