The vow of religious poverty06 Jul 2015, by Augustinians in
Talking about religious poverty reminds me of a question somebody once asked me; are there different kinds of priests in the Catholic Church? I did not hesitate to answer no. I answered no, not because I did not get exactly what he was trying to ask, but making him understand that the priesthood is one. There is just one priesthood, and it is the priesthood of Jesus Christ, every Catholic priest and even the laity shares in this one priesthood at different levels. The bible tells us that by our faith in Christ Jesus, we have become a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people… (1 Peter 2:9).
In the Catholic Church, young men are ordained into this one priesthood in different religious Orders, congregations, and dioceses. The question about the different kinds of priests does not arise in connection to the nature of the priesthood and the response to the call. Some are ordained as diocesan priests while others are ordained as religious priests; the difference is in response to the call to the priesthood and not in the priesthood.
The vow of poverty stands out among the things that differentiate the diocesan priests from the religious priests; the religious priests vow to live a life of poverty. This poverty is not the same as the kind of poverty we know; it is not destitution, it is not the state of lack, it is not the state of not being able to provide the necessities of life. It is poverty that eradicates poverty.
The religious vow of poverty sometimes confuses those who do not really understand it. I have heard some persons say that the religious claim to live in poverty, yet they drive the best of cars, live in very comfortable houses, and eat the best of food. These persons may not be far from the truth, but their understanding of the religious vow of poverty is very far from the truth. The religious vow of poverty is a kind of poverty where you own nothing but have everything; it is the poverty after Christ Jesus’s poverty. Jesus said he had nowhere to lay his head (Lk. 9:58); this is poverty at its highest form. For you to have nowhere to lay your head reflects how very poor you are, yet this Jesus who had nowhere to lay his head redeemed and owns the whole world. That is how religious poverty is like; we own nothing, yet we have everything. The rule and constitution of the Augustinian Order insist on this; call nothing your own, but let everything be yours in common. Food and clothing shall be distributed to each of you by your superior, not equally to all, for all do not enjoy equal health, but rather according to each one’s need. For so you read in the Acts of the Apostles that they had all things in common and distribution was made to each one according to each one’s need (4:32,35).
The religious priests personally own nothing; whatever you see them with belongs to their religious community. Religious poverty does not make the religious beggars in the ordinary sense of the world; it follows the footsteps of the poor Jesus Christ who had nowhere to lay his head yet owns the whole world. This religious poverty liberates the religious for their mission; it liberates them for the gospel of Jesus Christ. The religious vow of poverty calls to selflessness and dedication, poverty that liberates the religious from the attachments that slow down their work. This poverty is not a mere giving up of material goods; it must be joined with the humility of mind and heart in service of God. First of all, this form of poverty enriches the religious community in which it is accepted and practiced. Call nothing your own, as St. Augustine said, and share everything in common.
The vow of religious poverty and the sharing of goods in common is not an attempt to deny the reality of the individual; even in the blessed Trinity, the individuals are recognized and appreciated separately; the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit are three different persons yet one God. So also, in the religious community bound by the vow of poverty, the individuals are recognized but must be ready to submit themselves and their individual desires to the desires of the community. A religious is not extravagant when he or she looks good or drives a good car, lives in a good house, or eats the best of food, as they say. No, it is a reflection of the fact that when you give all for Christ, he gives all for you.
As an Augustinian, I own nothing, but I have everything. I am poor but very rich.