It’s fitting that Pope Francis would choose poverty as a theme for his 2014 Lenten message, as it has been a central theme of his papacy thus far. Just days after his election as pope he spoke of how he loved a Church that was both poor and for the poor. More recently, he spoke of poverty during the consistory in which he elevated 19 new cardinals, challenging them to reject the trappings of worldly power and focus their ministries on those most in need.
For most Americans like myself, talk of poverty makes us uncomfortable because it forces us to confront our own way of living. At least that’s been my personal experience with poverty. Each year as Lent rolls around, I can usually manage to give up chocolate, wine, or whatever disciplinary practice I’ve chosen. Instead, it’s the active discipline of being more charitable that I struggle to embrace and live out.
On the subway trains and street corners of New York City where I live, I regularly encounter folks begging for money. Some have stories of unemployment or health crises, others walk through simply holding a can collecting coins, while a select few are even aggressive and demanding in their requests. During Lent, in particular, I have a heightened sense of awareness of their needs and my failures to adequately respond.
And while this is all well and good, Pope Francis’s Lenten message has caused me to realize that my understanding of poverty has been limited to its external realities. In order to understand the reaches of poverty, however, I must first look internally at my own life before recognizing it in the world around me.
Poverty, as Pope Francis reminds us, is not simply material destitution, as I’ve too often reduced it to be. The absence of food, water, healthcare, etc. are lamentable conditions that we must work to improve, but spiritual destitution deserves equal attention, too. As Christians, we’re called to give a reason for the hope we have -- to be “joyous heralds” of the hope and mercy offered to us by the Gospel. Until we first recognize our own spiritual failings, how will we ever fully understand why Christ, who was rich, became poor for our sake? Indeed, what profits a man if he gains the whole world -- but loses his soul?
This Lent may we all accept the Holy Father’s challenge to first do some necessary soul searching in order to fully understand the depths of the poverty in which we live, but also the enormous offering of grace and mercy that is there for the taking.