November 9, 2011

Poverty and Priesthood

Maybe this isn't a big thing, but maybe it is. Maybe it's a little edge of a big thing. Not sure yet. I'll keep praying.

Three things which seem to me to be given:

1. My sense of what it means to be Franciscan (and to be a Franciscan is my first desire as a Christian) centers around something Francis called 'most high poverty.' The Franciscan charism is not first of all about serving the poor, helping the poor, or advocating for the poor, but about becoming poor oneself. It is not just about adopting a lifestyle of material poverty or an interior disposition of spiritual poverty, but an evangelical synthesis of both. It does not demand living among and working with other poor people in an absolute way, but such has something of a normative force ever since Francis found that it was among the lepers that the bitterness of this world could be changed into 'sweetness of soul and body.' I too want this sweetness which Francis famously tasted, and I believe that the shortest route to it is to find my poverty with other poor people.

2. My sense of myself as a priest is that I am a steward of the sacred mysteries of our faith. This means for me that when these mysteries and the liturgy that celebrates them happen to be in my custody, I do whatever I can to see that they are celebrated as the Church asks and expects. This leads me into traits that are seen as 'conservative' and even 'traditionalist.'

3. Pastors of parishes that serve poorer areas and poor folks tend to be on the more 'liberal' and 'progressive' side, and this tends to include their approach to the sacraments and the liturgy.

In this current little funny moment of my life, expecting to take on a totally new assignment in Rome in the spring, I have been asked to seek part-time, temporary work in the meantime as something good to do and for the support of the brothers. Since the priesthood is my only real professional competence or credential, I have been seeking priestly work from local pastors.

But here's the thing. Because of the (2) and (3) above, I am more comfortable seeking such work in parishes that are not in the poorest places, and so my examinations of conscience are sometimes asking me if I am failing in (1). In other words, my conscience is asking me whether my faithfulness to my priesthood is coming into a tension with my faithfulness to my Franciscanism. Maybe it's a creative tension. Maybe it's an invitation to a new sort of synthesis or sense of my vocation. Maybe God is telling me to let of something, or grab onto something else. We'll see. I'm at a liminal moment in my vocation after all, and God is all about liminal moments.

And maybe it's no big deal, but maybe this is pointing to something the Holy Spirit is asking me to adjust inside about how I desire Christianity in my particular state of life as a friar-priest. It's a ragged reflection, both inside and in this post, but it's the edge where my heart and conscience and prayer are right now.


Fr. Christian Mathis said...

Perhaps you can use this as an opportunity to give witness to physical poverty among those who live in physical abundance.

Sara said...

As a Christian mother, and a member of one of those parishes in number 3, I can relate to the tension you describe.

I'd suggest to you that while the pastors and staff of those parishes may be more progressive, there are probably quite a few of us there who would be very happy to see you.

Anonymous said...

Grappling with the mystery of Franciscan poverty is something a Secular Franciscan may also undergo. The ongoing formation book for SFOs by Lester Bach, OFM Cap (Picking More Daisies, Barbo-Carlson Enterprises, 2004) has a take on it: "Relying on God is the foundation of gospel poverty. Without that faith, we can have garage sales and cleaning-out-closets projects without being truly poor. On the other hand, we can so spiritualize our 'spirit of poverty' that nothing shows in real life" (110).

Sometimes, I feel like I've grasped it. But at other times, I have to meditate on it like a Zen koan.



Barb, sfo said...

I think that both Fr. Christian and Sara have valid points. Go where you are needed, and do your best to witness in that setting.

As to "witnessing to physical poverty among those who live in physical abundance," not enough good can be said about this! I once taught religion in a Catholic prep school in a very affluent community. The school's chaplain was a Franciscan priest. He drove a sports car and wore a leather jacket. The students would ask me again and again, "Doesn't he have to live a poor life? Why does he have a sports car?" They NEEDED the witness that he failed to provide because of the possessions he had and used in the kids' presence. Kids have a very high "fake" detector, and what they want very badly is to see adults who really live what they say they believe in.

ben in denver said...

There are a fair number of poor traditionalists you know. Maybe you could spend some time with them. While I would agree that parishes that tend to focus on the poor tend to be liberal, parishes and communities that use the extraordinary form tned to include people of all economic backgrounds. In our parish there are a number of families on food stamps, even greater numbers on medicaid, several people on Social Security Disability, and a few who live in government housing. They go to mass and pray and socilalize and have a real community with their fellow parishoners of other income levels in a way that I have not seen in other parishes. It is only in traditionalist parishes that I have actually seen millionaires who are good friends with people on government assistance.

One of the big differences for poor traditionalists, however, is that they are generally still in intact families. Divorce is not so common, but if you get to know families well you will find that many have backgrounds that include prior abusive relationships, family trauma, or illigitimacy. The difference is that they have not used a liberal approach to moral theology to deal with the problems in their lives. This has meant escape from some of the problems associated with poverty, which may be why outside observers don't see that about 1/3 to 1/2 of the participants at an extrordinary form mass are living below the poverty line.

Find a traditionalist with ten kids married to a homeschooling mother, and get to know them. There is a good chance that they buy their clothes at thrift stores and depend on St. Joseph to keep their car running.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Sara ... many a progressive priest has with all good intentions led their flock astray. They need someone like you to bring them back to center. My own parish priest actually counseled me toward abortion. Five years later, I still can't make sense of it all. Yet, I'm sure he's sleeping well at night.

Brother Charles said...

Wow, friends. Thanks for the comments and encouragement!

James said...

Fr. Charles,

Come up to St. Pat's in Lawrence for a spell. I think you'll find that all if not most of your conditions could be met. Plus, we've got your spiritual descendants, the Primitive OFMs up here. I'm certain the pastor would be happy to have you.

Brother Charles said...

@James: Thanks for the invitation!

friarminor said...

Attending Sunday mass last night, I turned to my wife and asked same question about what it means to be true Christian and how we end up skirting the issue of giving up wealth and doing compromises.

It will remain a difficult one to answer, particularly for priests, though one which Francis answered with his life.