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Imitate Christ's poverty to find real happiness, Pope writes in Lenten message

Catholic World News - February 04, 2014

“Christ’s poverty is the greatest treasure of all,” Pope Francis tells the world in his message for Lent.

In his first annual message for the penitential season, which was released by the Vatican on February 4, Pope Francis explores the message of St. Paul, in his 2nd letter to the Corinthians, that Jesus “became poor, so that by his poverty you might be rich.” As Lent approaches (with Ash Wednesday falling on March 5), the Pope encourages the faithful to ask: “What does this invitation to poverty, a life of evangelical poverty, mean to us today?”

When he becomes incarnate, the Pope observes, Jesus “does not reveal Himself cloaked in worldly power and wealth but rather in weakness and poverty.” This is a measure of God’s love for mankind, the Pope remarks, because Jesus makes Himself like us in our weakness and our poverty. He writes: “Love makes us similar, it creates equality, it breaks down walls and eliminates distances. God did this with us.”

“Christ’s poverty which enriches us is his taking flesh and bearing our weaknesses and sins as an expression of God’s infinite mercy to us,” the Pope writes. This astonishing display of God’s love is the source of real human freedom and happiness, the Pope argues, and so the only real lasting form of poverty is the failure to accept God’s love and live as a child of God. Just as Jesus took on the weakness of humanity, the Pope continues, “we Christians are called to confront the poverty of our brothers and sisters, to touch it, to make it our own and to take practical steps to alleviate it.”

In his Lenten message Pope Francis makes a distinction between poverty and destitution, explaining that “destitution is poverty without faith, without support, without hope.” He goes on to distinguish among three types of destitution: material, moral, and spiritual.

Material destitution is a lack of basic needs. The Pope writes that the Church can supply the needs of poor people, as long as the faithful make a commitment to “justice, equality, simplicity, and sharing.” Moral destitution, “which consists in slavery to vice and sin,” is often a major factor in bringing about material poverty, he observes. And moral destitution is closely linked to spiritual destitution, which occurs when one turns away from God.

The Church, Pope Francis writes, works to combat all these forms of destitution. “The Gospel is the real antidote to spiritual destitution,” he says, and Christians should find the greatest reward in bringing people the Gospel message. “It is thrilling to experience the joy of spreading the good news,” he says. As he moves to summarize his message, Pope Francis says:

Dear brothers and sisters, may this Lenten season find the whole Church ready to bear witness to all those who live in material, moral and spiritual destitution the Gospel message of the merciful love of God our Father, who is ready to embrace everyone in Christ.

At a press conference introducing the papal message, Cardinal Robert Sarah, the president of the Pontifical Council Cor Unum, called attention to the Pope’s emphasis on the perils of spiritual poverty. “Too often we consider poverty from a sociological perspective, and it is understood as a lack of material goods,” he said.

Moreover, Cardinal Sarah continued, an exclusive focus on material poverty sometimes have the effect of distorting the message of the Church, and “setting a Church of the poor, a ‘good’ Church…against a Church of preaching and truth, a Church dedicated to prayer and to the defense of doctrine and morals.” There is no such distinction, he insisted; the Church fights simultaneously against material poverty and spiritual destitution.

Cardinal Sarah, whose office handles the Holy See’s charitable efforts, recalled the Pope’s warning that the Church should not be perceived solely as a humanitarian institution. “It would be a great pity,” he said, “if our gaze upon those in need failed to acknowledge the spiritual poverty that often lurks in the heart of man and pains him deeply, even though he may be in a condition of material comfort.”

The cardinal also emphasized that the Pope’s message challenges Christians to make a commitment to helping neighbors—not merely by financial contributions, but by personal involvement. It is still less acceptable, he continued, to confine one’s efforts to public statements against poverty. Cardinal Sarah said: “We cannot set out bourgeois consciences at rest, the Pope means, by denouncing material lack on the part of others or denouncing poverty as a system.”

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