The Pope and the the Elusive Bird Poverty

Francis on the Bus with his Buds

Emily Dickinson defined Hope as “the thing with feathers that perches on the soul.” Genuine humility and  simplicity of life would be a more elusive bird–not perching on the soul for long.

What got me thinking about this was a comment from a reader who was somewhat non-impressed with Pope Francis. He said if Pope Francis were really humble he wouldn’t trumpet it about so much, and referred to Pope Pius XII who was not so flashy as to eschew the papal apartments, but lived there and slept on a wooden plank and only ate stale bread. Is Pope Francis’ poverty too showy? Some critics have said that if he were really humble he would have lived in the papal apartments and used the bulletproof popemobile and not made such a fuss. They worry that his “poverty and humility” is too “inyerface”. Is a person truly humble if he shows everybody how humble he is? Can you be humble if you’re always aware of it and making a show of it?

Furthermore, isn’t his humility and poverty all a bit well, pretend? Isn’t it like the college student who goes to Guatamala and “lives with the poor” for two weeks? Everybody knows he’s got his return plane ticket in his back pocket and that he can scoot out to a hotel for a hot shower and a cheeseburger whenever he wants. An Archbishop or Pope can step out of the “poverty” whenever he wants to. So is it such a big deal? Is it for real?

On the other hand, supporters argue that these things don’t matter. The Pope’s symbolic gestures of poverty and humility are powerful pictures to the church and the world of the way people expect followers of Jesus Christ to live. His gestures may be symbolic, but they are excellent witnesses to the apostolic simplicity to which Christ calls his disciples. Furthermore, he is setting an example for other prelates and priests as he should. The general public–they argue–think every pope leads a posh lifestyle living in palaces and castles. That’s all they see so to set these aside publicly is important. The Pope is a public figure a very visible celebrity in a highly visual age. His lifestyle choices should therefore be powerfully visual statements of the principles and ideals of the Catholic Church.

I am confronted with this dilemma in my own life. I am a Catholic priest, but I happen to have a wife and four children. We have a five bedroomed house in the suburbs. The driveway, like many American suburban driveways, is clogged with cars. Four of them. Inside the garage is my motorcycle. We need all those wheels to get around. We need a good sized house. We’ve worked hard to pay for all this and we’re careful not to take more from the parish than any celibate priest is entitled to. However, I honestly think I could walk away from it, and have had times in my life when I’ve had very little. We survived. We could do so again.

So who is rich and who is poor? Some folks could look at my lifestyle and might say I’m rich, but we have little disposable income and no savings. A celibate priest, on the other hands, might live in “apostolic simplicity”–he might even wear a Franciscan habit, but he gets his housing, food allowance, insurance, pension plan, car, job for life etc. etc. He has no dependents and everything provided. I don’t begrudge him that, but who is poor and who is rich?

I don’t know. I’ve learned not to judge. Sometimes I see people I think are super rich and they are not generous. Other times I meet the super rich and they are very generous. Sometimes the people I thought were poor suddenly drop a big donation in the mail and I realize they had more than I thought, but they didn’t flaunt it. Other people flaunt it then they go bankrupt and you realize they were way over their heads in debt. So I don’t judge.

Chesterton observed that there is more simplicity in a man who eats caviar because he wants to than a man who eats grape nuts on principle. Does Pope Francis–or anyone for that matter–observe poverty, humility and simplicity because he wants to or because he has to? It would seem that Pope Francis lives the way he does because he wants to. In which case it’s authentic.

Therefore I try to take every person on face value. I give them the benefit of the doubt and hope they do me the same courtesy.

This is therefore, my take on Pope Francis. I take him at face value. He aims to live a life of poverty and generosity as he is able. He seems authentic to me. I don’t have any time for the sour naysayers. Life’s too short.

Pope Francis lives his own life of simplicity as he is called. It is not up to me to challenge his style of following Christ or anyone else’s. Because humility and true poverty of heart is so elusive it is up to me to mind my own business and seek that simplicity and generosity as I can and affirm that others are trying to do the same.

Pope Francis’ example is part of his witness to the world. I’m grateful for it. I hope it wins many to the fullness of the love and life of Christ, and I want to learn from him.

  • news guy

    Poverty is not about how much you have, but how much you give.

  • vox borealis

    Pope Francis lives his own life of simplicity as he is called.

    The problem is, however, that he seems to have taken to chastising others for not living their lives in accordance with his own. Thus wagging his finger at seminarians about the cars they drive and snooping around the Vatican parking lot to check on who owns what set of wheels. Seriously?!

  • Christopher Range

    We cannot own what we did not create. My soul may be demanded of me this night. I have wrestled with stewardship, what it means and what is required of me as my duty to the Lord. I’m praying about it and working on it.

  • AJF

    One note about His Holiness’ remaining in the Doma Santa Marta–it seems from many of his comments (especially the one he made off the cuff at the audience with the schoolchildren a while back) that he preferred to stay there, rather than the Papal Apartments, not out of a desire to embrace poverty, but rather because he needs the community afforded there!,_Dear_Young_People

  • Gordis85

    I like what you have said, Fr. Longenecker. I know many will continue to remain opposed to Pope Francis no matter what he says or does, how he lives, what he wears. I get the impression from these “sour naysayers” that they may never be satisfied with the pope’s humility. Based on some of their rants/commentary, it will always be “staged, fake, forced, ad nauseum.”
    What a sad way of looking at Papa Francis. I can only hope that in time, they will hear the message and see it as well.

  • Rebecca Fuentes

    Wouldn’t choosing simplicity when you could easily–perhaps more easily–stick with comfort or opulence be like choosing to fast? If I choose a day to fast, it isn’t because my fridge is empty, I’m choosing the sacrifice despite food being abundantly available.

  • Tom in SJ

    I would say that if a person is a very public figure and needs to set an example to others, then perhaps he needs to do it in a overt way, especially in this day and age with all the daily distractions of modern life. We should choose to be charitable and give our Pope the benefit of the doubt. Today’s world is very sick, including our church. It needs strong medicine and powerful symbols in order to get the message. This might not be true for all of us, but we all carry a beam in our eye and can be a bit blind.

  • Michelle T

    Excellent commentary! I’m a non catholic who is enamoured with this pope! I think he calls us all to empathy with and action for the poor in our own counties and around the world. I applaud his efforts! ( I also think many in the press are doing the devil’s work in stirring up trouble where there shouldn’t be any). I applaud Pope Francis’ efforts and focus.

  • Kathleen

    Good call Fr.