Poor Jesus and the vow of poverty

This story appears in the Sustainable Development Goal 1: No Poverty feature series. View the full series.

by Margaret Gonsalves


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There is a story from Indian ancestral storytelling wisdom of the child Jesus begging for alms outside a church on his birthday, Dec. 25. As one would expect, he returned to his heavenly father delighted at the generosity of the people, since his bags were overflowing with money and gifts. A year later, on the night of Dec. 25, once again, his heavenly father was anxiously awaiting the return of his son. Finally, he himself went to the Earth to search for his beloved son. He was shocked to find Jesus weeping bitterly in a gutter. When asked the reason for his fate, Jesus said he went back to the same church this year. But since he demanded justice for the poor instead of begging for alms, the enraged parishioners beat him up and threw him in the gutter.

In this parable, we see two contrasting responses to the request for alms and the demand for justice. In the past, religious poverty was often linked with charity and almsgiving. More recently, we have become aware of Jesus' prophetic solidarity with the poor, which began with the Incarnation.

I want to challenge us religious women to rethink and re-view our understanding of the religious vow of poverty.

In many countries, other sisters and I have noticed that young women religious are disillusioned and leaving institutional convent life. When asked for their reasons, they say: "From morning till evening, we only work and pray. When we ask for further studies in theology or other academic opportunities, we are told: As religious you took a vow of poverty and made an option for the poor. If you spend many years studying, the work in the villages and schools will suffer. Poor people don't need your education, they need your service."

In our rapidly changing world, should sisters be held back from advanced education in the name of poverty?

Lack of education is one of the major causes of poverty and ignorance among women. Lack of adequate theological education is one of the reasons women religious are lagging behind in church and societal leadership positions.

Could there be a misunderstanding about the vow of poverty, the option for the poor, and Jesus' stance for the poor?

It is true that as religious, we should adopt a simple lifestyle and be in solidarity with the poor, but does our vow preclude getting an education?

We have no qualms of conscience about investing time, money, energy, and personnel in our institutions, which often benefit the rich and powerful. But when it comes to legitimate intellectual growth, economic considerations are brought forward to pull sisters back.

Responding to poverty through charitable works and education of the poor have their place, but what is the root cause of poverty?

Despite world progress, statistics show that the poor are getting poorer and the rich are getting richer. To transform the situation of the poor, we need to study the systemic causes of injustice.

By providing inadequate education for young women religious, we are perpetuating an unjust system and encouraging the perpetrators of the system to go scot-free.

Unless we sisters know how society functions, we will persist in helping the poor with charitable assistance and not by teaching them to resist the system. By focusing only on the "charitable" approach and not educating the poor about their rights, are we doing them an injustice?

While there is a possibility that advanced studies could make us into elitists and alienate us from the poor, relevant studies can be enlightening and lead to profound personal and social transformation.

I wonder why the vow of poverty and the option for the poor are cited as obstacles for women religious but not for men religious, who receive advanced training in various fields of knowledge. Presently, to update ourselves, we have to get professionally trained priests to give us talks and teach courses. Are we women religious not intelligent enough to take up higher studies?

In the name of the vow of poverty, some community leaders unconsciously undermine the status of women and refuse them the opportunity to blossom into their God-given potential. By preventing them from studying on the grounds of "poverty," we reveal our own intellectual and spiritual poverty.

Many women all over the world — rich and poor alike — are exploring wider occupational possibilities that will help them reach a state of self-reliance. Social workers are becoming much more professional in their dealings with the poor. They accept that education is a powerful tool of democratization and development.

So I am puzzled by the apparent disregard among women religious for higher education. If women religious are properly trained, they will be able to offer a feminine perspective from their own experience — hard for even well-intentioned priests to provide!

Religious are called to be pioneers with a prophetic voice, not mere cheap laborers and blind followers of a patriarchal bandwagon. A vital part of our ministry is to be thinkers, visionaries and dreamers of a life in abundance for all.

In her book The Fire in These Ashes, Joan Chittister makes a convincing case for the intellectual contribution of religious as prophetic voices on behalf of the poor: Religious "must be a voice that brings to the public debate the best in tradition, the finest in theological analysis, the keenest in social perception and the most challenging of gospel values. The religious who speak for the poor must speak wisely, courageously, thoughtfully and well."

The vow of poverty cannot be used to justify intellectual ignorance. Though sisters have rich experience with the poor, in the face of injustice, they feel intellectually handicapped, helpless and voiceless to analyze oppressive systems and participate more actively in the decision-making process in church and society.

The vow of poverty does not call us to intellectual and visionary poverty. Liberative action demands contemplative vision and intellectual depth.

Read the Sermon on the Plain: The Gospels are basically good news for the poor and bad news for the rich. Church history shows that the rich have watered down the radical nature of the Gospels and hijacked the option for the poor.

The Gospels reveal that Jesus systematically analyzed repressive social customs and traditions of his days and defended his radical stand for justice. To consider Jesus' service to the poor as only a work of charity is to misunderstand and ignore the liberative thrust of his mission.

"At the dawn of the 21st century, professing poverty ... in a world where poverty is a sin against justice ... makes religious life more suspect than impressive," Joan Chittister says in The Fire in These Ashes.

The vow of poverty is directed toward transforming this world in justice; hence the need for trained, professional sisters committed to systemic change.

[Margaret Gonsalves belongs to the Sisters for Christian Community, Washington D.C. (WEB Region). She is the founding president of ANNAI Charitable Trust and networks with various newly founded women religious congregations for the empowerment of tribal/indigenous girls, including religious women.]