Ash Wednesday is one week away, and this Lent Pope Francis is urging us to help free our brothers and sisters from an enemy that is even worse than poverty—destitution.
“Destitution,” he says in his Message for Lent, “is not the same as poverty: destitution is poverty without faith, without support, without hope.”
I have learned much about poverty from Blessed Mother Teresa. There is one story that comes to mind when I think of the difference between poverty and destitution. Father Leo Maasburg recalls the encounter in his book “Mother Teresa of Calcutta: A Personal Portrait.”
One day, an elegantly dressed man showed up at Nirmal Hriday, the House for the Dying that Mother Teresa established in Calcutta. He asked to speak with Mother Teresa and was told that she was in back of the house scrubbing toilets. When he found her, Mother Teresa looked at him and handed him a toilet bowl brush, giving him instructions on how to properly do the work.
About 20 minutes later, the man returned to Mother Teresa and said, “I have finished. May I speak with you now?” She replied, “of course,” and the man then explained that he was the director of the airline and had come to personally deliver Mother Teresa’s tickets.
The airline boss later recalled, “Those were the most important 20 minutes of my life—cleaning toilets.” They were so important to him because he had never experienced so much joy as he did on that day.
Here was a man who had material wealth, but was spiritually destitute until he had the joy of offering loving, humble service.
In his message for Lent, Pope Francis speaks about what an impoverished life without God, without faith, hope or love looks like. Before he examines this unsatisfying life, though, the Holy Father explains that Jesus became poor by taking on our humanity and our sins, so as to “comfort us, to save us, to free us from our misery.”
Because of Christ’s descent into poverty, the pope notes that, “It has been said that the only real regret lies in not being a saint (L. Bloy); we could also say that there is only one real kind of poverty: not living as children of God and brothers and sisters of Christ.”
And yet, tragically, so many people today have lost or turned away from their true identity and ended up in material, moral or spiritual destitution.
Pope Francis explains that material destitution “is what is normally called poverty, and affects those living in conditions opposed to human dignity.” Moral destitution, on the other hand, involves “slavery to vice and sin,” while spiritual destitution occurs when “we think we don’t need God … because we believe we can make do on our own.”
These three forms of destitution can easily cause each other, although it is important to note that not every person suffering from material destitution caused their circumstances.
The lack of humane living conditions, for example, can weaken a person’s resolve to resist temptations to sin, or convince them that God won’t save them. Pope Francis observes that the experience of moral destitution that comes from being enslaved to alcohol, drugs, gambling or pornography “also causes financial ruin,” and it is “invariably linked to the spiritual destitution which we experience we when turn away from God and reject his love.”
The solution to these situations that distance us from God and the dignity he bestows on us is the Gospel. This Lent, I ask each of you to embrace the rich mercy and forgiveness that Christ offers, especially through the sacrament of reconciliation.
But we must not stop there, because those who live in material, moral and spiritual destitution need to hear “the Gospel message of the merciful love of God our Father, who is ready to embrace everyone in Christ.” In Lent we must not only encounter and follow Jesus, but also become like Jesus so that we may share his “wealth.”
Pope Francis explains, “So what is this poverty by which Christ frees us and enriches us? It is his way of loving us, his way of being our neighbor, just as the Good Samaritan was neighbor to the man left half dead by the side of the road (cf. Lk. 10:25). What gives us true freedom, true salvation and true happiness is the compassion, tenderness and solidarity of his love. 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. Christ’s poverty is the greatest treasure of all: Jesus’ wealth is that of his boundless confidence in God the Father, his constant trust, his desire always and only to do the Father’s will and give glory to him” (emphasis added).
One way we can extend Jesus’ compassion to others this Lent is through acts of self-denial. This could take the form of sharing how Jesus has changed your life with someone, even if it makes you uncomfortable. It could also involve lovingly inviting a friend to turn away from a sinful behavior, which always leads to destitution.
I find Pope Francis’ words on this very helpful. “Let us not forget that real poverty hurts: no self-denial is real without this dimension of penance. I distrust a charity that costs nothing and does not hurt.”
May this Lent be filled with opportunities for you to continue on the path of conversion to Christ, of bringing Christ to those who are destitute, and growing in the “wealth” of Christ placing “boundless confidence in God the Father” and doing “the Father’s will.”