Judge Donald and Ursula Shea, residents of St. Francis of Assisi parish in Warwick, were recently honored when a scholarship in their name was endowed at Providence College for a student who would pursue a career in community service.
During his acknowledgment, Father Brian Shanley, president of the Dominican college, noted that this generous resource would allow the school to equip a worthy student with an educational background that would serve the larger community. In a period of tight economy and increased tuition, Father Shanley suggested that endowments, bequests and legacies are all the more vital. Providence College can do much good with enhanced resources. Similarly, the Diocese of Providence is currently taking steps to insure that its resources are sufficient to provide for retired lay employees and for retiring priests as well. Pensions, investments, and health insurance for Catholic school teachers and secretarial staffs as well as for those clergy who have dutifully “born the burden of the day’s heat” are major fiscal concerns. Whether it be a Catholic college or a Catholic diocese or simply a Catholic family paying tuition to La Salle Academy or The Prout School, adequate fiscal resources (read a decent bank account) will make all the difference.
Considering the sensible and prudent need for adequate financial capital in today’s world, the Gospel incident of the poor widow’s reckless liberality toward the temple treasury borders on the fanciful. The sacred author notes that many rich people put in large sums. Then a poor widow came along and put in two small coins worth a few cents. Jesus comments, "Amen, I say to you, this poor widow put in more than all the other contributors to the treasury. For they have all contributed from their surplus wealth, but she, from her poverty, has contributed all she had, her whole livelihood." If understood literally, Jesus’ words would have to mean that Providence College should forgo its endowments and send all its resources off to a poverty-stricken village in Bulgaria. I certainly hope that the Diocese of Providence does not cash in my well-deserved pension to assist an indigenous tribe in Honduras. Yet, if the poor biblical widow is commended for her irresponsible generosity, what choice do authentic Christians of later generations have than to go likewise, sell what they own, donate all to the poor, and store up treasure in heaven?
It is clear from the history of the Church that Jesus’ commendation of the poor widow never evolved into a universal Christian principal. All Christians have never been asked to forego all their resources to benefit the needy. It is true that the early Church at Jerusalem did choose to pool its resources into a voluntary community fund. Yet, the letters of St. Paul testify that this Christian communism was a colossal flop. The Apostle was regularly begging funds from his newly converted churches for the impoverished “saints” back in the Holy City.
Pope John Paul II in his encyclical on moral responsibility, Veritatis Splendor, analyzes the failure of the rich young man to follow the example of the poor widow and donate all his possessions to the poor. The Holy Father understands the young man’s call by Christ to sell all (and perhaps the widow’s impulse to donate all) as a personal charism bestowed by God on a select individual. The pontiff compares evangelical poverty to evangelical celibacy. In his dialogue with the Pharisees on the permanence of marriage and impossibility of divorce, Jesus especially understands celibacy to be a personal vocation from God. “Not all can accept this word, but only those to whom that is granted” Just as no one should rush into marriage or celibacy without much forethought and counsel, so Christians should not feel compelled to rush into poverty without measuring the good or ill that might ensue. St. Francis of Assisi was genuinely called by God to poverty and the results are still with us. St. Benedict Joseph Labre and Blessed Charles de Foucauld abandoned all to follow Christ and rightly so. These represent personal decisions, unique calls, individual vocations entrusted by God to chosen souls. No doubt some Christians are called to give their last two cents to a deserving cause. Yet for most Christians, fiscal responsibility will most likely demand less dramatic but still worthy acts of charity.