One Fox News commentator has unkindly, but unsurprisingly written, “Pope Francis makes lots of noise about the poor, and the liberal media fawn over him at every occasion.” Indeed, the publication of Pope Francis’ first exhortation, “The Joy of the Gospel,” gave the pope’s liberal enthusiasts great delight and the pope’s conservative critics much displeasure. In the document, Francis says that “the powerful feed on the powerless” in a free market economy, and that those who engage in the market become “incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor.” He says the “culture of prosperity deadens us.” The commentator then observes, “Yet it is those evil capitalist Catholics who pay for the churches, fund the hospitals, the schools, the soup kitchens and everything else that allows the church to actually help the poor.” Indeed, the writer has a point.
Happily Pope Francis’ message to the universal church for Lent clearly addresses in spiritual language rather than economic terms exactly what the pope means when he calls for a church that is poor, when he exhorts Catholics to embrace a life of evangelical poverty. His Holiness is clear, first of all that poverty is not the same as destitution: “Destitution is poverty without faith, without support, without hope.” The pontiff’s call for a church that is poor does not envision a church without resources. How else, as the Fox News commentator noted, would the church maintain her hospitals, schools and soup kitchens? Rather, the poor church, like Christ himself, will resist the idolatry of “power, luxury and money.” His Holiness observes that Christ did not reveal himself “cloaked in worldly power and wealth but rather, in weakness and poverty.” Christ, the eternal Son of God, one with the Father in power and glory, chose to be poor; he set aside his eternal glory and emptied himself so that he could show that true dignity, true wealth, true power, comes from communion with God and not from earthly affluence. This is the poor church that Pope Francis envisions.
Jesus’ poverty was not a gimmick any more than Pope Francis’ call for a poor church is a mere ploy. Jesus’ earthly poverty reveals that true wealth comes from a boundless confidence in God as Father, a constant trust, an unyielding desire always to do the Father’s will. Christ’s unique relationship with the Father is the true boast and greatest resource of this Messiah who was neither politically nor economically connected. A poor Jesus invites all believers to share this filial and fraternal spirit.
In the Gospel passage for the First Sunday of Lent, Jesus dramatically illustrates where his true wealth lies. Christ is tempted to embrace material wealth symbolized by the prospect of enjoying some tasty bread. But Jesus favors God’s Word over earthly bread. “One does not live on bread alone….” Christ is then tempted to exercise personal power by presuming on the protection of angels should he cast himself down from the Temple height. Again Jesus prefers God’s plan to his own glory: “You shall not tempt the Lord.” And finally, Christ is tempted to accept possession of the whole world by pledging fidelity to Satan. Again, Christ resists the devil and this lure of wealth declaring that he shall serve God alone: “Him only shall you serve.” In all three temptations, Christ is presented with the “power, luxury and money” that the pope cited in his Lenten letter. Yet, Jesus resists this illusionary wealth and clings instead to the unique source of true riches, his communion with the Will of God.
The satanic temptations of Christ are recalled by Saints Matthew, Mark and Luke. They represent what today we might call a maturing experience for Jesus. Jesus could have been a clever preacher, a miracle worker, a compassionate healer, a political gadfly, an ever-welcomed dinner guest. He was humanly talented enough to make a success of himself in any field. He clearly enjoyed celebrity status. But Jesus repels the idolatry even of legitimate pursuits and trusts squarely and exclusively in the Will of the Father. The Father’s plan, not earthly capital, was Jesus’ greatest resource. The church today is challenged by Pope Francis to resist the temptation to trust in her vast sources of property, personnel, and patrimony. The church’s true and greatest treasure is the divinely bestowed grace to discern and effect the Will of God for mankind in each successive era.