Msgr. Luigi Civardi
Nihil Obstat and Imprimatur, 1961
Published on the World Wide Web with Permission of the Publisher.


Preliminary Notions 

Poverty is the condition of those who are more or less destitute of temporal goods. There are different kinds of poverty. 

1. It may be absolute or relative. Absolute poverty is the condition of those who are destitute of all temporal goods, who lack the necessities of life and therefore need the help of others. This condition is better known as indigence, misery, beggary. 

Relative poverty is the condition of those who have no superfluous goods, having only what is strictly necessary for life. Such is the condition, for example, of an honest common laborer whose wages are barely sufficient to support himself and his family. 

2. Poverty, both absolute and relative, may be involuntary or voluntary. 

It is involuntary when it is due to extrinsic conditions, even if such conditions are accepted with perfect resignation. 

It is voluntary when it is due to the spontaneous surrender of temporal goods. Such is the condition of religious persons who take the vow of poverty in order to be better able to cultivate the virtues and to attain evangelical perfection. This condition of poverty is of counsel, not of precept. One must also bear in mind that for Christianity, poverty is not a state of perfection, but simply a means of perfection. So that a poor man may be perfect or imperfect according to the use that he makes of his poverty. 

3. It is also necessary to distinguish between effective and affective poverty. Effective poverty is the actual lack of material goods, be it voluntary or involuntary. Affective poverty [from affection] is the detachment of the heart from whatever wealth one may possess, be it little or great. According to the teachings of Christianity, all have a duty to practice affective poverty because it is necessary to perfection; while effective poverty can only be recommended as a means, not necessary, but useful to Christian perfection. The state of absolute poverty or penury is generally not advisable because it may easily become an occasion of sin and of debasement. To the faithful, the Church recommends relative poverty which excludes all superfluities, but not penury, because only in cases of a special vocation and consequently of special help from God can it become a means of perfection. The Holy Spirit prompted this prayer to God: "Give me neither beggary, nor riches; give me only the necessaries of life:" [Prov. 30: 8]. 

4. Jesus, who exalted the weak and raised up the oppressed, was not only the Redeemer of women, of children and of workers, but also of the poor. He so elevated poverty as to endow it with dignity. We will understand this better when we consider how the pagan world looked upon and treated poverty. 

Poverty in Pagan Times

1. Before the time of Christ the poor were generally despised. Poverty was considered a state of inferiority, debasement and dishonor. It is true that some ancient philosophers and some oriental ascetics preached and practiced poverty. These, however, were exceptional cases or rather curious oddities, prompted by a selfish idea, namely by the desire not to have the worries that wealth brings with it. For if it be true that riches are desirable from many points of view, it is also true that they are thorns, as the Gospel tells us in the parable of the sower. [Lk. 8:14]. 

Sometimes poverty is the result of a haughty and extravagant spirit, despised and ridiculed by the people. Such was the case of those Greek philosophers who were branded with the name of cynics, which means in Greek "like dogs:' 

The most famous among these was Diogenes, who gave up even his little home in order to live in a barrel in the open country and who used to say: "Omnia me mecum porta " [1 carry all my belongings with me.] Famous too was the philosopher Crates, who boasted that he used to go to bed at night without shutting the door, because there was nothing that thieves could steal. 

2. The poor man, being despised, was naturally forgotten and left to shift for himself. Pity and kindliness toward the unfortunate and the poor were practically unknown in the pagan world. There were no alms-houses, no shelters, no hospitals for the many ills of humanity. 

The great number of slaves also shows us how the most absolute poverty was up to that time a very widespread as well as an incurable social plague-----that plague that is known as pauperism. 

A small favored class of rich men lorded it over the people: such is the dismal picture of the pagan world, so that the poet Lucan could truthfully write: "The many live for the few." 

How Jesus Dignifies Poverty 

After the coming of Jesus into the world, there is a complete reversal of values. Poverty is made honorable. It acquires a sacred character and is surrounded with help, with protection and veneration. Jesus dignified poverty by example and by His teachings.


He is heralded King of Israel, but is born in a stable and lives as a poor workingman in the little home of Nazareth until He is thirty years of age. One day one of the scribes, having seen Him perform many miracles and thinking that by following Him he could acquire wealth and glory, says: "Master, I will follow thee wherever thou shalt go:" But Jesus disillusions him at once by replying: "The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air nests: but the son of man hath not where to lay his head:" [Matt. 8: 19-20]. 

The poverty of Jesus reaches its climax on Calvary, where He is stripped of His garments, for which the soldiers cast lots. 
[Matt. 27: 35], 

Dante is right in stating that while the Mother of Christ remained beneath the Cross, poverty followed Him even upon the Cross: ". . . when Mary stayed below, poverty mounted the cross with Christ:" 
[Par: 11: 71-72]. 

Thus was poverty exalted to the highest degree by Christ; and after such exaltation what Christian would still despise it, or rather what Christian will not honor it? The poor are more like Christ, therefore worthy of greater respect. Poverty for the Christian is a sacred thing. No wonder then if many, like St. Francis of Assisi, choose poverty as their spouse. 


Jesus practiced poverty first, then preached it. Here, too, He "began to do and to teach:" [Acts 1: 1]. Here, too, His words receive power and strength from His conduct. Jesus exalts the poor; commands that they be helped; He identifies Himself with them. 

(a) He exalts the poor: In the Old Testament, Christ is heralded as the liberator of the poor: "He shall deliver the poor from the mighty." [Ps. 71: 12]. He began His preaching by calling Himself He who is sent to "preach the gospel to the poor." [Lk. 4: 18]. He sets forth His program in the Sermon on the Mount, and His first words are these: "Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." [Matt. 5: 3]. 

This phrase, "poor in spirit," means affective poverty, which we have already mentioned. Therefore-----as Father P. Marco Sales observes in his comments on the Gospel-----the poor in spirit are "Not only those who, following the counsel of the Savior, freely strip themselves of everything in order to follow Him, but also the poor in fact who bear their poverty with patience, and all those whose hearts are not set on riches and pomp, and who do not make their happiness consist in piling up wealth:" Later on Jesus confirmed His doctrine-----strange to the ears of the world-----with this famous parable: 

"There was a certain rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen, and feasted sumptuously every day. And there was a certain poor beggar, named Lazarus, who lay at his gate, full of sores, desiring to be filled with the crumbs that fell from the rich man's table . . . the dogs came and licked his sores. And it came to pass that the beggar died and was carried by the angels into Abraham's bosom. And the rich man also died: and he was buried in Hell. " [Lk. 16: 19-22]. This parable is an exaltation of poverty, and at the same time the condemnation of wealth, as understood by paganism. 

(b) But Jesus was not satisfied with exalting the poor, He commanded that the poor be relieved. He said bluntly to the rich: "Give that which remains as alms." [Lk. 11: 41]. One day a rich young man asked Him what he should do to obtain eternal life: Jesus gave him this advice: "If thou wilt be perfect, go sell what thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven." [Matt. 19: 21]. Another day He asked Zacheus to be His host. The people wondered and whispered because Zacheus was a publican, a Shylock, a thief with gloves. But all wonder ceased when they heard the words of this publican addressed to his distinguished Guest: "Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have wronged any man of any thing, I restore him fourfold:" [Lk. 19: 8]. Zacheus was well aware of Christ's predilection for the poor. 

(c) Jesus did more: He identified Himself with the poor: On the day of the Last Judgment, He will speak these words to the elect: "Amen I say to you, as long as you did it to one of these my least brethren, you did it to me:" [Matt. 25: 40]. Oh, the dignity of the poor! Hidden in him is the Lord Himself incognito! 

History relates that the Lord sometimes revealed Himself in miraculous manner in the persons of the poor. We are all familiar with the celebrated incident in the life of St. Elizabeth, the wife of the Prince of Thuringia. She received a poor leper in her palace. She washed him, nursed him, anointed him, and bandaged his sores and made him recline on her princely bed. The incident was related to her husband who, enraged at his wife, entered the room to see if it was true, raised the bed covers . . . and saw the face of Christ, resplendent with light. He understood the miracle; repentant, he knelt to pray; then, turning to Elizabeth with tears in his eyes, kissed her. 

The Church and the Poor 

The Church, following the footsteps of Christ, has always exalted and helped the poor: 


From the very beginning when paganism was at its peak, she has shown her predilection for the poor, rescuing them from universal contempt. She exalted the poorest among the poor-----the slaves-----deprived even of their natural liberty. 

Here is a historical incident: Onesimus, a slave of Philomen, a wealthy Christian of Colossus, in order to avoid punishment at the hands of his master ran away to Rome and contacted St. Paul [who was then in prison]. St. Paul converted him, Baptized him and then sent him back to his master with a letter which is a sublime document of kindliness. He said: "I plead with thee for my own son, whom I have begotten in prison, for Onesimus . . . receive him no longer as a slave, but as a brother most dear . . . Welcome him as thou wouldst me. And if he did thee any injury or owes thee anything, charge it to me:"

Therefore, the Christian master is bound to see in his slave, not merely a man, but a brother; and a very dear one. Slavery is conquered with a vengeance. 

While slavery was in full force, masters and slaves, rich and poor, went together to the Eucharistic Table, where they received one and the same Bread-----the sublime sign and at the same time the cause of spiritual brotherhood. 

After the celebration of the Eucharistic Mysteries, it was the custom in Rome and elsewhere on solemn occasions to celebrate the Agape [fraternal banquet]. And here, too, patricians and plebeians, rich and poor, used to sit at the same table, partaking of the same food. 

Slaves were admitted, under certain conditions, even to the Sacrament of Holy Orders, so that during the sacred ceremonies one might see nobles bowing their heads to receive the blessing of a Bishop or a priest who, up to yesterday, had been a poor slave neglected and despised by the pagans. 


Imitating the example of the Redeemer, the Church has always had a special care for the poor and the needy. These, as Bossuet said, are "her firstborn and authentic sons." 

(a) This care began with the dawn of the Church. The Apostles, in addition to their strictly religious functions, performed works of charity and relief-----at first, personally, and later through the College of Deacons, who were commissioned "to serve at the tables" of the poor and of the widows. [Acts 6:1-4]. In those primitive times, in the Church of Jerusalem . . . "the multitude of believers had but one heart and one soul: . . . neither was there anyone needy among them. For as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them, and brought the price of the things they sold and laid it down before the feet of the Apostles, and distribution was made to everyone, according as he had need:" [Acts 4:32-35]. St. Paul, in his arduous apostolic travels, is engaged in collecting alms for the poor of the famine-stricken Churches of Judea. [1 Cor: 16:1-3]. 

(b) Throughout the centuries how many institutions of charity have sprung from the bosom of the Church: Almshouses, old age shelters, institutions for the handicapped, for the blind, for the deaf . . . it may well be said that the history of the Church is the history of charity itself. The latest chapters of that history are adorned with the names of Cottolengo, Don Bosco, Ozanam, Dom Guanella and Don Orioni. 

(c) In fact it has always been the teaching and the mind of the Church that charity should be not only a contribution of money but of one's self: a charity that ministers not only to the body but to the soul. 

His Holiness Pope Pius XII says in this connection: "The great temptation of an age that calls itself social, in which-----besides the Church-----the State, the cities, and other public bodies attend to many social problems, is that persons, even among the faithful, when the poor man knocks at their door, simply send him to the Department, to the Office, to the Organization, figuring that their personal obligation has been sufficiently satisfied by their contribution to those institutions in the form of assessment or donations. 

"No doubt the needy person would then receive your help in that other way. But often he counts on you, at least on a word of kindness and of comfort from you. 

Your charity must resemble God's, who came in person to bring us help:"

Among the charitable institutions that sprang from the maternal bosom of the Church for the relief of the poor, the Conferences of St. Vincent de Paul are a typical example. They were founded in Paris in 1893 by Frederick Ozanam, who, after receiving Holy Communion, would visit the poor, saying: "I am going to return the visit to Jesus." 

This two-thousand-year-old tradition of Christian charity has completely changed the opinion of the world concerning poverty. "The poor man," writes Cardinal Capacelatro, "amongst us is no longer a despised creature as he was nearly always in ancient times. Christianity has created the dignity and the nobility of the poor----- Christ's brother-----and ours. This sentiment has been so transfused into the blood of Christian nations nowadays that it is shared even by unbelievers, and none of them would dare to say to a poor man today: "I despise you because you are poor." 


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