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Blessed Are The Poor In Spirit

April 21, 2018 Our Catholic Faith No Comments


Last week we saw that the eight Beatitudes, as recounted in the Gospel of St. Matthew (see Matt. 5:3-12) as a prelude to the Sermon on the Mount, “are at the heart of Jesus’ preaching and they take up and fulfill the promises that God made starting with Abraham. They depict the very countenance of Jesus and they characterize authentic Christian life” (Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 360).
They do not abrogate the Ten Commandments received by Moses on Mt. Sinai (see Exodus 20:1-17), but “repeat them and deepen how they are to be lived. . . . They promise that Christ’s way of life leads to true happiness — beatitude or blessedness” (A Study Guide for Pope Benedict XVI’s Jesus of Nazareth, p. 33).
Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ, provides a succinct summary of why the Beatitudes might be referred to as an epitome of the New Testament:
They provide a portrait of Jesus and describe His charity; they are expressive of the vocation of the faithful associated with the glory of His Passion and Resurrection; they clarify the actions and attitudes characteristic of the Christian life properly lived; they are paradoxical promises that sustain our hope in the midst of trials and tribulations; they identify, albeit dimly, the blessings and rewards already secured by Christ’s disciples while still on Earth; and they are recognizable as having been lived out by the Blessed Virgin Mary and all the saints who have gone before us (cf. The Faith, p. 152).
In a nutshell, they are a sure formula for reaching God and attaining true and everlasting happiness.
Although the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) includes the eight Beatitudes from the Gospel of St. Matthew in its text (see CCC, n. 1716), it treats them in a general manner in their totality and with brevity. As such, the primary purpose of the next few columns will be to offer fuller instruction and commentary on each of the Beatitudes.
This deliberation will draw liberally from the teaching contained in Fr. Hardon’s Basic Catholic Catechism Course (BCCC), which was revised and updated in 2012 under the direction of Raymond Leo Cardinal Burke.
In the first Beatitude, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:3), Jesus advocates poverty and thus sets the tone for His messianic mission of proclaiming the Gospel to the poor; indeed, poverty is the underlying theme of the Gospels. But in referring to the “poor in spirit,” Christ is not making reference only to the materially poor, for as Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI states:
“Purely material poverty does not bring salvation. . . . The heart of those who have nothing can be hardened, poisoned, evil — interiorly full of greed for material things, forgetful of God, covetous of external possessions. On the other hand, the poverty spoken of here is not a purely spiritual attitude, either” (Jesus of Nazareth [JoN], pp. 76-77).
In The Question and Answer Catholic Catechism, Fr. Hardon defines those included among the poor in spirit:
“The poor in spirit are those who voluntarily become poor to follow Christ more closely, those who are detached in spirit from the material goods of this life, those who maintain a low opinion of themselves while others esteem them, and those who are satisfied with what they have and accept it without impatience” (n. 846).
For the purpose of further analysis, three forms of poverty will be defined: actual poverty, poverty of choice, and poverty of spirit.
Actual poverty means a lack of material possessions which, for most, is not by choice. Rather, as Fr. Hardon states, it is “something imposed by the particular circumstances of life” (BCCC, p. 99). The Incarnate Word, who could have entered this world in a palace with rich trappings, freely chose to embrace poverty — He was born into a poor Jewish family, His first bed was a trough in a stable normally used to feed animals. His lifetime of poverty is evident in a statement made to His followers:
“Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man has nowhere to lay his head” (Matt. 8:20).
Likewise, as St. Paul said of our Lord: “Though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich” (2 Cor. 8:9). The extent of His poverty right up until the moment of death is powerfully depicted by St. Peter Julian Eymard: “His Cross, three nails, His crown of thorns: these are the only material things He had to bequeath” (The Real Presence, p. 33).
Actual poverty, as explained above by Pope Benedict, does not guarantee salvation in itself. Being materially poor may, in fact, make it less difficult for a person to follow the first Beatitude since he has not known abundance. However, he must guard against the covetous desire for the goods of others. At the same time, an important facet of this Beatitude is for those who are materially blessed to share with the less fortunate. Jesus Himself exhorts us to “give to him who begs from you, and do not refuse him who would borrow from you” (Matt. 5:42).
Likewise, St. James rebukes those who turn a shoulder to others in need: “If a brother or sister is ill-clad and in lack of daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what does it profit?” (James 2:15-16).
This leads naturally into a discussion of the second form of poverty, poverty of choice, which is freely assumed and thus not binding on all the faithful. “Those who practice poverty of choice,” says Fr. Hardon, “stand as intentional witnesses in a world which tends to glorify wealth and consumerism” (BCCC, p. 100).
“The Church has constant need of the great ascetics,” says Pope Benedict, “to wake everyone up to the fact that possession is all about service, to contrast the culture of affluence with the culture of inner freedom” (JoN, p. 77).
Perhaps the most familiar example of one who practiced poverty of choice intensely is St. Francis of Assisi. This great founder of the Franciscan Order “was gripped in an utterly radical way by the promise of the first Beatitude, to the point that he even gave away his garments and let himself be clothed anew by the bishop” (JoN, p. 78).
Poverty of choice “is the foundation of the evangelical counsel of poverty practiced by consecrated persons” (BCCC, p. 100) and has its biblical basis in Christ’s declaration to the rich, young man: “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (Matt. 19:21).
It is important to note, however, that a vocation to consecrated life is a divine calling that cannot be lived faithfully without special graces received from God.
Thus, even though “every Christian is called to share his goods with the needy and to exercise good stewardship over the material good entrusted to his care,” says Fr. Hardon, “not every Christian is required to practice poverty of choice” (BCCC, p. 101). However, the Church teaches that all Christians are called to practice the third form of poverty, poverty of spirit, for it is a condition for entrance into the Kingdom of God.
Poverty of spirit entails not only interior detachment from external possessions but from the desire for power, fame, sensual pleasure, personal preferences — the list of “creatures” goes on. As expressed by the Vatican II Fathers, all Christians, whether they are materially rich or poor, have a solemn obligation to “guide aright their own deepest sentiments of soul. Let neither the use of the things of this world nor attachment to riches…hinder them in their quest for perfect love” (Lumen Gentium, n. 42 § 5).
The “poor in spirit” as referred to the first Beatitude “are those who humbly acknowledge that every gift comes from God; they are detached in spirit from the material goods which they possess; they maintain a realistic opinion of themselves, even when others esteem them; they are satisfied with what they have, and accept with patience and resignation what they lack” (BCCC, p. 101).

Fear Of The Lord

According to St. Thomas Aquinas, the gift of the Holy Spirit that is closely connected to being poor in spirit is fear of the Lord (see Summa Theologiae II-II, Q. 19, art. 12). It is through holy fear of the Lord that we are able to detach our hearts from the riches, pleasures, and honors of the world, to grow in humility, and to place all our trust in God.
Liberated from the self-exaltation of pride, fear of the Lord leads us to seek God alone; in doing so, we become supernaturally rich and able to inherit eternal beatitude.
The reward promised to the poor in spirit, then, is no less than to inherit the Kingdom of God. “In this world,” submits Fr. Hardon, “the Kingdom of Heaven consists especially in the state of grace by which God already lives in us; in the world to come, it consists of the Beatific Vision. . . . The poor in spirit will enjoy happiness not only in the life to come but also, to a certain degree, already on earth” (BCCC, pp. 101-102).

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(Don Fier serves on the board of directors for The Catholic Servant, a Minneapolis-based monthly publication. He and his wife are the parents of seven children. Fier is a 2009 graduate of Ave Maria University’s Institute for Pastoral Theology. He is a Consecrated Marian Catechist.)

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