Every summer I take a group of high school students out to work with our partners in El Salvador. The families in the school there live at a simple subsistence level. It’s easy to romanticize their lives when we’re out there for what amounts to a kind of summer vacation, but there is something simple and honest about their poverty. They don’t have much financially. They don’t have much hope. They don’t have much future. They don’t have much of anything. Nevertheless, when I am out there I am always very happy. They welcome us with a natural hospitality and enjoy life in a way that we struggle to in the hectic American suburbs.
Last week the Holy Father called
on Catholics to re-examine our attitude to wealth. When I’m back in the United States I spend most of my time working not with the poor, but with the rich, and even when I am working with the poor in prison, or in the parish or in our food pantry, I’m aware that being ‘poor’ in America is very different from being poor anywhere else, and being rich in America is very different from being rich anywhere else.
When working with the rich there are certain pitfalls that are very hard to avoid. The first one is knowing how to be their pastor. They have money and you need money. You need money to build a church, to subsidize your school, to start a ministry to the poor, to establish a new method of evangelization, to start a radio show. You not only need the rich to help you do this, but many of them are often good, sincere and worthy Catholic people. The thing is, they’re rich and being rich they are used to getting their own way. They are used to people kow towing to them and being subservient. They are used to being ‘benefactors’ with all the loaded relationships and expectations that involves. Too often, therefore, we compromise with these people of power in order to get their donations to do the work we feel called to do. Tricky.
This is one of the reasons why a pastor should take seriously his obligation in canon law to live in apostolic simplicity. If I live in apostolic simplicity nobody can buy me. I can’t be fired. I can’t be hired. I can’t be influenced by the wealth and power of the worldly wise. If I have the freedom of a St Francis, then I also have the freedom to love the rich as I would love the poor–seeing them for who they really are–without the glossy coat and charming smile and glittering manners that the wealthy can afford. I can see them exactly for who they are–all their good traits and all their faults, and by God’s grace I can love them for who they are, not what they have.
The second pitfall in working with the rich is that it is very difficult not to be influenced by their assumed set of values. People who are rich dwell in wealth. They breathe the air of affluence. They have an attitude of power and privilege and position which is simply part of having wealth. This is not to say that they are all vain, power hungry, greedy and obnoxious people–not at all. It is simply to say that around them is an aura of confidence and power that goes with being able to buy pretty much whatever they want. This feels good, and soon that sense of power translates into a set of values and a way of life which naturally protects and defends the privilege and power. When working with such people it is difficult not to assume that same attitude and set of values. It’s hard to be poor in heart when you’re rich in pocket.
The third problem with the rich is that it is very difficult for them to know their need of God. Wealth dulls our desire for God. If we can buy everything we need, why call on God? Consequently, when the rich are also religious what results is a warped sense of the Christian faith. For too many of the wealthy the Christian faith is reduced to (at best) a set of moral principles and ‘rules for good behavior’, and at worst, an act of cultural conformity–a weekend past time for respectable people. The idea of living a radical life of obedience and sacrifice for the kingdom of God is well…(polite smile) rather extremist.
The fourth problem is that wealth skews a person’s image, and the way they look at other people. Wealthy people are used to interacting with other people as their ‘boss’ or their superior. They’re used to getting what they want from others. Again, I am not saying they are all bossy, nasty, domineering people. Not at all. Simply saying that they live in a way that is used to being in control. Consequently, it is hard for them not to regard other people as either employees or equals, and to determine if they are equals, they begin to make that assessment according to how much the other person earns, or what position of power they have, or what worldly accomplishments they have. It’s hard for the wealthy not to value people according to their wealth, power or prestige (or lack of it)
The fifth problem is a result of the first four: that the wealthy end up with a blind spot regarding the real values and beliefs of the faith. They may live their lives in a beautiful haze of ‘goodness’ and material blessings and nice friends and lovely things but wind up with a blank in understanding the heart of the gospel.
How do we get over or around it? We can’t. The rich, like the poor, we will have with us always.
But in saying all this, I do not wish to be too harsh. Some of the genuinely best, most gentle, loving, kind and genuine Christian souls I have known have been very wealthy. They have been humble, generous, caring and content with little. They have been good stewards of the riches they have either earned or been given and the responsibility has made them wise.
This brings us to the heart of the matter–material wealth, or lack of it–is secondary. What matters is what you do with it, and what you do with it depends on your relationship with the one who was rich, and yet for our sake became poor and took on the status of a slave.