Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Cheers to Poverty!

Three years ago, as the entire Church prepared to observe a “Pauline Year” in honor of the Apostle, we received the following letter:
“…The coming year of St. Paul….should be a powerful year for his daughters. Expect special blessing, even more vocations and more than adequate provision for your ministry….The greatest blessing will be deeper intimacy with Jesus as you “gladly spend yourselves and are spent” for him.”
Dr. John B., Ellicott City, MD
God so graces our lives every day, that it’s hard to know whether that year was more blessed than others. It was certainly marked by a fresh impetus in spirituality and mission, new publications on Paul, communal reflection on the heritage we’ve received from him, and a month-long seminar in Italy for representatives of all the congregations and institutes of the Pauline Family. This was convoked by Fr. Silvio Sassi, superior general of the Society of St. Paul, with the express intention of jumpstarting a renewed outlook on study, spiritual life, mission, and our “lifestyle” at the service of the Gospel.

That “lifestyle,” shaped by our vowed life in community, is part of the patrimony from our founders, James Alberione and Thecla Merlo. As they meditated on the lives of Jesus and Paul, their lives were gradually marked by poverty, which they understood not as destitution, but as simplicity and a strong work ethic that’s meant to give life to individual Paulines, Pauline communities, and those we evangelize.

In fact, as they “digested” (Alberione’s word) the example and teaching of the Apostle, they ended up describing Pauline poverty as life that renounces the superfluous, preserves the goods of creation that are given to us, provides for our needs, produces for the mission, and builds up (“edifies”) the Church.

Fr. Alberione was accustomed to hard work all his life, first out in the fields of Piedmont, and later, in the religious houses he founded. So, linking his own experience with Christ, he wrote that Jesus’ sweat in the carpenter’s shop at Nazareth was no less redemptive than his bloody sweat in the Garden of Olives, since it was the world’s Redeemer who underwent both. Paul was another model for him, too, since he had labored both as an Apostle and as a tentmaker, providing for his own needs and those of his companions (cf. Acts 20:34).

Neither of them ever said no to a donation, though! Time and again, in his letters to the communities he had formed, Paul thanked those whose generosity made it possible for him to live and not be a burden on those in whose city he was currently evangelizing. He boldly labeled their donation a “spiritual offering,” given in exchange for the chance they had received to share in the blessings of the Gospel he had preached to them. Jesus and his disciples, too, benefitted from the gratitude of women Jesus had healed and “who provided for them out of their means” (Lk. 8:3).

There’s the catch. Those who followed Jesus and Paul were not priests or religious. They were regular working people, family men and women with several mouths to feed, a number of them—at least in Paul’s company—slaves to unrelenting masters, adherents of a scorned religion. Relatively few were sophisticated, powerful, or born with a silver spoon in their mouths (cf. 1Cor. 1:26). Yet the Pauline poverty that renounced, preserved, provided, produced, and built up the Church was their call as much as it was Paul’s. It characterized their lives as much as it did his.

So it is with us and those who come to share in the blessings of the Gospel through our mission. While the Daughters’ ordinary way of providing for our needs is remuneration for our products and services, we also appeal to others’ generosity…in Paul’s spirit. They, in turn, gradually, maybe even imperceptibly, absorb his “style,” not in the radical way we do by a vowed life, but by integrating it into their lives. It changes them.

Yesterday the Church celebrated the feast of the Conversion of St. Paul and today remembers his closest collaborators, Sts. Timothy and Titus. May they give all of us something of their mission-mindedness…and a little of their poverty!
“Our first encounter [with the Daughters of St. Paul] was when some sisters visited my home when I was first married. My wife was so impressed that she chose St. Paul as her patron saint. Then in 1978 when I was broke and out of work with a second child on the way, you fed us. I have never experienced the love of God in such a powerful way. The Church and the world are in such great need of the truth which you spread through your apostolate. You are in my daily prayers, and I unite my sufferings for the success of that ministry.”
 Gerald G., Bridgeport, CT

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