Wednesday, 23 January 2013

The riches of poverty

Goodshepherd domitilla

The other day I came across a very interesting article shared by one of my besties - MS - on Facebook. It reproduced the text of a pact signed by 40 bishops in the catacombs of St. Domitilla (the oldest and most extensive of the Roman catacombs) shortly before the Second Vatican Council’s conclusion - “The Pact of the Servant and Poor Church,” also known as “The Pact of the Catacombs.” The core of this group was made up of Brazilian bishops, but it also included several from Europe, Africa, Asia and both North and South America.1 At its heart, this pact was a commitment made by each signatory to live the evangelical counsel of poverty in their position as bishop of their local church and it echoed a point also emphasized in Vatican II’s Lumen Gentium, which says:2
“Jesus, “though He was by nature God … emptied Himself, taking the nature of a slave”, and “being rich, became poor” for our sakes. Thus, the Church, although it needs human resources to carry out its mission, is not set up to seek earthly glory, but to proclaim, even by its own example, humility and self-sacrifice.”
The following then is my abbreviated version of the pact’s preamble and 13 points:
“We, Bishops meeting at Vatican Council II, being aware of the deficiencies of our life of poverty according to the Gospel, encouraged by one another in this initiative in which each one wants to avoid singularity and presumption, in union with all our brothers in the Episcopate; counting, especially, on the grace and strength of our Lord Jesus Christ, on the prayer of the faithful and priests of our respective diocese; putting ourselves in thought and prayer before the Trinity, commit ourselves to the following:
  1. We will seek to live in accordance with the ordinary manner of our people, regarding housing, food, means of transportation, etc.
  2. We renounce wealth and the appearance thereof, especially in clothing (expensive fabrics and garish colors), and insignia of precious metals.
  3. We will possess neither liquid nor fixed assets in our names; and if it is necessary to possess anything, we will place it under the name of our diocese or other social or charitable works.
  4. We will entrust the financial and material administration of our diocese to a commission of competent lay people conscious of their apostolic role, since we should be pastors and apostles rather than administrators.
  5. We refuse to be called by names or titles that signify grandeur and power. We prefer to be called by the Gospel name “Father”.
  6. We will avoid everything that could appear to confer privilege, priority, or even preference to the rich and powerful.
  7. We will also avoid fostering or flattering the vanity of anyone, whoever they might be, when rewarding or requesting donations, or for any other reason. We will invite our faithful to consider their gifts as normal participation in worship, ministry and social action.
  8. We will give our time, thought, heart, means, etc. to the service of working individuals and groups who are economically weak and underdeveloped, without this being at the expense of other people and groups in the diocese.
  9. We will seek to transform the works of charity into social works based on charity and justice that take everyone into account.
  10. We will endeavor to ensure that government and public services decide on and implement laws, structures and social institutions that are necessary for justice, equality and the full and harmonious development of the whole person and all people.
  11. We commit ourselves to share, according to our ability, in the urgent projects of the dioceses in poor nations; together to always give witness to the Gospel at the international level, by asking for the adoption of economic and cultural structures that do not create poor nations in an ever richer world, but that allow the poor majority to emerge from their poverty.
  12. We pledge to share our life with our brothers and sisters in Christ (priests, religious and laity), so that our ministry constitutes a real service. We will seek out partners so that we can be promoters according to the spirit rather than rulers according to the world. We will try to be present, to be welcoming. We will be open to everyone, whatever their religion.
  13. When we return to our diocese we will present these resolutions to our diocesan priests, asking them to help us with their understanding, collaboration and prayers.
God help us to be faithful.”
When I first read this pact, my immediate reaction was of great admiration for its signatories, who resolve in it to start afresh in their role as bishops, returning to what is fundamental in imitating Jesus and applying the resolutions of Vatican II to themselves with great specificity and individuality. I also appreciated their making this choice together and following the model of the Early Church. In essence, I saw - and see - here that going of an extra mile and that self-noughting that is also set out as an example in Lumen Gentium, where the whole Church is warned not to “[l]et [either] the use of the things of this world [or] attachment to riches, which is against the spirit of evangelical poverty, hinder them in their quest for perfect love.”

In the process of looking up some background on this pact, it has become clear to me that the vast majority of texts that refer to it are ones dissenting from the Catholic Church’s teaching and are critical of its conduct. On the one hand this is not difficult to understand - there are numerous bishops who behave in ways incompatible with this pact’s letter and spirit (or who at least seem to do so) and it can be used as a handy ruler by which to find them wanting. I find such a reading incongruous on two counts: First, this pact is one freely entered into by specific bishops who, probably as a result of participating in the Council, received the grace to impose on themselves specific measures that they felt called to follow. Second, it smacks of a basic disregard to the very spirit in which the pact’s signatories acted, whose desire was to “avoid presumption” and be “aware of the deficiencies of [their] life of poverty.” Furthermore, it flies in the face of Jesus’ own reprimand: “You hypocrite, remove the wooden beam from your eye first; then you will see clearly to remove the splinter from your brother’s eye.” (Matthew 7:5). This is in no way to deny or attempt to excuse the unchristian conduct of some bishops, but simply to recognize this document for what it is - the sincere resolution of a group of bishops to renew their commitment to Jesus, instead of waving it around like a weapon.

1 For scans of a reproduction of the original Portuguese text - Bonaventure Kloppenburg’s 1974 The ecclesiology of Vatican II - see here. While the above is based on the source from the first paragraph, I chose to translate some words differently, taking advantage of the original version’s scans (e.g., I translate “berrante” in point 2 as “garish” instead of “brilliant” and - in point 9 - “beneficência” as “charity”).
2 For a very interesting analysis that situates this pact in the context of Benedict XVI’s thought as well as of that of other post-conciliar theologians, see this article.