1. Poverty in the life of Eugene de Mazenod
  2. Poverty in the initial stages of the Congregation
  3. Poverty in the Founder's rule
  4. Poverty among the Oblates during the Founder's lifetime
  5. Poverty among the Oblates from the Founder's death until Vatican Council II
  6. Oblate poverty in the perspective of Vatican II
  7. Synthesis: poverty in Oblate spirituality
  8. Conclusion

Voluntary poverty has always been considered as an essential element of religious life. Without it, we cannot understand what it is to walk in the footsteps of Christ who emptied himself taking the form of a servant (see Philippians 2:7) and who made himself poor to enrich us through his poverty (see Corinthians 8:9). Without out it, we cannot fulfill the essential conditions of dedication to the service of the Kingdom, i.e., humility, detachment from material things and total availability for communion and dedication. It is the basic beatitude of Jesus’ religious program: “How happy are the poor in spirit; theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3). The poor in spirit, those who have a heart for poverty, are those who are free and open to welcome all the riches of the Kingdom. That is the primary Gospel value of voluntary poverty. All religious adopt it as the expression of their unconditional desire to follow Christ and as a sign of their seeking perfect charity.

However, the evangelical counsel of poverty does not enjoy the same sharp focus of application as do chastity and obedience. There is no form of absolute poverty. History of the consecrated life demonstrates that poverty was lived in rather different ways, according to the times, the socio-cultural influences, and the spiritual movements, as well as according to the specific goals of each institute. Consequently, we can make the distinction between monastic poverty where the monk has divested himself of everything, but the monastery tends to become correspondingly richer, the charismatic poverty of Francis of Assisi and the mendicants who chose a collective witnessing of radical poverty and the functional apostolic poverty of the Jesuits and other modern Congregations who seek to adapt to the dictates of ministry in an attitude of detachment and missionary availability.

In this third type of poverty, we discover the basic characteristics of Oblate poverty. It is the poverty of the one who, like the Apostles, leaves everything to follow Christ and to be able to dedicate himself freely and entirely to promoting the Kingdom by preaching the Gospel to the poor. This apostolic ideal has adopted typical forms and tones due to the powerful spiritual personality of the Founder and the ongoing stable presence of his charism in the Institute. On the other hand, conciliar and post-conciliar renewal led the Congregation to a new way of perceiving and living the virtual riches of its specific spirituality. We will explain the Founder’s thinking on poverty as he lived it and incorporated it into the Constitutions and Rules. Then, we will see its historical evolution as preserved for us in the documentation (letters of the Founder, acts of the General Chapters, etc.) Finally, we will sketch a portrait of Oblate poverty in today’s world in the light of the new Constitutions and Rules, the teaching of the Church and the pressing needs of the poor we wish to evangelize.

Poverty in the life of Eugene de Mazenod

Eugene de Mazenod was born into a noble well-to-do family which, to a certain extent, loved to flaunt its prosperity. Fortunately, God endowed the child with a heart filled with compassion and generosity as the various anecdotes from his childhood show. Among others, we can cite him giving his own clothes to a charcoal-maker’s son. [1] It is this quality which prevented him from becoming enmeshed in the subtle selfishness of his caste. On the other hand, the bitter school of exile allowed him to experience the pinch of poverty in his own body and taught him what it was to live having to depend on the generosity of others. From the College of Nobles in Turin, he graduated to the welcoming home of Don Bartolo Zinelli in Venice, whose influence on his life was a gift of Providence. From there, he went on to Naples to live at the Chapeau-rouge, a hotel in keeping with his condition of being an exile, where he would experience “the darkest and weariest hours of his exile”. [2] Finally, in Palermo, he is welcomed into the family as a son by the Duke and Duchess of Cannizzaro. He then threw himself into the worldliness of the aristocracy. But the influence of his saintly second mother prevented him from giving in to the lure of wealth and kept him in contact with the poor by involving him in the distribution of her generous alms.

When the young Eugene returned to his homeland at the age of twenty, his dreams of greatness and his aristocratic mindset were rudely shaken by a confrontation with the changes that had taken place among the ordinary people. He spent a few months of boredom in the country house of Saint-Laurent where he put on a show of being “Lord of the Manor” [3] among farmers and peasants who abhorred the ancien régime. His plans for a profitable marriage failed because he wanted “a very rich wife”. The young lady as a candidate for this role possessed a dowry of only 40,000 francs, “when I want 150,000!” exclaimed Eugene. [4] He began to plan to return to Sicily to establish himself in a brilliant career, but he was unable to obtain a passport.

The young knight’s golden dreams as well as his bitter disappointments were washed away in the torrent of tears he shed one Good Friday before the image of Jesus poor, devastated and broken on the cross. From this encounter with the Savior sprang the first transcendental decision of Eugene’s life: Eugene would become a priest and a priest for the poor. In a letter to his mother, he wrote: “As the Lord is my witness, what he wants of me is that I renounce a world where it is almost impossible to find salvation, such is the power of apostasy there; that I devote myself especially to his service and try to reawaken the faith that is becoming extinct amongst the poor”. [5] For him, this decision entailed a difficult act of self-denial because of the mentality of his class. At the seminary in Saint-Sulpice, the stern ascetical practices he adopted helped him to attain this freedom. Penitence and poverty are soul mates. “The young chevalier’s aristocratic traditions and personal tastes had given him a liking for the outward trappings that stressed the quality of his birth and high rank. […] The most meticulous care was given even to his hair styling, his sideburns, and his dress so that everything might do justice to his titles and name and show off his noble bearing to best advantage. However, from the moment he entered the seminary, Eugene renounced all these superfluities by way of mortification [… and] made the following resolution: “To punish myself for the creature comforts I over-indulged in the world and the kind of fondness I had for certain vanities, I shall observe poverty in my cell, and live simply outside it. […] I will see to my own needs, sweep my room, etc”. [6] Poverty led him to satisfy himself with having only that which was minimally essential: a cot with a mattress, a table with three cane chairs and that was all: “And yet I do not miss my beautiful room at Aix, since it no longer suits my taste, nor does it fit in with the simplicity I hope to practice for the rest of my life”. [7] “Regardless of whether it is done in order to live more in conformity with evangelical poverty, or to reduce as much as I can, the expenses I am causing you, I have absolutely refused to employ a servant to take care of my room”. [8] He considers “a useless commodity” a gold chain someone had offered him. “When I was out in the world, I had a great desire for a gold chain; today, it would embarrass me. Besides the tastes of a Churchman should of necessity be different from those of a layman, and, in this respect, God had indeed blessed me”. [9]

This intense ascesis and practice of external poverty found their complement and their normal fruit in a series of interior mortifications, an evangelical self-denial and a spirit of poverty. In Eugene, they gave rise to a desire to serve the Church in the last place and in the most humble ministry. “As the young Provençal seminarian began to divest himself of his selfish inclinations and his aristocratic mentality that vocation became proportionately more clear cut and more selfless” [10] in the context of a demanding Sulpician spirituality.

As priest and as bishop, he remained faithful to this policy of austerity and poverty which he had adopted at the seminary as well as remaining faithful to the principles of the current spirituality. Through voluntary poverty, he saw a means of making reparation, of interior purification, of gaining mastery over the tendencies of the old man, and of identifying with Christ the Savior. As his charism became clearer, he came to consider poverty an indispensable element in the spiritual configuration of the “apostolic man”.

In 1812, one year after his ordination, he drew up a rule which he would follow throughout his life. He stressed the practices of mortification necessary to follow Christ whose “entire life was one of the cross and martyrdom”. [11] Austerity, moderation and poverty were to be the distinguishing marks of the disciple of the Savior: “And so I must take little sleep, eat soberly, work hard and without complaint […] no silk stockings, no silk cinctures, no wavy hair styles […] When I have the freedom of choice as to the number and quality of the dishes of my meals, I should choose the commonest and coarsest kind. A piece of boiled or roasted meat, some vegetables or eggs. […] Almost all my life I have drunk water, so I do not need wine, and liqueurs even less”. [12] When his uncle Fortuné was named bishop, Eugene urged him to adopt the following program: “We will take St. Charles and St. Francis de Sales as patrons and models; our house will be a seminary in its regularity; your life, an example to your priests […] Horror of pomp, love of simplicity, economy so as to have more for the needs of the poor… and all else that can serve to inspire your goodness of spirit, your excellent heart. How many marvels will flow from such an admirable way of life!” [13]

As he sketched the spiritual portrait of Bishop Eugene de Mazenod, Canon Jean Leflon, after having highlighted his great spirit of penance, his strict practice of fasting and abstinence, wrote: “The rich pomp which his episcopal function obliged him to display during public ceremonies contrasted with the poverty of his private life. When he had to appear in public as bishop, he conformed to the requirements of the liturgy in religious ceremonies, and at civil receptions he insisted on the rights which protocol demanded. […] In his private life, however, there was nothing more simple than his complete and quasi-monastic manner of living surrounded by his Oblates. […] Well-groomed when making a public appearance, he was quite happy when, at his country retreat of Saint-Louis, he was able to wear an old patched cassock more or less short of buttons and braiding. “I am a bishop, but I have also taken the vow of poverty.” […] “If they could only see what is underneath!” he exclaimed with a hearty laugh. […] The poverty which Bishop de Mazenod practised in his personal life made him all the more compassionate and generous toward the poor, and thus he maintained the traditions of his own family and of the princelybishops of the Ancien Régime […].” [14]

Eugene de Mazenod’s love of poverty – “that precious virtue” [15] – led him to willingly accept the inconveniences and the privations its practice entailed. During his stay in Rome, for example, he changed his clothes three times a day in order to avoid subjecting his new cassock to excessive wear. [16] Another example is when he refused to avail himself of an interesting trip or a clerical benefice of some kind. [17] The close attention he pays to living this vow is seen in the details. When he was in Paris with his uncle, he took the opportunity of having a simple cassock made for himself so as to spare the broadcloth cassock he already had. He then wrote to Father Tempier: “It would perhaps be suitable to take advantage of my stay here, but I believe I should ask your opinion so as not to deviate from poverty. […] It annoys me to be obliged to rule for myself whenever there is occasion to buy something for my wretched person” [18]. No doubt, Eugene owed this profound regard for poverty to a special grace of God that freed his heart from any attraction to money and the human acclaim associated with it. This grace opened him up to the beauty of walking in the footsteps of Jesus. [19]

What he lived with so much ardor and generous effort, he sought to have his missionaries live as an evangelical ideal necessary for the apostolic work God had inspired in him.

Poverty in the initial stages of the Congregation

Convinced as he was that he was to organize a group of missionaries to address the needs of the lowliest sector of the population, Eugene de Mazenod set about looking for companions. At the time, he had not thought of religious vows. But already he wanted men who were detached from all concerns with earthly things, men impervious to all greed, search for ease and creature comforts, “men who have the will and the courage to walk in the footsteps of the apostles […] men who are dedicated and wish to devote themselves to the glory of God and the salvation of souls with no more reward on earth than much sorrow and all else that the Saviour announced to his true disciples”. [20] These candidates, especially Father Tempier, found themselves to be in harmony with him, and they yearned for the moment when they could live together in the rundown convent in Aix.

At the same time as he gathered his first companions, on January 25, 1816, Eugene de Mazenod presented to the Vicars General of the diocese a request for approbation of the new community of missionaries. He accompanied this with a concise rule which can be considered as being the future Rule in embryo. No mention of vows is made in it, but it is stated that the missionaries plan to practice “the religious virtues”, according to the example set by the regular Orders. This ideal took concrete form in the initial fervor which accompanies the beginning of something. Alongside the apostolic spirit and the close-knit family life of the new community one can see shining forth in a wonderful way a poverty which is characteristically evangelical – whereby individuals accept hardship and the lack of creature comforts spontaneously and generously. In the words of Bishop Jacques Jeancard: “Their dedication transformed everything in this makeshift dwelling into a joy, without any concern for their material welfare! […] This life of poverty found favor with everyone. Every once in a while they would have a good laugh about it and congratulate each other for the happy conformity of their lives with that of their Divine Master and the Apostles”. [21]

The Founder often looked back on these years of stern detachment with joy and nostalgia. On January 24, 1831 he wrote to the community of novices and scholastics recently installed at Billens: “Tomorrow I celebrate the anniversary of the day, sixteen years ago, when I left my mother’s house to go and set up house at the Mission. Father Tempier had taken possession of it some days before. Our lodging had none of the splendour of the mansion at Billens, and whatever deprivations you may be subject to, ours were greater still. My camp-bed was placed in the small passageway which leads to the library; it was then a large room used as a bedroom for Father Tempier and for one other whose name we no longer mention amongst us. It was also our community room. One lamp was all our lighting and when it was time for bed, it was placed in the doorway to give light to all three of us”.

“The table that adorned our refectory was one plank laid alongside another, on top of two old barrels. We have never enjoyed the blessing of such poverty since the time we took the vow. Without question, it was a foreshadowing of the state of perfection that we now live so imperfectly. I highlight this wholly voluntary deprivation deliberately (it would have been easy to put a stop to it and to have everything that was needed brought from my mother’s house) so as to draw the lesson that God in his goodness was directing us even then – and really without us having yet given it a thought – towards the evangelical counsels which we were to profess later on. It is through experiencing them that we learnt their value. I assure you we lost none of our merriment; on the contrary, as this new way of life was in quite striking contrast with that we had just left, we often found ourselves having a hearty laugh over it. I owed this tribute to the memory of our first day of common life. How happy I would be to live it now with you!” [22]

This same attitude was very much in evidence on the occasion of the mission of Rognac in 1819. Nothing had been provided beforehand for the missionaries, Father Henry Tempier, Pierre-Nolasque Mye and François Moreau. They found themselves obliged to scrounge three straw mattresses and three shabby blankets for their beds as well as some bread and a little something to eat. Father Tempier wrote to the Founder: “The result is that we are living like the Apostles. I do not think that Blessed Liguori would have found anything beyond what is necessary in either our furnishings or our bill of fare […] and we are so happy in this kind of life that if we never experienced anything else, we would bless the Lord a thousand times for having provided us with the means, in some small way, of walking in the footsteps of the saints and of being, once and for all, missionaries”. [23] Father de Mazenod’s comment was: “Oh! how right you seem to me upon your pile of straw and how much your fare, which is more than frugal excites my appetite! This to my mind is the first time we have had what we should. […] I dare to speak to you in this way because I envy your position and were it only I who had to decide, I would share it”. [24]

We have one other outstanding manifestation of this attitude in the burning desire to make the vow of poverty, a desire which arose in the community of Laus in 1820 and was the original moving force for introducing it into the Rule. [25]

The admirable spirit reflected there reveals the presence of the Gospel ideal in the first Oblate community. This ideal would soon be sanctioned in the Rule of the Missionaries of Provence, at first as a simple apostolic virtue, then as a commitment sealed by a vow of religion.

Poverty in the Rule of the Founder

The first Rule, written by the Founder in 1818, deals as follows with the evangelical counsels in its second part: § 1. The spirit of poverty; § 2. The vow of chastity; § 3. The vow of obedience; § 4. The vow of perseverance. The Founder, who initially had not considered the vows of religion necessary, soon became convinced that without these sacred commitments he would be unable to find the apostolic workers he dreamed of for his missionary project. That is why he introduced the three above mentioned vows – not without having to face some resistance on the part of some of his members. As to poverty, he did not judge that the moment had come to impose it by a vow. He limited himself to prescribing it as an essential virtue for the work of the missionary in the hope that the final step could soon be made towards making this sacred commitment.

The paragraph on the spirit of poverty contains these significant words: “Reasons in keeping with the present situation have deterred us for the time being from this thought [of introducing the vow]. Consequently, we leave it to the General Chapters which will follow to perfect this point of our Rule when they judge before God that the time has come to act on this issue. In the meantime, we will strive, without being bound to it by a vow, to grasp solidly the spirit of this precious virtue to love it and to practice it so well that it will be obvious to the more clear-sighted individuals”. [26] Father de Mazenod’s basic intention remains perfectly clear. He urges his Oblates to practice the virtue of poverty with such generosity that it will be seen as the fruit of the vow of religion by people more perceptive of Christian values. Even if this vow has not been formally made, it is already present as a life-ideal that they wish to achieve as soon as it becomes possible. Indeed, the rules concerning poverty would be every bit as demanding as those of the strictest institute of religious life. When the vow of poverty was accepted, no change was necessary in these rules. In the conclusion of the paragraph on poverty, the Founder once again expressed his thinking: “While waiting for these rules to be strictly carried out, we will strive to familiarize ourselves with them by practicing them”. [27]

What is the content of these rules? We can divide them into two parts. The first contains the principles of ascetical theology; the other contains detailed directions on all aspects of the material life of the missionary: his food, dress, room, furnishings, etc. There is nothing very original in this division into two parts. But they both reflect the thinking and interior disposition of Eugene de Mazenod and the spirit he wanted to instill into his Oblates.

The first section is made up of a long article. In the light of the Gospel and of other spiritual writers, the Founder lays out the spiritual advantages and the necessity for evangelical poverty. His text summarizes a chapter taken from Rodriquez’ famous work: Ejercicio de perfección y virtudes cristianas. [28] Using as his starting point passages from Scripture, Saint Paul, Saint Ambrose, Saint John Chrysostom, Saint Gregory the Great, and Saint Ignatius Loyola, he demonstrates the basic character of the practice of detachment and poverty for Christian life in general and for the religious apostolic life in particular. It frees the heart for the struggle against the devil and predisposes it to all virtue; it is the impregnable bastion of religious institutes and an essential element in the following of Christ. We should keep in mind two of the Founder’s original sentences: “These reasons should have been more than sufficient for us in our Institute – that wants to make us walk in the footsteps of the first Christians and to do this in the spirit of the most holy among the Religious Orders – to make the option to embrace this essential element of the perfect religious life […]. Add to this the fact that, since greed is one of the vices which has caused the most devastation in our Church today, we should be inclined, according to the spirit of our Institute, which is a spirit of reparation, to offer to God some compensation for this vice by embracing voluntary poverty like the saints who practiced it before us”. [29] We can perceive that to the traditional reasons, either ascetical (self-denial and austerity freeing the heart and training it up for the struggle against evil), or mystical (imitation of the Savior), Father de Mazenod adds that of imitation of the Religious Orders of the most strict observance as linked to the secondary end which he had established for his institute, that of filling the void brought about in the ranks of the Religious Orders by the French Revolution. He also adds the motive of compensating for the devastation caused by greed. In addition, Eugene de Mazenod makes explicit mention that the general recommendation coming from the Fathers of the Church applies in a special way “to evangelical workers who are called to fight against the devil” [30], something which highlights the apostolic aspect of poverty.

The section containing directives was taken almost word for word from the Rule of Saint Alphonsus with a few modifications and additions. A number of the former were taken from the statutes of the chapters held by the Redemptorists (1802). We touch on some of the main norms established: “So all will be held in common in our Society and no one will own anything in their own name. The houses will take on the responsibility of providing in a frugal fashion for everything that is needed […]. As poor men, we will be satisfied with a frugal bill of fare […]. The rooms will be small, the furniture poor and the same for all […]. The missionary’s dress will be poor as well but will be clean and appropriate for priests of upright character […]. In harmony with this vow, they will commit themselves to avoid laying claim […] to any kind of honor, clerical benefice or position […] outside the Society. [31] […] Everything stated here will be observed with meticulous exactitude under threat of the most grave penalties, even if this means expulsion from the Society […]. No matter how great the straits we may be reduced to, begging will never be permitted. We will await the assistance of Divine Providence […]. Everything given as a gift to a member of the Society belongs to the Society. Never is an individual member allowed to keep money, even money given in trust. But the superior may not allow members of the society to keep anything in their room that is special or individual to them, as for example, clothes, chocolate, liqueurs, fruit, jams, tobacco or any such things […]”. [32]

A recommendation made to superiors puts the finishing touches on these directives and this does not come from Saint Alphonsus: “Occasionally, superiors will test subjects in this area not by depriving them of anything that is necessary, but by giving them the opportunity of experiencing some kind of deprivation so that they can become aware of the fact that the poor cannot always have a comfortable life and have everything they wish”. [33] The rules in force when preaching missions contain additional norms on travel and the meals of the missionaries. They must avoid all affectation and “be satisfied with the simple ordinary food found in that area”. [34] In the articles devoted to penance, the recommendation is that one’s bed be a straw pallet and the rule is laid down that on ordinary days breakfast will consist of a piece of dry bread. [35]

When we read the first Rule, we discover the high regard in which the Founder held poverty, and the importance he attached to the necessity for poverty for the “apostolic men” he wanted in his Institute. We also see that, in spite of the juridical details, he instills it with a vigorous spirit of asceticism and a genuine Gospel and missionary ideal. For him, poverty is an essential part of the Christian’s armor, especially for the apostle whose is called to be champion for and witness of the Kingdom among the poor.

In the subsequent editions of the Rule during the Founder’s lifetime, we find the same spirit and the same general legislation, even if a few changes are made on the juridical level. Through an important change to the Rule in 1821, the vow of poverty was introduced. In the course of his May 1818 retreat, Father de Mazenod had already shown that he was ready to make this vow, something he did in fact do personally without delay. [36] In 1820, Father Tempier felt powerfully drawn by grace to do the same, but he did so under condition that it would be approved by the Founder. His novices and the other Oblates fervently awaited the moment of being able to express through the vow their desire to strip themselves of everything. [37] Since this was the case, the General Chapter of 1821 decided that the Oblates would make the vow of poverty when they made their other vows. From that time on, the Rule would always mention the vow of poverty. They inserted the following sentence into the introductory article on the value of evangelical poverty: “That is why the vow of poverty is mandated among us”. There we have the basic norm which gives a new perspective and impetus to the entire content of the directives which follow in the first Rule.

The Constitutions and Rules approved by the Holy See on February 17, 1826, made modifications which were only few and minimal and of a literary character since they were translated into Latin. For example, the first directive of 1818, “All will be held in common in our Society and no one will own anything in his own name”, became, at the request of the Cardinal ponens: “Everything in the Congregation will be held in common for daily usage”. [38] In chapter three of the second part, the Constitutions present a paragraph on traveling. It contains an important article: “They will endure with resignation and even with joy the inconveniences and deprivations of the poverty they have vowed, preferring this situation to that of the state of comfort, as being more in conformity with the spirit of mortification which should be the inspiration for the evangelical worker”. [39] It is a reminder of the spirit of austerity that should always inspire the apostolic man.

The 1853 Constitutions repeats everything that was contained in the previous rules except for two slight modifications made to the paragraph on penance. At breakfast, a simple soup is allowed instead of dry bread, [40] and the passage dealing with rest is changed as follows: “Ordinarily, our missionaries will take their rest on a simple bed”. [41] These changes reflect the decisions taken in the 1831, 1837 and 1843 Chapters. [42]

Such is the perception of voluntary poverty as we find it in the Constitutions and Rules during the Founder’s lifetime. Oblate poverty is an exacting and austere virtue which can compete with that of the institutes of the most rigorous observance. But this strictness was not simply an ascetical dictate with the purpose of contributing to the purification and interior growth of the individual. It is a necessity for the apostolic man who wants to give himself unconditionally to preaching the Kingdom by following closely in the footsteps of Jesus Christ, the Divine Master who has conquered him and become his all-encompassing treasure. That is how it is expressed in the fiery language of the Preface:“And how should men who want to follow in the footsteps of their divine Master Jesus Christ conduct themselves if they, in their turn, are to win back the many souls who have thrown off his yoke? […] They must wholly renounce themselves […] They must work unremittingly to become humble meek, obedient, lovers of poverty and penance, mortified, free from inordinate attachment to the world or to family, men filled with zeal, ready to sacrifice goods, talents, ease, self, even their life, for the love of Jesus Christ, the service of the Church and the sanctification of their brethren […].” [43] The same idea is expressed in the paragraph which describes the ideal set forth for candidates: “If anyone desires to belong to us, he must [have a…..] great love of our Lord Jesus Christ and his Church […] a heart free from every disorderly affection for things of earth; […] a degree of disinterestedness that amounts even to contempt of riches, reckons them as filth, and looks for no other gain than Jesus Christ. […]” [44]

This is the way in which poverty was officially presented in the Oblate family. One needs to see whether this ideal of poverty was lived in this manner by Father de Mazenod’s missionaries.

Poverty among the Oblates during the Founder’s lifetime

It is almost impossible that the entire membership of such a large community spread throughout the four continents of the world should live fully such a lofty ideal. We have to acknowledge that there were shortcomings both on an individual and a community level. But two elements make it legitimate for us to believe that the Congregation remained faithful to the inspiration of its Founder. The first is the life of our more illustrious Oblates who have had a profound impact on our history as outstanding disciples or generous co-workers with the Founder. The second factor consists in the watchful attention of the father of the Oblates as he kept in contact with his sons, lavishing upon them his advice, his suggestions and sometimes his serious criticisms during the forty-five years he spent as head of the Society.

Among the Oblates who left us an example of heroic poverty and detachment, we can mention Fathers Tempier, Domenico Albini, Joseph Gérard and Bishop Vital Grandin.

Father Tempier, “the second father of the Oblates”, as Father Yvon Beaudoin has styled him, has left us some touching examples. We know how he relished accepting the situation of extreme poverty he faced during the mission at Rognac in 1819, [45] and how, in 1820, he was able to communicate to the novices of Notre-Dame du Laus the desire to make the vow of poverty. This is how his biography summarizes the spirit of poverty that was one of the typical characteristics of his entire life: “We remember that he was the first Oblate to take the vow of poverty in 1820. He spent five winters at Laus without making a fire in his room. His poverty became contagious with the novices and scholastics and almost caused a scandal when he came to Marseilles as Vicar General in 1823: he had to have a soutane made for him as soon as possible and he had to buy a hat. For his trip to Canada in 1851, he was advised to buy a coat; he found a used one for which he paid 19 francs and didn’t hesitate to wear it in the middle of London. It is thus evident that he cheerfully accepted the responsibility of giving an example of poverty which he preached to the scholastics”. [46]

Father Albini, this zealous and heroic man of God who evangelized the island of Corsica and in whose wake wonders and conversions multiplied, also distinguished himself by his austerity of life and his poverty. “He was a poor man filled with joy. With regard to the food he ate, he ate very little and that was simple food; he avoided everything which could give the appearance of being refined or affected, even when he was away from the community and even during the most intense missionary labor. His poverty showed in his dress. In Corsica, he owned only one cassock which ultimately accompanied him to the grave. Certainly, it was clean but badly worn and ragged about the edges, a fact he was not always able to conceal with his cloak. When he went off to preach missions, even if he was to be gone for weeks or even months, he took no other clothes than the clothes he wore on his back, confiding himself to the charity of his hosts. He was poor in his living quarters. It was only at Vico that, since he was superior, he was free to choose his own room. He chose the smallest, most uncomfortable and badly furnished room of all”. [47]

The Apostle of the Basotho, Joseph Gérard’s poverty was equally heroic. Under the stern direction of Bishop François Allard, he founded missions with very few resources available to do so and he was forced to build houses and to occupy himself with material things while his heart was burning with zeal for souls. As long as he was able, he traveled from village to village under difficult conditions eating the coarse fare of the native people. [48] Concerning his visit to Saint Monica’s mission, a mission founded and administered by Father Gérard, Father Louis Soullier reported the following: “Everything in this settlement has the mark of great poverty. The Mission receives only about 40 pounds a year from the Apostolic Vicar. This meager sum would be very insufficient […].” [49]

Among the ranks of these illustrious Oblates, we could list the names of many others who have been nobly faithful to the ideal of detachment lived and instilled by Eugene de Mazenod. Missionary life, especially in far off foreign lands, entailed a good measure of self-denial and suffering because of the climate, the food, traveling conditions, the poverty of the people and the lack of hygienic conditions. It provided extraordinary opportunities to practice evangelical poverty in its most radical forms. Let us not forget Bishop Grandin, that holy man who in the course of his long hard journeys had poverty as his constant companion.

The Founder valued and understood the heroism of his missionaries and gave it the fullest possible recognition by citing it as an example to be emulated by all his Oblates: “What can I say of our men in Oregon and on the shores of the Red River? For food they have a little bacon; they have no bed but the bare ground, and with that they are content and happy as men who are doing the will of God. […] Those who are moving towards Hudson’s Bay with cold weather registering 30 degrees, dragged by dogs across the ice, forced to make a hole in the snow in order to pass the night with the snow as their bed, delight one with the story of their adventures. May it be so with you, who have a mission that is less hard than that of your brothers, in spite of the heat which exhausts you”. [50] “Let none among us complain any longer of anything, for we have so generous an advance contingent […].” [51] Writing to the council in charge of the works of the Propagation of the Faith, Bishop de Mazenod pleaded on behalf of his sons: “When we know the privations endured by those of our men who evangelize the savages […] we are forced to admire the power of grace which makes them abound in joy in the midst of so many sacrifices”. [52]

But the father who offered such praise and encouragement sometimes found himself compelled to vigorously rebuke some of his subjects who had strayed from the ideal of apostolic poverty as outlined in the Constitutions. A number of times, he reproved Father Honorat whom he considered “a man of eminent virtue”, [53] because of the expenditures he permitted in his community at Nîmes and for his incorrigible bias for engaging in building and renovation projects both in Canada and in France. [54] He also rebukes him for his lack of moderation in daily diet: “It is intolerable that you eat meat three times a day”. [55] Administration of the works in Canada presented the Founder with a number of problems when they were spending money on building at a rate calculated to bring about the financial ruin of the Congregation. The Founder complained bitterly to the provincial, Bishop Guigues about the fact that they were building such an elegant church and a house which lacked nothing: “Would it not have been better to be a little less magnificent and to accept the duty of providing one’s brethren with the means of feeding themselves?” [56] This ill-advised display was not the thing calculated to attract vocations: “It is not the magnificence of the house that they have built for themselves at such expense that will draw men to us”. [57]

The Founder was also concerned with poverty in the houses of formation. On the occasion of the transferal of the novitiate to Marseilles in 1826, he wrote to Father Tempier: “I cannot overdo it in reminding you to keep to simplicity and strict necessity. […] Should it be so necessary that the novices have mattresses on their beds? Alas! should we not refrain from having them ourselves”. [58] In 1830, after settling the scholastics at Billens, he spent several very pleasant days with them and encouraged them to endure certain deprivations, for example, the lack of wine which was costly in that region and was not an ordinary part of the peasants’ fare. “The privation is not felt; besides it is too much in keeping with poverty for anyone to allow himself to regret it”. [59]

It is revealing that for the Congregation as a whole, prior to 1853 and 1856, neither the Founder nor the General Chapters had to level serious reproaches. In his first circular letter of August 2, 1853, Bishop de Mazenod, after acknowledging the heroic zeal and self-denial of the majority of his sons, complains of abuses that have crept into a number of communities with regard to regularity, obedience, charity, poverty, etc. He reminds them of the severe reproaches made by Saint Alphonsus to his religious and makes his own Saint Alphonsus’ fatherly order: “Read and meditate your holy Rules”. [60] He then turns his attention to administration and fraternal accord. “[…] We have had to reproach ourselves greatly in this regard. Each house has been considering only its own convenience without being concerned about the general needs of the Congregation. Personal expenses sometimes rise above that which the observance of the poverty that each member has professed by vow allows. Some have been partial to the quality, quantity and form of our clothing. The weakness of certain local superiors has introduced the abuse […].” [61]

At the General Chapter of 1856, Bishop de Mazenod once again expressed his concern. He pointed out that the faults of a number of people were due to “a weakening of the original spirit of the Congregation”, taking the form of an abhorrence of sacrifice and deprivation. When the Procurator General presented his report on the inadequate state of the accounts, the Founder took the opportunity “to remind all members present of the obligation of living more in conformity with the spirit of poverty as outlined in our holy Rules and to avoid all expenses which would not be absolutely necessary”. [62] In order to ensure uniformity of dress, the Chapter also asked that the Superior General should determine what clothing each missionary should ordinarily have. [63] In his second circular letter written subsequent to the Chapter, Bishop de Mazenod encourages his sons to practice a still greater fidelity. He reminds them of a number of different points in the Rule, among them some that treat of poverty: “Have we nothing to blame ourselves for in the area of holy poverty […]? What does the Rule say about it? ‘Voluntary poverty [has been regarded by all the Founders of religious Orders] as the foundation and basis of all perfection…’ […] That is already enough to assess it at its proper value. Consequently, everything among us has to be after ‘the manner of the poor […]’. After quoting various articles of the Constitutions, he deplores the fact that there are some Oblates who have more than enough with regard to food and clothing and who longer know how to accept the privations imposed upon them by their vow, privations demanded by the following of Christ. [64]

This shows us how the Founder watched zealously over the missionaries’ practice of poverty as being a very important element of the apostolic spirituality with which he wanted to see them imbued. We will now examine whether the Congregation remained faithful to his way of thinking.

Poverty among the Oblates from the Founder’s death until Vatican Council II.

It was not an easy thing to make one’s own the spiritual heritage of the Founder and to continue his plan of evangelization through means of a group of apostolic men ready to endure every kind of renunciation. But God provided directors for the Congregation who were wise and spiritual men, along with a multitude of dauntless missionaries who succeeded in maintaining the Oblate charism with its radical demands and to make it flourish.

The fundamental and basic document, the Constitutions and Rules (revised in 1928 to bring them into line with the new Code of Canon Law), preserved the directives from the Founder’s Rule concerning poverty. An exception was made for the juridical norms about property as such and the acts of administering it. The Directory for the Missions, which contained some norms on poverty and mortification, was removed from these Constitutions. This was done because the General Chapters of 1867 and 1920 had drawn up a directory for each province or vicariate, reflecting the local conditions. [65]

They follow the notion of poverty with its distinct ascetical quality and the radical demands attached to the vow. The evangelical virtue calls for a simple, austere life of detachment in following Christ. The vow forbids the disposing of one’s temporal goods according to ones own wishes, independently of a legitimate superior. Since this attitude stands in natural opposition to the innate desire to acquire, retain possessions and use them according to one’s own choice, the practice of poverty is admittedly a difficult thing and demands a special vigilance on the part of those in authority. That is why a perusal of the Acts of the General Chapters brings to light a repeated insistence on the observance of article 40 of the 1826 and 1853 Rules. [66] This article demands a meticulous observance of the norms dealing with poverty and calls for severe sanctions to be imposed on over-lenient superiors who allow any laxity in this area. The 1928 Constitutions are more moderate in tone: “All that has been laid down in the foregoing articles, is especially commended to the vigilance of the Superiors and especially of the Superior-General, lest, in a matter so grave, innovations contrary to poverty might creep in amongst us”. [67]

The 1867 Chapter brought a clearer focus to certain issues that subsequently passed into the 1928 text of the Constitutions: a) pastors and the directors of works were not allowed to keep any money; b) the entire sum for Mass intentions was to be handed over to the treasurer; c) it would be against the vow of poverty to maintain a secret fund for certain expenses, even if these expenses were for the needs of the community; permission to maintain such a fund would likewise be illegitimate. [68]

In the 1873 Chapter, strong complaints were lodged with regard to the construction and renovation of churches and houses; these activities sometimes disturbed the regularity of religious life and led to the contracting of debts that could not easily be paid off. The superiors, both the General Administration and the provincials were requested not to give their permission for construction unless the projects concerned were necessary or very useful, and only after having submitted the project and alternative plans to a scrutiny by superiors. [69]

From the 1904 Chapter, the following brief admonition is worthy of note: “The Chapter recommends the spirit of poverty, especially with regard to our use of things that are not absolutely necessary and of useless expenses”. [70] Among those useless expenses, the Chapters often list money spent on tobacco. Even though at times smoking was strictly forbidden, exceptions were made and subsequently the rule was relaxed to the point of simply stating that one should have the provincial’s permission to smoke. [71] Another question which was raised time and again from 1920 on was the question of automobiles. The permission of the provincial and his council was required to purchase an automobile and they were to see that it not be too expensive and not in keeping with religious. [72]

From the capitular acts as a whole, we are left with a two-fold impression: a) that a certain number of missionaries had habitually practiced poverty according the full rigor of the Rule; b) that, in general, abuses in this area were neither serious nor very widespread. Nonetheless, we must mention the deplorably imprudent financial transactions conducted by the members of the General Administration between 1902 and 1905. Since the resources of the General Administration seemed inadequate to respond to their needs, “they sought […] to develop richer revenues. With this intention, coupled with an unfortunate lack of experience, they plunged into speculation on a grand scale, an initiative which in their estimation would lead to financial prosperity, but it, in fact, led to ruin”. [73]

We cannot forget the fact that poverty in its most concrete reality and under the most radical forms was the common lot of hundreds of Oblates living in all climates: amid polar ice, under the burning sun of the tropics or in the green hell of the Paraguayan Chaco. These missionaries not only kept alive the flame of the Oblate charism in the Church, but by the witness of their lives they were also a source of inspiration for all their brothers throughout the Congregation.

I want to quote two such witnesses here. In 1898, Bishop Émile Grouard wrote this about his mission of Athabaska-Mackenzie: “All kinds of work is thrust upon the fathers as well as the brothers. The educating of our Indians and the study of languages in order to do this, producing books that must be printed and bound, hearing confessions, visiting the sick sometimes at considerable distances away, either in winter or in summer, teaching school wherever possible – there you have as pretty well everywhere in this territory the work of the northern missionary. But they are also obliged to become engaged in many other activities to eke out a meager living or to shelter themselves from the cold. As a result, they help the brothers with fishing, building, chopping wood, etc., and gardening. […]. The fact is that the concerns of physical existence, the struggle to stay alive, engage a very considerable part of our activity, and it should be pointed out that it is not just a matter of ensuring ourselves a certain standard of living or a more or less comfortable life style – that would not even be worth mentioning – but it is really a case of not dying of cold and hunger. Consequently, anyone who wants to live in our missions cannot consider himself exempt from manual labor”. [74]

We move to the mission of Pilcomayo in South America. In 1929, Brother Joseph Isenberg wrote in his diary: “Construction work is going forward; we are also doing some farming. We are also preparing the soil for a large kitchen-garden to grow vegetables since at present we live largely from hunting and fishing. In our free time and on Sundays we find ourselves obliged to wash and mend our clothes. But, in spite of everything, we maintain our optimism”. [75]

Work, deprivation, poverty and optimism such are the elements constantly found together in the missionary’s spiritual baggage. Many Oblates can bear witness to this fact.

Oblate poverty in the perspective of Vatican II.

The Second Vatican Council was a sign and expression of a profound renewal stirred up the Holy Spirit in the heart of the Church, especially in the years which followed the Second World War. On the other hand, this same Council confirmed, permitted and channeled the renewal which touched all areas of Christian life from dogma to pastoral practice, to the spirituality of the laity and religious. Evangelical poverty is one of those areas that benefited from the impact of the renewal.

New socio-cultural factors led to the discovery of new dimensions of poverty in our world and brought to the fore a new awareness of the poor, often the victims of unjust, oppressive structures. At the same time, a new vision of the Church as a community – open to the world and involved in the history of people and nations – and a more insightful Scriptural exegesis, led to an important enrichment of the spirituality of poverty as an evangelical counsel.

In the constitution Lumen Gentium (44-46)and the decree Perfectae Caritatis (1, 2, 5, and 13)Vatican II presented the evangelical counsels as a significant expression of the will to follow Christ. This following of Christ which is rooted in baptism and is the duty and norm for all Christian life takes concrete form in a special way in the institutes of consecrated life. For all the faithful, they should be brilliant signs of “wonderful spousal union established by God” [76] in the Church and the presence of the heavenly realities of the Kingdom of God in this world. [77]

The relationship established between the will to follow Christ and the character of being sign of the Kingdom, already present and still to come, presented evangelical poverty in a new light. Its aspect of personal ascesis, an aspect which the entire spiritual tradition had stressed, was not abolished nor were the juridical requirements of dependency concerning the use of worldly goods. What was stressed was the mystical motivation of sharing Christ’s emptying of himself, and the requirement for a straightforward authentic conduct which would be a clearly discernible sign for our contemporaries, and for the poor in particular. The section of Perfectae Caritatis which treats of poverty begins with this eloquent recommendation: “Voluntary poverty, in Christ’s footsteps, is a symbol of Christ which is much esteemed, especially nowadays. Religious should cultivate it diligently and, if needs be, express it in new forms”. [78] Gospel witness of the consecrated life cannot be restricted merely to a spiritual or juridical poverty. It must entail a real concrete poverty and express a genuine solidarity with the poor of our world. It is only in this way that we become “sharers in the poverty of Christ”. That is why “religious should be poor in fact and in spirit”; they should submit themselves to “the common law of labor”, sharing their goods “for the support of the poor”; “they should avoid any semblance of luxury, excessive wealth and accumulation of property”, which would constitute a clear counter-witness. [79]

Oblate spirituality has very clearly committed itself to this new orientation of the Council. Subsequently, Paul VI treated this in depth in a masterly way in his exhortation Evangelica Testificatio, which starts out with an invitation extended to religious to allow themselves to be challenged by the dramatic cry of the poor. [80] The 1966 Constitutions and Rules are a clear expression of this. They present poverty as “a suitable means of union with Christ and with the poor”, [81] a means of opposing the spirit of greed which is the source of so many evils in the Church and hinders evangelization, [82] and as a form of fraternal sharing which expresses and fosters community life. [83] This ideal demands of us a “corporate witness to evangelical poverty”. [84] It also requires of us submission “to the common law of labor, each for his own part contributing to the support and to the apostolate of the community” [85] and calls us moreover to accept to “share the lot of those who do not always have at their disposition the comforts and the conveniences which might be desired”. [86] All of that compels us to adopt “a mode of life akin to that of the ordinary people of modest means among whom they live” [87] and to remember that in the use of material things, these goods are “as it were the patrimony of the poor”. [88]

This new orientation and these norms are fully in harmony with the spirit of the Founder and the tradition of our Institute, giving concrete form to and utilizing the basic energies of the Mazenodian charism. For example, sharing, which is one of the values which finds resonance with the new generations, is already present in the first Rule. This is what it prescribed: “The Society must underwrite all the costs of preaching parish missions and it will never be allowed that these expenses be borne by communities or individuals”. [89] The corporate witness expected today of all religious was understood in a certain fashion as the rejection of and a challenge leveled against greed as the source of ills within the human race and in the Church and as a desire to repair the damage caused by this vice. [90] What is truly new here is the directive to submit oneself to the common law of labor, even if, in fact, many missionaries are fully involved in doing this, seeing themselves compelled to do hard manual labor to make their own living and to maintain the mission. Some European Oblates have followed in the footsteps of the “worker priests” to forge a closer link with the working man’s world. Also new is the attention Rule 58 focuses on social justice: “Under the direction of Superiors, the members will take part in social organizations, and even strive to improve the condition of the underprivileged masses by working for social justice”. [91]

On this point, Evangelica Testificatio would offer some valuable clarification: “[…] the cry of the poor […] obliges [religious] to create awareness as to the phenomenon of poverty and the demands of social justice of the Gospel and of the Church. It leads some people […] to join the poor in their conditions of poverty, to share their wrenching state of worry. It calls [a number of institutes] to critically review and reorganize some of their works to focus on the needs of the poor […].” [92]

The thirst for justice, felt strongly in Latin America and other countries of the Third World has found a profound resonance in the heart of a number of Oblates and among the decision-making bodies of the Congregation. That is what the 1972 chapter documents have captured, especially Missionary Outlook. In the light of a Gospel vision of the world, a world with a burning desire for liberation, “Our Oblate brothers ask themselves how they can best contribute to the true and total liberation in Christ of the Latin American continent”. [93] “[…] the mission seems to demand a presence more clearly responsive to injustices and to economic and social aspirations. Sometimes, too, the mission demands that we emphasize quite explicitly our solidarity with the poor”. [94] The Chapter points out three concrete “lines of action”: a) Preference for the poor; b) Solidarity with the men of our time; c) Greater creativity. The first line of action describes various forms or situations of poverty: the illiterate, victims of alcohol or drugs, the marginal masses… without forgetting to mention “that the worst form of poverty […] is not to know Christ”. It calls us to cooperate in an integral development to transform oppressive structures and to involve ourselves in “the movement towards authentic liberation”. [95] The second line of action requires: “to be part of the world of the poor – by listening to their voices, by coming to understand them, by allowing ourselves to be enriched by them, by working not just for them but with them […].” [96] The Chapter gives its stamp of approval to “those Oblates who have the particular charism to identify themselves completely with the poor by taking on their social, cultural and economic conditions”. [97] In the third line of action, the document calls upon us to encourage and support our confreres who feel called to take part in social struggles and to take a public stance in favor of the oppressed. Finally, it calls us not to quench their prophetic voice, an attitude that presupposes appropriate discernment. [98]

The Constitutions and Rules, rewritten in 1980 and approved in 1982, reassume the substance of the Oblate spiritual tradition. At the same time, they speak of the appeals made by the contemporary world, or more precisely “the call of Jesus Christ heard within the Church through people’s need for salvation” (C 1). From the very first chapter which treats of mission, Constitution 9 reminds us that we must “bear witness to God’s holiness and justice”, by announcing “the liberating presence of Jesus Christ” by hearing and making heard “the clamor of the voiceless”. With regard to the work of justice, Rule 9a defines more precisely how “Responding to the call of the Spirit, some Oblates identify themselves with the poor, sharing their life and commitment to justice […]” and how it should lead us all to cooperate “by every means compatible with the Gospel, in changing all that is a cause of oppression and poverty. They thereby helped to create a society based on the dignity of the human person […].”

In dealing with the evangelical counsel of poverty, Constitution 19 puts it in the context of our walking in the footsteps of Christ who invites us to leave everything to go with him and who awaits our free response. “In answer to his call, we choose evangelical poverty”. Constitution 20 spells out the motivation for this choice: “Our choice of poverty compels us to enter into a closer communion with Jesus and the poor”. It is this fundamental value which gives our poverty a profoundly mystical as well as an apostolic meaning. From here flow other values such as the witness which challenges the abuse of power and riches, accompanied by the proclamation of a new world freed from selfishness. Simultaneously, there is born in the missionary a humble attitude of listening and apprenticeship which allows him to be evangelized by the poor. [99] This is followed by an availability for fraternal sharing according to the example of the first Christian community and the seeking for a simple and generous life style which will stand in open opposition to the allurements of our consumer society and will lead us to joyfully accept the lack of certain conveniences. [100]

Our choice of evangelical poverty is not absolute. We seek it as a means of more fully living love and to better express this love according to the demands of our apostolic charism. Our mission demands that we make use of and administer “as it were, the patrimony of the poor”; it comes from the poor and is destined for the poor. [101] The community itself is expressly invited to share its modest means with the poor: “The community, however, placing its trust in divine Providence, will not hesitate to make use of what it has, even of what is necessary for its sustenance, to benefit God’s poor”. [102]

Naturally, the problem will often arise as to how to coordinate the demands of an effective apostolate which calls for the use of adequate material means and the demands of evangelical witnessing where self-denial and the folly of the Cross bring their victorious logic to bear. As Father Fernand Jetté wrote: “Difficulties will often come from the milieu in which we live and from the requirements of the apostolate. Can one be a missionary today without an automobile? Can one be a professor or a treasurer today without computer equipment? Can we be close to our people without watching certain programs on TV?” [103] The existence of such a problem should prompt us to maintain an attitude of vigilance and constant communitarian and personal discernment, to avoid being seduced by the attraction of the consumer society. It must also be an attitude to be openly receptive to the abilities and personal charisms of each individual, and to a certain pluralism in the choices people make in order to offer each other mutual support and the complementarity of our gifts. [104]

Constitutions 22 and 23 define the scope of the vow as such, a vow which obliges us “to lead a life of voluntary poverty”, giving up the right of using and freely disposing of any object of material value and any property acquired by personal industry or under any other title, except property acquired by inheritance. The Oblate keeps the inherited property he had when he entered the Congregation and any subsequent property gained by inheritance later on. Before making his first profession, he is required to relinquish the administration of his goods and hand over their use and usufruct in order to remain free from the worries connected with material things. [105] Before his perpetual profession, through a will, he will hand over his actual inherited property and the goods that he could acquire through inheritance. In addition, Constitution 23 specifies that “with the permission of the Major Superior in council, a perpetually professed Oblate may divest himself of his present and future possessions”.

When the vow is lived with all its implications, it entails profound renunciation. As Father Jetté states: “What this says is that the Oblate, as a person, is poor, even quite poor: he possesses nothing or almost nothing and cannot make use of anything except in and through obedience. Humanly speaking, his situation is one of complete dependence, the situation of a “minor”. This is the radical gift of himself that he makes to God. He makes it freely, out of love for Christ and for his brothers and sisters here below. The sincerity and depth of his gift will be manifest in the simplicity and renunciation evident in his life”. [106]

At the 1986 Chapter, the first among the appeals that the Oblates perceived as urgent in order to be “missionaries in today’s world” was precisely that of poverty linked to justice. The first section of the chapter document bore the title, Mission, poverty and justice. It described contemporary poverty and the new forms it took, especially “a grave form of poverty: ignorance of the Gospel and the loss of all religious hope”. It showed that in many cases poverty results from unjust structures that have been created and maintained by selfishness and greed. The document then states that the Oblates, as heralds sent to evangelize the poor, sense the challenge this situation poses and are resolved to draw near to the poor, to share with them and to allow themselves to be evangelized by them, to support them in their struggle for justice and to stand in solidarity with their activities. In the light of this appeal, it urges Oblates to change their life style and to seek to become a part of the milieu of the poor, to share their goods with the poor, to offer their support to endeavors like the Justice and Peace Network and the North-South dialogue. [107] What a vast and demanding program our mission spreads before us, a program to which our charism commits us!

These directives of the Church and of the Congregation called forth by a new social awareness of the contemporary world, especially the world of the young, have pointed the way to the adoption of a new style of Oblate life. In them, poverty is not presented as pure ascetical detachment and even less as a juridical dependency, but rather it is presented as an attitude of simplicity and welcoming, an attitude of concrete affective association with the humble, and genuine communion with the poor. We share not only our material resources, but also our personal possessions of knowledge, friendship and faith. That is the ideal being pursued by the Latin American religious communities implanted in the lived context of the common people (CRIMO) among whom are found a number of Oblate communities.

Puebla already pointed the way as “the most outstanding tendency of Latin-American religious life […] the option for the poor”. This choice “led to the critical review and reorganization of traditional works in order to more effectively respond to the demands of evangelization. As a result, their relationship with the poor was clarified, a phenomenon which presupposed not only interior detachment and a communitarian austerity, but also actual solidarity with the poor, and in certain cases, living with them in their homes”. [108] Indeed, a number of religious established themselves in rundown suburbs. It was with joy that Father Jetté acknowledged this spirit and this orientation among the Oblates of South America: “This option already exists among you and is a testimony to all Oblates. You go everywhere to the poor and you work for and with them. “Your brothers, your dear brothers, your worthy brothers”, as the Founder once said, are the Indians, the campesinos, the miners, the sub-proletarians of shantytowns, the Hmong refugees of French Guyana… You live with them, you are Christ’s presence to them, you are – it is often repeated – their voice, “the voice of the voiceless”, and you help them – with your limitations, sufferings and difficulties – in their efforts to achieve full liberation”. [109] Houses of formation situated in poor neighborhoods which make themselves accessible to the people and live a simple life style are the expression and the result of our option for the poor and a life of poverty. Contact with the poor has taught us the value of our Gospel poverty and of the happiness concealed in it.

I believe that the same attitude exists in a considerable number of our Oblate communities in the Third World. At the end of the 1980 General Chapter, Father Jetté stated: “Present-day Oblates hear the appeals of the poor in our day, of those who are far away, of the most abandoned, and they want to respond to them. As we have experienced it throughout the entire Chapter in every region of the world, their eyes are wide open to the needs of people. There is no lack in generosity”. [110]

Synthesis: poverty in Oblate spirituality

In the context of the entire range of Christian spirituality, evangelical poverty links up with self-denial, austerity, temperance, mortification, humility and meekness. In conjunction with them, it is an essential condition to follow Christ and to establish his Kingdom. Its specific function is to bring freedom to hearts and instill in them the ability to overcome the desire for acquisition that hinders our communion with God and our brothers. That is what Saint Ignatius states in his brilliant meditation on the two standards: just as the enemy urges men to seek the acquisition of material goods, leading the individual on to pride of heart, and from there, on to all the other vices, in the same way, Jesus leads his friends to seek spiritual poverty which brings in its wake humility and all the other virtues. [111] By destroying the bonds linking us to material things, poverty renders the heart more amenable to the demands of Christian love.

In the spirituality of the religious life, poverty is bound by an unbreakable link to chastity and obedience. The three dovetail in an intimate way to reflect a life dedicated to the Absolute, an undivided love of Christ and the living presence of his Kingdom in this world. A life characterized by the three evangelical counsels gives witness in a special way to the living reality of the beatitudes and Christ’s transforming action in the heart of humanity to renew it.

Oblate spirituality contains all that and, in addition to that, an apostolic missionary outlook. Working in union with chastity and obedience, poverty for us is the expression of a complete availability for the work of the Kingdom. We are poor in order to devote ourselves entirely to evangelizing the poor, of being their companions and co-workers of Christ the Savior, by working with him and like him and by ” striving solely for the glory of God, the good of the Church and the growth and salvation of souls”. [112]

In order for our Oblate poverty to be what it should be, we have to avoid the kind of vision that is inadequate and too narrow, a vision which impoverishes the idea of evangelical poverty and can give rise to conflict and tension in actual practice.

1. Our poverty should clearly show its theological roots. In unequivocal fashion, it must be “a poverty for the sake of the Kingdom”, a poverty which draws us closer to God and puts us in communion with him. More concretely, it means:

a) a poverty flowing from a faith vision where God stands as the Only Necessity, the heart’s only treasure. Something that led Saint Francis to exclaim: “My God and my All”. And Teresa of Jesus to say: “Whoever possesses God lacks for nothing. God alone is sufficient”.

b) a poverty accompanied and supported by a filial confidence in a God who is goodness itself, who provides for the welfare of all his creatures and remains attentive to all the cries of the poor rising up to him. Such was the attitude of the “poor of Yahweh” who sought refuge in God, who approached him with confidence and accepted in humility and love the purpose of his will as those coming from the heart of a father…. The Founder’s Rule specifies “It will never be allowed to beg for alms; Divine Providence must be looked to for assistance”. [113] “The community, however, placing its trust in divine Providence will not hesitate to make use of what it has, even of what is necessary for its sustenance, to benefit God’s poor”. [114]

c) a poverty whose inspiration is the love of God, for whose sake we leave everything and for the love of our brothers, to the service of whom we wish to totally devote our lives. Without this love as its inspiration, poverty would cease being a Christian virtue or a Gospel attitude. It would shrink to mere sterile legalism or to a simple socio-economic dimension with human implications of a dubious humanitarian quality.

The theological inspiration for poverty brings with it a contemplative attitude which fosters the actual application of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, especially the gift of piety. The Holy Spirit provides the individual with a joy-filled intimate experience of divine sonship and of one’s common humanity such as experienced by Francis of Assisi, Therese of the Child Jesus and Charles de Foucauld. This inspiration and theologal permeation also frees the practice of poverty from possible tensions between juridical and Gospel demands, between personal austerity and communitarian sharing, between the use of effective apostolic means and the witness of Christian renunciation, between proclaiming the Gospel and the promotion of social justice.

2. Our poverty must be manifestly Christocentric. It must introduce us into the kenosis of Christ who became poor to enrich us and save us through the radical divesting of the Cross (see 2 Corinthians 8:9 and Philippians 2:7). Our Oblate vocation calls us “to leave everything to be disciples of Jesus Christ” (C 2). This following of Christ entails a profound knowledge and experience of the Master, an identification with him and the will to let him live in us in or to be able to cooperate with him in his work of salvation (see ibidem ). Such is the fundamental norm of our life: motivated by love, to follow Jesus in a concrete way so that through us he can further his mission. In an ascetic effort to imitate him, we have to renounce any attitude of selfish possession and self-sufficiency. And at the same time, we have to seek personal communion and a loving openness to the action of his Spirit to enter into the mystery of his poverty and his saving kenosis. It is communion with Christ, the poor man, which demands and inspires our communion with the poor and which guarantees its authenticity, endowing it with his saving power.

3. Our poverty bears a specifically Marian stamp. Mary was the example par excellence of “the poor and humble of the Lord who confidently hoped for and receive salvation from him”. [115] She is also the one who lived, in the deepest and most unique communion, the mystery of the Savior’s self-effacement. In her, the happiness promised to the poor reached its climax because the Lord looked upon the lowliness of his servant. That is why all generations will call her blessed. “Mother of the poor, the humble and the simple”, it is she who should inspire our attitude of compassionate “maternal” association with the poor of our world. [116] We must implant in their hearts hope in a liberating God.

4. Our poverty is characterized by an apostolic outreach. It must make us totally available for the tasks of the Kingdom and equipped to be spokesmen and witnesses for Jesus Christ and Gospel values. “The evangelizing Church becomes worthy of credence when, through the poverty of its members, the surpassing values she preaches show forth”. [117] In itself, evangelization involves an attitude of sincere and friendly dialogue with people of all social or cultural levels and this demands a profound personal detachment. Only the person who is truly poor can make a total gift of himself, sacrificing his time, his individual tastes, his comfort, his human resources and his very life for the Gospel. Only he can reproduce the attitudes of Jesus, the one who was “meek and humble of heart”, evangelization personified. And only he, based on the experience of his limitations and his frailty, can freely and boldly proclaim with apostolic courage, relying on the message of salvation which gives him strength.

It is true that the mission requires material means and resources and that God asks us to place our riches and technical talents at the service of the Kingdom. Apostolic poverty, then, consists in the evangelical use of such goods, so that the message of the Gospel is not distorted and that in the life of the missionary and the evangelizing community it is clearly manifest that the one treasure sought is Christ and the benefits of salvation he brought mankind. We must also clearly keep in mind the fact that the effectiveness of the Gospel does not come from the powers in this world such as economic resources, social standing, political power, etc., but from the sovereign action of the Spirit. This presents us with a definite challenge: how can we maintain a life style which is simple, poor in fact, and close to the people while making use of a considerable amount of riches for purposes of evangelization and how can we give pride of place to frugal means which are more in harmony with the message we are proclaiming and which often manifest a great deal of evangelical power. [118]

5. Finally, our poverty must be the distinguishing mark of the missionaries of the poor we actually are. If, in order to be “Christian”, all evangelization must bear the stamp of evangelical poverty, it is obvious that this is above all true of evangelization which by its very calling is directed to the poor, “the powerless, […] those bereft of hope and deprived of their rights”. [119] To accomplish this mission our poverty must have the following characteristics:

a) to give a witness of being close to the people. As the 1986 Chapter states: “We want to be close to them so as to share what they have and what we have, in order that we might learn to see the Church and the world from their perspective and to see them through the eyes of the crucified Savior (C 4). Thus we are evangelized by them and we become for them better witnesses to the presence of Jesus, who became poor to liberate the human person and the whole of creation”. [120] This closeness to people and this communion with them leads us to reevaluate our life style to take up residence in the poorer quarters, to share our resources with the poor and even their kind of life. [121] Some Oblates in Latin America are putting this into practice. One day, Dom Helder Cámara stated: “The poor know Dom Helder Cámara, but those who know the poor well are the Missionary Oblates who share their life”.

b) bring a liberating presence and support by supporting the poor’s struggle for justice. “Oblates will collaborate, according to their vocation and by every means compatible with the Gospel, in changing all that is a cause of oppression and poverty” [122] in order to build a new society based on brotherhood where they will see their rights recognized.

c) respect the culture of the poor. The people of the Third World generally have a hierarchy of values rather different from those currently recognized in western society. In their estimation, economic factors and the value of time do not rank very high against the value of the person and the fundamental demands of communion, family, friendship, hospitality… Inculturation of religious poverty into developing countries constitutes a great challenge for superiors and educators, as Father Alexander Motanyane has pointed out. [123] But it must be faced with resolve and patience through a serene evangelical dialogue.


We have seen how the ideal of evangelical poverty, perceived and lived by Eugene de Mazenod and shared by his first followers, was incarnated in the life of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate in the context of the spiritual movements of the time. We have seen how this ideal was enriched by the new theological, spiritual and pastoral perspectives of Vatican Council II and the aftermath of the Council. New times opened the way to new ways of living in personal, communitarian and apostolic life. But it is the same Christian life force, in its two-fold aspects of ascetic demands and the mystical thrust, which gives us an explanation for the vital dynamism which harks back to the beginnings of the Institute. Eugene de Mazenod wished to create a society to evangelize the poor and he laid as the living foundation stone a close union with Christ, the great poor man and great liberator from all the forms of poverty which encroach upon on man’s existence. These poor appear with distinctive and many varied faces. Oblate poverty, too, takes on various forms and shapes while always retaining the vigorous thrust of the original charism. Today, as yesterday, the Oblates make an option for poverty in order to “enter into a closer communion with Jesus and with the poor”. [124] And because they live this two-fold communion, they cannot cease to enthusiastically love and live evangelical poverty.