Pope Francis has been preaching quite a bit lately about the need to live in humility, even poverty, as a Church and as a community of believers in Jesus Christ. The secular news media characterizes this message in a particular way, often as a means to try and “run down” Francis’ predecessor Benedict XVI, who many in the secular world did not like because of his stalwart defence of moral truths. However, Francis is neither trying to deliberately draw contrasts with Benedict nor advocate for some political agenda of this group or that group, but he is trying to make a much larger point that not only does the world miss, but it seems that many Catholics in the pews are also missing it: The Gospel as it is supposed to be lived is lived in humility and in a poverty of spirit, and very often in a poverty of earthly goods as well.
People often make the presumption that what are called the evangelical counsels-poverty, chastity, and obedience-exist only for members of religious communities. Indeed, while chastity within one’s state in life is an article of faith for all believers, and obedience to proper religious and civil authority is certainly considered a virtue to which all Christians should aspire, the observance of the evangelical counsels as an “enforced” rule of life is reserved to members of religious communities. However, the Evangelical Counsels are called “counsels” because they are the ways in which the Church counsels all of us to live as Christ lived. They are the way that a person can most live like Christ, because he chose a life of poverty, chastity, and obedience to the Father for our sake.
People don’t have to be a part of a vowed religious community to live the evangelical counsels. More married people are striving to find a way to live out poverty, chastity, and obedience within their vocations as married people. Most people seem to make the mistake of believing that the evangelical counsels are only for those who are vowed religious, and not for anyone else. However, the counsels are not meant for religious life, although vowed religious are sworn to live by them, but they are meant for all people who are concerned to radically live as Christ did.
This “New Law” of love certainly isn’t for everyone, but it is for those who are determined to do “more” than just the “minimum” required to “get to Heaven.” The evangelical counsels are for those people who are determined to devote their lives to God completely, whatever their state in life happens to be. For most people, they may ask: “How can we live this out as married people if we have children, are we all expected to live in poverty?” The Church expects that if you have children and you are determined to live the evangelical counsels that you do have to own certain property and see to the well-being and education of the kids, but it does mean doing without a lot of things that you don’t need, that are just luxuries for the sake of luxury, having things because you can have them rather than because you have some real need for them. As one Secular Franciscan Fraternity quoted in the Our Sunday Visitor article that I have linked to above put it:
Poverty allows all of creation to stand on its own merit. Instead of being seen with functional or avaricious intent people and things are seen and respected as sacraments of an encounter with God.
In other words, our things are for our use, not for our abuse and we should not live a life where our primary interest is the acquisition of more things, indeed if we are truly striving to live the Christian life, we ought to move away from that mentality, which many of us in this country, and certainly in Western society, have embraced without even realizing it. Put bluntly, living Gospel poverty does not mean living a life without pleasure or enjoyment, but it does mean that you are willing to do without and to live without all that you do not need.
Chastity outside of married life is pretty self-explanatory, but inside of marriage it can sound contradictory- it is not. Chastity according to one’s state as a married person means fidelity to one’s spouse within marriage, and treating them and their bodies with respect and dignity, even if it means abstaining from sexual relations from time to time. Praying for the increase of the gift of self-control, in which we all need to grow (certainly I do), can help with living this virtue of chastity out.
Obedience can seem tricky and antiquated within marriage, a lot of people don’t realize that it does not mean one spouse always doing what the other one says. Obedience does mean obeying God’s will and discerning and submitting to that will for one another, and submitting in obedience to the Church and to her precepts, to the authority that Jesus Christ has set over the People of God.
Why am I bringing all of this up? Well, in reading and listening to what Pope Francis is saying to all of us about desiring what he calls “a poor Church,” I don’t think that, contrary to what many outside the Church might think (and not a few inside the Church) that the Holy Father is calling for the Church to surrender our collective patrimony of art and architecture that belongs to all of God’s people, but he is making it clear that the evangelical counsels are something that we should all live, because these are not just ways of public piety, but the way a Christian ought to live.