What Is Poverty?


It’s interesting, you know, that as a Roman Catholic Sister I take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. Why would anyone want to take a vow of poverty? Poverty is an evil to be eradicated, or at least struggled against. I don’t particularly like that word for our vow.

People can easily say, “It sure doesn’t look like you live in poverty to me.” And I don’t. I live the “the common life.” A lay person I know once said, “You take the vow of poverty but I live it!”

Over the years we Sisters have struggled with the word, but not the theory or concept which was to free us from the bondage of material goods to underscore our solidarity with the poor, God’s chosen ones. It’s really about mutual sustainability. We have to make do with enough. We own nothing for our exclusive use. We used to use the word “our” for everything but our toothbrushes.

St. Vincent de Paul said, “Your resources are the patrimony of the poor.” He meant that everything is a gift to be shared and used for mutual benefit. But aren’t all Christians called to this also?

So, my involvement with poverty of which child poverty is a part comes from my calling. When we Sisters of Providence first came to Kingston from Montreal in the middle of the night on Dec. 13, 1861, we came for the poor at the invitation of Bishop Horan, the Roman Catholic Archbishop at the time. He had nursing sisters, the Religious Hospitallers of St. Joseph, caring for the sick at Hotel Dieu Hospital, and the Congregation of Notre Dame Sisters teaching children, but there was no order of Sisters to specifically care for the aged, the orphan and the poor. So, the four pioneer Sisters set up house in an old army barrack on Montreal Street and began what today is known as Providence Manor.

At that time our mission was one of charity. There was no thought of “Why are these people poor?” There was simply a need to answer and so we did it. Why these people were poor was not a charity issue, but a justice issue.

And so of late we are “waking up” up to the justice issue. We need to walk with the two balanced feet of charity and justice.

We need to ask, why are there poor? Why do we have so many poor, homeless, hungry men, women, and whole families here in Canada, one of the richest, developed countries of the world? What are the root causes of poverty – child poverty – all poverty?

They are political! I think that was a great learning for me to discover, that poverty was political. But Jesus was pointing me towards that discovery when he said that “the poor you will always have with you” (Jn. 12:8).

If you look at the text in a Bible with good cross references you will discover that Jesus was quoting from Deuteronomy, 15:11,

“Of course, there will never cease to be poor people in the country, and that is why I am giving you this command: Always be open-handed with your brother [and sister] and with anyone in your country who is in need and poor.”

Poverty is not a consequence of individual moral failure. It is one result of public policy that idolizes the market. It isn’t by chance that as our economy is expanding, poverty is on the increase. No one likes to hear this but we must: There are about a million and a half children living in poverty in Canada – a 116 per cent jump in the last 10 years in Ontario – one of country’s richest provinces.

What can we do? Open more food banks? More shelters? Will this solve the problem? Is more charity the answer?

It may be the immediate answer but not the long-term one. Justice is. We’re just new at this justice thing, in some respects. Our social justice teaching has been called our church’s “best kept secret ” – it’s only about 150 years old. But we are learning that justice is just as constitutive to the Gospel as charity. Now we must strive to live out that vision of justice, just as we strive to live out our vow of poverty as a mutually sustainable lifestyle. It is our challenge, and it is our privilege.