Pedro Arrupe wrote the following letter in response to a request by Vincent D’Souza, the provincial of the Jesuits’ Goa-Poona vice province. D’Souza had asked the Superior General of the Society of Jesus his thoughts on poverty and on the importance that the practice of poverty should have on Jesuits. Arrupe observes that “poverty is an essential constituent of the Ignatian charism,” though conceding that not many Jesuits are as dedicated to its practice. He calls three moments in his life when he received “the experience of actual poverty” from God: following the Jesuits’ expulsion from Spain, during his arrest in Japan, and after the atomic bomb explosion in Hiroshima. In those three cases, he argues, “I have never seen more union and happiness in any other community or experiences a deeper liberty of spirit and joy.” “In order to be sure that we accept poverty effectively,” Arrupe continues, “it is essential for us to experience it effectively. He closes by offering several questions that all Jesuits should ask of themselves, “in all earnestness.”
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Dear Father Provincial,
You asked me to put down in writing the ideas on Poverty that we talked about in our last interview. Through this letter I wish to share with you what I feel on this subject, trusting that this will be of some help to you in the governance of your Province.
Poverty has become a matter of very deep concern to me. I firmly believe that on every level—personal, communitarian, institutional—the Society is in serious difficulty with regard to the practice of poverty. I would even go farther and say that the many abuses in poverty prevalent among us could indicate that many of us are lacking in supernatural spirit and that our resolutions to be poor are not quite wholehearted.
There is no doubt that some of our men give us an outstanding example of poverty and that wonderful attempts are being made in some places to find ways of living a truly poor life. But, on the other hand, what an amount of casuistry we resort to in order to justify, legally and juridically, actions and attitudes that are completely against the spirit of poverty! Look at our standard of living which, to put it mildly, is certainly not a witness to poverty! Look at the phenomenon of private accounts, authorized and otherwise. Look at the image so many Jesuits project-one which is in no way different from the image of a well-to-do layman. And all the while we are living in a period of history in which the world, in spite of all its secularism and unbelief, is deeply concerned about social justice and the poverty of the Third World and the underprivileged. Don’t these “signs of the times” indicate that the Holy Spirit is pushing the world and the Church in a direction that is opposed to our consumer society and our modern hedonism? Is it not He who is awakening in the hearts of men, particularly in our youth who constitute the world of tomorrow, a special regard for the witness of those who live a life of poverty? We must make every effort to listen to what the Spirit is saying to our Society through these “signs of the times.”
Poverty is an essential constituent of the Ignatian charism. For the Ignatian charism is based on a love for the person of Jesus Christ, a love that necessarily leads one to be like Christ poor “in order to imitate and follow Him.” This is our Jesuit charism, to go to the Father through Christ poor and obedient. Evangelical poverty is a mystery to the human mind, so reason alone is powerless to explain or justify it. There is only one way for a man to grasp the meaning and the richness of this mystery: he must experience actual poverty—it is not enough for him to merely desire to be poor. In order to be sure that we accept poverty effectively, it is essential for us to experience it effectively. How can we genuinely love and desire poverty if we have not known it through actual experience? The moment we experience actual poverty, we shall also experience its marvelous fruits. For those who embrace it lovingly often experience a joy and happiness and inner freedom that they had never felt before.
To speak of my own experience, there were three periods in my life when the Lord gave me the experience of actual poverty. The first was in Marneffe, Belgium, during the weeks that followed our expulsion from Spain; the second, when I was detained, under military arrest, in a Yamaguchi jail; and the third in Hiroshima after the explosion of the atom bomb. What joy and union of hearts there was in those communities of Marneffe and Hiroshima! I have never seen more union and happiness in any other community or experienced a deeper liberty of spirit and joy. In these three periods of my life I learnt for myself how little a man needs to lead a joyful life! I often wonder if we wouldn’t have more union and joy in our communities today if we were less affluent and practiced poverty better.
A word about our apostolate: poverty gives a quasi-sacramental value to our apostolic work, not only because it prepares the apostle for his work, but also because it is a “sign” of Jesus Christ that draws down God’s special blessings both on the apostle and on the souls he works for.
A Jesuit must always be poor in spirit and within his heart he must always yearn to live in poverty; not to live in destitution, but in poverty, namely, to have and use only what is strictly necessary for life and work, renouncing superfluities. When, because of the good of souls, the Jesuit is forced to take on forms of apostolate that make it very difficult for him to be actually poor, he will experience the tension that comes from desiring to be poor on the one hand, and not giving free rein to this desire on the other, for the good of souls. This tension will, paradoxically, bring him great peace, for he is doing the will of God.
In our day-to-day life, we should, all of us, experience at least some of the effects of poverty, for it would be ridiculous to say that we are poor and yet not experience any of the privations of the poor. So if there is anyone who in his daily life does not feel the effects of poverty, he could begin to wonder whether he is really poor in any sense, even in spirit and desire; whether, while claiming to be “poor with Christ poor,” which every Jesuit must essentially be, he is, in reality, a rich man who should be poor and is not.
And what I say of the individual Jesuit, I say of the Jesuit community too. So we cannot complacently compare ourselves to laymen of modest means if the only privations we suffer are the privations of the average layman of modest means.
To have no possessions “de jure” is a radical form of poverty that is very meritorious indeed, but it can be compensated for by possessing things and enjoying privileges “de facto” which are far beyond the reach of “people of slight means.” This “radical poverty” of ours can be not only hidden, but even destroyed in practice by an abundance of material goods that have nothing to do with the hundredfold promised us in the gospels.
If, on the one hand, our poverty is only the “normal” poverty of a layman of modest means and to this we add all the backing that comes from a powerful “institution” like the Society, and count, moreover, the many privileges and favors we enjoy in so many countries (invitations, free treatment in the best clinics by doctors and Sisters who are friends of ours; the help and influence of former students, families of Ours, benefactors, etc.), we might well ask ourselves where our “actual” poverty is—not to speak of our witness to poverty. Isn’t there some truth in the ironical saying of diocesan priests that we take the vow of poverty while they practice it? I remember a layman of dubious character who said cynically, “If the Society of Jesus interprets the vow of chastity as it does the vow of poverty, then even I could be a Jesuit.”
To conclude, dear Father Provincial, I would ask myself and invite my fellow-Jesuits to ask themselves, in all earnestness, the following questions:
—Do I truly love poverty as a Mother?
—After my novitiate, have I ever experienced the effects of poverty for any extended period of time?
—If not, why not? Do I realize that, as far as it depends on me, I must seek poverty “choosing poverty rather than riches?”
—How many things do I possess that I do not need (concretely, taking up one by one all the things I have)? In what way can I diminish my needs?
Ask God to give us the grace to fulfill what we have promised Him. I commend myself to your prayers.
Yours devotedly in Christ,
Pedro Arrupe, S. J.
January 8, 1973
Old Goa, India
Challenge to Religious Life Today: Selected Letters and Addresses—I, ed. Jerome Aixala. St. Louis: The Institute of Jesuit Sources, 1979, “Some Reflections on the Practice of Poverty,” pg. 95–99.