“In order to ‘feel’ [sentir] the anxieties and aspirations of the dispossessed in an Ignatian way,” the following decree from the 34th General Congregation declares that Jesuits “need direct personal experience” of poverty. The decree explains poverty’s “apostolic and prophetic dimension” (it serving as the “unequivocal condition of our credibility”), offers guidelines to “renew our apostolic poverty,” and closes by recognizing how ever since Ignatius Jesuits have seen “poverty as a grace.”
For more from the 34th General Congregation of the Society of Jesus, please consult this page.
1. In response to the powerful calls of recent general congregations, Jesuits have made noticeable efforts to live a more authentic poverty, both personally and in communities. Work with and for the poor has been promoted; the generosity and hospitality of our houses has increased; separation of community from work has brought greater clarity regarding expenses; there are more ﬁnancial cooperation and a sharper sensitivity to justice. All in all, we have advanced in detachment, simplicity of life, solidarity, and fraternal sharing—attitudes which mark the evangelical poverty we promised. For all of this, we must be grateful to God.
2. At the same time, despite this progress, we must admit that we have not yet reached the deeper renewal that General Congregation 32 in its Decree 12 asks of us in this regard. The postulates sent to this congregation show dissatisfaction with our comfortable style of life; they call on us to consider whether our way of life bears credible witness to the vow of evangelical poverty.
3. This is not a marginal concern. We know well that, for St. Ignatius, poverty is “a safeguard of religious life,” whose lack “weakens, wears out, and ruins” our way of being. Moved by the Spirit of Jesus, Ignatius and his ﬁrst companions felt called to “preach in poverty.” The authenticity of our poverty is the test of our being or not being Jesuits manifestly following Christ “poor and humble,” as we learned in the Spiritual Exercises.
The Apostolic and Prophetic Dimension of Our Poverty
4. Our poverty is apostolic because it witnesses to God as the one Lord of our lives and the only Absolute; it distances us from material goods and frees us from all attachment so that we can be fully available to serve the Gospel and dedicate ourselves to the most needy. In this way poverty is itself a mission and a proclamation of the Beatitudes of the Kingdom.
5. Our poverty is also prophetic. In recent decades the cry of the poor has become more piercing. But the gap between rich and poor is being reinforced rather than diminishing. Unbridled capitalism produces disproportionate growth for some economic sectors, exclusion and marginalization for many others. Contemporary society is infected by consumerism, hedonism, and lack of responsibility. The values considered important today are personal fulﬁllment, competition, efficiency, and success at any cost. In view of this panorama of contrasts, our personal and community poverty becomes a sign and message of a different logic, that of evangelical solidarity.
6. Poverty is the unequivocal condition of our credibility. In the face of the attitudes and values that dominate the mentality of the world today, the radical exercise of evangelical poverty becomes a countercultural witness to the value of gratuity which St. Ignatius praised so much. By this gratuity we profess the boundless and freely bestowed love of God who gave his Son for us in the total emptying of the Incarnation and the Cross. By our poverty we also show that we as persons and as “body” consider ourselves the “least Company,” which lives from God and for God rather than putting its trust in material goods, since the powerful love of the Lord acts through our littleness.
Guidelines and Helps
7. In order to renew our apostolic poverty, GC 34 wishes to insist again on some of the more pressing recommendations given us by recent general congregations.
8. 1. Our manner of life personally and in communities has to be simple, hospitable, and open. There are certainly Jesuits and communities which live an exemplary, austere life. However, we must admit that in some instances the style of our life is far from that lived by modest families of the locale. We must sincerely examine whether in certain spheres (travel, personal cars, private use of television, meals in expensive restaurants, vacations, the number of domestic employees, and so forth) we live according to the requirements of our poverty; we must also ask whether we truly earn our livelihood by our labor. A community life of shared poverty is a source of joy, and unity of hearts is strengthened by sharing of goods. The testimony of simplicity and sobriety of life can also be a means for awakening in some who visit us the desire to become companions of Jesus. We ﬁrmly believe that a separation of living quarters from workplace, as recommended by GC 31, helps to strengthen the simplicity and intimacy of our community life.
9. 2. Economic openness and dependence on the community for income and expenses are indispensable for a life of fraternal poverty. From the community we receive what we need; to the community we give everything that comes to us—as remuneration for our work, stipends, alms, gifts, or in any other way. This desire to share with one’s brothers without holding back anything as one’s own must remain characteristic of a Jesuit who desires radically to follow Jesus. Since the use of modern conveniences such as credit cards and personal bank accounts may bring one to live ﬁnancially on the margins of the community, all should be fully honest with the superior regarding the use of money. Those who have inﬂuential and well-salaried positions must be especially alert; even though the acceptance of these positions must be discerned with the superior and the gain coming from them can never be a determining factor in choosing them, they carry within themselves the temptation to live a more comfortable lifestyle. In the same way clarity and austerity of life are not helped by appropriating for personal use the economic or material means pertaining to one’s apostolic work.
10. 3. Spiritual discernment will make us “vigilant servants” regarding the evangelical quality of our lives.
11. a. The personal discernment so recommended by St. Ignatius can be practiced in prayer and the examen. Only the intimate knowledge of the Lord who has given up all for our sake will enable us to love him more deeply and follow him more closely in his detachment. The examen will help us to notice God’s footprints in our lives, the God who calls us daily to dedicate ourselves “more” freely, since he himself desires to give himself “more,” “to give himself to us as much as possible.” An aid here is spiritual direction which can make our personal discernment more sound and safe from any self-deception. A frank and trusting relationship between the members of the community and the superior is also desirable, so that he is not limited to giving permissions, but can really help each one to observe poverty in its purity and to overcome its difficulties.
12. b. An important topic for community discernment should be our lifestyle. What is required is that the community make a common plan that reﬂects its desire to live simply and in solidarity, a plan which can be easily evaluated at regular intervals. It must include the concrete means to attain simplicity and the manner in which the spirit of gratuity is manifested by the community; furthermore, it must specify how goods will be shared among the companions and with the poor. The time prior to the annual visitation of the provincial can be a suitable occasion for evaluation. Drawing up an annual budget, with careful and complete presentation to the community and not merely as a routine, has been found helpful as a means to evaluate lifestyle to see if it is comparable to “modest families of the region.” Effort is needed to keep within the budget, and the community must be informed about how well this is being accomplished. When these helps are neglected, “private incomes” can easily appear in the life of Jesuits and money can easily be spent on superﬂuities.
13. 4. The changes in our administrative structures introduced by GC 32 are intended to enable communities to live more modestly and with a greater sense of shared responsibility. For this reason the sharing of goods has been established, so that community surplus is annually distributed to the apostolic work dependent on it, to other communities or works that are needy whether within the province or outside it, and to the poor. As far as possible, apostolic institutions are also subject to the same fraternal law regarding other apostolic works in need of help. The reform which separates the economic structures of community from those of the work has generally resulted in positive steps towards a greater solidarity of sharing and the greater economic openness so necessary in our communities and institutions. However, the desired results have not been achieved everywhere; at times there is simply a separation of administration and accounting, without having any effect on the economic standards of community life. GC 34 asks that these reforms be carried out with sincerity; when observed carefully, they can transform both our personal and community life and our apostolic activity.
14. 5. In order to “feel” [sentir] the anxieties and aspirations of the dispossessed in an Ignatian way, we need direct personal experience. Profound experience is what changes us. We can break out of our habitual way of living and thinking only through physical and emotional proximity to the way of living and thinking of the poor and marginalized.
15. a. The lived experience of poverty and marginalization should accompany each Jesuit during his life, even when his main occupation will not be work with the neediest. It is the desire “when occasions arise, [to] feel some effects of [poverty]” that has to motivate our ﬁnding time for such experiences. They can be occasions for radical conversion. It was among the poor of the hospitals and slums of Venice and Rome that the ﬁrst members of the Society “experienced privation and need,” but they also came to know that “a life removed as far as possible from all infection of avarice and as like as possible to evangelical poverty is more gratifying, more undeﬁled, and more suitable for the ediﬁcation of others.” Therefore their desire for each one who would come after them was that “his food, drink, clothing, shoes, and lodging will be what is characteristic of the poor,” and that these followers would seek “to reach the same point as the [ﬁrst members] or to go further in our Lord.” From the witness of many companions who live with the poor, we know that, along with the hard lessons of poverty, such experiences bring the evangelical values of celebration, simplicity, and hospitality which so often characterize the life of the poor. Superiors should facilitate such experiences and allow the required time to those who want them.
16. b. Solidarity with the poor cannot be the concern only of some Jesuits; it has to typify our life and our ministry. So whatever the mission given us may be, we have to work within it for the beneﬁt of the poor and for a more just and fraternal world. Moreover, the insertion of communities in areas of poverty and marginalization is a special witness to love for the poor and for the poverty of Christ. Fortunately the number of these communities has grown; in them Jesuits serve selﬂessly, working with the poor and living as they do. Provincials must continue to promote such communities so that, while maintaining a strong sense of belonging to the body of the province, they are a visible application of our preferential option for the poor and contribute by means of fraternal exchange to increasing the social sensibility of the province.
17. 6. We frequently make use of means and institutions in our apostolates which in themselves are not poor (since they must in fact always be suitable to their apostolic purpose). Here it is ﬁtting to recall that effectiveness and apostolic poverty are two values which must be kept in ongoing tension; this should be the rule for each individual as much as for communities and works. Maintaining this difficult equilibrium requires constant discernment and a readiness to abandon such institutions and means when they no longer result in the “greater service” of God.
Poverty as Grace
18. For St. Ignatius the material poverty of a Jesuit was a grace; he asked that “it be loved as a mother,” called it a “jewel” and “beloved of God.” Grace always brings joy and peace, and we must appreciate poverty and desire it as a grace. However, for many of us this has not always been the case; we live it incoherently and, often, as an imposition. Let us decide “with great spirit and freedom,” putting aside our fears, so that we may come closer to him who “makes all things new,” to ask him, personally and in community, for the grace of poverty and the wisdom to live it as a gift. Renewed poverty will have the simultaneous effect of evangelical renewal in the quality of life of the Society. To live poverty as a grace in an egotistic world lacking a sense of responsibility for others will place us joyfully with the Son and with those among whom the Son wants to be, the poor and neglected of the earth.
Original Source (English translation):
Jesuit Life & Mission Today: The Decrees & Accompanying Documents of the 31st–35th General Congregations of the Society of Jesus, ed. John W. Padberg. St. Louis, Mo.: Institute of Jesuit Sources, 2009, General Congregation 34, Decree 9, “Poverty,” pg. 588–593 [274–291].