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10. TO THE FATHERS AND BROTHERS IN PADUA

On Feeling the Effects of Poverty

 Rome, August 6, 1547

summary | text of letter  | footnotes


          The founder of the college in Padua was Andrea Lippomani, prior of Santissima Trinità in Venice. When Ignatius spent 1536 in Venice, waiting for his companions to arrive from Paris, he lived with Lippomani and made use of the latter's library to continue his theological studies. Greatly impressed by the work of the young Society, Lippomani offered the revenue from the Priory of the Maddalena in Padua, and half of that of Santissima Trinità to be used to found a Jesuit college in Padua. The first Jesuits went to Padua in 1542. Five years after its foundation the community was suffering the effects of poverty; the financial assistance promised by Lippomani proved inadequate and the Jesuits were in dire want. Pedro de Ribadeneira, a student at Padua at the time, wrote to Ignatius two months after the community had received Ignatius' letter, and described the typical meals in the community: "First, as to our table. It is usually this: at noon a little vegetable soup and a little meat, that's all! When fruit is in season, we get a few grapes or something else according to the time of year. At night it is the same, a hodge-podge cooked with chicory or something similar, and a little meat. Master Polanco1 can tell you better, as there has been no change since he left. Though the doctor says that the scholastics must have veal or mutton, this cannot be done, for veal is very high here, as in Rome, and mutton is not butchered in winter, so we must do the best we can with beef."2 Though the letter to the community at Padua had been drafted by Polanco, Ignatius' secretary, the ideas are those of Ignatius. In the letter he consoles his sons, telling them that poverty is equally a gift from God and should be willingly embraced as any other divine gift. The letter was written in Italian [Ep. 1:572-577].

          May the grace and true love of Jesus Christ be ever in our hearts and increase from day to day to the very end of our lives. Amen.

          Dearly beloved fathers and brothers in Christ:

          A letter addressed to Father Master Laínez in Florence has come to us through the hands of your friend and ours, Pietro Santini.3 In it we learn, among other things, of the love of poverty, of that poverty which you have chosen for the love of the poor Christ, and the opportunity you sometimes have of suffering some lack of necessities owing to the inadequacy of the help offered you by the kind and charitable prior of the Trinità.

          It is not necessary to exhort to patience those who are mindful of their state who keep before their eyes the naked Christ on His cross. And this is especially true since it is clear from the aforementioned letter what a welcome this poverty is given by all of you when you experience its effects. Yet since our Father Ignatius, who has a true father's affection for you, has entrusted me with the task of writing to you, I will console myself, while consoling all of you, with this grace which His Infinite Goodness allows both you and us of feeling the effects of that holy poverty. I have no means of knowing how high a degree of this grace is yours, but with us it is in a very high degree, quite in keeping with our profession.

          I call poverty a grace because it is a very special gift from God, as Scripture says: poverty and riches are from God [Sir. 11:14]. How much God loved it His only-begotten Son has shown us, who, coming down from the kingdom of heaven [Wis. 18:15], chose to be born in poverty and to grow up in it. He loved it, not only in life, suffering hunger and thirst, without any place to lay His head [Matt. 8:20], but even in death, wishing to be despoiled of everything, even His clothing, and to be in want of everything, even of water in His thirst.

          Wisdom which cannot err wished to show the world, according to Saint Bernard,4 how precious a jewel is poverty, the value of which the world did not know. He chose it for Himself, so that His teaching, blessed are they that hunger and thirst, blessed are the poor [Matt. 5:3, 6] etc., should not be out of harmony with His life.

          Christ likewise showed us the high esteem He had for poverty in the choice and employment of His friends, who lived in poverty, especially in the New Testament, beginning with His most holy Mother and His apostles, and continuing on with so many Christians through the course of the centuries up to the present, vassals imitating their king, soldiers their captain, and members their head, Jesus Christ.

          So great are the poor in the sight of God that it was especially for them that Jesus was sent into the world: because of the misery of the needy and the groans of the poor, now will I arise, says the Lord [Ps. 12:5]. And elsewhere, he has anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor [Luke 4:18], words which our Lord recalls when He tells them to give as answer to Saint John, the poor have the gospel preached to them [Matt. 11:5]. Our Lord so preferred the poor to the rich that he chose the entire college of His apostles from among the poor, to live and associate with them, to make them princes of His church and set them as judges over the twelve tribes of Israel—that is, over all the faithful—and the poor will be His counselors. To such a degree has He exalted the state of poverty!

          Friendship with the poor makes us friends of the eternal King. Love of poverty makes kings even on earth, kings not of earth but of heaven. And this can be seen in that the kingdom of heaven is promised in the future to others. To the poor and to those who suffer persecution for justice's sake, Immutable Truth promises it for the present: blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven [Matt. 5:3]. Even in this world they have a right to the kingdom.

          Not only are they kings, but they share their kingdom with others, as our Lord teaches us in Saint Luke, make friends for yourselves with the mammon of iniquity, that when they fail you, a lasting dwelling will be yours [16:9]. These friends are the poor, particularly the voluntary poor, through whose merits they who help them enter the tabernacles of glory. For they, according to Saint Augustine, are the least of all,5 of whom our Lord says, as long as you did it one of these my least brethren, you did it to me [Matt. 25:40].

          In this, therefore, we see the excellence of poverty which does not stoop to make a treasure of the dunghill or of worthless earth, but with all the resources of its love buys that precious treasure in the field of the Church, whether it be our Lord Himself or His spiritual gifts, from which He Himself is never separated.

          But if you consider the genuine advantages which are properly to be found in those means that are suited to help us attain our last end, you will see that holy poverty preserves us from many sins, ridding us as it does of the occasion of sin, for "poverty has not wherewith to feed its love."6 It slays the worm of riches, which is pride; cuts off the infernal leeches of lust and gluttony, and many other sins as well. And if one should fall through weakness, it helps him to rise at once. For it has none of that attachment which, like a band, binds the heart to earth and to earthly things and deprives us of that ease in rising and turning once more to God. It enables us better to hear in all things the voice—that is, the inspiration—of the Holy Spirit by removing the obstructions that hinder it. It gives greater efficacy to our prayers in the sight of God because the Lord will hear the desire of the poor [Ps. 10:17]. If poverty is in the spirit, then the soul is filled with every virtue, for the soul that is swept free of the love of earthly things shall in the same proportion be full of God, having received His gifts. And it is certain that it must be very rich, for God's promise is at the rate of hundred to one, even in this life. The promise is fulfilled even in a temporal sense, when that is for our good. But in the spiritual sense it cannot fail of fulfillment. Thus it is inescapable that they, who freely make themselves poor in earthly possessions, shall be rich in the gifts of God.

          This same poverty is "that land fertile in strong men,"7 as the poet said in words which are truer of Christian poverty than Roman. This poverty is the furnace which tests the progress of fortitude and other virtues and the touchstone which distinguishes genuine gold from counterfeit. It is also the moat which renders secure the camp of our conscience in the religious life; it is the foundation on which the edifice of perfection should rise, according to the words of our Lord, If you wish to be perfect, go, sell what you have, and give to the poor...and come, follow me [Matt. 19:21]. It is the mother, the nurse, the guardian of religion, since it conceives, nourishes, and preserves it;8 while, on the other hand, an abundance of temporal possessions weakens, corrupts, and ruins it. Thus we can easily see the great advantage and the excellence of holy poverty, especially since it is poverty that wins salvation from Him who will save the poor and the humble [Ps. 18:27], and obtains for us the eternal kingdom from the same Lord, who says that the kingdom of heaven belongs to the poor, an advantage that is beyond all comparison. So, no matter how hard it may happen to be, holy poverty should be accepted voluntarily.

          But really it is not hard; rather it is the cause of great delight in him who embraces it willingly. Even Seneca9 says that the poor man laughs with greater ease because he has no cares to upset him, a truth which daily experience shows us in the instance of the wayside beggar. If you were to observe the satisfaction in his life, you would see that he is more cheerful than the great merchants, magistrates, princes, and other persons of distinction.

          If this is true of people who are not poor by choice, what shall we say of those who are poor because they choose to be? For, neither possessing nor loving anything earthly which they could lose, they enjoy a peace that is imperturbable and a tranquility that is supreme. On the other hand, riches are, for those who possess them, like the sea that is tossed by the storm. Moreover, these voluntary poor, through the peace and security of their conscience, enjoy an uninterrupted cheerfulness which is like an endless banquet. They prepare themselves in a very special way by this very poverty, for heavenly consolations usually abound in the servants of God in proportion as they lack an abundance of the goods and the comforts of earth; if they know how to fill themselves with Christ, He will make up for everything and will occupy, in their hearts, the vacancy left by all else.

          But I must not pursue this further. Let what I have said suffice for your consolation and mine to encourage us to love holy poverty, remembering that the excellence, advantage, and joy I have mentioned belong only to that poverty which is lived and willingly embraced, not to the poverty that is accepted because it cannot be avoided. I will add only this, that those who love poverty should, as occasion offers, love her retinue which consists of poor meals, poor clothes, poor sleeping accommodations, and to be held of little account. Whoever loves poverty and is unwilling to feel want, or any of its effects, would be a very finicky poor man and would give the impression of one who loved the name rather than the reality, of one who loved in words rather than in the depth of his heart.

          That is all for the present, except to ask our Lord, our Master and true model of spiritual poverty, to grant us all the gift of this precious heritage, which He bestows on His brothers and coheirs to the end that the spiritual riches of His grace abound in us, and at the end, the ineffable riches of His glory. Amen.

          From Rome, August 6, 1547.

Footnotes

1 Juan Alfonso de Polanco was born in Burgos, Spain, on December 24, 1517, and entered the Society in Rome in 1541. In 1542 he was sent to Padua for his studies, where he was ordained in1546. He was called to Rome in early 1547 to be Ignatius’ secretary, and held that office throughout Ignatius’ lifetime. He was also secretary for Diego Laínez and Francisco de Borja when each became general. Polanco died in Rome on December 20, 1576.
2 Ribadeneira’s letter may be found in Epistolae Mixtae (MHSI) 5:649-651.
3 Santini was a native of Lucca, Italy, who entered the Society about 1547, perhaps in Padua, but after a short time had to leave to attend to family affairs.
4 See In Vigilia Nativitatis Domini, serm. 1, #5 in Sancti Bernardi opera 4:201.
5 See Sermo 345 (PL 39:1520).
6 Ovid, De remedio amoris, v. 749.
7 Lucan, Pharsalia, 1, 165-166.
8 The Constitutions of the Society of Jesus exhort: "All should love poverty as a mother" (Part III, c. 1, #25) and "poverty is like a bulwark of religious institutes which preserves them in their existence and discipline and defends them from many enemies" (Part X, 5).
9 See Epistulae ad Lucilium, 80, 6.