The feast of St Vincent de Paul always makes me do a little soul searching about the meaning of poverty. Is there a difference between that and being poor? I tend to think of poverty as an abstraction — real and painful to those who suffer from it, but still something that can be measured by economists and sociologists according to the arcane standards of their profession. It isn’t a universally valid concept, either. What constitutes poverty to someone living in north America may appear very differently to someone living in parts of India or Africa. Being poor is different, and can be found even in the midst of plenty.
One of the medieval descriptions of monks and nuns was pauperes Christi, ‘Christ’s poor’ — those who had chosen to strip themselves of every kind of personal possession in order to follow Christ. Anyone viewing the remains of their abbeys today might be tempted to scoff. Many medieval monasteries did indeed possess great corporate wealth even though individually the monks and nuns owned nothing at all, not even their own bodies and wills being at their own disposal, as the Rule of St Benedict says (RB 33.4). However, I’d say being poor means more than lacking possessions or being deprived of the right to private ownership. Even the attitude of mind and heart monks and nuns call detachment only imperfectly expresses what it means to be poor. Being poor means having no choice — having no choice whether one eats or not; no choice whether one is educated or not; no choice about whom one does or does not marry. The poorest people in the world are probably the women and girls whose lives are so circumscribed by material poverty and intellectual and religious convention that their lives are truly not their own, even for a minute; and that is not to deny the terrible hardships suffered by men and boys whose lives are unending toil under appalling conditions.
Is there anything we who are rich can do? We can give money and time, of course; we can pray and work; but perhaps we also need to ask ourselves from time to time whether we aren’t confusing poverty with being poor, seeing abstractions when we should be seeing individuals. The Society of St Vincent de Paul is one of those great charitable organizations that quietly and perseveringly helps those who are poor, both here and abroad. It is not the material relief of poverty alone that has made it great but the gift of its members for seeing Christ in those they serve, of being poor with the poor.