The School of Poverty

by on May 9, 2016

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:3)

Writing this on the eve of convocation, I am struck by the ways in which a seminary differs from a conventional graduate school. Sometimes, in the midst of final papers and exams, it’s all too easy to forget that profound truth. As a man prepares for ordination, his intellectual growth must lead him ever more deeply into an awareness of his interior poverty: an awareness that all he has received is a gift from God and that unless his life is centered on his relationship with Christ, his accomplishments are empty and in vain. Such a relationship is forged in the face of radical vulnerability and radical trust, both as the seminarian looks to his own neediness and as he encounters the needs of others. “Poverty,” in all its forms, can be a threshold into the heart of the Christian spiritual journey, eliciting our most generous expressions of love. But it can also be a seemingly insurmountable barrier, preying on our deepest fears of self-doubt or personal inadequacy. And yet, if the diocesan priest is ever to become a true shepherd, he must learn to seek out poverty and allow it to be his teacher and guide.

This is the “school of poverty”. It has no set curriculum and it grants no degrees, but its satellite campuses are to be found all over the world, in every diocese on the planet. Wherever there is a need for peace or justice, there is a poverty. Wherever there is a need for a greater respect for human life, there is a poverty. The school of poverty has the potential to convey a lesson that penetrates to the deepest core of one’s heart and mind because the vulnerability that one feels in the presence of the poor is the best preparation for authentic learning. False assumptions of the ego about having all the answers simply will not stand up when confronted by true poverty, in whichever of its myriad forms it is presented.

As a seminary rector, I am keenly aware that the school of poverty can become easily obscured by the false dichotomy and petty debate between “serious theology” and “social justice.” For the parish priest, no such dichotomy can be tolerated. He must be at one and the same time a master of the rich philosophical, theological and spiritual heritage of our Catholic Tradition, while also being a spiritual shepherd and father who can embrace others with profound humility and simplicity. He must be as familiar with Aristotle, St. Benedict, and the Samaritan woman at the well as he is with handing out blankets to the homeless or praying quietly for the conversion of angry, troubled hearts outside of an abortion clinic.

Our academic faculty and field apostolate directors can help place our students into the school of poverty, but they cannot force anyone to absorb its lessons. The degree to which our seminarians draw encouragement and inspiration from this special schooling is strongly influenced by the formation they have received from their life experiences among family and in their home communities. Your relationship with our men is a critical complement to the work of our seminary formation staff. It is my sincere hope that as you come to know them better—through our Cor ad Cor newsletter, in the pages of The Bridge, by visits to the seminary, or by prayer and conversation—you will yourself be transported into the school of poverty and will deepen your desire to be met by Christ precisely where he most wants to be with you: in your greatest vulnerability. That is the place where, if we will let him enter, he has the most to share with all of us.

Together with you, in Christ, we are Mundelein. We form parish priests.