To live in poverty is a call to love

To live in poverty is a call to love

By Melania Strehl S.N.D.

In today’s world, where so much is changing and impacted by impersonal, computer technologies, where no one wants to hear about what is difficult, it seems strange to find a person willing to reflect on an option for living in poverty. Even the church does not escape from this process of acceleration, and, it, too, can be influenced by a lack of values. But there is renewed fervor and new language, as well as prophetic and creative audacity, in the model of a religious vocation. The religious vocation situates itself well within the heart of human experience and drama.1 This is a time to be courageous and to seal the decision for religious vocation by the vow of poverty.

This article is a reflection for those involved in vocation and formation ministry. It is important to pay attention to the attraction religious life has for a young person who is so filled with enthusiasm for this ideal as to commit to a vow of poverty.

In the first part of this essay, I reflect on poverty and love. In the second part, I present a process for discernment through the practice of Lectio Divina when making a vow of poverty.

Part One: Reflections on poverty and love

Who really wants to be poor? People struggle, work and give themselves to achieving a better life for themselves, their children, their family and their country. There are many social and religious projects fighting against poverty. So how can we present youth the ideal of living poorly? We can if we understand poverty as a life of love, dedication and total self-giving. A mother spends her life providing for the welfare of her children. A father works untiringly to bring food to his family’s table. This is the kind of love, the poverty of self-giving, every person understands.

We must offer young people real love, taken on as a program for life, a love with no limits, with no frontiers, a self-giving love that may be to the point of martyrdom. That is the ideal that every young person, even in our modern world, is able to understand and to take on as a project for life.

“To make oneself ‘poor’ is to respond to the world’s poverty.”2 We have the examples of the saints, missionaries and national heroes. These are the ones who go to the causes of human suffering, to the “origins of uneasiness and anxiety,” to cure its wounds.3 For us Brazilians, among the “fearless fighters for justice and evangelists for peace”4 are Jose de Anchieta, and Manuel da Nobrega and many others.5 Saint Julie Billiart, who deeply impacted my own congregation’s spirituality, wrote: “The poor are the basis of our institute,” 6 and, “We are only for the poor, absolutely for them.”7 Our founder, Sister Mary Aloysia Wolbring, was so motivated by a sense of self-gift that she deserved the title “mother of the orphans and sick.”8 If we understand poverty as love-donation, love-selfgiving, love-life (Luke 1:54-55; Matthew 4:23-24), we can propose to youth a way of life in poverty, sealed by a vow, an oath, a total and perpetual engagement. A young person will understand the meaning of “to become rich through his poverty” (2 Corinthians 8:9), because loving in poverty is Jesus Christ’s proposal. It is the way he himself traveled and in which he left the deep-seated marks of the beatitudes, the shadow of the cross and the river of living water that poured from his divine-human heart, as the font of salvation. The challenge of Jesus: “Go, sell all your possessions, give the money to the poor…then come, follow me” (Matthew 19:21) resonates in the generosity of heart so characteristic of youth.

Love and poverty are inseparable, synonymous and interconnected. Poverty and love are not juxtaposed, not antagonistic, not mutually exclusive. Poverty embodies the totality of loving another as oneself. One who loves is capable of total self-denial. One who loves has the freedom to give, not only things, but one’s self for others. Jesus said: “Whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 10:39). To live entirely for someone is to love and to have a heart that reaches out to others in poverty. Jesus announced this when he said, “How blessed are the poor in spirit...!” (Matthew 5:3).

Part Two: Discernment through Lectio Divina to make the vow of poverty

Lectio Divina has a place in the discernment of vocation. 9 Practicing Lectio Divina is praying within one’s own faith, in the light of the Word of God. All the mysteries of life can be prayed according to this method. One who decides to live love, to live radically in poverty, sealed by the vow, finds in praying and reading the Word of God a secure way to know, to discern, to define, to opt for, to live and to share love. “Consecrated life is a life of self-giving love, of practical and generous service.”10

STATIO = Preparation

When young people observe those who live in vowed poverty and feel themselves attracted to religious life because of them, they start to question themselves on the validity of such a vocation. It is like arriving at a subway station and stopping to consider which direction to take. The young find life in knowing: “How many consecrated persons give themselves without reserve in the service of the most disadvantaged people on earth! How many of them work to train future educators and leaders of society, so that they in turn will be committed to eliminating structures of oppression and to promoting solidarity with the poor! Consecrated persons fight to overcome hunger and its causes; they inspire the activities of voluntary associations and humanitarian organizations; and they work with public and private bodies to promote a fair distribution of international aid.”11 The young find faith in the fact that God defends the poor. Some suggested Scriptures for praying on this theme are: Psalms 107:41; 109:31; 113:7; 132:15; and Isaiah 25:4; and 57:14-21.

LECTIO = Reading

This step is a search for information. To read articles with vocation themes, to see examples of life, to attend informative meetings are all important conditions to choose a way to live.

In Matthew 11:2-5, Jesus points to the testimony of works, “Now John had heard in prison what Christ was doing, and he sent his disciples to ask him: ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to expect someone else?’ Jesus answered, ‘Go back and tell John what you hear and see: the blind see again, and the lame walk, those suffering from virulent skin-diseases are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised to life and the good news is proclaimed to the poor….’” And in Matthew 16:26, Jesus places before us the challenge of radical living: “What, then, will anyone gain by winning the whole world and forfeiting his life?”

MEDITATIO = Meditation

Now is the time to stop and to enter into oneself: “If you only knew what God is offering….” (John 4:10) Now comes the questioning about the whys of feeling disquiet or affinity for a life of poverty or, more, why the feeling of discontent for the ways that are not of deepest love. The Word of the Lord is always illuminative. It shows that one ought not to compromise with injustice, and teaches that to share one’s goods is a facet of love. John Paul II has said, “Dear young people, I hope you can know how to listen to God’s voice calling you to service.12 This is the road that opens up to so many forms of ministry in favor of the community.” 13 God himself gives the teaching: “Give ear, listen to the saying of the sages” (Proverbs 22:17).

Some suggested Scriptures on this theme are: Matthew 19:21; Mark 10:21; Luke 12:33f; and Acts 2:32f.

ORATIO = Prayer

This is the moment of dialogue with the loving God who became poor par excellence, despoiled of everything. The conversation is with the Lord, the one who is inviting, because he wants to donate all the richness of his compassionate Heart to those who will continue his work of love. “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart … and your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:37-39). Christ himself took this commandment of charity for himself and then bestowed upon it a new value: he identified with those who are the object of his love.14

CONTEMPLATIO = Contemplation

To contemplate is to remain still in admiration of the greatness of the mystery of poverty that clothes itself with love. At this moment the heart will be deeply moved. “There is established a point of communion between the contemplative and the contemplated, an intimacy of love.”15 In such a great world in which God himself came to give his heart, he found no better expression than to live total self-giving, in creation, incarnation and communion. That is what Jesus meant with the exclamation, “I feel sorry for all these people” (Mark 8:2). God who is so good wants to live with us to continue to prove that salvation is in littleness. And I am the person invited!

CONSOLATIO = Consolation

The fruit of encountering God is deep joy. “In him, in bodily form, lives divinity in all its fullness, and in him you too find your own fulfillment” (Colossians 2:9). “May the peace of Christ reign in your hearts” (Colossians 3:15). It is only in Christ that one finds perfect happiness.16 This is the happiness of being chosen and given gifts for the heart. It is an incomparable honor to be able to give one’s heart to God in love by living in poverty. To make a vow of poverty is to transform love in service to God’s family. “Whoever loves me will be loved by my Father, and I shall love him and reveal myself to him” (John 14:21).

DISCRETIO = Discernment

It is necessary to place one’s feet on the ground of reality. “Which of you here, intending to build a tower, would not first sit down and work out the cost to see if he had enough to complete it?” (Luke 14:28). Individuals are unique and have their own characteristics, reactions and capabilities. Living in poverty, living a religious vow, involves one’s whole being. Everything has to be put on a scale of prudence. All aspects must be examined under the magnifying glass of truth. We are free to love to the extent of giving up our life for others. “All religious people will love [the poor] in Christ’s heart.”17 In the vocational process of discernment it is important to be guided by the Word of God: “Ask advice of every wise person; never scorn any profitable advice. Bless the Lord God in everything; beg him to guide your ways and bring your paths and purposes to their end. For wisdom is not the property of every nation; their desire for what is good is conferred by the Lord” (Tobit 4:18f).


One should make the decision for radically living the vow of poverty only after having verified all the pros and cons. Look at the example of the widow who gave everything she had, even if it was only two coins (Mark 12:44; Luke 21:4). This demands that we convert our mindset. One takes life in hand and has the courage to row against the high tide of consumerism and to live against the culture of death and of injustice. As it says in the Book of Ecclesiasticus 18:23: “Prepare yourself before making a vow.” Then, “I shall fulfill my vows to Yahweh, witnessed by all his people” (Psalm 116:14). Then we can be faithful to our alliance with the Lord. “Jesus’ words and actions go to the root of every disorder and oppression from human to human.”18 The vow of poverty enables us to possess our hearts in the measure of being totally one with goodness in a world of oppression; to serve compassionately in an environment where despair is the bread of impoverished people. The way Christ indicated to us in the Sermon on the Mount through the beatitudes of mercy (Matthew 5:7; Luke 6:20) is much richer than we sometimes notice in current human judgments about the theme of mercy…. Genuine mercy is, so to speak, the deepest source of justice.19 To decide to make a vow of poverty is to be open to the risk of becoming happy to the point of forgetting oneself as Jesus did. This will bring misunderstanding, as happened to Francis of Assisi, who literally stripped himself of everything; or as happened to Bishop Oscar Romero, who was assassinated for having chosen to live poor with the poor; and as with so many other heroes and heroines of selfless love.

COLLATIO = Sharing

Is it possible to hide the light of a candle in the darkness of night? A life decision made in the light of the Word of the Lord will transform the life of the person who opts for a vow of poverty. It will be impossible to keep the splendor of that treasure hidden in secret silence. The way to authenticate one’s option already begins at the moment of sharing. Poverty is a heart shared with others. There is nothing better than to have someone with whom one can share, one who knows how to assist with making this choice, one who is a counselor, a friend, a master, someone next to God. It is what the father recommended to his son Tobit: “My son, find a trustworthy companion … and then go” (Tobit 5:3).

ACTIO = Action

When fruit is ripe, it tends to fall on the ground. When the heart is prepared, it needs to act. Charity in a dream is an illusion. A vow with no action is a lie. Poverty without love is false. The Word of the Lord compels us to say yes to the vocational call to a life of poverty, making the vow to live and to serve as Jesus did. “Our call to follow him more closely in undivided love directs us on the way of his poverty. When we share in the total self-emptying of Christ, we continue his mission in the church: “to proclaim the good news to the poor.”20 “A priestly and religious vocation is always, by its nature, a ministry to generous service for God and for others. Then service points the way; and precious meditation helps us to understand better our own vocation.”21 Scripture is rich with proposals for practicing creative service: “Give generously to the poor…. Let your generosity extend to all the living, do not withhold it even from the dead. Do not turn your back on those who weep, but share the grief of the grief-stricken. Do not shrink from visiting the sick” (Ecclesiasticus 7:32-35).

The way of discernment by Lectio Divina is like an itinerary for traveling. One must decide to begin the journey and then observe signs on the road. Do not exceed the speed limit indicated by the Spirit in Scripture. Be steadfast and always return to the road that leads you to the goal. Always partake in the food of prayer, with the nourishment of humility and with the light of faith.

In closing, allow me to share a few convictions:

  • The vow of poverty is a two-way street: it is both the call and the answer to the call. “To serve, dear young people, is a natural vocation, because the human being is naturally a server, while not being his own life’s owner and on the other hand, needing many services from others.22
  • The vow of poverty can only be lived by someone who has much love. Jesus demanded this of those who wanted to follow him (Luke 9:57-62). “...he called them. And at once, leaving the boat and their father, they followed him” (Matthew 4:20-21).
  • Vocation animation ministry and religious formation ministry have a great responsibility in the salvation of today’s world, in the sense of forming authentic followers of Jesus Christ. “Despite certain contrary impulses, nevertheless present in today’s mentality there exists in many young people’s hearts a natural disposition to be open to others, especially to the most needy. This makes them generous, capable of empathy, available and selfforgetful to place others’ interests before their own.”23
  • There is hope for the future (see Jeremiah 31:17), because youth want to radically live their faith in community. This is the basis for living the religious vows—self-donation in the highest degree, through the vow of poverty.

A space remains open for everyone’s creative reflections, because when one speaks about poverty, there is a multiplicity of interpretations, and the depth of the theme never ends. When the vow of poverty is understood as radically living donated love, we come to a bottomless well. This well is fed by a constant spring, which is the Word of God.

Mary will guide us in the footsteps of Jesus, she who is the Mother of Love, the Mistress of Yes and the Door to Life and Truth. That is why the Pope encourages us to enter “Mary’s school.”24 There we will learn the lesson and find the answer to the question about living in poverty and in love. Follow him!


1. Bertolone, SdP, Vincenzio D. Il Volto dei Volti Cristo-Editrice VELAR.

2. Barbiero, Fernanda. Rivista Mensile Delle Re ligiose-Centro Studi USMI-Anno LI 5 Maggio 2002.

3. Dives in Misericordia, n. 11.

4. Puebla , 8.

5. Apostolic Letter to Religious Men and Women, John Paul II, n.5.

6. Arens, Barnard. The Blessed Julie Billiart and her Work. Gráfica e Editora Berthier.

7. Linscott, Mary. To Heaven...on Foot, p.47. Scotland: S. Burn & Sons.

8. Soli Deo, Chapter VI

9. Maldaner, Maria Fátima, SND. Prática da Oração Pessoal, Edições Loyola.

10. Vita Consecrata, 75.

11. Ibid, 89.

12. Pope’s Message for the XL MDVP

13. Matthew 25,40; Vatican II n.1361

14. Altobelli, CPPS, Fr. Romano. Il Volto Dei Volti Cristo, Editrice VELAR

15. Pope’s Message for the XL MDVP

16. John 1:13; Puebla n. 1310

17. Mark 19:21; 25,34-46; 1 John 3:17, in Perfectae Caritatis n. 1257

18. Honings, OCD, Fr. Bonifácio. Il Volto Dei Volti Cristo, Editrice VELAR

19. Dives in Misericordia

20. Constitutions of the Sisters of Notre Dame, article 19.

21. Pope’s Message for the XL MDVP

22. Ibid.

23. Pope’s Message for the XL MDVP.

24. Rosarium Virginis Mariae, n.3.


1. Il Volto dei Volti Cristo - Editrice VELAR, 2002

2. Rivista Mensile Delle Religiose-Centro Studi USMI-Anno 51 5 Maggio 2002

3. Dives in Misericordia

4. Puebla

5. Apostolic Letter to Religious Men and Women, John Paul II

6. ARENS, Bernard. Blessed Julie Billiart and her Work

7. LINSCOTT, Mary. To Heaven. ..On Foot

8. Soli Deo

9. MALDANER, Maria Fátima, SND. Prática da Oração Pessoal, Ed. Loyola

10. Vita Consecrata

11. Message from the Pope for the 40th MDVP

12. Documents of Vatican II

13. Constitutions of the Sisters of Notre Dame

14. Rosarium Virginis Mariae

15. Jerusalem Bible

Melania Strehl, SND works in the Sisters of Notre Dame Generalate in Rome. Her former ministries include teaching, catechesis, vocation promotion, formation, and mission in Brazil and in Mozambique, Africa.

Randal Sup, SND and Pat Dorobek, SND assisted with the translation.


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