Poverty in priesthood

Quiet Storm by Fr. Nicanor F. Lalog II, 01 September 2022
Photo by author, Dominus Flevit Church overlooking Old Jerusalem, 2017.

Along with the vow of celibacy, the vow of poverty has become very contentious even among us priests these days which is very sad that one wonders why they got ordained in the first place if they were not totally sold out to being celibate and poor.

For most people especially Filipinos, how their priests practice poverty weighs more than their fidelity to celibacy, claiming they could understand and forgive priests getting into relationships with women than priests becoming “mukhang pera” (money-faced). For them, a priest falling in love with a woman is natural and therefore, understandable and “forgiveable”; but, a priest who worships money to the point of making his ministry a business endeavor even stealing from the church funds and donation boxes is what people detest most. In some parts of Bulacan and Cavite, they have a saying which is so vulgar to stress this point, “hindi bale madapa and pari sa puki kesa sa piso” (better for a priest to fall on a vagina than peso).

Photo by Ka Ruben, 24 June 2022.

Of course, it is always wrong to break any of these two important vows priests have made along with the third one which is obedience to his bishop because celibacy and poverty are closely related with each other for they both lead us priests to intimacy with God, our Caller. That is why, most often, when a priest has become “mukhang pera”, falling into the trap of money and luxuries, most likely he also has problems with celibacy. Even St. Ignatius had warned in his Spiritual Exercises that money is the first temptation the devil uses against every priest.

Like celibacy, poverty is a spiritual reality that is lived and felt by everyone in the material sense. More than being poor or having less in life, poverty is a choice we make for it to be real.  It is our attitude with material things in life: there are priests with so much and yet still feel poor like in advanced countries where cars and appliances are very common and ordinary while there are those with almost nothing and yet so attached with the little they have or wish to have and possess! One priest may have a brand-new car extensively using it to reach and serve his parishioners while another may have a second-hand car or owner-type jeep he tinkers daily, possessing him in the process. 

In our previous blog, we have mentioned that people should rejoice when their priest gives away their gifts because that means Father is not selfish, acting as the vessel or conduit of God’s graces and blessings to the poor and needy (https://lordmychef.com/2022/08/08/prayerful-requests-of-a-priest-to-parishioners/). 

Photo from inquirer.net, 2021.

Poverty is not a question of how much do we have but more of the question of how much do we share. See that very often, we are preoccupied thinking what we already and must still have without ever thinking how much do we share.

It is in sharing when we truly experience poverty; a priest who hoards everything – even people like benefactors and friends – is a priest in trouble. Here we find the direct relationship of poverty and celibacy: we renounce marriage which is a wonderful kind of wealth in the spiritual sense for something higher and better which is to be solely for Jesus Christ. That is the essence of our poverty, our being poor and empty so that we are wholly for Christ alone and his Church. It is being poor, materially and spiritually do we find our true wealth as priests, Jesus Christ and his Church or “people of God” as Vatican II rightly called.

Like everyone else, no priest can have everything in life; nobody is perfect but it is always the truth that we evade, priests and lay alike. Many people including priests often convince themselves of being self-sufficient, that we are the greatest, the most powerful so that we never ran out of construction projects in the church.  This is the mentality of the “dream-teams” or the “powerhouses” who claim to have everything and yet in reality, they rarely last long nor achieve much.  When everybody feels like a “heavyweight” – literally and figuratively speaking, always throwing their weight around, soon enough, he/she would surely sink. The Greeks call it hubris, another common ailment among us priests.

Photo by author, Capernaum, Israel, May 2017.

In my 24 years in the ministry, I have found and experienced that the key in any community and organization including family, profession and vocation like the priesthood is not in having everything, materially and non-materially speaking like talents and abilities that always end up into a mere show, a “palabas” even if it may be spectacular.  Life is not about dazzling others with our gifts and abilities but finding our limits and poverty. When we focus on what we do not have like our weaknesses and other limitations, our poverty becomes a wealth because that is when we are most creative and productive, achieving more in life.  Why is it when we do not have much on the table that there is always a leftover with everyone feeling satisfied? But when there is a plethora of food, we just feel satiated, filled up but not satisfied? 

Look at how many of our churches have become like birthday cakes that are so kitschy or baduy, tastelessly overdecorated looking like dirty old men (DOMs) and their counterparts, the matronix afflicted with hepatitis with all their gold trimmings. Many parishes are afflicted with a different virus more contagious than COVID without a vaccine where priests go “imeldific” in church decorations and renovations including liturgies that even the Blessed Virgin Mary is turned into a Miss Universe being “crowned” amid all pomp and pageantry. It is the virus of triumphalism with its ugly face of priests have too much of everything except God. The best priest, the holiest priest is often the poorest one, the one with less because that is when we have more of God. It is in poverty – and celibacy – we priests witness Christ’s lesson that “whoever saves his life loses it and whoever loses his life gains it” (Mk. 8:37-38). 

The problem of the priesthood for me is among other things a problem of poverty. I know that not all priests are necessarily committed, by their priesthood, to absolute poverty. But for my own part it seems to me that the two are connected.

To be a priest means, at least in my particular case, to have nothing, desire nothing, and be nothing but to belong to Christ. Mihi vivere Christus est et mori lucrum. In order to have everything, desire to have nothing.

Thomas Merton, The Sign of Jonas, page 191.
Photo by Fr. Howard Tarrayo, August 2021.

Poverty is blessedness because in our weak and fragile humanity, God chose to be one with us so that we can share in his divinity and thereby share in his life.  When we see each other’s wealth, the more we feel so poor and helpless; but when we see each other’s poverty, the more we see each one’s value. And we start enriching each one’s life.  This is the beauty of our poverty as priests when being poor is not to be destitute but be available to God and everyone. No wonder, poverty is the first of all beatitudes taught by Christ, “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of God” (Mt. 5:3).

When we try to have less and become poor, that is when we discover the value of life, of every person created in the image and likeness of God. Then, we begin to share and give, to sacrifice and let go, truly loving one another by being forgiving and merciful and kind like Jesus Christ, “who, though he is God, he did not deem equality with God something to be grasped at but rather emptied himself by being born in the likeness of men” (Phil.2:6-7).

Again, help us your priests live simple lives, to be poor so it would not be difficult for you to support us too. Thank you and God bless!