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  • Writer's pictureMartin Newell

The Problem of Riches: A Call to Conversion

We have two new priests at our local parish of St John Vianney. Fr Jerome Oduntan and Fr Vincent are members of the Spiritan Religious Order. They are also from Nigeria. Like most Catholic parishes in London, many in the congregation are also from one African country or another.

Africa is the part of the world where the Catholic Church is growing fastest. In terms of explicitly Catholic and Christian faith, Europe is very much in decline. The Catholic Church in England is once more an immigrant church, as it had been ever since the days of the Irish potato famine, made worse as it had been by the British colonial masters. Europe is generally rich, Africa generally poor, in material wealth. It seems God is choosing Africans, and the poor.

This should not be surprising. Living and working among refugees and migrants is a help in understanding these things. So is trying to live the voluntary poverty that Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin talked about. They did not mean destitution. St Francis talked about Lady Poverty. It is a call to conversion away from the comforts and material addictions of our culture.

Voluntary poverty, real simplicity, is blasphemy to a culture of greed. If we take less, there is more for others who need it. If we can cultivate the virtue of needing less we are free to do what is needed and anything is possible, if we put our minds and hearts and backs into it.

In the Catholic Worker movement we seek to share life with, for and among the poor, and to live in, at least a relative, poverty. For God is there. As the estate agent said, there are three things that matter: location, location and location. We locate ourselves among the poor and marginalised, which is all the better to read the Scriptures and hear the voice of the Spirit. The Scriptures were, after all, overwhelmingly written from the margins, from places occupied and oppressed. So such a place should be a good place to read them and understand what God is saying to the Churches.

At this time in history, when riches are at least as great a problem as poverty, that certainly includes the Psalmists’ refrain, ‘In his riches man lacks wisdom, he is like the beasts that are destroyed.’ (Psalm 48)

Pope Francis, coming from Argentina, is also bringing us a view of the world from the Global South, from the poor. In this way we can understand his reminders that migrants seeking access to the riches of the world (that have been plundered from the south to the north) must be welcomed as Christ. And that the rich must stop destroying the life of God’s Earth that the poor most immediately rely on. As well as his repeated calls for the powerful to stop building and using their armies and building their wealth on the trade in blood that is the arms trade. From the perspective of the poor in the global south this is not controversial. In the words of Pope Francis, as well as the relative life and dynamism of the Church the respective regions, we can discern the perspective from which God sees the world.

It seems obvious that the rich will find it hard to connect with a God who blesses the poor, calls for justice, and critiques riches. A God who calls for simplicity of life to make space for true spiritual experience. It seems obvious that in order for the rich to hang on to Christian faith identity, they – we – might have to distort the Gospel of Jesus. That distorting might be to say that riches and poverty are of no concern. Or, it could be to say that God blesses riches and curses the poor – that is to say, their poverty is their own fault. This is a form of blasphemy, of ‘using God’s name falsely’.

We live in a culture that increasingly believes it has grown out of a need for God. But no amount of material prosperity and possessions can fill the spiritual void. And so addiction follows. We live in an addictive society: addicted to more things, more experiences, more comfort, more luxury, more profit, more of everything except those that really matter. We talk about ‘comfort eating’ and can see very clearly the effects of obesity. But with buying things we hide the truth by calling it (with a touch of irony, admittedly) ‘retail therapy’, when ‘comfort shopping’ would be more accurate. We cannot see the effects of comfort shopping as easily as comfort eating, but it has similar life-denying, self-harming effects on our spiritual selves, on the planet and on others. In fact it is worse because there is a limit to how much we can eat.

We talk about people suffering from addiction, but we live in a culture of addiction, promoted all the time by saturation-advertising in the name of profit. It is only the most extreme addictions that stand out. In a culture of addiction to hedonism, where this is lauded and celebrated, even the poor become hedonists. And all this is promoted by capitalism with its addiction to profit and ‘growth’. No wonder God is choosing the poorest, even if sometimes we – I – find it difficult to understand.

We are like the rich man tearing down his barns to build bigger ones in which to store his hoarded wealth while the poor starve ( Luke 12:16- 21 ) . People in this country nowadays ‘need’ bigger houses because they ‘need’ the space to keep all their stuff. And the corporations are continually tearing down their barns – their towers in central London and elsewhere – to build taller ones, all the better to accumulate more riches while the poor still starve. Very soon, the demand will be made for our souls.

Please God, the climate and environmental emergency will be a reality check that will bring us back to our senses. Please God, we will hear this call to conversion. Please God, we will hear the cry of the poor, the planet, and of peace, and begin to realise what it means to live simply and embrace Lady Poverty, so that all people and all creation may live life to the full.

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