3/17.1 The disciples follow Christ leaving all things to do so.
The Gospel tells us how Christ called four of his disciples: they were Peter, Andrew, James and John. These four were fishermen and they were at their work casting their nets, or mending them, at the moment when Jesus passed by and called them. These Apostles had already met Our Lord and had felt profoundly attracted to him and to his doctrine. The call they now received was final: Follow me and I will make you into fishers of men. Jesus sought them out at their work and he drew on their occupation, as fishermen to choose a simile by which to tell them what their new mission in life was to be.
Those fishermen immediately left everything in order to follow the Master. We know too that Saint Matthew – relictis omnibus – left everything, and got up and followed him. We see each one of the Apostles doing the same when Christ seeks him out in his own particular circumstances.
If we are to follow Christ, our soul has to be free from any attachments: from love of self in the first place; from an excessive concern for our health or for the future... from riches and material goods. When the heart is set upon and filled with concern for earthly goods, there is no room in it for God. God will ask of some people an absolute renunciation, so that they can be completely at his disposal. He asked this of the Apostles; He asked it of the rich young man, as He has done of so many men and women throughout the centuries. These people have found in him their treasure and their riches. Christ demands of everyone who really wants to follow him an effective detachment from self and from everything he possesses. If this detachment is real, it will manifest itself in many aspects of ordinary life, for since the created world is good, the heart tends to attach itself in a disordered fashion to people and to things. This is why the Christian needs to be constantly on the watch, and to examine himself frequently, so as not to allow creatures or created things to stand in the way of his union with God, but rather to let them become a means of loving and serving him. Hence, let them all see to it that they guide their affections rightly,admonishes the Second Vatican Council; otherwise, they will be thwarted in the search for perfect charity by the way they use earthly possessions, and by a fondness for riches which goes against the gospel spirit of poverty. The Apostle has sounded the warning: ‘let those who make use of this world not get bogged down in it, for the structure of this world is passing away’ (cf 1 Cor 7:31). These words of Saint Paul to the Christians at Corinth, taken from the Second Reading of today’s Mass, are an invitation to us to place our heart in what is eternal, in God.
The renunciation God asks of us has to be effective and specific. As Jesus was to say later, it is impossible to serve God and mammon. If we are able to give up our life for Christ, with how much greater reason should we give up transient goods, which, after all, last only a short time and are of little value.
3/17.2 Some details of Christian poverty and detachment.
Christian detachment has nothing to do with disdain for material goods, if they are acquired and used in accordance with God’s will. Rather it has to do with making that counsel of Our Lord’s a reality in our own lives: Seek first his kingdom and righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well. We will discover that the more we struggle to detach ourselves completely from things, the greater will be our capacity to love others and to appreciate the goodness and beauty of creation.
If we allow our heart to become lukewarm, and share our love of God with a love of things; if we seek comfort and self-satisfaction, we will soon find that we have dislodged Christ from our heart, and that we have been taken prisoner by material things which will then be nothing but a source of harm to us. We must not forget that as a result of original sin we are all powerfully influenced by a yearning for an easy, comfortable life. We all dream of having power, and we all worry in greater or less degree about our future. As well as these tendencies, which exist in every heart, there is an urge to make a headlong rush, which seems to be spreading more and more in the society in which we live, to possess and enjoy material goods as though they were the most important thing in life. We can observe everywhere an obvious tendency, not to a legitimate standard of comfort, but to downright luxury, to not depriving ourselves of any pleasure at all. It is a serious pressure to which we are all subject nowadays, and which we cannot afford to ignore or forget about, if we really want to be free of those chains in order to follow Christ and to be living examples of the virtue of temperance, in the midst of that society that we must bring to God. Sheer abundance and the possession of material goods will never bring happiness to the world; the human heart will find the fulness for which it was created only in its God and Lord. If we do not act with the fortitude we need to live this detachment, we will find that The heart is left sad and unsatisfied. It starts following paths which lead to everlasting unhappiness and ends up, even in this world, a slave, the victim of the very same goods which had perhaps been acquired at the cost of great effort and countless renunciations.
Christian poverty and detachment have nothing in common with squalor and slovenliness, with neglect and bad manners. Jesus dressed well. His cloak, probably woven by his Mother, had dice thrown for it because it was without seam, woven from top to bottom; and it had a fringe. We can see how in Simon’s house He notices the lack of ordinary good manners, and how he upbraids Simon for not having offered him water to wash his feet, for not greeting him with the kiss of peace, and for not having anointed his head with oil...  The house where the Holy Family lived would have been modest, clean, simple, tidy, cheerful, with everything in good repair. It was a place where one would have liked to be. There would often probably be some flowers there or a tastefully-placed memento or decoration.
The poverty of a Christian who has to sanctify himself in the middle of the world is closely related to the work by which he lives and supports his family. For a student, poverty is implicit in serious study and in the good use of his time. The student should realise that by receiving this opportunity to continue his education, he contracts a debt towards society and his family; he should be aware that he has a duty to prepare himself competently to be useful. A mother’s poverty is intimately linked to the care of the home, to order and cleanliness. She should make sure that things last. Her poverty will consist in prudent saving, which will lead her to be thrifty and to avoid any personal whims; it will make her consider the quality of the goods she buys and this will often mean going round several shops to compare prices. As for her children, they will be grateful for having been brought up with a certain austerity, which is appreciated by the senses and does not need long explanations when they have seen it evidenced and exemplified in their parents’ lives. This is equally valid when the family is well-to-do. Parents bequeath to their children a splendid inheritance when they show them that work is the best and most reliable capital; they leave them a fortune when they show them the value of things, when they teach them to spend money wisely and at the same time to keep in mind the needs of the many people who suffer on earth; the most munificent legacy is to teach them to be generous.
3/17.3 Almsgiving and detachment from material goods.
Effective detachment from things demands sacrifice. Any detachment which is not hard is not real. Christian life is such that it calls for a radical change in attitude towards earthly goods. We must acquire them and use them not as an end in themselves, but as a means of serving God, the family and society. The objective of a Christian is not to accumulate more and more but to love Christ more and more through his work and his family, as well as through material goods. The generous concern for the needs of others shown by the first Christians, and which Saint Paul taught the faithful of the communities he had founded, will always be an example that will continue to remain in force. A Christian will never be able to rest indifferent to the spiritual or material needs of other people, and he will do all he can to alleviate their needs and find solutions to their problems. Sometimes it will be by contributing financially, at others by giving his time to good works, knowing that the rendering of this service is not confined to supplying the wants of the saints (his other brothers and sisters in the faith), but also overflows in all directions in many acts of thanksgiving to God.
Generosity in giving alms to people in need, or as contributions to good works, has always been a manifestation, although not the only one, of real detachment from material goods and of the spirit of evangelical poverty. Almsgiving consists not merely in giving what we find superfluous, but more particularly in making personal sacrifices, in voluntarily undergoing some genuine privation. This particular offering, made, say, by sacrificing that very thing we perhaps thought we could not do without is very pleasing to God. Almsgiving proceeds from a merciful heart and is more useful for the one who practises it than for the one who receives it, for the man who makes a practice of almsgiving draws out a spiritual profit from his acts, whilst those who receive his alms receive only a temporal benefit.
In the same way as he invited the Apostles to follow him, Our Lord has invited each one of us, wherever we find ourselves, to follow him. If we are to respond to that call of his we must be punctilious in determining whether we too have left all things, even though in fact we have to go on making use of them. We should examine ourselves to see whether we are generous with what we have and use. Are we detached from our precious time? From our health? Do our friends know us as people who habitually live sobriety? Are we generous in almsgiving? Do we avoid incurring expenses which are only a matter of frivolity, vanity or comfort-seeking? Do we look after the things we use; our books, our tools, our clothes? We should ask ourselves, in a word, whether our desire to follow Christ is accompanied by the necessary detachment from things; is our detachment real? Does it find expression in specific deeds? Jesus passes close by us too. Let us make sure we are not giving up the chance of a deeper union with Christ for the sake of a few trifles – for what Saint Paul calls rubbish – for nothing but junk.