Poor Jesus and the vow of poverty: on system change and a communitarian approach

There is a story from Indian ancestral storytelling wisdom of the child Jesus begging for alms outside a church on his birthday, Dec. 25. As one would expect, he returned to his heavenly father delighted at the generosity of the people, since his bags were overflowing with money and gifts. A year later, on the night of Dec. 25, once again, his heavenly father was anxiously awaiting the return of his son. Finally, he himself went to the Earth to search for his beloved son. He was shocked to find Jesus weeping bitterly in a gutter. When asked the reason for his fate, Jesus said he went back to the same church this year. But since he demanded justice for the poor instead of begging for alms, the enraged parishioners beat him up and threw him in the gutter.

In this parable, we see two contrasting responses to the request for alms and the demand for justice. In the past, religious poverty was often linked with charity and almsgiving. More recently, we have become aware of Jesus’ prophetic solidarity with the poor, which began with the Incarnation.

I want to challenge us religious women to rethink and re-view our understanding of the religious vow of poverty.

In many countries, others sisters and I have noticed that young women religious are disillusioned and leaving institutional convent life. When asked for their reasons, they say: “From morning till evening, we only work and pray. When we ask for further studies in theology or other academic opportunities, we are told: As religious you took a vow of poverty and made an option for the poor. If you spend many years studying, the work in the villages and schools will suffer. Poor people don’t need your education, they need your service.”

Lack of education is one of the major causes of poverty and ignorance among women. Lack of adequate theological education is one of the reasons women religious are lagging behind in church and societal leadership positions.

Could there be a misunderstanding about the vow of poverty, the option for the poor, and Jesus’ stance for the poor?

It is true that as religious, we should adopt a simple lifestyle and be in solidarity with the poor, but does our vow preclude getting an education?

We have no qualms of conscience about investing time, money, energy, and personnel in our institutions, which often benefit the rich and powerful. But when it comes to legitimate intellectual growth, economic considerations are brought forward to pull sisters back.

Despite world progress, statistics show that the poor are getting poorer and the rich are getting richer. To transform the situation of the poor, we need to study the systemic causes of injustice.

By providing inadequate education for young women religious, we are perpetuating an unjust system and encouraging the perpetrators of the system to go scot-free.

Unless we sisters know how society functions, we will persist in helping the poor with charitable assistance and not by teaching them to resist the system. By focusing only on the “charitable” approach and not educating the poor about their rights, are we doing them an injustice?

While there is a possibility that advanced studies could make us into elitists and alienate us from the poor, relevant studies can be enlightening and lead to profound personal and social transformation.

In the name of the vow of poverty, some community leaders unconsciously undermine the status of women and refuse them the opportunity to blossom into their God-given potential. By preventing them from studying on the grounds of “poverty,” we reveal our own intellectual and spiritual poverty.

Many women all over the world — rich and poor alike — are exploring wider occupational possibilities that will help them reach a state of self-reliance. Social workers are becoming much more professional in their dealings with the poor. They accept that education is a powerful tool of democratization and development.

So I am puzzled by the apparent disregard among women religious for higher education. If women religious are properly trained, they will be able to offer a feminine perspective from their own experience — hard for even well-intentioned priests to provide!

Religious are called to be pioneers with a prophetic voice, not mere cheap laborers and blind followers of a patriarchal bandwagon. A vital part of our ministry is to be thinkers, visionaries and dreamers of a life in abundance for all.

The vow of poverty cannot be used to justify intellectual ignorance. Though sisters have rich experience with the poor, in the face of injustice, they feel intellectually handicapped, helpless and voiceless to analyze oppressive systems and participate more actively in the decision-making process in church and society.

The vow of poverty does not call us to intellectual and visionary poverty. Liberative action demands contemplative vision and intellectual depth.

Read the Sermon on the Plain: The Gospels are basically good news for the poor and bad news for the rich. Church history shows that the rich have watered down the radical nature of the Gospels and hijacked the option for the poor.

The Gospels reveal that Jesus systematically analyzed repressive social customs and traditions of his days and defended his radical stand for justice. To consider Jesus’ service to the poor as only a work of charity is to misunderstand and ignore the liberative thrust of his mission.

“At the dawn of the 21st century, professing poverty … in a world where poverty is a sin against justice … makes religious life more suspect than impressive,” Joan Chittister says in The Fire in These Ashes.

The vow of poverty is directed toward transforming this world in justice; hence the need for trained, professional sisters committed to systemic change.

** another article by Sr. Margaret

This parable from the animal kin-dom provides a lot of food for thought since a similar situation confronts us in the church today. It’s one that elders in India tell to impart spiritual values to the younger generations. Here is how I remember it:

In a remote jungle there lived a community of dogs. Once, while at play, one of the dogs called Karl ran off at full speed. The others followed him but gave up after some time. Karl kept on running in hot pursuit. The weary dogs, who came back panting for breath, began wondering what Karl must have been chasing. These were some of the comments they made: “How is it that he spotted something but we could not see it? He must be crazy. Like fools we blindly followed him.” When Karl returned he enthusiastically shared his experience of pursuing a beautiful snow-white rabbit that finally eluded him.

He tried his best to convince them of the importance of chasing the rabbit, but some of the highly respected senior dogs discounted the idea. Others felt it was an impossible dream. A few of the shrewd dogs suggested the construction of a huge temple in which a marble statue of the rabbit could be installed. Then there would be no need of wasting time and energy in running after that elusive rabbit. This novel idea fascinated most of them and so they were soon fully engrossed in building a majestic Temple of the Hare (or “Sasopant Mandir” in Marathi word, the state language of Maharashtra-Mumbai).

Karl, running after the rabbit, symbolizes committed Christian visionaries trying to achieve the goal of the church: to build up the kin-dom with freedom, equality and justice. Having had an experience of Christ, they try their best to share this vision and animate the others.

The weary dogs give up half way since they neither have any vision nor would they care to take the trouble of acquiring one. Their inability to resonate with the values of Christianity prompts them to ridicule the animators.

Once the temple is built, then commercial ventures hallowed by religious blessing have ample opportunity to flourish. Devotees of all faiths who flock for novenas and pilgrimages are gullible victims of a “Commercial Spirituality” in which religion has been converted into one more moneymaking racket.

By funding the erection of temples and statues, those for whom commerce is god hope that both God and the people of God will turn a blind eye to their misdeeds of corruption and oppression of the poor. Since they are used to taking advantage of others, they have no qualms of conscience about exploiting God for their own gain and glory.

The common folk fall prey to these shrewd, unscrupulous people who have neither the experience of Christ nor commitment to his values.

I recently visited some stately, gigantic churches in the United States and Europe; though they towered upwards towards the heavens, the yawning emptiness inside made me feel sick. People in a few pews in the main section of the church were mostly elderly, with their grandchildren.

The side sections were boarded off with “No Entry” signs. I learned that those sections of the church had been transformed into shops with rosaries and other religious articles. Young people were nowhere to be seen.

If those who built those majestic churches had paid attention to building human communities, wouldn’t that have made a difference? Instead of providing a place for religious rituals, what if they had developed a community center promoting an activity-oriented practical spirituality geared to liberating the poor?

Seekers, especially those who are sincerely searching for a deeper meaning in life, are channelizing their creative energies into movements for social change. Who will provide a relevant spirituality to give direction for them and the other youth of today? If our spiritual vision is not clear, we are likely to be misled. Today when the winds of globalization and consumerism are blowing forcefully, the poor in India, for example, are being marginalized.

When will those who cling to devotional practices get a taste of genuine spirituality? Despite our emphasis on spiritual formation for communitarian actions, we still seem fascinated by the craze for huge churches. Let us move from a totally institution-centered religion and develop a cosmic church where the words of John O’Donohue can come true:

A day in the mountains or by the ocean helps your body unclench. You recover your deeper rhythm. The tight agendas, tasks, and worries fall away and you begin to realize the magnitude and magic of being here. In a wild place you are actually in the middle of the great prayer. In our distracted longing, we hunger to partake in the sublime Eucharist of Nature.

Instead of concentrating on building churches and temples that cater to a “commercial spirituality” beneficial to the rich and powerful, let us focus on a “communitarian spirituality” that is advantageous to the poor. Can we utilize our resources of personnel, time, money and energy to promote community centers that will help to animate, coordinate and intensify our focus on the poor and marginalized? Let us stop building cement concrete jungles and instead open some gardens for quiet meditation where Jesus’s prayer “that all may be one” can be realized to its fullness.

The builders of the Jerusalem temple had no room for the Messiah; it was the simple folk who were privileged guests of honor for the first Christmas celebration. The Gospels demonstrate that it takes a stable, not a temple, for Jesus to be born and feel at home.

Perhaps we could follow the wisdom of our monastic spiritual giants through this parable I remember from one of Sr. Joan Chittister’s books:

A pilgrim was walking along a road when one day he noticed a monk sitting in a field nearby, while men were working on a stone building.

“You look like a monk,” the pilgrim said.

“I am that,” said the monk.

“Who are the men working on the abbey?”

“Oh, it’s so good to see a monastery going up,” the pilgrim said.

“We’re tearing it down,” the abbot said.

“Tearing it down?” the pilgrim cried. “Whatever for?”

“To see the sun rise at dawn and build the houses for the poor,” said the Abbot.

Margaret Gonsalves belongs to the Sisters for Christian Community, Washington D.C. (WEB Region). She is the founding president of ANNAI Charitable Trust and networks with various newly founded women religious congregations for the empowerment of tribal/indigenous girls, including religious women.

“ANNAI CHRITABLE TRUST” Annai means MOTHER. Mother is Love. Our work and services of charity will be with love, care, & concern to the people resembling a mother.


 “ACT” Annai Charitable Trust. If we say this word ACT in Tamil it could give several meanings. But our meaning is Seyalpadu. It is a command. Start doing something. We have to be thankful to God for this marvelous work. Let us concentrate in our action and do our services with the grace of God. He says “My Grace is enough for you.”  (2 Cor. 12:9) So let us start doing something to the people. To create a healthy world through physical, psychological and spiritual help to the people to live peaceful and happy life.


This is a Charity and Non-Profit Organization formed to provide Counselling to individuals, families and group, Education of Counseling, Psychology and Research and Training in Counseling, Education to poor children, and trainings in livelihood programmes to face the challenges of life.

Healing the people

–          Physically…………..

–           Mentally………………..

–          Spiritually………………….

Through Psychological Counselling.

The Main Purposes of this Trust are:

  1. Psychological Counseling        –           Counseling Centre
  2. Physical Treatment                 –           Medical Camps
  3. Livelihood Trainings                –           Various Trainings to meet the life challenges


  1. Training in Counseling                   –           Education
  2. Medical Camps                              –           Medical Relief
  3. Livelihood Trainings  & Counseling  –           Relief o the poor to meet the life challenges


The Nature of the Trust is purely Charitable. This Trust will include the members from any religion by which we may form the Family Spirit that we all are God’s Children. Those who are having service mind welcome to join us. But we will encourage the people to trust their God. It is essential for physical and psychological healing.

 A multipurpose charitable trust…

       Touching …changing … and building lives….

                 Through Psychological Counselling

                            Spreading literacy…challenging social stigma &

                                        Superstitions…enlightening & empowering…

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