This Sunday, we begin a three-part series of homilies on how God is calling us to use money as Christians. The series will look at three different aspects of our relationship with money: (1) detachment from our possessions, (2) the attitudes that we have in giving money away and (3) how much we give. Today, we start out by looking at detachment. For our purposes we define detachment as not being possessed by the things we possess.
This Sunday, Pope Francis will canonize Mother Teresa of Calcutta. Mother Teresa was born in what is now Macedonia (just north of Greece in eastern Europe) in 1910 to Catholic parents. When she was 18 years old, she entered the convent of the Loretto sisters. While in the Loretto sisters, her superiors sent her to be a missionary in India, where she taught girls in a Catholic school, eventually becoming a principal in an exclusive academy for the children of the rich. In 1948, at the age of thirty-eight, she received permission to start a new group of nuns, the Missionaries of Charity, who would dedicate their lives to serving Jesus present under the disguise of the poorest of the poor and living among them. Her sisters did things like care for poor dying people who would otherwise have died abandoned in the street. Homes for orphans and lepers were soon to follow.
When it came to her personal lifestyle and the lifestyle of the Missionaries of Charity, they lived a very simple life. In the first years, her sisters lived in shacks, often infested with rats and cockroaches and without a sewer connection. In summer months, temperatures rose to 115 degrees with 95% humidity. Obviously, there was not air conditioning. In fact, there were not even any fans, as these shacks lacked electricity. This destitution was a marked contrast to the relatively comfortable life that Mother Teresa knew in the Loretto sisters. But, her simple lifestyle allowed her draw closer to the poorest of the poor and to serve them better. Years later, she told the story of one such instance of her service:
“One day, in a heap of rubbish, I found a woman who was half dead. Her body had been bitten by rats and by ants. I took her to a hospital, but they told me that they didn’t want her because they couldn’t do anything for her. I protested and said that I wouldn’t leave unless they hospitalized her. They had a long meeting and they finally granted my request. That woman was saved. Afterwards, when thanking me for what I had done for her, she said, ‘And to think that it was my son who threw me in the garbage.’
We cannot help but recognize the difference between our attitudes to possessions and Saint Teresa of Calcutta’s. We do not think twice about spending money in the pursuit of fleeting pleasures, whether it be Reese’s peanut butter cups or nice vacations with family. Here I name some of my own attachments. Mother Teresa was willing to give up almost all her material comforts in order to be able to follow Jesus more closely. We often stress about finances. She knew what it was like to have nothing but the habit that she was wearing and to trust nakedly in God’s Providence.
Both the 1st reading and the Gospel invite us to reexamine our attitude about the relationship between money and happiness. We read in the book of Wisdom that “the corruptible body burdens the soul and the earthen shelter weighs down the mind that has many concerns.” How could it possibly be that possessing things gives us more rather than fewer worries? We would think that possessions bring about an inner peace that comes from security rather than turmoil. Yet, God’s word tells us otherwise.
The problem comes when we cease possessing our possessions and our possessions begin to possess us. Our desire to have things can very easily lead us to lose sight of the division between our needs and our wants. For example, a teenager might whine to her parents that she has to have a smartphone because all of her friends do. Or an older man might say that he has to have a new Ford Mustang because he is going through a midlife crisis. But neither a smartphone nor a Ford Mustang will really make us happy or give us peace. Only God’s love and being in His holy will can give us happiness and peace.
Perhaps an example from my own life will be helpful. During the last year of seminary, men who will be ordained usually buy their own chalice and vestments to wear during Mass. At first, I did not want to buy anything and instead just wanted to use what the parishes to which I would assigned had, but my classmates told me not to be so cheap and prevailed on me to buy a chalice and go shopping for vestments. The more I looked, the more expensive my tastes became. Eventually, I won an ebay auction for an antique chalice that cost me only $3,100 and sunk $3,500 into vestments. While that seems like a lot, I had classmates who had spent twice as much as I had.
In my first years of priesthood, I became very attached to my chalice and vestments. But, my appetite for church goods did not go away. Like so many young priests, I spent more money than I should have in buying church goods for personal use that didn’t really need or even use that much: theology books, antique crucifixes, books in Latin and Greek, etc. The more that I purchased, the more that I wanted. Since I lived in a very large and wealthy parish and accepted gifts from parishioners and kept stipends from marriages and baptisms, I had an income that was about 25% more than what I currently make as pastor of Saint Mary and Saint Joseph, so I had a lot more money to spend than I do now. I noticed an interesting phenomenon. The more church stuff I bought, the more I wanted.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus invites us to count the cost of being His disciple. Following Christ will mean for each one of us a willingness to leave everything else behind in order to follow Him. He tells us that “anyone of you who does not renounce all his possessions
cannot be my disciple.” On the one hand, this invitation can seem like something of a tall order. We ask ourselves, is it really possible to renounce everything that we have? Wouldn’t a normal life be impractical if we did so? On the other hand, we know for a fact none of us will able to take anything with us when we die. Renunciation of all our possessions will eventually come to us whether we like it or not.
What Jesus is proposing to us today is not that all of us become like Mother Teresa, but rather that all of us practice detachment from our possessions so that we are able to renounce them gladly when called to do so. Detachment from our possessions looks something like this. We practice detachment if we are willing to give our possessions away as soon as it is clear to us that God is asking us to let go of them. In principle, detachment should make us very careful about acquiring things that we really don’t need. In practice, most of us will have to learn how to give things that we value away in order to avoid becoming attached to them.
I have a long way to go when it comes to being willing to renounce all of my possessions. I still make some bad decisions when it comes to buying things, especially books. But I do want to share with you one minor victory in my struggle to be more detached. When I arrived in Union City, I noted that the quality of vestments and the chalice in the Saint Mary sacristy was not the greatest. After looking at the books and the state of repair of the facilities, I began to understand why. I prayed about it for a while and finally decided that I would give my chalice and vestments to Saint Mary, which means that after I leave they will stay right where there are now.
One of the great gifts that came from being willing to renounce what were to me very treasured possessions was a freedom from the desire to buy more church stuff. Having given the best of what I had away, I started to realize that there was little point in collecting things because someday, I will have to let go of them.
Jesus said, it is a far more blessed thing to give than to receive. Let us pray together that we live this truth more deeply in our own lives:
Lord Jesus Christ, you who were rich became poor so that through your poverty we might become rich. Pour into our hearts, we beg You, a spirit of freedom from attachment to possessions. Lord, make us willing to give away the things that we treasure most when You ask us to do so, that our hearts may learn to treasure You above all else. We ask this through the same Christ our Lord. Amen.