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Marist Bulletin - Number 232


The poor throught the eyes of Father Champagnat

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Bro. Benito Arbués - 1st Meeting concerning the Presence and Social Programmes of Marist Europe (Spain - October 2005)

Is the preferred option for the poor essential to our Marist Institute or is it just something of the times, a kind of pastime that can disappear without affecting our fidelity to the charism?

Saint Augustine said that hope has two daughters who act with decision and audacity. Their names are: Choler (passion, ardour), which abjures passivity and encourages touching and interpreting reality and Courage, which does not allow things to continue in the same way, as if nothing special had taken place.
Father Champagnat suffered and felt compassion when he was confronted with the abandonment of the country children in XIX century France. He suffered when confronted by the religious ignorance and the material neglect. Although he found the means to carry out educational work in primary schools, he did not confine himself solely to school programmes. In the face of pressing needs he would create educational spaces that would welcome orphans, abandoned children, deaf-mutes, etc.
I began this reflection with a question. It is not my intention to provide a reply. I prefer to offer information so that you can provide your own personal response.
When I was preparing these ideas which I am offering you, I also kept in mind some basic works on Fr. Champagnat: the supplement to the Apostolic Circular Marist Spirituality by Brother Charles (10/7/1993), the doctoral thesis of Brother Alfonso García Parrado (1986): The Poverty of the Marist Brother and the book Let us listen to the poor by Federico Carrasquilla (A priest in El Prado).


Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: blind men recover their sight, cripples walk, lepers are made clean, the deaf hear, the dead rise again, the poor receive the good news (Luke 7, 22-24)

The question of poverty and the poor is a topic that comes and goes like the shuttle of a loom. And although our shuttle moves, sometimes it knits very little.
The poor are discussed by politicians, sociologists, the NGO, men and women who look at and love the world from the point of view of Jesus Gospel.
For a Christian person, to speak of the poor cannot be a mere topic of conversation, for it is something that should affect the convictions of a disciple of Jesus.
Poverty and the poor are a clear and visible reality in our world. The context has changed, as have the signs and the causes. The images transmitted by the media are quite eloquent. Poverty and marginalisation can no longer be hidden. Perhaps in the case of Europe, the poor are not so visible because we conceal them behind social subsidies. With these types of aid they pass unnoticed and we get them to disturb society less. Also, a good number of Europeans live well and the social environment makes it easier for us to be less sensitive when faced with inequality, need and marginalisation. I have the impression that evangelical myopia also afflicts the Churches of Europe and, of course, the ecclesiastical hierarchy as a collective organisation.
Today the existence of poverty is not ignored, but there is a continual growth of indifference and apathy concerning the poor. There is a certain tendency towards individualism in face of the facts and lack of thought concerning events. I would ask you to look back on the complex migratory phenomenon of the EU, the reactions to the scenes of the barriers being lifted in Ceuta and Melilla or the deportation of immigrants returned to the desert under very suspicious circumstances.
If in the past we have speculated on the relationship of cause and effect, between structures and poverty, and we have expressed charity in expressions of justice, today the great task that we have is to motivate the mutual involvement that should be given between evangelism and human promotion in a cultural context of privatization and of neo-liberalism.
Diverse visions exist concerning the poor and poverty. The poor have multiple faces: material, human, moral, intellectual poverty. Faces excluded from work and the economy, excluded from cultural, institutional, territorial matters.

1. The Concept of the Poor
In the classic European concept of the poor, the original sense is lost: the poor person is one who lacks material goods; but immediately he is given a moral label; these deficiencies are regarded as something bad. To be poor is a misfortune, to be something less than others. In consequence the attitude in the face of the poverty is to suppress it; the causes are discussed, but attention is not paid to the poor persons condition as a human being.
The causes, as much as the responses, are varied. One is poor:
· Because God made us this way, some rich and others poor; that it is destiny.
· Through the bad attitude of people (above all the rich; also because of the poor persons laziness he does not work and he does not know how to save)
· Due to the social system (Marx)
In that traditional concept, poverty is what impedes the persons growth and for that reason it is necessary to eliminate it. The poor person will be a person in the measure in that he raises himself out of his condition of poverty. The consequence of that valuation is to look for solutions to suppress the poor persons material deficiencies. And the options will correspond, partly, with the opinion that one has of the concept of poverty and of its causes. Among the best known solutions I will mention are:
a) Beneficence, assistance, charity: Paternalistic compassion arises from assisting the poor person because he finds himself in that unfortunate position.
b) Another position is that of the conversion and education of the rich so that they can help the poor. The Catholic schools assume this attitude and work with the rich classes in a preferred way. There are religious institutions which, when they are questioned on why they do not have social projects reply that yes they have and that they aspire to the conversion of the rich; if this becomes a reality there will be spectacular changes in the world order.
If it is presupposed that the cause of poverty is due to the negligence and the bad attitude of the poor, the work is centred on his promotion and education, teaching him to be responsible, so that he makes savings and abandons bad habits.
c). On occasions the option is for social revolution and change in world order. Their most genuine representative is Marx.

2. New explanations concerning poverty
Although the classic concept implied a negative valuation of the poor person, new explanations are arising in each one of the approaches mentioned earlier and they seek to dignify him as the person he is. I would like to highlight three tendencies:
a) Contemplating the poor with a humanist vision, which values the person. In his condition of poverty he is not valued, but as a person yes. Sufficient to remember expressions like these: I am poor but honest. I am poor but of good family. I live in a poor neighbourhood but I am a good person. The curious thing about these statements is that they are never applied to the rich, because the rich are recognized through their identity, a status of dignity, of respect and of being well regarded. By the simple fact of being rich allows them to be treated as such. The rich person does not have to insist on his condition of honesty and dignity, the poor person does. It would not occur to them to say: I live in a rich neighbourhood but I am honourable and just.
b) The religious valuation. This is very subtle and is based on recognizing God and Jesus in the poor. The poor person as such has no worth, but God made him poor because whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did it for me. (Mt 25, 40). It follows therefore that it is necessary to love the poor for the love of God. It is important to wonder: why did God chose the poor as his preferred people… does the Christian find it difficult to discover that the poor have worth, not only as a person, but in the condition of poverty.
c) The political valuation of Marxism recognizes the poor as a collective and political force, but not as people. Consequently he excludes the wretched and excluded as disposable. Marx designated them with the word lumpen (dirty cloth).

3. The classic concept of poverty is insufficient. There are new approaches emerging. Among others:
· The poor person should not be declassified. When he leaves his poor condition he should not renounce or be embarrassed by his group, nor adopt the attitude of looking for more, having more. Nor show the most expensive brands to society, as compensation for his previous deficiency.
· It is essential that he himself be in charge of his own development.
· The poor person should maintain his identity as poor.
· We must become like the poor, it is necessary to live like the poor. What does this mean?

4. The current concept of the poor
Nobody is educated alone, nobody educates another, we all educate ourselves with each other (Freire).
The Christians of Latin America have made valuable contributions to the universal Church, as much in the pastoral dimension as in raising the awareness of social justice or the respect and dignity of people and indigenous cultures. One contribution is the new reading and understanding of poverty. This is not simply a material condition, it is an existential condition. The person who lacks material things feels destroyed because he is not recognized as a person. Although the poor persons destruction is inseparable from what he lacks, he is not identified with them, because to lack something does not always lead to destruction. It is sufficient to remember that there are people who freely opt to leave behind important material security, they live in moderation, lacking things that can seem indispensable and they do not lose the quality of life, but rather feel liberated.
On the other hand, the poor person, certainly, is the one who lacks material goods but in that situation he is not judged, it is a simple fact of life. It is necessary to see what this lack means and what effect it produces in the poor person. The lack of material goods makes the person look at the reality in a personal way. The attitude with which he looks at himself, the world and people is not the same one if he looks at himself from a Mercedes, from a bike or walking covered in mud. This lack tends to produce destruction or deterioration, for example, malnutrition.
In the classic vision of the poor world, the problem is focused from the economic point of view and the whole analysis is only made based on these. The poor person appears as not being a man. In the new Latin American vision, the analysis of the poor world is centred in the consequences of those deficiencies and in the destruction that they cause.
This has consequences for the work of human promotion and evangelism. Because it is not a case of beginning with the economic area, but knowing and valuing the vision of the world held by the poor and attacking their destruction. It is a question of removing the problem from the material and economic to the existential and from there the material will be considered.
This way it is helpful to have a positive image of the poor person. He has something that characterizes him and identifies him as poor: his vision of the world, and at the same time he has the task of being freed from the physical or existential deterioration (of their deficiencies). The destruction is not a stamp, but a task. And this task has to be carried out by the poor person himself; but he must carry it out with the help of others. It is he who must assume his own values and confront his own liberation. Help can be given to develop his vision of the world and to fight against his own destruction, but it is he himself who has to develop and grow. The help that he is given will only serve to promote the poor person to be more of a person, not to have more, not to be richer.
These approaches require the development of certain attitudes in every activity that is carried out in the world of poverty. For example, these can be:
· To give priority to the interpersonal relationship of respect, valuation, understanding.
· To confront, above all, the basic needs.
· In helping the poor person it is essential to distinguish between giving and sharing, between assisting and helping.
Of course, the more we understand the poor person the more we will discover the key to understanding the rich one, because to have and to possess, in itself is neither good nor bad; it is a fact of life. To value it we must see the effects that wealth has on the rich person.


We commit ourselves, under the protection of the blessed Virgin Mary, to the Christian instruction of the country children … In the second place we commit ourselves to the free education of the poor, presented to us by the parish priest of the area. (Promises of the first Brothers).
The objective of our Institute is the instruction of children in general and in particular the orphan poor. (Handout of 1924)
Our work is entirely dedicated to the interests of the poor country children and of those in small villages. With the least possible cost we make an effort to offer them religious and Christian instruction which the Christian Schools of the Schools offer, so successfully, to the poor children in the big cities (Letter 319 directed to the bishop of Arras)

1. Texts that show us the thinking of Marcellin:
In an appendix you will find several original texts of Fr. Champagnat and of the first Brothers on: The purpose of the Institute, their trust in Providence, their love for the poor, their care for the orphans and deaf-mutes, the preference for free schools, the strong resolution not to be proprietors of the schools and to collaborate with the Public Administration, because in this way they had greater freedom of service. One of their approaches was to go to schools that already existed and which did not work well. You will also find some testimonies of the first Brothers, and they remind us that they were poor, they received the poor (children and old men), they shared with the needy and held everything in common.

2. The faces of children that appealed to Marcellin:
I invite you to think for a moment of the children who encountered Marcellin in their life and what feelings were aroused on seeing each one of them. Imagine those encounters of Marcellin:
The children of the village of Rosey, those of La Valla and its surroundings, those who came for catechism well before dawn, the shy ones, those who suffered the experience of failure at school failure as he did, the gangs, the young working-men, the abandoned, the orphans, the rebels, the deaf-mutes, the Montagne, those in the Brothers schools, the poor children in the country areas and small villages, those of Bourg Argental and of Vauban, the children of countries where Jesus is not known…

3. The Marist tradition
The subject of poverty and of the poor has been a concern. The solutions have not always been coherent and successful. Article 66 of the Constitutions of 1854 asked each General Capitulant to examine how the Institute stood regarding poverty and if there had been any negligence, he must not finish without finding solutions. Following this, I offer some more significant features of our development:
a) Reference to several General Chapters
In the V General Chapter of 1867-68, Brother Louis Mary gives thanks to the Lord for the prosperity of the Institute. He considers the sound financial state as a blessing of God and accomplishment of the evangelical word: to receive a hundredfold in this life (Mt 6, 33).
In the IX General Chapter of 1893, the letter Brother Louis Mary directed to the Brother Pascal in February of 1862 was read. After the reading, the Brother Superior General points out that poverty must continue in its entirety and insists on personal poverty (peculium and some irregularities). The General Chapter maintains that it cannot accept commercial aid to finance formation or any good work.
The XII General Chapter of 1920 removes from the Constitutions the expression mainly the country children (Art.2). It recognizes that the Institute is more extensive in the cities than in the towns and therefore it does not make sense to keep the article.
This same Chapter suppresses article 66 of the Constitutions of 1854 which asked that The General Chapter examine the situation of the Institute regarding poverty and, in the case of finding negligence, it should not finish without finding a solution.
The XIII General Chapter of 1932 wanted to create a free school for poor children next to those of flourishing fee-paying schools. A capitulant raised the topic of whether the Institute was remaining faithful to Fr. Champagnat in its care of the poor and if the Brothers were involved with the working class. It was established with satisfaction that the number of free schools surpassed considerably those of fee-paying schools.
The XIV General Chapter of 1946 insists on creating free schools beside fee-paying schools.
In the XVI General Chapter of 1967-68, everything revolves round the upgrade of the Rules and Constitutions. One of the more worked on and discussed topics were that of apostolic tasks: the recipients of our mission and who are the less favoured ones.
Brother Basilio Rueda wrote regarding this: I believe that if there is one thing which the Founder would seriously bring to our attention and invite us to react, with regard to the poor and excluded… (Circular XXIV vol., p. 442-443)
The XVII General Chapter decides to guide the Institute in an effective way toward the poor and the missions according to what was strongly expressed by Brother Basilio Rueda at the beginning of his first term of office (Chapter Records p. 50).
In the General Chapters that have followed since 1968 the topic of mission and of preferred option for the poor has been ever present, with clear and resolute proposals.
b) Personal Poverty, the central axis?
Throughout history, the reflection on poverty has been centred on personal, ascetic and economic aspects. That has hindered the understanding of poverty in its entirety. Fr. Champagnat said: if we lose the spirit of our state and the goal that we pursue, we will be of no use.
Starting from the XIII General Chapter (1932) the aspect of the apostolic tasks (free schools and educational services) is outlined with greater force. However the insistence on personal poverty centred in norms, asceticism, peculium, trips, use of personal possessions, etc., obscure the position of an institutional poverty and of simplicity of life in following the mission and of the poor as the preferred option.
The reasons why one is invited to be economical separate much of the initial spirit that consisted in living with moderation to be able to offer more services to the poor. Regarding poverty a viscosity of situations are used to confront it. For example, Brother Louis Mary in a letter to Brother Pascal dated 10/2/1862 tells him: There is no doubt that Saint-Genis-Laval and especially the chapel, moves away from the spirit of poverty of the Institute. They should not repeat this type of construction. And subsequently he invites the Brothers to come to the aid of the Congregation because many debts have been contracted.
Brother Stratonique in his circular of 2/2/1911, and when preparing for the first centenary of the Institute, proposes that they celebrate it with the same simplicity as for the official approval of the Institute and he invites the Brothers to a deep reflection on the letter already mentioned from Brother Louis Mary to Brother Pascal. But next he appeals to the Brothers to do everything possible to economize. With what objective? Simply to help to build the chapel for the school San Leone Magno in Rome. A chapel, he says, that will be sufficiently wide, beautiful and rich, as our Founder wanted, so that it can be offered as a good gift on the occasion of his beatification and serve as a monument to celebrate the first centenary of the Institute (Cf. Circular v. XI, p. 533).


It is important to examine every year, in community, whether the activities and projects that we carry out are coherent and that they respect the priorities of the province and the Founders preference sufficiently for those most in need (Cf. Constitutions, n.58.1). For we will need to be aware of the reality of our world:
What do I see? From where do I look? What filters do I have? What do I want to see: the reality or what I need? What prevents me from looking and contemplating with the eyes of the gospel? What does God tell me when I consider the children and young people in Europe?

1. Act
UNESCO promotes the recognition of some institutions that stand out for their shared dedication and for the promotion of cultural programmes in needy and marginalized areas. Some years ago the De La Salle Brothers were the Institute elected among several candidacies. Recently, in Spain, the Prince of Asturias of the Concord Prize was awarded in 2005, to the Daughters of the Charity for their exceptional humanitarian social work in support of the underprivileged and for their promotion, in the entire world, of the values of justice, peace and solidarity.
Personally I feel envious, not so much to receive one of those awards, but to contemplate a Marist curriculum of that quality and with as many social works as those two congregations seem to have.

2. Act in and from the formal school
By way of example I would like to suggest some possibilities:
a) Form a sharing heart: Above all there is a need to form a sharing heart, throughout the educational world, whether it is formal education or social programmes, in extra curricular experiences or in Christian life groups
Solidarity is not only about projects; it is a style and a frame of mind. It has a clear style, a personality, a mentality in the face of events and a way of acting in concrete situations. Solidarity is a relational concept that is verified through concrete acts.
The language of solidarity and moderation, require the re-education of competitive impulses and of consumerist greed. But to cultivate feelings that change the thinking and the heart, experiences are required, living contact with need and pain. It is to help the young to see and to feel with them, to be allowed to touch the pain, the suffering and the exclusion, to experience contact with that part of poverty that is in our cities, although it is hardly visible.
b) Welcome the poor within the school: frequently the European Catholic school does not abound in poor students or immigrants. This limitation is due to the location of the school, the strict school zoning, to the costs of the school or the lack of imagination and sensitivity. It is more of a problem when there are students on the edge of the school, discriminated against or excluded failures because they are expelled or bounced from one centre to another.

3. Act through special programmes of informal education
I sense that the programmes and social presences following this Marist European Encounter will be of short duration. And that is because needs change quickly, they move geographically or other new ones appear. I find that the programme that we have shared this afternoon wont celebrate its centenary.
That requires on the part of Marists, flexibility and mobility in structures, attention to present needs and creativity. Fidelity is dynamic and charity must invent new forms of expression. It is not a question of repeating and maintaining the past in order to deal with new situations. Fidelity drives us towards search and creativity. And that attitude is not to abjure the past but to live the present in such a way that it favours the future. We need to be intuitive in the face of new urgent and precise needs, but we must also be very creative in discovering new administrative and financial formulas. We must create and give correct answers to the needs, involving ourselves personally in those special programmes. Not to limit ourselves to being mere agents; we must wet ourselves to bring them to a conclusion and to give answers to the children and poor youth because they are our preferred option.
Where is the Montagne? Who are todays orphans? Who and how are the deaf-mutes of our society? Who are they and where are the youths at risk? Who are the abandoned youth whose situation touched the heart of Marcellin?
I find the variety of programs and social presences rich in this Marist European Encounter. But I find much more interesting and more wonderful the spirit, the serenity and the optimism that we all feel, remembering what we do and how we live. Since we began we have communicated hope and enthusiasm in spite of the limitations of language. The optimism with which we live is a sign of hope in the face of the possibilities we can imagine.
For all of this it is worthwhile giving thanks to Mary, our Good Mother, requesting her to remain present in our lives and projects.


For a moment remember two or three texts of the Sacred Scripture which inspire and energize your life.
How do you allow yourself to be affected by the social programmes in which you are involved? How do they affect your personal lifestyle (and community)?
What aspects of Fr. Champagnat (attitudes, actions, ideas…) do you find most thought provoking and inspiring in the revitalization of your Marist the mission in Europe?

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