Blessed are the poor in spirit: Insights from Don Dolindo, Pope Francis, and Scripture

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3). With this paradoxical statement, Jesus inaugurated his Sermon on the Mount, laying out the path to true happiness. This beatitude has resonated through the ages, providing spiritual nourishment and challenging worldly assumptions. In their own ways, 20th century Italian priest Don Dolindo Ruotolo and Pope Francis have brought fresh insights to Jesus’ words. By exploring their commentaries on Matthew 5:3 along with relevant Bible passages, we can deepen our understanding of spiritual poverty and its blessings.

Don Dolindo’s Call for Radical Detachment

Don Dolindo Ruotolo (1882-1970) was an Italian priest and mystic who left behind a rich spiritual legacy. His commentary on Matthew’s Gospel was written in the 1940s, a time of war, economic depression, and societal turmoil. Don Dolindo laments that the doctrines of the Gospel were often presented in a mystical, transcendent light without showing their practical value for daily life. He argues forcefully that Jesus’ teaching is “divinely true precisely when it is considered in relation to the objective and harsh reality of life, life as it is.

With this context in mind, Don Dolindo unpacks the meaning of “poor in spirit.” He stresses that it refers not merely to economic poverty but to an interior disposition of radical detachment. The poor in spirit are “detached from everything” and desire nothing but God alone. Their souls are uncluttered by worldly wisdom and open with simplicity to God’s light. This poverty of spirit enables full embrace of the Supreme Good. It also confers an inner freedom to lose material goods with equanimity, endure injustice patiently, and renounce comforts for the sake of charity.

Above all, the poor in spirit rely completely on God, fixing their gaze on His fatherly providence. Considering themselves nothing, they do not trust in their own abilities but appeal wholly to God’s goodness and mercy. Don Dolindo makes clear that voluntary poverty of spirit is difficult but deeply blessed. It liberates us from attachment to transient things and orients us toward eternal goods. He uses vivid imagery: “Voluntary poverty, or poverty of spirit, is precisely the lightening of life’s baggage, it is the freedom of flight given to the spirit.” This lightness of spirit stands in contrast to the world which “weighs down life terribly.” 

Don Dolindo also reminds us that material poverty can be spiritually fruitful when accepted in a posture of trust versus distress. The materially poor person unencumbered by earthly attachments is paradoxically rich toward God. Their simplicity of life, often closer to nature’s rhythms, can manifest joys unknown to the wealthy. Most importantly, the poor in spirit, having simplified earthly ties, are ready to meet death with peaceful detachment. Don Dolindo thus presents poverty of spirit as a path of liberation leading into God’s kingdom.

Pope Francis on the Blessings of Spiritual Poverty

In a 2020 general audience, Pope Francis offers his own insights on Matthew 5:3. He notes that dependence on God liberates us from the exhausting quest for self-sufficiency. Francis observes, “How trying life is if one does not accept one’s limitations!” We must acknowledge our creaturely poverty before God. Yet pride pushes us to hide this poverty, preventing us from seeking or accepting help.

Pope Francis highlights three simple phrases that exemplify poverty of spirit in action: “May I?”, “Thank you”, and “I’m sorry.” By humbly seeking permission, expressing gratitude, and apologizing for errors, we shed self-sufficiency. This poverty of spirit strengthens relationships and community. It also opens us to God’s grace and forgiveness. Francis reminds us, “We do not have to transform ourselves to become poor in spirit. We do not have to undergo any transformation because we already are! We are poor … We are all poor in spirit, we are beggars. It is the human condition.

Unlike worldly kingdoms that fade, Francis says the kingdom given by God to the poor in spirit will endure. Divine power is shown not through domination but service, seen supremely in Jesus laying down his life out of love. This humility and self-giving reflect true freedom. Seeking freedom of heart, Francis urges, involves embracing our spiritual poverty.

Through this lens, material poverty can be viewed as an opportunity to grow in detachment versus increasing earthly goods. While necessities of life are good, accumulating possessions often breeds anxiety. Radical reliance on God frees us interiorly to approach life with simplicity and generosity. 

Biblical Wisdom on Riches and Poverty of Spirit

Throughout Scripture, we find penetrating insights on worldly wealth versus heavenly riches. The Old Testament warns against pursuing riches as they can lead to greed (Proverbs 15:27), self-trust (Proverbs 11:28), and unsatisfied desires (Ecclesiastes 5:10). We cannot take earthly treasure with us after death (Psalm 49:17). The pursuit of money can divert us from godly virtues (Proverbs 28:20).

The New Testament echoes these themes. We cannot serve both God and money (Matthew 6:24). Those desiring wealth fall into temptation and harmful desires that plunge people to ruin (1 Timothy 6:9-10). Jesus counsels the rich young man to sell his possessions and give to the poor, promising heavenly reward (Mark 10:21). He warns against accumulating earthly treasures, saying “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21).

In contrast, Jesus blesses those poor in spirit who find their security in God versus riches. The apostles exhort us to set our minds on heavenly realities rather than earthly things (Colossians 3:2). True contentment lies in godliness, not possessions (1 Timothy 6:6-8). This poverty of spirit manifests in a willingness to depend on God amid loss of goods (Hebrews 13:5-6) and in generously sharing resources with those in need (2 Corinthians 8:13-15). 

The Liberating Way of Spiritual Poverty

Poverty of spirit does not preclude possessing things, but rather using them for God’s purposes. As St. Paul said, “As poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.” (2 Corinthians 6:10) One can have possessions yet remain unattached, worshipping not wealth but the Giver.

Both Don Dolindo and Pope Francis compellingly unpack Jesus’ words for our age. They call us to acknowledge the poverty in our spirits before God. This admission of our limitation clears space for the workings of His grace. We are beckoned to let go of props of self-importance and turn with humility and gratitude to our Creator. As we open ourselves to God in poverty of spirit, we will be increasingly enriched with the greatest treasure of all – union with Him who is the source of lasting joy.

O Mary, beloved Mother, you who embraced poverty of spirit so fully, teach us to walk your same blessed way. You uttered your fiat though just a humble maid. You trusted though the road ahead was unknown. Teach us childlike abandonment as you modeled, poor in spirit, resting in God alone. In the stable you cradled your infant King, though no place to lay His head. You fled to Egypt, a refugee, leaving behind home and livelihood. Guide us to freely accept loss, upheaval, instability, keeping hearts fixed on heaven. At the foot of the cross, grief pierced you deeply as you lost your Son. Help us cling to God in suffering, poverty of spirit sustaining us through darkest nights. Dearest Mother, by your example teach us genuine detachment, simplicity, and reliance on God. “Blessed are the poor in spirit” (Matthew 5:3), your Son proclaimed. Fill our lack as we beg for grace. Lead us to walk His kingdom’s way, that we too may know the joy of spiritual poverty each day. Amen.


Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

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Elie G. Dib has directed his interests towards studying the writings and life journey of the Servant of God, Don Dolindo Ruotolo. Known for his monumental 33-volume commentary, Don Dolindo left an indelible mark on religious literary work. Elie is ardently invested in translating this extensive commentary from Italian to English, with a vision to break the language barrier and make this profound work accessible to a wider audience. Through his translation efforts, Elie aspires to disseminate the teachings of Don Dolindo and inspire others with his deep insights into the scripture. His Substack can be found at: eliegdib.substack.com/

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