April 2, 2009
Bernard Madoff's practical life may be over, but his lethal legacy lives on.
Among the many religious and philanthropic groups that entrusted their fortunes to the once-blessed Bernie was the Baltimore Province of the Redemptorist order of Catholic priests and brothers. The province has not disclosed the extent of their losses, only that they were "significant." Fortunately, they did not go the route of many who were seduced by Madoff's charms and seemingly fail-safe performance; like all wise investors, they diversified their portfolio. Unfortunately, even diversified portfolios have turned sour of late, and there is much less money available for the Redemptorists' works these days.
The Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer was founded in 1732 by Alphonsus Liguori, a child prodigy from Naples, Italy, who passed the bar at age 16 and gained a reputation as a lawyer who never lost a case. In 1723, when he was 27, he finally did lose one, and that single defeat shattered his life. He gave up the practice of law, turned to penitence, prayer, and service to the poor and sick, and three years later became a priest. Trained in a profession dependent on the adroit use of words, he applied this skill to preaching, and gathered a band of men to serve as domestic missionaries, visiting local churches and re-converting lax Catholics through simple, inspiring sermons — still a major work of the Redemptorists of today.
Later in life, he turned to writing. His most influential work was his Moral Theology, whose major contribution to ethical theory was a defense of the role of the informed individual conscience over rigorist legalism in decision-making.
One wonders how this lawyer-saint would have responded to the Madoff case.
Besides their charismatic preaching, the Redemptorists continue the work of their founder through service to the poor and disenfranchised in inner-city parishes and schools and aid to the suffering worldwide; funding for their projects in the Baltimore Province will have to be scaled back or eliminated because of the losses in their endowment. "However," wrote Rev. Patrick Woods, the Provincial Superior, in an open letter to friends and supporters of the order, "we trust in God, and we will continue the mission of our Province."
The situation the Redemptorists are presently facing as an institution is something like the one St. Alphonsus Liguori faced as an individual: A heartbreaking reversal of fortunes forced a profound change of life, a shift in consciousness from self- reliance to self-surrender: "We trust in God."
It is this complete self-gift that characterized Liguori's life. A biography in the Harpercollins Encyclopedia of Catholicism recounts that as bishop of a rural diocese near Naples during a devastating famine in 1763, "he literally emptied the bishop's residence to feed whoever came. In his diocese alone there was no starvation." His latter-day followers surely have a similar commitment: Regardless of financial reversals, "we will continue the mission of our Province."
In the midst of all the good works money can accomplish, there always lurks the subtle danger of creeping dependence. In a life-change even more radical than Liguori's, St. Francis of Assisi renounced his family fortune, stripped himself naked in the town square, and vowed to live as Christ did, like the birds of the air and lilies of the field. The order that he founded began as a powerful witness against the high-living clerics and richly-endowed monasteries of late-Medieval Europe; embracing "Lady Poverty," they lived in utter simplicity, providing for their common needs by begging and working as day-laborers. Eventually, however, many Franciscan communities could not resist benefactors, with their generous gifts of land and money, entangling themselves in the very things Francis so unequivocally rejected.
It's human nature, the tendency to turn instrument into object, to turn means into ends.
Thus the curse of Madoff may be a blessing in disguise for the Baltimore Redemptorists. In pledging to continue their mission, trusting in divine providence and their own resourcefulness, walking the tightrope without the former net, they come once again to believe in miracles, to expect the impossible: "God will make a way where there is no way."