Michele Ferrero: What Does It Mean to Be Rich?

For some, the answer to the question “what does it mean to be rich?” is revealed every year in the Forbes magazine list of the World’s Billionaires.  This list ranks the richest people on the planet, and in 2014, their collective wealth exceeded $6.4 trillion USD.  Of those on the list in 2014, roughly 66% built their own fortunes, and 21% added to their existing wealth.  The remaining 13% people on the list inherited their wealth.  For the man in the number 22 spot on the Forbes 2014 Billionaires List, the answer might have been a bit different.  That man is Michele Ferrero, Italy’s richest man.

On Valentine’s Day 2015, the world said good-bye to the 89 year old father of Italian chocolate, Michele Ferrero.  He leaves behind a family business that is responsible for bringing the world Nutella, Mon Cheri, Tic Tacs and Ferrero Rocher, among other iconic confectionery brands.  With an estimated net worth of approximately $26.5 billion USD, we would arguably call Michele Ferrero rich.  He would likely agree.  But what must be said about Michele Ferrero is that his faith teaches that wealth means so much more.

Faith is the Secret of Ferrero’s Success

Really, it was no secret.  Michele Ferrero was a man of faith.  His was a Catholic faith, and it was very much a part of both his personal and professional life.  In 1996, at the 50th Anniversary of the founding of Ferrero, Michele Ferrero was quoted as saying: “The success of Ferrero we owe to Our Lady of Lourdes, without her we can do little.”

Without knowing this famously private man, we can see his faith through his actions.  Michele was raised in a devout Roman Catholic family and educated as a young man by the Somaschi Fathers.  Shortly after World War II, the Ferrero family founded their chocolate business with an eye toward equity and sustainability well before these business notions were in vogue.

When Michele took over the family business upon the death of his uncle Giovanni 58 years ago, it is reported that he wrote a letter to his employees stating “I pledge myself to devote all my activities and all my effort to this company.  And I assure you that I shall only feel satisfied when I have managed, with concrete results, to guarantee you and your children a safe and tranquil future.”

Michele was a leader.  This commitment lead to free healthcare and other welfare services—resulting in productive dedicated workers.  Michele’s commitment to his workers is legendary, and he was quoted as once saying: “My only concern is that the company is increasing solid and strong to guarantee all workers a secure place.”  Today, Ferrero’s over 34,000 employees produce iconic brands that are sold in over 53 countries around the world.

Our Lady of Lourdes and Chocolate

Ask any chocolate-lover about what happens in the brain when consuming this sweet treat.  A scientist will tell you about the over 300 compounds that are a part of the process of producing the euphoric feeling.  This feeling is often compared to the feeling of being in love.  World-famous chocolate maker Michele Ferrero might also have told you about the feelings evoked in eating chocolate, and he just might have also pointed you to Rocher de Massabielle – Ferrero’s pralines that are rumored to be inspired by the rugged rock grotto at the Shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes.  In doing so, Michele might—in his own way—have been saying something more.

It was in his Encyclical Letter, Le pelerinage de Lourdes, that Pope Pius XII in 1957 (the year Michele took over the leadership at Ferrero) providentially warned against materialism:

“But the world, which today affords so many justifiable reasons for pride and hope, is also undergoing a terrible temptation to materialism which has been denounced by Our Predecessors and Ourselves on many occasions.  This materialism is not confined to that condemned philosophy which dictates the policies and economy of a large segment of mankind. It rages also in a love of money which creates ever greater havoc as modern enterprises expand, and which, unfortunately, determines many of the decisions which weigh heavy on the life of the people. It finds expression in the cult of the body, in excessive desire for comforts, and in flight from all the austerities of life. It encourages scorn for human life, even for life which is destroyed before seeing the light of day.”

It was here at Lourdes that Our Lady shared with St. Bernadette her title as “the Immaculate Conception.”  And it was under her banner that man is called to fight against inordinate lust for freedom, riches and pleasures.  Pope Pius XII, reminds us that we are all “welcomed and honored at Lourdes as the suffering members of our Lord. Go to her and receive peace of heart, strength for your daily duties, [and] joy for the sacrifice you offer.”  No wonder Michele Ferrero made certain that each of his factories had its own statue of the Virgin and that he and many of his employees made annual pilgrimages to Lourdes.

Michele Ferrero was rich in many ways.

Wealth and Faith are Connected

One of the most famous discourses on wealth is given to us in Matthew 19:16-21.  This is the story where Jesus instructs the young man, who has inquired about how to obtain eternal life, to keep the commandments.  When the young man presses further by insisting that he observes the commandments, Jesus explains that if he wishes to be perfect, he must “go, sell what you have and give to [the] poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.  Then come, follow me.”  The Gospel goes on the say that the young man was saddened by this response because he had many possessions.  Then addressing his disciples, Jesus said: “Amen, I say to you, it will be hard for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven.  Again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

It is clear from the words of Jesus that the issues of faith and wealth belong together.  The notions of faith and wealth are elevated to theological issues by their very nexus to the plan and promise of salvation.  Justo Gonzalez, in Faith and Wealth, opines that not one of the Fathers of the Church as held that the issue of faith and wealth should be held separate.  In his analysis of the issue, Gonzalez notes the remarkable unanimity among the Fathers as evidence by the similar themes that they draw from Scripture and the similar emphasis they find from the classical wisdom of Greece and Rome.

A Spiritual Understanding of Wealth

Wealth is often best understood by defining its opposite: poverty.  Simply stated, poverty is the state in which you have no more than you need.  And if one is poor in the fully Christian sense, you wish for no more than you need.  Using this definition, we understand both the physical (what one has) and the spiritual (what one desires) dimensions of the wealth/poverty dichotomy.  Through deduction, then you can assert that wealth is having more than you need and still being unsatisfied.

St. Clement of Alexandria, in Who is the Rich Man that Shall be Saved, was one of the earliest Church Fathers to expressly address an allegorical interpretation of the notions of wealth and poverty.  However, this dual (physical and spiritual) understanding of the definition of wealth and poverty has long been a part of Tradition.  Walter Shewring in Rich and Poor in Christian Tradition reminds us that in the Psalms, “it may be said that the word ‘poor’ is extended beyond its common significance to mean anyone, of whatever status, who is in distress of any kind, material or spiritual; that David himself, for instance, calls himself ‘poor and needy’ in spite of much outward prosperity.”

In The Instructor, St. Clement of Alexandria defines “true wealth” as something that resides in the heart.  A rich person, piling up gold for no purpose save his own pleasure is “like a dirty purse.”  He reminds us that only good people possess good things.  These things are the source of genuine wealth and can never be taken away.  He notes that:  “If a man abstains form desiring thing that are beyond his reach but possesses by asking from God the things he desire in a holy way, is not that man abundantly wealthy, and indeed possesses of all things, since he has God as his everlasting treasure?”

From Wealth Comes Responsibility

St. Gregory of Nazianzen explains in On the Love of the Poor one of the most direct and hopeful lessons for the wealthy when he says in that treatise: “Give thanks to God that you are among those who can do favors and not among those who need to receive them; that you need not look up to the hands of others but others to yours.  Do not be rich only in your wealth but also in your piety; not only in your gold but also in your virtue, or better still, only in the latter.”

Origen, in his Commentary on the Gospel of St. Matthew, explains various ways that Christians can obtain God’s forgiveness of transgressions.  The third way, or path, calls for the giving of alms as a method of cleansing one’s soul and the sixth path requires the abundance of charity—citing the Beatitude: “Blessed are the merciful for they shall obtain mercy.”

Perhaps nowhere else in Christian theology is mercy more evident than in the notion of koinonia (communion)—the sharing in the self-sacrificing, cross-bearing life of Jesus.  Ronald Sider in Rich Christians in the Age of Hunger argues that “nowhere else is the Christian’s fellowship with Christ experience more powerfully than in the Eucharist.  Sharing the Lord’s Supper draws the believer into a participation (koinonia) of the cross.”  Gonzalez argues that koinonia is not solely a spiritual sharing.  Arguably, it is precisely the self-sacrificing of the wealthy that works in conjunction with the cross-bearing of the poor to bring a fallen humanity closer to oneness in Christ.  Here is the nexus between wealth and salvation.

What Can the Church and Michele Ferrero Teach us About Being Rich?

Christianity requires social solidarity.  No matter how challenging, even the poor must think of their neighbors—and the wealthy carry a heavier burden.  In his Homily on Lazarus and the Rich Man, St. John Chrysostom warns that anything less is not real Christianity: “he who lives for himself only and overlooks all others, is useless.  He is not even a man and he does not belong to the human race.”

Using this standard, Michele Ferrero was a man larger than life.  He was a man who lived his faith and who lived for others.  Giving people the opportunity for work provided for a richness measured in currency, spirituality and chocolate—arguably a richness that far exceeds what can be measured on the Forbes list.