Charity and Mission

From Vincentian Encyclopedia

PASTORAL DEMANDS AND CRITERIA THAT CHARITY AND MISSION PRESENT TO US TODAY

by: Celestino Fernández, CM

(This article was first published in Anales Volume 118, No. #3 - May-June 2010)


I admit that as I begin to develop this theme on Charity and Mission, I experience many distinct feelings. On the one hand, it appears to be a very simple, clear theme that can be understood by anyone who has even minimum contact with the gospel and the Vincentian charism.

We stand before two key words that involve our very being and our Christian and Vincentian activity. It is enough to recall the fact that charity or love has been the subject of much study and also defines the very reality of God: God is love (1 John 4:8). Love sums up God’s plan for humanity: I give you a new commandment: love one another (John 13:34) and our destiny is determined by our loving commitment and service: I was hungry and you gave me food (Matthew 25:31-46). We should also remember that mission is the activity of Jesus of Nazareth that justifies the very reality of the Church and defines our Christian and Vincentian vocation.

If we are looking for further explanations we have only to reflect on our own experience, on the implications, manifestations and commitments that charity and mission involve. If we want to go further, we can spend time examining the works and activities, the concerns and witness of the distinct branches of the Vincentian Family … we can reflect on the many ways in which the Vincentian Family, in different places and historical periods, has loved and served those persons who were poor and living on the margins of society.

At the same time we must recognize that this theme is also complicated. The concretization of charity lends itself to a thousand different avenues of ministry, sometimes complimentary and other times contradictory. This occurs because consciously or unconsciously we are children of history who have lived charity and mission in very distinct and different ways. We must also be mindful of the fact that we live in a social-cultural situation that is extremely ideological, a situation in which charity and mission can fall into the same trap as any other political, social or economic ideology. If we add to this the fact that this theme, which because it is essential, can also be viewed from a global and generic perspective, then its complexity and abstraction becomes all the more obvious.

In concluding this unburdening of conscience I would add that I am going to limit myself to the Vincentian context. I do this because I am more comfortable and move with greater ease in this environment. I also do this because we are participating in a Congress that is specifically Vincentian. Yesterday this theme was explored from other perspectives and this has freed me from the temptation to attempt to share a series of lessons or a list of things that we have to do. Indeed, pastoral demands and criteria give the impression that I will present a series of principles or lines of action that are more or less infallible … yet I want my reflections to be an aid and an invitation to read and reflect on the heritage of our Founders.

SATRTING POINT: THE STRUCTURE OF DIAKONIA OF THE VINCENTIAN CHARISM

We have to begin with something that at first sight can seem to be useless or proper to those endless discussions about words and terminology that scholastic philosophy became involved in. But this is important. We tend to treat charity and mission as two central yet distinct realities. In any theology book as well as in much of the Vincentian literature a chapter is dedicated to a discussion of charity and another chapter to the discussion of mission. If you will, it is like that era when it was believed that Vincent de Paul established two Congregations: one for the mission (to evangelize through preaching) and the other for charity (direct service).

Nevertheless, the Founders were very clear that charity and mission are two absolutely inseparable realities even though they are indissoluble. Charity not only nourishes and motivates the mission and the mission not only expresses and concretizes charity but both of these realities become so united that they constitute the same reality.

Thus we can interpret the Vincentian charism as a guiding principle that explains what we have been saying. Here I refer to a structure --- even though some experts in the area of spirituality state that a charism cannot be structured --- a structure that could be called a structure of diakonia. With this expression I am referring to charity, to the service of charity, to the mission of charity, to diakonia in its etymological meaning of loving service. In service dwells the perfect union of charity, communion, service, mission, total giving of self.

All the actions, thoughts, intuitions and attitudes of Vincent de Paul and Louise de Marillac were motivated by and focused on charity as mission and mission as charity. Their lifestyle and their continual recommendations to their sons and daughters were exhortations to live in this state of charity. Furthermore the Christian perfection which their followers should aspire to is the perfection of charity. What distinguishes their sons and daughters from other religious men and women is precisely the fact that they live together in this state of charity and their ministry is rooted in the perfection of charity.

In his famous conference of May 30, 1659 to the priests of the Mission, a conference that dealt with charity, Vincent concluded with this supplication which is a summary of that long conference: Be, Lord, Your own thanks for calling us to this state of life and of continually loving our neighbor, yes, called to this love by state of life and by profession, actually practicing it or disposed to do so, even to the point of leaving every other occupation in order to be engaged in works of charity. Religious are said to be in a state of perfection; we’re not religious, but we can say that we’re in a state of charity because we’re constantly engaged in the actual practice of love or are disposed to be so (CCD:XII:224). We also have another example in the letter that Vincent wrote to a priest of the Mission, a letter in which he earnestly encouraged the confrere: If our perfection lies in charity, as is certain, there is none greater than to give oneself to save souls and to sacrifice oneself for them as Jesus Christ did (CCD:VII:356).

Or we could look at his words when he recommended that affective love be united to effective love as two realities that ought to form one single reality like the inseparable union between charity and mission (CCD:XI:196, 198-200). Or we could look at his words when he warned that affective love when not accompanied by a missionary commitment (charity without mission) is, at the very least, suspicious: Let us love God, brothers and sisters, let us love God, but let it be with the strength of our arms and the sweat of our brows; for very often many acts of love of God, of devotion, and of other similar affections and interior practices of a tender heart, although very good and desirable, are, nevertheless, very suspect if they don’t translate into the practice of effective love ... We have to be very careful about that, for there are many who, recollected exteriorly, and filled with lofty sentiments of God interiorly, stop at that, and when it comes to the point of doing something, and they have the opportunity to act, they come up short. They flatter themselves with their ardent imagination; they’re satisfied with the sweet conversation they have with God in meditation and even speak of them like angels; but when they leave there, if there’s a question of working for God, of going in search of the lost sheep, of being happy when they lack something, or accepting sickness or some other misfortune, alas! they’re no longer around; their courage fails them. No, no, let’s not fool ourselves: Totum opus nostrum in operatione consistit (CCD:XI:32-33).

Therefore we can say that the Vincentian charism possesses an inextinguishable, flaming fire: the fire of love that binds us, urges us and makes us passionate with regard to the mission. Vincent stated this very clearly when he said: It is certain that, when charity dwells in a soul, it takes full possession of all its powers; it gives it no rest; it’s a fire that’s constantly active; once a person is inflamed by it, it holds him spellbound (CCD:XI:203).

Unless we enter into this structure of diakonia which the Vincentian charism possesses, into this inseparable union of charity and mission, we will never understand the profound meaning of our being and our activity. Without the perspective we have just mentioned we run the risk of falling into some form of spiritualism that would not be helpful for any Christian or for any Vincentian.

THREE FUNDAMENTAL REALITIES IN ORDER TO UNDERSTAND VINCENTIAN CHARITY AND MISSION

The structure of diakonia that is given to the Vincentian charism cannot be fully understood unless we join it to the three fundamental realities that nourished, solidified and gave life to the faith and the experience of our Founders. As someone has said, God, Jesus Christ and the poor are three basic realities that are joined together and clarify that which is most profound about the Vincentian charism. To disassociate and separate these realities is to deny the fact that charity and mission are like the motor of the Vincentian charism. Furthermore, we are not speaking about charity and mission as some form of altruism or another form of humanism proper to an NGO or teams specialized in different social activities. Let us briefly examine these three realities.

a) God-Love

It is already known that charity has God as its origin and source. We could point out numerous texts from the New Testament that clarify said affirmation: In this is love: not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as expiation for our sins (1 John 4:10); we love because he first loved us (1 John 4:19); the love of God has been poured out into our hearts through the holy Spirit that has been given to us (Romans 5:5); God is love, and whoever remains in love remains in God and God in him (1 John 4:16). We could also note here any number of texts from Vincent that would affirm the same reality, for example, the beautiful words that he addressed to the Daughters of Charity: Where there’s charity, God abides. An important person has said that God’s cloister is charity. He enjoys being there, His place of delight is there, it’s the dwelling place in which He is well pleased. Be charitable, be kind, have the spirit of forbearance, and God will live in your midst. You will be His cloisters, you’ll have Him in your home, and you’ll have him in your hearts (CCD:IX:231). As a theologian has stated: Love is not simply one more activity of God but rather all of God’s activity is an activity of love. If God creates, then God creates through love; when God governs, this activity is done in love and when God judges, again God judges in love … there is no greater God than the God who loves and there are no more authentic men and women that those who live their lives in this love and who remain in this love as the source of their strength, life and meaning[1].

In the context of the Vincentian charism, to affirm God as love is the same as saying that charity is a reality of faith or a theological truth and therefore a command that involves a commitment. God is the first one who opted for the poor and the poor are rooted in God. Therefore the cuase of the poor is the cause of God and the question of the poor is the question of God. God identifies himself with the poor and with their cause and as a result of this identification we can say that the poor are the theological dwelling place and the sacred dwelling place of God … the place where God is present in what some may say is a scandalous presence[2].

Within this context we have to situate and interpret the faith and the experience of Vincent de Paul who affirmed: God is the protector of the poor (CCD:X:411). With this same perspective we are again able to situate and understand the founder of the Congregation of the Mission, the Company of the Daughters of Charity and the Ladies of Charity when he transmitted the Vincentian charism to them. As members of the Vincentian Family we only have to read the beautiful text of the June 9th, 1658 conference that Vincent gave to the first Daughters of Charity. Using the language of that era Vincent presented a theological treatise on God as the defender of the poor and on the manner in which any activity on behalf of those persons who are poor ought to proclaim the fact that God is love: Do you know, Sisters, that I’ve heard that those poor men are so grateful for the grace God is giving them that, when they see how we come to help them and consider that those Sisters have no other interest in doing this than the love of God, they say that it’s quite clear to them that God is the protector of the poor. See what a blessing it is to help poor people recognize the Goodness of God! For they see plainly that He’s the one who’s having this service rendered to them. Thus, they experience deep feelings of piety and say, “O my God, now we acknowledge that what we formerly heard preached is true, that You are mindful of all those who need help and never abandon us when we’re in danger, since You take care of poor wretches who have so greatly offended Your Goodness.” I’ve heard from the very persons who were nursed by our Sisters and from many others that they were edified at seeing the trouble those Sisters took to go to visit them, that they recognized the Goodness of God in it and saw that they were obliged to praise and thank God (CCD:X:411).

It is only from this perspective of God-love that we understand the often misinterpreted phrase of H. Bremond: It was not the poor who led Vincent de Paul to God but rather it was God who led Vincent de Paul to the poor[3].

b) Jesus Christ humbled by love

At the center of Vincent’s faith and experience is the figure of Christ-love who is characterized by a spirit of perfect charity and is revealed as one humbled by love for humankind. A servant Messiah who took the form of a slave, coming in human likeness … becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross (Philippians 2:6-8) … a messiah who comes in order to identify himself fully with the human reality ... a messiah who appears as a diakonos, as a servant ... a messiah who refuses to identify himself and his followers with any title of power or authority and substitutes all such titles with the simple expression of service.

Perhaps there would be nothing more to say on this matter if we were to reflect on the meaning of Vincent’s words in his famous conference on charity. His words are, without a doubt, the best and most elevated summary of the meaning of Christ-love as related to Vincentian charity and the consequences that are involved in following Christ-love-humbled: Let’s look at the Son of God; what a heart of charity He had; what a fire of love! Please tell us, Jesus, who pulled You away from heaven to come to endure the curse of earth and the many persecutions and torments You suffered? O Savior! Source of love humbled even to our level and to a vile agony, who showed, in that, greater love for the neighbor than You yourself did? You came to lay yourself open to all our misfortunes, to take the form of a sinner, to lead a life of suffering and to undergo a shameful death for us; is there any love like that? But who else could love in such an outstanding way? Only Our Lord, who was so enamored with the love of creatures as to leave the throne of His Father to come to take a body subject to weakness. And why? To establish among us, by His word and example, love of the neighbor. This is the love that crucified Him and brought about that admirable work of our redemption. O Messieurs, if we had only a little of that love, would we stand around with arms folded? Would we let those we could assist perish? Oh no! Charity can’t remain idle; it impels us to work for the salvation and consolation of others (CCD:XII:216).

In the world of Vincentian charity this humbled Christ, this servant and liberator Messiah has a special bond with the poor of the world. Because the life and mission of Jesus were so intimately related to the world of the poor and were so essentially identified with his person, therefore without this point of reference or relationship the very person of Jesus as savior of all people would be distorted[4]. As a result, authentic Vincentian charity and mission would also be distorted.

In order to discover the criteria that guided Vincent and Louise in their exercise of charity and that ought to guide their followers, it is necessary to enter into the message and the mission of Jesus and to affirm Jesus and his option for the poor as the absolute reference point. In the words of Vincent de Paul charity means that we live in an authentic manner the vocation of Jesus Christ: Aren’t we very blessed, my dear confreres, to live authentically the vocation of Jesus Christ? … You see, brothers, that the essential aim of Our Lord was to work for poor persons. When he went to others, it was only in passing (CCD:XI:122).

We are able to place the Daughters of Charity in this same context of continuing the mission of Jesus. Vincent de Paul established a fundamental principle with regard to the identity of the Daughters: To be true Daughters of Charity you must do what the Son of God did when He was on earth (CCD:IX:14). And immediately he clarified his words: And what did He do in this world but serve persons who were poor? (CCD:IX:256).

c) Passion for the poor

Obviously, Vincentian charity and mission cannot exist without an explicit reference to the poor, the primary beneficiaries of this charity and mission. To speak of the poor in the language that Vincentians understand, we immediately and instinctively think of the words charity and mission and to speak about charity and mission the poor appear in a primary position for indeed the poor are at the very center of the Vincentian charism.

Therefore it can be said that in Vincentian circles the poor are primary and as Vincentians we are passionate about the poor. Vincentian charity and mission have to lead us to an option that is not only preferential but also one that is absolute and exclusive. We must opt to love the poor and to serve them and to evangelize them (not in some ideal, romantic way) with warmth and kindness and intelligence, aware of the fact that Jesus identified himself with the poor and therefore we must be willing to identify ourselves with the poor and willing to pay the necessary price that results from this identification. Ultimately we must be willing to unite ourselves to the divine activity from the perspective of two complimentary categories of Christian love: healing and preventative … all of which should flow from an attitude of gratitude. So that this passion for the poor does not become some vague theory or idea, the Founders placed before us two key concepts: the poor as the sacrament of Christ and the poor as our lords and masters.

REVITALIZE CHARITY AND MISSION TODAY

It has been said, with reason, that every institution runs the risk of resting comfortably in the shadows of its past history. The Vincentian Family faces the same danger and temptation of resigning itself to the actions of our predecessors, beginning with our Founders, and therefore not taking the steps that are necessary today. To avoid this temptation it is good to situate ourselves in the here and now and therefore motivated by the history of our Family, we can reflect on the urgent tasks that Vincentian mission and charity have to respond to at the present time and the criteria that we can bring to the multiple challenges that the world presents. This is the best way of injecting new wisdom into our charism. In other words, this is a time of revitalization.

Without exhausting this theme I will briefly indicate some of the demands and criteria as paths to revitalize charity and mission. I place together both the demands and the criteria because every urgent task implies certain criteria and in turn these criteria are supported by attitudes and convictions. Even though I have said that charity and mission form an indissoluble body, I am going to try to separate this chapter into sections and do this for pedagogical reasons and also for greater clarity.

1] Demands and criteria for charity

a) Recovery of the word “charity”

It must be remembered that at the present time people are not well-disposed to understand charity in its proper sense. A cultural, social and even ecclesial environment has been created in which the word charity is seen as outdated and therefore something that is proper to people who are good and pious, but nothing more. It is interesting that in gatherings, meetings, congresses … there is a tendency to suppress the word charity and substitute it with the word solidarity, civilization of love, commitment. The impression is given that any other word is valid except the word charity. Using an expression that is in vogue, it could be said that in many circles the word charity is not politically correct. Pope Benedict XVI spoke about this in his encyclical Caritas in veritate: I am aware of the ways in which charity has been and continues to be misconstrued and emptied of meaning, with the consequent risk of being misinterpreted, detached from ethical living and, in any event, undervalued (Benedict XVI, Caritas in veritate, #2).

Naturally any member of the Vincentian Family can respond and state that, from the perspective of the charism of our Founder and especially from the perspective of the daily practice of so many sons and daughters of Saint Vincent, this distorted meaning of charity has no relationship to the true significance and understanding of Christian and Vincentian charity. It is also necessary, however, to remember that we are part of that long history of Christianity in which charity has not always shone forth with evangelical clarity … and therefore as Vincentians we are part of this negative history.

b) End the dilemma between “charity and justice”

In the present situation, the conflict between charity and justice continues, a conflict in which justice is favored over charity. Certainly charity cannot cover over injustice or become an expression of paternalism. In fact it should be obvious that without justice there can there be no expression of true charity. People cannot say that they support the poor, that they love them and serve them, unless they also engage in the struggle against poverty, against the causes that create poverty, and against the injustices that are perpetrated by poverty. Pope John Paul II stated this very clearly when he said: Love for others, and in the first place love for the poor, in whom the Church sees Christ himself, is made concrete in the promotion of justice (John Paul II, Centesimus annus, #58).

But justice alone is not enough. The Romans were aware of this danger when they said that the strictest justice can become the most flagrant injustice. Even when people have a certain social security that enables them to satisfy all their needs, they will still have the need to be cared for in a loving way[5].

Therefore there is a need to integrate justice with charity … charity with justice. Pope Benedict XVI highlighted this fact in the encyclical that we have cited above: If we love others with charity, then first of all we are just towards them. Not only is justice not extraneous to charity, not only is it not an alternative or parallel path to charity: justice is inseparable from charity, and intrinsic to it. Justice is the primary way of charity (Benedict XVI, Caritas in veritate, #6)

Vincent de Paul told us: God will grant you the grace, Monsieur, of softening our hearts toward the wretched creatures and of realizing that in helping them we are doing an act of justice and not of mercy! (CCD:VII:115).

c) A “different” sensitivity with regard to the poor

It is very Vincentian to establish friendly and practical relationships with those who are poor. Another way of saying this is that we should have a Vincentian vision of the poor that confronts in a direct way the normal vision that society has held with regard to the poor, a vision that on many occasion has also formed our attitudes and become part of our ideologies.

The paradigm of this different sensitivity is found in the radical posture of Vincent de Paul as he defended the dignity and the freedom of the poor against the false charity of those responsible for the society of France during the seventeenth century. The royal decree of April 27, 1656 reflected the social and intellectual structure of France with regard to the poor and the marginalized: these individuals should be locked up in order to clean the city and preserve decent citizens from being harmed by said individuals, thus the collective good will be respected. Those who supported the locking up of the poor stated: locking up the poor does not mean we are taking away their freedom, but rather we are separating them from a dissolute lifestyle, from atheism, and from the possibility of being condemned. Vincent de Paul was forceful in opposing this political position and cried out in defense of the dignity and the freedom of the poor and encouraged society to restore life and dignity to those persons who were in danger of being buried alive.

d) A critical reading in the area of the roots of marginalization

Logically we cannot respond to the needs of those who are poor and marginalized unless we first understand the economic, social, and political mechanisms that produce poverty, misery, marginalization, and exclusion, unless we engage in a critical analysis of marginalization and its causes: the structures of sin or the perverse mechanisms which Pope John Paul II refers to in his encyclical Sollicitudo rei socialis[6].

During the audience of June 30, 1986, John Paul II spoke to the delegates of the XXXVII General Assembly of the Congregation of the Mission: Dear Fathers and Brothers of the Mission, more than ever and with audacity, humility and competence, investigate the causes of poverty. Stimulate both their long and short term solutions, solutions which are concrete, variable and efficacious. In doing this, you are cooperating in the credibility of the Gospel and of the Church. But, without looking ahead, live close to the poor and act in such a way that they might never be deprived of the Good News of Jesus Christ.

e) Communion with the poor

What is important above all else is communion with those whom we are called to love and serve, communion with those with whom we struggle. In this way we avoid the danger of a hollow professionalism or being absorbed in a daily routine.

Communion implies a true understanding of the problems and the needs of those persons who are poor, an authentic encounter with them, a profound acceptance of them, an affective and clear relationship with them, a real participation in their hardships, and a respect for their rights. Communion also means that we listen and dialogue with the poor in order to discover their values and in order to help them become aware of their potential, that we allow their voices to question us, that we become the voice of the voiceless in order to defend the rights of the most vulnerable and to make others aware of their legitimate aspirations. Communion is to give personal attention to men and women who are poor.

f) A new “imaging of charity”

This is an expression that John Paul II referred to in paragraph #50 of his apostolic letter, Novo Millennio Ineunte. The Pope was saying that we must attempt to continue a tradition of charity which has had many different manifestations during the past two thousand years and which today demands greater creativity. In other words, this imaging of charity requires a courageous search for new methods, new forms and new expressions of service. All of this follows from the fact that today serving the poor demands a change of intellectual framework that will allows us to set aside all forms of crippling immobility in which we simply repeat what was done yesterday.

Therefore systemic change is a challenge and a demand if we hope to engage in a present day reading of Saint Vincent de Paul and Saint Louise de Marillac[7].

g) Coordinated organization and preparation

No one can deny that from the very beginning coordinated organization was at the very heart of Vincentian charity. The famous words of Vincent de Paul in Châtillon-les-Dombes, there is great charity here, but this charity is badly organized, became the spark that led to the establishment of what today is the International Association of Charity.

Together with organization is the need for adequate preparation, that is, on-going formation. One has only to look at the Rules for the first Confraternities and there one will find a concern to provide quality service even in the smallest details.

Without this organization and this preparation we run the risk of spreading ourselves too thin, of becoming “burned out” and of incompetence. This is all the more dangerous since our activity is being done on behalf of people who are vulnerable and fragile, people who need constant support in order to overcome their difficulties and provide for themselves. When our activity is not organized, it becomes very difficult to understand, to study and to analyze the causes that create situations of misery and marginalization[8].

2] Demands and criteria for the mission

a) To be mindful of and reactivate the specific sphere of the Vincentian mission

On December 6, 1658 in a conference on the purpose of the Congregation of the Mission, Vincent de Paul presented a specific framework for the Vincentian mission: to make God known to poor persons; to announce Jesus Christ to them; to tell them that the kingdom of heaven is at hand and that it’s for persons who are poor (CCD:XII:71). It is interesting that the Missionaries have rarely cited or referred to this phrase of Saint Vincent while the Daughters of Charity have incorporated these words into the text of their previous as well as their present Constitutions[9].

This specific framework should inspire, guide and provide a unity to all our missionary activity. At the same time all our attitudes and dispositions should be shaped by and flow from this same framework.

b) Entering into the reality

The beginning of the missionary commitment is the experience and the implications that spring from the impact of the reality upon us. It is indispensable to enter into the reality of victims, the reality of the survivors of the system. In the gospel parable the good Samaritan approaches his neighbor who has been mistreated and as a result was moved with compassion at the sight (Luke 10:33).

To bear with the weight and the responsibility of those who are marginalized we must approach and take a long look at the reality. Indeed an absolutely necessary step in advancing the Vincentian mission is to open ourselves to the reality, to come to understand the world of inequality, injustice and depravation and to allow ourselves to be questioned by thess realities.

c) Read life from the reverse of history

The father of liberation theology, Gustavo Gutiérrez, states that it is not the same to read the gospel and reality with the eyes of the rich as with the eyes of the poor. When we read the gospel and life from the perspective of the poor we become aware of judgments and sensitivities and activities that are totally different from those that society and the established system consider to be normal.

There is no doubt that the world is seen quite distinctly in the shacks of the poor than in the palaces of the rich, quite distinctly by the illegal immigrants who cross the Straits than by those individuals living on the edges of the Promised Land, quite distinctly by the unemployed and those persons who have all of life resolved. d) Recover an incarnational spirituality

In accord with the Christological reality that was valued by Vincent de Paul and Louise de Marillac, an incarnational spirituality is one that flows up from below: the kenosis of Christ, that is, the lowering or the humbling of self that is in accord with the well-known Pauline hymn that is found in the letter to the Philippians.

We run the risk of thinking that we can engage in a commitment from afar. Therefore there is need to establish a golden rule: we cannot preach a mission without becoming incarnated in the world of the poor, without becoming inculturated into the world of the poor

All of this is very clearly explained by the Episcopal Commission on Social Ministry in their document, La Iglesia y los pobres (The Church and the poor): In order to save us, God drew near to us, he came to live with us and among us; “he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave” (Philippians 2:7). Our charity ought to bring us closer to the poor in every possible way but especially with regard to sharing our life with people who are poor. Living among the poor enables us to analyze situations realistically, enables us to share in their problems and seek solutions; enables us to receive their friendship and to also receive the Lord’s special friendship which is reserved for those who serve people who are poor[10] .

e) Facilitate a “shared mission”

Since the time of the Second Vatican Council we have spent much time speaking about participation, collaboration, and the involvement of the laity in the mission of the Church. We have also spent much time speaking about the mission of the Vincentian Family. Now is the time to take seriously the concept of a shared mission. Forty years ago a great woman, Sister Suzanne Guillemin, wrote the following prophetic words: We have to move from a position of superiority to a position of collaboration[11].

For all the branches of the Vincentian Family a shared mission demands mutual knowledge, non-prejudiced collaboration, sincere openness, a different framework, loyal communion, shared on-going formation, strengthening the Vincentian charism, and a unity that preserves distinctiveness.

f) Presence in the public life

Here I refer especially to the lay members of the Vincentian Family. I also make reference to an important document that was published in April, 1986 by the bishops of Spain, a document entitled: Los católicos en la vida pública (Catholics in public life). Certainly there is much fear and apathy among lay Vincentians as they are exhorted to take their place in the public arena as individuals who foment charity and give witness to the mission.

In the document that I have cited the laity are asked to commit themselves in the public arena and their presence is to be effective and not just one of witness. They should truly profess their faith through a social-political commitment and thus personally accept responsibility for the different areas of society as they participate in an active manner in various associations … they are exhorted to stress a commitment to justice. We highlight the fact that the bishop’s document devotes two paragraphs to the theme of political charity[12]. In this regard the bishops stated: political charity does not primarily act as a substitute for the deficiencies of justice, although occasionally it might be necessary to do so … Rather we are dealing with an active and operative commitment, a commitment that is the fruit of Christian love toward others who are viewed as brothers and sisters, a commitment on behalf of a more just and friendlier world that gives special attention to the needs of those persons who are most poor.

As Vincentians we have to heed the call to exercise political charity, that is, we must remember the two dimensions of charity that have been passed on to us by Vinceent: the struggle to change structures and prophetic denunciation.

In the history of our Vincentian Family we have significant examples of our militant presence in the public arena, a presence that attracts us and questions us. For example, it should be noted that at the end of the XIX century and as a result of the publication of Rerum Novarum by Pope Leo XIII, the first women’s labor union in France was established and led by a Daughter of Mary. At the same time we highlight the fact that Frederic Ozanam --- perhaps the best interpreter of Vincent de Paul --- participated in the establishment of the newspaper L’?re nouvelle and from this public tribunal struggled resolutely to defend the dignity and the rights of those persons who were excluded from society.

g) Give a privileged position to the missionary action of evangelization

In the middle of the 1960’s, with the Council recently concluded, a committed and combative layman, Alfonso Carlos Comín, published a book entitled: Spain: a country of mission? This book disturbed many people (after all, Spain is a Catholic country) and the book was viewed as absurd by many people. But as always happens, time has shown the appropriateness of said publication.

Today we live in a situation of unbelief that has become more acute and more clamorous. A type of stubborn and silent hurricane of indifference is spreading by geometrical progressions over everything that is sacred, transcendent and religious. At the same time there is a crass ignorance with regard to matters that deal with Christianity and this ignorance is becoming more serious with the passing of time.

In the Vincentian heritage we have a mission, a direct inheritance from Vincent de Paul, a mission that is called a popular mission, that is, a mission that is directed toward the people. This mission has always been a constitutive element of our Vincentian vocation. The popular missions have had glorious moments in the unfolding of the Christian era. Today these missions are declining either because society has radically changed or because we have not discovered how to renew, adapt, and reestablish these missions.

Is there not a need to take up anew these popular missions and to do this with boldness, creativity, imagination, patience and enthusiasm? Is there not a need to join together our efforts, our minds, our programs and plans in order to reestablish the popular missions? If the popular mission was considered urgent and necessary during a previous era of Christianity, then today it is most urgent.

Coda

Charity and mission are the same unavoidable demands of the present time. Our world is in need of both of these realities which involve a serious commitment of the whole Church, especially the members of the Vincentian Family. At the center of charity and mission we encounter the poor. Therefore from the perspective of the poor we have to evaluate our commitment. For example, do the poor guide and define our services and ministries? Do the poor inform our attitudes and criteria? Do we have adequate structures to serve the poor? Do we value the love of Christ and do we draw closer to the poor as a result of Christ’s love.

These are basic questions that our Founders would inquire about today. Paraphrasing Bob Dylan in his song, The Answer is Blowing in the Wind, I would dare to say that the answer is within each one of us.

References

[1] Cf., Andrés Torres Queiruga, La caridad, dimensión esencial de la vida cristiana (Charity, an essential dimensión of the Christian life), en 1 Corintios XIII. 33 (1985), p. 10-11.

[2] Cf. Julio Lois, Teología de la Liberación. Opción por los pobres (Liberation Theology: an option for the poor), IEPALA Fundamentos, Madrid, 1986, pp. 149-157; Ignacio Ellacuría Pobres (The Poor), in Floristán, Casiano y Juan José Tamayo (editors), Conceptos fundamentales de Pastoral (Fundamental Pastoral Concepts), Cristiandad, Madrid, 1983, pp. 790-792.

[3] H. Bremond, Historia literaria del sentimiento religioso en Francia, t. III, p. 246.

[4] Julio Lois, op.cit., p. 158.

[5] Cf., Luis González-Carvajal, Con los pobres. Contra la pobreza (With the poor. Against poverty), Paulinas, Madrid, 1991, pp. 118-119.

[6] Cf., John Paul II, Sollicitudo rei socialis. John Paul II speaks about structures of sin in #36, 37, 38, 39, 40 and 46 and mentions the expression perverse mechanisms in #17, 35, 40.

[7] In order to begin to understand the meaning of Systemic Change we have available to us a book entitled, Seeds of Change, Editorial La Milagrosa, Madrid, 2008. The book was put together by the members of Commission for the Promotion of Systemic Change.

[8] Association of Charity of Saint Vincent de Paul, Let us Act Together Against Poverty. Basic Document, Brussels, 1980, p. 2. 21/80/4-2. 21/80/6.

[9] Daughters of Charity of Saint Vincent de Paul, Constitutions of 1983, #1.7; Constitutions of 2004, #10, a.

[10] Episcopal Commission on Social Ministry, La Iglesia y los pobres (The Church and the poor), p. 134.

[11] Sister Suzanne Guillemin, Problemas y futuro de las religiosas (Problems and the future of women religious), Mensajero, Bilbao, 1969, p. 35.

[12] Cf., The Permanent Commission of the Spanish Episcopal Conference, Los católicos en la vida publica (Catholics in Public Life), #60-61. With regard to the communal and political dimension of charity see the International Association of Charity of Saint Vincent de Paul, Let us Act Together Against Poverty. Basic Document, Brussels, 1980, p. 2. 21/80/4-2. 21/80/6.

Translated by Charles T. Plock, CM