- My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness (2 Cor. 12:9)
The call to repentance was fundamental in Jesus’ ministry. When he began preaching after John the Baptist’s arrest, Jesus used pretty much the same formula that John used. He proclaimed: “The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel” (Mk. 1:15; cf. also Mt. 4:17).
The good news that the kingdom of God is at hand clearly supposes repentance. The test of evangelization, after all, is repentance, as the conversion of Peter, Levi, Zacchaeus or Paul clearly indicates (Lk. 5:8, 18; 19:8). And more fundamentally, of course, the gospel is addressed to those in need of righteousness, to those who, in the estimation of the self-made and self-declared righteous, are all wholly undeserving and unqualified (Lk. 5:30-32; 19:7).
Indeed, for some reason that our common sense generally fails to grasp, God seems to choose always those who, like Paul of Tarsus—a blasphemer, a persecutor, a man of arrogance (1 Tim. 1:13; 1 Cor. 15:9)—would neither meet our list of credentials nor pass the test of moral virtues we usually set up. Wrote Madeleine L’Engle in The Irrational Season, chapter 7, “The Icon Tree,” (New York, NY: The Seabury Press, Crossroad Books, 1977), p. 101:
- But God always calls unqualified people. In cold reality,
- no one is qualified; but God, whose ways are not our ways,
- seems to choose those least qualified, people who well may
- have come from slums and battlefields and insane asylums. ....
- And Jesus chose his disciples with the same recklessness
- as his father; he chose them not in the Sanhedrin,
- not in the high places of the wealthy; he found them
- as they were fishing, collecting taxes, going about
- the ordinary business of life.
These are the people, however, who are capable of the kind of repentance and conversion that the penitents of Nineveh displayed. They are the opposite of those who deem themselves righteous and in need of no repentance at all, of those who find insulting and bristle at the mere suggestion of repentance and conversion, since they see themselves as set apart in their supposed faithful observance of the law and not to be compared in the slightest with other men—extortionists, unjust, adulterers, tax collectors (Lk. 18:11-12).
St. Vincent de Paul, needless to say, is in the good company of the repentant and converted people. Recognizing both his utter poverty and the absolute richness of God’s gift, St. Vincent had such a change of heart and ways that he finally gave up trying to leave the poor behind and embraced the poverty that Benedict XVI would characterize as the solution to the poverty that offends human dignity (cf. Hugh F. O’Donnell, C.M., “Vincent de Paul: His Life and Way,” in Vincent de Paul and Louise de Marillac: Rules, Conferences and Writings, ed. Frances Ryan, D.C., and John E. Rybolt, C.M., [Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1995], pp. 17; Jacques Delarue, The Holiness of Vincent de Paul [London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1960], p. 14; “Solution to Poverty Is Poverty” at ). In due time, as we know and remember today especially, he would be God’s instrument in bringing about the repentance and general confession of the peasants of Folleville and the beginning of the Congregation of the Mission. Thus, with a great sense of zeal—that he manifested, for instance, when he felt bad that there he was returning to Paris when there were other villages awaiting him so he could do for them what he had just done elsewhere (cf. P. Coste, XI, p. 445, at )—St. Vincent shared not only in the mission given to the apostles to go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature but also in the Pauline sense of urgency that we catch a glimpse of in today’s second reading.
And giving of himself to the poor in the manner that he did, St. Vincent, by God’s grace, imitated too and recalled Jesus’ giving his body up and shedding his blood for repentance and the forgiveness of sins, so central in Christian life because it is central in Jesus’ ministry. Such is the ransom for, and the hope of, the unrighteous and undeserving.