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Profile of a Lay Vincentian in the 21st century

by | Mar 1, 2012 | Spirituality and Spiritual Practice, Vincentian Family

Rev. Robert Maloney, CM writes “When you find anyone wavering about the importance of the laity in the life of the Church, encourage them to read the Pauline letters and the Book of the Acts carefully….

Of course the role of lay people did not cease with the New Testament. Lay men and women had a very significant influence on many of the great spiritual movements in the history of the Church. In the third and fourth centuries, most of the fathers and mothers of the desert were lay people. In the mystical tradition of the 12th and 13th centuries, many lay women, like Juliana of Norwich, played an enormous role. And, as you all remember, in St. Vincent’s time, Madame Acarie, the mother of six children, was one of the most sought after spiritual guides of the era.

What shall be the profile of the lay Vincentian in the 21st century? That is the topic you have asked me to address today. Of course, knowing how often history surprises us, I cannot easily foresee what it will actually be. So let me offer you a few thoughts today on what I hope it will be. In some sense, what I offer you is an “ideal” profile of the Vincentian lay person in the century ahead. Since we are speaking of both men and women, I will alternate genders in describing these characteristics.”

Here follows the full text of his 2002 presentation in Salamanca, Spain. It also appeared in modified form in  in 2003 under the title  Priscilla and Aquila Set Out Again America Magazine Vol. 188 No. 8, March 10, 2003

THE PROFILE OF THE LAY VINCENTIAN IN THE 21ST CENTURY

Sometimes, as we read the New Testament, it is important for us to put aside the thought patterns and theological outlook of the 21st century and enter into the religious and social worldview of the New Testament’s first-century authors. I remember a discussion a number of years ago in the recreation room at the General Curia in which ten people, including someone with a degree in scripture, maintained strongly that Jesus was not a carpenter, but that the New Testament said only that Joseph was a carpenter. Yet the earliest of the gospels, Mark’s, which all of us have read again and again, states clearly in the sixth chapter, the third verse, that Jesus was a carpenter. Was there something in our theological worldview that made it difficult for this repeatedly-read text to sink in?

I suspect that likewise it is not always easy for us to appreciate the importance of the role of lay people in the early Church, even though we have read about it in the New Testament again and again. This is perhaps even more true of the role of lay women. How often do we recall Tabitha, whose life, the Book of the Acts tells us (9:36), “was marked by constant good deeds and acts of charity”? Do we ever hear anyone talk of Mary, the mother of John Mark, whose house was used in Jerusalem as a gathering place for prayer, as the Book of the Acts also relates (12:12)? Most of us do remember, I think, Lydia, a dealer in purple goods, from the town of Thyatira (Acts 16:14), but do we recall that it was in her house, in Philippi, that Paul and Silas gathered with the Christians of that city? I suspect that hardly anybody remembers Phoebe, whom Paul describes as a deaconess and whom he praises for having been of such great help to so many, including himself (Rom 16:1-3). Of course all of us remember Mary Magdalen well, but how often do we recall that in John’s gospel the first evangelizer is not Peter, nor John, nor any of the apostles, but Mary Magdalen herself, who proclaims to the apostles: “I have seen the Lord” (Jn 20:18). The New Testament mentions many other lay men and women, most of whom we have largely overlooked in the course of history.

When you find anyone wavering about the importance of the laity in the life of the Church, encourage them to read the Pauline letters and the Book of the Acts carefully. That should rapidly dispel their doubts. Perhaps the most striking New Testament evidence of all is a statement that Paul makes about Priscilla and Aquila. Paul says that all the Gentile communities are indebted to this married couple. It would be hard to find higher praise than that.

Let me say a brief word about these two great people. They appear on four occasions in the New Testament. What do we know about them? We know that they were:

· lay missionaries
· a married couple
· Jewish Christians (converts)
· expelled from Rome during the persecution of Claudius
· living in exile in Corinth
· working as tent makers (the same occupation that Paul had)
· hospitable to Paul, taking him into their home
· his companion missionaries in Ephesus
· risking their lives for his sake
· hosts of the local Church in their own home (a house-church)
· catechizers of the great missionary Apollos.

Paul and Luke regarded this couple as outstanding missionaries. They appear in the letter to the Romans (16:3), the first letter to the Corinthians (16:19), in the 18th chapter of Acts (18:2, 18, 26) and at the end of the second letter to Timothy (4:19). Priscilla, whom Paul calls Prisca, is twice mentioned ahead of her husband; this seems to be an indication that she had a more important role to play in the missionary activity of the primitive Church than did her husband.

Of course the role of lay people did not cease with the New Testament. Lay men and women had a very significant influence on many of the great spiritual movements in the history of the Church. In the third and fourth centuries, most of the fathers and mothers of the desert were lay people. In the mystical tradition of the 12th and 13th centuries, many lay women, like Juliana of Norwich, played an enormous role. And, as you all remember, in St. Vincent’s time, Madame Acarie, the mother of six children, was one of the most sought after spiritual guides of the era.

What shall be the profile of the lay Vincentian in the 21st century? That is the topic you have asked me to address today. Of course, knowing how often history surprises us, I cannot easily foresee what it will actually be. So let me offer you a few thoughts today on what I hope it will be. In some sense, what I offer you is an “ideal” profile of the Vincentian lay person in the century ahead. Since we are speaking of both men and women, I will alternate genders in describing these characteristics.

CHARACTERISTICS OF A 21ST-CENTURY LAY VINCENTIAN

1. He will be profoundly lay.

The 21st century will see, I suspect, the flowering of the lay vocation in the Church. The laity, by the very fact that they are lay, have a special role to play in evangelizing the world of culture, politics, economics, the sciences, the arts, society, international life, and the media. Today, inspired by documents like Evangelii Nuntiandi and Christifideles Laici (1988), lay men and women exercise a very wide variety of ministries within the Church. Such ministries were already mentioned 27 years ago in Evangelii Nuntiandi. Lay people serve as heads of local Church communities, both small and large, as catechists, as teachers, as directors of prayer, as leaders of services of the Word of God, as ministers to the sick in their homes and in hospitals, as servants of the poor. In the future, they will also bring creative ministerial competence to setting up web sites on Internet, to animating local communities through song and art, to parish planning and administration and to evangelizing in countless other ways, both directly and indirectly.

Especially for those who are married it is important to recall the beautiful name used by Vatican II and repeated by Evangelii Nuntiandi in describing the family. It is called “the domestic Church.” The family, like the Church, is a place where the gospel is transmitted, especially to one’s children, and from which it also radiates out to others, particularly by the witness of unity and love that people see in a deeply Christian family. I hope that in the 21st century married couples in our Vincentian Family will live as true “domestic Churches” radiating out God’s life to their families and to those they serve.

2. She will be profoundly Vincentian.

The ideal Vincentian lay person in the 21st century will be profoundly influenced by our Vincentian mission and our Vincentian spirituality. The desire to be good news for the poor and to play a servant role in their lives will burn in her heart: evangelization and service, word and work. She will want to go out to the poorest of the poor whoever they may be. Most likely the poorest of the poor in the 21st century will be the same persons who were poorest in the 20th century and, in fact, who were poorest even at the time of the writing of the Book of Deuteronomy (cf., Dt 16:11): women, children, refugees. The 21st-century Vincentian layperson will seek to be creative in assisting them toward integral human promotion: toward helping them find adequate food and lodging, healthcare, education; toward listening to the word of God with them and sharing with them in rich religious instruction and prayerful celebration.

But the mission of the 21st-century Vincentian layperson will be based not merely on an energetic personality; it will be founded on a deep spirituality. Like St. Vincent, his lay followers will seek most of all to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom 13:14). They will not simply know about Christ; they will have a personal experience of the Lord himself and they will absorb, as St. Vincent did, the key evangelical teachings of the Lord, especially simplicity, or passion for the truth, so that their yes means yes and their no means no. And humility, which Vincent calls “the foundation of all evangelical perfection and the core of the spiritual life,” so that they will recognize God as the giver of all good gifts, receiving those gifts with gratitude and distributing them generously to others. And, of course, most of all, they will burn with practical, effective charity, making the gospel real “in word and work.”

3. He will be well-educated.

My father and mother never reached high school. Both had to work from the time they were very young, so they had the opportunity for little formal education. But, a generation later, all five of us, their children, had the chance to go to the university; some of us went to graduate school after the university. The 21st-century Vincentian layperson, a generation from now, will, I suspect, be very well educated. I hope that his education is integral, that it will have a healthy mix of the humanities, of the sciences, and of philosophy and theology.

So, in the 21st century, I foresee that there will be many doctors, nurses, teachers, lawyers, sociologists, economists, and computer experts among the lay members of our Vincentian Family. They will, of course, be much more competent in their fields of specialization than most of us priests, brothers and sisters are in regard to those same fields. It will be very important for us to work closely with them and to rely on their competence.

4. She will be well-formed.

One of my deepest hopes is that the lay Vincentian of the 21st century will be very well-formed. Many of our future lay members, I suspect, will receive formation in our youth groups. Others will have served in foreign missions through MISEVI. Others will have journeyed for years in AIC or the Society of St. Vincent de Paul or the Miraculous Medal Association. And all these groups will, I hope, have strengthened significantly the formation that they give to each of their members. I hope that we can place rich reading and working materials in the hands of our members so that they come to know St. Vincent himself, his spirituality, his mission, his concrete, effective love for the poor, as well as the history of the various branches of our Family that have developed over the course of the centuries.

A well-formed layperson will know how to combine family life with active engagement among the poor. She will gradually find the delicate balance and interplay between daily labor and daily prayer. She will come to recognize that prayer and action go hand in hand in a healthy Vincentian spirituality. She will experience that divorced from action, prayer can turn escapist. It can lose itself in fantasy. It can create illusions of holiness. But conversely, she will know that service divorced from prayer can be shallow. It can have a “driven” quality to it. It can become an addiction. The well-formed Vincentian layperson in the 21st century will, with St. Vincent, learn to be a contemplative in action.

5. He will be in live contact with the world of the poor.

The 21st-century Vincentian layperson will have been evangelized by the poor. He will have experiential knowledge of the most abandoned. He will have heard their stories and been shaped by them. His personal experience of the Lord will not be an abstract one; rather, he will know Christ especially as he reveals himself in the person of the poor.

The document that began this century, Novo Millennio Ineunte (NMI, 49), writes eloquently about this challenge: “The century and the millennium now beginning will need to see … to what length of dedication the Christian community can go in charity toward the poorest. If we have truly started out afresh from the contemplation of Christ, we must learn to see him especially in the face of those with whom he himself wished to be identified: ‘I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink…’ (Mt 25:35ff). This gospel text is not a simple invitation to charity: it is a page of Christology which sheds a ray of light on the mystery of Christ.”

I hope that our 21st-century Vincentian lay members will be such deep believers that they will see the poor in Christ and Christ in the poor.

6. She will be electronically connected.

Different from most of us today, the lay Vincentian of the 21st century will be electronically connected almost from birth. She will have learned to read, to write, to do math largely with the aid of a computer. E-mail will be a means of communication that she takes completely for granted in her life. She will look for ways in which she can use technological resources to draw others to work with us in serving the poor and in investigating the causes of poverty. She will use e-mail to contact members of our Family in other countries and on other continents. She will design web sites that are really attractive to others, especially to the young. In seeking for ways to assist the poor in the third world, she will devise programs whereby the young in those countries too can receive training in computer technology.

7. He will be knowledgeable about the Social Teaching of the Church.

While the Church proclaimed her social teaching eloquently throughout the 20th century, it remained largely unknown for many, even most, believers. I hope that the lay Vincentian of the 21st century will assimilate this teaching thoroughly. I hope that some will even become experts in it. This social teaching has particular importance for our Vincentian Family, since it focuses especially on the most needy. In fact, it is the foundation for the Church’s “preferential option for the poor.” I suggest that all Vincentian formation programs in the 21st century should impart a healthy dose of this teaching. It should be well-packaged, so that those in formation can learn it and then transmit it to others. A few years ago I wrote an article on this subject.

8. She will be a team player.

In our Vincentian Family we are called to serve not simply as individuals, but as members of a Family. In a society characterized by individualism, it is very important that all of us — but especially our lay groups, because of their huge numbers — witness to and in some ways “sacramentalize” the family spirit and capacity for team work that we seek to hand on, rather than projecting ourselves as individuals.

The Vincentian layperson of the 21st century should be capable of working with other members of our Family, standing at their side, being at their service, promoting their gifts, being a multiplying agent among them. Teamwork is essential for effective service of the poor in the future.

9. They will be multi-racial.

In recent years our Family has grown rapidly, spreading to many countries on all the continents. In the 21st century, our international meetings will show a growing number of Asians, Pacific Islanders, Africans, and Latin Americans, who will stand alongside Europeans and North Americans as the constituents of a truly global family. Our members will be of all races and colors. Those whose skin is black, brown, yellow, red, and white will stand next to one another in projects serving the poor. They will sit beside each other doing research into the causes of poverty. They will work with one another in lay missions sponsored by MISEVI. They will pray with each other and sing with each other in international Eucharistic celebrations.

I hope that the multi-racial character of our Vincentian lay groups in the 21st century will be a clear witness to the unity of the human race. I hope that it will be a continual font of richness for us, rather than a source of prejudice. I hope that the gifts of various cultures will help our 21st century Vincentian layperson have a continually expanding vision.

10. They will be truly missionary.

I hope that MISEVI will flourish in the century ahead and that the 21st-century Vincentian layperson will have a global point of view. He will know that beyond the surrounding mountains lie other towns and villages where the gospel must be preached. He will know, as he views the ocean, that its waves break on other continents, on other shores, where the poor also live and labor. St. Vincent himself, in an age where travel was difficult and communication was limited, looked beyond France both to the East and the West and to the North and the South. By the time of his death, his family was already quite international. As the 21st century progresses, with ever more rapid transportation and almost instantaneous communication, it will be even more imperative that our whole Family develop a global vision. Even as I speak, it is heartening to see how quickly the lay members of our family in distant countries are responding to the campaign against hunger, launched at the beginning of this century and how many are expressing an interest in setting up groups similar to MISEVI in their own countries.

Having described these ten characteristics of the Vincentian layperson of the future, let me say this in conclusion. I hope we see a number of Vincentian lay saints in the 21st century. As we reflect more profoundly on the vocation of the lay Christian, the Church reminds us again and again of the universal call to holiness, of the universal call to mission, of the universal call to build a civilization of love. And so I say to you today, I hope that the Vincentian layperson in the 21st century will teach much more by his witness than by his words, much more by his life than by his lessons, much more by his person than by his projects. I hope that she is able to live out deep rootedness in God and deep rootedness in the sufferings of the poor. I hope that she is able to connect the soul of the Vincentian Family with the soul of the world. I hope that she is able to express a creative, contemporary sense of our tradition in shifting, complex, modern circumstances. I hope that he is able to look painful reality in the face and communicate hope at the same time. I hope that he is able to stare at data that is sometimes depressing and find patterns for a promising future. I hope that she is able to draw wisdom from our Family’s history and express it in an updated, concrete way. And like St. Vincent, I hope that she or he is able to excite others so that they believe deeply and enthusiastically and make their belief real through concrete, effective, practical charity.

Robert P. Maloney, C.M.
Salamanca, Spain
September 9, 2002

5. What points from the social teaching of the Church do you judge it most important for lay Vincentians to proclaim or teach in the 21st century?

6. In what ways do you foresee that lay Vincentians will most effectively exercise their missionary vocation in the 21st century? Respond as concretely as possible.

PROFILE OF THE LAY VINCENTIAN IN THE 21ST CENTURY

Reflection Questions
Robert P. Maloney, C.M.
Salamanca, September 9, 2002

1. Jot down five characteristics that you foresee in the 21st century lay Vincentian.

2. If you had to give a course on Lay Vincentian Spirituality, what five points would you speak about? Respond as concretely as possible.

3. How would you describe the ideal daily prayer life of the lay Vincentian? Respond as concretely as possible.

4. How do you foresee that electronic means will be used in the service of the poor in the 21st century?

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