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Vincent’s mantle – Challenge to a new generation

by | Sep 4, 2012 | Reflections

Fr. Tom McKenna would challenge his students  … “Tell me why you’d ever want to help somebody who was repulsive – whom you didn’t even know.” Put more graphically, “You’re walking down Union Turnpike near the University and there in front of you a little crowd is gathering around someone lying on the sidewalk. You walk over and see it’s a badly dressed older man, disheveled, fairly drunk and he can’t get up. Just as you walk over, someone from the crowd picks him up, sits him on the curb, talks to him, has someone call a cab, pays the driver and finally sends him home.” Then, I would pose the key questions, “Why would anyone do that?” “What is there in that stumbling old man that’s worth doing something for him like that?”

From there he went to ask who will pick up the mantle of Vincent.

“The question I must now pose to all of you is: Who is going to keep telling this story in the decades ahead? Who is going to keep putting it out there, telling it in their classes, in their administrative styles, in their policy decisions, telling it with their lives? The answer with the most effect is – all of you.  Everybody here at St. John’s University who, almost by osmosis, communicates that message: “here’s what counts and here’s who counts.” All of you picking up the mantle Vincent de Paul has laid over your shoulders and trying to place it over the shoulders of the incoming St. John’s generation.”

Fr. Thomas McKenna, CM offered his thoughts in “People of the scarred coin”, a Vincent dePaul Lecture at St. John’s University.

The full talk as found on the website of the Vincentian Center for Church and Society at St. John’s University.

The Basis of Human Dignity

In a previous life, I was part of the higher educational enterprise here at St. John’s University. In every one of the courses I taught, I would get around to a certain hard-to-articulate issue– human dignity and its basis. In a way that sometimes irritated my students, I would press the question something like this in a deepening dialogue:

“Tell me why you’d ever want to help somebody who was repulsive – whom you didn’t even know.” Put more graphically, “You’re walking down Union Turnpike near the University and there in front of you a little crowd is gathering around someone lying on the sidewalk. You walk over and see it’s a badly dressed older man, disheveled, fairly drunk and he can’t get up. Just as you walk over, someone from the crowd picks him up, sits him on the curb, talks to him, has someone call a cab, pays the driver and finally sends him home.” Then, I would pose the key questions, “Why would anyone do that?” “What is there in that stumbling old man that’s worth doing something for him like that?”

Some student would say, “He’s human.” I’d reply “Yes, but what is there in being human that makes it worth it, to go out of your way for?” Then, the answers would really start to roll: “It could be me”; “It makes me feel good”; and “I’d be guilty if I passed him by.” I’d say “yes” again, but press the underlying question, the nub of the issue. “What is there in him that you don’t want to see trampled on, that you’d show respect to? What does he have inside that could command such a response and what name do you put on that something?”

Religions Respond

The answer from the religious traditions is this: something God-like is inside that old man, something of the most precious, priceless, inestimable reality in existence, and that is, the Divine. When Moses came upon it, he made the Middle Eastern gesture of respect. He took his shoes off, as he felt the presence of the Divine in the burning bush. The same is true of the encounter with the pathetic man. Something special, worthy of incalculable dignity, is present and meant to be treated as such. It is not the same as this man, but it is somehow within him– and so, we bow down.

There is also a classic answer to the question, “Why stop and help?” in the Christian tradition. It comes from the mouth of the Risen Lord Jesus, “Because in doing it for that poor person, you’re doing it for Me.” (Matt: 25)

St. Vincent de Paul Responds

Inside that same Christian tradition, there is a riff on that answer which has come, in our circles to be regarded as classic also. The signature response of Vincent de Paul to the human dignity question – “Why help this disheveled old man?” is “Because you’ve seen through to the other side of the coin.”

Vincent’s metaphor is of a beat-up, dented, scratched, scarred, and very common coin, which turns out to have another side. It is applied to the beat-up, dented, dime-a-dozen, mostly invisible ones– the poor people. “Why treat that common nobody on the ground as if he is somebody?” Here is Vincent’s answer:

I shouldn’t judge poor peasants, men or women, by their surface appearance, nor by their apparent mental capacities. And this is hard to do, since very frequently they scarcely seem to have the semblance or the intelligence of reasonable beings, so gross and so offensive are they. But, turn the coin, and you will see by the light of faith that the Son of God, Whose will it was to be poor, is represented to us by just these people. (XI Conference #19, p.32)

In back of this conviction are two bedrock beliefs: first, God is the most real and the most precious reality there is, and second, this precious God lives in His people, at the tip of their hearts, in their in-most personal chambers, shot through the core of their very selves. This at base is what gives us reason to metaphorically “take our shoes off” when we come into their presence.

Anyone wanting the key to Vincent de Paul’s “great soul” could not get much closer than meditating on these two convictions – two beliefs which, for Vincent, were wrapped one inside the other. They are his answer to, “Why stop to help a crumpled old man who can’t help you back?”

The Vincentian Motivation to Educate

I ask you to transpose those convictions a few hundred years from Vincent’s 17th century France to 1868 in Brooklyn, New York. A Bishop approaches one of Vincent’s followers, a member of the Congregation of the Mission and asks him to start a school. Why would a person of this “scarred coin persuasion,” say a “yes”?

A follower of St. Vincent de Paul seeks to educate, first because humans are worth educating. Perhaps better put, because education has a unique and un-paralleled ability to call forth what is precisely human in people. Education is one of the prime catalysts to elicit the human, coax it out, wake it up, and massage it into life. It nourishes the human almost like nothing else can.  So, if we believe in the God-based dignity of people, of course we would look kindly on the chance to grow that dignity by educating it.

There is also another dimension.  The education given would have to have a special feel for those ordinary folk of the dented, scarred coin, i.e., the poor. In some way, it would be directed to them. It would be aware of them, have a mind to treat them as worthwhile and in so doing, it would swim against a strong current in society, which would want to hide them, take them for granted, and render them invisible. This education would include a radar for how the dull-looking coins of society are discounted and pushed to the bottom of the pile, and are told in a thousand ways that they don’t matter as much as the others.

The Vincentian Project

To sum up, the followers of Vincent de Paul, then and today, gravitate toward education for two reasons. First, it draws out that which is most precious in us, or in New Testament terms, it lets the face of God, given in Jesus, shine more clearly within the human. Secondly, it enhances the humanity of those who tend to be dehumanized, those who are poor. It would do this by educating the poor and also by sensitizing everybody else on the scene to their dignity and worth. From the beginning, that has been the Vincentian project. It has not been as clear in some times as it has been in others; it has not burned brightly in every single Vincentian and every St. John’s collaborator. But it has always been there as a kind of pressure, an undercurrent, a magnetic north for the institution.

The Vincentian Values

Flowing out of and back to the fundamental convictions are the clusters of values that have been singled out as distinctive to Vincentian institutions. These values: respect for others, integrity, sensitivity to those on the margins, excellence in education, and service reflect the belief that people and in particular, poor people, have inestimable God-given worth. To educate them well is a kind of prayer, an act of worship, a reverencing of what is best and highest, a way of taking off your shoes in the presence of the Divine, a way to promote the emergence of “Thy Kingdom Come.” To stir up a heightened sensitivity to human dignity, in both poor people and those who are not, is to bring Jesus’ message of “Good News to the poor” here in this place and this enterprise, St. John’s University.

Virtue — Developing Capacities to Act

Let me switch to a different track – but still following Vincent de Paul. He was remembered for his insistence that ideals be delivered. He constantly stressed that God’s desires must be translated into tangible, recognizable actions, which are felt and measurable in this world.  There are many facets to his instinct for the practical, for example, thinking organizationally, impatience with speculation and theorizing that did not result in action. But the one I want to highlight is developing capacities to act. He would have his followers get to work on the practical competencies to deliver on their convictions.

In a more modern analogy, Vincent had a special feel for the difference between getting an “A” in the theory of swimming, and jumping in at the deep end of the pool and actually staying afloat. So much of his writings are given over to building these capacities to act. He called them — “virtues.”

So, for instance, early on he saw that a high concentration of these valued ones, the poor, lived in prisons. So, he decided to help prisoners. But when he walked through the gates of the jail, he was repulsed by what he found. The smells, the violence, the fear and the futility literally nauseated him. Here we have a clear enough example of the distance between ideals and follow-through. What did Vincent do? In Nike language, he “just did it!” Vincent’s way of overcoming the revulsion was to go into the revolting place, over and over until the shock wears off. So most everyday, he moved among the prisoners, dressing their wounds, sharing their meals, and teaching them the Gospel. He “got used to” the conditions. This virtue of getting past initial fears and of delaying gratification he called “death to myself” or “mortification.” If you don’t “desensitize yourself,” as we would say today, you’ll never be able to serve people.

The Virtue of Transparency

There is one virtue of Vincent I would like to hold up as needed now, and especially needed now, in education. This is the virtue of transparency, personal and institutional. Vincent called it “simplicity” and said on a number of occasions that it was his favorite virtue.  For Vincent, it meant learning to be the same on the outside as you are on the inside. Learning to tell things as they really are. Being genuine. Staying away from doubletalk and flim-flam. Keeping truth in your packaging.

There are two fundamental reasons why Vincent recommended this virtue and worked on it all of his life. The first reason is that “transparency” is of God. God is simple and God’s Person-in-the-World, Jesus Christ, was spectacularly simple in all His words and dealings. Secondly, to reach he poor, you need to act this way. On the wrong end of too many schemes, empty promises and con artists all their lives, the poor have special radar for what is false, for who is the snake oil salesman. They are good at seeing through glitzy claims and are talented in sniffing out a hidden agenda.

As with all virtue, simplicity has to be worked at over a lifetime. One way we can work on simplicity is to simply–practice telling the truth. In the thousand times you are tempted to shade things, put a misleading spin on them, resist the temptation. Become aware of all the ways in which you are not simple and work against them. Develop your capacity to be genuine. Do it over and over until it becomes second nature.

Why do I lift out this particular virtue for today? Because in this culture where the smart money seems to say, “image is everything,” it has come on such very hard times. What counts is the outside, the surface, how you look. Now, if there is a correspondence to what’s inside, all well and good. It is nice if it happens; but it is not really necessary or even important. The trick is to keep the surfaces shiny and sizzling. We know this as “spin.” The important thing is to keep the right angle showing, whether or not it mirrors what’s going on at the center.

Recently, I heard an engineer use a word to describe what he thinks to be a very culturally needed quality in a building. His phrase was “architectonic.” By it, he meant transparency in architecture. You should actually be able to see that the solid appearance of a building on the outside corresponds to a solid structure on the inside. In this era of ungrounded glitz, he believes it is important that there be “see-through” in a building, that there be enough glass to reassure the jaded onlooker that the respectable exterior is being held up, not by wire and sky hooks, but by firm interior supports. His word, “architectonic,” expresses an engineering version of Vincent’s simplicity.

Vincent made the acquisition of this trait a life-long project. In a 1634 letter to a collaborator he writes,

It’s your own trusting heart, which has given me the freedom to speak to you with full confidence, without concealing or disguising anything. And it seems to me that up until now, you’ve recognized that quality in the ways we’ve always related. So at this juncture, do you think I’m going to fall into the trap of being forced to do or say anything to you that would go against this holy simplicity? God preserve me from this, in any way!  Simplicity is the virtue I love the most, the one I pay most attention to in everything I do. And if you’ll let me boast just a little, I’d say it’s the one virtue in which, by God’s mercy, I’ve made some progress over the years.” (I, #188, p.284)

In another place he writes. Your heart must not think one thing while your mouth says another.” (IX, Conference 13, p.81)  In another, Steer clear of all duplicity, two-facedness, cunning, studied cleverness and double meaning.” (II, #634, p.340)  In still another, he confesses to how much consolation he gets by “keeping a conscious intent to say things as they are.” (I, #94 p.144)

Concisely, Vincent’s “simplicity” is a personal “transparency,” squaring up outside appearances with inner attitudes, congruence between the symbol and what’s symbolized. He insisted on it, and said the dignity of other people is not honored unless you treat them with simplicity.

Transparency as a Vincentian University Value

Why select this virtue for a University from all the other virtues Vincent recommends? For one thing, because Vincentian institutions, like all institutions are under more and more pressure to appear “right,” to present the image that sells, whether or not it corresponds to what is happening inside. Vincent, whose shadow St John’s is supposed to cast, must keep asking itself the transparency question and do so constantly in this slippery age. Does the voice we project to the outside match the voice we hear on the inside? Vincent stands for coherence between appearance and reality. He would keep up a pressure on any Vincentian institution to be interiorly what it shows itself to be exteriorly.

There is another reason to highlight transparency, closer to home. This God-like “ringing-true” should come to mark the people who work within a Vincentian institution. This is so not just because Vincent recommended it, but because of the eminently practical reason he gave for living this way. The people the institution serves, particularly the poor, just won’t trust if authenticity is not there. They will not believe if there is that scent of double talk, hollow spin, false sizzle coming off the people who staff the institution. Most everyone, but especially the ones on the bottom economic rungs of society, can sniff out that disconnect, that lack of simplicity.

Further, because Vincent’s simplicity is a virtue, it has to be painstakingly developed over time. Only by individual everyday acts of truth-telling, repeated a thousand times across the campus, from the top to the bottom, will this capacity take root and blossom here. Only when each person at St. John’s University: (1) comes to recognize all the cultural pressures toward “image is everything” and “inner substance is a dispensable luxury” and then, (2) resists that temptation over and over, will this trait be rescued from the half world of ideals and live in the full world of palpable experience.

The Mantle of St. Vincent De Paul

Telling the Vincentian Story

I have discussed Vincent’s insistence on human worth and on the hard-won capacity or “virtue” to honor that worth in everyday life particularly simplicity. I would like to mention as well, a particularly powerful way these convictions get transfused into the lifeblood of St. John’s, telling the story — the signature Vincentian stories which reveal the life generated by these transfusions.

There are two stories, an older one, and a newly emerging one very connected to the first. The older one goes like this. “I got a break and I want to pass it on.” It was a two-fold break: “St. John’s offered a chance for an education, which I would not have gotten otherwise, and there were certain values I absorbed there, values about reaching back for others who now need a break. These values have made all the difference.” Let me directly quote an active member of the present St. John’s community who is also an alumnus.

People have asked me why, after a long very successful business career, I wanted to get reconnected to St. John’s. It’s really quite simple. Many years ago this school gave me a chance, a scholarship that enabled me to go to college so that I might build a better life. The values and skills that this wonderful institution helped me develop and the opportunities it helped me see were perhaps the single largest factor in the success I have enjoyed. I want to help this institution continue to help others to achieve a better future. I’m giving something back, my energy, ideas and the benefit of my experience. (Dean Peter Tobin, “The Enduring Characteristics of Success, Seventy-Fifth Anniversary,” Annual Report of the Peter J. Tobin College of Business, 2002, p. 6.)

The newer, auxiliary one goes like this. “Because of what’s gone on for me here at St. John’sI’ve come to notice the specialness of the down-and-out, the poor. I see them now. I’ve met them. And they are somebody.” This second story is the student who was converted, so to speak, to the world of the poor. This is the young man who caught the conviction about human worth. This was the young woman who had a service-learning component in a course and had her eyes opened to what Vincent saw. Incidentally, the follow-up studies suggest that collegians who do service work are four times more likely to continue to volunteer and help the poor after graduation than those who don’t. These are the two stories I hear. At some deep level, they carry the whole constellation of Vincentian values.

The Vincentian Challenge to Future Generations

The question I must now pose to all of you is: Who is going to keep telling this story in the decades ahead? Who is going to keep putting it out there, telling it in their classes, in their administrative styles, in their policy decisions, telling it with their lives? The answer with the most effect is – all of you.  Everybody here at St. John’s University who, almost by osmosis, communicates that message: “here’s what counts and here’s who counts.” All of you picking up the mantle Vincent de Paul has laid over your shoulders and trying to place it over the shoulders of the incoming St. John’s generation.

The answer to “who will tell the story” which touches me most directly, as Provincial of the Vincentian Priests and Brothers is the Vincentian Priests and Brothers! As a religious congregation, we started St. John’s University and poured more than a few generations of work, service and prayer into it. Now in a time of diminishing numbers, we want to continue to do our part in passing down the story of Vincent’s vision and Gospel instincts.

That statement raises the problem of our diminishing numbers. It is the disconcerting fact that like most every other religious congregation in the Western world, we are not replacing ourselves in the numbers we once did. We have young men in our seminary, but not in the quantity that allows the kind of presence at St. John’swe once had. So I offer two challenges.

More and more, we Vincentian priests and brothers will be depending on all of you who have picked up Vincent’s special take on the world and who live it — to tell the story. We will be looking to you, Vincentians who are not members of the Congregation of the Mission, to pass it on.

Secondly, I am asking you to help us find new members. We are trying to give ourselves to this project in a more concentrated way as we enter this 21st century. Our strategy is not just more and better advertising, but also inviting people closer in to see what kind of life we have. We are not saying, “It’s the best life.” We are not saying, “There aren’t other wonderful life-styles that can carry Vincent de Paul’s legacy.” We aresaying “this is a good life – actually a wonderful, contributing, Gospel-directed, fulfilling life, for those who are inclined to take it up.” Vincentian priests and brothers are trying in new ways to get this word out. I ask you, our long-time friends, to help us do that. We have been saying to one another within our Congregation, “It would be a real loss to the Church in the United States if this way of carrying Vincent’s mantle were to disappear.”

Conclusion

Permit me to conclude by bringing back a phrase from the beginning of the talk. As followers of Vincent de Paul, we are “People of the Scarred Coin.” We are God-touched individuals who have been awakened to the worth of everyone around us – especially the ones who most easily get pushed off the screen, the poor. We see their value and respond to it with deep respect. We intuitively know why it makes sense to pick up that disheveled old man. The institutions we staff, in a corporate way, know the same thing, the treasure on the other side of that scarred coin. St. John’s must continue to be known even more clearly as a university that, in a term of the day, is value-added; and that value is– the preciousness of people and the face of God in them all.

Reference

Vincent de Paul, Saint, 1581-1660.  Correspondence, Entretiens, Documents, Ed.Pierre Coste, 14 v., Paris: Librairie Lecoffre, J.Gabalda, 1920.

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