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“Standing in the Right Place,” With Vincent

Father Tom McKenna, CM preached this homily at the St. Vincent’s Day celebration for St Vincent’s day homily to the Vincentian Family in New Orleans.

In his letter on Consecrated Life this past year, Pope Francis pointed to people he called “the great saints”. He wrote that all of us should become more aware of the gifts they brought (and bring) to us, because “without the concrete sign of their lives and actions, the love which animates the entire church would grow cold and get blunted.” (21)

On this feast of St. Vincent, and after hearing Matthew’s 5th chapter read at Mass, I’d like to go with the Pope’s request and offer some reflections about how it is, in the concrete lives of the saints, that the love of Christ stays warm and doesn’t grow cold; how it is, in the concrete life of this saint, Vincent (and his followers), that the sharp edge of that love and its full impact don’t rust over and get blunted.

So, we have these hallowed phrases Jesus speaks in Matthew, this list of behaviors and attitudes we’ve come to know as the Beatitudes – blessed are the poor in spirit, the meek and humble, those who thirst and hunger for justice, etc.

One way to look at them is as a collection of valuable pieces of advice for getting into heaven, Jesus laying out the things you have to do to come into His Father’s Kingdom — someday. The accent here is on heaven — what will come after, if you act this way now.

But another approach is to see them as markers of where it is that the Kingdom of God is operating right now, as indicators of the present location of the Reign of Jesus’ Father already at work in the world.

And this seems much in accord with Jesus’ intent inasmuch as he kept insisting that the Kingdom of God is here among you, is happening right now, is in the process of breaking through from the future into this present. Further, he claims that in the ways He Himself is acting and coming at life, the life-style of that Reign is showing up, is making its incursion onto this earth, is penetrating the skin of the everyday.

In another way to say it, if you went out into the world searching for the presence of God, the places to look for it would be in those spots where these beatitude kinds of attitudes and behaviors are taking root. Wherever you came across them, saw them in action, you’d be standing in a location where Jesus’ Kingdom was already happening. Again, if you crossed into a zone where peace-making, authenticity, humility, struggle for justice and willingness to pay the price for that justice was going on, you’d find yourself standing within the boundaries of Jesus’ Kingdom. This is the Dream he was announcing — and indeed, as himself the “walking-around” of that Kingdom, it’s the Dream he was enfleshing.

I heard a speaker frame this idea in a particularly helpful way.  He suggested we think of the beatitudes not in terms of ideals, but of places; i.e., here-and-now locations, definite spots with geographical coordinates, somewheres, fields in which people stand around. So if you would search for Jesus’ Kingdom, go to a place where people are thinking and behaving in just these ways. Standing on that corner, so to speak, you’d be inside the boundaries of this new world Jesus is announcing. In those locations, you’d find the Sermon on the Mount being lived out, you’d meet up with those you could call “the Beatitude activists.”

This revered list Jesus preaches is not so much a catalogue of aspirations as it is a kind of geography. If you step into this space and come near people living in this zone, you’d be  getting a glimpse, not only of what God has mind for later but of what God is already doing.

And so using “place” as the referent point, the speaker then switched the wording, substituting “you’re standing in the right place if…” for “Blessed are those who…”.  And so we hear:

– “You’re standing in the right place if: you’re poor and humble in spirit;

  • then, the Kingdom of heaven is yours.”

– You’re standing in the right place if:

  • You’re comforting those who are mourning; then you will be comforted.
  • You’re meek and humble of heart; then you’ll inherit the land.
  • You’re hungering and thirsting for justice; then you’ll be satisfied.
  • You’re showing mercy; then you will experience mercy yourself.
  • You’re (clean of heart) honest and transparent and above board and your real self; then you’ll see God.
  • You’re being given a hard time and paying a price and undergoing persecution and insults, and being falsely accused for my sake; then you will be called children of God.

To hear the Beatitudes reframed this way sets their feet firmly in the soil of this earth, gives them a local address, places them on the streets of this world.

So we return to the great saints, today Vincent. What did they and he do? By their actions and attitudes, they first gravitated to those special “Kingdom spots” and took up residence there. And by “doing” the beatitudes, they created those places where God’s ways showed up in their day and age. To enter the circles of their influence was to walk into the space of the Reign of God, now showing up “on earth as it is in heaven.”

And so, Vincent. Didn’t he do just this “setting up a place” with his actions: his outreach to the downtrodden, programs to alleviate poverty, efforts to change the way his society regarded people who were poor, his programmatic valuing of the undervalued. Didn’t he do it just as much with the attitudes he brought to all of this: his humble, welcoming, genuine, zealous approach, his willingness to sacrifice his own interest for the good of the other, his trusting in his Heavenly Father all the way.

In other words, by what Vincent did and especially by how he lived, he created those Beatitude spaces, those spots where people, especially people who were poor, could come to know and feel what it’s like to live in this world that Jesus announced and enacted.

What a better way to celebrate his feast than once again set out to “stand in the places,” to work at creating “the locations,” to be there next to Vincent as he himself stands in the right place, and brings on the blessings of the Kingdom.

Back to the Pope Francis. We need the saints, he insists. We need people like Vincent de Paul. Why? Because “without the concrete sign of their lives and actions, the love which animates the entire church would grow cold and get blunted.” (21)

And in another place Francis says:

“It becomes even more urgent to grow in the certainty that the embers of the Lord’s presence, kindled in the fire of his passion … will never die out. Whenever this certainty (of the Lord’s presence) weakens, we end up being caretakers of ash, and not guardians and dispensers of the true light and the warmth that causes our hearts to burn within us.” (Address to US Bishops, Sept 23, 2015 Washington)]

The point: that God’s love coming in Jesus Christ is fired up again in His saints, here in St. Vincent de Paul.  And that love heats up again today in all those coming after Vincent who take on his spirit – even better, who would try to stand in his spot, be there in these Beatitude places, try to build those locations and mindsets in this world where the Kingdom of Jesus’ all loving Father is again breaking through, is again showing up “on earth as it is in heaven.”


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