A stranger is a friend who I have yet to meet

by | Jun 7, 2016 | Formation, Reflections, Society of St. Vincent de Paul | 1 comment




Rome, 7 June 2016

My brothers and sisters of the Saint Vincent de Paul Society, it is with great pleasure that I have this opportunity to address you today on a special theme that we, as a Vincentian Family, hope to promote throughout the year 2017. As you all well know, we are celebrating, as of January 2017, the inspirational birth of the charism of the Vincentian Family. Speaking concretely, we can mention the two places, Châtillon and Folleville, which inspired Vincent de Paul to establish the Confraternities of Charity and, later on, the Congregation of the Mission.

Specifically, what was born in August 1617, were the Confraternities of Charity, which today we call AIC and later the Congregation of the Mission. For me, as I made clear in a video I did on Pentecost, the birth of the charism is something that all of us in the Vincentian Family share. It took root and began in the Confraternities of Charity at that time and also inspired Saint Vincent de Paul to form the Congregation of the Mission. So many different branches of the Vincentian Family have grown out of this charism. Throughout the world, the largest of these is the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul, of which I am very proud. I have come to know a great deal about the Society, especially in my different travels. I tried to make every effort to meet, not only with the Congregation of the Mission, my main responsibility, or the Daughters of Charity, but also the other branches of the Vincentian Family. It truly has been inspirational.

greg-gay-ssvp2016There are moments when there is struggle in the growth of the Vincentian Family, connecting one branch with another, but that is typical. I particularly want to say a word of thanks to Michael Thio and Brian O’Reilly, who have served as International President and Vice-President of the Society and have worked very closely with us in our Vincentian Family Executive Committee. I have seen a lot of growth taking place and a developing understanding that what we do is not about us. It is about serving Jesus Christ in the poor. It is about being able to show our thankfulness to God for the love he has revealed to us, often through the poor, which makes it possible for us to promote the charism throughout the world.

That is what happened in the life of Frédéric Ozanam. I need not tell you that. You know it better than I. He is certainly one who is a prophet for our day. As you well know, many of the things that Frédéric said had not come to light in the Church, especially the ability of the laity to exercise their baptismal rights within the Church, helping the Kingdom of God to grow. By speaking out in defense of and with the poor, whom he came to know and love, he promoted the laity within the Church. He learned this message, the art of loving the poor, from the hands of a simple, ordinary woman, Daughter of Charity, Rosalie Rendu.

I would have loved it if both of them had been canonized during my time as Superior General. But that is our hope for the future. It seems to me that it would be ideal if a Sister of a Community of Apostolic Life, like the Daughters of Charity, and a dedicated layman, who knew how to work together with others for the good of those living in poverty, were recognized together as saints by the Church. What a great combination it would be, as a witness of collaboration in our Church, where together religious and laity work in a common mission to make present the Kingdom of God, especially for those privileged ones of the Lord Jesus.

As you all know, in this 400th anniversary of the birth of the charism, one of the things that we hope to do is to bring ourselves together more closely as a Vincentian Family throughout the world, to continue collaborating and reflecting on what it means to have a common mission of evangelizing and serving the poor. As an Executive Committee of the Vincentian Family, we wanted to do that from the impetus of the word of God. We have chosen a gospel, which you well know was dear, dear, dear to Saint Vincent de Paul, Chapter 25 of Saint Matthew’s Gospel. In essence it shows clearly the love, respect, and dignity that we are called to show the little ones, for “when you do this to the least of my brothers, you do it to me.”

As you know, the verse in particular that we have chosen is verse 35, the second part, where it says, “I was a stranger, and you welcomed me.” It is certainly a most appropriate theme in the world in which we live today, most appropriate. But it was appropriate in the time of Saint Vincent de Paul too, because he was inspired to organize charity after having experienced a family that was sick and in need of care. He was not sure what to do, so the Holy Spirit inspired him to say something about it in his homily. Immediately the people, having listened to God’s word, and inspired by Saint Vincent, rushed to the aid of these sick people. Later, he had to help them organize the charity, but from that was born the Confraternities of Charity. They were strangers in their village and the Christians went to them and welcomed them.

That is what we, as members of the Catholic Church, are called to be, welcoming people. We have to really, truly challenge ourselves to see if that is the case. Even more specifically, as a Vincentian Family, are we a welcoming people, especially to those who are strangers among us? More specifically, in the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul, in the different places where you are established, do you welcome those who are on the outside, those who are marginalized, those who are strangers? Do they feel welcomed by your presence?

Certainly, as I mentioned in the homily the other day, one of the characteristics of the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul is the home visit, in which you touch the lives of other people. You do this not so much by what you give them, physically and materially, but by the way that you treat them with gentleness, with care, with compassion, with mercy. It is appropriate, in a very special way, that the 400th anniversary of the charism is coming on the heels of the Jubilee Year of Mercy, in which we celebrate in a special way that personal, loving, caring treatment that is given to others, either spiritually or materially, in the works of mercy. That is what we are supposed to do. Saint Vincent did it by inviting and encouraging people to help those who were like strangers to feel welcomed. We are called to continue doing that.

Look at our world today. Sometimes it is embarrassing to see countries, like those in Western Europe or the United States, where, rather than opening our arms to those in need, we set up barriers. They are truly those in need, looking for security or wellbeing or a better life because it is not provided in their own countries where oftentimes there is so much corruption and self-interest that the poor are forgotten. They are marginalized. They are even obliterated. They become invisible. They are fleeing to save their lives and what do they find many times but walls, fences, barricades, police, tear gas, not letting them into a place where they might have the hope of a better life. How do we, as members of the Vincentian Family, or how do you, as members of the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul, welcome those strangers? What are your attitudes? What are your thoughts? Are you filled with the same negative attitudes that, many times, Christians, as well as others, express toward those who are different than we are? Who are the strangers? That is what we need to ask and then look around and see. Who are the strangers around us? Are they refugees? Are they immigrants? Are they people of other religions, especially religions that oftentimes are hard for us to understand? Are they people who we find lonely and abandoned, for whom no one cares, the homeless, vulnerable elderly, children, street people? These are all situations in which people feel they are strangers and they need to be welcomed.

“A stranger is a friend who I have yet to meet,” has been attributed to the poet, William Butler Yeats, and also to Will Rogers. Whoever the author is, it means that we are called to be relational. That is a basic gift we received from Saint Vincent de Paul and which you received in a special way from Frédéric Ozanam, who received it from Rosalie Rendu, that personal relationship with the poor. In getting to know them, serving them, and caring for them, a friendship is developed. They invite us, their servants; they invite you, their servants, to be their friends. That happens many times and is a life-transforming experience for anyone who reaches out to those in need. Do they feel welcomed by our love and our presence? That is our call.

A few weeks ago, I sent a letter to all the Visitors and leaders of the Vincentian Family in order that we might think of different strategies, between Pentecost and the end of the year, of how we could work together, as a Vincentian Family, to welcome the stranger. Shortly thereafter, in the middle of May, I visited our confreres in Holland. They no longer form a province because their numbers have diminished. They are a house under the responsibility of the Superior General. However, they once were a province of perhaps the greatest missionaries the Congregation has ever known, serving in China; establishing provinces in Indonesia, Ethiopia, Fortaleza, Brazil; reinforcing missionary experiences in Central America and many, many other places throughout the world. These confreres worked hard and now they are dying. Yet, in their dying days, together with a very active group of laypeople, who love the charism, they were the first to present to me a strategy as to what we can do to celebrate the 400th anniversary.

It is an interesting project. It has two aspects that are central for us in living our Vincentian charism. One is the preaching of the Good News, which is somewhat similar to what Saint Vincent, in his time, called the Tuesday Conferences. Together with the confrere moderator and the lay members of the Vincentian Family in the Netherlands, they want to promote, so to speak, Tuesday Conferences, sharing the Good News with others. They have started to do that in the Netherlands and they hope to be able to do it in Châtillon. Then, they would like to have a pilgrimage, together with whoever wants to join them, from Châtillon to Paris, especially to the area of Saint Lazare, where Saint Vincent de Paul had his first mission. Along the way, they want to preach God’s word and to do outreach service in a humble way, helping the poor, something similar to the Confraternities of Charity. The idea, mission and charity, that is what we are about and they want to invite others to participate with them. I honored them. I applauded them for this idea. We look at Holland, in general, as a Church, which seems to be a dying Church and yet, from this dying Church, has risen up new life with a desire to enkindle and make ever present the charism of our inspirational patron, Saint Vincent de Paul, who we are celebrating in a very special way, beginning in January 2017.

G. Gregory Gay, C.M.
Superior General of the Congregation of the Mission
and the Company of the Daughters of Charity

1 Comment

  1. Larry Huber

    Thanks for the powerful message and staunch reminder about who we are and what we are about – service to those in need, those who start out as strangers and with the grace of God become neighbors and friends.

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