A Vincentian View: “Be Radical”
The opportunity to preach a retreat to our Sisters, the Daughters of Charity, in Dublin has offered me a chance to be radical. I came to the Old Sod some days early with my brothers and we did some family visiting. We saw the homes where my parents were born, the Church where they were baptized, the primary school which they attended, and many other places. We also met with people (few in these days) who had known them in the old days. It felt very radical—I was connecting to my roots in a way which is not possible in the land of my birth.
In the English-speaking world, the word “radical” could sometimes have a negative implication. It can suggest someone or something lying outside the ordinary course, far from the norm, far from the center. A “radical” could describe someone who does things in a way that few others would, someone who thinks in an original, if not counter-cultural, way. A “radical” might advocate the overthrowing of a system or an established way of thinking/acting. He/she might try new and unorthodox practices and cast aside an older established order. In a simple, neutral term, a radical might be described as an “outlier.” Radicals stand apart from the usual pattern and experience.
This description of the word “radical” seems to run against its origin. The term comes from the Latin word “radix” which means “root”—yes, like a radish. It connects to what is essential and the source of nourishment; it draws towards the center. Thus, the idea of a “radical” being an outlier seems discordant with the provenance of the word which clearly suggests lying at the foundation and heart of a living thing. “Radical” as “root” as well as “trailblazer” seems to encourage a rich interpretation and hopeful growth.
What might this mean for a Vincentian? When we speak of our “radical” character, our intent could direct us to our foundations which place a first and primary emphasis on the care of those who are most poor. We consider these marginalized individuals and groups as our “lords and masters” and ourselves unworthy to offer our simple service. Our interventions and actions keep their needs in the center. We resist the thinking of the powerful and influential in order to celebrate the simple and humble. That can be pretty radical.
In my work at St. John’s University, I ask myself about the call to be a radical Vincentian. At the least, it means for me to be an active agent in an institution which provides an affordable first-class education to those who might be directed to something less. It means to emphasize a social justice which identifies the sins of our time and provides a platform for the powerless to be heard. It means to be identifiable with Catholic Social Teaching and a contributor to its ongoing development despite currents to the contrary. These ideas connect St. John’s to its roots.
What does being radical mean in your ministry? The summons to “be radical” as a Vincentian is not a bad thing! It connects us to our homeland.