Two centuries ago the first Vincentian priests and brothers in the U.S. had no idea of what they getting into. There were no Ladies of Charity or Daughters of Charity. Nor was there any presence of the Society of Vincent de Paul.
The first Vincentians in the United States
Even after a lifetime of trying to live the mission of bringing good news to the poor I was struck by the following paragraph in a recent engaging essay on those who pioneered Vincentian ministry in the United States. Maybe it also struck me because in my formation over 50 years ago we were not exactly steeped in our history. The paragraph…
“As (these Vincentians) had prepared for this work back in Europe, they couldn’t help but envision it according to their experience of life in Europe: various lands dotted with towns, each of which was centered around a church and a community who shared a common language and culture. But what they discovered in their new home was an immense territory of land dotted with homesteads, few towns, and even less churches—and peoples with varying languages, customs, and religions.
Sure, I knew they felt a call to follow Christ the Evangelizer of the Poor. But I never really thought about what they expected when they arrived. Or that maybe they had no idea what they were getting into. They were certainly filled with zeal. What they found was so much different from what they imagined.
This really got me thinking about how different the world we minister in today is from the world I grew up in more than 70 years ago. It is certainly different from the world I expected to minister when I was ordained a priest.
Who of us could have imagined…
Who could have imagined just a generation ago the changed landscape of society and church?
It was less than 15 years ago when the game-changing iPhone was first sold. Yes, there was a world before iPhones, iTunes, Alexa, Siri, etc. It was a world today’s teenagers never knew … and older folks have perhaps forgotten about or are desperately trying to hold onto.
Pope Benedict commented in 2012, “The new technologies are not only changing the way we communicate but communication itself, so much so that it could be said that we are living through a period of vast cultural transformation” (Message, World Communications Day, 2012). Already in the 1990s, we began to hear terms like “Digital Native” and “Digital Immigrants.”
Who could have imagined a society in which people would be classified by political tribes, the advent of “fake news” and calling into question the very nature of truth? A world in which literally a handful of people possess more wealth than most of the world’s population.
Who could have imagined a church where so many young people (and other groups) do not feel welcome. A Church where so many Catholics are outraged not only at the scandal of clerical abuse but even more about the scandal of high-ranking clerics who were complicit in covering up.
St. Vincent’s sense of his times
I think of two other quotes. Four years before his death St. Vincent wrote …
As for myself, if I had known what it was when I had the temerity to enter it (priesthood) — as I have come to know since then — I would have preferred to till the soil than to commit myself to such a formidable state of life. (CCD:V:569).
But he also said,
“And that, Sisters, was the beginning of your Company. As it wasn’t then what it is now, there’s reason to believe that it’ s still not what it will be when God has perfected it as He wants it.
Today, I could easily hear him saying to all the women and men who are trying to follow Christ the Evangelizer of the Poor something like… “The world you minister in today is not the world you ministered to even just a generation ago. Nor is it the world in which you will minister to tomorrow.”
Questions facing those wishing to follow Christ the Evangelizer of the Poor
Am I still living in the Kansas of the way we used to do things as Evangelizers of the Poor?
Have I looked at my assumptions about serving in today’s world?
What does it mean to be a church of lay people in mission in the world today?
What is the same about our mission?
What do we need to change to serve more effectively?