This homily was preached at a Eucharistic celebration marking the 65th anniversary of Vincentian Brother Alfred Smith’s service to the people of St. Vincent’s parish in Philadelphia.
A scene in Chapter 17 of Exodus envisions the sagging arms of Moses’ and what it took to firm them up. It sets a tone for what and who we are about here today. And that is to celebrate the Lord’s love coming to us in this Eucharist, and also to celebrate one man’s bringing that love to so many of us, especially in this parish, over the past 65 years.
To keep God’s people safe and alive in their battle against Amalek, Moses has to hold his arms high in the air for a very long while. But he can’t do this without help, can’t continue strong unless others step in to prop up his wobbly arms when they begin to droop.
That act of stepping in at crucial times — sometimes life and death times — is familiar to anyone who knows Bro Al Smith. Early in life, he set his eyes on that foundational Gospel purpose, “Making God Known,” fleshing out God’s love in this world. You could say that through Al’s being there, through his activity and person, many arms have been held up in the pursuit of that same purpose.
First off, there have been generations of needy, heavily burdened people, here at St. Vincent’s and in other places, whose shaky times have been steadied because of Al’s work — and especially his presence.
When 65 years ago, he set out to follow Vincent de Paul’s way of Making God Known, I doubt he could have ever guessed the scope of helping actions he would be part of — coaching basketball, rehabbing and running boarding homes, operating soup kitchens and senior citizens groups, building high school education programs that lifted any number of young people into college ranks — and much more.
Rather than list each arm-bracing initiative he took, I’ll select just one of them from a booklet Brother Al recently wrote,“Journey of an Inner City Servant, St. Vincent de Paul: Assistance, Shelter, Hope.” He titles it,”A Vincentian Brother Shelters The Poor.”
“Sr. Ruth Maher, D.C., (a Daughter of Charity, one of Al’s closest collaborators and who was a parish outreach worker) asked me to join her and a few Vincentian Seminarians at the apartment of a disabled woman who had to move. It seemed a reasonable request, and I viewed it as a great opportunity to be with the seminarians. Sr. Ruth had neglected to tell me that the apartment was overrun with roaches. Roaches were everywhere — even in the freezer!
Since this woman was a double amputee, I could not abandon her or the moving project in which Sr. Ruth was fully engaged. Despite the fact that very few things were salvageable, we moved the woman to a new apartment in the same building and gave her back a sense of dignity.”
Then Brother Al goes on, “St. Vincent de Paul has much to say about serving the poor, but there is one of his insights that gives me courage and zeal in circumstances such as these. “Extend your mercy towards others, so that there can be no one in need whom you meet without helping. For what hope is there for us, if God should withdraw His mercy from us.”
Mention of Sr. Ruth opens another angle on the meaning of mutual strengthening: the strength of all the people who have helped to hold up Brother Al’s arms at times they would have slumped down were he on his own. His Vincentian confreres, family relatives, lay people from the parish, other religious women who joined Al, city officials, funding agencies, the wider Vincentian Family — so many over the decades standing by him and providing that extra something allowing him to keep on keeping on.
And of course there is Al’s relationship with The Strengthener, The Lord God, whose caring Presence lifted him through all though the years. Anyone standing near can testify to Brother Al’s steady prayerfulness and way of “handing it all over” to his Lord. A high time in this relationship was a 30 day retreat he made years ago, which he credits with pouring special resilience and “starch” into him that’s lasted and lasted.
Back to Moses and his friends, demonstrating how it is that keeping our arms high needs so much bolstering — from within, from around, and most importantly from beyond, The Lord Himself.
If we can look back on these 65 years as a time of making God known, as a decades-long leaning-back on God’s strength, we have a technicolor portrait of Bro Al Smith, his life, his work — and of the life that flows into the sinews and muscles of us all. And that is, the vitality that streams from the heart of our God, especially as it continues to be poured out now at this Eucharist, as we are again taken into the living and dying and rising arms of Our Lord Jesus Christ.