Speech at the Papal Audience.
by Mark Mcgreevy
Vincentian Symposium

Mark Mcgreevy

Good morning everybody. Welcome to St Peter’s!

My name is Mark McGreevy and I am the Group Chief Executive of Depaul International. We are a group of homelessness charities established as a collaboration of the Vincentian Family 27 years ago. We began life as one small homeless shelter in London in 1999 and today Depaul International works in seven countries assisting over 22,000 homeless people every year. The reason I am speaking here today is that the heads of the Vincentian Family have asked me, on their behalf, to announce the launch of the Famvin Homeless Alliance. This project is one of the most ambitious undertakings in the life of the Vincentian movement. We aim, with your help, to change the lives of hundreds of thousands of homeless people globally and to make sure that their voice is heard by policymakers at a local, national and international level including the UN. In short, our ambition is to join the crusade to end homelessness globally. More of that later.

2017 marks the 400th anniversary year of the birth of the Vincentian charism. This charism is best summed up in the story of the poor and ailing family in the parish of Châtillon (France) where Vincent was serving as a parish priest. The family was too sick to work or to even leave their house and Vincent realised that if they were to survive they needed material aid – food, water, and nursing care. Whilst celebrating mass he implored his congregation to help. Later on that same day he went to visit the family with bread, cheese, and milk. On the way, Vincent met many of his parishioners who had responded to his plea for help and they were also carrying food and drink for the family. Vincent could see that there was too much food being provided at one time – that the bread would go stale and the milk turn sour. There was no plan to even out the supply over the coming days and weeks. It was at this point that Vincent realized that there was “great charity” but that it needed to be properly organised if it was to be effective. He said “it is not enough to do good, we must do it well.” So the Vincentian charism to encourage and organise charity was born.

From that point on Vincent devoted himself to the organisation of charity, beginning in France before spreading out across Europe and then around the world. He would have had no idea how such a simple idea would, in time, grow into an international movement of over two million people incorporating over 125 verified religious and lay organizations who claim Vincent as their founder and the organization of charity as their mission. Nor would Vincent have guessed at the size and scale of the works of charity being currently undertaken by the Vincentian Family globally, serving millions of the world’s “poorest of the poor”.

Earlier this year, at the beginning of this 400th year of celebration, the leaders of the Vincentian Family asked members to reflect on the Gospel of Matthew 25:35 “When I was a stranger, you welcomed me”. Who are the strangers in our midst today? How can we welcome them? How can we respond to new and emerging needs as Vincent and his parishioners did at Châtillon? How can we reach out to those suffering discrimination and isolation because of their faith or the colour of their skin? How do we help those living alone with poor physical and mental health? The elderly coping with loss and a rapidly changing world? I am sure that many of these issues are familiar areas of challenge in your local and national ministries.

Academic and anecdotal research shows that one of the most common ways in which the global Vincentian family “welcomes the stranger” is in its work with those who fall into a broad definition of being homeless – whether it is those physically living on the streets or in shelters, refugees seeking safety, asylum seekers, internally displaced people or those trapped in insecure settlements such as slums or favelas. In its most recent report on the issue, the UN Settlements Agency estimates that over 1.2 billion of the 7 billion people on this planet are homeless in one form or other and that this will most likely grow as a result of poverty, economic downturns, conflict, natural disaster, and urbanization. For example:

– There are 65 million refugees globally at the moment, which is the highest level ever recorded
– There are 863 million men women and children live in slums and favelas across the world
– In 1950, only 746 million people lived in our cities. That grew to 3.9 billion in 2014 and will reach 6.4 billion by 2050. This is placing tremendous pressure on housing and services as urbanisation gathers pace.
– There are rising numbers of street homeless people here in Europe and across the world who have fallen through the safety net and need help to re-join their communities.

During his lifetime, Vincent was very committed to reaching out to the homeless. He opened “13 Houses” which cared for thousands of children “found” on the streets of Paris. He opened kitchens for the homeless and needy across Paris. Vincent wrote that at his base in Saint-Lazare “soup is distributed daily to fourteen or fifteen thousand persons, who would die of hunger without this assistance”.

Similarly, Vincent raised money and provided safe havens for thousands of refugees – men, women, and children -fleeing the wars and famine in Lorraine. He reached into the slums of France and offered the poor opportunities for education, or to learn trades that would allow them to grow and prosper.

Throughout its history, the Vincentian Family has continued that tradition of helping homeless people – refugees who come to our shores seeking safety, slum dwellers in Africa, India and Latin America and street homeless people in our cities across the world. However, in this anniversary year, and faced with a global epidemic of homelessness, the leadership of the Vincentian Family are right to ask the question – can we do more? How effective might we be if this great, global Vincentian movement worked together more closely?

With those questions in mind, I am delighted to announce today – on behalf of the heads of the Vincentian Family – the launch of the Famvin Homeless Alliance – a new Vincentian Family global initiative to serve homeless people as part of our celebrations to mark the 400th anniversary of the birth of our charism. In summary, the aims of the Famvin Homeless Alliance are:

  • to make a real and sustainable difference to the lives of hundreds of thousands of homeless people globally by encouraging the growth of new services for refugees, slum dwellers, and street homeless people. I am asking everybody here to consider what more they can do and to take this message back to the Vincentian Family in their congregation, association, country or even within their parish. How can we reach out more to the homeless people in our midst to provide food, shelter, companionship, and opportunity?
  • to build a strong network between existing Vincentian groups working across the spectrum of homelessness and to support this network as it develops. We would like to hear what you are doing and how we can help you to grow.
  • to support and develop existing and emerging leaders in homelessness across the globe through training programmes. Let us know if you need help or know of candidates.
  • to share best research, practice and effective models of working across agencies and countries through our websites and planned conferences.
  • to lobby for structural change in support of homeless people at a national, regional and global level and in particular within the UN.
  • To educate the world about homelessness. Next month, we are bringing major academics, theologians, and practitioners together here in Rome to look at Catholic Social Teaching in this area.
  • Finally, with the help of the newly founded Institute of Global Homelessness based at DePaul University in Chicago, to end street homelessness in 150 cities across the world by 2030 in collaboration with other partners. We already have our first 10 cities signed up and work is in progress.

The Holy Father Pope Francis has shown a great love for the homeless through both words and actions. He said the following words to leaders of homeless agencies on a recent visit to the USA:

“The Son of God came into this world as a homeless person. The Son of God knew what it was to start life without a roof over his head. We can imagine what Joseph must have been thinking. How is it that the Son of God has no home? Why are we homeless, why don’t we have housing? These are questions which many of you may ask, and do ask, every day. Like Saint Joseph, you may ask: Why are we homeless, without a place to live? And those of us who do have a home, a roof over our heads, would also do well to ask: Why do these, our brothers and sisters, have no place to live? Why are these brothers and sisters of ours homeless?” (Washington, 24 September 2015).

In these increasingly troubled times, our Vincentian tradition and our charism call us to act on behalf of our homeless brothers and sisters – in their stories we see Christ in all his suffering.

Through the Famvin Homeless Alliance, we want to reach out to homeless people in every country where the Vincentian Family is present. We need your help and support to grow this mission and to end the structural injustice and personal tragedy which is homelessness. Please get in touch with us through email, Facebook, and Twitter – our contact details are in your booklet and on this bookmark – take one for a friend who might be interested. Let us know what you are doing, what your plans are and how we can help you. Pray for our success in building something that helps the poorest of the poor in keeping with our Vincentian tradition.

Vincent was a bridge between the powerful and the powerless, between the rich and the poor, between ideas and action. He understood that our responsibility to help homeless people was not just an act of charity but a matter of justice. I hope that together we can build bridges in order to ensure everyone in the world has a place they can call home and a stake in their community.

Have a wonderful time here in Rome with your Vincentian Family and friends.

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