Vincentian Love in Action
Sister Mary Rose McGeady, D.C. Presentation to a Gathering of the Vincentian Family October 3, 1998 St. John’s University, Jamaica, New York
Let me first say a word of welcome to each of the groups here today - the Vincentians, the men and women of the St. Vincent de Paul Society, the Ladies of Charity, the Sisters of Charity, the Daughters of Charity, affiliates and volunteers - all of us, brothers and sisters in Christ and in St. Vincent.
We come together today because we hold in common a great treasure - the spirit of St. Vincent. We come together to reflect on the fact that each of us has been gifted with that special charism that is ours as followers of St. Vincent de Paul. I ask you, therefore, to take a moment to get in touch with that grace in your own life. God has come to each of our lives and placed therein that treasure. We have indeed found treasure in the field of our own hearts, placed there by God as pure gift! And why? Because we have been chosen to continue the spirit of St. Vincent today. We come here today, young and old, women and men, lay and religious, with many different daily responsibilities but with the same gift. In a spirit of gratitude and humility, let us thank God for this wondrous selection - to be so gifted. to be so called is indeed full of wonder. And as we reflect on the fact that each of us feels a certain overwhelming joy at this gift, we cannot help but be struck by the obvious fact that God works among us, that he has a task for us to do. As we consider the essence of this spiritual gift, we reflect upon the definition and essence of charism.
Vincent was given a special gift, or charism for the carrying out of God's work, and that charism was the vision of Christ in the poor. Our gift is the same. We are chosen to spread in our hurting world the great love that characterized Vincent in imitation of Christ.
Our call as Vincentians calls us to a three pronged mission - one that encompasses service and advocacy for the poor and a spirituality that keeps us in touch with the depth and nature of our call.-- service, advocacy and spirituality. To be Vincentian is to dedicated to serve the poor, to be their voice and defenders, and to remember that it is the charity of Christ that motivates and presses us. We are more than social workers or reformers, we are more than lawyers of the poor, we are more than churchgoers - ours is a mission that truly demands of us an extraordinary love.
Our three pronged mission is like a three-legged stool, if one leg is non-functional or defective, the stool is wobbly. And in our ministry it is not enough for us to pray, and we must pray -- it is not enough for us to serve, and we must serve -- it is not enough for us to speak on behalf of the poor - and we must so speak --- but in our ministry we must be committed to all three aspects.
Let's first consider our commitment to service and identify those aspects that make our service Vincentian. Vincent was one of the most creative servants that God ever created. His eye, if you will, was trained to see beyond what was evident - he saw to the heart of the poor he understood their needs at a depth and with an intuition that evoked in him a level of compassion that was indeed the compassion of Christ. As he looked around his world, he constantly found the poor, and mounted efforts to relieve their miseries. As you know, one of his earliest concerns was for the sick, and as a young parish priest at Chatillon he inspired his parishioners to visit a family in which everybody was sick. This was the beginning of our Vincentian family, for it was out of this effort which Vincent saw as wonderful but in need of being organized, that he founded the Association of Charity, with members who took turns caring for the poor. Undoubtedly his genius for organization is a key element in what has become his heritage. He not only started the Association of Charity, but he expanded it constantly throughout his life, realizing that we all share a responsibility to take care of our needy brothers and sisters.
Today the Ladies of Charity alone number more than 600,000 with branches in nearly every country in the world. And the St. Vincent de Paul Society numbers in the millions in 123 countries, with 60,000 in the U.S. alone, thanks to Frederick Ozanam, a true follower of Vincent.There are 13 American communities that count their origins with Elizabeth Seton and Vincent. In all of our organizations and communities together worldwide we are more than 2 million.- All of this an outgrowth of his early efforts to involved the laity in service as well as religious.
During these early years Vincent recognized the needs of the clergy, and began extensive work with priests, to make them stronger instruments of effective ministry and holiness, a work that continues to this day especially in seminaries. The fact that all his efforts needed to be permeated with concern for the spiritual needs of the poor as well as their material needs moved him to begin the missions for the peasants in the countryside from which developed the Congregation of the Mission or Vincentian Fathers. His priests enabled him to always work with two prongs, the material and spiritual needs of the people. As we begin to consider the variety of responses to the needs that he saw, we cannot help but be amazed.
Vincent's efforts on behalf of the street beggars, a very unpopular group in France, just as they are a very unpopular group today, were continuous throughout his life, he provided shelter, food and medical necessities for these sad people, and called on his new Associations of Charity to help in this fundamental work. Today at St. Lazare in Paris, the motherhouse of the Vincentians, there is a soup kitchen for these street people, a visible continuation of his empathy for this group. And with the combined efforts of the Daughters and Vincentians and the laity, there is a soup kitchen in Bedford Stuyvesant here in Brooklyn. As I heard recently about the efforts a made by the commuters who made a petition to remove the poor from Grand Central Station so they don't even have to look at them as they arrive in the morning, I think of Vincent and I beg him to change people's hearts.
His work with the galley slaves was also not only a first, but a ministry to the most rejected in society, because they were, first of all, prisoners, convicted criminals, ministry to them, let alone any kind of compassionate caring, was indeed an innovation. Vincent became their chaplain and worked not only to serve them spiritually, but he succeeded in mitigating the excruciatingly painful lives that they lived. He knew their suffering first hand, and there is one story that as one slave fainted from the fatigue, Vincent took his orr and rowed for him.
And of particular interest to me because of my ministry in covenant house with street kids, is the tremendous work that Vincent undertook with the street kids and foundlings of his day. It is a little known fact that Vincent's efforts for children were not only extensive and extraordinary, but so creative. At one point in time, Vincent, the Ladies of Charity and Daughters, working together were responsible for over 4000 children in foster homes To fund this work Vincent not only begged from the ladies and the rich in general, but he opened two businesses -- a winery and a bakery. I have been fascinated by the fact that Vincent bought a vineyard, hired workers, harvested the grapes, operated a winery and sold the wine. (I don't know if they sold blue nun!). He also started a bakery. Isn't it fantastic that he sold bread and wine to raise the money to feed the children and pay the foster mothers. I just love it and find my work to raise money as right in step with my Vincentian father -- a master fund raiser and I pray to him all the time to give me the courage and stamina to keep giving people the chance to please God by giving me money ---- money to feed God's kids, especially the runaway teenagers! Fund raising is a part of today's ministry that we all share. Maybe not our favorite thing, but a fundamental reality of service to the poor.
We could continue to catalog the list of initiatives which were part of Vincent's work. Although Vincent first formed the Ladies of Charity, his Daughters of Charity were not far behind. In 1633, the first girls began coming to Vincent offering themselves as full time volunteers. Vincent was keenly aware of the difficulties the rich ladies encountered in carrying soup pots with they big hoop skirts, and he welcomed the dedication of the good girls who came to work for God and the poor. They began by teaching the poor village girls how to read, and gradually opened schools as their numbers grew. Vincent placed the first twelve girls under Louise de Marillac, whom he had been directing spiritually and who also felt God's call to give herself to him in service to the poor. Once he had St. Louise and both the Daughters and the Ladies of Charity as partners, as well as his new congregation of priests, Vincent really went to town, establishing missions as well as the associations all over France. Together their ingenuity knew no bounds.
What Vincent didn't think of, the Daughters or ladies did. They worked with unwed mothers, they took over the largest Hospital in Paris to provide quality care to the sick, they worked in the prisons, they welcomed refugees, they established programs for the aged and handicapped, for retarded children and Vincent sent his missionaries to foreign nations. The agenda was never too full to take on something else, and it was an action agenda. Often the Daughters came to Vincent to say the money was about to run out and always Vincent found a source because his commitment was not only a commitment to do, but to find the means to do, to find somebody to pay for it.
Throughout all this enormous effort, Vincent worked untiringly on the second leg of the stool, advocacy for the poor. He had become well known at court. His presence was welcomed and respected despite the fact that his reports often pricked people's consciences. But always his appeals were for the poor, never for himself. He not only knew the queen but he became her almoner, in charge to distributing the largess of the realm on behalf of the poor. Such a neat job! I wish we had almoners to day. We could strive for that office.
As we review each new work or effort on behalf of the poor, we can also identify advocacy efforts undertaken by not only Vincent, but all his workers. The Ladies often approached their influential husbands to work for better public policy through their court connections, the Daughters begged pastors and parishioners to help in their varied efforts as donors and as volunteers. Vincent, who sat on a group called the Council of Conscience with the Queen and Cardinal constantly advocated with the council to name good bishops since his work with priests had put him in touch with truly dedicated clergy. To do for the poor was never enough for any of Vincent's army - always they strove to make their world a better place by raising the consciences of people and urging action where action was needed.
One of the most powerful examples of Vincent as advocate is an incident which took place just two years before he died, when he was 78 years of age. France was in the midst of the war of the Frond which was a civil war in which the monarchy was fighting for absolute authority against the nobility who wanted their share of power. Cardinal Mazarin was the chancellor, or most powerful figure in the court of Anne of Austria. Mazarin had implemented several very severe edicts, especially regarding the food supply. The city of Paris was starving. Anne and the entire court had moved out of the city to St. Germain, several miles away. Vincent, in his determination to do something to relieve the terrible situation, got on a horse and rode the several miles to St. Germain, even crossing a river on horseback. He arrived soaking wet at the court and asked to see the queen. She immediately granted his request, and Vincent asked her to fire Mazarin - to literally get rid of him - since his edicts were causing so much suffering. Anne immediately sent for Mazarin, had Vincent face him with his information, and Anne directed Mazarin to alter his edicts. This, and so many similar incidents, demonstrate that when it came to speaking on behalf of the poor, Vincent knew no human respect. In church matters, civil matters, political matters, or basic human needs the voice of Vincent was always the voice for the poor.
And always the third leg of the stool, spirituality, was not only a major focus but indeed a preoccupation of Vincent. Regularly he challenged all of his followers to tend to their own relationship with God, to be people of prayer, to live the same deep devotion to divine providence which was at the base of all Vincent's undertakings, as well as his deep and constant gratitude to God for all the grace showered on the Little Company. His constant recourse to the holy spirit when there was question of some new undertaking was also part of his focus..
One biographer of Vincent asks the question: what was the most striking characteristic of Vincent's deep spirituality? And he answers his question by saying: "at the risk of seeming paradoxical, the foremost characteristic of his spirituality was "passivity." He goes on to say that Vincent, who was such an active man, founding major societies which were marked by such constant zeal, had at the root of his spirit a determination to obey God alone in all that he did. This made passivity before God a dominant feature of his soul. When we hear the word we instinctively think of inertia, abstention, and state of submission rather than of activity. But in mystical parlance it has a completely different meaning. We recall the prayer that the high priest Elijah taught the child Samuel to say: "Speak, lord, for your servant is listening." Thus we might call passivity the spiritual doctrine contained in the prayer of Samuel. It happens to have been Vincent's as well. He wished to be a " docile instrument" in God's hands and he required the "word of his God" before making a decision. When we understand his mystical passivity, his total and continued submission to the will of God we gain a correct view of Vincent's celebrated fear of haste, his oft quoted expression, "one must not try to hurry providence". At times his slowness maddened his followers, but it was a basic part of his innate humility -- his determination not to put himself and his ideas forward. However, once he was convinced that God's will would be served, nothing held him back, no obstacle was insurmountable, and problems were only issues to be confronted and solved with God's help. Today we use the term "discernment" - waiting upon the lord, surrendering. To be Vincentian, we too must know how to surrender.
As we look around our world today, perhaps most of us think: "where is St. Vincent today when we need him so much?" We see so much that needs doing. We see so many poor, even here in the richest countryin the world, we see so much indifference and rejection of the poor So much public policy moving away from caring for the poor. Where is St. Vincent? He is right here. Look at that person across the table from you, or the one next to you. There is St. Vincent today. That man who visits the sick in his parish, helps pay the rent in difficult circumstances, that sister who teaches poor kids, or who helps the immigrant to speak and read english, that woman who volunteers in a food pantry, or soup kitchen. That couple who visits the prison, that priest who ministers in a ghetto parish. That university professor who teaches morality and advocates for justice.That adminisrator who tries to lead with just policies and good treatment of workers.
Those of you who are monitoring the true impact of welfare reform, noting the who are hungry, especailly the increase in women and children in the soup line. Those who are watching the impact on children. Those who are speaking out on the need for good day care for working mothers, for just living wage, for fair immigration policies. Those who have written letters to Congress, to the state legislators.To school boards or policy makers when you have data to share or an injustice to document. Our Daughters who just went to Haiti to take over a poor hospital. All of these actions are Vincent made present today. Those of you who raise local issues for your parish councils, or social action committee to raise consciousness or initiate appropriate action are living the heritage of Vincent.
Vincent alive and well among us.
Everytime I go to Capitol Hill and I have been there a dozen times in the last year and a half, to talk to members about the needs of youth, of the growing numbers of disconnected kids, or to oppose the bill now before our Congress which criminalizes running away, I feel that Vincent is walking and talking beside me. In those hallowed halls just as he walked the courts of the 17th century. And I feel obligated to educate our congressmen in matters involving youth where I have valuable information.
The quality of our service is what gives us credibility in our advocacy! Not to use that credibility is to let the poor down, to fail in one of our three pronged mission.
Yes. you know, and I know, that the responsibility is now ours. We need to continue to cherish the charism of the vision of Christ in the poor, take our courage in our hands and do as Vincent did and do it with the three pronged approach.
Just this past July, at the close of the General Assembly of the Vincentian Fathers, Father Bob Maloney, the successor of St. Vincent spoke to all of us. First of all, he called on all the followers of St. Vincent to recall the initial intent of the jubilee years or as the scriptures call it "a year of favor from the Lord". The year of favor was intended to be a time of rejoicing for the poor. And today the Holy Father calls upon the church to indeed celebrate the coming millennium by laying new and greater emphasis on the preferential option for the poor and the outcast. The jubilee year 2000 calls us both in our life and in our mission to proclaim that Jesus is alive, that he is present, and that he breaks the bonds that hold us captive.
Father Maloney, in appreciation of the tremendous strength that we possess as a united force when all of our organizations work together, calls on us to find ways to collaborate, to double our effectiveness by working and praying together. He calls us to use the language of works, the language of words, and the language of relationships to proclaim the good news. He calls us to be with the poor, to work with them, to share in their privations, and form with them a community which shows the lord's love for all. Let us hear St. Vincent's call to us through Father Maloney, his successor, as he speaks of us as an army of two million. He calls us in the light of the gap between rich and poor which continues to grow wider. He call us to reach out to youth, to refugees, to the new poor - aids victims. And he urges us to use all modern methods of communication to enhance our efforts.
I believe this call to use modern means of communication is a mandate to all of us here to develop some means to communicate with one another on current advocacy issues so our united voice can be heard and have more powerful impact.
I challenge you to create today the beginning of such networking, of ways to reach each other with some kind of networking system by which we can get touch, and alert each other on pending important issues affecting the poor I pledge my part to make it happen.
If all of us today by fax, phone, or e-mail could speak in a unified voice, we could make a bigger difference.
A couple of months ago I had the good fortune to see the movie, "Amistad" a wonderful and powerful story about a slave ship from Sierra Leone in Africa and the slaves brought to our shores on it. The word "Amistad" means "friendship" but the treatment of the Africans by their captors was anything but friendly. During the voyage across the Atlantic the slaves burst from their chains and overtook the crew of the ship. Since they were not navigators, the ship sailed haphazardly for many days until they reached land. It was Long Island, but sadly their arrival was greeted by capture by the American colonial navy which again cruelly put them in prison. Their case was before a series of american courts and a young american lawyer became their defender, claiming they should be returned to their homeland since all claims to them wee invalid and their capture, cruel injustice.
After several unsuccessful court appearances, they were finally to appear before the supreme court.
The young lawyer called on John Quincy Adams, son of the former president and known abolitionist to argue their case before the supreme court. The night before, John Adams had a conversation with the leader of the slaves and told him they were about to stand alone before the highest court in the land and have their future decided. Cinque, the slave, said: "Oh, no. We will not stand alone. All of our ancestors will stand with us". This was the belief of the Mende people, the tribe of Sierra Leone. Adams was impressed and as he stood before the court, he called the attention of the members to their forbears - Washington, Jefferson, Adams and Franklin, whose busts surrounded them in the court. And he said to the court: "Gentlemen, I call on you to reflect on the leaders who have gone before us - who fought so valiantly for freedom and the belief that all are created equal." Then, he said, "who we are is who we were". His words moved the court deeply and the Africans were sent home. Not only was this powerful advocacy, but true justice - and a powerful line and lesson for us.
Who we are is who we were. Let us all reflect on these words today as we stand in admiration at who we are and who we were - Vincent, Louise, Frederick Ozanam,, Elizabeth Ann Seton, thousands of followers of our great ancestors. And let us beg God to indeed make us who we were, sons and daughters of Vincent de Paul -- and let us resolve to live true to the heritage that is ours and be humbly grateful to call ourselves "Vincentian".