Bearing Beams of Love in a World of Contrary Lights: The Challenge of Living Vincentian Values in Contemporary Western Society Fr. G. Gregory Gay, C.M. Superior General Congregation of the Mission October 17, 2011 Vincentians in Partnership London, United Kingdom “And we are put on this earth a little space, that we might learn to bear the beams of love” -William Blake 1757- 1827 I am honored to be among you today at this annual meeting of Vincentians in Partnership. I appreciate the opportunity to speak with you and to encounter a people and place who make real the charism of St Vincent de Paul in today’s world. As you know, last year we celebrated the 350th anniversary of the extraordinary lives of Saints Vincent de Paul and Louise de Marillac, whose legacy of service to the poor is an enduring gift to the Church and the world. Through your work in the United Kingdom and beyond, the ten partner organizations, along with thirteen other groups associated with Vincentians in Partnership; do fittingly attest to the far reach of Vincentian charism by your innovative and compassionate service to the poor and vulnerable. Last year, at the General Assembly of the Congregation of the Mission, I was privileged to hear a presentation from Mark McGreevy, a representative of Depaul International, one of your partner organizations. Mark, a founding member of Depaul, addressed Vincentians from the world over. Along with my confreres, I marveled at how Depaul evolved from a small urban oasis of emergency assistance into an organic organization with a full range of services. Depaul is just one of ten stories- or should I say twenty-three, counting your other thirteen groups- of the Vincentian charism in action today. However, I will respond to a request Mark made that day, as I believe would it also be yours. He asked us to help DePaul deepen an appreciation of our charism through collaboration with the Vincentian Family. Then and now, my answer is an excited “Yes!” Today, I reiterate my pledge to do all I can as Superior General to insure that all here receive ongoing formation in the Vincentian charism. The Congregation of the Mission, Daughters of Charity, St. Vincent de Paul Society, and all in the Vincentian Family must, in Mark’s words, “think long and think big” on how our charism can enrich and empower us. When asked to speak on the challenge of living Vincentian values in contemporary western society, I took as my theme: “Bearing Beams of Love in a World of Contrary Lights”. This theme has two sources, one literary and one liturgical. The first is an excerpt from a poem by Englishman William Blake who wrote, “and we are put on earth a little space that we might learn to bear the beams of love’”. The second part is taken from the Collect, or opening prayer at
Mass in the fifteen Sunday in ordinary time, imploring God to “guide us to your Kingdom in a world filled with lights contrary to your own.” I believe both poem and prayer capture the tension in living Vincentian values in today’s world. Let me begin by sharing some thoughts on our contemporary milieu. At the outset, let me say that I am not a pessimist or naysayer to all that is part of living in our world today. We have great resources at our disposal that are used for the good of humanity. In the last few decades, there have been breath-taking advances in science, medicine, and technology. Our era is one of the most fortuitous in the history of the world. Today, we can communicate in “real time” and at warp speed. Thanks to the Internet, the once theoretical global village now comes to us on our desktop or laptop. We can instantly access information and communicate with those near and far. With unparalleled access to information, the world is literally at our fingertips, with daily new and rapid developments. With the ability to communicate within the global village at any time, shouldn’t we affirm in the words of a global electronics brand that ‘Life is good’? Well, not so fast! Last summer, as you will sadly recall, Great Britain endured nights of rioting, looting, injury, and death in cities and suburbs across this country. I am sure you have had extensive discussions on the causes and effects of such shocking and unnerving behavior. As you know, riots also occurred in other European countries. While visiting Madrid in August for World Youth Days, I saw this first hand. One night, our subway train ride was abruptly ended to avoid clashes with youthful demonstrators, who called themselves Indignatos or “angry ones”. Is there a common thread one can draw from these riots and demonstrations besides the initial reaction of blaming them on social media and instant communication technology? Well, yes. A common factor in countries with riots and demonstrations by young people is a pervasive problem of unemployment. While unemployment the Euro-zone is at record levels, for youth ages 18-34, it is significantly higher. Let me share some sobering statistics. According to figures released in August, unemployment in the United Kingdom was 7.7 percent, while youth unemployment was 20 percent. In Ireland, 28 percent of the 8.3 percent of those unemployed are youth. In the Euro-zone, the average national figure for unemployed youth is 22 percent, except in Spain, where youth unemployment is a whopping 44 percent. Is it any wonder the Indignatos motto is, “We are not goods in the hands of bankers and politicians!” Daily media reports dire or disappointing aspects of the economy. Yet, economists say there is no quick fix. The constant civic clamor for austerity measures and new types of taxation bode badly for all, but especially for the poor, with little, if any resources. It is no coincidence the stark and steady rise of a homeless population in Europe has occurred during this same time. However, let me be so bold as to say as bad as they appear, I believe today’s economic woes are indicative of a deeper level of unrest. To assign all blame to bankers, financiers, politicians and entrepreneurs for allowing what has been called “Casino Capitalism” that created
the crisis is to deny a deeper social, societal, and spiritual malaise at work. I believe there are four dominant tenets in society today shaping the “Real, Cruel world” we must live in. They are: •
Allow me to reflect briefly on each of these categories. I suspect you all can add much from the rich store house of your own life experiences. Today, consumerism is a force to be reckoned with, as media and marketers seek to sell us things we don’t need. The continual cross between entertainment and retailing (slickly called “E-tailing” by advertisers) creates a false sense of need and emptiness when the goods are gone. It often results in a desire for more, be it fancy clothes and cars for the middle class, or tobacco and alcohol for poor people in developing nations. The result? People chase after illusionary “things” to no end, create enormous debt, develop health and family problems, and eventually lose sight of what matters most in life. I titled the second term “unhinged individualism” deliberately, as I believe it is a byproduct of rampant consumerism: what I feel is good for me must come first. I define my world primarily in terms of what now benefits me or those in my little circle. In the last few decades, philosophers, psychologists, sociologists, and theologians have written about a breakdown of community, of people no longer working toward a common goal. If life is defined solely in terms of “the self’, there is no common ground and little chance of success at creating or sustaining community, except in a superficial (recreational) or functional (political) manner. From this unhinged individualism comes a contemporary adaption of 19th century social Darwinism, a modern ‘survival of the fittest”. Life becomes an arena where only the strong survive, a consequence of a ‘natural selection’ process borne of economic, political, or social policies. The poor are faceless, huddled masses who must learn to fend for themselves. The immigrant is a tax burden and possibly a threat to security. The elderly and disabled are a drain on resources, and the unborn exist or perish at the wishes of their human incubator. This may sound raw and unfiltered. But given the political, social, and economic policies proffered and adopted by the public and private sectors the last few decades, I believe it has made for newer, more lethal forms of “modern-day Darwinism” that have taken hold of our social ethos. The end result of this unchecked consumerism, individualism, and breakdown of societal care and community results in what I call a ‘world-weariness’, a pervasive dissatisfaction with one’s life. It is more than boredom of a banal life. Left unchecked, it becomes a narrow, cynical world view, sustained by artificial means, usually drugs and alcohol to avoid life’s pain. One
result of this ennui today is the record number of young people dealing with serious drug and alcohol problems. Thankfully, in recovery, they can overcome this social and spiritual languor. Now that I have laid out the bad news, it’s time for some good news. To use a nautical analogy, after we’ve navigated in difficult waters, I bring you relief! I have a bright, shining light- house to guide you in choppy waters, and a safe port to welcome you home. I think you know where I’m going: the light house is the Vincentian charism; the safe port is Vincentians in Partnership. Yes, that’s right- the answers to today’s “real, cruel world” are in your midst. Our charism, bequeathed to us by Saints Vincent and Louise is a “Heritage of Hope”, which for centuries has inspired religious and laity such as Blessed Frederick Ozanam, founder of the St. Vincent de Paul Society, to serve the poor with humility, integrity, and compassion. Just as I laid out four tenets that define today’s “real, cruel world”, I will share four touchstones of the Vincentian charism that bring healing and hope to today’s world. They are: •
reverence for the ‘other’;
caring, competent service;
a graced future.
These touchstones not only provide a striking contrast to tenets of consumerism, individualism, Darwinism, and world-weariness. They were dynamic parts of the lives of Vincent and Louise, who integrated them into enduring foundations of religious and laity to serve the poor. If one reads a few of St. Vincent de Paul’s writings, the first touchstone, “reverence for the other” needs little explication. St. Vincent was given the titled “Pater Indigentiam” (Father of the Poor) by the Church, not only for his great works for the poor, but because he loved them as dearly as a father loves his children. Despite the time he spent organizing and administering two religious communities and groups of laity serving the poor, Vincent never lost his concern or care for the poor. Listen to his instructions to the first Daughters of Charity: “You serve Jesus Christ in the person of the poor. Ten times a day, you will go out to visit the sick, and ten times a day you will find God there. Visit poor galley slaves in chains, and you will find God there; take care of little children, and you will find God there. You go into households of the poor, but there you find God. How wonderful! God kindly accepts the service you render to them and considers it done to himself. - Conf. 24, Daughters of Charity, Vol. IX, pp. 242-253)
Therein lay the secret to Vincent’s reverent interactions with the poor: he saw them as an invitation, not a threat; a manifestation of God’s presence. Sometimes surly and ungrateful, not pleasing in appearances, the poor were a difficult group with which to cast one’s lot. But Vincent and Louise served the poor with tenderness, respect and love; believing that no matter how they
appeared, they manifested God’s abiding presence among us. In St. Vincent’s writings, one cannot help but be impressed with images he invokes to humanize and to even exalt them as those who “took the place of the Son of God, who chose to be poor”. Saint Vincent’s and Louise‘s reverence for the poor led them to form intentional communities committed to service. Vincent realized that for charity to be effective, it had to be organized and done with a community effort. He was among the first community organizers. Both Vincent and Louise were forward thinking people in their era, founding religious and lay movements with innovative rules to insure mobility. They also invested much time in instruction to insure their members had adequate formation. In turn, these intentional communities - religious and lay – became an example to the poor of how to respect and honor one another. The poor saw in them an alternative to ruthless “rules of the road” that often governed their chaotic lives and learned tolerance and charity. In reverencing the poor and by forming communities, Vincent and Louise showed them a new way of life, planting seeds of hope to help them care for their families and respect their neighbor. But the genius of Saints Vincent and Louise lay in their attention to detail, carefully constructing systems of service delivery that were both caring and competent. Daughters of Charity hearing this may quietly smile, recalling reading in their internal seminary days the extant writings of St. Louise with detailed instructions to the first Daughters on how to visit the poor, what to say and do, and which medicines and foods to bring. Vincent took great pains to instruct the Ladies and Confraternities of Charity specifically on how to serve the poor. Both Saints kept copious records, and Vincent was a prodigious letter writer. His journals reveal a keen mind willing to engage the slightest or greatest of matters of concern in service to the poor. He told his confreres clearly what he expected: “It is our duty to prefer service of the poor to everything else and to offer it as quickly as possible.” The rapid growth of the Daughters of Charity in St. Louise’s lifetime was due to their reputation as competent and caring servants of the poor. Soon after, they became a renowned international community. By their reverence for the person, formation of intentional communities, and trailblazing new ways of caring and competent service for untold poor, Saints Vincent and Louise achieved something rare, if not unique to that era: they gave the poor hope. By affirming their human dignity, they gave the poor a graced future, to develop a relationship with God and awaken their spirit. Indeed, instructions Louise gave to the Daughters and Vincent wrote to the Confraternities of Charity directed those serving the poor to help them learn to pray and to nurture their faith. Still, their emphasis was on invitation, not coercion. No poor person was refused help. However, the ‘graced future’ Vincent and Louise envisioned for the poor was not only to prepare them for eternity, but also to live in this world. In this regard, their vision was one of true foresight, helping the poor to move beyond crisis assistance toward self reliance. Vincent wrote detailed letters on how to assist resettled refugee farmers in the wars of Lorraine and Picardy.
Louise had with her first Daughters teach the children of the poor how to read and write. Both saints shared a progressive vision for the poor, and while it is a lesser known part of their story, it is relevant to understanding the Vincentian charism today. So, as an antidote to the consumerism, individualism, modern-day Darwinism, and world weariness of contemporary society, I offer these touchstones of the Vincentian charism for your consideration. May I suggest you reflect on them individually and collectively, discussing what it means among Vincentians in Partnership to reverence the other, form intentional communities, provide caring and competent service, and offer others a graced future? In these charism touchstones, you have a counter-cultural model that is time tested and effective. So much for the light-house. Now let’s focus on the safe port, the harbor of hope! When I reflect on the brief but important history of Vincentians in Partnership and review your stated objectives, I cannot help but imagine the broad smiles on the faces of Saints Vincent and Louise and Blessed Frederic Ozanam, as they look down on us from above. An early saying attributed to St. Vincent was “in serving the poor, do that which is practical and possible.” The objectives in your annual report show your goals and work are near and dear to the hearts of our Holy Founders. Let me briefly recall them: •
To foster a sense of belonging, communication, and collaboration between the Vincentian Family, members of Vincentians in Partnership, and their associates;
• To deepen the underlying spirituality and ethos of its members; • To support and empower those trapped in poverty, and work together on practical projects supporting those in need; •
To oppose structural injustice and lobby for justice.
While these are your words, I believe these objectives are a microcosm of the words and works of Vincent and Louise. They are intentional, reverential, competent, caring, offering hope for a graced future both to those who are served and who serve. To situate our Vincentian charism more fully within your objectives, I offer you a proverb, a parable, and a promise. The Irish have a proverb: “In the shelter of each other, the people truly live.” With partners such as Depaul, The Passage, St. Vincent de Paul Society, International Association of Charities, and Vincentian Volunteers, you ably provide food, shelter, clothing, and stop-gap care for many in dire need. Yet, our charism bids you not only give care, but to be care personified. But besides caring for the poor, you are asked to learn why people are homeless, hungry, and without basic needs. In embracing our charism, true “shelter” is found not just in emergency care, but learning about the causes of poverty, asking why it is so, advocating, and taking action. From this is born a “shelter of the soul” hewn from our common humanity.
Your annual report and this meeting today provide a clear window into the world of this organization and its goals and plans. To a newcomer, it gives a transparent, marvelous view. But I have a potent way for you to view and enact your present purpose and future horizons: through the lens of Sacred Scripture. I believe that Vincentians in Partnership is a modern day parable that affirms the promises of God in our midst. To inspire, teach, and challenge his followers, Jesus used parables, stories drawn from ordinary events in daily life. A short and often overlooked parable (which appears in three of four Gospels) that I believe aptly describes Vincentians in Partnership is that of the mustard seed. It says, “Jesus said, “The Kingdom of God is like a grain of mustard seed, which a man took, and put in his own garden. It grew, and became a large tree, and the birds of the sky lodged in its branches.” - Lk.13: 18-19 This parable is not a superficial “from small sprigs do great oak trees grow” story. The mustard seed was a very small seed. Its saplings were frail and could easily die. Yet, once grown, it was firmly rooted and survived earthquakes, droughts and floods. For Jesus, the mustard seed is the Kingdom of God on earth. Vincentians in Partnership began as a mustard seed of hope amidst a leviathan of human misery. By your work in assisting and empowering the poor, you bring the Kingdom of God into their lives; you have become a modern day parable! The “mustard seed” parable symbolizes a greater story: God’s promise to all of us of his abiding love and presence. This was expressed beautifully by the prophet Jeremiah, who pleaded God to help the Jewish people when they thought all was lost. Jeremiah wrote: “For I know the plans the Lord has for you” says the Lord. : They are plans for good and not disaster, to give you a future with hope.” (Jere. 29:11) From the roots of this mustard tree do come the promise of a future filled with hope to many who were once without any hope. And so my challenge to you today is two-fold. First, give yourselves over to this modern day parable called Vincentians in Partnership. While you form various groups and communities, you are part of a wonderful, mysterious, difficult, graced-filled “living parable”. Let this parable that is Vincentians in Partnership take deeper roots in you, so in your little space on this earth you will bear of beams of light in a world filled with contrary lights. In living this parable, you will become the promise of God in person to the many people you serve. Secondly, let the Vincentian charism be the ‘mustard seeds” to guide your work. Learn more about the words and works of Saints Vincent and Louise and Blessed Frederic. Reflect and discuss how these Vincentian values impact your work. In embracing our charism as your core corporate identity, you are connected to the Vincentian Family and share in our heritage of hope. Know that we stand with in solidarity as you embrace the charism we share. In closing, I would like to end as I began, with words from another Englishman, the recently beatified John Henry Newman. An excerpt from his “Prayer to Know the Mission of My Life” expresses the hopes and dreams of all good people. It is a prayer not only for staff and
volunteers, but one to benefit your clients as well. What might it be like you all were to pray this prayer with the poor in your midst? Iâ€™ll leave that up to you. Here it is:
John Henry Newman: A Prayer to Know the Mission of My Life God has created me to do Him some definite service. God has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have my mission. I may never know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next. I am a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons. God has not created me for naught. I shall do good; I shall do Godâ€™s work. I shall be an angel of peace, a preacher of truth in my own place... Therefore, I will trust God; whatever I am, I can never be thrown away. If I am in sickness, my sickness may serve God; in perplexity, my perplexity may serve God. If I am in sorrow, my sorrow may serve God. God does nothing in vain. God knows what He is about. May God bless and keep you all in his love, and may Saints Vincent and Louise inspire and guide you!