175 Anniversary of the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul
MASS OF THANKSGIVING
Homily notes of Most Rev. Diarmuid Martin Archbishop of Dublin
Dublin Convention Centre, 13 April 2019
“I have a feeling that the Saint whose name comes up most regularly in our day-to-day conversation is Saint Vincent de Paul. I have also a feeling that if many of us were to be asked detailed questions about him, we would find that very people know that much about Saint Vincent de Paul.
People mention Saint Vincent de Paul not because they know all that much about the Saint. They mention Saint Vincent de Paul because they know you. Vincent de Paul has become a household name because of the consistent commitment of you the members and supporters of the Society and the work that you carry out.
Over the years, the work of the society has changed, but there are also some constants that you might say if they are not present then you are really no longer the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul. What do I mean?
The striking opening prayer of this Mass in many ways sums up what the society is all about. In that prayer we ask that we might reverence our God: “in those whom the world considers least and serve you in all whom society neglects”.
The Society of Saint Vincent de Paul is fundamentally in its inspiration about God. Some will immediately react that today the Society would feel itself much less denominational or evangelical than in the past. Its activities are motivated by a different and more inclusive spirit of humanitarian concern and attempts to make our society a better and more caring one. It is a philosophy that is open to the participation of people of different convictions rather than any individual religious confession.
In more recent times the society has moved beyond just providing services, to one in which it has become a strong and respected advocate for a caring society. It does important work in identifying the extent of poverty and the root causes of poverty and new forms of poverty. It works as a catalyst in fighting poverty alongside different actors in civil religious and political society.
Yet when we look at the readings of the Mass, we see that the work of Saint Vincent de Paul tells us something about who God is. Why do I say that? Look at the first reading: What pleases God? What sort of religion pleases God? It is not a religion of fasting but one that aims at “breaking unjust fetters, sharing bread with the hungry, sheltering the homeless poor, clothing the man you see naked”.
The same themes emerge in our Gospel reading. Again, the theme of judgement is about reaching out to the hungry, the stranger, the sick, those in prison. We must also note that this is not really a judgment about the end of time, but of a judgment of our today and everyday about which we must render account at the end of time.
The Christian is called to such service because authentic Christian life must reflect who our God is. When Jesus came to preach in the Synagogue in his own hometown, he was given a text of the Prophet Isaiah. Again, it was a text about bringing freedom breaking down barriers and burdens, bringing good news.
This was a prophecy about the one who would come to save God’s people. Jesus however then says: this prophecy is fulfilled today in your sight. Jesus is saying the he is the one who was prophesied, he is the one who brings to fulfilment the same prophecy and the same way of life that we heard also in our first reading.
However, in speaking about freedom and liberation, Jesus is not speaking as a political commentator, or a professor of social science, or as a philosopher of life. Jesus came to reveal to us who our God is and that God is one who cares for everything and every person that he created and wants each of us to be free in the deepest sense of that word.
Our God is not a God just of rules and norms and sins, our God is one who prizes the freedom that enables each one of us to be the person that we are created to be. Our God is the God of ultimate inclusion. Through our humble attempts to build inclusion, we reflect at least partially who our God is. A society that fosters and perpetuates exclusion and marginalisation is to that extent a God-less society. A Church that fosters and perpetuates exclusion and marginalization is to that extent a God-less Church.
There is something else in the readings we have heard that we cannot overlook as we reflect on the mission of the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul. The God of love requires not that we get things done for the poor. The first reading talks about “clothing the man that you see naked”. The judgement is about our encounter with the poor the outcast and the stranger. The Christian life of charity is not just about theory, but about encounter.
The second reading takes a fascinating stand about how we distinguish good from evil. It says that preferring good to evil means loving one another as sisters and brothers and having a profound respect for each other. The reading ends with that extraordinary admonition never to be condescending but “to make real friends with the poor”. One of the constant marks of the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul is that of a direct interaction with those who are marginalised and becoming real friends with the poor.
The spirit of the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul will never be simply realised from behind a desk. Advocacy and administration may be a dimension of the work of any organization, but becoming friends with the poor means seeing more than statistics and policies. It involves direct interaction in a loving relationship.
The advocacy of the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul is highly respected and makes an important contribution to debates about injustices in our societies. However, your advocacy attains its particular credibility form the work of direct contact with the realities of poverty that is the true mark of the Society. That is what impresses people; that is what motivates their generosity.
Today there is a correct sensitivity about using generic terms like “the poor”, as a sort of category. The poor are people, men and women and children young and old, in families or alone. There is today a preference to speak about “people living in poverty”, a recognition of poverty as something that touches the lives and wounds the dignity of people who are trapped in marginalisation. I personally would prefer to use the term not just “people living in poverty”, but people who “long to break out from poverty”.
The spirit of the society of Saint Vincent de Paul is in no way a sort of exaltation or glorification of poverty, but a recognition that poverty is an imposed impossibility for people to realise fully their God-given talents. Those of you who in your various conferences visit families in their own homes know that the dream of those families is not just to receive the support and the gifts you bring them. Their dream is to be like you and me; to be relieved of indignity, to be able to live their lives and their talents and proudly to see their children have dreams and realise those dreams. The Society of Saint Vincent de Paul is not one that just brings much needed support; it is not a talk shop about society. Above all it brings hope to people helps people to realise that hope.
We celebrate the 175th anniversary of the foundation of the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul. Since it came to Ireland in 1844, its members have been pioneers in bringing support and hope to the marginalized. Poverty took on different faces in each generation, but each generation had the hope that somehow theirs would be the last such generation, only to find that despite progress new forms of poverty emerge and more people suffer the indignity of not being in a position to really their abilities.
In my own lifetime, especially as a young boy, I witnessed a poor Dublin. But never would I have imagined that in the twenty first century we would be facing new expressions of poverty such as the current crisis of housing and the fact that thousands of children live the indignity of homelessness in our country.
Homelessness and poverty are truly an indignity and affront to the dignity of men and men women and children who live in poverty. They are also an affront to the dignity of the society in which we live.
Today we give thanks to those men and women who over a period of one hundred and seventy-five years have been sensitive to the marginalised and who – hail rain or snow – called to homes marked by poverty and who brought support and affection. The greatness of the story of the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul is the witness of those men and women who never showing any trace of condescension became real friends with the poor and were recognised as such by the poor.
The Society of Saint Vincent de Paul over these years has witnessed to and continues to witness every day to the God of love revealed in Jesus Christ. ENDS