Given at the Mass celebrating the 400th Anniversary of the Vincentian Charism, at St Charles Church, Hull, on Saturday 10th June 2017.
At the heart of our celebration today is thanksgiving to God for the Vincentian charism that has been lived out for four hundred years this year. This is, therefore, a wonderful moment and one that is truly to be celebrated. But, please note, that these four hundred years do not take us back to the date of the birth of Vincent, nor to the date of his ordination as a priest. No! They take us back to a story of a conversion. For the first thirty or so years of his life, Vincent was happy to go along, rather anonymously, with the world as he found it. He was a Christian, of course, but not particularly heroic; he was a priest too, ordained in 1600, but probably rather an unexceptional one. There is hope for us all!
Today, then, we are not celebrating human comfort and relative mediocrity; on this four-hundredth anniversary, we give thanks for all the gifts the Vincentian family has brought to the Church and to the world. That it has done so is down to the conversion St Vincent underwent, particularly in the year 1617. As we know, it was in that year, in Chatillon in France, that Vincent became aware of the desperate situation of a poor family, dying of hunger. He preached in the parish church about addressing their needs: the response was overwhelming, and the family was saved. ‘The poor are dying of hunger and are condemned’, he famously said. The Daughters of Charity of St Vincent de Paul, the Congregation of the Mission, the Society of St Vincent de Paul, including the ‘Mini-Vinnies’, and many other branches of the Vincentian family too, have all done so much over four centuries to alleviate the sort of conditions that made Vincent first say this.
It can sometimes be difficult to describe what is at the heart of a particular charism. For the Vincentian family, it’s maybe a little easier. Two words immediately come to mind: charity and mission. There are those who see charity as almost a pejorative term: we all know people, particularly of our parents’ generation, who struggled on in straightened circumstances because they didn’t want ‘other people’s charity’. In the life of St Vincent de Paul we see charity at its purest. Vincent was someone who could have been very comfortable; but he looked outside himself to poor families, to prisoners, to those on the galleys, to whom he ministered as a chaplain for many years. His service was not given as a sort of lofty benevolence: he was determined that he and his followers must not appear as ‘great lords’; instead, he identified with those who had nothing, and suffered with them.
But charity alone was not enough for Vincent, at least, not charity as many people would see it. He understood that charity is one of the theological virtues, alongside faith and hope. These are the virtues that relate directly to God, and dispose us to live in a relationship with the Trinity. Pope Francis understands this too. That is why he has famously and rightly warned that the Church is so much more than a ‘compassionate non-governmental organisation’. No, the charity of the Vincentian family, like the charitable efforts of the Church as a whole, have their source in Jesus Christ, and look to him for their fruitfulness. That, he, is what makes them distinctive and effective. ‘I was a stranger and you welcomed me’ (Matt 25:35). These words from St Matthew’s Gospel lie at the heart of the Vincentian charism, and of these 400th anniversary celebrations. Only a few words later, Christ reminds us that ‘in as much as you did this to one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did it to me’ (Matt 25:40). These are words we shall sing later at Mass today: they are words we do well to take to heart.
Vincentian charity is rooted in and motivated by faith in Christ. That is why it is appropriate that it is complemented so essentially by mission. Indeed, St Vincent de Paul was particularly gifted at fusing charity and mission harmoniously. He once said to the Daughters of Charity that ‘you must bring to the poor sick two kinds of food: corporal and spiritual’ (SV IX, 593). This prescient saying is as relevant today as it was in the seventeenth century. Modern technology and travel may have changed how we seek to ‘go out to the whole world and proclaim the Good News’ (Matt 28:19), but the imperative to do so remains. We need to be alive to the imperative of seeing mission as necessitating long-distance travel far less now than in the past; my neighbour in Hull, or in London, may need to be introduced, or reintroduced, to the Gospel with greater urgency than many in remoter parts of the world. Pope Francis has famously spoken of the need for us to be ‘missionary disciples’ and I make no apology for repeating his words today. They are key to the vitality of our faith in Jesus Christ in the twenty-first century; and, if we seek to respond to them with generosity, we can be sure that Christ will richly bless our efforts.
All of us face times when those efforts at mission or at charity seem very tame. There can be any number of reasons to feel discouraged: spiritual malaise, community difficulties, times when the gulf between what the world offers and the demands of our faith seems simply too large. These are times when the attractiveness of St Vincent can come to our aid. I have a particular affinity with him, of course; my mother’s decision to name me Vincent had much to do with St Vincent de Paul. But all of us can find something in St Vincent’s life to sustain us. If we feel trapped, in a situation of sin, or hopelessness, we can look to St Vincent: he knew slavery and imprisonment, and that time in the early years of the 1600s was not wasted. If we feel discouraged in our vocation, feeling perhaps that the secular world has more to offer than the Kingdom of God, we can look to St Vincent: his lukewarm early years provided a backdrop for his later pastoral charity and missionary work that were so valued and so effective. If we feel overwhelmed by the enormity of a task entrusted to us, we might imagine how daunting his appointment as chaplain to the galleys in 1622 must have felt. And then we might consider how much good came of it.
When Jesus went to the synagogue at Nazareth, the passage he chose to proclaim was from the prophet Isaiah: ‘He sent me to bring the good news to the poor, tell prisoners they are prisoners no more’ (Luke 4:8, cf Is:61:1-2). Early in his life, Vincent might have shied away from these words. By the time he died in 1660 he had taken them to heart in a way that few others had, and had encouraged countless others to do the same. They remain both his legacy to us, and his challenge, a challenge that the next words of Isaiah continue to offer us: ‘Go, tell everyone the news that the Kingdom of God has come!’
May this exhortation, quoted by Jesus and enacted with such faithfulness by St Vincent de Paul, guide us and inspire us as the next 400 years of the Vincentian charism are born. Amen.