27 September 2010
Rev. Bill McGinty
Today is the feast of Vincent de Paul. It speaks volumes about the life of Vincent that on this 27th day of September he is honored by catholic and Protestant alike. He lived in a 17th century world of class division; religious wars and the chasm between rich and poor; Vincent bridged them all so well, that his name is forever associated with ministering to the poor and with charitable causes.
Vincent was the personification of the Gospel mandate we find in the Sermon on the Mount and the Beatitudes. His whole life was an energized proclamation of Jesus Christ in word and action. In all his dealings with the poor Vincent did not seek to convert or bring them to Christ by preaching or teaching alone. Rather he brought them to Christ by becoming Christ for them. He bandaged up their sores, comforted them in dying, and nursed them through cholera and disease of every kind. The poor were touched by the presence of God that surrounded him; the tender mercies he administered to them; and the humility he exhibited at the gift of life and grace he found in them.
There is something here we all recognize. We have seen it in Gandhi, Mother Teresa; Albert Scheitzer and Mandela. It is a humanity and compassion for the human condition in the worse of times and in its struggle to survive. Vincent de Paul had that compassion; it was born of the Gospel within him and his own humble beginning.
He mixed with prelates, princes and kings, where his deep faith and spirituality were unaffected, but so admired, that many sought to be part of his reform and renewal in a France that desperately needed both. Yet, this true man of God was never seduced by wealth or power and he often rubbed shoulders with both. He knew the value of education, especially for clergy and his hand and influence can be seen in seminaries, colleges and his congregation of the mission. Such, that it has often been said that Vincent forever changed what it meant to be priest and pastor.
In our readings today the prophet Amos is such a natural choice; for like Vincent, he championed the poor. We are so familiar with Amos’ Woe oracles in which he denounces Israel’s flight from Yahweh’s sacred covenant and points at the plight of the poor as the surest barometer of Israel’s guilt. – Vincent‘s 17th century France was a chaotic world, ripped asunder by conflict, division, poverty and disease. The church was in a sad state, leaderless with many clergy near nigh illiterate.
Into this world stepped Vincent from an impoverished background himself, but with a good education and an energy and enthusiasm. He inaugurated a reform that many historians claim changed the church and ministry in France for centuries to come.
There has to be a lesson for us all here. For we too live in an age where heroes are hard to come by. Vincent would be the first to deny such claims about himself. He would say that of himself he did nothing. What he did do can be seen in his ability to turn ordinary men and women into ministers of the Gospel. He taught them that the Gospel is only so many words on a page until with the grace of baptism behind us and God’s spirit present in us, we make it a living breathing continuation of Christ’s work. –No one had ever told the laity that they were called to ministry too. The great Francis de Sales had tried decades earlier only to be told ‘no’. –‘No’, did not have a place in Vincent’s vocabulary, when it came to the needs of the poor, his pastoral skills were equally matched by his ability to persuade. In doing so he mobilized a whole class of people to become active in their own social and spiritual salvation.
Vincent reminds us all what it means to be priest and pastor. It is to hear today’s Gospel and know in our heart’s deep core that Christ is speaking to us. And he is speaking to us today, just as he did all those years ago when we first heard his call. He is speaking to us today as on that day we lay prostrate on the stone cold floor of that nave. We are here to serve God’s people; we are called to be shepherds for those without a shepherd; not behind the beauty of our stain glass or the walls of our sacred spaces, but in city streets, soup kitchen lines and in places where the needy seek refuge and the desperate comfort. In four hundred years the human condition has not changed; nor has the call of the Gospel on our hearts, time and effort.
Does it seem to you a blessed coincidence that today we
stand as a diocese looking towards restoration and renewal, on this the feast
of a man such as Vincent de Paul?
As we read documents such as “the State of the Diocese” and “From Risk to Opportunities”, it is tempting to wish for 67 Vincents to inaugurate the kind of renewal he knew all too well! We don’t have 67 Vincents! -- we do have 67 pastors! We do have 67 priests who said ‘yes’ all those years ago. We do have 67 on whom hands were laid and the same Holy Spirit descended on them, as descended on Vincent. God has not sent Vincent, not to Pennsylvania. He has sent us. Today’s second reading reminds us of that call:
“Brothers and Sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish of the world to shame the wise. God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.”
Those words were true of Vincent, just as they were true of John Vianney, Martin Luther and many more. They can be true of all of us. You know, when you belong to a Religious Order for 22 years you get to travel to many countries and belong to many communities. I’ve known and worked with so many great priests, and a few crusty ones as well! But nowhere have I found priests who work harder, or are more mission driven, or pastorally talented, than among all of you here in the Diocese of Bethlehem.
I can remember the first time I came on Retreat. On the first day I can recall thinking: “Wow! These Episcopalians really like each other!” The second day I can remember thinking:
“Wow! These Episcopalians really listen to one another!” And on the third day I can remember thinking:
“Wow! These Episcopalians really love one another. I got to get out of here; I could be way too catholic for this!”
If we were to ask Vincent today for a lesson as we set out on this great campaign and renewal surely he would tell us this:
“You have a story to tell. The greatest story ever. Tell it. Tell of Jesus and his story; of his teaching and his message. Tell his story with all, that you have; tell a story of hope, joy, forgiveness and compassion in all that you do and say. Give people hope, the hope of a better tomorrow and an opportunity to begin again.”
Vincent’s life taught that story and made it at once applicable and believeable. Our lives should do the same, for we have the same story to tell.
Andy Gerns, quoting Martha Reese, reminds us that all Evangelism begins with prayer and all renewal also. The call to prayer, spirituality and transformation has to begin with us as pastors and teachers and tellers of the story. Without our own personal transformation and renewal the gospel story does not have the “living breathing stuff of the spirit” that we see Vincent and so many others give it.
On the eve of a young cleric’s ordination Vincent wrote to him some kind words of advice often quoted by Vincentians: he wrote:
“Ordination to the priesthood is not an end, it is a beginning. Try to remember that this is not your work you go out to do, it is the Lord’s. You must refresh that work and your consecration each day through prayer and study. --- We do not serve a stupid God; and God does not need to be served by a stupid priest!. Be diligent in your prayer that God’s grace may work in and through you and lead others to salvation. Most of all, remember that you have been chosen to serve, do so with grace and humility and God will bless the work that you do.”
We stand today at a door of opportunity as a diocese. It is not a door that opens inward; rather it is a door that opens out. Out into our communities. Like Vincent we are today challenged to seek out the poor, the lost, the sick, the abused and the rejected. Like Vincent we are called to be educators, teachers, because our people are hungry for God; hungry for transformation and hungry for a deepening of their faith and understanding. We are called to seek out that harvest. Like Vincent we are called to empower every member of our congregation to minister in some capacity that serves their baptism and promotes the Gospel. “Church should not be something done by one onto many.” Rather it has to be our ability to utilize the whole of the Body of Christ in each community.
With restoration and renewal comes change and with change apprehension and fear. I wonder if Bishop Seabury felt that fear all those years ago when as a newly consecrated bishop he boarded that ship to return to America. Did the burden and weight of responsibility weigh heavy upon him? Did he pray on that journey as never before for the church that was waiting for him? Did he hear the words of Jesus to his apostles: “Do not be afraid; for I am with you?”
They are words that Vincent heard. Words that made him courageous in bringing about renewal. They are words that we would do well to adopt as we gather around Bishop Paul seeking after restoration and renewal in the months and years ahead.
When Winston Churchill stood up in the House of Commons for the first time as Prime Minister in 1939, the British army lay defeated on the sands of Dunkirk. As the great man began to speak his voice cracked with emotion as he said: “I have nothing to offer you but blood, sweat, toil and tears.”
Maybe we are not quite at a “blood, sweat, toil and tears moment” in the history of our diocese, but we are at a moment. When asked ‘what was his aim’, Churchill replied:
“Victory! Victory no matter what the odds may be.” Victory has to be our aim also when it comes to renewal. We have no other option. Nor can we think that as a parish we are growing and we do have choices. For when our sister parish is hurting, we are all hurting; when our sister parish is sick, we are all sick and when our sister parish is dying, we are all dying.
So when it comes to the challenge before us; when it comes to the call to renewal, is there anywhere you’d rather be ? Are there people you would rather be with; than those who surround you now and whose love and faith will see you through?
“Loving God, we thank you for your servant Vincent de Paul, who gave himself to training clergy, to work among the poor, the sick and the prisoner. May we, like him, encounter Christ in the needy, the Outcast, and the friendless, that we may come at length into your kingdom.”
“Do not be afraid, for I am with you. I have called you by your name. You are mine.”
[Father McGinty is rector of Good Shepherd/St. John in Milford and a member of Diocesan Council and the diocesan Evangelism Commission.]