September 26, 2021 | By Bishop Edward Braxton, Ph.D., S.T.D.
September 26, 2021 | By Bishop Edward Braxton, Ph.D., S.T.D.
Dear Sisters and Brothers in Christ,
What if tomorrow you were to learn that someone you know had died peacefully the age of 79? The person lived an exemplary Christian life as spouse, parent, grandparent, exemplifying a genuine love of God and neighbor through a long life. Your reaction might be one of admiration, concern for the grieving family and gratitude that your neighbor had a long full happy life, spared, the heavy burden of brain cancer or Alzheimer’s disease. You might also ponder the fact that, though this good Christian lived an exceptional life, the impact of that life of grace was limited to a small circle. You know from experience that in 5, 10, 15, or 20 years few people will think of this dear neighbor, whose name will gradually no longer be mentioned at all.
Now I invite you to imagine someone who died on that same date, tomorrow, September 27, 361 years ago in 1660, whose name is mentioned every day by millions of people all over the world and whose name will probably still be mentioned 361 years from now. You may wonder what kind of life could such a person have lived to have such an impact? But there was such a man.
He was born to a very poor peasant family in Gascony, France. He spent his early life doing everything he could to escape the poverty of his humble roots. His parents shared this ambition, hoping that, if he would become a priest, he would meet wealthy people who would share their riches with them. Thus, as a boy, he was entrusted to the Franciscans and was eventually ordained at the early young age of nineteen, which required a special dispensation from the Vatican, since Church Law then as now required priests to be at least 24. He had a completely worldly attitude toward his life as a priest. The priesthood would be a way to escape the impoverishment of his childhood. He was intent on a life of leisure and luxury. When his father visited him in the seminary, he was so ashamed of his aging father’s shabby peasant clothes that he refused to receive him, denying that he was his father.
He was a clever and charming young man, and soon gained entrance into the highest levels of French society. He sought and obtained lucrative positions as chaplain to the rich and tutor to their children. He associated only with the wealthiest families in Paris.
All of this changes when he was 29 years old. The wealthiest family in Paris summoned him to hear the confession of a dying man. He assumed the man was a wealthy member of the family who lived on their vast estate. But the dying man was a poor, ignorant laborer who worked as a tenant farmer on the estate, a man of poverty like his father. The self-centered priest was deeply moved by the man’s Christ-centered faith, by his purity of heart and by his concern for the needs of others, even as he was dying.
The ambitious cleric saw in this ignorant, foul-smelling peasant a far better Christian, a far better example of what a priest should be than he was himself.
This was the beginning of a radical spiritual conversion in his life and a new understanding of the seriousness of his vocation as a priest called to bring the love and concern of Jesus Christ to all people, especially the poor and needy. Gradually, his life changed and he became determined that his priesthood would be dedicated to the service, not of himself, but of those most in need of the message of Christ.
Instead of focusing on his own aspirations and desires, he turned his focus towards relieving the spiritual and material impoverishment of the rural poor and challenging the attitudes of the wealthy aristocracy. He founded a congregation of mission priests who devoted themselves to the training of parish priests to work among the poor throughout the countryside. He became zealous in conducting retreats for priests at a time when there was great laxity, abuse, and ignorance among the clergy. He was a pioneer in establishing seminaries. He spent twenty-eight years serving as the spiritual director of the Convent of St. Mary of the Angels.
He also established hospitals and orphanages and ministered to prisoners and galley slaves. With the help of a devout widow, Louise de Marillac, he founded the Daughters of Charity, a congregation of women devoted to serving the poor and the sick. He told the Sisters the rooms of the sick will be your convent and the cluttered city streets will be your cloister. He said he met Jesus Christ in the spiritually and materially poor. His spirituality was based on the encounter with Christ in the neediest of his neighbors.
He often meditated on these challenging words we just heard proclaimed from the Epistle of James:
“Come now, you rich, weep and wail over your impending miseries. Your wealth has rotted away, your clothes have become moth-eaten, your gold and silver have corroded,
and that corrosion will be a testimony against you; it will devour your flesh like a fire. You have stored up treasure for the last days. Behold, the wages you withheld from the workers who harvested your fields are crying aloud; and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts.”
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I am sure at this point many of you know of whom I am speaking. To his contemporaries he was “Monsieur Vincent”! To the world he was St. Vincent De Paul who was born in Gascony, France on April 24, 1581 and died in Paris in 1660, 361 years ago tomorrow, September 27. Vincent is the patron of all works of charity. In imitation of his love for those in need, The Society of St Vincent de Paul was founded in Paris, 1833, by 20 year old university student, Blessed Antione-Frédéric Ozanam. The society is today present in 153 countries serving millions of people.
Inspired by the teachings of Jesus Christ, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul is a Catholic volunteer organization dedicated to helping all people in need, regardless of their faith. Assistance is provided directly through parish-based St. Vincent de Paul Chapters.
Here in the Diocese of Belleville, St. Vincent de Paul societies are very active in our parishes, offering neighbor-to-neighbor assistance to those in need. I have a friend in the diocese, a wonderful woman who lives alone on a fixed income. She is an avid follower of world news. She recently told me that while she realizes that there is nothing she can do about the hundreds of thousands of suffering migrants from Afghanistan and Haiti, seeking a refuge from the crises unfolding in their countries, what she can do, she does. Namely she contributes everything she can to the work of the St. Vincent DePaul society in Belleville.
Cosgrove’s Soup Kitchen (named for my predecessor Bishop William Cosgrove), on State Street, in East Saint Louis, is a society of the St. Vincent de Paul project, which feeds the hungry offering free noon meals 6 days a week. This Soup Kitchen was established more than 30 years ago and has been an important ministry serving those suffering from the effects of poverty: children, the elderly, the homeless, the mentally and physically disabled, and the working poor. It is the only facility in the Metro East area that offers a free noon meal 6 days a week, 52 weeks a year! 200-300 meals are served each day. A variety of hot, nutritious meals are made possible by generous support from Catholic parishes and other community organizations.
My friend also contributes to the St. Vincent de Paul Thrift Store, which provides clothes, shoes, and household items to those who otherwise would go without. Items that some people no longer need become a treasure to those who have nothing at all.
If you want to join my friend in this support, you can find all information online, Google “St. Vincent de Paul Society, Belleville”.
Today’s scripture readings and tomorrow’s commemoration of St. Vincent DePaul remind us that Jesus Christ calls us all to conversion, to live transformed lives. We can each ask ourselves:
“Am I living my new identity as a beloved child of God, or am I still relying on external marks of achievement and success to define who I am?”
“Have I internalized Christ’s values, and are they reflected in the way I live my life?”
“Is my attention given to the needs of those around me – and especially to the needs of the poor – or am I focused solely on my own self-centered ambitions and interests?”
“Does the way I relate to my family, my neighbors and others reflect the new man or woman Christ has called me to be, or am I still captive to anger, pride, self-pity, jealousy and selfishness?”
Monsiere, Vincent, St. Vincent DePaul, Model of Christian love, PRAY FOR US!
Praise be Jesus Christ. Both now and forever. Amen.