Tuesday, September 27, 2022

St Vincent de Paul

Today is the memorial of St Vincent de Paul (1581 - 1660). He was born in France, and his story is colorful, to put it mildly. As a boy, he was captured and enslaved by Turks, but escaped because he converted his master, and they both went to France. He is remembered as someone who devoted his whole life to the service of the poor, but this meant so much more than simply giving alms. He was aware that all people have both material and spiritual needs, and to support his work he founded a congregation of priests for missionary work, groups of laymen to help paupers and galley-slaves, and, with St Louise de Marillac, the Sisters of Charity.  See the article about him in the Catholic Encyclopaedia.

Here are three very different images of him to aid reflection. First, an 18th century Baroque style portrait; second, a statue in the Parisian church that bears his name, where he lived much of his life; and third a wax effigy that contains relics. 

When I reflect on how his work was directed to the needs of the whole person, body and soul, I am struck by the fact that all people, rich and poor, need so much more than basic material needs. Where there is a lack of human love, which speaks of God’s love, there is no dignity. We all need an environment that speaks of God’s love, and that environment is furnished by a culture of beauty.

The measure of our success in this is not that the poorest part of the city is as wealthy as the richest. Equality of outcome is neither possible nor desirable. It is measured, rather, when the poorest parts of our cities are as beautiful as the wealthiest. This will be the outward sign that all, both poor and rich, live in dignity and are at home in the world; and that we are a society that really does care about their lives of the least amongst us, both in this world and the next.

Currently we are moving towards the polar opposite: every part of the city is as steadily becoming as ugly as every other. The richest part of town looks like a 1960s housing project; I refer you to my post last week on the new buildings on the Princeton Univ. campus. This is a sign that for all the rhetoric, our society has little regard for anyone, and assumes that once material needs are met, nothing else matters.

This first step to changing this is, as it was in the past, the building of beautiful churches that are open to all. When that element is missing, it is usually a sign that everything else that is important is absent too. When I think of our inner cities and their poorest neighborhoods today, I think we have a long way to go before we can consider ourselves a Great Society. As usual I have to start with myself and ask, what am I doing?

It is my struggle to answer this question satisfactorily that makes this weeks article so short.

St Vincent, please pray for me.

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