As we celebrate the feast of St Vincent de Paul we are immediately reminded of the call to every Christian to see the living face of Jesus in every person, especially the poor. As we ponder the life and spirit of St Vincent we recall the Beatitudes (Mt 5:1–12) and the account of the final judgment (Mt 25: 31–46).
In the 1947 film Monsieur Vincent, we hear Vincent say,
You will find out that Charity is a heavy burden to carry, heavier than the kettle of soup and the full basket. But you will keep your gentleness and your smile. It is not enough to give soup and bread. This the rich can do. You are the servant of the poor, always smiling and good-humoured. They are your masters, terribly sensitive and exacting master you will see and the uglier and the dirtier they will be, the more unjust and insulting, the more love you must give them. It is only for your love alone that the poor will forgive you the bread you give to them.
A defining aspect of reflecting the spirit of St Vincent is our ability to respond creatively and with humility to the emerging needs of an ever-changing world, especially those of the people made poor. We are called to consider the factors that keep people poor and challenge the systems that ensure that all people do not get equal opportunity to a fullness of life.
We are invited to move from a world of mere charity and almsgiving to one in which we actively seek social justice for all. Jesus challenged the values of his time that alienated the leper and the widow, that cast aside the sick and the disabled, that looked in disdain at the Roman and the Samaritan, that honoured the rich and the learned, and feared the might of the powerful. We are called persistently to do the same. We are called to demand justice, challenge the status quo and seek a level playing field for all. “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Am 5:24).
Moving from doing acts of charity to seeking justice is no easy task. This is expressed succinctly in the now oft-quoted words of Dom Hélder Câmara, “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.” Jesus faced similar taunts from the Pharisees when he challenged the existing norms of society that discriminated against the poor and the marginalized. This did not stop Jesus persistently reaching out to the outcast and the sinner.
We are called to be a church ‘for the poor’, to carry the burdens of the weakest and poorest amongst us, and to be a voice for those who are too weak or too restrained to speak for themselves. Let us use our ability and our resources to build God’s reign of justice in our communities.
WATCH: Listen to St Vincent de Paul, Apostle of the Poor
CONSIDER: Getting involved with the Society of Vincent de Paul