On the Feast of St. Vincent dePaul

On the Feast of St. Vincent dePaul September 27, 2011

“Christ is at once rich and poor: as God, rich; as a human person, poor. Truly, that Man rose to heaven already rich, and now sits at the right hand of the Father, but here, among us, he still suffers hunger, thirst and nakedness: here he is poor and is in the poor.” -St. Augustine

Christ “is poor and is in the poor,” says St. Augustine, providing a most succinct justification of the Church’s “preferential option for the poor.” Structurally, the poor share an intimate identity with Christ that demands our special solicitude, service and love. Ours is not a heroic faith, a religion for “winners” in the worldly calculus of success and failure. Rather, in the words of someone (though, I’m reliably told, not James Joyce), Catholicism means “here comes everybody.” And since most people alive, dead or yet unborn are, were or will be poor to one degree or another, it is the mission of Christians to provide them with the succor we would offer Christ.

I’ve been an active member of the Society of St. Vincent dePaul for about fifteen years. My involvement began at the strong suggestion of my spiritual director. I had only been reconciled to the Church for a short time and already the lesser angels of my nature were exerting their influence in the usual way: pride and a tendency toward harsh judgment. My director prescribed sustained, intimate service to the poor as a remedy. By placing myself at the disposal of my brothers and sisters, he hoped I would gain in humility, the indispensable virtue for salvation and sanctity. Working with the poor has been an eye-opening experience; the losses they suffer, the opportunities denied them, their daily struggle for dignity, even the self-defeating mistakes they make. Through my work in the Vincentian movement, I discovered new reservoirs of compassion, gentleness and, yes, humility. And I have come to understand better the words of Mother Teresa, who once said that “only in heaven will we see how much we owe to the poor for helping us to love God better because of them.”

Lately, there has arisen some dispute over whether the corporal works of mercy are intended to be strictly private and personal, or whether there is a social and political dimension to the Church’s “preferential option for the poor.” There really is no dispute. Any supposed boundary between the personal and the political is a clumsy fiction trotted out on behalf of one ideology or another. We shouldn’t tolerate that fiction when it’s offered by politicians excusing their support for abortion rights, and we shouldn’t tolerate it when it is offered by politicians excusing their abandonment of the poor. The notion that compassion and social justice is strictly a private affair has no basis in Catholic teaching. In fact, nothing about the Catholic faith is a private affair.

So, am I responsible for helping poor people that I know personally? Yes. Am I personally responsible for helping the poor in my community? Yes. Am I responsible for working toward a just social and political order in which poverty itself is eventually eradicated? Yes. Am I responsible for helping the poor in foreign lands? Yes. The poor who are in this country illegally? Yes. The poor with substance abuse problems or criminal backgrounds? Yes. The poor who don’t appreciate my help? Yes. The poor who disgust me in their helplessness? Yes. All the poor? Yes.

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’

Working with the poor, one is quickly disabused of romantic notions about poverty. The poor are not always victims of others; often they are victims of their own undisciplined appetites. The poor, like the rest of us, are not generally noble; many wouldn’t give you the shirt off their backs, but they might take yours. Still, we are called to love and serve them, not because they behave lovably, but because they are our brothers and sisters, and because in their suffering they are Christ.

Jesus does not say “I was legal, and you clothed me,” or “I was sober and you fed me,” or “I thanked you profusely when you gave me something to drink.” Our responsibility to the poor is defined not by whether they make us comfortable, or whether we see the logic of it, but by their need. After all, “God commends his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8) We were loved unconditionally before we “deserved” it. We are called to do the same.

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  • Brian Martin

    I couldn’t agree more. I did mental health outreach for a little over 5 years in local homeless shelters, my wife was a case manager at a local shelter for 10 years. Interestingly, when funding was cut and her position terminated, it wasn’t the pastors of the local churches who made up the board of directors who stopped by to wish her well, it was the felons and drug addicts..what a local businessman called human debris…who were the samaritan on the road. They stopped in, offered to pray for her, shed tears with her and laughed with her.
    God bless you in your being Christ to them and seeing Christ in them.

    • Mark Gordon

      Strange coincidence, Brian. I’m on the board of our local homeless shelter, and we recently received a grant to build some new apartments for the disabled homeless. Since our facility is located in a residential neighborhood there was quite a lot of opposition to expansion, and one “suggestion” that kept coming up was that we should relocate to the area around the town dump, where a new animal shelter had just been built. The notion was that all the trash should be centrally located. That’s where we are in this country today, and it is a shame. The irony is that our soup kitchen serves relatives of some of our fiercest opponents.

      • Brian Martin

        When the homeless shelter she worked at relocated, it moved from an old church in a residential neighborhood to a fairly prominent location near an intersection to a main road going out of town…in the direction of a number of lakes..and at a meeting where people were voicing opposition..someone actually had the bloody audacity to say with a very self righteous tone “I don’t want to drive by a homeless shelter and see all those bums on my way to my lake cabin”
        At least they were honest….but wow. Hate to remind you there are homeless folks while you own 2 homes.

  • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

    Thank you Mark.

  • The notion that compassion and social justice is strictly a private affair has no basis in Catholic teaching.

    One argument that’s often made goes something like this: compassion, mercy, charity, and justice are virtues, and as such, cannot be forced and remain what they are. Charity under the force of law isn’t really charity. This is true so far as it goes, but it assumes that helping the poor should always be an act of personal virtue.

    Another argument made against “forced charity” is that it stifles virtue by removing incentives to be virtuous and by shifting responsibility from private individuals to the collective state. I’m not sure this really happens, but even if so, it also assumes a virtue-only approach to helping the poor.

    • Of course, the same people who say this will try to force all kinds of justice — by force of law – upon others. Which is what is always so absurd. The same who act like we can’t use the state to make for a more just society try to do that; they don’t want a society with no laws, no police force, no judges, no jails. Once one recognizes this, one sees what they mean: don’t force me to be just, just force others to stop their sins if it doesn’t require anything of me and if I would be infringed if they sin. If my sins infringe on them, they need to just accept it, this is a free society!

    • Kurt

      One argument that’s often made goes something like this: compassion, mercy, charity, and justice are virtues, and as such, cannot be forced and remain what they are. Charity under the force of law isn’t really charity.

      You know, I do hear that. And I hear it from people who also assert that patriotism is a virtue and defending our country from foreign aggressors is compassion, mercy and justice. And (with all due respect to my pacifist friends here) being the Hubert Humphrey/Cold War Democrat that I am, I agree with them. But I never hear them say that the draft and taxes for national defense are wrong because virtue and charity should be voluntary.

      • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

        However, as I pointed out in a post a while ago, theologians in the Middle Ages argued that the corporal works of mercy towards the poor are not charity but justice, and that the state has a right (and duty!) to compel the giving of alms if private individuals fail in this duty because it is the responsibility of the state to enforce justice.

        This is not to say that the current system of welfare does a perfect job of this (pace Mark’s comments below) but it does point out that these questions must be viewed from a broader perspective than individual, voluntary charity.

    • Mark Gordon

      Yes, outsourcing “compassion” to what Dorothy Day sarcastically called “Holy Mother State” is a real danger, which is why the Catholic Worker movement under Day wouldn’t accept government grants and opposed most welfare programs. Dorothy knew that the real public policy question isn’t how the government is going to help the poor, but why people are poor in the first place, especially in a nation as rich as the United States.

      But in a broader sense, what I meant was that no aspect of our faith – including the exercise of the virtues – takes place in a vacuum. As members of one Body, the division between the “public” and “private” is essentially meaningless, which I take as St. Paul’s meaning in I Corinthians 12. Read it with the poor in mind: “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you!’ And the head cannot say to the feet, ‘I don’t need you!’ On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.”

  • Very well stated; yes, the poor are not to be romanticized, but rather, the poor are the sinners as well as everyone else. But this should not excuse us from our responsibility to them, indeed, it makes those who can do something even more responsible!

  • brettsalkeld

    I seem to recall that Dorothy Day would tell new volunteers at the Catholic Worker something like “The poor are ungrateful and they smell,” in order to deromanticize just what the new recruits were getting into.

    How hard it is to be charitable to the grouchy homeless person and how easy to feel puffed up by the accolades of the sweet one!

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      She also tended to put new volunteers to work cleaning the toilets, which is a sure way to bring anyone down to the ground.

      • Mark Gordon

        I’ve just finished reading both “The Duty of Delight: The Diaries of Dorothy Day,” and “All The Way To Heaven: The Letters of Dorothy Day.” I’ll be reviewing both here soon. What comes shining through is that even in private, Dorothy was no romantic. An idealist, yes. But the voluntary poverty that she lived had squeezed all the romanticism from her.

      • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

        This is beautifully summarized in her column “Only the Will Remains” published in the Worker newspaper sometime in the 1930’s I believe.

  • I’ve volunteered at a nursing home for nearly 25 years facilitating something referred to as the ‘men’s club’. Poor in the sense of broken and worn out bodies, nevertheless mostly men who had come through the great depression and war and had somehow managed great suffering and survived.

    A few years ago I was called to ‘stretch’ and work in the local St. Vincent dePaul Place. Though I serve meals my main title is that of ‘listener’, and yes it propels my own gospel conversion. I wrote a blog post about the experience and here’s an exerpt.

    In some way my life is being altered because of the role I play as listener. I have more of an opportunity and an obligation to share God’s grace. Yet when I’m in the presence of someone in need, it’s not clear whether this grace moves toward or away from me. What is clear is that the life of Christ arises as I step aside. The opposite is also true, that the gospel life diminishes as my own self-centeredness appears.

    The full post is here:http://tau-cross.blogspot.com/2009/09/getting-out-of-way.html

    Mark, everything you say about extending our efforts into the public realm is very true. The only proviso I would add is this: when you see an issue being batted about (left vs right) stake you political claim, then go do the most practical and direct thing you can to help the cause of the poor. (i.e. Don’t wait for the enlightenment of others.)

    I’m off to the soup kitchen. Peace and all good.

    • Mark Gordon

      God bless you.

  • Kurt

    In response to a comment that we had a wonderful ministry to the poor, the director of our parish soup kitchen once snarled at me in a way that I bet he learned from Dorothy Day:

    “This is not a ministry to the poor. It is a disgrace to the poor. We feed them slop — food I would never want to have to eat. Have you noticed at the end of the month we serve three times as many guests compared to the first of the month? The guests get their SNAP benefits then. That has dignity. They can go to the supermarket, choose their own food, cook it themselves, and have dinner with their family and friends in a home. They come to us when their benefits run out.

    They are not who are being ministered to. The ministry is to you. The ministry is to bring you in direct contact with the poor, the broken, the hurting. That why we push for more volunteers even though our existing volunteers are willing to fill all shifts and work multiple days. And the sign that the ministry is successful is when a volunteer takes off his gloves and apron and gets in line with guests and sits with them and shares a meal and friendship with them.”

    I knew of a person who would go to the soup kitchens and eat and talk with the poor. Her name was Eunice. She is now with Jesus and Mary, and recently joined by her husband, Sarge. If only we all could be like her.

    • Mark Gordon

      What a great story, and so achingly true. That moment, when the helper becomes the helped, reminds me of the great quote from DT Niles: “Christianity is one beggar telling another beggar where he found bread.”

      • Rodak

        I love that! Thank you for quoting it here!

  • brian martin

    There was a neigbor lady who was well into her eighties who would buy extra newspapers and bring them to the shelter to read. A place where able bodied males felt intimidated, and this tiny old lady brought daily papers and a smile to the homeless…not to mention quilts she and friends made.

  • One time, on MLK day, my wife and I were driving down one of the largest and steepest hills I’ve ever seen, and there was a man in a wheelchair struggling to get up it. He was a middle-aged black man with a long beard and was wearing old battered clothes. The wheelchair was even broken, with both its arms missing. As I drove, my wife said something like, “Let’s help him!” I was like, “I don’t know.” I guess I thought he was homeless, obviously crazy, and in need of a whole lot more than a push up a hill. I got out of the car after her prodding. I supposed it was the ‘right’ thing to do.

    I got out, approached him, and kind of meekly asked if he needed some help.

    He turned to me, snarled, and said, “Motherf*cker, I don’t need your g*ddamn help.”

    “Okay,” I said, pissed. “Fine.”

    “You got a dollar? Give me a g*ddamn dollar.”

    I just turned away, fuming. I had many uncharitable thoughts.

    A few months later, I came home from work to my excited wife. She had a story. She had gone running. Running up the same hill, and guess what, she had met the same man in the same wheelchair. Struggling up the hill again.

    “What are you doing?” she joked with him. “Training for a race?”

    When she told me this, I did a palm in the face, thinking, “Oh . . . my . . . God.”

    But the man had stopped what he was doing, turned to her, and laughed.

    “Yeah! I am! Thank you! You know, I’ve had hundreds of people stop and try to help me up this hill, and you’re the first person who has ever just asked what I was doing. Thank you!”

  • brian martin

    It is truely about seeing them not as “homeless” or “needy”
    it is about seeing them as a person
    and it means I have to put aside my pride and arrogant assumptions
    and actually be present.