By treating the poor as worthwhile, Vincentians swim against a strong current in society which would prefer to hide them, take them for granted, or make them invisible. But this has never been the Vincentian way.
Vincentian spirituality is Gospel-based, Christ-centered, and focused on the dignity of the individual because only man is made in God’s image and likeness (making us “a someone”, not just a ‘something’). Being endowed with freedom, self-knowledge, and self-possession we are therefore capable of fulfilling our purpose in life: to know, love, and serve God. In this way we – human beings – are called by grace to a covenant with God by which we share God’s own life, and can offer Him the response of faith and love which no other creature can give. This is the essence of our human dignity.
Intuitively we appreciate this dignity. In the experience of encountering someone who is very difficult to help – perhaps because they’re dirty, drunk, and uncooperative – it’s most likely that everyone wants to help just because ‘the victim’ is human. We understand that the victim could be ourselves, that we feel good when we help, and that failing to help may give rise to guilt.
The Rule of the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul urges Vincentians to see Christ in anyone who suffers, and thereby to also help us find our own way to salvation. The Rule says:
o The vocation of the Society’s members...is to follow Christ through service to those in need and so bear witness to his compassionate and liberating love. (1.2)
o Vincentians serve the poor cheerfully, listening to them and respecting their wishes, helping them to feel and recover their own dignity, for we are all created in God’s image. In the poor Vincentians see the suffering Christ.
o Vincentians...recognize that the fruit of their labors springs, not from themselves, but especially from God and from the poor they serve. (1.12)
Thus, when Vincentians speak of human dignity it is to address the intrinsic value or worth which human beings possess. Critical to this understanding, however, is the idea that dignity is given to us by God. Thus:
· As Jesus stepped into the Jordan (to be baptized) he received from his Father the “blessing of the beloved” – an unconditional blessing (“This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased...” Matt 17:5; Mark 9:7; Luke 9:35) which was the first thing given by the Father to his Son, and which constituted an unconditional dignity to Jesus, “I love you just because you were born”.
· And, just because we’re born we’re also called to give this same blessing – and unconditional dignity - to others. ‘Broken people’ desperately need and seek this blessing.
Living up to the Rule is obviously counter-cultural in a world where existence or importance is more frequently conditioned not to human dignity, but to pleasure, immediate gratification, acceptance, celebrity or power. However, what we have or do can hardly be a real indicator of human dignity – if they were surely Jesus would have used these values to change the world? Our Holy Father Pope John Paul II confirmed the real importance of human dignity on February 18, 1991 in a speech given at Manila:
Defending the human dignity of the poor and their hope for a human future is not a luxury for the Church, nor is it a strategy of opportunism, nor a means for currying favor with the masses. It is her duty because it is God who wishes all human beings to live in accordance with the dignity that he bestowed on them. It is the mission of the Church to travel the path of man "because man - without any exception whatever - has been redeemed by Christ, and because with man - with each man without any exception whatever - Christ is in a way united, even when man is unaware of it".
Respect for the dignity given us from God is therefore a positive, necessary, and universal duty. In the context of Vincentian ministry this obligation therefore needs for us to keep the basics straight:
JESUS IS THE KEY
A Christian should be someone who has encountered Christ, and it shows! This relationship with Christ should therefore produce in His servant a profound respect for both our own human dignity, and that of the poor. This position is reinforced by our Rule (page 11) as the Vincentian Mission implies that we should see Christ in anyone who suffers, have personal contact with the poor, and help in all possible ways...
ALWAYS LIVE WITH HOPE
Every Vincentian should be inspired to live up to the Vincentian LOGO, “to serve in hope” [Rule, p 12] because of the hope which always comes to us from the Lord. The Catechism (No. 2090) tells us that hope is “the confident expectation of divine blessing and the beatific vision of God”. This is also why Rule 1.3 embraces Luke 4:16-19 both as Jesus’ ‘Mission Statement’ and as the basis for Vincentian spirituality:
16 When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
20 And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21 Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Rule 1.1 establishes a primary goal of “serving and ministering to all the poor...(and)...promoting their dignity in accordance with Christian values...”. Vincentian Spirituality thus focuses on:
Many who come to us have versions of a similar story - with chapters on divorce, illness, accidents and isolation….leading to loss of employment, eviction, desperation...and then a sense of shame by being so beaten down. Life can be very difficult…and we won’t be able to solve all the problems – but that isn’t our goal. What we give is re-inforcement of God’s most general expectation: To Help One Another. Which is what Jesus asked of us in Matthew’s gospel [25:31-40]...cited as the Vincentian gospel in rule 1.3: ”for I was hungry...thirsty....a stranger....naked...and you gave me...”
If we respond – as urged by Pope Benedict – to give love as service, then the Vincentian ministry can help and restore both personal dignity, and the belief that there is always hope. Those we serve should be left with the sense that they’ve just “encountered a Christian”, and therefore they’ve “fallen into a blessing”, and that “God is a God of second chances”.
Being Christ-like in the face of suffering is difficult, which is why the Vincentian Mission says (we are) ”to live the Gospel message by serving Christ in the poor with love, respect, justice and joy.” Thus, our service is meant to be as loving companions who give immediate and short-term help to relieve the burdens of poverty, suffering, and injustice. This is not the same as future self-sufficiency.
Vincentian ministry asks its practitioners to use love, respect, justice, and joy in generous measure in becoming a healing figure who restores hope by respecting fundamental human dignity. This is, of course, the challenge Pope John Paul issued in Manila, that we must be uncompromising in treating every neighbor – without exception – as another self.
A reflection by Deacon John Lindsay