7 June 2009
Homily of Bishop Colm O’Reilly, Bishop of Ardagh and Clonmacnois, for Holy Trinity Sunday, St Mel’s Cathedral Longford, 3:00pm 7 June 2009
One hundred and fifty years of the Society of St Vincent de Paul’s service to the needy – Bishop Colm O’Reilly
St Vincent de Paul Society has created an awareness in our community of our responsibilities arising from Catholic social teaching
Love must do what justice alone would not have the capacity to achievE
Some Catholic Secondary Schools have established Conferences of the Society of St Vincent de Paul. I now appeal to others to follow that lead
The Longford Conference of the Society of St Vincent de Paul was founded on the 4 June 1859 – 150 years ago. The fact that we will honour its 150th Anniversary on Sunday 6 June, Feast of the Holy Trinity, is fortuitous.
It could have been argued that the celebration might be deferred until a day like the Feast of St Vincent de Paul, Patron of the Society. However, in the first Encyclical Letter of the Holy Father Pope Benedict, Deus Caritas Est [God is Love], which was published in 2006 and addressed the subject of Christian love, I find an argument in favour of celebrating today, Trinity Sunday.
Pope Benedict uses the following quotation from St Augustine to introduce the part of that letter which deals with the work of charity, within which love is an integral part: “if you see charity, you see the Trinity”. He goes from there to direct our minds to Christ on the cross, his side pierced by the spear of the soldier. Moved by love the Father sent His Son into the world to redeem us and when dying on the cross Jesus “gave up His Spirit”, as St John’s Gospel puts it. The Spirit we have received unites our hearts to the heart of Christ who washed the feet of his apostles as a sign of the love we are called to show to one another. Pope Benedict says: “love is the service that the Church carries out in order to attend to human suffering and human needs, including material needs”.
Here in Longford, in St Mel’s Cathedral, on the front of the altar there is engraved an image that few ever see. It shows Christ washing the feet of one of the apostles. It is there in front of that image that on Holy Thursday at the Mass of the Lord’s Supper that I have washed the feet of parishioners now for many years. At that Mass we have traditionally involved people from various voluntary organisations in the feet washing ceremony. I seem to remember that eighteen organisations were counted at one time for possible inclusion. The longest serving and the best known and supported of those eighteen has to be the Society of St Vincent de Paul. There is none which is more evidently committed to fulfilling the command of Christ: “I have given you an example that you do for one another as I have done for you”.
Our Diocese of Ardagh and Clonmacnois has a long association with the Society. In fact it was a man who later in his life became the Bishop of this Diocese who was central to the coming of the Society to Ireland. Father Bartholomew Woodlock, then a priest of Archdiocese of Dublin, played a leading part in opening the way for the Society to come to Dublin. The Bishop who brought the Society to this Diocese was Bishop John Kilduff. He became Bishop in 1853 and in that same year the first Conference of the Society was set up in his native parish, St Mary’s in Athlone. The Society of St Vincent de Paul, founded in Paris, was then a mere twenty years old.
The story of the coming of the Society to Longford town is interesting, particularly because of the way in which the priorities for its work of charity were chosen. After the Longford Conference was set up it very quickly changed from a wider agenda to a focus on provision of education. A newspaper of the time, The Nation, had the following to say: “the members of the Longford Conference of the Society of St Vincent de Paul are about to establish, with as little delay as possible, schools for the more destitute of the poor children of this populous town” (The Nation 23 July 1859).
Was this overambitious? Probably. Anyway, the arrival of the Sisters of Mercy in Longford in 1861- who were soon immersed in education – must have relieved those brave men of the Society of some of their concern. But the Society has been involved over the years in helping to provide meals for school going children or helping families who had need of extra financial help for uniforms and shoes for their children.
The passing of the years has seen many changes in Ireland which have impacted on the work of the St Vincent de Paul Conferences in our Diocese. There have been times when the Longford Conference moved into a new gear, as it were. In 1969, forty years ago, Ozanam House, the Headquarters of the Conference was opened. I consider that building, which is in close proximity to the Cathedral, to have more than practical value. It symbolises the fact that the work of charity that is done by the Society is rightly at the centre of the life of the parish and the diocese. The development of two important places of refuge on the Dublin Road, St Martha’s and Bethany, added another dimension to the place that the Society plays in reaching out to the most urgent needs of people who are homeless. One of these provides beds and a first meal of the day for men the other accommodation for women and their children.
Through its responses to changing circumstances and new kinds of need, the Society of St Vincent de Paul has created an awareness in our community of our responsibilities arising from Catholic social teaching. It is not an exaggeration to say that without its influence, we in Ireland would be less caring as Christian people.
The St Vincent de Paul Society faces new challenges now. To fulfil its role its cadre of volunteers will need to be augmented. Several years ago women began to be recruited, giving a new life and vigour to the organisation. A new initiative is now needed. If the present members of our Conferences are to have successors, we need to be introducing young people to the work now. School based Junior Conferences already exist in some of our Catholic Secondary Schools. I now appeal to others to follow that lead. The Founders of the Society were young students. We need the energy and generosity of our young students as much now as in their day.
While in Lourdes last week with our Diocesan Pilgrimage this celebration was on my mind. Then as I carried the monstrance into the underground Basilica of St Pius X, I noticed that over the particular entrance through which I was coming was a large picture of the Founder of the Society of St Vincent de Paul, Blessed Frederick Ozanam. Unlike the other pictures of holy people in the basilica, his has a quotation alongside his picture. It says: “that love must do what justice alone would not have the capacity to achieve”. These words are especially apt for now.
There are big gaps between what people see as their right to State assistance and what they can realistically hope to receive. Very often it will be the Society of St Vincent de Paul which will come to the rescue for some of those hardest hit in recessionary times. In the name of those in greatest need in the community I thank the Society of St Vincent de Paul for 150 years of service in the Church’s name.
Notes for Editors
- We celebrate the Feast of the Holy Trinity as, at the Last Supper, Christ explained to the Apostles that He could not teach them everything because they were not, during His lifetime, sufficiently receptive. The Holy Spirit will be charged with continuing Christ’s work for all the days of the future Church. It is the love of the Father that gives us His Son, while the Holy Spirit is ever leading us to know more of the truth.
- Those attending this Mass will include Ms Mairead Bushnell, National President of the Society of St Vincent de Paul as well as representatives from each of the six conferences of the Society based in the Diocese of Ardagh and Clonmacnois.
- The Diocese of Ardagh and Clonmacnois includes County Longford, half of County Leitrim and portions of Counties Westmeath, Offaly and Cavan. It has a Catholic population of 73,300 and there are 41 parishes and 80 Churches in the diocese.
Martin Long, Director of Communications 086 172 7678