Homily of Archbishop Diarmuid Martin at annual conference for Saint Vincent de Paul
The area of Dublin in which we are gathered is an area which, to use the language of our day, has been developed or re-developed. What has been achieved in this area is remarkable. This Conferences Centre, of recent construction, already possesses mementos and souvenirs of extraordinary events of world level that have taken place here.
Dubliners of my age will remember the area differently. Many of us will remember coming here, for example, to board the old B&I vessels that set out each evening for Liverpool as the principal way to get to Britain on holiday or to attend football weekends.
The memories of those even older will be much more sobering. They will be memories of this area as an area of harsh poverty. People were employed here just by the day for rough hard work on the boats and in the docks. There was no security of tenure; no thought for those who were sick or weak. Oftentimes they received their pay packet in the pub and sadly on occasion very little of that pay arrived to the families.
There was nothing of the luxury of the ships that we see today. Many of the passengers in those days were emigrants, leaving the poverty of Dublin and Ireland in the hope of making a living in Britain. Men and women set out on their own, with nothing more than the address of someone they knew in Britain, with hope and their heart and a tear in their eyes. Many a young boy at the age of 16, having just left an Industrial School, took to the boat hoping to experience freedom and found themselves lost in a new world and a different culture with no one to assist them.
Today everything looks different. But I would always be hesitant to speak of development without qualification. In the midst of poverty there was also here a great sense of solidarity and good neighbourliness. People were looked after. The elderly and those on their own felt that they were known. There was a sense of no-nonsense solidarity. If you were in need you would get something of the little that was available. If you were seen going off track, you would soon be told so. There were brave and wise and astute women, perhaps with little in terms of formal education, but who gave advice and admonition, and care and correction. This was a place of poverty but also a place with a humanity all its own.
Living conditions were squalid. Life conditions were marked by precariousness. There was no security in work. People were exploited. Bailiffs and debt collectors and money lenders were everyday visitors.
But there was also another regular visitor who played a vital role in this community at the height of its poverty: “the Vincent de Paul man”. The Vincent de Paul man was a life line. He was known, but he was discreet. He did not look for publicity or reward, but everyone knew where to find him when he was needed. He bought financial help, but never humiliation. He was prudent and careful in dispensing what he brought, but he had the flexibility to know when just that little bit extra would make a world of difference. The Vincent de Paul man was not from the area. He came from a different world but he respected the world of the poor. He had his meetings, but he was not primarily a strategist or lobbyist. He was hands on. He helped the children and he rejoiced when they got on well. He was beside the lonely elderly and he cried at their funeral.
The great charism of the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul which goes back to Frederic Ozanam – whose memory has been celebrated here today in the presence of the President of Ireland and of public figures – was always that of being in there in person-to-person encounter with poverty and with the people living in poverty. The first task was ensuring survival and survival even in the most rudimentary dimension
The work of Frederic Ozanam was not simply that of alleviating individual poverty just as the work of the society of Saint Vince de Paul today is not just that of alleviating individual poverty. Nor is it simply to be an advocate or a lobbyist for the poor or for public policy change. There is something much deeper. We have to be convinced ourselves and then strongly affirm that people living in poverty are great people; they are our brothers and sister, our friends and our peers. They are resourceful people and generous, who give themselves as any of us would so that their children can do even that little bit better than themselves. They feel the same pain and disappointment as we do when things go wrong. They show their amazing ability to survive in the harshest of situations.
It is important that the Saint Vincent de Paul Society and the broad Vincentian family society – with the wealth of its experience going back here in Ireland to 1844 – be today a strong lobbyist for the rights of those living in poverty and to expose the risks of the vulnerable falling back into poverty well below the subsistence level. But it is important always to remember that the prestige which the Saint Vincent de Paul Society enjoys in Ireland does not come from the sharpness of your social analysis no matter how important and competent that may be. Your credibility comes because people trust you. They trust you not to have vested interest or interest in personal gain either financial or in reputational. They trust the society because its members are known to be out there week after week close to people, with the people. It comes from that sense of gratuitousness that has been the mark of SVP: of giving without asking anything in return.
Who would have thought just five years ago that we would have situation where precariousness and vulnerability touch so many sectors of the population here in Ireland; a situation in which men and women who generously gave to the society last year would today have to turn to the society for help.
Social reform is necessary. But you can be a social reformer from the sidelines, from a safe distance. You can give generously through your cell-phone from a comfortable armchair. The charism of the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul is to be out there among people not just with material help but with respect and love and even admiration for those whom they help.
That is why Pope Benedict, in his first Encyclical Deus Caritas Est, reminds us that, in Church organizations, “while professional competence is a primary, fundamental requirement, it is not of itself sufficient. We are dealing with human beings, and human beings always need something more than technically proper care. They need humanity. They need heartfelt concern”. And he concludes: “The Christian’s programme —the programme of the Good Samaritan, the programme of Jesus—is “’a heart which sees”’. This heart sees where love is needed and acts accordingly”.
Pope Benedict noted that: “there is no ordering of the State so just that it can eliminate the need for a service of love. Whoever wants to eliminate love is preparing to eliminate [the human person] as such. There will always be suffering which cries out for consolation and help. There will always be loneliness. There will always be situations of material need where help in the form of concrete love of neighbour is indispensable”
We have heard that remarkable first reading from the Acts of the Apostles about the characteristics of the early Church. The early Christians formed a true community. When the Acts of the Apostles speak of the early Christians it is noted immediately that “they gathered”. They gathered reflecting on the word of God and the teaching of the apostles and they shared in the Eucharist. From this unique Eucharistic sharing a new and different form of living came into being: that of sharing their material goods. They shared their food and anything that they had gladly, responding to the individual need of each member. This was a community in which self-advancement and self-interest took second place, a community marked not just by giving, but by self-giving.
We talk today about reform of the church and renewal in the Church and as is typical of our times we look to attain such change through seminars and strategies and new structures. These are certainly needed. But the fundamental change is to return to the essential way of living the truth in love, as the early disciples of Jesus did.
We are called to live as Christians in the realities of the twenty first century. Today exclusion is not simply about physical need; we need to witness also to the hope that is within us so that people can find meaning in their lives. Pope Francis likes to use the term “periferia”: the outskirts, the frontier. We are called to bring Christian love not just to the new frontiers of poverty in our cities in our countryside, but also to the frontiers of human existence, anywhere where vulnerability, alienation and evil take their toll.
Society and the Church owe a great debt of gratitude to the members of the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul not just for what they do, but for who they are and for the witness of disinterested self-giving love they show day after day, week after week, as they follow the teaching of Jesus Christ and as they emulate the person of Jesus in their lives. They show what the Church is and how communion with each other must be the mark of those who gather around the altar of communion. Those who are nourished through sharing in the self-giving sacrifice of Jesus must be marked by a personal life of self-giving.
The scenario in which today’s “Vincent de Paul man and woman” works may be different and more complex than that experienced in other times. But the society has got the ability to identify the sign of the times of today and to respond always remembering that the poor deserve the best and what we do for them in Jesus name aims to give them voice and hope on their own for the years to come.