- Celebration of Mass by Archbishop Eamon Martin in Saint Therese’s Church, Banbridge, on the Feast Day of the Saint Vincent de Paul, for members of the Society from Armagh, Craigavon, Banbridge and surrounding area.
“Jesus demonstrated the Kingdom values by His action, reaching out to the crowds who were harassed and dejected … I call on others to consider joining the Society for your work is truly the work of God” – Archbishop Martin
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, for he has anointed me and sent me to preach the good news to the poor, to heal the broken-hearted” (cf Luke 4:18).
Those words from the Entrance Antiphon are so fitting as we celebrate the feast of Saint Vincent de Paul. Since he himself was appointed as a chaplain to the galley slaves in Paris four hundred years ago, his life and teaching have inspired countless others. All over the world a great “Vincentian family” has grown up of people who dedicate their lives to bringing good news to the poor – not least, Blessed Antoine-Frédéric Ozanam, your founder.
To hear the cry of the poor, as Jesus did, is such a central part of our discipleship as Christians. But it is not easy nowadays because many of us live rather comfortably, and the reality of poverty is something that we often prefer to keep out of sight, out of mind.
The reality, however, of so much poverty in the world, continues to break in to our consciousness on the screens of television or social media. Often the overwhelming scale of starvation, famine, disease and war, the sheer numbers of refugees, people being trafficked, or homeless can make our charitable efforts feel insignificant – a drop in the ocean. People also speak of compassion fatigue – as soon as one humanitarian disaster fades from the front pages and headlines, another lines up to take its place.
But there are witnesses to inspire us, like Saint Vincent de Paul, Louise de Marillac, Frederic Ozanam and countless other saints – including many who were never officially canonised, but who nonetheless have been living icons of Christ, friends of the poor, reminding us that “yes, you can make a difference!”
It was Sister Rosalie Rendu, a Daughter of Charity sister who pointed the young student Frédéric Ozanam and his companions to the charism of Saint Vincent de Paul, to live out love into action and to serve the poor in the slums of Paris. Like Saint Vincent de Paul, Frederic believed that our love for the poor must be seen in our actions! As Saint Vincent said, “Let us love God … through the work of our hands, let it be by the sweat of our brow” (Saint Vincent de Paul, XI, 40)
The secret of these inspiring Saints of course is to help us realise that, in the face of every poor person, one can recognise the face of Christ, who suffered, who was poor for our sake; Christ the humble, servant King who touched the face of lepers, who never missed an opportunity to remind every person of their inherent dignity and worth as children of God. In all the towns and villages He visited, Jesus not only taught by His words, proclaiming in synagogues and elsewhere the Good News of the Kingdom of God, but He also demonstrated the Kingdom values by His action, reaching out to the crowds who were harassed and dejected, like sheep without a shepherd.
Psalm 111 sums it up it beautifully:
“Happy the one who fears the Lord..
He is generous, merciful and just…
Open handed he gives to the poor”.
In other words we live God in, and through, the poor, and then we work to build the Kingdom by drawing attention to injustices which give arise to increased poverty or perpetuate it.
With this in mind I salute you, the members of Saint Vincent de Paul Society. You not only talk about poverty, but you take practical, loving steps to lift up those who are struggling and lend them a helping hand to get back on their feet. Thanks to the generosity of many of our parishioners, you are able to offer assistance with heating, food and other basic necessities in hard times.
Your Society also provides an important voice on issues of social justice, drawing attention to increased fuel poverty, child poverty, the struggles of loan parents and the elderly. You alert us when poverty rates are increasing among the marginalised on the streets, in emergency accommodation, amongst Travellers, the homeless, and you remind us of those who might otherwise be forgotten or abandoned.
During the pandemic your voices alerted us to the phenomenon of ‘in-work’ poverty which can impact especially on those who are self-employed or part-time, and those with temporary or on zero-hours contracts. You are also aware – through the demand you face for food, clothing, fuel and hygiene assistance – of the scourge of unsustainable debt which binds so many citizens, including a lot of our young adults who have become trapped in a ‘buy now pay later’ culture. In that regard, we must all be alert to the repercussions of the ending of emergency pandemic measures, including the imminent cut in weekly universal credit payments. These, together with ongoing increases to fuel and other living costs, remind us that maintaining a basic standard of living for citizens is the responsibility of government – not of charity.
In this context it is important for all of us who bear the name Christian to realise that even the smallest actions of generosity and compassion can make a real difference to someone who is struggling with poverty. Saint Vincent de Paul saw his work as being like planting a tiny seed which can grow or blossom and bear much fruit.
I welcome this evening the Conferences of Saint Patrick’s Banbridge and Saint Colman’s into the Armagh and Craigavon Area of the Society and I congratulate and thank those who are accepting leadership roles as Presidents of their local conferences. I also congratulate those of you who will receive certificates for your courses in mental health awareness and first aid. I call on others to consider joining the Society for your work is truly the work of God.
In a special way tonight I want to thank the many members of the Saint Vincent de Paul Society who provided a lifeline to others in our communities during the worst of the coronavirus pandemic. I have personally witnessed some of this amazing work and I know that it is your closeness to individuals and families who are struggling which earns their trust and confidence and gives them the courage to come forward and ask for help. It was not easy for you during Covid as your normal fundraising activities were interrupted and your meetings and conferences had to operate in a different way. However, on this special feast day, I encourage you never to underestimate the impact that each one of you can have on others, and the powerful testimony which your work offers to us all – that we are sent to bring the Good News to the poor, and that whatever we do for the least of our brothers and sisters, we do for Christ.
Happy Feast Day.
- Archbishop Eamon Martin is Archbishop of Armagh, Apostolic Administrator of the Diocese of Dromore and Primate of All Ireland