Dear Sister and Brother Vincentians:
Peace be with you. Our new year is off to a great start! On January 21st, roughly 250 gathered at Sacred Heart Seminary to celebrate a beautiful Mass, enjoy a delicious breakfast, and attend our Annual Meeting. In many respects, our gathering was nourishing for all who attended.
This year’s Annual Meeting program consisted of a two part program.
First, I had the privilege of reporting on the numerous aspects of our Council as a business. The immediately following article in this Conference Connection is my report that summarizes what our Council accomplished this past year. In light of that summary, which does not include the roughly 45,000 home visits Vincentians made last year, no one could seriously challenge our commitment to serving neighbors in need. Overall, we served more than 300,000 last year. Well done, All!
Our collective service should be a source of quiet pride for all of us. It should also serve as a sobering reminder of just how many neighbors in need we have in the Archdiocese of Detroit alone.
Secondly, our meeting introduced a new project aimed at promoting spiritual growth. Our newly formed Spirituality Group successfully launched a spiritual exercise that focused on Vincentian transformation as they respond to the gospel call of serving neighbors in need.
A. Our Spirituality Group – Why, Who, and How?
Let me briefly address some underlying reasons for formulating our Spirituality Group.
1. Why Have One?
Our Detroit Council is comprised of staff, Board members, Foundation Board members, Vincentians and, in a real sense, donors and friends of our organization. Each is called to a journey of service together that leads to holiness, Rule 2.1. Absent growth in holiness, the sustained, dedicated service referenced above can lead instead to spiritual exhaustion, cynicism, intolerance, and eventually becoming judgmental of neighbors in need and of each other. This is understandable. But Rule 1.9 expressly provides, in pertinent part, that Vincentians “. . . do not judge those they serve.”
So we explored this important issue by asking how best our Council can spiritually “nourish” each of its participants. We wanted to create a model that provided each person within our Council with an “opportunity to walk together” and thereby help each other bring out the spirit that resides within every person. We believe that these opportunities will allow what’s deepest in our hearts, in our values, and in our spirits to be gifts to each other. Otherwise, the dedicated service at the levels our staff and Vincentians sustain leads to the unintended, undesirable consequences of being harshly judgmental of those we serve as well as those we serve with.
2. Who Is Involved?
Catholic orders of Sisters have a millennia of wisdom and experience when it comes to community, activism, and, above all, spirituality. In addition, even when their leadership capacity has not always
been recognized, they have demonstrated remarkable capabilities of sustaining themselves. They are humble and most willing to share their extraordinary expertise in these critical respects whenever they are asked to do so. And, even when asked to participate and contribute to a project that involves members of different orders, they role model by subordinating their personal interests to those of the group. Could this enviable group behavior work for a group as eclectic as our Council? I decided to invite several sisters to assist our Council in this critical respect.
I have recruited six truly remarkable Catholic sisters to help create and implement a spirituality program that helps each group within our Council to “journey together towards holiness.” Rule 2.1. To a person, each enthusiastically responded to my invitation to serve. They include: Sr. Noreen Ellison, Sisters of Charity (SVdPD Associate Spiritual Advisor); Sr. Maryellen Thomas, Daughters of Charity; Sr. Joan Drega, Daughters of Charity; Sr. Linda Werthman, Sisters of Mercy; Sr. Shelley Marie Jeffrey, Felician Sisters; and Sr. Felicity Marie Madigan, Felician Sisters. In addition, Therese Frye, Debbie Jackson, and I are members of this group. We have met several times to explore how to create a practical, effective model that provides spiritual nourishment to each group within our Council (e.g. what works for Vincentians may not necessarily be effective with staff).
3. How Will It Proceed?
The results, even at this early stage, are very promising. At the Annual Meeting, our Spirituality Group facilitated group discussions at each table of Vincentians. Attendees were asked to reflect upon: 1) how they had changed since becoming a Vincentian; 2) how members have stayed committed to the values of SVdPD and how they have grown spiritually; and 3) what they thought would help our Society remain effective in living its mission and values. Attendees had time to ponder each question, share their reflections with those at their table, and then report out to the entire gathering. The program was well run and, based upon more than 200 submitted evaluations, incredibly well received. We received numerous comments on the importance of seeing Jesus in those we serve, in strengthening bonds of friendship within conferences and districts (i.e. we need each other), in the gift of prayer, and especially in remaining focused on our incredible mission were recurring themes. It proved to be a very special gathering.
Heartfelt thanks to our Spirituality Group and to everyone who attended our Annual Meeting for engaging and remaining open to spiritual growth. The inaugural efforts of this talented group underscored the need for one another in order to grow spiritually. It reminds one of the South African proverb, “a person becomes human through others.” The group will be offering similar programs designed specifically for the perceived needs of our staff, our Archdiocesan Board, our Foundation Board, and others.
B. Potential Impediments
In our quiet moments, when our world is somewhat at peace, this inspirational proposition of helping neighbors in need (and each other) seems indisputable. Of course! And yet, each of us knows that it is far more difficult living this belief than articulating it. Countless reasons exist for why that is. I sometimes think that a primary reason is that God filled our world entirely with imperfect people who challenge each of us to thereby become more accepting, more tolerant, more loving. That can be a very tall order. Let me share just two potential impediments that we face on our personal and collective journey toward growth in spiritual holiness.
1. Being Judgmental – Rule 1.9
During our daily mission of living the Word, we have countless opportunities to see what we perceive to be the frailties in others. My colleagues see them in me all the time! We see them in fellow workers, family members, friends, and neighbors in need, among others. At those moments, we make a choice: to confront and criticize or to see through more compassionate eyes. I believe that we are wired at the beginning of our Life journey with the former and, in the name of Jesus Christ, strive to convert to the latter.
By way of example, as a Council, we made 45,000 home visits last year alone. Amazing commitment to service! Among those we served, there were surely more than a few times when Vincentians wondered “of course, I am committed to being a Vincentian. But, does this neighbor in need deserve our help?” After all, she/he isn’t entirely destitute, has several material possessions, or, based upon a very short intake interview, could “probably work if he/she chose to do so.” IF you have ever felt that way, you are not alone. That is your “confront and criticize” wiring. We all have it. When that feeling arises, it is essential that Vincentians help each other (and thereby grow in holiness) stay focused on our mission. In that regard, Rule 1.9 expressly provides,
“Vincentians endeavor to establish relationships based on trust and friendship. Conscious of their own frailty and weakness, their hearts beat with the heartbeat of the Poor. They do not judge those they serve. Rather, they seek to understand them as they would a brother or sister.” (emphasis added).
A recent gospel (Luke 4:14-21), sheds light on this very issue. During a meeting on the Sabbath, the people confronted Jesus with the book of Isaiah, written almost 700 hundred years previously. Jesus opened it and read that the Lord’s spirit had chosen us to tell the good news to the poor, to those imprisoned, and to give sight to the blind. As those who have been baptized and committed to Vincentian values, we have been chosen to share the good news to those who suffer. Sharing with neighbors in need, or fellow Vincentians, or fellow colleagues that they are not “worthy” of our love and support is not good news! Let us help one another to see more clearly with our hearts when it comes to the sacred and noble cause of helping neighbors in need.
The following Sunday’s readings included, among others, St. Paul’s priceless letter to the Corinthians in regard to love. This passage, very popular as a wedding ceremony reading, has particular applicability to our Vincentian mission. St. Paul eloquently speaks of a love that is easier to describe than to live day by day. But try we must; and if we support one another with friendship and the kind of love of which St. Paul speaks, then we will grow in holiness. Otherwise, even if one speaks “in human and angelic tongues” but does not have love, then he/she is merely “a resounding gong or a clashing cymbal.”
How then does one incorporate this kind of love into daily life? In his book, The Art of Happiness, the Dalai Lama shares practical advice on this elusive issue as well. He differentiates between empathy and compassion. Empathy involves feeling what another living being feels, while compassion causes one to see the world through the lens of another for the purpose of alleviating suffering. He offers the following distinction:
“Picture yourself walking along a mountainous trail. You come across a person being crushed by a bolder on their chest. The empathetic response would be to feel the same sense of crushing suffocation, thus rendering you helpless. The compassionate response would be to recognize that the person is in pain and doing everything within your power to remove the boulder and alleviate that suffering.”
By generously extending each other friendship and support, by pausing each day to pray, by loving our neighbors, and by dealing with our neighbors in need with compassion, we will surely grow in holiness.
2. Lack of Gratitude
A second potential impediment challenges us to grow beyond our personal code of conduct. No matter where each of us grew up, to some extent or another, we made lives for ourselves and our families. Day by sometimes bloody day, we worked, endured setbacks, and enjoyed small pleasures. We established and perpetuated traditions. No matter how successfully or disastrously our journey turned out, we created lives that included working and celebrating, laughter and tears, successes and failures. Within that life each of us created, we also established a code of conduct that we lived by and shared with our children. Worship Our Lord. Respect one’s elders. Do onto others as you would have done onto yourself. Be grateful. Sounds reasonable.
The question that we face all too often, however, is how do we respond when the charitable way that we treat others (e.g. neighbors in need, fellow Vincentians, fellow colleagues) is not reciprocated? Do we then say “Game On!”? Herein lies where many well-intentioned get sidetracked, including me. If I am willing to leave my comfort zone and help another voluntarily, then surely the recipient(s) of my generosity should express gratitude, no? But Rule 1.8 suggests otherwise. It provides,
“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, we see the suffering Christ.” (emphasis added).
Gratitude is an understandable component of our personal code of conduct; and it should be. But many may not be in a position to express it as we extend a helping hand. Vincentians are called not only to see the face of Jesus in those we serve, but also to see the suffering Christ. That is why Vincentians give “priority” to the “poorest of the poor and to those who are most rejected by society.” Rule 1.6.
To be sure, neighbors in need, fellow Vincentians, and fellow colleagues very frequently express profound gratitude for our assistance. But on those occasions that someone chooses not to extend gratitude or may simply be incapable of doing so, remember this: for all the miraculous works of mercy and kindness He extended, Jesus never received a thank you note. As we attempt to bring those in need “good news” and “a glimpse of God’s great love for them” Rule 2.1, we do not need one, either.
At moments when we confront suffering, let us not ask whether the person with a boulder on their chest is “worthy” of our assistance or “grateful” enough. We have been chosen to share the good news to those who suffer. Accordingly, may we help each other become more compassionate.
As stated at the outset, the sentiments expressed herein are much easier to state than to live. To live them, we need each other. To grow in holiness involves growing in friendship. Spiritual formation is more communal than personal. In that spirit, let us renew our commitment to our mission and to one another. When we do, we experience our faith, every faith, at its very best.
Last month, my column discussed our slow road toward inclusion. In a similar vein, I think that we should embrace all experiences as a necessary and essential step of our journey toward becoming a more complete human being. That includes disappointments, missteps, as well as joyful moments. A former Secretary General of the United Nations best captured the concept with this brief, but inspirational, prayer.
“For all that has occurred, thank you. For all that will be, yes!” – Dag Hammarskjold
Will we be judgmental when faced with certain circumstances? Perhaps. Will neighbors in need, fellow Vincentians, and fellow colleagues fail to express gratitude? Perhaps. But, at the end of the day, each of us chooses how we respond to those and other situations. Let us support one another to stay focused on our mission and our Vincentian values. Moreover, as we do, I encourage you to remember the following, incredible poem written by St. Theresa of Calcutta. God bless.
The Final Analysis
by Mother Theresa of Calcutta
People are often unreasonable, illogical, and self-centered;
…Forgive them anyway!
If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives;
…Be kind anyway!
If you are successful, you will win some false friends and some true enemies;
If you are honest and frank, people may cheat you;
…Be honest and frank anyway!
What you spend years building, someone could destroy overnight;
If you find serenity and happiness, they may be jealous;
…Be happy anyway!
The good you do today, people will often forget tomorrow;
…Do good anyway!
Give the world the best you have, and it may never be enough;
…Give the world the best you’ve got anyway!
You see, in the final analysis, it is between you and God;
It was never between you and them anyway.