Dear Sister and Brother Vincentians,
Peace be with you, your families, and your loved ones. A classic song suggests that we are about to enter the “most wonderful time of the year”. We just paused to celebrate Thanksgiving. And Christmas is less than a month away! For so many, both holidays feature great food, family, friends, and traditions worth celebrating. Indeed, Currier & Ives captured the essence of those traditions in its gorgeous cards.
For too many, perception and reality of these holidays collide for a variety of reasons. For so many of our neighbors in need – and for some in our ranks as well – Thanksgiving and Christmas are just another day of searching for ways to make ends meet or for dealing with the pain of loss, frustration, or despair. And even among those blessed with family, friends, and financial wherewithal, the spirit of Thanksgiving and Christmas can be so tarnished by partisanship that holidays and gatherings become dreaded events. What is one to do?
As one Vincentian to others, I humbly offer the following reflections – not because I am right, but because I care about each of you. We enrich each other. If these thoughts trigger the urge within you to share, then I welcome hearing from you.
I. Vincentian Values – And Vincentians – Are Essential to Each Other
Our organization and its mission promotes three values: spirituality; friendship; and service. Vincentians commit to sharing all three with those in need, i.e. everyone. Among these inspirational values, the one that lends itself most to objective measure is service; and our Council’s commitment to service is truly remarkable. But service alone without the spiritual dimension expressly prescribed in our Rule, e.g. seeing the suffering Christ in every person we serve, reminds me of St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians about “If I speak in human and angelic tongues – but do not have love, I am a resounding gong or a clashing cymbal. . . . [and] If I give away everything I own, and if I hand my body over so that I may boast but do not have love, I gain nothing.” So spirituality – why – is as important as service – what we do – for others.
Moreover, the work of a Vincentian can be difficult, frustrating, and oftentimes thankless. Therein lies why friendship among Vincentians, staff, and all involved in our mission is essential. To remain faithful to our Vincentian mission, we must support one another. Let respect and encouragement be the prevailing mindset within our ranks.
Just as we need one another, therefore, our Society’s core values also “need” one another to function as contemplated by those who brilliantly crafted our Rule. Our three values remind me of the Holy Trinity – each inextricably intertwined with the other two. As we all know, our Vincentian invitation to serve is open to all willing to commit to our mission, values, and Rule. That means that considerable diversity of thought and opinions reside within our ranks. As we serve, let us embrace that reality with friendship and thereby promote spiritual growth.
II. The Good Word – Engage!
Speaking of realities, both our Nation and Church seem bitterly divided along many lines. That happens even among those who share commonalities. The situation leaves some willing to help, but only after their faith and confidence grows, i.e. later. It leaves others wondering what a truly flawed individual could possibly do to help. Still others say I’ll help or extend friendship, but only after others deserve it. Jesus has spoken directly to those who feel unready or unworthy.
Recently, we heard two gospels from Luke and one from Matthew. Because they are so well known, I will only briefly reference them.
In the first, Jesus’s disciples request that He “increase our faith.” It infers that faith is quantifiable, e.g. the “more” one has, the “holier” one is. Jesus responded by teaching that even a small amount of faith allows one to accomplish extraordinary things. He explained that faith is a gift that resides in us and works through us when we are open to the Lord. Any good that we accomplish as His servants is possible because of the love, even if only the size of a seed, that resides in us.
In the second gospel, we met Zacchaeus, the despised tax collector. In the eyes of many, he was a flawed individual. Notwithstanding those “flaws” and even at the risk of embarrassment, Zacchaeus climbed a tree amidst the crowd. In a real sense, he went “out on a limb” and willingly became vulnerable just to see Jesus. His faith allowed him to experience the joy of meeting Jesus. How often have we chosen to risk vulnerability to better see Jesus?
Finally, Matthew’s gospel of the Unknown Day and Hour teaches that one must “stay awake” in order to experience Advent anticipation.
These gospels help us to deal with our Nation and religion as we find them – bitterly divided, wounded, and with a citizenry focusing increasingly on oneself. We all experience moments when we feel the urge to “detach”. But these gospels – and our Vincentian mission – teach us that we should engage with our world – and its woundedness – and still try to love God. We should love God through, in, with, and even because of this world and despite our perceived flaws and shortcomings.
This is the message Christianity was supposed to initiate, proclaim, and encourage, and what Jesus modeled. We were made to love and trust this world, “to cultivate it and take care of it” (Genesis 2:15) as it is, not as we hope it (or others) should be. Let us better appreciate the interrelation between spiritual growth and our material world as well. As Pope Francis has pointed out repeatedly, we should treat both the spiritual and materials worlds as indivisible and sacred.
The work of caring for our world and for getting to know others different than ourselves, made so difficult by our society’s divisions, is the work of following Jesus. Friendship and mutual respect allows one to transcend the pain that keeps so many sealed off because of partisanship. Let us commit to bestowing those priceless gifts upon one another. If we do, then, according to William Kent Krueger, “The miracle is this: that you will rise in the morning and be able to see again the startling beauty of the day.” What a gift to bestow upon yourself.
III. Advent – A Personal Choice to Stay Awake
Another Advent season has begun. According to my remarkable Pastor, Msgr. John Zenz, “Advent” refers to the eagerly anticipated arrival of someone important, e.g. Jesus. Our joy in this celebration includes both our reliving His first arrival, but also His return as well. In this sense, our Advent spirituality should be an integral part of our faith throughout the Christmas season and the entire year.
Matthew’s Advent gospel of the Unknown Day and Hour teaches that one must “stay awake” in order to experience this Advent anticipation. Rather than “compartmentalize” our faith within the four walls of a Church, therefore, we should “incorporate” our faith into all aspects of our Life journey. Ironically, children must “go to sleep” for Santa Claus to come. But adult Catholics should “stay awake” in order to experience Advent faith.
According to Elizabeth Kirkland Cahill, everywhere we look, “our world is beset by crises and riven with tensions. . . . Conflict and suffering, both in our own lives and in the broader world, presage that something wicked this way comes. We can be forgiven, perhaps, for being discouraged to the point of despair. But to those who are sad, disheartened and afraid, God says through his prophet Zephaniah, ‘Fear not! The Lord, your God, is in your midst, a mighty savior.’ To be saved means to have enough room—enough room in our souls to cultivate a relationship with God through prayer, enough space in our hearts to allow for acts of charity, enough capacity in our spirits to slow down and breathe.” Amen!
When we serve those in need as we would Jesus, and as we support each other in friendship regardless of whether one “deserves” it, we are awake and living our adult Advent faith.
“The lens we choose transforms the way we look at things [and others].” Dewitt Jones.
Once again, we will soon celebrate a most profound and sacred event – the birth that occurred long ago, far away, in a manger. Let that birth and Advent rebirth renew our spirits and fill us with hope. Our Savior hears our prayers. If we remain open to Him, Jesus leads us to inner peace and boundless hope. God is in our midst. His love enables believers to embrace the future with optimism.
No matter where you may find yourself this happy and holy season – e.g. with the faith of a mustard seed or an oak tree, with considerable doubts or confidence, may you feel the love and support of Jesus Christ. In the spirit of Advent faith, see the possible, not the negative. Choose to celebrate what is so good with our world, our Nation, our Church, and our Council. By doing so, we will discover the energy and will to fix what is wrong as well.
May you, your family, and all those you love have a safe, happy, and most blessed holidays. Let God’s love be a bright torch in the darkness. By its light, we shall find our way.
Thank you, Vincentians, thank you SVdPD staff, and thank you to all those who contribute in any way to supporting our mission for all you do in God’s name to love thy neighbor.
Merry Christmas! God bless.