Conference Connection – January 2019
Dear Sister & Brother Vincentians:
Peace be with you. My hope is that each of you and your families had a safe, enjoyable, and blessed Christmas holidays and that each of you has a healthy, happy, and peaceful new year. But those experiences do not flow for all simply because the calendar suggests they should. Indeed, the passing of a loved one, illness, loss of a job, depression, and countless other realities can temper, if not extinguish, the hope and joy that Christmas and a new year brings among both our neighbors in need as well as within our ranks. In that sense, while we celebrate a sacred holiday collectively, everyone’s experience is unique. It is my hope that, no matter your personal experience, all felt God’s love and the renewed hope that our annual celebration of Jesus’s miraculous birth offers.
Year-end also tends to be a time of reflection, e.g. lessons learned from last year, resolutions and goals for what lies ahead. Individuals tend to make resolutions. Organizations should, too.
1. Collective Beliefs
Frederick George Marcham taught at Cornell University for seventy years. He was brilliant and yet very compassionate and patient with those less gifted (like me). During his extraordinary tenure, he taught tens of thousands of students and mentored thousands more. I was truly blessed to know him. Indeed, to this day, he was one of the most influential people I have ever met. After suffering and surviving a massive, internal hemorrhage, Professor Marcham would begin each new year by sitting down with a few sheets of blank paper and write an essay that began with the words, “I believe.” He called it his annual, personal act of creation (e.g. was it consistent with prior years or different?). Doing so provided him with serenity in a world that so often seemed spinning out of control.
Organizations, even nations, create collective beliefs. In the spirit of Professor Marcham’s annual exercise, it seems fitting to begin our new year of “Seeing the Possible” by briefly reviewing certain core concepts that we as Vincentians and as Americans believe, i.e. our collective acts of creation. In a real sense, these collective beliefs help provide both wholeness and belonging no matter where one may currently find herself or himself. They also serve as guideposts for charting the course ahead. So, in the spirit of Professor Marcham, let us pause and briefly reflect upon the core beliefs of our Society and of our Nation. Doing so helps lay a solid foundation for the new year.
a) Core Vincentian Beliefs
By design, our truly inspirational Vincentian beliefs have remained virtually intact for centuries. How truly blessed we are to be temporary custodians of an organization so fully dedicated to helping neighbors in need and each other.
The following has been excerpted verbatim from Part 1 of our Rule. Everyone is encouraged to make a new year’s resolution to read our Rule in its entirety. You’ll be glad you did.
Our Society remains an international Catholic voluntary organisation of lay people, men and women. Our members follow Christ through service to those in need and so bear witness to His compassionate and liberating love. We serve in hope. No work of charity is foreign to our Society. It includes any form of help that alleviates suffering or deprivation and promotes human dignity and personal integrity in all their dimensions.
Our Society serves those in need regardless of creed, ethnic or social background, health, gender, or political opinions. In fact, Vincentians strive to seek out and find those in need and the forgotten, the victims of exclusion or adversity. Our Society constantly strives for renewal, adapting to changing world conditions. It seeks to be ever aware of the changes that occur in human society and the new types of poverty that may be identified or anticipated. It gives priority to the poorest of the poor and to those who are most rejected by society. 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, Vincentians see the suffering Christ.
Vincentians endeavor to establish relationships based on trust and friendship. Conscious of our own frailty and weakness, we strive to have our hearts beat with the heartbeat of the poor. We do not judge those we serve. Rather, we seek to understand them as we would a brother or sister. We endeavor to help the poor to help themselves whenever possible and to be aware that they can forge and change their own destinies and that of their local community.
Vincentians are sincerely concerned with the deeper needs and the spiritual well-being of those we help, always observing profound respect for their conscience and the faith they believe in, listening and understanding with their hearts, beyond both words and appearances. We serve in hope. We rejoice in discovering the spirit of prayer in the poor, for in the silence, the poor can perceive God’s Plan for every person.
Each generation of Vincentians has relied on these core beliefs for guidance and for spiritual and personal formation.
b) Core American Beliefs
By design, our nation’s core beliefs, which are also truly inspirational, continue to evolve. That is entirely understandable given our pluralist nation with its incredible diversity of thought. Briefly, the teachings of three noted historians also shed additional light on why our core beliefs continue to evolve.
First, Gordon S. Wood, observed that America is constructed on the idea that all are created equal. In our nation, that idea has stood for the proposition that equality should transcend ethnic, racial, religious, or any cultural tribalism. In 1776, that idea was in stark contrast to other nations. In some respects, it still is.
Secondly, John Meacham, referencing Professor Wood, observed that when Thomas Jefferson first enunciated that profound concept of equality, not all men (or women) in America were equal – obviously.
Finally, our Declaration of Independence provides, in pertinent part, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Our nation’s collective belief is that all are equal and have inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; and that “we hold these truths to be self-evident”.
Professor Patrick Allitt of Emory University claims that one might believe in those rights. But he rejects that they are so self-evident as to be indisputably true. According to Professor Allitt, these propositions were and apparently still are highly contentious. He concludes, therefore, that the introductory words, “We hold” are critically important.
When viewed collectively, therefore, our nation’s core beliefs should be read to mean that, whether, in fact, they are beyond dispute, our nation believes these noble concepts to be true. Moreover, as explained, the development of these core beliefs has involved a mighty, several century, collective struggle to become more inclusive. That struggle continues.
Currently, we are the temporary custodians of these inspirational, evolving collective beliefs. They should be viewed in a historic arc. Notwithstanding a lack of universal acceptance or a full application of these noble “inalienable” rights, our nation has since its birth remained committed to expanding these collective beliefs. We can contribute to strengthening them or to allowing them to weaken. How consequential our actions become! We, therefore, must remain ever mindful that the very foundation of our collective beliefs are the structures upon which we have steadily built our constitutional republic and the core beliefs upon which that system of government is based.
This collective legacy has been handed down from our nation’s ancestors. Those beliefs have been advanced and defended at enormous personal and collective sacrifice. And yet, at any given time, our republic may be more fragile than we imagine. Accordingly, we need to be ever vigilant in our protection of it. Indeed, whether Republican or Democrat, liberal or conservative, our democracy is lubricated by our collective trust, our faith in our nation’s core beliefs, and our firm belief in our system of government.
Practically speaking, how then do we best combine these two above-referenced essential belief systems – one constant for centuries and the other continually evolving? I believe that the answer is Social Justice.
2. The Voice of the Poor Committee – Rule 7.5
A recent Washington Post Op-Ed offered advice on how best to embrace what lies ahead. It referenced an observation that was drafted and delivered more than 150 years ago. When seeking a meaningful resolution for the new year, the Op-Ed recommended that one should visit the Lincoln Memorial. There, inscribed on a wall for all to see and ponder, is the following excerpt from President Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address:
“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds . . . and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”
Herein lies a brilliant guiding light for merging the two above-referenced essential collective beliefs. Furthermore, we have a vehicle for converting these inspiring concepts into practical, transformative action.
Our Rule 7 is dedicated to social justice. In particular, Rule 7.5 provides, “A voice for the voiceless. The Society helps the poor and disadvantaged speak for themselves. When they cannot, the Society must speak on behalf of those who are ignored.”
In late November 2018, pursuant to Rule 7.5, our Detroit Council’s Governance Committee adopted a resolution that creates a Voice of the Poor Committee. Our Board has adopted it as well. Doing so is both timely and potentially very impactful. It provides, in pertinent part, that our Council “believes that Social Justice is the work of every person. It believes that persons baptized in the Catholic tradition have a special obligation to foster Social Justice. It continues by clarifying that Social Justice means ‘changing policies, structures, and institutions’ so they work on behalf of the common good.” Equality and justice – for all. Let us as Vincentians continue to expand the collective, national beliefs declared by our Founding Fathers.
Vincentians should act as agents of social change. Our Rule demands no less. We surely should continue to give material assistance to neighbors in need. But we should also help those we serve to take ownership of their futures by helping to address and eliminate institutional barriers (e.g. policies, structures, and institutions) that effectively prevent them from improving their overall condition. Indeed, Pope Francis has said that “No one must say that they cannot be close to the Poor because their own lifestyle demands more attention to other areas. None of us can think we are exempt from concern for the poor and social justice.” (Evangelii Gaudium, 201).
Our efforts should be based upon what we learn from the everyday experiences of our neighbors in need. Indeed, to truly follow Jesus is to walk with our sisters and brothers who are poor, not just to talk about them. We should feel challenged to identify and confront the underlying causes of poverty as being an integral component of our fundamental commitment to following Jesus. Our neighbors in need are extraordinarily vulnerable. We should strive to find innovative ways to help. Pope Francis also urged that we always listen to the lives of the most vulnerable in our society and use our voice on their behalf.
In our incredibly diverse nation, perhaps the greatest commonality we share is vulnerability. How we choose to deal with it can be restricting. It can also be life changing! Accepting “vulnerabilities” miraculously converts crises into opportunities to grow. When we see and accept shortcomings in others, we allow God to manifest Himself through us and for us. Likewise, when we accept our own flaws, we tend to see others through more compassionate and forgiving eyes. As the late Leonard Cohen aptly put it,
“. . . there is a crack, a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”
There is a crack in everyone, too. Our willingness to see ourselves and others “as is”, flaws and all, is how God’s light gets in – for each of us. Choosing to do so will also help make compassion contagious.
From both a Vincentian and national standpoint, we face many barriers. But for those who commit to inclusion, the above-referenced beliefs can play undeniably crucial roles in one’s spiritual growth through acceptance of others, particularly those who are somehow different. Embracing both sets of core beliefs is precisely how we discover God’s real presence by making us ever more aware of and inspired by His infinite nature and profound love.
In addition to belonging to our Vincentian and national communities, each of us has a personal relationship with God. To advance that relationship, spend time alone to pray and reflect. Rather than pray for others to change, seek change within yourself, e.g. God asks each of us “who do YOU say I am?” What is your answer? Everyone has a story to share, but only if we are willing to listen. Choose to listen. It can involve not much more than saying, “Welcome neighbor. You matter.” However you define the term neighbor, struggle to make that concept for you more inclusive. Choosing to do so will be entirely sympatico with our core Vincentian and national beliefs.
May 2019 be the year when, collectively, we see the possible and serve even more in need for the greater glory of God. I look forward to seeing you at our January 20th Annual Meeting. Meantime, when your schedule permits, consider taking out a few sheets of paper and writing an essay that begins with the words, “I believe.” God bless.
In Blessed Frederic Ozanam’s name,
Daniel P. Malone