Light Through the Darkness

Fr. Tom McKenna of the Eastern Province of the Congregation of the Mission,  reminds us that there are moments of pain and suffering sprinkled through narratives of the birth of Christ, He asks why? What might this mean for Vincentians?

Light Through Darkness (Lk. 1-2)

In this season of the light of Jesus’ birth overcoming the darkness and the cold, it seems to go against the grain to pick out notes of death and suffering. They come through in scarcely noticed sidebars such as Mary’s unease at the Angel’s announcement, Herod’s treacherous request to the three Kings, the innkeeper’s refusal to take in the expectant couple, and Simeon’s warning about swords in the future. How does this dying strain fit into such a life-giving happening? It’s a question that extends well beyond the infancy narrative, all the way to the child’s eventual demise on a cross.

One frame to interpret this juxtaposition of dark and light was the 4th Century approach of St. Anselm known as substitutionary atonement. In it, the honor of God the Father was so tarnished by humanity’s sins that it could be refurbished only by the selfless act of a sin-free person — by the death of God’s own Son. In recent years many have come to recast Jesus’ suffering in a very different light. Rather than the payment due an insulted and angry God, it’s interpreted as part of an unbreakable assurance of God’s nearness, a pledge that even (and especially) in the dreadful dying of Jesus, God hovers close. This freely accepted death communicates solidarity, not anger. It reveals the Spirit’s abiding throughout life and particularly in those fear-filled moments leading up to life’s final hour.

Given this context, the darker notes in the Christmas story can better harmonize with its overriding message: Emmanuel, God is with us. Though threat lurks in the shadows, underlying it is the divine assurance that we don’t face these menaces alone. The darker current running against the Holy Family is not a piece of some price paid out to an offended Father but is the reverse side of the more luminous undercurrent: God is always drawing near. It conveys accompaniment rather than repayment.

The Vincentian call to walk with those who live in darkness resonates here. Service to people who are poor often brings us into contact with somber and even death-dealing situations. But the Christmas truth is that God’s light suffuses the dimness of those times and in the end beats back the encroaching darkness. Though perhaps poetic-sounding in the face of discouragement, these light-filled stories bring substance to the claim that we’re not alone in that dark, that God encircles us with what mystics have called a dazzling darkness, that in the depths of the night God’s arrival coming dawn breaks through.

Though there’s a dark thread spooling through all the light, even that bit gives off a hopeful message if we interpret it rightly. The all loving God is accompanying us just there. In Jesus, the divine compassion draws near both in the bright events of life and just as much in the cloud-covered ones.

We Are All Part of the Genealogy of Christ!

A friend of the Vincentian Family and the Eastern Province reminds us that we are all part of the genealogy of Christ.

In her post this morning Susan Stabile asks us to reflect on what noted scripture scholar Ray Brown, wrote.

The passage has a lot to say about the people God worked through in the past to effectuate the plan of the Incarnation, and in so doing, says a lot about the people through whom God continues to work in the world. Raymond Brown had this to say about the forward-looking significance of the genealogy:

If the beginning of the story involved as many sinners as saints, so has the sequence. This means not simply a Peter who denied Jesus or a Paul who persecuted him, but sinners and saints among those who would bear his name throughout the ages. If we realize that human beings have been empowered to preserve, proclaim, and convey the salvation brought by Jesus Christ throughout ongoing history, the genealogy of the sequence of Jesus contains as peculiar an assortment of people as did the genealogy of the beginnings. The God who wrote the beginnings with crooked lines also writes the sequence with crooked lines, and some of those lines are our own lives and witness. A God who did not hesitate to use the scheming as well as the noble, the impure as well as the pure, men to whom the world hearkened and women upon whom the world frowned – this God continue to work through the same mélange. If it was a challenge to recognize in the last part of Matthew’s genealogy that totally unknown people were part of the story of Jesus Christ, it may be a greater challenge to recognize that the unknown characters of today are an essential part of the sequence. A sense of being unimportant and too insignificant to contribute to the continuation of the story of Jesus Christ in the world is belied by the genealogy.

The reading we hear today at Mass – this beginning of St. Matthew’s Gospel – not only reminds us of God’s fidelity, but strengthens our hope about our destiny and our importance to God’s plan. It is an invitation offered to all of us. As Brown suggests, if the story of the origin of Jesus Christ is that “Abraham was the father of Isaac, who was the father of Jacob, who was the father of Judah and his brothers,” then the continuation sequence is that Jesus called Peter and Paul, Paul called Timothy, and that somewhere along the way someone called you and me and that we all must call others.

We are all part of the ongoing genealogy of Jesus Christ.

PS In light of the twists and turn of Jesus’ genealogy I read my own geneology on my father’s side differently. My cousin in Germany has traced it back to 1493. I have seen the lintel on the house next to where my father was raised. The date was mid 1500!

WYD – What’s at stake for our confreres

WYD – What’s at stake for our confreres

Our confreres and the people they serve in Panama are not only preparing to celebrate the birth of Christ. They are also fully engaged in the last minute preparations for World Youth Day 2019. The event with global significance will begin January 22 and conclude January 27. It will be preceded by a historic meeting of indigenous youth January 17-21. The Eastern Province’s Joe Fitzgerald, CM is playing a leading role.

Fr. Joe Fitzgerald, CM and Panamanian Youth

A recent article in CRUX points out the significance this day.

Immigration, the environment and the role of women in the Catholic Church will be “central themes” at the 2019 World Youth Day, set to take place next month in Panama, which will be a primary testing ground for the principles laid out at the October summit of bishops on young people.


For a relatively small country, hosting poses its challenges. Just look at the numbers.

Over 47,000 young people from 155 countries have already registered to attend the event organizers said, and 168,000 are completing the application process. To this number add the 37,000 volunteers who have already signed up to help during the events. They come from all over the world, including Colombia, Brazil, France, Costa Rica, Honduras, and Poland.

There will be a significant variety of young people at the event with 243 coming from China and 450 from Cuba. Muslims will also be in attendance, hailing from Jordan and Palestine.

About 1,000 young people from indigenous populations are set to attend World Youth Day. This is of special significance for Fr. Joe Fitzgerald given the fact that he is the lead organizer.

Perspectives of Panama’s Archbishop Ulloa

Panama’s Archbishop Ulloa suggests this an opportunity to begin addressing the topics that will unfold in the 2019 Synod of Bishops on the Pan-Amazonian region, at the forefront of the battle against climate change.

Not surprisingly he says beyond focusing on young people World Youth Day will place a special emphasis on Pope Francis’s encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si, and the doctrine of the Church.

Nor will the political tensions that are unfolding in Latin American countries, especially Nicaragua and Venezuela, be forgotten. Francis will meet with the Latin American Episcopal Conference (CELAM) during his visit to Panama for the event as well as several representatives of South American states who have been

Finally, “the South American Church is a martyred Church,” the archbishop said, counting among them the now-Saint Oscar Romero and the many who died “to transform this region.” “These are necessary models for young people, whom they can imitate and follow now, not tomorrow,” he added.

Our prayers are with all the participants and those who have worked so hard to bring this to life.n May all these efforts bring forth much fruit.

Charles Dickens – Artists as a Voice for the Poor

Charles Dickens – Artists as a Voice of the Poor

Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol?”  Who hasn’t read it, or heard it or seen it on stage or screen?  It has inspired many people to look at their lives through the lens of their past, future, and present. The short story, written in 1843,  contained a big message that helped the poor. With a beautifully crafted story, he created an awareness of some of the roots and long-range effects of poverty.

Trying to express what Vincent would see today. Photo courtesy of Aleteia Rocco Manuel Spezia

The painter Van Gogh admired the social conscience of Charles Dickens and of British artists who depicted workhouses and the underside of Victorian life. In his book “How the Other Half Lives” (1890), Jacob Riis, American newspaper reporter, social reformer, and photographer shocked the conscience of his readers with graphic records of slum conditions in New York City.

Fifty years later author John Steinbeck’s classic novel “The Grapes of Wrath” raised awareness of the injustice faced by many migrants on the road during the Great Depression. It became the impetus for political movements. Steinbeck had succeeded in changing the perception of poverty.

Artists through the centuries have challenged superficial visions of poverty and inspired dedication to direct services improving the condition of the poor.

Vincent as a Voice of the poor

St. Vincent de Paul was himself shaped by the story of the Good News as told by the inspired writers, especially Luke and Matthew. The story in Luke chapter 4 reveals of Jesus’ mission statement – Bring Good News to the Poor.  It also gave Vincent and his family the formulation of their mission statement. Another inspired writer, Matthew tells the story of the roots of this mission  – God’s identification with the poor. “Whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers and sister you do for me.” MT 24

But Vincent in his own way used media to change the perception of those in poverty and inspired many to collaborate with him in serving the least among his generation. Vincent was originally reluctant to use the media of his day, letters, to tell the story of the sufferings of the poor and how his collaborators worked tirelessly to bring spiritual and physical good news. He first thought telling these stories was incompatible with humble service.

Then one day he realized that in telling the story of the poor he gave the voice to their sufferings. Telling the stories of what his collaborators were doing inspired others to join in these efforts. He then began to reproduce and circulate the letters his missioners wrote from the field. This, in turn, led the upper classes to offer much-needed material support. As understanding of the need spread through these letters, it inspired others to join cause with him.

Fast forward to the 1949 Academy Award-winning motion picture “Monsieur Vincent” who centuries earlier had been officially declared “Father of the Poor.”. The film won universal acclaim for its effective telling of the story of St. Vincent and his beloved poor. Generations since then have been inspired to pick up the mantle of Vincent.

Contemporary artists serving as the Voice of the Poor

All of the above came together for me when I had the opportunity to sit in at a session of a  task force of 18 members of the Vincentian family gathered from four continents. They were reviewing some of the videos shown at the recently completed film festival “Finding Vince.” Convened under the auspices of the International Vincentian Family Office, their task was to explore the dimensions and possible best practices in inspiring a culture of vocations by changing our vision of poverty and inspiring direct service to the poor. Reflecting on the videos I realized the recent film festival “Finding Vince”  stands squarely in a long tradition fo changing consciousness. Artists helping us to see dimensions poverty we do not see.

It was much more than finding a successor to the film Monsieur Vincent. The stated aim of the festival was to stimulate artists to develop media that change our vision of poverty and inspire direct service to the poor. The festival stood squarely in the tradition of artists, especially young artists, creatively presenting the rawness of poverty today and inviting a response.

As a by-product, I understood more clearly the efforts of a current initiative of the Eastern Province to explore creative uses of media in its mission of following Christ the evangelized of the poor.
If you would like to contribute your time, talent or treasure to this initiatives please contact us.

Preaching in the Public Square

A Vincentian View: Preaching in the Public Square

Fr. Pat Griffin of the Eastern Province of the Congregation of the Mission offers a unique insight into Jesus’ inaugural sermon in Luke 4: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me; he has sent me to preach the Gospel to the poor.” It is the insight of Rev. Dr. William Barber, a prominent  American Protestant minister and political activist who is the current holder of the Vincentian Chair of Social Justice at St. John’s University.

All of us in the Vincentian world know how our Founder treasured these words of Jesus as he read from the prophet Isaiah. Vincent recognized how this summons applied to him and to his mission. Reverend Barber holds this passage with a similar esteem and hears the call directing his ministry:

The Rev. Dr. William J. Barber, II has just written a book entitled “Revive Us Again: Vision and Action in Moral Organizing.” Bishop Barber (a minister in the United Church of Christ) currently holds the Vincentian Chair of Social Justice at St. John’s University. A nationally known figure around issues such as racism, voting rights, and the oppression of the poor, the Bishop is a dynamic and compelling speaker. He raises reactions on both sides of the aisle.

In this latest book, Reverend Barber spends some time reflecting upon Jesus’ inaugural sermon in Luke 4: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me; he has sent me to preach the Gospel to the poor.” All of us in the Vincentian world know how our Founder treasured these words of Jesus as he read from the prophet Isaiah. Vincent recognized how this summons applied to him and to his mission. Reverend Barber holds this passage with a similar esteem and hears the call directing his ministry:

“If we pattern our preaching after Jesus, we learn that proclamation which begins in a space designated for worship, necessarily moves into the public square. . . nowhere is it clearer than in his inaugural sermon in his hometown of Nazareth.” (page 18)

I work hard at preparing my homilies and deliver them in a competent manner, but I confess to more than a mild timidity at being too confrontational. Upsetting people and forcefully challenging their way of living Gospel lives has not been my style.

Many times, I have preached on the passage from Luke and even given a workshop on it from a biblical point of view, but I had not allowed the particular direction of the force given to it by the Bishop to drive my thinking. He proclaims it to himself and others as a bidding to speak loudly and without fear of being too “political,” he prefers to speak of “moral.”

“Because God’s anointing threatens the existing political and economic systems of any society, its truth is resisted by the powerful. . . The spirit that wants to keep the good news of Jesus out of the public square is an unholy spirit.” (page 24)

The truth of this affirmation strikes me. The public square creates the positions that influence the status of the poor. Politics and party loyalty codify these dispositions in law. Can one preach the Gospel and stand up for the rights of the poor without being involved in the corridors of power, without being political? The caricature that politely separates the worship place from the work place serves only those who do not want to have the Gospel authoritatively heard in both spheres.

As we know, Vincent was a man firmly anchored in his time and in his place. He walked the poorest streets of Paris as well as the opulent halls of the palaces. He spoke politely, but never compromised his principles or the needs of the poor. One can discern how his words flowed from the centers of worship to the public square.