As mentioned at the beginning of Mass, this morning we are celebrating a 150 years of service of the St. Vincent de Paul Society here in Baltimore. It is a pleasure to greet and welcome Father Jack Lombardi, who serves as the Chaplain of the St. Vincent de Paul Society of Baltimore, Glenn Falcao, Chair of the Community Services Board, Dick Keys, President of the Baltimore Council Board, John Frank, Chair of the St. Vincent de Paul Foundation Board, and John Schiavone, President and CEO of St. Vincent de Paul of Baltimore, together with the many dedicated board members, the professional staff, benefactors and friends who daily carry forward its charitable and social services.
Not everyone here this morning is associated with the St. Vincent de Paul Society but all of us can profit by becoming acquainted with St. Vincent de Paul and the wonderful organization in our midst that bears his name. What’s more, today’s Scripture readings shed light both on the saint and the society whose anniversary we happily celebrate. So let us reflect for a moment on the Saint, the Society, and the Scriptures all in the hope of inflaming with each of our hearts a renewed spirit of charity and a renewed determination to follow Pope Francis’ lead in bringing the Gospel to the margins of society, especially the poor & the vulnerable.
Who was St. Vincent de Paul? St. Vincent de Paul was born in rural France in 1581. His mother and father were farmers of very modest means. Of his three brothers and two sisters, Vincent showed a talent for reading and writing and an interest in the priesthood. At age 15 his father sent him to a seminary and paid for it by selling his oxen. Vincent’s path to the priesthood was not particularly easy, yet he persevered. He was ordained to the priesthood in 1600 and was sent for further studies, because, at the time, he was considered too young to be assigned as a parish priest.
After completing his studies, Vincent was kidnapped by Barbary Pirates and auctioned off as a slave to the highest bidder in Tunis. After two years he managed to return to France. Possessing a brilliant mind he was sent to Rome for still further studies, went on a mission in behalf of King Henry IV of France, and was sought after as a chaplain and confessor of prominent families. It looked as though St. Vincent de Paul was how headed for a comfortable existence. Yet, perhaps remembering the poverty of his childhood, St. Vincent de Paul persuaded his wealthy patrons, especially Madame de Gondi, to support a group of missionaries to work in France among the poor, especially tenant farmers.
And the rest, as they say, is history. In 1617 he founded the Ladies of Charity who collected funds to assist in founding hospitals, in aiding victims of war, and in ransoming galley slaves, whose chaplain St. Vincent de Paul would become. With the help of St. Louise de Marillac, he founded the Daughters of Charity and in 1622 founded a religious congregation of men known as “the Vincentians” but whose official name is the Congregation of the Mission, priests who were and are men of charity and pioneers in priestly formation. So, you see, St. Vincent de Paul made quite a journey in his priesthood. Shunning the temptation of a comfortable clerical life, he became instead “the Apostle of Charity”.
In 1737 St. Vincent de Paul was canonized and devotion to him grew, so much so that in 1833 a group of French university students led by Blessed Frederic Ozanam, founded the St. Vincent de Paul Society. Using their own funds and soliciting contributions from friends, a small group of seven students visited the poor and provided them with much needed assistance. Ozanam placed his fledging society under the patronage of St. Vincent de Paul and within a few years, it had grown to over 600. He and his co-workers also expanded their work, founding hospitals and orphanages. Soon, St. Vincent de Paul Councils & Conferences began to spread to other countries. In 1845 the Society began in St. Louis and in 1865 the Society began its presence and its work here in Baltimore, indeed, right here at America’s first Cathedral, the Basilica of the Assumption.
Immediately the members of the society began here in Baltimore to visit the poor and the sick offering both spiritual and material assistance, such as food, clothing and coal to heat their homes. These pioneering apostles of charity also began to develop social programs that sought to address the root causes of poverty. Today, St. Vincent de Paul of Baltimore is a leading provider of services to our neighbors here in Baltimore and beyond who are homeless, malnourished, and unemployed. Its programs assist young people and adults in need of educational opportunities and seeks to help those in poverty to achieve their potential. St. Vincent de Paul here in Baltimore carries out its programs in the spirit of its patron saint who saw in each person the image of God. Let us thank the Society for its wonderful work in our midst!
All of which brings us to today’s Gospel where we find two Apostles, James & John, seeking positions of power and influence in what they imaged would be the Messiah’s future government. Meanwhile, the other Apostles got wind of this and needless to say they were pretty upset at James and John. Jesus took the occasion to instruct his Apostles and all of us about discipleship. Jesus said that people who possess worldly power aim to dominate others but he wanted it to be different among his own followers. Instead of self-promotion, rivalry, and domineering conduct, Jesus challenged his Apostles and he challenges us to answer that call to greatness that lies in each person’s heart by becoming the slave, the servant of all: “Whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you will be slave of all. For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mk. 10:45).
How thoroughly St. Vincent de Paul took that passage to heart. Growing up poor, experiencing enslavement, developing a heart for charity, St. Vincent de Paul became the servant, the slave of those in need, and thus attained true greatness in the eyes of Jesus, our Lord and Savior. So too, his followers, St. Louise de Marillac, Bl. Fredric Ozanam, and the countless men and women who have become associated with the St. Vincent de Paul Society in their parishes and dioceses.
As we celebrate this special anniversary of St. Vincent de Paul of Baltimore and as the Lord’s words in the Gospel resonate in our hearts, let us ask for the grace to become ourselves “apostles of charity” who are sent forth from the comfort our lives to serve the needs of the poor, especially in our city and in outlying areas where there is so much poverty and hopelessness in the midst of plenty. Thus do we all hope to be accounted great in the Kingdom of God!
May God bless us and keep us always in His love!