Saturday, May 15, 2010
Society of St. Vincent de Paul Archdiocesan Assembly
One of the first things I noticed when we moved to BC in 1976 was trees. Big trees.
Of course we had big trees in Ontario, but they were mostly in forests. Here, though, we had big tress in our back yard, and forests all around our North Vancouver house. And in happier economic times, many of my friends made a living working for major forest companies; until recently, forestry was the province’s largest industry.
I noticed something else: forest fires. We had those too in Ontario, but no-one really cared. They were “up North,” a vaguely defined region that seemed well removed from our interest and concern in the big city.
But in Vancouver, forest fires were front-page news, and with good reason. Some of them produced enough smoke to affect air quality in the Lower Mainland, while the cost of a large fire was often enough to have a measurable impact on the provincial economy. I was horrified when I found out that an average fire could cost as much as as much as one million dollars per day to fight. Can you imagine that in 2003, the BC government spent over $700 million fighting forest fires?
However, I quickly learned that there was a silver lining to forest fires, despite their cost in dollars and sometimes, far worse, in human lives.
It turns out that the forest actually depends on fires for its long-term existence. Some species are adapted to regenerate even after all individuals over a large area have been killed by fire. Some even store live seed for years, shedding them only after their cones are opened by heat from a fire.
Other prominent species require ground that has been prepared and opened up by fire for optimum regeneration.
Although sixty per cent of fires are caused by people, and only thirty-five per cent by lightning, before Europeans arrived in the forest, perhaps two to three times as much area burned annually as at present, because there was no way to control the fires started by lightning strikes.
Ecologically, then, fire is neither good nor bad, but simply an environmental necessity for the perpetuation of the forest in its natural state.
By now, you are forgiven for asking: has this fellow come to wrong place? Is he supposed to be downtown talking to a lumberman’s convention, or to forestry students at UBC?
Not at all. Everything I have to say today about the Church and about the Society of St. Vincent de Paul flows from what I have said about forests and fires. Because there is a fire raging in our beloved Church that is as threatening and dramatic as any blaze in the woods—a fire of scandal and of sin, exposed to public view as perhaps never before in history.
And here is the conclusion I have drawn after thinking about the statement I quoted a moment ago, “Ecologically… fire is neither good nor bad, but simply an environmental necessity for the perpetuation of the forest.” Scandal is undoubtedly bad, since it is caused by sin, and sin is by definition bad. But: the painful revelation of sin is neither good nor bad, but simply a necessity for the perpetuation of the Church.
In other words, these difficult days are not in themselves to be rejected or even particularly lamented. The reform demanded by the revelation of decades of criminal behavior by a small number of priests and enabling behavior by their bishops is a necessity for the renewal of the Church.
Tragic as these scandals are, tragic in terms of the abused victims and the wounding of the entire Body of Christ, and terrible as the anti-Catholic sentiments they have encouraged are, they will do for the Church exactly what fires do for the forest. They will burn away dead wood, release energy, and provide seed for new growth.
Like fighting a large fire, renewing the Church will demand toil and sweat under great heat and pressure; there may be casualties, and there certainly will be economic loss.
We may need to smell the smoke of Satan, and to be marred by soot, but the success of our battle against evil in the Church is ultimately guaranteed.
The guarantee is beautifully expressed in an Easter hymn that uses the more familiar image of wheat instead of trees:
Now the green blade rises from the buried grain, Wheat that in the dark earth many years has lain; Love lives again, that with the dead has been: Love is come again, like wheat that springs up green.
The green blade, like the buried grain, is of course an image of Christ. The hymn makes that clear in its third verse:
Up He sprang at Easter, like the risen grain, He that for three days in the grave had lain; Up from the dead my risen Lord is seen: Love is come again, like wheat that springs up green.
This regenerative power is not only Christ’s; it belongs also to His Body, the Church. She too springs up green from the depths of sin and scandal, because Jesus calls her, and each of us, not to decay but to life.
The hymn concludes:
When our hearts are saddened, grieving or in pain, By Your touch You call us back to life again; Fields of our hearts that dead and bare have been: Love is come again, like wheat that springs up green.
The touch of the risen Christ calls us back to life from the death we are experiencing. But where do we see this new life? Or—since these are early days still—what can we do to till the soil to cultivate and promote new growth and vitality in the Church?
I suggest to you that there’s only one answer, and a one-word answer at that: Love. Love, both a noun and a verb. Love, the heart of our Society.
It will be love in action that heals the wounds of scandal; love that beats back the hatred of the Church that has spilled out from so many in recent days.
When I speak of the scandals I distinguish between three things that have come to light: outrageous faults that no one can or should defend; tragic errors that can and should be understood, however lamentable; and good old anti-Catholicism. When speaking about anti-Catholicism I am very careful to explain that there’s much in the papers that is rightly and accurately reported and truly shameful. But there’s also a resurgence of anti-Catholicism afoot that demands some kind of response.
And that response can only be love.
So strong was anti-Catholicism in the US before the American Civil War, that there was a political party with the curious name of the Know Nothing Party. When the Washington Monument was being built in the early 1850s, Pope Pius IX contributed a block of marble. Know-Nothings stole the Pope's stone as a protest and supposedly threw it into the Potomac. It was not replaced until 1982.
But they weren’t content with such relatively peaceful attacks on Catholics—in an effort to intimidate Catholics not to vote in Kentucky, Know Nothings killed 22, injured many more, and destroyed property. The Louisville riot was one of a series of violent acts perpetrated by Know Nothing sympathizers in 1855.
What began to turn that poisoned tide was love. During the American Civil War, Mercy Sisters from Ireland nursed the wounded on both sides—and unheard act of charity.
Later, the reputation of Catholic hospitals for treating the poor led many to wonder whether the Church could be as evil as they’d been told. The same was true for the inner-city schools that provided an education for children that the public system seemed unable to deliver. Love conquers all is an expression as old as ancient Rome, but truer today than ever.
The Church today is shorn of many of the means she used in earlier times to show love. Our hospitals, fully funded by the government, are inevitably more secular than sacred. Our schools are full of Catholic children and—as recent criticisms have emphasized—are begrudged even the modest help they receive from the government.
The religious men and women whose dedicated service was a beacon that attracted people to the Church are now few and far between, and it’s unlikely they will revive in numbers any time soon. The heroes of the twentieth century—Mother Teresa and John Paul II—have gone to the Lord.
So where will the Church find witnesses to show Christ to the world? Where is the love?
I know you are answering the question as fast as I ask it. Priests will not be in the forefront of the next great outreach. Sisters will not be the ones to reach the world with charity. It will be you, lay people generally and dedicated members of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul particularly.
The “Mother Teresas” of the future may be, in fact, mothers. The world will be won back to Christ not by another burning torch but by the shining example of people like you who are prepared to be points of light shining in the darkness.
This is not pious talk. I have seen the future, right here at Christ the Redeemer, and it works. When I was approached about having a parish conference here, I was delighted, but even a veteran like myself couldn’t avoid thinking “What on earth are they going to do?” in our affluent community.
Well, I can now answer that question in every detail.
• Street Meals for Directions Youth Services Centre: bag lunches for homeless youth
• Sisters of the Atonement: assisting the Sisters of the Atonement once each month
• Distributing sandwiches, baked goods, bananas, and coffee and juice from the SSVP sandwich truck
• Emergency Lunch Boxes for the SSVP Thrift Store
• Help for Sancta Maria House
And that’s just the organized apostolate, without mentioning the one on one help they have provided on the North Shore to troubled individuals and families, extending practical help in the spirit of Frederic Ozanam, in the spirit of Christian friendship.
This is the charity that can win over the world.
And let me tell you how it’s different from the world’s charity.
The world is generous in many ways. Every day the paper has stories about galas, and runs, and walks, and raffles, and lotteries, all for good causes—their success testifying to the good will that abounds in society.
However, this charity, sincere though it is, is not sacrificial. It is sacrificial, not social charity that makes people take notice. It is sacrificial charity that testifies to the self-giving love of Christ.
The St. Vincent de Paul Society is a model of self-giving and sacrificial love, not social work or do-goodism. This was Blessed Frederic’s core insight—the apostolate of friendship.
It’s illustrated by an old cartoon most of you have seen: a pig and a chicken are talking about opening a restaurant. The pig asks the chicken what they should call the new venture, and the chicken replies “I was thinking maybe ‘Bacon and Eggs.’
To which the pig replies, “No thanks! I’d be committed but you’d only be involved!”
Friends, members of the society are committed to service of the poor, not only involved.
You will need a lot of help to win back the world’s trust of the Church—help from bishops, priests and other patient lay faithful—but you will be in the vanguard of the Church of the 21st Century as it strives to recover its evangelical purity and reject institutional behaviours that are not consistent with the Good News.
This is not my prescription for restoration and re-evangelization. It is Christ’s own formula, since it was He who said “By this will all know that you are my disciples…”
Notice “as I have loved you.” Sacrificial love, not sentimental love; sacrifice, not social work.
In my Sunday homily last week I used a song from the sixties, “What the World Needs Now is Love Sweet Love,” which continued “It’s the only thing that there’s just too little of.” I gave some thought to singing it, since many of my parishioners weren’t born when the song was a hit for Jackie DeShannon and Dionne Warwick. But you’re a slightly more mature group, so I’m not tempted to croon a few bars.
I am tempted, though, to change the lyrics. To change them to “What the Church needs now, is love, sweet love—it’s the only thing that there’s just too little of…”
A Church wounded by her own members, indeed by her own ministers, a Church still finding itself in the modern world of publicly funded education and social services, needs love—love in action, love as healing, love as witness to the Church’s primary purpose.
The Church, in a word, needs you—you, the members of this great Society, inspired by the example of one of Christianity’s great heroes, St. Vincent de Paul. Let’s not forget in these stormy times for the Church that his were stormier still—although reforms were well underway by the time St. Vincent was born in 1580, one biographer could still write “Even in the most degenerate times, when the truths of the Gospel seem almost obliterated among the majority of those who profess it, God fails not to raise to himself faithful ministers to revive charity in the hearts of many.”
Happily, these are not the worst of times, but they are not the best of times either. But certainly God does continue to raise up faithful ministers of charity in His Church to bear witness to the fact that He is love.
May each and every member of our Society, true to the inspiration of Vincent and Frederic, continue to show the world the ever-green beauty of the Church.