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We are called to the margins, to encounter Christ in the poor

Archbishop Wenski's homily at 100th anniversary Mass for St. Vincent de Paul Society

Archbishop Thomas Wenski preached this homily during a Mass marking the 100th anniversary of the presence of the St. Vincent de Paul Society in South Florida. The Mass was celebrated Sept. 24, 2022, at Gesu Church in downtown Miami. 

Pope Francis once famously asked: How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?

The St. Vincent de Paul Society has its origins in Paris, Francis, when a young Catholic student was challenged to show what Catholics were doing to ease the plight of the poor. This was Blessed Frederick Ozanam, and he was only 20 when he set about to answer that challenge by organizing what came to be known as the St. Vincent de Paul Society. This was in the 1830s – but soon conferences of the Society began to multiply and reached the U.S. It was first founded in St. Louis – but for 100 years it has been a presence in South Florida. The St. Vincent de Paul Society has been around longer than the Archdiocese of Miami. 

As Catholics we must continue to be involved in the issues that touch on the life and dignity of the human person. That’s why we speak out in defense of the unborn, of the migrant, of the prisoner. We do so amid what the pope has called a “throwaway” culture and at a time we see a growing “globalization of indifference.”

For Catholics, spirituality must be more than an exercise of navel gazing (or what Pope Francis would call "being self-referential.") Too often, the adjective “parochial” — even when used in reference to a parish — means narrow-minded: concerned only with narrow local concerns without any regard for more general or wider issues. We are called to the margins: to go forth encountering Christ in the heart of the world and in the poor.

Not all Vincentians are social workers — although many fine social workers also happen to be Vincentians. Vincentians are simply Catholics who, following the inspiration and the style of Blessed Ozanam, seek to carry out what the Catechism calls the “corporal works of mercy.” To feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to welcome the stranger, to visit the imprisoned or to bury the dead does not make you a “liberal” Catholic, nor does it make you a “conservative” Catholic. As Catholics we must transcend such political or partisan labels.  

Your work is to help the poor get to heaven; but you do so by helping the poor get through the difficulties of life in this “vale of tears.” After all, if this earth is our only highway to heaven, then we must seek to maintain it — as Catholics we are concerned about ecology — both natural ecology and human ecology. In other words, we must make sure to the best of our abilities that this highway is cleared of the obstacles which sin — both personal and structural — has placed in the path of those traveling on it. 

In commenting on the parable of Lazarus and the rich man, Pope St. John Paul II wrote: “...How can we exclude anyone from our care? Rather we must recognize Christ in the poorest and the most marginalized, those whom the Eucharist — which is communion in the Body and Blood of Christ given up for us — commits us to serve. As the parable of the rich man, who will remain forever without a name, and the poor man called Lazarus clearly shows, ‘in the stark contrast between the insensitive rich man and the poor in need of everything, God is on the latter’s side’. We too must be on this same side.”

Too often the poor go unseen, unnoticed – as Lazarus was unseen and unnoticed. There is a worldliness that hardens our hearts, that anesthetizes the soul. If we cannot feel with our heart, we will not see with our eyes.

There is a true story about a famous mayor of New York. You might have heard of him — there’s an airport named for him. He would often serve as a judge at the night court — and one night during the depths of the Great Depression, he presided over the court in one of the poorest precincts of the city. A poor old lady was brought before the court charged with stealing a loaf of bread. “Did you steal the bread,” he asked her. She admitted she had but explained that she lived with her daughter and her two grandkids, her son-in-law had deserted the family and they had no money and nothing to eat. The mayor looked at the shopkeeper and asked him that, given the circumstances, did he really want to press charges. The shopkeeper said that he felt sorry for her but it’s a bad neighborhood and the woman needed to be punished to set an example for everyone. LaGuardia was in a dilemma — the law was the law but to punish this old woman would be a miscarriage of justice.

What would you do? The penalty was $10 or 10 days in jail. What did LaGuardia do? He took ten dollars out of his wallet and gave it to a bailiff to pay the fine.

Then he looked out at the crowded courtroom and fined everyone there 50 cents for living in a city in which a grandmother had to steal a loaf of bread to feed her grandchildren. He directed the bailiff to collect the fines and hand the money to the defendant. The total collected came to $47.50 including the 50 cents willingly paid by the shopkeeper.

Again, in the words of St. John Paul II, "in the stark contrast between the insensitive rich man and the poor in need of everything, God is on the latter’s side. We too must be on this same side." Thank you for being on the side of the poor for these last 100 years.