Homily preached on the occasion of the 150th Anniversary of the Founding of the Saint Vincent de Paul Society in Aotearoa New Zealand
St Mary’s pro-Cathedral, Christchurch, 15 October 2017
Feasts, rich food, best wines, carnivore extravaganza, garments galore; it sounds like today’s readings have been taken from Party Central dot com.
Certainly they are about celebration and abundance of goodness. The first reading from Isaiah portrays the benevolence of God who provides lavishly for his people and even wipes away the tears from our face.
It’s an appealing scene of harmony. The people of Israel notice God at work. They appreciate this and they respond: “behold our God, to whom we have looked to save us”. Against the backdrop of their epic journey of faith, they conclude: “This is the Lord for whom we searched. Let us rejoice and be glad”.
The gospel scenario is somewhat similar in structure but the outcome is different. The King is insistent in his generosity; three times he invites people to the feast. He underlines that his party or banquet is unlike any other because, wealthy though he is, he hasn’t paid others to provide for and entertain the guests; he himself is hosting the banquet; the food is the produce of his own land and stock.
Yet this time the response is flat. Indifference is the mood of the day. The people are busy. They have other pursuits which interest them more. Thank you but no thank you is their response.
Both outcomes – the faith-filled joy of Isaiah’s people and the apathy or indifference found in the parable story – are part of our reality as the People of God of today: God’s invitation is constant; and individual or community response varies.
So, how does this ‘call response’ dynamic work? There are of course multiple answers to that question but today’s parable points to something very important. The King, we heard, despatched his servants to summon guests.
The Greek verb to despatch or send out is: ἀποστέλλω (apostelló) from which we get our English word apostles. And those the King sends out, he names not dignitaries or emissaries but servants: servants of the banquet and their task or mission is to invite others in, to gather them – συναγωγή – and fill the hall (the Church) with participants at the feast.
Being sent, in order to invite or gather in others is the fundamental dynamic of the Church – sourced in the Blessed Trinity (the Father sends the Son and then both send the Holy Spirit) – a dynamic which sits too at the heart of the story that we commemorate today: the 150th Anniversary of the St Vincent de Paul Society in Aotearoa New Zealand.
The beginnings of the Church here, and throughout the Pacific, owe so much to one country France and one city Lyon. Indeed it was from one single parish in Lyon, St Nizier, that an extraordinary mix of people – all members of what today we would call the young adults group – were despatched, sent out across the oceans to us in order that we Maori, Pacifica, and Pakeha might be gathered in to be nourished at the banquet of the Lord’s altar.
Suzanne Aubert, founder of the Sisters of Compassion, Marie-Francoise Perroton, Missionary Sister of the Society of Mary and great catechist of Futuna, Philippe Viard, the first Bishop of Wellington, Claudine Thevenet, Foundress of the Sisters of Jesus and Mary, all grew up in this one parish of St Nizier and Frederic Ozanam, founder of the St Vincent de Paul society, though he did not grow up in the parish of St Nizier, was drawn there later on by his friends and so was married in that Church aged 28. An extraordinary group of young people, who said yes to God’s call to be despatched, to be sent, to become apostles.
In our context this morning of Sunday Mass let us not forget the ordinary parishioners of those years in France. In the wake of the French revolution, far from being timid they were a dynamic lot. If we were to pick up a copy of their parish magazines of the 1840s this is what we would find listed under parish programmes and activates: hospices, dispensaries, homes for special needs children, orphanages, care of the elderly, and visiting the poor in their dwellings. Vibrancy of parish communities of faith is what shaped and formed Frederic Ozanam. Good works of charity and justice were the world of his parents. His father a Doctor spent evenings, after his duty at the city hospital was over, tending to the medical needs of the poor in the slum areas of his parish, and his mother belonged to a group nicknamed “the Workers” because they were people of faith in action, providing comfort and company to the sick and poor.
And so Frederic came, through the example of his family and friends and parishioners, to understand deeply, that this table of banquet – the altar – is intimately and inextricably bound to the tables or sometimes upturned empty boxes in the kitchens of the poorest of family homes and shelters in our streets and neighbourhoods and hidden suburbs of suffering. As Frederic put it himself: “When I have the happiness of receiving Holy Communion, when our Saviour comes to visit me, it seems to me that my mother follows Jesus into my poor heart, just as she so often followed Him into the homes of the poor.”
That fundamental spiritual insight – the Church altar of Christ’s banquet leading us to the kitchen table of nourishment – an insight learned and witnessed within the ordinariness and extraordinariness of parish life is still the hallmark and strength of the Society of St Vincent de Paul today. Those of us who are not directly involved in its work – your work – draw solace and encouragement from this as we know that just as in Frederic’s time so today – as Pope Francis is often reminding us – the Church’s entire credibility depends so much on our work of charity and justice for the poor, for the marginalized, for those whom the majority or the powerful simply ignore.
To the young Vinnies here this morning, may I remind you that the very first Conference of Charity meeting was a gathering of Frederic Ozanam with his University friends on his 20th birthday in Paris. The Society of Saint Vincent de Paul was and therefore in a very real sense still is, a young people’s movement. Could that first band of young Vincentians ever have dreamt of the humble powerhouse of goodness they were founding?
May Blessed Frederic Ozanam and St Vincent de Paul continue to inspire us and prompt us to bring friendship, faith, charity and justice to those in most need.
+ Charles E. Drennan
Bishop of Palmerston North