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At the end of July, I traveled to Pedro Carbo, Ecuador, with the Sisters of Charity Seton Hill interprovincial charism experience. Each year, Korean and American Sisters visit and volunteer at the Korean sisters’ mission, a clinic and school for kids with special needs. This summer marked my fifth time accompanying the group as a Spanish interpreter. At the end of the week, I led a retreat with SC discerner, Marylu, for school staff, clinic staff, and local parishioners. The Sisters asked us to focus on the 400th anniversary of the charism of Charity.
Preparing the retreat was profoundly enriching for me. As I delved more deeply into the roots of the charism to which I have vowed my life, my own understanding of my call deepened and expanded. How did the charism of Charity come about? And what does that mean today?
|Our retreat group, celebrating 400 years of Charity|
Four hundred years ago, in January of 1617, St. Vincent de Paul experienced a conversion moment that would drive the course of the rest of his life. In the northern French town Folleville, he heard a confession at the bedside of a dying peasant who had lived a life of loneliness and pain. Vincent’s heart moved within him as he received the man’s suffering. He realized that this man never, in his whole life, had experienced God’s powerful love for him through another person. And he realized that many on the margins were equally spiritually abandoned.
Vincent’s mission materialized: to bring divine love to all. The mission overcame him with beautiful urgency. He knew he must spend every day of his life trying to make sure that no one would go without the love of God. He felt especially urged to the margins, to those people who were poor, excluded, and oppressed. He felt called to enter into relationship with them and to align his worldview with theirs. He felt called to make love visible through service.
Vincent said, “…Let us love God, but let it be with the strength of our arms and the sweat of our brow.” This mission tugs at my heartstrings. I am called to make God’s love visible, concrete, tangible. In my encounters, do I embody love? Do I feel the same urgency that Vincent felt?
August of 1617 brought the second part of Vincent’s conversion. This month 400 hundred years ago in Chatillon-les-Dombes, France, he became aware of a peasant family who was dying of hunger. He preached an impassioned sermon begging for action on behalf of the family. The whole town responded with great generosity, and the family had enough food for a few days. Vincent was touched by the outpouring, but he was also troubled. What would happen when the food ran out?
Vincent had an epiphany that became central to the charism. In order to make a sustaining impact, we must organize. Over the next years, Vincent recruited other priests, sisters, and laypeople to help in his mission of love. They tackled the major social injustices of their day, responding to needs for healthcare, education, and more. Vincent also became an advocate for systemic change. Throughout his life, he maintained relationships with people of influence, making them aware of important issues and urging their support. Late in life, he served on an advisory council for the Queen, where he kept the needs of the poor before her and fought for just legislation.
Our charism insists that God’s love must be made manifest through action, and that must happen on an individual as well as a societal level. For those not familiar with our charism, common definitions of the word “charity” could be problematic. The thrust of our energy is not one-sided aid, welfare, or relief. We are urged by the love of Christ to make that love evident through service and seeking justice.
Racial justice activist Dr. Cornel West says, “Justice is what love looks like in public.” In the wake of the horrific display of hate in Charlottesville, that succinct but powerful phrase is a call to those of us who claim to live the charism of Charity – and to all Christians.
Charity may begin at home, but it must not stay there. We experience the marvelous love of God in our lives, and it compels us to act. Where there is hatred, we cannot be silent bystanders; we must sow love. Our lives must make clear the love of Christ. In our daily encounters and in our social and political engagement, do we make divine love visible?
Mother Teresa of Calcutta, founder of another charity tradition, said, “Do small things with great love.” Yes, AND: Do big things with great love, too. These times need the fire of Charity.