Address by the Rev. Dennis H. Holtschneider, C.M., at the St. Vincent de Paul Week Prayer Breakfast
September 22, 2008
At 80 years old, St. Vincent doubled the average life-expectancy of his time. But death comes to us all, and at daybreak on September 27th 1660, Vincent de Paul breathed his last. Catholics do not celebrate feast days on birthdays, or major anniversaries, or foundation days of important works, but on the day of that saint’s death. We honor the moment their life work was completed, the moment they were born into eternal life.
Vincent didn’t fear death. Here’s what he said:
Is it a misfortune for a wife who is in exile to rejoin her spouse?
Is it a misfortune for a traveler to regain his native land?
Is it a misfortune for those on board ship to reach port?
Should we then be afraid of (death) which we can never sufficiently desire, and which always occurs too late?
(Repetition of prayer,” October 25, 1643, as translated in The Way of Saint Vincent is our Way, 465 (hereafter TW))
And yet, one quiet concern for death did penetrate his life. Writing to the Canon Jean de Saint-Martin, Vincent said this:
Priests of this time have good reason to fear the judgment of God, even apart from their own sins…. God will find some priests deserving of the punishments for the sins they have not opposed or addressed; the calamities which afflict the Church everywhere, e.g. plagues, war, hunger…. [undated, TW 128]
It’s a striking statement. Vincent believed that people were culpable not only for personal wrongdoing, but for the world’s agony if they did nothing about it. Vincent loved the poor, and the poor knew it and loved him back for it. But Vincent also feared God’s love for the poor. He knew it to be strong, and believed that God would not look kindly on those who ignored the poor and chose to look the other way.
Everyone is a part of the mystical body. We belong
to each other. … It is impossible that one part of a person’s body is
injured, hurt or attacked without the other parts being painfully aware
of this. It is inconceivable! All of our members are so united and
interconnected that damage done to one part is damage done to all. A
fortiori, [we] who are members of one body and of each other, should
share the sufferings of each other. It is impossible … not to see the
afflictions of our brothers and sisters. Nor is it possible not to weep
with them, not to suffer with them. Whoever does not respond to the
cries of the poor is lacking in love. Such persons are “Christian” in
name only since they lack even the most basic of human qualities.
(“On charity, conference of May 30, 1659, TW 169)
It was this pattern of responding to the needs
around him that formed Vincent’s life’s work. Still, our patron saint
never saw this as his work. He thought of himself and the others who
worked alongside him as caught up in God’s action. Speaking about one
of those works, (“The Congregation of the Mission,” which he
affectionately called “the Company,” to refer to the filial bonds
between the priests and brothers), he said:
I never even thought of our rules, nor of the
Company, nor even of the word “mission.” It is God who has done all of
this; [we] have had no share in it. As for myself, when I think of the
way that God has given birth to the Company in the Church, I confess I
do not know what part I played. It seems to me that all that I see is a
dream. Oh! It is not man-made. It is from God. Would you call
“human” something which human understanding had not foreseen, something
which human will had not sought or desired in any way? … It has all come
about contrary to my hopes and without my ever having thought of it in
any way. When I consider this and see what the Company is doing, I
truthfully think I must be dreaming.
(“On the observance of the rule,” Conference of May 1, 1658, TW 3)
Vincent de Paul could not have imagined DePaul
University, and yet I am certain he would have been similarly
overwhelmed, for our university is an impressive place with an
extraordinary mission. Most importantly, it is filled with generous,
mission-driven people who daily work hard for our students. Together,
we educate the men and women who entrust themselves to our care. We
prepare them. We call them to be more than perhaps even they can
imagine. We challenge them to take their place not just “in society”
but “for society.” We dare to hope that they might continue the work of
Vincent de Paul for yet another generation and time beyond our own.
Truly, it is the work of God. By whatever name or
tradition you refer to the ultimate ground and author of our existence,
DePaul University is the work of God. We are not perfect, but I know
the hearts of those who work here, and I know your love and concern for
our students and for one another. We are indeed caught up in the work
And so, perhaps, one more word from St. Vincent.
Let us place our confidence in God, but let that
confidence in him be complete and perfect. Let us regard it as certain
that, as he began his work in us, he will complete it. For I ask you;
Who established the Company? It is God who has done this and done it by
means of such persons as seemed good to him… Therefore, let us place
all our confidence in him.
(“On confidence in God,” extract from an undated conference, TW 4)
And so, let us pray.
Gracious God, thank you for bringing us into this
great work, begun at your hands more than 400 years ago in the person of
St. Vincent de Paul. May we who work in an institution bearing his
name be worthy of his name. May we care as fiercely for the poor and
forgotten. May we love our students and see in them the possibility and
promise that you see in them. May we take our vast store of knowledge –
truly the great resource of this university – and put it to good use
for the world around us. May we always remember that we are caught up
in your work, and your love for your people. And, at our hands, may
DePaul University flourish and grow. We pray all of this of you who
live and love, now and forever.
God bless you. Happy Feast Day! Have a wonderful week.