8/11/08 St. Vincent de Paul Society Homily

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Saint Vincent de Paul Dublin Region Society Day
Homily Notes of
Most Rev. Diarmuid Martin
Archbishop of Dublin and Primate of Ireland
Croke Park Conference Centre, 8th November 2008

        We owe a debt of gratitude to Pope Benedict for choosing as the theme of his first Encyclical the love of God: Deus Caritas Est, God is love.  This is a fundamental truth of our faith, so simple in its expression, so lofty as an ideal yet also so challenging regarding the way we live as individual believers and as a Christian community.
Love is of the essence of the Christian life, because God loved us first.  Pope Benedict stresses: “For the Church charity is not a kind of welfare activity which could equally well be left to others, but is a part of her nature, an indispensable expression of [the Church’s] very being”.  Christian love is not an optional extra to the Christian life which can be delegated to others or substituted through distant, almost clinical financial generosity.
The Saint Vincent de Paul Society has been a beacon of what living out Christian love means in Ireland and in a special way in Dublin for generations, in good times and in bad and especially in the various periods of particularly bad times, when extreme poverty was a widespread characteristic of our city and diocese.  The city and the diocese owe a great debt to your quiet generosity and commitment.  
Within the early Christian Church, love was recognised as of the essence of the Christian life.  We see this in the self description of the early Church communities:  “All who believed were together and had all things in common; and they sold their possessions and goods and distributed them to all, as any had need” (Acts 2:44-5).  In the early Church, believers held all things in common and among them there was to be no longer any distinction between rich and poor.
This radical form of material communion of the early Christian community could not however be preserved in the same way as the Church expanded and grew both numerically and in geographical extension. But its essential dimension remained and has to be retained in every era and epoch of the history of the Church and of the world.   The Church community must one where no one should be left poor, that is deprived of what is needed for a dignified life.   Poverty is not simply a lack of financial or material resources.  Poverty is the inability of people to realise their God-given potential.  Fighting poverty is about enhancing people to realise their God-given potential. 
A Church which wishes to remain true to the “communion”, the common living,, which was characteristic of the early Church must be one where its members and its structures work together to ensure that the caring, healing and restoring power which Jesus demonstrated in his life and teaching is made visible today, through individual lives and through forms of community witness.
Living out the charity which is revealed in Jesus Christ is something which should be the mark of the Church and of believers. Our second reading and our Gospel have spelt out something of what that means for our lives.
Christian love must also be the mark of all Christian service in the community. Pope Benedict in speaking of Catholic social endeavours notes: “Yet, while professional competence is a primary, fundamental requirement, it is not of itself sufficient. We are dealing with human beings, and human beings always need something more than technically proper care. They need humanity. They need heartfelt concern. Those who work for the Church’s charitable organizations must be distinguished by the fact that they do not merely meet the needs of the moment, but they dedicate themselves to others with heartfelt concern, enabling them to experience the richness of their humanity. Consequently, in addition to their necessary professional training, these charity workers need a “formation of the heart”: they need to be led to that encounter with God in Christ which awakens their love and opens their spirits to others”.
This attitude of love can only be attained through one of those other pillars of the Christian community which is mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles: prayer.  In his second Encyclical Letter on the theme of hope, Spe Salvi, Pope Benedict notes that: “To pray is not to step outside history and withdraw to our own private corner of happiness. When we pray properly, we undergo a process of inner purification which opens us up to God and thus to our fellow human beings as well.”   Such prayer is an integral part of the tradition of the Saint Vincent de Paul Society.  Prayer, personal union with the God who is love, is the powerhouse which gives energy and originality to the Society and its activities.
The title of this Dublin diocesan “Society Day” is: Tougher Times, Tender Hearts.  Times are tougher for you yourselves.  Our world makes so many demands on us and on our time.  Those of you with families know well the demands of caring for your own children or other dependent relatives make on your time. Those who are studying have very little time to spare.  Volunteerism is experiencing its own difficulties.  I want you to know how much I personally appreciate the fact that you have made a commitment to being different in society, in making a priority in your lives keeping your eyes, ears and hearts attentive to the call of those less fortunate than ourselves.  Our second reading speaks of being motivated by love as “Putting aside childish things”.  Caring is a sign of maturity.  Self-centredness is a sign of lack of maturity.  A caring society needs not just policies and programmes.  It springs from the force of tender hearts. In this your care contributes to maturity in the society in which we live.

Times are tougher in the society in which we live and the prospects for the coming years do not augur well. Cuts-backs in public expenditure have a habit of affecting the poor in greater proportion than others, because the poor are the ones who depend most on public services.  

Ireland needs a poverty strategy.  Without its own in-built poverty strategy at its heart, an economy will not serve society but will inevitably have an in-built tendency to self-serving.  And once again, as we have ample proof today, when the pillars of an economy become self-serving, it is the poor who are the long term victims.

A modern economy must be structured to seek out opportunity for growth; it should also however have a built-in optic for equity and justice.   Ireland needed a more effective poverty strategy in the times of surplus which our country enjoyed a few years ago.  A poverty strategy is not just about providing services, which in many areas our Irish economy did well, it is about reading all policies with the optic of the risks to which the poor are likely to be exposed; it is about keeping a watchful eye on the future, ensuring in time that the poor do not become the first victims of shocks over which they have no control.   Today we are experiencing the results of our past inadequacies.

Ireland needs a poverty strategy especially in times of cut-backs.  A poverty strategy is not a luxury that can be put aside when things go wrong, and parked until economic indicators begin to improve in an unknown future.  When the poor are exposed to risk then a priority of public policy must be to have a special optic for the vulnerable.  A poverty strategy must always focus clearly to identify the future risks for the poor.   Vulnerability is a factor which can never adequately be defined just in the present tense; a poverty strategy must be preventive, it must inevitably have a future dimension, it must be looking one step ahead to the foreseeable situation of the vulnerable and those whose situation is precarious.
A poverty strategy at times of cut-back must not just focus, then, on the effects on the poor today, but above all must have as a priority ensuring that the poor maintain those possibilities they have of enhancing their human potential – I am thinking of education and health care – so that when times get better they can emerge rapidly as active and productive subjects of their own and our own future.   Reducing the opportunity of the poor in times of crisis may well be condemning then to exclusion also in times when thing improve.

        We thank God that in good times and in bad the tender hearts of the Saint Vincent de Paul Society are always there, discretely and in an undemonstrative way, bringing something extra, not just in financial terms, but in the unique warmth that comes from the community who believe that God is love.