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Hard Work and Sheer Joy

Toward a Vincentian Campus Culture

Editor’s Note: One of the activities celebrating the inauguration of the Rev. James J. Maher, C.M., as NU’s 26th president was a symposium on April 3 discussing the topic of the mission of Vincentian education. The Very Rev. G. Gregory Gay, C.M., ’76, superior general of the Congregation of the Mission, gave the following keynote address.

View photos from the event here.

I am happy to be with you today and to share my thoughts and experiences regarding the relationship between education and the Vincentian charism, including sponsorship of Niagara University. This is not only a formal topic of interest to me, but also a personal one. I was educated at Niagara, graduated, and after ordination, served in the Office of Campus Ministry and taught in the Religious Studies Department. After NU, I worked as a missionary in Panama and Central America for 19 years, where education is a much-neglected commodity. Now, as superior general, I lead a community of over 3,000 priests and brothers from 55 provinces and regions located in 85 countries. We live and serve on all continents, except Antarctica. However, we have a new mission in Tierra del Fuego, the southernmost part of South America. So, when I go to visit my confreres there, I will let you all know if I can see Antarctica from our house!

My theme today is “Hard Work and Sheer Joy: Toward a Vincentian Campus Culture.” We could have a theoretical discussion on the “whys and wherefores” of Vincentian education, but I would rather focus on what Vincent de Paul often called the “practical and the possible.” My starting point is an age-old truth: that after all the teaching and learning, the goal of a Catholic and Vincentian education is to draw one out of the secure setting of classroom and campus to encounter the world of the poor and those on the margins of society. When undertaking this endeavor, one will experience disorientation, confrontation, formation, and ultimately, transformation. I will return to these themes a little later.

As one educated in the Catholic and Vincentian tradition, I have experienced each of these phases, but it is the transformative power of the Vincentian charism that has stayed with me throughout my life. In addition, it was nurtured here at Niagara. Yet, the pursuit of knowledge and its application personally and communally is found at most, if not all, accredited institutions. So what makes a Catholic and Vincentian education different from the secular, altruistic models?

To start with, there is the man for whom it is named, St. Vincent de Paul. The peasant son of a farmer in rural 16th century France, Vincent grew up in a devout, hard-working family of limited means. Vincent might have remained on the family farm like his siblings, or became a merchant in nearby Dax. So what got him off the farm to attain upward mobility? The answer is simple, but startling: Vincent sought education by disguising it as a vocation to the priesthood.

Why do I put it that way? Well, as Vincent himself admitted, his initial reasons to pursue the priesthood were flawed ones. His piety hid his desire for a better life for himself, and to receive a stable income to assist his parents. However, two undeniable truths emerged, one immediately, and another later. The first truth is that Vincent was a good student, a “quick study.” He was bright, articulate, wrote well, and in no time at all, he was able to finance his education by tutoring and helping run a small school. He obtained degrees from the University of Toulouse and in canon law from the Sorbonne. Although he was more of an applied practitioner than a theorist, his letters (of which we have over ten thousand) reveal a keen intellect, a highly analytical mind, a very refined way of self-expression, a firm grasp of details (especially regarding finances), and an ability to simplify complex matters and make them understandable.

These are all wonderful skills for a leader or educator, are they not? Vincent used them to his great advantage, mingling with people of influence and traveling all through Europe. Eventually, he became chaplain to the wealthy de Gondi family in Paris, living on their estate. On the surface, Vincent’s life seemed quite good. Given his modest origins, he seemed to have it all. But something was missing. Vincent felt an inner emptiness, a “hole in his soul.” He discovered that a good education, keen intellect, a soft landing in life, and the external status of priesthood were not enough. He wanted something more, and its absence was destroying Vincent, little by little.

This is where God waited patiently until Vincent had nowhere to go, revealing the second undeniable truth in his life: If he desired true fulfillment, he would have to learn to direct his energies, talents, and abilities not for his own gain, but for the good of others, especially the poor. To serve the poor and be their advocate meant undergoing a total life change, in short, a radical reorientation. He would have to let go of what had gotten him this far. Only God could help him take on that task!

What brought Vincent to the threshold of this self-discovery and complete about-face of his life? It did not come from the power of his intellect. He could not think or reason his way out of the quandary stalemating his soul. No, it was two unexpected experiences with the poor that opened the “eyes of his heart,” bringing about a miraculous change, in essence, and a conversion experience. They led to the birth of the Vincentian charism, which still affects our world today.

For those who may not know what I am referring to, there were two random encounters with the poor that shook Vincent to his core. The first was a sudden request he received to hear the confession of a dying man on the de Gondi estate. The second was a plea before Mass from friends of a sick family in a village for food and medicine. In the first situation, when the dying man recovered, he told Madame de Gondi that were it not for Vincent’s pastoral care, he would have died in mortal sin, and admitted that he, his family, and neighbors were unchurched.

In the case of the sick family, Vincent pleaded for help for them from the pulpit, because neighbors who feared of contracting their illness had shunned them. When Vincent visited the sick family, he saw many parishioners bringing food, most of which would soon spoil and go to waste. He knew he had to do something to organize a better response.

This is where God touched Vincent’s heart, helping to redirect his abilities to organize and motivate others for a greater good. Vincent saw the unchurched man was just one of tens of thousands in villages and towns all over France. He also realized that great efforts of charity like those who assisted the sick family were not sustainable unless they were coordinated. Therefore, from the personal disorientation and emptiness of his initial life goals, Vincent confronted the world of the poor, experiencing firsthand their sufferings, both spiritual and temporal. He saw that if he did not respond promptly and generously, innocent people would die, and souls would be lost. He had literally become a party to “life and death” situations that called for a total giving of oneself, a self-forgetfulness that only God could sustain.

Vincent’s next step was to seek formation, both human and divine. He allied himself with a renowned spiritual director to sort through this period of change in his life. He sought out like-minded people for support. Most of all, he allowed God to reawaken him from his spiritual sloth by encountering Christ in the scriptures, the daily Eucharist, and prayer. It was a gradual path, but it led him to embrace the second half of his life with a fervor and faith that was truly transformative. Yet, this transformation did not end with his death. It continued for centuries, and it is alive and well today in the religious communities and lay organizations that Vincent founded to carry on his charism of charity and justice for God’s poor.

Niagara University is a manifestation and continuation of the vision of Vincent de Paul. A motto on Niagara’s website proclaims that NU provides “education that makes a difference.” I am sure this is true, but the question you must always ask is “what is the difference?” What difference does a Niagara education make for students, faculty and staff, and the community?

The difference I think is necessary is to develop a “Vincentian campus culture” permeating Monteagle Ridge from top to bottom. Certainly, one sees this reality in reviewing NU’s past storied history. There is the 158-year legacy of the Vincentian community, whose priests and brothers founded a seminary that evolved into a university, benefiting students and impacting Church and society. There is the sterling example of laity among faculty, staff, and administration who lived the Vincentian charism and passed it on. Finally, the “Vincentian culture” shines forth in the lives and achievements of NU alumni. Some returned the kindness and acknowledged the Vincentian charism as generous and faithful benefactors. Others used their talents and applied the charism to make a difference in their communities. Many alumni have done both, thank God!

But, practically speaking, what does this “Vincentian campus culture” mean to us today? At its core, a Vincentian campus culture has several salient features. It is imbued with faith in God, and a reverence for the dignity of all persons. It provides opportunities to serve the poor and marginalized as Jesus did, whom Vincent took as his inspiration and source of strength. It is a community of scholars seeking truth, and committed to excellence in academic and co-curricular endeavors. It is a welcoming, worshipping community, whose members act honestly and with integrity. It is a community that reflects upon itself and is renewed.

This Vincentian campus culture is both transitory and transcendent. Every four years, its student community is remade. Over the years, its faculty and staff come and go. But the values it espouses are enduring and life changing. For prospective and new students, Niagara is a place; but for Niagarans who embrace and live this Vincentian culture, it is a way of life, one that is transformative. That is why this Vincentian culture has a lifelong impact on its members. In sum, a truly Vincentian campus culture makes it possible to “be good, do good, and be a force for the good.” Those are the words of Father Thomas Judge, a Vincentian who labored in the deep South, accompanying Black Catholics back in the dangerous days of segregation. “Be good, do good, and be a force for the good” — I think that simple sentence says it all!

I was encouraged that at a November 2013 meeting of the presidents of five major Vincentian universities — Niagara, St. John’s, DePaul, All Hallows in Ireland, and Adamson in the Philippines — they wrote and released a common statement on Vincentian sponsorship of universities. They shared it with our General Council in Rome, and we were pleased with its depth and scope. I believe this is a valuable resource for all in the university community who desire to promote a true Vincentian campus culture. One part of the introduction spoke to me: “Vincentian sponsorship is a rich concept referring to the many ways that the mutual relationship between Vincentians and their institutes of higher education contribute to building up of Kingdom of God.” This is exactly what St. Vincent believed, taught, and put into practice: that all our efforts must have their origin and end in God, who guides and gives us strength.

While this excellent document should be read in its entirety, let me share with you four key points I believe are crucial in developing a Vincentian campus culture:

• First, Vincentian colleges and universities should, according to local circumstances, admit and promote the development of the poor. In accord with the spirit of St. Vincent de Paul, all students should be imbued with sensitivity for the poor.

• Second, that they be places where Catholic intellectual, moral, and social traditions are taught in their great richness to the next generation, seeking to nourish the gift of faith.

• Third, that they always serve the poor by providing access to higher education for poor and marginalized students to attend these institutions, and that they direct the expertise of faculty and energy of their students to the service of the poor.

• Fourth, that they develop a distinctive Vincentian theology of service, and include reflection on the encounter with Christ in the midst of the experience of service.

What these key elements highlight are a need for access and witness. First, some thoughts on access. Those living in poverty do so without the hope of a future. They cannot access common services we take for granted, such as an ATM cash machine or email. Today, we hear repeatedly of two disturbing trends: the “feminization of poverty” and the “working poor.” Single mothers and even grandmothers, tasked with raising their grandchildren, often live hand-to-fist in meeting the needs of their young and staying ahead of eviction notices and bill collectors. Even when working to earn an income, they often do not succeed. The number of homeless families in shelters and people using soup kitchens and food pantries in the United States is at record levels. It makes me proud as a Vincentian that Niagara and St. John’s universities are affiliated with Heart & Soul and Bread and Life soup kitchens, where students and staff often contribute their time. However, the numbers of poor people continue to grow steadily.

That is why access to education is the only hope for lifting the poor out of a destructive and generational cycle of poverty. I commend Niagara for taking the lead in providing scholarships, grants and financial assistance to give the poor access to education. But we must do more. When I visit our missions in developing nations, I am always struck that one of the first works begun is a school or catechetical center, where reading and writing are taught. In some mission provinces, the number of schools often equal churches and pastoral centers. In India, where less than 2 percent of the population is Catholic, over 20 percent of the schools in the country are under Catholic auspices. So whether in the first world or developing nations, access to education is essential to promote lasting change and improvement for the poor.

The second area is what I call witness. Niagara University has a great presence in Western and upstate New York, and throughout the East. The Vincentian-based witness of students, staff, and faculty on behalf of the poor has had a profound and lasting impact. Over the years, I have met people ranging from new office staff to trustees at Niagara who are mesmerized by the Vincentian mission. It is a credit to what has been done, but no time to rest on your laurels.

Pope Francis has captivated many across the globe with his warmth, simplicity, and advocacy for the poor. In his writings and homilies, the Holy Father coined a phrase as true as it is haunting: “the globalization of indifference.” Listen to his words: “The culture of comfort, which makes us think only of ourselves, makes us insensitive to the cries of other people, indeed; it leads to the globalization of indifference. We become used to the suffering of others: it doesn’t affect or concern me; it’s none of my business.” (Homily, Lampedusa 8 July 2013)

One way of developing skills to understand access and to do witness is to engage in reflection. The sponsorship document called for development of a Vincentian theology of service, involving reflection and dialogue. I cannot think of a better way to grow in understanding how to enter the world of the poor and to accompany them. St. Vincent told his missioners and layworkers to remember that, “God asks first for the heart, then for the work.” In developing new methods of Vincentian witness, you will do a great service for yourselves and the poor.

In summing up my thoughts, let me return to my first premise on what happens when one first enters into the world of the poor; namely, the stages of disorientation, confrontation, formation, and ultimately, transformation. While this may seem unsettling or even threatening, it is true.

However, this occasion is also one where God’s grace can do wonders, breaking down barriers, helping us to affirm our common humanity, and put aside outward differences of race, class, gender, ethnic, and religion. That is why I discussed St. Vincent de Paul in such detail. He developed a spirituality of service, finding Christ in the poor and the poor in Christ. Despite his many activities and accomplishments, Vincent was, first and foremost, a “mystic of charity.”

You and I may never reach the same level of achievement, selfless service, or mysticism of St. Vincent. But we can try, can’t we? Niagara University is the place where this wonderful “labor of love” can begin, grow, and lead us more deeply into the beauty and mystery of learning how to serve the poor in Christ. I will close with a proverb summarizing our Vincentian charism:

“I slept peacefully, and dreamt that life was sheer joy.
I awoke suddenly, and discovered that life was hard work.
I served my neighbor faithfully, and behold!
Hard work became sheer joy.”

In doing the hard work of promoting and living a Vincentian campus culture, may you experience the sheer joy of what it means to be truly Vincentian in thought, word, and deed!