02-23-2023 A Letter From Our Servant Leaders

02-23-2023 A Letter From Our Servant Leaders 1080 1080 SVDP USA

Every Christian should visit the Holy Land at least once.  Called the “Fifth Gospel,” Israel’s holy sites make the Scriptures come alive, reminding us that the story of our salvation, culminating in Christ, is not a myth or a beautiful idea, but actual events in specific places at particular historical moments. Having just returned from there with 116 pilgrims, I felt once again the magnetic power of Jesus Christ, whose life, death and resurrection is the center and source of our Catholic faith.

The Garden of Gethesemane, just outside Jerusalem, is a spiritually powerful place for me. The garden contains six olive trees which were there the night Jesus sweated blood in His agony. Inside the church, immediately in front of the altar, is the rock on which tradition says Jesus threw Himself down and prayed that the cross would pass Him by. Of course, we know the Lord accepted His Passion and death on that rock in the end, handing His will over to the Father, and winning forgiveness and salvation for the entire human race.

Whenever I pray in front of that holy rock, I ask the Lord for the grace to hand my will completely over to Him. I must confess I always feel a twinge of fear when I pray that. I am happily willing to give 90% of my will to God, but I also want to keep some back for myself, hanging onto a parachute or an exit strategy, just in case God’s will is too difficult or frightening. We indeed can get ourselves to a spiritual place where we grit our teeth and white-knuckle our way to accept God’s will in our lives, but such a place of joyless, resigned surrender is not good enough.

What I want is to want what God wants because He wants it, to will the will of the Father. That spiritual place is one of freedom, acceptance, peace and docility.  Jesus willed His Passion and death, freely accepting it, embracing the pain, lifting all to the Father, and He did so generously and completely. The Lord’s embrace of the cross in Gethsemane is the fulfillment of His entire path of obedience, which we will hear beautifully on the First Sunday of Lent, when, at the beginning of His ministry, Jesus rejects the temptations of the devil, renouncing any self-seeking or misuse of power, always handing His life over to the will of the Father.

Lent is a spiritually opportune time for us to grow in our obedience and docility to the will of the Father, to reject the temptations of sin and self-absorption, and to expand our heart and spirit through the traditional actions of prayer, fasting and almsgiving. By being generous with God and others, we grow in our ability to transcend our own narrow limits and to apprehend the infinite mercy and compassion of the Lord. When I contemplate what Jesus has done for me, when I hold a crucifix and remember that the eternal Son of God traded His life for mine on the cross and has won eternal life and mercy for me, my heart expands and my spirit soars. How can I be stingy when God has been infinitely kind to me? How can I measure what I give to the Lord, when He has blessed me without limit?  How can I reduce my faith to some heavy fulfillment of obligation, when I come to understand that everything in my life is a gift, an undeserved grace?

We do none of our Lenten actions to impress God, to demonstrate our spiritual greatness, or to win the approval of others. Such arrogant attitudes Jesus condemns in the Gospel for Ash Wednesday. (Matthew 6: 1-8) So why do give up things, try harder to be virtuous, and spend more time in prayer during these 40 days? I think of Lent as a clearing out of inner space, so God can act more freely in my life, so there is more of Him and less of me, that my heart is more supple and generous, that I have surrendered my will in little things, and hopefully that will make me more able to be generous and docile in the bigger challenges.

If I can see and accept God’s plan in my life through every detail of events, people, tasks, joys, tragedies, and opportunities that crowd my days, then I am free to live in union with Him, to be His instrument, to serve as His messenger, to be an extension of Christ in the world.

When we look at life through that supernatural lens, we powerfully realize that our work as Vincentians is an extension of the presence and action of God in the world. The Lord powerfully uses us to bring the Good News to the poor, to witness to the radiant dignity of every person, to alleviate suffering with compassion, and to build up the Kingdom of God. Our Vincentian witness is evangelical for it is a proclamation of the Gospel, certainly in word, but most profoundly in deed. For all the good that God accomplishes through us, we give glory and thanks to God!

This Lent, consider inviting someone to join your Vincentian conference. Many people simply need a friendly nudge to consider such a possibility of service. Many Catholics want to serve and love more, but just do not know how. The Society of St. Vincent de Paul is a beautiful way to live the Gospel and embrace the social teachings of the Church in a very practical and specific fashion. Imagine if every Vincentian brought one other person into the Society!

“For those who believe in the love of God and love him, the most varied circumstances that condition one’s existence are not seen as simply dictated by chance or by the blind laws of nature, but they are all guided by this love. They are occasions and means by which God serves to bring his work of sanctification to completion. He conceals himself behind all the events of one’s life: a given health condition…or some particular cause for disappointment, an unexpected change…He lies behind the particular state of life one has set out on, a sudden trial of a moral nature, or any kind of difficulty found at work. He hides himself behind the fact that we find ourselves to be at a specific place, next to a specific person. Everything, for the one who loves God…acquires positive meaning, because through all these circumstances, one can experience the love of God who wants to guide us toward sanctity.”

Servant of God Chiara Lubich, as published in Magnificat, February, 2023

Bishop Donald Hying

04-22-2021 Letter From Our Servant Leaders

04-22-2021 Letter From Our Servant Leaders 600 685 SVDP USA

We are in the liturgical season of Easter.  We have come through 40 days of Lent, ending in Holy Week with the observance of Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter.

During this past month, I have been pondering the intersection of our liturgical celebrations with what is going on in the world and what is going on in my life personally. The Easter season is one of being open to the unexpected ways in which Christ appears in our lives. Like Mary and the apostles, we consider what do we do now and what do we do next.

My vocation was not always one of service to the poor. After graduating from the University of Wisconsin in Madison, I took a job as the Liturgy Coordinator at the campus Newman Center. It was on Good Friday in 1975 when I witnessed an unexpected intersection of liturgy with life outside the church walls and even with my personal vocation.

The environment was carefully planned, the music was moving and, of course, the Good Friday liturgy itself was profound. The church was packed, with many people standing or sitting in the aisles. After the first reading, we sat for a minute or two in silence before singing the responsorial psalm. That’s when down the aisle came a man who was about 35 years old, not well dressed, but not dirty or unkempt. He walked to the sanctuary center in front of the altar and began to talk to the congregation.

He said that Christians did good things and that religion was probably very important to us, but he thought we ought to consider how difficult life was out on the streets of Madison. The war in Vietnam was just ending. Returning soldiers were often on the streets and homeless; students were disillusioned, and it was hard to find work. The man said he was dealing with addiction issues and had been occasionally homeless.

The man spoke well. He engaged the crowd, but I wanted him out of there. He was wrecking the whole thing. What should I do? What I did was nothing, and I relied on our pastor to make the call. He sat there and patiently listened for almost 10 minutes, as did more than 700 others.

The uninvited speaker started to talk about how his life had fallen apart and how alienated he was from his family. Then he described how his brother had invited him to come share Easter with his family. He was hopeful that this was the beginning of a reconciliation and maybe an opportunity to start a new chapter of his life. He said he needed about $40 for a bus ticket, however, and was thinking that among all these fine Christians, there must be someone who would be willing to help him.

At that point the pastor slowly walked up behind him, put a hand on his shoulder and invited him to take a chair and worship with us. Father promised to work with him after the service. To this day there are people who are certain we planned the whole thing. They are sure that it was one of those creative things we were known for doing, and many insist it was the most meaningful Good Friday service they have ever attended.

After it was over, I was still upset that a carefully rehearsed and important liturgy was screwed up by a street person. Little did I realize that several years later working with the homeless and addicted would become part of my faith journey. The events of that day were a real-life parable of the world intersecting with the practice of our faith and a carefully planned liturgical celebration.

I remembered this story during Holy Week, while I was considering what the Society of St. Vincent de Paul plans to do as we emerge, I hope, from the COVID-19 pandemic. We are in the process of developing our next strategic plan, which will be rooted in living out our Rule and Mission Statement. We need to make those plans, but my Good Friday experience also cautions me to be open to the unexpected. Our neatly organized plans will never match the reality of what will walk into our lives. But we should look for grace in those moments and never doubt Divine Providence.

Serviens in spe,
Ralph Middlecamp
National Council President

02-18-2021 Letter From Our Servant Leaders

02-18-2021 Letter From Our Servant Leaders 600 685 SVDP USA

Dear Vincentian Friends,

The Collect, or opening prayer, for Ash Wednesday Mass reads, “Grant, O Lord, that we may begin with holy fasting this campaign of Christian service, so that, as we take up battle against spiritual evils, we may be armed with weapons of self-restraint.”

I have come to value the Collect, which is a prayer that begins every Liturgy of the Word. It is a prayer written to position us to understand the scripture of the day. Notice that this Ash Wednesday prayer, which liturgically opens Lent, calls this season a “campaign of Christian service.”

This Lent, I am not in the mood to do much fasting. It seems I have already gone out into the desert and have given up a lot. So what value is there to even more deprivation? But this prayer invites me to consider fasting that would strengthen me for a campaign of service. Our Vincentian commitment to a vocation of service certainly has been tested this past year. So maybe this Lent is an appropriate time to rethink and recommit to that vocation. Maybe a new focus on self-restraint and fasting will help me on that journey.

Several years ago, Pope Francis suggested Lenten fasts, even in this year of isolation and deprivation, may improve our ability to serve our neighbors and be credible witnesses to the Kingdom of God. Our Holy Father asked us to:

  • Fast from hurtful words and speak kind words.
  • Fast from sadness and be filled with gratitude.
  • Fast from anger and be filled with patience.
  • Fast from pessimism and be filled with hope.
  • Fast from worries and have trust in God.
  • Fast from complaints and contemplate simplicity.
  • Fast from pressures and be prayerful.
  • Fast from bitterness and fill your heart with joy.
  • Fast from selfishness and be compassionate.
  • Fast from grudges and be reconciled.
  • Fast from words and be silent so you can listen.
    Pope Francis (Ash Wednesday 2017)

Let’s all use this blessed season to renew and strengthen our belief in redemption and resurrection, so that we may be signs of hope to those we are called to serve.

Serviens in spe,
Ralph Middlecamp
National Council President

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