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Summary: We must find in our heart the vast chasm, the infinite need that only Infinite Goodness and Truth and Beauty can fill.

Thursday of the 24th Week in Course 2018

St. Vincent de Paul

The book we call Ecclesiastes is often referred to as Qoheleth, for the Hebrew name of the author, here called “the Preacher.” The first words form one of the major themes of theology, that all things human are perishable, that even what appears to be a new idea is really quite old, and that human existence appears on the surface to be pointless. After all, to the Hebrews who even in the days of Jesus thought when we die we either cease to exist or are dragged down to some nether world of pain, everything does seem to be without ultimate meaning. And yet it can’t. If we are only the pointless result of random evolution, then we also seem to be the butt of a grand cosmic joke.

The problem, of course, is that our common humanity came from two common ancestors whose first volitional act was to commit rebellion against their Creator and Father. Weak in mind and weak in will, that’s us. Our most powerful organ is our brain, but as an example of the weakness of human beings, we reach sexual maturity five or ten years before we have a frontal lobe that can make consistently positive decisions. Before the industrial revolution, the structure of the extended family provided little time for two adolescents to have enough privacy to get into serious trouble. And if they did, social pressure not only pushed them into marriage, but provided support systems that might help the marriage to endure, even thrive. Now parents can’t even get reliable information about what they are reading, hearing or watching, because cell phones give a kind of privacy even if one is in a big crowd.

Thus, for countless millions of modern men and women, distractions are so–well, distracting–that they don’t even get the time and the silence needed to contemplate the biggest questions like the meaning of human life. The answer, of course, is in the life and person of Jesus Christ and the example of the saints. They know that if everything in this life is a vanity, if as St. Theresa said, earthly life is like a bad night in a cheap hotel, we must look higher. We must find in our heart the vast chasm, the infinite need that only Infinite Goodness and Truth and Beauty can fill. We need redemption and new life, eternal life in Christ. Herod Antipas asked about Jesus, “who is this guy?” The answer, of course, is, “He’s everything you need. Repent.”

In his book, God or Nothing, Cardinal Sarah makes a distinction that is valuable to our understanding of St. Vincent dePaul, both the person and the Society. He is hard on the organizations that say we should “eliminate poverty.” Poverty, as Jesus and St. Francis of Assisi and thousands have saints have lived and preached, is a Gospel way of life. We use the things we have for good, and we don’t covet things that are mere luxuries. Cardinal Sarah distinguishes that noble and Christian poverty with destitution. We have an obligation to the poor who are destitute, who don’t have enough food, clean water, decent education, adequate housing to live as humans with dignity. Destitution, not poverty, is what we seek to eliminate.

St. Vincent was born in the late sixteenth century, and ministered entirely in the violent seventeenth, the age of religious wars, Jansenism, and Church reform ignited by the Council of Trent. Besides his work for the poor, Vincent was particularly dedicated to the proper formation of the clergy. “Since the Council of Trent the bishops had been endeavoring to found seminaries to form them, but these seminaries encountered many obstacles, the chief of which were the wars of religion. Of twenty founded not ten had survived till 1625.” His “Congregation of the Priests of the Missions,” now known as Vincentians, became well known over the centuries for staffing seminaries all over the Western world. Vincent also encouraged and was involved in priest retreats and continuing education.

As we consider the scandals that the Church faces once again because of lack of formation and discernment among the clergy, we should frequently invoke the intercession of all the saints, particularly the Blessed Virgin and today’s saint. Saint Vincent dePaul, pray for us.

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