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What Keeps Me Catholic? St. Vincent de Paul

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October 5, 2012

By Michael Daley

No, not the saint. The society. Though I have long been familiar with the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, recently I’ve been able to experience its ministry firsthand. Along with some other coworkers, I spent the morning several weeks ago going on a home visit.

Starting out from their offices on Bank Street in Cincinnati’s West End, a representative from the organization, a student from a local high school and myself drove away from where we usually think poverty exists  — urban, inner-city locations — to a neighborhood about 10 minutes away from downtown.

 

Gina greeted us at the door with a smile. Her apartment was small but well kept. In the course of our conversation, this proud grandmother told us that though she was unemployed, she wasn’t giving up hope. There was a job out there for her. Unlike many of us, however, Gina lacked a car. Responding to this situation, the representative offered the possibility of bus tokens if she needed to get to a job interview. The four of us eventually closed the visit with prayer.

 

Though hard to picture, she put a face to the tens of millions of Americans who are out of work right now. Often numbers become remote abstractions, but for me Gina personalized both the struggle and dignity of those who find themselves on the edge of poverty.

 

Presently, for a family of one, the threshold is $11,170. For three it’s $19,090. With such limited financial resources, basic needs — food, clothing, rent, furniture, utilities, and medicine — are hard to come by.

 

This is where the St. Vincent de Paul comes in. Over the course of a year, the local district council visits thousands of residences helping persons, regardless of race or creed, make it through a crisis or difficult transition. What motivates the members is their mission: “Answering Christ’s call, we foster hope by providing spiritual, emotional and material assistance on a person-to-person basis to the poor, lonely and forgotten in our community.”

 

Other forms of assistance that St. Vincent de Paul provides include thrift stores, a food pantry, a charitable pharmacy, job training, and programs to fight homelessness.

 

Founded in 1883, by Blessed Frederic Ozanam, this international organization of some 700,000 members is found in more than 140 countries. Its devotion to the poor and vulnerable is needed now more than ever. In essence they are a living embodiment of the corporal works of mercy — feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty. clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, visit the sick, visit the imprisoned, bury the dead. Whatever shapes their ministry takes, their goal is to “restore families to self-sufficiency, by combining hope with emergency, practical assistance and then shepherd families into programs that will bring long-term solutions.”

 

Just this past week, I went on another home visit. It was to the apartment of a 17-yearr-old, single parent. Visibly unprepared and overwhelmed by the newness of being a mom, St. Vincent de Paul responded to her needs. They didn’t judge; they served. Car seat, stroller and infant clothes were brought to her door with offers of further assistance and resources if needed.

 

An image that has stayed with me throughout all of this is Lazarus at the Gate (Luke 16:19-31). Outside the home of a rich man sits a poor one — homeless, hungry, invisible to the world. Surprisingly, when Lazarus dies he is carried by angels to the bosom of Abraham, while the rich man cries out for relief, tormented by flames in the netherworld. A cautionary tale indeed.

 

Thankfully St Vincent de Paul helps me reach out to the “present day Lazarus” in our midst, responding to their immediate and future needs. In fact, it’s what keeps me Catholic.

Daley is a freelance writer and teacher at St. Xavier High School.

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