“Pope Francis’ words and actions sound like St. Vincent”. Words from Dr. Joann Heaney-Hunter of St. John’s University as she reflects on her experience as a commentator for Time Warner Cable News during Pope Francis’s visit. In the homily at the St. John’s University Founder’s Day Mass she elaborated…
Last weekend, I had the joy of spending many hours covering Pope Francis’ visit for Time Warner Cable News. Like many of you, I watched him speak with, pray with, and interact with all sorts of people in various situations.
For part of the time on Sunday, (which, by the way, was the actual feast of St. Vincent!) I was working with another professor from a college in New Jersey. At one point in the coverage, he said to the anchor, “Dr. Heaney-Hunter and I are both connected to the pope, because both of us are Jesuit trained.” A few moments later, I said, “I may be connected to Pope Francis because I’m Jesuit trained, but really, Pope Francis’ words and actions sound like St. Vincent de Paul, whose spirit is the heart and soul of my University, St. John’s,” and I went on to say how I thought Pope Francis was really Vincentian, and how we at St. John’s try to embody that Vincentian spirit every day.
Today as we celebrate the feast of St. Vincent de Paul, I couldn’t help but think of the connection between Vincent, a great saint who was tireless in his care of the poor, and Francis, an inspiring pope who has touched our hearts with his humility, faith and joy. Do they resonate for you? Can Pope Francis be a role model for us as we try to carry out the mission of St. John’s University, which follows proudly in the tradition of St. Vincent de Paul? Can we follow a path that calls us out of ourselves so we can serve Christ as he appears to us in our brothers and sisters, especially the poor?
Let’s turn to our readings.
In the first reading from the book of the prophet Isaiah, we hear the words “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the one bringing good news!”
Isn’t that what St. Vincent did? He was a bearer of the good news of Christ’s hope and consolation to the poor in France, to the Daughters and Ladies of Charity, to the clergy he trained, and to all he met, especially those in most need. In his own words “Keep alive your determination to go in search of the lost sheep.” (IV:118)
If we recall images from the Pope’s visit, wasn’t he beautiful – a bearer of good news, as he preached the Gospel message of hope to the people of the United States and Cuba? Didn’t he make a deep impression on members of Congress, and world leaders at the UN? Didn’t he bring great joy to New Yorkers cheering for him in Central Park and praying with him in Madison Square Garden? Wasn’t he a comfort to immigrants when he reminded them and all of us that he was the son of immigrants, and that our nation was built by immigrants?
We watched with delight as he greeted children everywhere he went, blessed and kissed babies along parade routes, and even learned how to use a smartboard from a 3rd grader attending a Catholic school in Harlem!
I was deeply touched when he stopped everything to greet the family of a young person with cerebral palsy, and to bless the child with care and love. No matter how busy he was, he seemed to be happiest as he reached out to those that others might forget.
As members of the St. John’s community, aren’t we asked to do these things? In our classwork, in our internships, in our interactions with students, staff, administrators and faculty, aren’t we invited to follow Vincent as a bearer of good news, and can’t we look to Pope Francis as a wonderful contemporary role model? Let us ask ourselves – How do we make a difference by being bearers of good news to others on campus? How do we step up to be present to those whom others might forget? It’s important to reflect on these things as we celebrate the feast of our founder.
Now let’s listen again to the words of the second reading — “Consider your calling – Not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, and not many were of noble birth.” For St. Paul, power and nobility come from living simply, and preaching the message of the crucified and risen Christ.
Again, we can make a link to St. Vincent, who reminded his companions, “Everyone says that the missionary spirit is one of humility and simplicity … take hold of it.” (I:518)
We saw over and over again last week how that gets lived out by a pope. Every time Pope Francis popped out of the little black Fiat, surrounded by enormous SUV’s, he spoke volumes about simplicity without saying a word. When we read that he had passed up a fancy lunch in the halls of Congress to spend time with the poor at a Catholic Charities site in Washington, D.C, we knew where his heart was. When we heard about the chairs he used at the liturgies in New York and Philadelphia, made with love by people in prison in Pennsylvania, or immigrant day laborers from New York, we got it loud and clear – power and nobility come from simplicity.
Simplicity. How do we embrace it today? How do we manage it in our technology-packed, busy lives? I know it would be too much to ask any of us (me included) to abstain from the devices that have changed our lives – I don’t think I remember how to live without that little pocket computer called a smartphone – but I think we can all take small steps each day to embrace simplicity. Let’s ask ourselves – how attached are we to things? Does “stuff” rule our lives? Are we driven by our desire to acquire? Attitude makes a big difference. As people called to follow the simplicity of Vincent, and who saw the example of Pope Francis, let’s try to detach from the things that keep us from seeing Christ in the simple people and events of life. It’s important to reflect on these things as we celebrate the feast of our founder.
Finally, we take a line from our beautiful gospel, the Beatitudes: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” This phrase is striking as we reflect on the life of St. Vincent, and on Pope Francis’ visit.
In Vincent’s life, bringing God’s peace to others was a constant call: he reminded his confreres that “God’s Spirit is a spirit of peace, a gentle inspiration that slips in without any commotion. Everything He does is always followed by calmness and gentleness; He is the God of peace and union. He cannot tolerate any disturbance or division.” (XII, Letter 214)
Vincent was a tireless missionary of God’s peace. He preached with actions and words that we are called to share God’s peace with our brothers and sisters. Vincent understood, as Jesus did, that he was called to bring God’s peace not to the wealthy and comfortable, but to the poor, the stranger, the one who was marginalized because he or she is different from others. These, the most vulnerable are the face of Christ in the world, and they must receive God’s peace.
At the deeply moving, profoundly prayerful interfaith service at the 9-11 memorial, Pope Francis said, “I trust that our presence together will be a powerful sign of our shared desire to be a force for reconciliation, peace and justice in this community and throughout the world. For all our differences and disagreements, we can live in a world of peace.” He then modeled that statement by reaching out in love and respect to the diverse religious leaders gathered on the stage. He didn’t say much to them, he just walked from person to person, sharing a sign of peace. What was so striking to me was his utter respect for and focus on each person – clearly, in Francis’ eyes, all were equal, and God’s children, regardless of religion.
And what about us? How do we embody St. Vincent’s and Pope Francis’ call to bring peace to others as we go about our daily lives on campus?
This is such a simple question — but it will take us all a lifetime to perfect the answer. Each of us, in our own way, can pray every day for the grace to bring God’s peace to others. Throughout our time as students, faculty, staff and administrators, let’s check up on ourselves – do we sow peace or discord? Do we extend a hand of love or do we withhold it? Do we look for ways to help each other, or do we close our hearts because we’re too busy or tired or stressed? As members of the St. John’s community, we are called to evaluate our lives in light of Vincent’s message. Pope Francis has given us an example of how to do that. It’s important to reflect on these things as we celebrate the feast of our founder.
We at St. John’s have an extraordinary role model in St. Vincent, and last week, we witnessed Pope Francis, who inspired us by preaching with his life a powerful message of good news, simplicity and peace to all who were open to hear it. As we celebrate Founders’ Week, and all throughout the year, let’s ask God to help us as we try to put their ideals into concrete action each day.
More on the contributions of St. John’s faculty to the media coverage of the Pope’s visit.