The Liberation of the poor: the Vincentian Rule to Make the Gospel of Jesus Christ Effective (5)

Francisco Javier Fernández ChentoVincentian FormationLeave a Comment

Author: Santiago Barquín, CM · Translator: Charles T. Plock, CM. · Year of first publication: 2002 · Source: Hacer efectivo el evangelio y mundo actual, XXVII Semana de Estudios Vicencianos, Editorial CEME, Santa Marta de Tormes, Salamanca, 2002, p. 243-340..
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The Vincentian Rule: to make the gospel of Jesus Christ effective today

If Jesus Christ has commanded us to evangelize: Go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature (Mark 16:15; cf., Matthew 28:19-20), if Vincent de Paul asks us to evangelize the poor through word and action, if we want to be faithful disciples of Jesus and Vincent, then there is no other path than that of spending our life as heralds of the good news of Jesus Christ … Jesus Christ who saves and liberates all people, but especially the poor and the oppressed and those who are enslaved. This is the command that we have received; this is the norm, the rule of our life. As beneficiaries of Vincent’s heritage, evangelization is the reason for our existence.

But we cannot engage in just any process of evangelization. We cannot be satisfied be becoming the echo of a word that was spoken so many years ago. First, we must live the word and incarnate the word in our life. Then, we must lose ourselves and become involved in the life of humankind, primarily the life of those who are poor. To incarnate ourselves in the life of the poor means that we establish bonds of solidarity with them, that we become one with them, that we liberate them and rescue them from all that prevents them from living a full life, from all that prevents them from living as human beings, from all that prevents them from living with dignity. To be evangelizers of the poor involves a commitment to be a witness of Jesus Christ and a witness of Jesus’ love for humankind, a commitment to be agents of human and social transformation, living agents of material, social and spiritual liberation of those persons who are poor and oppressed. Only in this way will be be heralds of good news … only in this way will we be the gospel. In other words, only in this way will we make the gospel of Jesus Christ effective in the world of the poor and the disinherited, in the world of those who are exploited and viewed with contempt, in the world of those who are enslaved and left half-dead on the side of the road.

What the poor and others are saying to us today

In the previous paragraphs I have hinted at what people expect from us. The poor expect nothing less than that we make the gospel of Jesus Christ effective for them and do this in front of their eyes … they expect us to be faithful witnesses and representatives of Jesus Christ and Vincent de Paul. How? They expect us to make the gospel the ferment of life, to work tirelessly to change the structures of the present world, that is, to eliminate the structures of sin and death that are so prevalent in society and replace those structures with structures of love that are translated into solidarity, commitment and service on behalf of others.

Today everyone expects us to reveal true gospel signs. These signs bring to life our credibility and our honesty. These signs will be effective if they make real that which we proclaim, that which they really signify. Pope Paul VI reminds us about this when he states: But Christ also carries out this proclamation by innumerable signs, which amaze the crowds and at the same time draw them to Him in order to see Him, listen to Him and allow themselves to be transformed by Him: the sick are cured, water is changed into wine, bread is multiplied, the dead come back to life. And among all these signs there is the one to which He attaches great importance: the humble and the poor are evangelized, become His disciples and gather together “in His name” in the great community of those who believe in Him (Evangelii Nuntiandi, #12).

We can say that in some way Vincent de Paul revealed those signs that are described in the previous paragraph, signs that constitute the messianic presence of Jesus. We can also do the same thing and give life to those signs. We can minister in such a way that illness loses its grip on people and as a result those who are infirm willingly embrace their condition and their suffering. This will occur when we invest more money in research, when we relate more intimately with those who are infirm and treat them with kindness and tenderness, when we accompany them, when we serve them with such love that they discover in us God’s personal love for them. When we transform life and offer people the possibility of living their life with greater dignity then we are like Jesus when he changed the water into wine. We multiply the loaves and fishes when we provide food to all people, when we become less concerned about margins of profit and more concerned about distributing food more equitably, when we put aside our speculation in this area and when we also no longer destroy crops in order to obtain a higher price. Then, and only then, will a new life flourish in the midst of the world and only then will we live in a distinct manner. That which was dead will be restored to a new and better existence … yes, this will be a wonderful surprise, a good way to attract others; yes, this will be good news … this will be evangelization.

What then is our mission? Our ministry consists of acting in such a way that new men and women appear in our midst, men and women clothed in the spirit of Jesus Christ, transformed by Jesus Christ and one with Jesus Christ … men and women who have overcome selfishness and pride and are able to relate to others in a loving manner; men and women who, like the good Samaritan (cf., Luke 10:25-37), are not afraid to approach those in need and offer them an effective solution, offer them a commitment of total love. Pope Paul VI said: there is no new humanity if there are not first of all new persons renewed by Baptism and by lives lived according to the Gospel (Evangelii Nuntiandi, #18). To say this another way, evangelization ought to result in new men and women who enter into a process of changing their own conscience and changing the conscience of the larger community, who change their manner of acting, their commitment and who impact the situation in which they live (cf. Evangelii Nuntiandi, #18). In other words, our ministry consists of capacitating people so that they can change the present social structures and thus put in place the plan of Jesus Christ as revealed in the gospels. Indeed, every Christian has the obligation to affect and as it were upset, through the power of the Gospel, humankind’s criteria of judgment, determining values, points of interest, lines of thought, sources of inspiration and models of life, which are in contrast with the Word of God and the plan of salvation (Evangelii Nuntiandi, #19). In a few words then, our ministry consists of capacitating people to transform the present culture with all its selfishness and violence and sexism and inequality and injustice. Indeed, today the split between culture and the gospel constitutes the drama of our time, just as it was of other times (Evangelii Nuntiandi, #20).

This change, this revolution that I have described, will come about more as a result of our example than the words that we speak. When people are understanding, open, communicative and live in solidarity with others … when people live simply and with hope … when people are spontaneous and when their faith is an expression of gospel values then, these people have become living examples of how one ought to live. The manner in which these people live their life leads other people to question themselves and to reexamine their own life. Thus, these individuals have become living witnesses of the gospel values and are clear signs that the lifestyle of Jesus Christ is alive and has meaning in the present era. Today, therefore, we are invited to be silent witnesses of a life lived in harmony with the gospels. We are also invited to act in such a way (to act with simplicity and humility) that people begin to understand why we are people of hope. Indeed, such a witness is already a silent proclamation of the Good News and a very powerful and effective one (Evangelii Nuntiandi, #21).

Transmitters of good news

When we want to speak about something or study something in depth and/or analyze it carefully, we necessarily have to separate it into workable parts. The same occurs when we want to speak about evangelization, which is our primary mission. The good news, proclaimed and lived out by Christ, constitutes a whole, a unique unity but one, that nevertheless, has two aspects. One aspect is the word and the other aspect is action. One is focused on the proclamation and the other on service. Yet the proclamation cannot be divorced from service and action will never be effective if it is not supported by the word. Vincent de Paul, aware of human nature and the limitations of people, engaged in a process of evangelization during which he established various institutions that complimented one another, (each one responsible for some specific task). Nevertheless, each institution has the mission of making the gospel effective both spiritually and materially.

We are mindful of all of this because today we are expected to be transmitters of the good news, that is, transmitters of the gospel (and it seems that at this time only one aspect of evangelization receives the focus). To transmit good news is to pronounce words and to produce corresponding acts that result in life, well-being and salvation. Vincent, when he spoke with and formed his followers, sought to instill this twofold concept of the process of evangelization in them. At different times, during the repetition of prayer and conferences, Vincent spoke about the attitudes that should guide the Missionaries when giving missions. He also instructed them on how they should speak and act, what they should emphasize when catechizing, etc. Vincent’s intention was that the Missionaries and the Daughters of Charity and the Ladies of Charity would communicate the good news to people and share with people words of comfort and encouragement and hope. Using today’s language we might say that Vincent wanted the members of his family to be constructive. The little method for preaching, friendliness and kindness when dealing with people, tender words and a smile … all of these are means to communicate the good news, to be good news, to be architects of good news for all who find themselves immersed in poverty and misery. The followers of Vincent de Paul ought to be understood by the poor country people and these poor men and women should be excited and enthused by the words of forgiveness and life that are spoken to them … transformed by the flow of life that is a natural result of the ministry of the Vincentian Family.

The gospels tell us that people were surprised and amazed by the message that Jesus proclaimed to them. They were amazed because they understood the message and were filled with hope. When speaking about the kingdom of God that was proclaimed by Jesus, José María Castillo reminds us: The first thing that we must be mindful of as we attempt to understand the significance of the kingdom of God is that Jesus’ proclamation about this reality produced great enthusiasm in the poor and simple people who listened to him. This means that the poor and ignorant are able to understand immediately the significance of the kingdom of God. Second, without a doubt the kingdom responds to the expectations and needs of those people who are seen as the lowest members of society. In other words, the kingdom is good news for the poor, the weak and those who are marginalized in any way (even when this marginalization is their own fault). In light of this we have to begin to understand what the gospels are telling us when they refer to the kingdom of God1.

To make oneself understood and to respond to the needs of those who are listening are signs that one is engaged in an effective process of evangelization, signs of being the gospel and communicating good news. Making ourselves understood by those who are poor or weak or marginalized or exploited … satisfying their expectations and hopes (hopes related to fundamental aspects of life) … do we always act in this manner? Have our conversations with the poor and with all people taken this form? Has our preaching and our formation and conferences been adapted to this style? What themes have we focused on and what themes have we avoided addressing?

I believe that we have frequently been voices of judgment rather than transmitters of the gospel. We have spoken more words of condemnation rather than words of encouragement and hope. We have cast shadows over life rather than light … the light of the gospel. We have been more fire and brimstone than compassionate and merciful. Therefore at the present time, people, the poor, … they hope that we will renounce our former pessimism and darkness and hell and that we will be converted and become heralds of life and light and hope and happiness and joy in the Lord of life. They hope that we will make a radical option on behalf of the poor … that we will opt for life, for joy in life, for happiness and for love that is expressed by solidarity. In a word they hope that we will opt for God because the God of Jesus Christ, the Christian God is not a God of the dead but of the living (Matthew 22:32; Mark 12:27; Luke 20:38).

Effective witness of God’s love

The gospel of Christ has to be proclaimed in order for those who hear it and listen to it and accept it … in order that these people might also conform themselves to Christ and find life. There is no proclamation without someone who speaks. But the word can become misleading and false if the heart is not in harmony with the mind. Therefore in addition to proclaiming the word one must also live according to the word, that is, love must be translated into action. Therefore, the building up of the kingdom of God is impossible unless the words of life and hope that we proclaim with our lips are united to the true witness of our works. Thus, if we are not believed because of what we proclaim then at least we should be believed because of what we do (Cf., John 10:28-38). But works can also be misleading (though this was not true with regard to Jesus).

If those who listen to the word have twisted minds, we should not give that any importance. Later we will have to help those individuals change. What we must now be concerned about is that we truly proclaim the kingdom of God and that our minds and words and works and life are all in harmony with one another. If this is not the reality then we must change and seek harmony in our life. Jesus proclaimed and built up the kingdom of God with simplicity and truthfulness … and yet with all of this people still not believe him: Jesus answered them, “I told you and you do not believe. The works I do in my Father’s name testify to me (John 10:25). Then Jesus added: If I do not perform my Father’s works, do not believe me; but if I perform them, even if you do not believe me, believe the works, so that you may realize [and understand] that the Father is in me and I am in the Father (John 10:37-38).

As human beings we have made the word into a reality that is deceptive and false and yet it is words that provide the best vehicle for communication and exchange of ideas between people. It is not easy to falsify works but we are also able to do this. So what remains? … nothing but conversion. We must renew our interior life because the things that come out from within are what defile (Mark 7:16). Indeed, from within people, from their hearts, come evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly. All these evils come from within and they defile (Mark 7:21-23).

Words, actions and attitudes arise from a person’s interior. When people’s interior life is not in order, when they do not live in love and from the perspective of love and for love, when they are selfish and hateful and arrogant, then their words and actions and attitudes harm themselves and also harm others. At the same time, the gospel of Jesus should be embraced with enthusiasm and joy because it is good news that should change one’s interior. This change results from an experience of God’s compassionate and merciful love and thus people open themselves to the kingdom of God, to God’s justice, to God’s plan. God wants all people, but especially those who are poor, to rejoice in a full and prosperous life … a life lived in all its fullness. That fullness will become a reality as a result of love, solidarity, work and common effort.

People today (and especially the poor and the marginalized) need to hear sincere words, life-giving words. But they also need something more than words … they need witness and coherent actions that reveal integrity. Here we remember once again the words of Pope Paul VI who speaks to us about evangelizations and states: for the Church, the first means of evangelization is the witness of an authentically Christian life, given over to God in a communion that nothing should destroy and at the same time given to one’s neighbor with limitless zeal. As we said recently to a group of lay people, “Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses.” St. Peter expressed this well when he held up the example of a reverent and chaste life that wins over even without a word those who refuse to obey the word. It is therefore primarily by her conduct and by her life that the Church will evangelize the world, in other words, by her living witness of fidelity to the Lord Jesus — the witness of poverty and detachment, of freedom in the face of the powers of this world, in short, the witness of sanctity (Evangelii Nuntiandi, #41).

All of this suggests a fundamental demand: to live the gospel honestly and authentically and to do this in everything that we do. Living in this manner will attract others to live with the same intensity and to give the same meaning to their life … people will be fascinated and amazed at our life.

We could say that the gospel of Jesus is the gospel of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). Throughout his life Jesus was the Good Samaritan of the parable. Jesus knew how to look at his surroundings and was able to discover the misery of the poor. As he contemplated their situation he was moved to the depths of his being and was compassionate toward those who were abandoned and left half-dead on the roads of life. Therefore, Jesus became one with humankind, became one with those who were most poor, healed their wounds, carried them, cared for them and shared his life with them. Jesus was new life for the poor … he became a neighbor to those who fell into the hands of robbers and assassins. It was for this reason that he encouraged his followers: Go and do likewise (Luke 10:37). This then is also our task and our mission: to bind up the wounds of injustice, to return to the poor that which has been taken from them, to eliminate the causes that have created the present situation of injustice and oppression, to work for the well-being of everyone (with no exceptions) … that is the best manner to become neighbor to those who are beaten up by life, to those who are marginalized. Today we become the gospel if we proclaim a message that affects all of life and if, at the same time, we ourselves live that message. But evangelization would not be complete if it did not take account of the unceasing interplay of the Gospel and of man’s concrete life, both personal and social. This is why evangelization involves an explicit message, adapted to the different situations constantly being realized, about the rights and duties of every human being, about family life without which personal growth and development is hardly possible, about life in society, about international life, peace, justice and development — a message especially energetic today about liberation (Evangelii Nuntiandi, 29).

All these dimensions that we have referred to must be transformed in Christ and all of these realities must be transformed by Christ through our ministry and service. In this way people will become truly free and will be able to live their life with dignity.

There is no authentic evangelization without the liberation of people from every form of slavery that prevents them from living with dignity. Therefore everyone has the obligation to struggle boldly in order to make total liberation a reality for all people. It is well known in what terms numerous bishops from all the continents spoke of this at the last Synod, especially the bishops from the Third World, with a pastoral accent resonant with the voice of the millions of sons and daughters of the Church who make up those peoples. Peoples, as we know, engaged with all their energy in the effort and struggle to overcome everything which condemns them to remain on the margin of life: famine, chronic disease, illiteracy, poverty, injustices in international relations and especially in commercial exchanges, situations of economic and cultural neo-colonialism sometimes as cruel as the old political colonialism. The Church, as the bishops repeated, has the duty to proclaim the liberation of millions of human beings, many of whom are her own children — the duty of assisting the birth of this liberation, of giving witness to it, of ensuring that it is complete. This is not foreign to evangelization (Evangelii Nuntiandi, #30).

To make the gospel effective today we have to eliminate those situations of death and oppression: illiteracy, poverty, injustice, neo-colonialism, neo-liberalism, etc. Thus, we not only have to proclaim liberation for all people but we have to make it possible for this liberation to become a reality … make it possible for this liberation to grow and to develop fully in our world … fully in all people.

Evangelization implies the promotion of the human person. In other words, evangelization implies offering people a better, more just life, a life with greater dignity that enables people to enjoy life … a life in which people are able to find the merciful hand of God in the midst of their work and their leisure. Evangelization not only promotes the economic, social, political and cultural dimension of the human person but also promotes the spiritual dimension which every person possesses. Indeed it is this spiritual dimension that opens people to the love of God and the love of neighbor.

To live our mission from these perspectives is to make the gospel of Jesus Christ effective and also presents the gospel to the poor in such a way that they are liberated and saved. To live in this manner is to reveal ourselves as faithful witnesses of God’s love and also means that we have accepted God’s challenge to free his people … to free his people today. It was precisely for this reason that God has called us … and just as God spoke to Moses so now God speaks to us and tells us: I have witnessed the affliction of my people in Egypt and have heard their cry against their taskmasters, so I know well what they are suffering. Therefore I have come down to rescue them from the power of the Egyptians and lead them up from that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey, the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Girgashites, the Hivites and the Jebusites. Now indeed the outcry of the Israelites has reached me, and I have seen how the Egyptians are oppressing them. Now, go! I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt (Exodus 3:7-10).

We now have the responsibility to free people from the slavery in which they find themselves. There are many structures in this world that have become “the Egypt” of the book of Exodus. There are numberless situations of exploitation and oppression that today enslave millions and millions of men and women … and we are called to change those situations and also change the world. We do not have to leave our place of residence in order to go to another place to do this. Where we are right now we can engage in this work … we cannot be satisfied with the way things are at the present time. Jesus’ command to evangelize is extended to us, not as a threat but as a sign of friendship. Set out on the journey; use your head and your arms; free people from the slavery in which they find themselves … yes, this is what God is telling us, our God who is friend, who is near to us, who is savior. Will we turn a deaf ear to this anguished request, to this urgent need of a friend? Are we going to step back from this task because it appears to be impossible to accomplish. This is our time! And at this present moment we have to be inventive and fearless. Take courage, we ought to and we have to be true witnesses of God’s love to the people of this present generation. We need to be true Christians and true Vincentians who are not afraid to lose their life in order to make the gospel of Jesus Christ effective today.

  1. J.M. Castillo, op.cit., p. 52-53.

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