St Vincent de Paul - Humility and Zeal

Humility is for St Vincent the recognition  of our own lowliness and faults accompanied by an exuberant confidence in God’. Elsewhere he writes ’God pours out his abundant gifts on the humble  who recognise that all good which is done by them comes from God ‘…..and ‘ought to be done in the name of Our Lord Jesus Christ.’ Consciousness of our own sins should help us grow in Humility and involves ‘voluntary self-emptying,.. Avoiding the applause of the world, taking the last place and loving the hidden life...esteeming others more worthy than ourselves.’

He cites a number of motives to pursue the virtue of humility- Jesus was humble and happy to be seen as the least of men– it is his characteristic virtue and should be ours too!’ He offers the example of Mary and the Saints and says it should be the origin of all good we do! ’It is ’, he says, ’the arms by which we conquer the devil since the devil and pride are the same!’ Humility brings all the other virtues with it …..everyone loves it, but it is easier to think about it than to put it into practice’ ! Humility is, he concludes, the source of all peace and unity! But how should we acquire humility? Well he says ‘we should do acts of humility daily...we should  confess our faults openly.. We should believe that we are the worst in the world!’ At the same time we should recognise that everyone has his faults, that way we will have little trouble excusing others and above all we should always preach Jesus Christ and not ourselves!

Humility may be a virtue some of us shy away from –thinking it means behaving like the cringe making Uriah Heep  in David Copperfield! We are probably a bit reluctant to tell ourselves that we are the worst of all sinners– we aren’t that bad are we? Yet St Vincent is underlining a basic and abiding Gospel truth– God comes to the lowly, like Mary for example, those who recognise their need for God in this world and indeed long for his presence in their lives. ‘Humility’ writes St Vincent ‘is the origin of all the good that we do….it is the recognition of our creatureliness and our redeemedness—we are completely dependent on God and whatever we are, whatever we do, whatever we possess, comes from God’, the total acceptance of this surely makes us humble! It is a token of our humility that we also recognise that we depend on each other, a sign of our own limitedness– we need others and can not do without others– this in itself can make us feel humble.

Humility also expresses itself in gratitude and a willingness ‘ not to be served but to serve’, Mtt 20:28 The Song of the humble person is the Magnificat! And what of Zeal? He says Zeal is love on fire, going on to write ’If love of God is the fire, zeal is its flame. If love is the sun, then zeal is its ray...when (charity) it dwells in a soul, it takes complete possession of all its never rests. It is a fire that acts ceaselessly.’ As a missionary virtue it involves ‘a willingness to go anywhere to spread the reign of Christ, he writes to his fellow priests, ‘Let God give us this spirit, this heart, this heart which will make us go everywhere, this heart of the son of God, the heart of Our Lord, the heart of Our Lord which will dispose us to go as he went and as he would have gone if his eternal wisdom had judged it fitting….he sent the Apostles… ‘He sends us, like them to bear the divine fire everywhere’. Indeed this desire to follow in Jesus’s footsteps should include a willingness to die for Christ –he explains this by saying ‘we should all have within ourselves the disposition and desire to suffer for God and for our neighbour ‘, and be ready to wear ourselves out in the process!’ O happy are those to whom God gives such a disposition and desire!’ As missionaries, and that is what he and his fellow priests were, he says ‘we should be ready to strip ourselves bare ‘and become a completely new man (person)! Ready to go anywhere—this was a big thing for St Vincent– even when he was old and infirm he said he was ready to set out for the Indies, even it meant he die en route!

Zealously serving our neighbour and seeking their salvation is, he admits, hard work! He urges us to ‘love God but let it be with the strength of our arms and the sweat of our brows!’ All our acts of love and devotion towards God are for him slightly suspicious, ‘if they do not reach the practice of effective love.’ In other words if we really love God we should be doing something useful to show it! Of course we can be over zealous, which St Vincent says can lead ‘to overwork, being overbearing with people and remaining too long with one person to the prejudice of another!’ He warns too ‘Be careful of your health….be careful not to do too much ….it is a ruse of the devil by which he desires good souls, when he incites them to do more than they can in order that they may not do anything!’ Urging his brother priests and the community to grow in zeal, he writes ‘Picture to yourself that there are millions of souls with outstretched hands calling you, saying ...N.. You have been chosen from all eternity by the providence of God to be our second redeemer, have pity on us who grope in ignorance for the things necessary for our salvation … and who, without your help will certainly be damned!’

So what are St Vincent’s Missionary Virtues saying to us, Simplicity, Meekness, Mortification, Humility and Zeal –certainly they are Gospel virtues –they tell us something about how we conduct ourselves and organise our lives, and thinking back to the first sermon in the series, we discovered how St Vincent and his virtues were to  inspire the Founders of the Society of the Holy Cross and the Anglo –Catholic Movement  in the 1850’s, inspiration that can still be seen in how our constituency, and its priests, is to be found serving in the poorest parishes in our country and amongst some of the poorest, most deprived people, those Archbishop Justin described last week  as those crushed by austerity and driven to despair. The latest edition of F in F’s ‘New Directions’ tells of the work of the Anglo Catholic Crusade, started in 1918, 100 years ago, and one of its inspirational priests, Fr Jim who one day had a clear vision of Christ as  poor working man, and so asked his Bishop to send him to a slum parish where he was to develop a rather heady mixture of Marxism and high Anglo– Catholicism—identifying the closeness of communion and communism! The middle class members of the congregation fled to be replaced by a  much poorer lot, including the unemployed and their families. Through the General strike of 1926 and hunger marches during the Great Depression the congregation took to the streets with the crucifix at their head. Outside the church a sign to visitors stating that in this ’Church of the Catholic Crusade, the Blessed Sacrament is reserved, consecrated by the body of Christ’s people and warning that ‘unless you see Christ in the masses you can not see him in the Mass...unless you see him in the worker’s struggle for bread, you will not see him at the altar.’ Well all kinds of things were set up in that parish– the Parish Breakfast a real breakfast and a discreet way of feeding the poor– at the back of church a plate labelled  ’from each according to their ability, to each according to their need’ - the plate was never empty! Though he loved the poor, like St Vincent, there is mention of smells, Fr Jim muttering that the best use of incense was to hide the smell of his Congregation! Hounded by the church authorities and pilloried in Parliament , Fr Jim suffered a breakdown in the 1930’s and his days of championing the Poor with missionary zeal came to an end! It is the tales of heroic priests like Fr Jim of Sneyd, and many others too, that have no doubt inspired Bishop Philip North in calling on our movement and the Church of England as a whole, to return to that fundamental Gospel ministry of serving the poor. No doubt  as the article describes, any needy, scruffy person coming into many of our churches would be viewed with suspicion! The author, tells the story of his own parish, where all the rules and regulations have made it almost impossible ’to welcome our neighbour unless they appear within strict guidelines that maintain professional boundaries.’ Procedures must be followed or PCC’s may be vulnerable to legal action, their insurance invalid! We are urged to not become too involved ’for our own protection!

The author says its ‘time to reclaim our parishes for Christ and his mission to the poor.’ HEAR HEAR He  says the tools of the Anglo-Catholic Crusade for such a ministry are simply waiting for us to pick them up again! ’Fr Jim was his grandfather by the way!  BUT why not, why not! Bishop Philip urges our constituency to turn the church upside down so that we can turn the world upside down! Reminding ourselves of St Vincent’s missionary virtues will arm us for this work –maybe it’s the moment for our parishes to grasp that visionary, missionary zeal once again that we see lived out in the Work of priests like Fr Lowder amongst the cholera 1850’s or Fr Jim in the 1920’s and many other priests and parishes whose stories inspired this movement for several generations—stories that tell the tale of people who tried to follow Jesus and serve him amongst those who are especially dear to him in this world A church that at its heart, has not fear of our neighbour but the love of God! 

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