Hearing the cry of the poor
The responsibility for dealing with the fall-out of rising fuel costs and cuts to universal credit should be carried by the government, says Archbishop Eamon Martin, who pays tribute to the vital work done by the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul to help those in need
SINCE Saint Vincent de Paul was appointed as a chaplain to the galley slaves in Paris 400 years ago, his life and teaching have inspired countless others.
All over the world a great 'Vincentian family' has grown up of people who dedicate their lives to bringing good news to the poor - not least, Blessed Antoine-Frédéric Ozanam, founder of the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul.
To hear the cry of the poor, as Jesus did, is such a central part of our discipleship as Christians. But it is not easy nowadays because many of us live rather comfortably, and the reality of poverty is something that we often prefer to keep out of sight, out of mind.
The reality, however, of so much poverty in the world, continues to break in to our consciousness on the screens of television or social media. Often the overwhelming scale of starvation, famine, disease and war, the sheer numbers of refugees, people being trafficked, or homeless can make our charitable efforts feel insignificant - a drop in the ocean.
People also speak of compassion fatigue - as soon as one humanitarian disaster fades from the front pages and headlines, another lines up to take its place.
But there are witnesses to inspire us, to remind us that, 'Yes, you can make a difference'.
It was Sister Rosalie Rendu, a Daughter of Charity sister who pointed the young student Frédéric Ozanam and his companions to the charism of Saint Vincent de Paul, to live out love into action and to serve the poor in the slums of Paris.
The secret of these inspiring saints of course is to help us realise that, in the face of every poor person, one can recognise the face of Christ, who suffered, who was poor for our sake; Christ the humble, servant King who touched the face of lepers, who never missed an opportunity to remind every person of their inherent dignity and worth as children of God.
In all the towns and villages He visited, Jesus not only taught by His words, proclaiming in synagogues and elsewhere the Good News of the Kingdom of God, but He also demonstrated the Kingdom values by His action, reaching out to the crowds who were harassed and dejected, like sheep without a shepherd.
We live God in, and through, the poor, and then we work to build the Kingdom by drawing attention to injustices which give arise to increased poverty or perpetuate it.
With this in mind I salute the members of Saint Vincent de Paul Society, who not only talk about poverty, but take practical, loving steps to lift up those who are struggling and lend them a helping hand to get back on their feet. Thanks to the generosity of many of our parishioners, the Society is able to offer assistance with heating, food and other basic necessities in hard times.
The Society also provides an important voice on issues of social justice, drawing attention to increased fuel poverty, child poverty, the struggles of loan parents and the elderly. It alerts us when poverty rates are increasing among the marginalised on the streets, in emergency accommodation, amongst Travellers, the homeless, and reminds us of those who might otherwise be forgotten or abandoned.
During the pandemic the Society's voices alerted us to the phenomenon of 'in-work' poverty which can impact especially on those who are self-employed or part-time, and those with temporary or on zero-hours contracts.
And the Society is also aware - through the demand for food, clothing, fuel and hygiene assistance - of the scourge of unsustainable debt which binds so many citizens, including a lot of our young adults who have become trapped in a 'buy now pay later' culture.
In that regard, we must all be alert to the repercussions of the ending of emergency pandemic measures, including the imminent cut in weekly universal credit payments. These, together with ongoing increases to fuel and other living costs, remind us that maintaining a basic standard of living for citizens is the responsibility of government - not of charity.
In this context it is important for all of us who bear the name Christian to realise that even the smallest actions of generosity and compassion can make a real difference to someone who is struggling with poverty. Saint Vincent de Paul saw his work as being like planting a tiny seed which can grow or blossom and bear much fruit.
In a special way I want to thank the many members of the Saint Vincent de Paul Society who provided a lifeline to others in our communities during the worst of the coronavirus pandemic.
I have personally witnessed some of this amazing work and I know that it is the closeness to individuals and families who are struggling which earns their trust and confidence and gives them the courage to come forward and ask for help.
It was not easy for the Society during Covid - normal fundraising activities were interrupted and meetings and conferences had to operate in a different way.
However, I encourage the Society and its member to never underestimate the impact they can have on others, and the powerful testimony their work offers to us all - that we are sent to bring the Good News to the poor, and that whatever we do for the least of our brothers and sisters, we do for Christ.
Archbishop Eamon Martin is Archbishop of Armagh, Apostolic Administrator of the Diocese of Dromore and Primate of All Ireland. He was speaking in Saint Therese's Church, Banbridge, on Monday - the Feast Day of Saint Vincent de Paul - at a celebration of Mass for members of the Society from Armagh, Craigavon, Banbridge and surrounding area.