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I WAS A STRANGER AND YOU WELCOMED ME

I WAS A STRANGER AND YOU WELCOMED ME

(Ξένος ἤμην καὶ συνηγάγετέ με) (Mt 25, 35c)

P. Humberto Aristizábal Sánchez, CM

The theme guiding the celebration of the 400th anniversary of the birth of the Vincentian charism“I was a stranger and you welcomed me in,” might seem surprising at first, which compels us to notice it again, to make it our own.  As the celebration’s theme (or motto, if you like), it would be more natural than the traditional “evangelizare pauperibus misit me“. The following reflection is meant to explain some possible relations between this theme and the standard Vincentian charism.

Probably the choice of the theme is due to a coincidental fact of the massive migrations to Europe because of the conflicts in the Middle East, a fact to which the Vincentian Family in Europe has not been kept silent. Let us assume that this is so and that these migrations are happening beyond those geographical regions mentioned but extend to all corners of the planet, in different proportions; this does not deprive us of the effort to make our own the theme that also arises from the signs of the times (cf. Constitutions 2). This motto (or theme), going beyond the intention of those who proposed it, can also highlight the 400 years celebration in several senses:

It strengthens our identity as a Vincentian Family.

Since the theme does not identify any branch of the Vincentian Family, it means that it involves them all equally. Those who proposed the theme may have thought of this, but it may also have been a gift from Providence, calling on all Vincentians to work together, according to the signs of the times.  What steps can be taken in this regard to live and work together as a Vincentian Family?

The victims of internal and external migration demand our attention and our action.

Here in Colombia, in this moment of seeking to stabilize the country, the victims (and also the victimizers who are ultimately victims), dispossessed of their land and their dignity (= foreigners) would have to be a priority. We should also add the many landless peasants, those who live and, unfortunately, grow up, without law and without God (= foreigners), miserable in the outer peripheries of the big cities, people who come from Venezuela looking for some relief, or those who use the country as a transit point on their way to the United States. In what initiatives do we participate in favor of the victims and perpetrators of the conflict?

Stranger and poor person somehow have come to be synonymous; therefore the theme is not an action restricted to a specific and exclusive human sector.

The stranger is the one who is hungry and thirsty, the homeless, the naked, the sick, and the imprisoned. The widow, the orphans and the strangers are the triad used by the Hebrew Scriptures to identify the poor (Deut 10: 18-19; 14: 28-29; 26: 12-13). “The Lord brings justice to the widow and loves the stranger, giving him bread and clothing” (Deuteronomy 10:18).

It is possible to read the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10: 25-37) in this same sense.  The man who falls into the hands of the bandits is nameless, he has no clothing, he is an absolute stranger, an outsider, he is a poor man, he has no roof for shelter, suffers hunger and thirst, and the pounding he’s suffered has immobilized him. This stranger, this poor one reminds us all, but most especially we Vincentians, of the answer to the question ‘who is my neighbor?  It is… “You yourself are the neighbor. Go forth, be obedient by loving.  Being a neighbor is some quality of the other, but rather the requirement that the other has on me.  Nothing else. “(D. Bonhoeffer, 45).  Or, as Saint Vincent would say, “The poor are our masters; They are our kings; We must obey them.  And it is not an exaggeration to describe them that way, since Our Lord is in the poor “(CEME IX, 1137).  

Also in the final document of the 2016 General Assembly, the poor and outsiders are one and the same: “The cries of the poor, of the refugees, of the migrants, of those who have been excluded and confined to the peripheries, reach our hearts and move us to respond with all our strength so that our Church becomes like the field hospital where all can be received, listened to and healed, bringing about the Gospel of the mercy “(Cf., Final Document GA 2016).

So the theme is not only a call to serve migrants, but a call to care for our own: the poor. “There is no congregation in the God’s Church that has the poor as its own (exclusive) lot of and gives itself completely to the poor…; Missionaries take this as their profession; their specialty is to dedicate oneself, like Jesus Christ, to the poor …]. To make God known to the poor, to announce Jesus Christ to them, to tell them that the kingdom of heaven is near and that that kingdom is for the poor. (CEME, XI, 387). What concrete types of poverty await our response, our action?

– The poor person is always a stranger, even to himself.

In the contemporary world, there is nothing considered as the poor’s purpose or function, and perhaps not even the Church’s evangelization.

Conscious of God’s predilection for the poor, the Church always invites us to give them their place: “the first who have the right to the proclamation of the Gospel are precisely the poor, not only those in need of bread but also in need of words of life” (Verbum Domini 107). In the same sense, the Congregation of the Mission, in the Constitutions (cf. 12; 44), invites missionaries to put themselves in the poor’s place. Priestly formation and formation for the consecrated life (including that of congregations dedicated to the poor) seems to run counter to the Incarnation of Christ, who “became rich for us” (2 Cor 8: 9). Could you think of another style of formation of ours? Does the formation that we offer in diocesan seminaries make priests concerned about providing the poor with their rightful, principal place in their own pastoral activity? Are we able to think about pastoral action in terms of the salvation of the poor?

God is the other stranger who needs to be welcomed [1].  

The GA 2016 document notes God’s escalating marginality in the contemporary world, a reality that is sometimes contagious and “challenges us to deepen our identity, to cultivate our Vincentian spirituality more intensely” (See “Challenges” in GA 2016), which, for the entire Vincentian Family, consists in clothing ourselves with the spirit of Jesus Christ who was sent by the Father to evangelize the poor.  

As simple as that sounds, there is only one way to welcome God, i.e. as that stranger who brings about the encounter of “prayer.”  Undoubtedly, prayer drove all of Saint Vincent’s actions that were, in turn, the measure of his prayer’s effectiveness (CEME XI, 733 [2]).  Prayer was a priority in the life of the Saint of Charity, as it must also be in the lives of those who live out his spirit today: “If we persevere in our vocation, it is thanks to prayer; If we succeed in our tasks, it is thanks to prayer; If we do not fall into sin, it is thanks to prayer; If we remain in charity, if we are saved, all this is thanks to God and to prayer.  Just as God denies nothing in prayer, He grants us almost nothing without prayer (CEME XI, 285).  

Truly, the joys and worries of humanity cannot be extraneous to the Church and it would be wrong to refrain from saying a word about ethics, politics, economics and social realities.  Certainly the Church and above all we Vincentians, as the Church that we are, must recover the awareness that we exist in the world, so that the life that Jesus offers (cf. John 10,10) becomes a reality in the life of the poor.  It is our mission to “make known God to the poor, to proclaim Jesus Christ, to tell them that the kingdom of heaven is near and that this kingdom is for the poor” (CEME XI, 387). This mission springs from prayer.  It is nurtured and is transmitted through the art of prayer, the only art capable of producing a place where God wants to dwell (cf. Ps 22,4); it seems that although God is everywhere He only inhabits where He has been recognized (cf. Ex 40: 34; Lk 24: 29-31; Jn 14:23).

Do we practice prayer regularly, do we cultivate prayer in ourselves, and are we masters of prayer?

… καὶ συνηγάγετέ με (and welcomed me in). The verb συνάγω implies “the idea of incorporating and integrating the stranger as one of the family or of the community” (I. Goma Civit II, 577), it is a question of taking care of someone, taking care of him (cf. DENT II, 1151 , 1554, Bauer 963, J. Lust II, 453), that is to say that it is action that goes beyond satisfying a specific need for the moment.  This second part of the theme (“and you welcomed me in”) reflects in some way the feeling of the GA 2016 document: “The cries of the poor … reach our hearts and move us to give ourselves with all our strength so that our Church becomes the field hospital where everyone can be received, listened to and healed “, where the poor become our brothers and sisters and not mere end users of our charitable actions.

Finally, the second part of the theme for the 400 year celebration of the birth of the Vincentian charism, describes and challenges our service to the poor, who are to be served in a spirit of faith (CEME IX, 25, XI, 726 ), to be led to God (CEME IX, 238, XI, 266-269), and attended to with “joy, enthusiasm, constancy, love” CEME (IX, 534), humility, meekness, tolerance, patience and respect (1194), or in a few words they are to be served spiritually and materially.

Are we ambitious to create and offer a comprehensive evangelization that serves the salvation of the poor?

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[1] O my Savior Jesus Christ, you who sanctified yourself that all men might be sanctified, you who fled away from the kingdoms of the earth, from their riches and from their glory, and thought only of the Father’s kingdom for souls: If you lived this way for another You, since you are God in relation to your Father, what should we do to imitate you, who took us out of the dust and called us to observe your counsel and aspire to perfection? Oh Lord! Draw us to yourself; give us the grace to put into practice your example and our rule, which leads us to seek the kingdom of God and his justice and to abandon ourselves to him in everything else.  Make your Father reign in us and everywhere, by making us reign in you by faith, hope and love, humility, obedience and union with your divine majesty. In so doing, may we have reason to hope that someday we will reign in your glory, which you have gained for us with your precious blood. (CEME, XI, 442-443)

[2] Let us love God, my brethren, let us love God, but let it be with the strength of our arms and by the sweat of our brows. For many times the acts of loving God, of compliance, of benevolence, and other similar affections and inner practices of a loving heart, though very good and desirable, are nevertheless very suspicious, when one does arrive at practicing effective love: “My Father is glorified, says our Lord, in that you bear much fruit.” We must be very careful about this.  Because there are many who are  preoccupied with an external appearance of composure and the interior full of great feelings of God, but  stop at this.  And once getting to the time for deeds and those occasions for action, they fall short. They are satisfied with their feverish imagination, content with the sweet conversations that they have with God in prayer, they speak almost like the angels. But then, when it is time to work for God, to suffer, to mortify oneself, to instruct the poor, to seek our the sheep who has gone astray, to be in want and to lack something, to accept illness or anything unpleasant, Ay! , it all crumbles down and their spirit fails them(CEME XI, 733).

Translator from Spanish in English:  Dan Paul Borlik, CM

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