Bishop Denis addressed the meeting of the National Area Council of the Society of St Vincent de Paul on Saturday November 2 in the Killeshin Hotel, Portlaoise.
After the meeting Bishop Denis also celebrated Mass for the attendees.
Speaking notes and homily below respectively.
Keynote Address to SVP National Council 2019: 02.11.19
It’s my privilege to join you, volunteer leaders of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, Area Presidents and members of the SVP National Management Council. I thank Brendan Hennessy for the very kind invitation and for briefing me on your gathering. I warmly greet your National President Kieran Stafford and National Vice-President for Members, Rose McGowan and indeed all of you who have travelled from across Ireland to attend this National Council in this the 175th year of the SVP in Ireland. I understand your day here in the beautiful Killeshin Hotel is around the theme of “The art of Communication is the language of Leadership”. A chance for you to care for the carer – to nourish the hand that feeds, that presses doorbells, that holds the hands of others in hostels, hospitals and homes.
As I prepared the finishing touches to this text last evening Damien rang my doorbell around 6.30pm. Damien stays often in the SVP Hostel in the former Christian Brothers Residence on the Old Dublin Road, Carlow, up the way from where I live. He is a regular to my door, a good guy who has fallen on hard times. I’m kind of en route to the hostel. Damien came for the usual few euro and a prayer. Fr. Seán called in around an hour later, still a very active priest at 83. He told me about the Thursday night Society of Vincent de Paul meetings he attended for years, while serving in Graiguecullen parish and how the members left that meeting in two’s to visit those most in need. Two SVP stories in the matter of one hour on a wet Friday night in Carlow.
There was a lovely line in an interview in the Tablet magazine three weeks ago with the Dominican Timothy Radcliffe. He was speaking about the late Jean Vanier. He said “you know, talking, preaching, is primarily not about what you say but about who you are. You have to communicate with your whole body. Jean Vanier did this. He radiated joy”. Vanier understood the language of frailty and I think members of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul are also greatly in tune with this language of frailty. I’ll come back to this later.
It’s the second day of November – All Soul’s Day and All Soul’s Month. Last month October was very much the Harvest Thanksgiving month! The harvest is more than what comes into our barns, our sheds, our driers, our silos. It’s also what’s left for the birds, for the insects, for the wild animals and as that well known Harvest Thanksgiving Leviticus text reminds us “you must leave them for the poor and the stranger”. My father always insisted on my brothers not cutting to the very edge of the field when harvesting, something must remain then and now. I think this is the heart, the niggle of the calling an individual hears to become a member of the St. Vincent de Paul Society. So where do you find the poor and who is the stranger, lost at the edges in the Ireland of 2019?
There are many challenges within which the Society operates, very different from the Ireland of 1844 when the Society established its first conference here. I’ll just briefly mention three this afternoon:
- Firstly, the record figures for homelessness must cause concern to people like yourselves. Official figures just released by the Department of Housing last Thursday suggest 10,397 people are living in emergency accommodation. We know those figures are very much a snap shot, a moment in time. How many this evening will couch-surf with friends? Where are those figures counted? How many adults have returned home to live with parents, strangers, blood ties but not much else, tiptoeing under the one roof, living with a lack of self-esteem and autonomy? And the most frightening statistic of all, the number of children living without a home, last Thursday’s official figure suggested 3,873. It is said that this is the highest number of children ever recorded in emergency accommodation. Of course you know what I’m saying, you people meet these people every week after your local conference meet, maybe on a wet Tuesday or a windy Thursday. It is not my intention to bamboozle you with figures or statistics but just to contextualise the Ireland we all operate in.
- Secondly, today’s culture of compliance – having codes of conduct to ensure our conferences are safe places for children and vulnerable adults is essential to the Society and it’s mission. Keeping controls on the data we keep and knowing why we keep it? And the Charities Governance Code – reminding us of the minimum standards we should meet to effectively manage and control our charity. Good governance involves putting in place systems and processes to ensure that the Society achieves its charitable objectives with integrity and is managed in an effective, efficient, accountable and transparent way. And rightly so, because we are dealing with other people’s money. But compliance comes with a cost. What impact is compliance having on our ministry of mercy today as members of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul? What affect is compliance having on maybe an aging and tiring membership within an ethos of volunteerism?
- Thirdly, as of yesterday RTE News reported there were 5,983 asylum seekers accommodated in Direct Provision Centres, 1,531 in emergency accommodation and 290 children in these centres. Eighteen of the twenty-six counties have centres. There are four centres in Kildare & Leighlin diocese – two in Laois (The Montague, Emo and the Hibernian, Abbeyleix) and two in Kildare (The Eyre Powell in Newbridge and the Hazel in Monasterevin). Figures earlier this week suggest that 520 asylum seekers are accommodated in these four centres. It concerns me and should concern you as a Society that some parts of the country seem to have developed amnesia as to how our ancestors were made welcome in other lands and other times. How does Céad Míle Failte Romhat exactly translate in the Ireland of 2019? Direct Provision was introduced into Ireland in 2000 as a temporary solution then, and here we are nineteen years later. As a system it needs to be completely overhauled and made fit for purpose. People need reassurance that there is nothing to be fearful of and everything to be grateful for. Those coming here have suffered enough trauma already on their journey to us on the edge of Europe than to endure more suffering when they arrive at their appointed destination. Many will want to return to their own people, their own families, their own land; more may stay and seek naturalisation. Let’s do our bit as a Society to speak for those with no voice, no language and no coordinates of their own in 2019.
Returning to Jean Vanier who died on May 7th last at ninety years of age. In 1980 he resigned from his position as director of L’Arche community in Northern France to take up a sabbatical opportunity. After that year he moved to La Forestiere, a L’Arche house for people with severe disabilities. Everything in that new one-storey building was constructed around the needs of those with disabilities. The altar in the chapel was very low, allowing a person stretched on the ground to follow what was happening. A recent edition of the Plough Quarterly magazine gave a powerful desciption of the La Forestiere Vanier ministered in. No one was excluded, everyone included. Vanier noticed in La Forestiere people took their time, the community seemed to move in slow motion. Plenty of time to bathe Eric, a resident whose body was curled up by disability and despair – slowly unknotting his limbs, letting him feel the warm water, letting him play with the soap, washing him. Plenty of time to feed Lucien so that he might feel the pleasure of tasting, swallowing and smelling the food. While someone gently wiped away the saliva from Henrietta’s chin, someone else gently took Loic hand, who had just struck himself violently on the nose. At La Forestiere Vanier had to learn to understand tha language of the body, a lauguage of tenderness and frailty.
It’s the language of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul as you hold that partners hand in a sterile Prison Waiting Room. It’s the language of the Society as you leave in pairs to knock on doors on wintry nights. On doors where your call will possibly be the only contact with the outside world in that week. It’s the language of the Society as you take on leadership roles within your conference, knowing you are doing it not because it’s your turn but because it’s the right thing to do and you are the right person to do it.
The recently canonised Saint John Henry Newman reminds us “God has created me to do him some service; he has committed some work to me which he has not committed to another”. Your call is to be a member of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. Yours is to recognise the broken, the poor, the suffering and as Pope Francis reminds us “in this call to recognise him in the poor and the suffering, we see revealed the very heart of Christ, his deepest feelings and choices …”.
The challenge for all of us is to meet the person, not just their problem. It’s using the language of frailty and not being afraid to make that our narrative. We communicate with every fibre of our body; in the Society we bring ourselves, not just our good worthy intentions. If that was all it was, we could easily engage a courier to deliver the weekly envelopes or vouchers. Our visit to that prison, to that hospital, to that hostel, to that flat is as important as what we hand out when we arrive there.
Your collection takes precedence over every other appeal; you stand inside church grounds collecting. The weekend collection is well signposted in bulletins and newsletters. The generosity of what you receive allows you to continue the great, quiet apostolate you and those before you, have been compassionately doing for 175 years in this land. Long may that continue.
 The Tablet, 12 October 2019, Vol. 273, No. 9322, pg. 14: artice: ‘Choosing Life’ by Maggie Fergusson Lev. 19:10 Constant, Anne-Sophie, ‘The Language of Frailty’, Plough Quarterly, Autumn 2019, pg. 44 Pope Francis, ‘Gaudete et Exsultate’, 2018, ¶96
All Souls Day Mass: 02.11.19
I warmly welcome all of you, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul ‘family’ to Portlaoise in Kildare & Leighlin Diocese for your National Council for 2019 on this the 175th year of the Society on this island.
We gather for our Mass on this All Souls Evening. An opportunity to remember loved ones who have passed. Dates when loved ones pass never leave our minds, they are indelibly written in our hearts. When someone in the family dies, the space left behind is all the more raw and real.
I referred to your Society as a ‘family’. Blessed Frédéric Ozanam, the founder of your ‘family’ died on May 12th, 1837; St. Vincent de Paul died on September 27th, 1660. In your work, in your ministry of mercy, you have accompanied many beneficiaries of the Society now in eternity. Let’s just pause a moment and ask for His understanding and mercy as we call to mind our sins …
I started with the dates when Blessed Frédéric Ozanam and St. Vincent de Paul died. Frédéric Ozanum was a French literary scholar, lawyer, journalist and equal rights advocate. The world was his oyster. He could have done anything, he could have been anyone, but he chose to serve the weakest, the most vulnerable, the forgotten when he founded the Society of St. Vincent de Paul in 1833. By the time of his death the membership was already close to 2,000.
And as successors to those founding members, you continue to do the same right across this island and have been doing so for the past 175 years. I see your ministry with the Society of Vincent de Paul as a ministry of mercy – non-judgementally you go in pairs to the edges, often where no one else dares to venture. For some, you are the only one who presses their buzzer, knocks on their door, opens their gate during the week. The small discrete envelope is the ticket that allows you access many hearts and homes.
I think of the privilege I had a few months back blessing the Ozanum Centre on Tullow Street in Carlow; I think of the honour I had in speaking to a Carlow County area gathering of the Society in the Dolmen Hotel in May last year on the importance of your work in an Ireland that had then become colder and less caring. We see that coldness, that callousness I feel in the stoked up reaction on the ground to Direct Provision centres, very much a case of NIMBY – ‘Not in My Back Yard’.
The Book of Ecclesiasticus suggests there is a time for every activity, just as there is for our weekly meeting, our conference gathering or monthly area council. “A time to be born and a time to die”. The letting go of someone into death is possibly the toughest calls of all. I felt the death of the second parent most, my mother, when I walked into our home, located in the very centre of a farmyard, where all of life passed by our very door. It is said that the death of the second parent, particularly when it’s the mother, is the most traumatic on a priest.
Mamma slipped into eternity in April 2010, the morning of the Icelandic ash cloud that grounded all aircraft, it was just after Easter, her death was so different to Dadda’s death. He was four years living with the effect of a stroke, four years you might say trying to die and yet his body was so strong.
I remember that Sunday evening well as I returned home and turned the key on the back door, it was a ‘Basta lock’, I remember every moment of opening that door. The AGA cooker was out, the chair at the end of the table was empty, the tea-towel was in the very place I left it a week earlier. You see our home was just like any other normal home, when the oil ran out that the cooker burned on, it was always Mamma’s fault, Dadda’s fault – “you should have rung Leinster Petroleum”! There was no one left to make that call. That cooker has never been lit since.
St. Paul speaks of never losing hope and that is why we lit our candle on the altar at the beginning of this evenings Mass, remembering in our hearts absent friends. Luke’s gospel brings us upfront with bereavement. As a society we know that dying is costly, there are funeral expences, there are other costs associated with burying loved ones, maybe even debts owed that still need to be paid. As a society we do our best to reach out and simply hold people like that widow at Nain. Unlike Jesus we can’t bring loved one back, but we can soothe tears and lighten burdens.
As a society you pray that people remember your ministry of mercy in their will. And we all know, no matter what is left in a will, it’s what comes in, continuosly through the monthly collections that allows the Society to function, particularly the huge response to the Annual Christmas Appeal a few weeks before Christmas.
I conclude with a cartoon I came across recently, three members of a family sitting in front of a solicitor, the message on the bottom reads: “He has left everything to his friends on Facebook”. The words of the poet who died in the battlefields of Flanders on July 31st, 1917; a poet from my home parish of Slane comes to mind: “He will not come and still I wait. He whistles at another gate. Where angels listen”. May our loved ones, those of our family; members of the Society, those who benefited in the past and our own benefactors and supporters whistling at another gate, rest in peace this November evening! Amen.
 Ecc. 3:2 Ledwidge, Francis: ‘A Little Boy in the Morning’. Songs of Peace, 2017.