A Heart of Compassion

St. Vincent de Paul, Patron of the Diocese of Richmond


Many of us have a lot on our minds these days, likely because we know people are hurting all around us. Last night Don D’Avanzo, a recent parishioner, passed away peacefully at home. And this morning (Saturday) I heard from a friend that her 26-year-old son whom I knew from a previous parish had died in an accident two months ago. And yet a few other parishioners are awaiting surgery.

Now there are many ways people can experience hurt. Some experience intense physical pain in their bodies, or from being inflicted by others. And some experience overwhelming grief and sadness. Some experience deep and painful rejection because others knowingly and intentionally fail to recognize and uphold their personal dignity. Some experience persistent detachment from years and years of being oppressed and treated unjustly. The physical or emotional pain is no longer the issue. But they have come to the sad conclusion that no one else feels what they feel or even cares anymore.

Some are simply exhausted because they feel helpless or irrelevant. And what makes it even worse is that this fact is sadly repeated again and again adding new members to some grim club no one ever asks to join. Some are just struggling, hanging by a thread to keep it together. They bear no marks to make them stand out in a crowd. They will do their best to put on a façade of confidence and strength lest anyone notice.

Maybe you personally know someone who is hurting badly. Maybe you yourself are experiencing some deep agonizing hurt. Or maybe none of this in any way describes you, so you should count yourself most fortunate. But for a moment I invite us to pause and hold in our hearts all our sisters and brothers who are hurting deeply. In the depths of your heart, hold their hands in yours or extend to them a comforting embrace. No matter how deeply we desire it, we will never manage to take their hurt or pain from them. We might offer to shoulder some of it, but we can really only walk alongside them. And although they may experience no actual relief from such kindness, it might reassure them to know they do not walk alone. Hopefully it is what we would do for those we love dearly. Hopefully it is what those we love would do for us. And every once in a while, it helps to remind us that we are ourselves fragile vessels of clay like many around us that we would take care not to be the cause of hurt or pain to another.

When Jesus looked out to the crowds one quiet morning after days and weeks of walking around to many towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, listening to their troubles, extending healing to the sick and the broken, he genuinely experienced their deepest hurts and pains. Perhaps many things of great consequence came into sharper perspective, things that would have otherwise escaped great thinkers and renowned philosophers, things only Jesus perhaps would know, and he saw clearer and felt more intensely what God himself saw and felt. “His heart was moved with pity for them because they were troubled and abandoned, like sheep without a shepherd.” And he most surely bore these sentiments in his heart when he stole away to the mountain to pray to his Father in secret, holding all our deepest hurts as he would his own.

As the Son of God, Jesus could do way more than any of us to heal the hurts of others, restore wholeness to the broken, reunite and reconcile those who are alienated, strengthen and uphold the weak and those who falter. And he did whenever the need arose, healing the sick, feeding the hungry, consoling the grieving, spending time with and blessing the children, reminding those rejected by others that they were precious in God’s eyes. And when the time was right, he willingly embraced rejection and physical suffering surrendering his very own life so that all humanity would escape the deepest and most devastating darkness and death of sin and alienation from God. Our faith teaches us that Jesus is the fullness of the revelation of God. So if we want to know God better, we need only look at all that Jesus did and listen to what he said. Consequently, we are confident God desires to comfort us in our afflictions and to ease our hurts. And when we reach out to our neighbor in similar ways, we do exactly as Jesus would do.

St. Vincent de Paul is the patron of the Diocese of Richmond, and he lived in a time of great human suffering and alienation. As a young priest traveling by boat along the French coast of the Mediterranean, he was kidnapped and sold into slavery in North Africa. He escaped two years later and returned to active ministry as a priest, serving as pastor to poor peasants in an obscure country parish. He soon recognized the great spiritual and material needs of those he was sent to serve. And he set about organizing groups of women and men, even some from wealthy and noble families, to attend to the poor and the sick, to victims of war and to galley slaves, laying the foundation for the Daughters of Charity for women and the Congregation of the Mission for men. He contributed immensely to the formation of the clergy in France, organizing seminaries and seeing to the spiritual and intellectual welfare of priestly candidates.

He is perhaps better known for the charitable organization named in his honor, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, and not the Vincentian order which he founded. This international organization offers assistance to people of all faiths living in poverty, visiting them at home, helping with food and utility bills, praying with them, speaking comfort to their grief and sadness, showing them the compassionate face of God. For a period in the history of the western church and secular society, St. Vincent de Paul and his charitable organizations embodied the compassionate heart and face of the Good Shepherd. They are affectionately referred to in many English-speaking countries as Vinnie’s (like it was some Italian pizzeria), and Sally Field’s cornette in TV’s the Flying Nun was loosely patterned after the habit of the Daughters of Charity. Now you know.

As patron of our diocese, St. Vincent de Paul is a powerful example to imitate and inspire, he who himself imitated Jesus the Good Shepherd in his care and outreach to the poor, the sick, the hungry, and those who are hurting. St. Paul reminds us in his first letter to the Corinthians that “we need not ourselves be wise by human standards, or powerful, or of noble birth.” We need only experience ourselves the healing power of God’s kindness and compassion. As the Good Shepherd cares for his sheep, so we should care for one another, without need of official title or status, ordination, degree, or public acclaim. All we need is to have known the compassionate heart of Jesus.

The prophet Zephaniah invites us to rejoice and exult. The Lord is in your midst, a mighty savior. So even though we bear much hurt and pain, we are confident of Jesus the Good Shepherd’s care. We are witnesses to the world of his heart of compassion.

Rolo B Castillo © 2020