Bishop O'Connell accepts the gifts of bread and wine during the Mass he celebrated for members of the diocesan St. Vincent De Paul Society. Mike Glenn photos
Bishop O'Connell accepts the gifts of bread and wine during the Mass he celebrated for members of the diocesan St. Vincent De Paul Society. Mike Glenn photos

Story by Lois Rogers, Correspondent

Providing loving, compassionate attention to individuals in need – the kind that can only come from face-to-face recognition of the suffering, the poor, the outsider – was at the heart of the St. Vincent de Paul Society’s Spiritual Assembly Sept. 22 in St. Martha Church, Point Pleasant.

Photo Gallery: Mass for St. Vincent de Paul Society members

There, Vincentians from conferences around Burlington, Mercer, Monmouth and Ocean Counties gathered with Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M., for Mass, a luncheon and a keynote address devoted to the spiritual aspects of serving the poor.

“We understand Christ as the one who loved without distinction,” Bishop O’Connell said during the assembly, adding that in the world today, that’s often easier said than done.

“The poor have no identity, the homeless no voice – to get up and help them as Vincent would is our duty. To love and to serve them without recognition is what we must do. We are the servants of the poor – the new Samaritans, joining together in Jesus’ name – always willing to give without counting the cost.”

The assembly is held yearly in September to mark the feast days of St. Vincent de Paul, the French priest renowned for his service to the poor, and Blessed Frederic Ozanam, who formed the society in St. Vincent’s name. The organization serves the poor in 140 countries around the world.

Bishop O’Connell, who served as the celebrant and homilist at the Mass, was joined by concelebrants Father David Swantek, parish pastor; Father Edward Blanchett, pastor of Visitation Parish, Brick; Father James O’Neill, pastor of St. John Parish, Lakehurst, and Father Jack Bogacz, diocesan St. Vincent de Paul Society spiritual moderator.

Vincentian Father Michael Whalen, professor of theology and religious studies in St. John University, Queens, N.Y., delivered the keynote address.

Lifesaving Roles

In his homily, Bishop O’Connell urged everyone to listen with the ears of Vincentians to the parable of the Good Samaritan from Luke’s Gospel. In the tale, a prosperous lawyer learns that loving God with all his heart, soul and strength will not gain him the key to eternal life unless he loves “his neighbor as himself.”

The Bishop continued by telling of a Jewish man being set upon by robbers along a dangerous, 20-mile thoroughfare where people are “regularly beat up, robbed and killed.”

While the critically injured man is avoided by the pious members of his faith because of strict, religious laws, it is a Samaritan – Jewish, but a member of a group not in good standing – who fulfills the lifesaving role of neighbor.

The Samaritan had no idea, Bishop O’Connell said, “who the dying man was. This was the point: it didn’t matter. He took care of the man without asking for a penny. All that mattered what that he needed help.”

This parable, he said, “reaches out of the page, it jumps out at you” in capturing St. Vincent de Paul’s understanding of “Jesus’ initial command that it doesn’t matter who your neighbors are,” it means responding to everyone in need. “That’s what you do,” the Bishop told the Vincentians, “and you do it so well.”

Love First

In his address, Father Whelan also referenced the Good Samaritan, drawing from a classic retelling of the parable by medieval theologian Peter Lombard.

He explained how Lombard presented the “idea of the road of life where, as you travel, you get mugged. The Good Samaritan is Jesus, who pours oil and water on your wounds and performs sacramental healing,” covers the cost of the wounded man’s care and promises to make good for it if the innkeeper has to pay more.

But while the emphasis there is scriptural, it is all too easy in these times for “some to turn themselves into humanitarians or philanthropists and simply lop off Christ,” Father Whelan said. “Especially now.”

“As Vincent, what we do is on behalf of the Church, without politics or ideology. We do charity; there is no ulterior motive. This is what Christ does. It’s what the Church does. We serve the poor. We are not humanitarians or philanthropists – we serve the poor,” Father Whelan said.

“Vincent was not a social worker – he was a priest; he served Christ with love,” he continued, urging his listeners to live on a personal basis with the poor. “Remember names, remember faces. It is a brutal world these days, and it seems to me you need to enter the heart of the matter. Don’t lose the ability to remember the faces of the poor; don’t lose the interpersonal connection. This is St. Vincent’s genius.”

‘To the Point’

Many Vincentians at the assembly said the observations of Bishop O’Connell and Father Whelan were on the mark.

“Very much to the point, not boiler plate stuff but very realistic,” Kathy Wintersteen, president of the St. Martha Conference, said of Father Whelan’s presentation. “He understands the work we do with the poor, and he sees the Church in the poor.”

Bill Casey, president of the St. Benedict Conference in Holmdel, called Whelan a “very down to earth priest. His words hit home. He touched on what Vincentians should be doing – finding out the needs of people and interacting with them.”

Jim Neary, also a member of the St. Benedict Conference, said the messages from Bishop O’Connell and Father Whelan “hit home.”

“It’s not just monetary help people need, its spiritual help as well,” he said.