In his usual engaging style, Fr. Tom McKenna, CM of the Eastern Province of the Congregation of the Mission, reminds us the importance of the ministry of encouragement and its deep roots in the Vincentian Family. [His reflection first appeared on FamVin.]
There’s a wonderfully comforting image in the Letter to the Hebrews which has special application to us in Vincent’s Family. The author sets out to build up his struggling fellow believers and does this through a memorable image. He asks them to imagine themselves surrounded by a friendly and glowing cloud — a cloud of witnesses. These are the faithful people who from their own striking stories give personal testimony to the constant flow of God’s presence running through life. Such active encouragement given in difficult times can make all the difference, especially at pressured moments.
Stepping out of that cloud bank in this happy season of his Feast Day is our own Vincent de Paul, a beacon for so much good done on behalf of people on the margins. Alive in God’s Spirit in this moment, he gives that encouragement right now from that cloud. But it is also confirming to know how, during his lifetime, he spent countless hours and reams of paper in this very pursuit of building up and pumping energy into people’s service and belief. Skimming over his thousands of letters, you constantly discover entries whose sole aim is to build up the courage and determination of his co-workers. The orphanages, houses for street people and relief campaigns for the starving were anything but easy to maintain for the long haul. Knowing from his own experience the heavy toll these ministries exacted, Vincent was especially conscious of the need for steady support.
Particularly in his early years does he steadily hold out this firm hand of encouragement to his celebrated collaborator, Louise de Marillac — when her spirits lagged, he was right there with his calm assurance. Over time, these roles reversed or at least equalized, with Louise streaming notes of support and inspiration to Vincent to hold him on course through his heavy winds.
This continual reassurance is a simple but underrated action – or better, service. It’s even referred to as a ministry, the ministry of encouragement which would have one person standing shoulder to shoulder with others who strain to spread the compassion and justice of the Gospel.
The New Testament features a disciple whose very name evokes this service. It’s Barnabas, literally the son (“Bar”) of encouragement (“Nabbas”). Paul missions him to go about in just that capacity — to stabilize those early struggling communities.
Barnabas could be a second name for Vincent, Louise, Frederick, and all those who would bend their arms and energies to help the neglected among God’s people. The kind of taxing services today’s Vincentian Family would provide call for a resilience and hardiness that needs the constant propping up of mutual support. Encouraging one another is a ministry that Vincent and Louise continue to shower down from that all sustaining cloud. It’s an emboldening one to which their followers are asked to continue.
For more of his reflections visit the archives of FamVin or CMEAST.