Today is the feast day of St. Vincent DePaul, considered by many to be the “star” saint of
Christian charity and concern for the poor. Many people, including those who don’t know that
much about this great saint from the 17th century, know of the work of the Saint Vincent de Paul
Society, which is active in so many parishes and dioceses around the world bringing direct help
to people in need.
Recent statistics sadly remind that today the poor do need a champion. Michael Powell,
writing earlier this week in the New York Times “Gotham” blog, notes that while economic
conditions have started to improve for some, there are still a shocking number of other people
for whom poverty persists, if not worsens, and a recovery is nowhere in sight. The statistics
are overwhelming. For instance, Powell notes that both The Bronx and Brooklyn have
unemployment rates above 13 percent, and, he adds, “Fully 21 percent [of New Yorkers] live
below the poverty line; median income declined in nearly every group; 1.8 million New Yorkers
now rely on food stamps.”
You can find great contrasts within a few miles of each others. In some communities families
are finding decent jobs and earning sufficient income to provide for themselves and their
families. Thanks be to God. However, close by, many other families do not have enough to eat,
face the threat of eviction because of the disparity between their income and the rent payment.
One poignant statistic – in one zip code on the Eastside of Manhattan the average household
income is about $101,000. In the South Bronx another zip code’s average income is about
This is not something confined to New York City, of course. The basics human needs of good
jobs, food, and housing continue to challenge tens of millions throughout this country.
At the same time we are fortunate that as a society we do try to provide for those struggling.
Government programs provide enormous support to poor Americans. In addition generous
Americans contribute billions to charities each year. And so there is much to be grateful for.
However, two things must be said.
1) It is not enough. Even with the generosity of the American people, and the work of groups
like the Saint Vincent de Paul Society and so many others, much more needs to be done, and
not just by private charity. The government must continue to play its part as well.
2) There are very darks clouds. Too much rhetoric in the country portrays poor people in
a very negative way. At the same time, this persistent sluggish economic and slow pace
of recovery does two things that hurt the poor: it does not provide sufficient jobs for poor
people to earn decent living to support themselves, and it provides less resources for
government to do its part for Americans in need.
This is creating a situation that is devastating to struggling families throughout the country.
As the Church celebrates the feast of St. Vincent DePaul, we affirm that the poor must receive
our special attention to ensure that they have basic necessities of life. While St. Vincent de Paul
may be the “star” saint, the commitment of the Church to the poor comes directly from Jesus
and was first formally recognized by the appointment of deacons to cares for the Greek speaking
widows. Throughout the history of the Church there has always been a preferential option
for the poor. Archbishop Charles Chaput, the Archbishop of Philadelphia, said it simply and
straightforwardly: “Jesus tells us very clearly that if we don’t help the poor, we’re going to go to
This commitment and dedication continues and grows today throughout Catholic hospitals,
charities and educational institutions. All of these in their own way make service to the poor the
hallmark of their work in building the common good. Catholic Charities in the Archdiocese of
New York and the Diocese of Brooklyn serve literally hundreds of thousands of people each year
– the neglected child, the homeless family, the hungry senior, the new immigrant to our shores –
through our soup kitchens, homeless shelters, family and youth services, and so much more.
There is too much finger pointing and not enough joining hands. Solidarity is critical to ensure
the dignity of all.