On Jan. 25 of each year, Christian churches celebrate the feast of the Conversion of St. Paul. Remembering the great missionary of the first century is indeed a worthy undertaking. On this day, we call to mind Paul’s personal experience which leads to his total commitment to the resurrected Lord. It was a life-changing event.
Each Jan. 25, the followers of St. Vincent de Paul celebrate something in addition to the memory of Paul, we recall what Vincent termed “the first sermon of the mission.” It, too, was a life-changing event. The current year is special in that regard because on Jan. 25, 1617, he preached the original homily and so we honor its 400th anniversary.
We do not have the actual words which Vincent spoke on that day, but he tell us what he did:
“In the month of January 1617, on the twenty-fifth, the feast of the Conversion of St. Paul, that lady [Madame de Gondi] asked me to preach a sermon in the church of Folleville to urge the people to make a general confession, which I did, pointing out to them its importance and usefulness. Then I taught them how to make it properly; and God . . . blessed what I said. . . . That was the first sermon of the Mission and the success that God gave it on the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul.” (CCD 11 #2, pp. 3-4)
Only later did Vincent look back upon this event as “the beginning.” He saw in it the emphasis upon the spiritual needs of the poor which characterized his ministry and the mission of his followers. Later in the same year of 1617, in the parish of Chatillon, Vincent joined this emphasis upon the spiritual with that of the corporal, always in the service of the poor and always in collaboration with like-minded men and women.
Can you guess the name of the Church in Folleville? St. John the Baptist! As our St. John’s University community celebrates the 400th anniversary of Vincent’s ministry in that country church, we also revere our own heritage. Perhaps we can imagine St. Vincent coming among us and offering his challenge.
How is it that we as a University community need to hear the summons to conversion and change? Where have we wandered away from our original resolution as a Vincentian and Catholic University, and how can we reform? Where have we been especially faithful to our charism and students, and how can we build on that effort? Vincent offers a great encouragement which we can adapt as we reflect on our story:
“And that brothers and sisters, was the beginning of your [University]. As it wasn’t then what it is now, there’s reason to believe that it is still not what it will be when God has perfected it as he wants it. . . . Since your institution is not the work of human persons, you may therefore boldly declare, sisters and brothers, that it’s the work of God. Surely a [University] ordained for a ministry so pleasing to God, so excellent in itself, and so useful to the neighbor can have no other author than God himself.” (SVdP, Feb 13, 1646, CCD 9. p. 194)