I Was a Stranger and You Welcomed Me:

The 400th Anniversary of the Origin of the Vincentian Charism



400 Years Of Our Shared Charism

Courtesy: Emmit Nolan, CM

This year we, the Vincentian family, celebrate 400 years of our shared charism.  To deepen and enliven our shared love and solidarity with God’s beloved poor, we have chosen to focus our common study, prayer, reflection, resources and work to “Welcome the stranger.” 

Our hearts are moved in this direction because, as we know, massive global immigration is a consequence of the many faces of evil crushing our most vulnerable brothers and sisters, e.g., structural injustice, economic exclusion, corruption, war, drugs, gangs, hunger, etc.  Presently immigration is a hotly debated issue that is fueling paralyzing fear and economic hardship to our undocumented immigrant communities. 

As I reflect on ways in which I can respond locally to the urgent need to welcome the stranger, I would like to share with you an experience I had this weekend on a visit to Emmitsburg with a Latino immigrant group from St Patrick’s parish in Norristown, PA.

Norristown is just outside Philadelphia and has a large undocumented population of Latinos who are suffering from high levels of anxiety associated with the apparently increasing possibility of being separated from their children, spouses, home, jobs and parish community by ICE.  

I write this reflection because I want to share with you how generous and kind the confreres were in responding to an ordinary request on behalf of a small parish group.   I also hope that it may serve, as an example, of one of the many ways how we can show hospitality to the strangers in our midst.  Since hospitality is usually not measured in one dramatic act, but through the accumulation of many small acts of loving service, I think that small kindnesses significantly matter in our effort to welcome the stranger.    

For the past couple of years, I have been helping at St Patrick’s.  Through the outreach the Miraculous Medal Shrine and Vincentian Family Office, many parishioners have grown in their desire to belong to the Vincentian family.  To this end, I suggested to a small group of parish leaders that we plan a pilgrimage to Emmitsburg. 

It quickly grew to over sixty interested people.  Although I was very happy with the people’s enthusiasm, it presented some logistical problem because of the costs involved.   The following short reflection will describe the spontaneous generosity and hospitality of our confreres to help a small group of people find a welcome and spiritual home in one of our sacred spaces.  These small acts of hospitality reveal the love that circulates through the Vincentian heart that nourishes and gives life all collaborative effort to welcome the stranger. 

Let me describe the experience: I wanted the people to meet our confreres.  I have observed over the years, that one of the graces that God has given to St Vincent’s "little company” is that there is a special relationship between the poor and us - we love to be in each other’s presence.    So, I spoke with John Holliday and he immediately offered to welcome the group and give us a tour of the parish.  He also offered the parish facilities and to help in any other way possible.  My next challenge was transportation.  To rent a bus was too expensive; it would have cost over $30 a person.   So, we organized as many cars and drivers as we could find but we needed more.  I called Sy Peterka [pastor of St. Vincent de Paul parish in Philadelphia] to ask if he could lend us his van.  He immediately and enthusiastically said “Praise the Lord, YES.”   Then, in passing one day, I mentioned to Mike Carroll [Provincial of the Eastern Province] about our trip to Emmitsburg and my concern for the people due to new immigration measures.  Although I was not asking for a donation, he immediately, as a sign of solidarity, offered to pay for the lunch (John Holliday also offered to pay for the lunch). 

With that we were all set for our pilgrimage. As we were arriving at Emmitsburg, I overheard some of the young mothers say, “Wow, this place is so peaceful and safe.  I bet the people here don’t live in fear.”  Another said, “The people can let their kids to play outside.”  Another said “they probably don’t have immigration here” and another immediately quipped “if we were here, immigration wouldn’t be long coming.” 

When we arrived at St Joseph’s parish, John was already waiting for us.  He welcomed us in Spanish and gave us a tour of the parish.  We returned to the parish hall for a great lunch.  Charlie Krieg came to lunch and enthusiastically welcomed the people.  When he heard some of the stories of how the people were suffering, he was visibly moved with concern.  He then said to me that he would be right back.  He returned with an envelope with money to help pay for dinner. 

We then went to the shrine, did the tour, and had Mass.  As we were leaving Mass, Steve Trzecieski came to welcome us. On the way home, I again was privy to the conversations of the people about the trip.  The people were powerfully moved by the generosity, welcome, kindness of the Vincentian community.  Overall the people felt spiritually blessed and accompanied at a critical moment in their journey; they felt wanted and loved.  

The insight I learned from this experience was that the community or Vincentian family can welcome in ways that are beyond a single person.  We welcome the stranger not just as noble and charitable individuals (and we are), but also through small loving acts offered in and through the community.   I want to thank my confreres, as always, for modeling for me how to live out charism.