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What Does a Saint Have to Say About Church Reform?

Note: The Church on Fire: Stay With Us! Lecture and Concert Series has been postponed due to the coronavirus crisis. This includes the lecture by Sister Helen Prejean. According to organizer Michael Pitek, “New dates will be communicated once we are able to responsibly reschedule them.”

Four hundred years ago this year the seeds of a reformation in the French Catholic Church were being planted. At the time no mortal mind knew it, but that would be the effect of several events occurring from 1617 to 1625. They all involved a priest named Vincent de Paul.

In the inaugural lecture of Blessed Sacrament’s “Church on Fire: Stay With Us!” lecture series, Vincentian priest Rev. Aidan Rooney, Vice President for Mission at Niagara University, recounted the life and times of the man who became St. Vincent de Paul and founded the religious order of which he is a part.

Buffalo Rising, media sponsor of the series, recorded the lecture and you can watch it here:


Note: Rev. Rooney’s presentation included two video clips that our camera didn’t pick up well. Those clips were taken from the video below, Vincent de Paul: Charity’s Saint, made by DePaul University in 2010. The first clip is from 5:27 to 11:27 and the second is from 11:27 to 13:12.


^ Vincent de Paul: Charity’s Saint. DePaul University (2010)

What would St. Vincent de Paul, a saint most closely associated with charitable work, have to say about church reform? Much, as we learned. As Rev. Rooney made clear, St. Vincent de Paul’s life and work were essential to the reformation of the Catholic Church in France. Just what made the French Catholic Church of four centuries ago so ripe for reform was one of the most unexpected and intriguing aspects of the lecture, with plenty of parallels to our present situation.

The key to understanding that time, Rev. Rooney argued, is understanding how the French church at the beginning of the 17th century resisted the previous century’s church reform effort: the Council of Trent. That two-decade process, spanning several papacies, is best known as Catholicism’s response to the Protestant Reformation, yet it constituted a reformation within the Catholic Church. It grappled with the abuses that the Lutherans had reacted against, it professionalized church administration, and it codified sacraments such as the Mass. The resulting Tridentine Mass (named for the Latin form of Trent, Tridentum) became standard practice in Roman Catholic churches around the world for the next four centuries.

Yet the church in France proved resistant to the Tridentine reforms. A half-century later, when Vincent de Paul began his priesthood, church leadership and the nobility were still intertwined. Sale of benefices (religious offices and positions) remained common practice. Mass practices varied greatly from parish to parish. As Vincent de Paul traveled around the countryside, he observed that it was the peasant class who suffered the most from the poor state of the church in France. His patroness, Madame di Gondi, saw it too and it was she – not Vincent – who asked the famous Vincentian question:

What must be done?


^ St. Vincent’s Question. DePaul University (2015)

The famous Vincentian question (asked in the video above), “what must be done?” was as much about church reform as it was about serving the poor and neglected. Because, as Rev. Rooney showed us in the lecture, reforming the clergy and church administration, and organizing service to others, were all related and depended on each other. Organizing lay Catholics and forming religious orders devoted to service also proved a powerful counterpoint to an ecclesiastical structure that had become as elitist and predatory as the temporal aristocracy.

After hearing Rev. Rooney’s lecture, my own answers to the Vincentian question would include:

Renew women leadership in the church. St. Vincent de Paul’s work and mission were only possible with the assistance and support of several amazing women, including Madame di Gondi, Queen Anne (regent for her son Louis XIV), St. Louise de Marillac, and the young women from the peasant class who formed the Daughters of Charity. In the early church, women served as deaconesses, a practice that was gradually suppressed in the middle ages. It seems to me that allowing women to serve again as deaconesses would open the door to more leadership roles throughout the church, and one day make ordination of women seem a natural step.

Rediscover a mission of service to the poor. Through most of the history of the church, wealth in society was concentrated in the hands of a few, so most Catholics have naturally come from among the less privileged. That was true in North America until after World War II, when the growth of the middle class made Catholics, by and large, comfortably wealthy. The Catholic Church in North America became largely assimilated, middle-class, and suburban, and the church hierarchy became too comfortable catering to the diminishing needs of such parishioners and accepting their generous contributions.

In the process, the church forgot its poor, urban and rural, immigrant roots. The resulting closure of urban and rural parishes have left individuals and communities with acute needs behind. The Vincentian order, as I described here, is known as the Congregation of the Mission, which may give it a unique role in helping the church in North America re-discover its sense of mission and service to those in need everywhere. Perhaps the twin shocks of the clergy abuse crisis and financial crisis will help shock the church out of complacency. We need to not only embrace the Vincentian question, but also the Vincentian answer.

Empower lay leadership. In my seven years of involvement with the Buffalo Mass Mob, and writing about most of the Mass Mob churches, I’ve been struck by the wide variation in the quality of clergy at the churches. But equally significant is the variation in the quality of lay leadership and lay organization. Churches with a stronger tradition of lay leadership are much more resilient, and are also better able to help their priests be of service, than churches without. Churches with stronger, better organized lay leadership are also better able to resist bad decisions by diocesan leadership that, sadly, seems to have developed a culture of looking for the easy way out and the path of least resistance when faced with tough situations. Empowered laity can better provide the service to others that is the original mission of the church, and also serve as a counterpoint to poor leadership in the church hierarchy.

Organize organized organizers. As Rev. Rooney showed in his lecture, one of the most powerful lessons of the life and ministry of St. Vincent de Paul is the importance of organization. After the publication of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, by Stephen Covey, “Covey Clubs” were all the rage, especially among business people who read the book and wanted to share and discuss its lessons with others. In a way, St. Vincent de Paul was a prototype of Covey, and the church “enterprises” formed by him and his associates didn’t just practice good organization but taught it.

One of the things I’ve discovered in writing about churches is that lay Catholics have fallen far behind in their ability to organize. One happy exception: the effort to keep St. Adalbert’s Church and Basilica from closing could be a case study in lay organization, were the wonderful but modest people involved willing to talk publicly about it. But unfortunately, the recent effort to keep another prominent church from closing that crumbled in large part due to leadership failures is – in my experience – more the norm than the exception.

Everywhere I find Catholics, I find Catholics bitter and even traumatized over the decisions the Diocese has made in recent decades and the way they and their churches have been treated by their church hierarchy and clergy. At the same time, I find few Catholics ready, willing, and able to organize any effective opposition to specific situations or the state of things in general. Instead, there seems to be a sense of resignation and even learned helplessness. Even Catholics who question the motives and leadership of the Movement to Restore Trust – rightly or wrongly – show no signs of organizing a lay initiative that might better represent them and their concerns.

When I lived in Rochester, a coalition of Black churches organized a week-long training in non-violent organizing co-led by Dr. Bernard Lafayette, who was an organizer with Dr. King in Memphis. I took the training, and learned a lot from it. Catholics need to do the same: organizing fellow Catholics and moreover teaching them about organizing. Perhaps the Vincentians would find this a suitable part of their local mission.

What must be done? For starters, creating a new crop of Catholic leaders who are continually asking, “What must be done?”

Note: The Church on Fire: Stay With Us! Lecture and Concert Series has been postponed due to the coronavirus crisis. This includes the lecture by Sister Helen Prejean. According to organizer Michael Pitek, “New dates will be communicated once we are able to responsibly reschedule them.”

Stay tuned.

Written by RaChaCha


RaChaCha is a Garbage Plate™ kid making his way in a Chicken Wing world. Since 2008, he's put over a hundred articles on here, and he asked us to be sure to thank you for reading. So, thank you for reading. You may also have seen his freelance byline in Artvoice, where he writes under the name his daddy gave him [Ed: Send me a check, and I might reveal what that is]. When he's not writing, RaChaCha is an urban planner, a rehabber of houses, and a community builder. He co-founded the Buffalo Mass Mob, and would love to see you at the next one. He represents Buffalo Young Preservationists on the Trico roundtable. If you try to demolish a historic building, he might have something to say about that. He is a proud AmeriCorps alum.

Things you may not know about RaChaCha (unless you read this before): "Ra Cha Cha" is a nickname of his hometown. (Didn't you know that? Do you live under a rock?) He's a political junkie (he once worked for the president of the Monroe County Legislature), but we don't really let him write about politics on here. He helped create a major greenway in the Genesee Valley, and worked on early planning for the Canalway Trail. He hopes you enjoy biking and hiking on those because that's what he put in all that work for. He was a ringleader of the legendary "Chill the Fill" campaign to save Rochester's old downtown subway tunnel. In fact, he comes from a long line of troublemakers. An ancestor fought at Bunker Hill, and a relative led the Bear Flag Revolt in California. We advise you to remember this before messing with him in the comments. He worked on planning the Rochester ARTWalk, and thinks Buffalo should have one of those, too (write your congressman).

You can also find RaChaCha (all too often, we frequently nag him) on the Twitters at @HeyRaChaCha. Which is what some people here yell when they see him on the street. You know who you are.

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