Editor’s Note: Today’s entry is from Fr. Mike McCue, OSFS, director of De Sales Service Works in Camden, NJ. Fr. Mike reflects on the life of St. Patrick (one of my personal favorite saints, for obvious reasons) and how his experience has paralleled the experiences of many people who have participated in service retreats with DSW. All of the saints have something to teach us, and by trying to follow their example of serving those who are on the margins of society we come closer to the heart of God.
In addition to sponsoring DeSales Service Works, the Oblates staff the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception parish in Camden. People often think of a “cathedral” as any large, stone, usually gothic-style church. But, to use the word precisely, a cathedral is the church for an entire diocese; it is the local bishop’s church. So, many cathedrals actually are big and beautiful to accommodate large gatherings. However, there are very humble and ordinary cathedrals that, none the less, serve as a bishop’s church.
Camden’s Cathedral is one of the pretty humble cathedrals. It was built in the mid 1800s as a parish church by the immigrant people of the time, Irish people. Clearly people at the time put a value on solid construction and on beauty because this church has both. Some of the art reflects the Irish background of the founders. In the front of the building there is a large, colorful window of St. Patrick with shamrock held high, speaking to the heart of the pagan leaders about the goodness and power of the Triune God.
This is still an immigrant parish, though in this generation people come mostly from Latin America and the Caribbean. Still this saint has much to offer; the man we celebrate each March 17th is so much more than a friendly leprechaun or the mascot for celebrating and wearing of the green. His life has a lot to teach us. Patrick grew up in a comfortable setting in Roman Britain. All that changed when bandits stole teenage Patrick away to slavery in Ireland. After several isolated, hungry years, he escaped and returned home. Something about his experience changed him, so that he followed a vocation to become a missionary bishop to the Irish people who had enslaved him and had taken away his childhood. Who could blame him if he were angry and bitter toward those who had enslaved him. Instead of becoming a man consumed and shrunken by anger and desire for retribution, he dedicated his life to service and to the God whose gospel commands love of neighbor, and even love of enemy.
The Jesuit Volunteer Corp (the Jesuit version of DSW) has an unofficial motto that captures Patrick’s experience: he was “ruined for life.” There was no way he could live unaware of the people of Ireland and their need, and his awareness impelled him to do something.
Experience of DSW Service in Camden
“Thank you for reminding me how lucky I am. Coming here has made me want to donate more service to the Lord. I will continue to pray for Camden.”
“… a life changing experience”
“… first time I have ever lost sleep over another’s misfortunate circumstances. I’m more motivated to be active in service and faith than ever. You’ll be hearing from me again!”
“…I have learned so much and feel changed for life…”
“Coming to Camden, I have taken a look at the way I live my life. While handing out food to people, I would ask how they were doing, and some would answer with, “I’m alive.” That took me by surprise. If I were asked that question, I would simply say “fine” or something along those lines. Never would I have thought to answer with, “I’m alive.” As my week has gone on here, I learned not to judge people by their outward appearance or their life’s situation, but by the person they are deep inside. Even though the city is dangerous and crime filled, there is something about it that I truly love!
These thoughts represent some of the experience of college and high school students who have come to Camden for a Salesian Service Retreats. The work volunteers do and the people they encounter have an impact. As St. Francis de Sales observers, “nothing is small in the service of God.” Volunteers work with the neighborhood kids, many of whom clearly are happy for attention from youthful volunteers. They clean out the alleyway near the school. With Sr. Claire Sullivan, they visit people’s homes, some fully functioning homes next to burnt-out or abandoned ones. They paint, plant, rebuild, provide food, extend kindness, play cards or checkers and extend respect.
Service in a place as needy as Camden can open our awareness to the world, to God’s grace and action: that can make an impact in our lives. Some may hear a vocation to be involved in full-time service, like St. Patrick. Others will hear a call to find ways to serve in every walk of life.
Needy communities need us all. But every community needs the generosity of heart and unselfishness that the volunteer quotes and the JVC motto convey. Playing with a child whose family can’t provide daily breakfast; cleaning up an alley with a friendly, homeless guy who can find no way to get off the streets; visiting people in a neighborhood where half the houses are vacant lots, burnt out, abandoned or falling in; walking down a sidewalk littered by discarded syringes and postage stamp sized plastic bags; celebrating Mass in Spanish with warmth and devotion. All these things make an impression. “Ruined for life” is another way of talking about the paschal mystery, death and resurrection. Out of sin, defeat, betrayal, hopelessness can come life, second chances, forgiveness, and deeper understanding.
Why did St. Patrick go the way he did, toward life rather than to the dead-end of retribution and anger? Clearly he responded to the God whom he experienced as with him in even his lowest moments. Patrick had the grace to respond, and that made all the difference.