Wide-ranging interview with Father Gregory Gay, CM
In a very wide-ranging interview with Father Gregory Gay, CM with RADIO VICENTINA (yes, there is a Vincentian radio station in Chile!) he describes some of the things he has learned from his eleven years are Superior General, his hopes for the Vincentian Family and how he sees Pope Francis as a modern day Vincent. Since the original interview took place in Chile, he offered his insights into the Vincentian Family in South America and some of the exciting and innovative Vincentian Family Projects projects there.
In addition, he refers to the request of the Sisters of Charity founded by Saint Jeanne Antide-Thouret to speak at their General Assembly about the relationship between our Vincentian charism and the teachings of Pope Francis.
He concludes with some perspectives on the recent General Assembly of the Daughters of Charity and the upcoming General Assembly of the Congregation of the Missions.
Interview with Father Gregory Gay, CM
We are with Father Gregory Gay who is the successor of Saint Vincent de Paul as superior general of the Congregation of the Mission and the Company of the Daughters of Charity and the leader of the worldwide Vincentian Family. He is visiting Chile and will travel to Punta Arenas and Patagonia where he will visit the Missionaries who are involved in the ministry of evangelization there. We take advantage of his presence with us here in Santiago and engage in this joint interview between REVIC (Vincentian Educational Network) and RADIO VICENTINA in order to share with our listeners some of Father’s ideas and teachings and vision. (Recording of the interview in original Spanish)
Welcome Father Gregory!
Thank you Father Carlos and it is a joy to be with you and to be able to participate in this interview.
Eleven years ago, in 2004, you were elected superior general and in 2010 you were re-elected. In about one year your term of office as superior general and as leader of the worldwide Vincentian Family will come to an end. What have you discovered during these past eleven years?
I have discovered many things and when I reflect on these eleven years I realize that the time has passed very quickly. When visiting the different Provinces of the Missionaries and the Daughters of Charity and when in dialogue with the many various groups of the Vincentian Family in the distinct countries, I have seen and experienced the many different ways in which the Vincentian charism is being lived today. If I were simply an office worker who had to deal with the numerous matters that cross my desk, I believe I would be a very depressed person. Therefore, to have the opportunity to go out and meet with the countless individuals who are living our charism … well, this encourages me and I believe I have received much more than I have given … so much more.
Do you see the Vincentian Family as alive in the midst of the world or do you believe, that like so many other entities, the members are depressed?
That depends on which part of the world we are speaking about. In some parts of the world the reality of the Vincentian Family is well-developed. In general, I have always referred to Latin America as an example of where the members of the Congregation of the Mission and the members of the Daughters of Charity and the members of the different branches of the Vincentian Family minister well together. I am also happy with the way in which the Vincentian Family has developed in other parts of the world, for example in Asia and more particularly, in India. It could be said that in Africa there is less organization but there yet there is much enthusiasm and a great desire for more collaboration. In Europe and the United States all the branches of the Vincentian Family are represented and some years ago the various branches in the United States began to collaborate together … more recently this same collaboration has begun in Europe. We see that in so many instances the members of the various branches are accompanied by the Missionaries or the Daughters of Charity … and this is still so much more work to be done in this area.
There seem to be few vocations for the Daughters of Charity as well as for the Congregation of the Mission and perhaps it could also be said that there are not many people who are joining the ranks of the larger Vincentian Family. Why is there such a lack of desire on the part of people to commit themselves to the tasks of the Church? In what parts of the world do you believe there is greater hope for vocations to the consecrated life as well as committed lay vocations?
Again, Carlos, I believe that depends on what part of the world we want to speak about. In some parts of the world, particularly in Asia and Africa, there is an increase in vocations at least among the Daughters of Charity … there also the Congregation and some of the branches of the Vincentian Family are relatively new establishments and so there is need for continued growth. In Latin America I view the situation of vocations as more or less stable, perhaps a little better for the Congregation than for the Daughters.
The place where I see the Vincentian Family most developed is in Brazil. The membership in the Vincent de Paul Society in Brazil represents one third of the total world membership. In other words, in Brazil we are talking about 300,000 members who are dedicated to living the Vincentian charism through service on behalf of the poor.
But in reality I am not very concerned about vocations which we could say is a gift, a grace. Nevertheless we are beginning to see that we need one another if we are to continue the mission of Vincent de Paul, if we are to continue to live in accord with our charism. Even though in some parts of the world there are few Brothers, few Sisters, and few Missionaries, even though in some parts of the world there are few members in the various branches of the Vincentian Family, nevertheless the few members in those places are enthusiastically engaged in ministry and they are faithful members of “the little company”.
We must also talk about problems … in recent years the Church has had to confront the sexual abuse scandal among the clergy. How, in general, has this situation affected the Congregation of the Mission, the Daughters of Charity and the wider Vincentian Family?
Let us talk in general … Here I can more easily talk about the situation in my own country, the United States, where this scandal seemed to be more widespread. In one sense this situation has enabled the Church in the United States to renew itself. There has been an admission of weakness and failing among some candidates and some who are ordained priests … and this renewal must be an on-going reality. The same could also be said for certain dioceses or other religious congregations even though they might not have been effected so severely by the sexual-abuse scandal. From my perspective it seems that the Daughters of Charity and the Congregation of the Mission has confronted these problems where they exist and is providing assistance to those individuals who need help while also accompanying and supporting the victims. I believe we have done more than what the Church has asked in attempting to heal a situation that definitely needs healing.
How can the Vincentian Family insert itself into this Church, a Church that we might say in the words of Pope Francis, is a new Church?
I am going to say this and I do not know how many people are listening to this program. We know that Pope Francis is a Jesuit, he has a Franciscan name, but he has a Vincentian heart. In reality, when we, who are well-versed in Vincent’s writings and teaching, listen to or read the various conferences and writings of Pope Francis, we are in fact listening to or reading a modern day Vincent de Paul. Pope Francis has emphasized that we must do everything possible in order to communicate God’s love to the Lord’s chosen ones, to the ones whom we call our lords and masters. Yes, Pope Francis has had a great impact.
Very soon I will have the opportunity to share with one of the branches of the Vincentian Family that will gather together in a General Assembly. I am referring to the Sisters of Charity is Saint Jeanne Antide-Thouret (a Daughter of Charity who founded this Congregation) and the members have asked me to speak about the relationship between our Vincentian charism and the teachings of Pope Francis. This will not be difficult for me to do because Pope Francis is a man of the Church who has been faithful to the teachings of the Second Vatican Council. He has given life to those teachings in the midst of a church that is both responsible and participative. Pope Francis has not only ministered on behalf of the poor but he has ministered with the poor and has ministered from the perspective of the reality of the poor … that is Pope Francis.
Since we are in an educational environment … indeed, REVIC has a mission in this regard … how would you explain to the students and to the educational community in the various Vincentian schools, the meaning of the invitation that you extended with regard to collaboration among the branches of the Vincentian Family during this Year of Collaboration?
First, then a word to the administrators and the professors in the various schools. I want to encourage them because they have been entrusted with a great responsibility and with a wonderful privilege of promoting, deepening and teaching the meaning of the Vincentian charism to the youth of today … a charism that is perhaps more necessary today than ever before.
With regard to the youth … many people say that we live in a selfish world where people are only interested in themselves. But you know I have had a different experience. It seems that wherever people are in need there are always young people who are willing to extend their hands, willing to do something in order to better the situation … that has been my experience.
Looking at all of this from the perspective of a school I believe that the professors are to help the young men and women become more aware of their faith, become more aware of their obligation to establish relationships with other people, especially those who are poor … and as Christians young men and women are challenged to act as people of good will.
I could speak at length about this theme of education. This is, in fact, one of my favorite themes. As I have already stated, I believe that our schools and our universities are privileged places where we can not only teach people about Saint Vincent but more especially where we can teach people how to interact with their neighbor. That is the lesson that Vincent learned from the gospel and from the life of Jesus Christ. Therefore, our schools provide us with a place where we can support young men and women and enable them to become better human beings and able to interact with other people. The students in our school might not know that these school are inspired by the charism of Vincent de Paul but they should be able to experience the support they need in order to be free, to be joyful, and to be better young men and women. This is what it means to be bold, especially with regard to helping educators understand what they, as members of the Vincentian Family, can give to others.
We are aware of the fact that you know the Latin American reality because at the time of your election as superior general you were the Visitor of the Central American Province, whose motherhouse is located in Guatemala. You had also ministered in Panama … and you have this specific interest in education. What do you see as the challenges that education presently faces in Latin America?
There are some great challenges and these were highlighted in the General Assembly of the Daughter of Charity in which I participated. It is important that we give a distinctive quality to education, that is, our teaching must be rooted in the Vincentian charism, in human values, in the gospel and in the teachings of the Church. This is especially necessary today when in so many parts of the world people are indifferent toward religion and Christianity … and as a result there is the temptation to impart an education that we could label as “light education” (just as we have “light cigarettes” and “light beer”).
So many educators do not view their role as a vocation. Therefore in Latin America where there is so much violence (I have experienced this violence in Guatemala) and where people live with great fear, the schools must be viewed as a privileged place where young men and women can learn about values that respond to the causes of poverty, to the problems that families encounter and to the daily struggles that they confront. The young men and women must have the opportunity to learn about these values that they are not taught at home. Therefore, I believe one of the great challenges of educators is to not only impart these values to the young men and women who are in their classrooms, but they must also help these students transmit these same values to their other family members.
What do you see as the primary Vincentian values that need to be developed in the schools?
There are many. I believe one of the primary values that we seldom mention is joy, the joy of living. Life is a gift that has been given to us by God and yet so often people become overwhelmed with the difficulties and the struggles of everyday life and as a result find no joy in living. This is a value that I have learned from so many poor men and women in Latin America who, despite the many hardships in their life, maintained a sense of joy. I believe that joy is a human and Christian value … and also a Vincentian value.
Another value that I would highlight is hospitality, the ability to stretch out one’s arms. In academic circles this means that we put in place structures that are capable of receiving people, including those persons who live in very difficult situation … receiving people and offering them the opportunity to transform their life through education. Yes, I call that hospitality.
There are also other values and here I would mention boldness or that which we refer to as the boldness of charity. Charity is the primary virtue of the Vincentian Family but here we are not talking about charity as almsgiving (even though we do this and it is necessary) but as a way of helping people lift themselves up and live life with dignity. Today young people need someone who believes in them and is able to help them believe that they are loved by God. I believe we need an educational system that would focus on these values that I have mentioned.
Traditionally we have spoken about three levels of charity or service on behalf of the poor. We speak about providing immediate assistance, that is, giving bread to those who have none. We also speak about human promotion, that is, providing people with the means to obtain bread. Finally, we speak about the struggle for justice which might be identified with the process of systemic change. How would you interpret service on behalf of those who are most in need?
I would say that the three elements that you mentioned are necessary. I have seen here in Chile the manner in which people have responded when their brothers and sisters become the victims of some natural disaster. In recent years the people of Chile have had to endure much suffering and yet people, young people included, have responded a very positive manner. Therefore there will always be a need to respond to people who have no bread to eat today.
There will, however, also exist the desire to help the poor help themselves. There is this famous expression: do not just give the poor person a fish but teach that person to fish. In other words, encourage men and women to use and develop their gifts and talents.
At the same time we know that many people are poor as the result of causes that are beyond them … they are not lazy and in fact, they want to work, but the structures of society maintain them in their situation of poverty. In those situations we have a responsibility to engage in the struggle to change the system. Education has an important role to play in this regard because without education people will never be able to more beyond their present situation. People must be given a good education and helped to think for themselves … they must be given the tools that will enable them to change the society in which they live.
You spoke about your participation in the General Assembly of the Daughters of Charity, what can you tell us about the challenges that the Sisters will have to confront?
It was wonderful to be able to participate in that Assembly. I had participated in their 2009 Assembly and so this was my second time. The Assembly was well-organized and well-prepared.
There was a desire to have everyone share and participate. There were different level of participation: small groups, larger groups called “forum groups”, plenary sessions during which there was open dialogue. Often it was time for lunch and the Sisters wanted to continue their discussion … why? They wanted to continue because they were speaking about the manner in which the Sisters could be bolder in charity, bolder in the midst of the world.
They were speaking about their life as missionaries and how they might follow the example of Pope Francis and respond to his invitation to reach out and serve the poor. That is an element in the very foundational charter of the Daughters because from the time of Louise de Marillac the chapel of the Sisters has always been the parish church. There are a series of realities that distinguish the Daughters from women who are cloistered … indeed, the Daughters are called to go out into the city streets of the world and there they are to give witness.
This is the challenge that the Daughters confront. In some parts of the world there are few vocations and in other parts, vocations are flourishing, but there is a desire for an exchange among the Sisters and I am confident that said interchange will be developed.
I believe that this is your third visit to Chile and here in Santiago you met with the National Council of the Vincentian Family. What can you tell us about this matter?
When I visit a province I usually leave the organization of my travels to the Visitatrix or in this case, to the Visitor. I always find some wonderful and providential surprises during my journey. Such was the situation in my meeting with the National Council. When we celebrated the Eucharist I asked them about the relationship between the Vincentian Family in Chile and John the Baptist (whose birth we commemorated). The responses were incredible and there was time to listen to only a few individuals. I see much hope for the Vincentian Family in Chile … there is a desire to work together. Yes, we celebrated the Eucharist together and we did so in a joyful and participative manner.
What do you think about the young people who are creating a new network of assistance?
As you have already stated we are celebrating the year of collaboration and we are attempting to encourage the various branches throughout the world to reach out to one another and to come to know one another, to pray together, to come together for on-going formation, and to collaborate in service projects that will benefit others. What the young people spoke about today was a spontaneous outgrowth of their good will and their desire to respond to the needs of the poor.
Thus we have this new group (REJUSEVI Facebook) … this is fantastic and their objective is to have a group that is able to organize the Vincentian Family quickly at the time of a crisis so that individual help can be provided to those afflicted by the crisis. This is just one of their plans. They are also concerned about the situation with regard to health care and education. This is a wonderful initiative that should be made known to the worldwide Vincentian Family through facebook and the other social media. This could be a way to stimulate the creativity of the Vincentian Family and to encourage greater collaboration.
This is a fantastic initiative of the young men and women in Chile … a fantastic idea … and I hope that the whole Vincentian Family will actively participate in this initiative as they attempt to respond to the needs of their lords and masters, the poor.
Within a few hours you will travel to Punta Arenas, what is the situation there?
Some year ago the bishop of the Diocese of Punta Arenas, a Salesian, approached me and explained that he was confronting a problem, namely, many of the Salesian missionaries were leaving the area and he needed people to replace them … “Father”, he said, “can you help us?” When I saw the situation of the people in this part of the world and when I realized that there was both a need and an opportunity to support the Daughters of Charity and the other branches of the Vincentian Family … and also that there was a need for priests and brothers in this area, I decided to make a request for personnel and, thanks be to God, two confreres from the Province of Chile responded.
Even though Chile is a small Province, they became involved in this mission. At the present time there is a confrere from Chile who is ministering in this area and he has been joined by a confrere from Mexico and another confrere from Spain. There is a waiting list that contains the names of some other confreres who, in a period of one or two years, will be available to serve in this mission. Since this is one of our international missions, it comes under the responsibility of the superior general.
I attempt to visit all of these missions during the course of a year and then the following year these missions are visited by one of the assistants. With regard to this particular mission, the Visitor, Father Fernando, has been very attentive to the need to accompany the confreres ministering in this area. This is another example of interprovincial collaboration as well as collaboration with the various branches of the Vincentian Family that are present in this area.
At the beginning of this interview it was stated that you are beginning the last year of your term of office. At the present time preparations are being made for the 2016 General Assembly which, after deliberating about the future directions of the Congregation, will elect a new superior general. In light of your experience, what should be the profile of the new superior general?
The new superior general ought to be energized, in good health, with a desire … but no, I am not going to speak about the qualities that a superior general should have because if we listen to Father Maloney, he has stated that the role of the superior general is to animate the confreres. Father Maloney animated the confreres through the written word (he is a good writer). I have animated the confreres through my visits, going to various places (at times some very remote places) in order to encourage small groups of the Vincentian Family, (the Daughters, the confreres, members of one or another branch of the Vincentian Family). I believe that among the responsibilities of the superior general is that of continuing to animate the members of the Congregation of the Mission, the members of the Company of the Daughters of Charity, the members of the Vincentian Family. Yes, together we can make a difference and in fact, together as Vincentians- and united in Christ, we do make a difference. The more united we are results in better service for the poor who come to know the good news and experience the love of God.
We do not want to take too much of your time and the Visitor was very explicit in telling us that we had one hour for the interview, so this is the final question: what is your dream (your message) for the Vincentian family?
To continue what was begun eighteen years ago: to come to know one another, to enable the poor to be protagonists of their history rather than assuming that role for ourselves … and doing all of this in a way that enables the Kingdom of God to be built up. In order to do this we need to be united, to pray together, to be formed together. God is good and God will accompany us in all of this. This is my dream that we will continue to move forward in all of our efforts as members of the Vincentian Family.
Thank you for your time and for the message that you have shared with us. In the name of REVIC and RADIO VICENTINA again we thank you and may you be blessed in all that you do!
Thank you and may God bless the Vincentian Family here in Chile and throughout the world, and may God bless the poor, our lords and masters!
Translated: Charles T. Plock, CM