St. Vincent de Paul charged his followers not only to serve the poor, but to create systems and policies designed to lift those in need out of poverty. St. John’s University, founded in 1870 by the Congregation of the Mission (also known as the Vincentians), has always followed that explicit mandate—encouraging its community to use their gifts and talents not only to serve, but to create lasting, positive change.
The Vincentian Convocation, held every year during the University’s Founder’s Week celebration, allows St. John’s the opportunity to honor men, women, and organizations that exemplify St. Vincent’s call to action, holding the honorees up as role models for those who would do likewise. This year’s Convocation was held on September 26 in St. Thomas More Church on the Queens, NY, campus.
Founder’s Week, held September 20–27, which encompasses the Solemnity of St. Vincent de Paul, is an annual event that takes place across all campuses of St. John’s University. It gives the entire St. John’s community an opportunity to reflect on the life and work of St. Vincent and recommit themselves to his mission through lectures, reflection, and prayer. This year’s theme was, “One with the Poor—in Service Together—Be Vincentian.”
This celebration also offers members of the St. John’s family direct service opportunities to help those in need, most notably during University Service Day, when all constituencies of the University perform tangible service, both on campus and in the surrounding communities.
During his Convocation remarks, Conrado “Bobby” Gempesaw, Ph.D., President of St. John’s, praised the honorees. “As I listened to the citations describing the remarkable accomplishments of our honorees, it is clear that they are a special group of individuals and organizations that exemplify the legacy of St. Vincent de Paul.”
The following awards were presented.
During the Convocation, the annual Vincentian Chair of Social Justice Lecture, “Hope from the Margins: The Prophetic Witness of Indigenous Peoples,” was delivered by Rev. Joseph G. Fitzgerald, C.M., Ph.D., S.T.D. ’01C, ’09G, Executive Secretary of the National Coordination of Indigenous Ministry (CONAPI).
Fr. Fitzgerald discussed the challenges faced by the Ngäbe people, an indigenous group living within the territories of Panama and Costa Rica, and how their worldview closely parallels the Vincentian mission of service. He has spent 15 years ministering to the indigenous populations in Panama and shepherded the first Indigenous World Youth Day this past January at the behest of Pope Francis.
Our honoree earned his master’s degree in Global Development and Social Justice from St. John’s in 2009 and also helped coordinate the Panama Plunge experience with the Office of Campus Ministry. “I continue to see firsthand how St. John´s instills in its students a great sensitivity toward the marginalized and how to respond in ways that build relationships,” he observed.
According to Fr. Fitzgerald, the Ngäbe live according to the tenets of “Buen Vivir,” which translates to “Full Life,” and described it as a worldview founded on harmonious relationships between all of creation and God. “It is based on a vision of humankind which is part of an interconnected web of life, an ordered cosmos, with great responsibility to maintain the harmony and order the Creator has set in place through our daily actions,” he explained.
Fr. Fitzgerald noted that Ngäbe children grow up listening to the stories and myths shared by their elders that affirm the important lessons of maintaining harmony, working together, and caring for the weakest among them. Their way of life is under almost daily threat from a more dominant ideology that separates human beings from the rest of creation, turning natural resources into market commodities, human relationships into fierce competitions, and reducing the purpose of existence to the consumption and accumulation of material goods. “It is a more pervasive worldview that replaces God with market fundamentalism.”
While cautious not to romanticize their lives, Fr. Fitzgerald said, “Indigenous peoples prophetically call us to a profound social harmony and solidarity, where people are valued over profits, and where working together for the good of all is the foundation of society.”
As the Vincentian family has deepened its commitment to indigenous populations over the decades, Fr. Fitzgerald noted they have been called to walk with them and see the world from their unique points of view. Pope Francis has felt a kinship with these populations, Fr. Fitzgerald observed, adding that to them, land is not a commodity, but a gift from God.
“May we learn from them,” Fr. Fitzgerald said, “follow their lead, and find hope in building new foundations based on the harmonious relationships our God has intended from the beginning.”
At a special dinner following the Convocation, Dr. Gempesaw presented Fr. Fitzgerald with some Red Storm apparel and encouraged him to spread the good news of St. John’s throughout Panama.
Rev. Patrick J. Griffin, C.M., Executive Director of the Vincentian Center for Church and Society, observed, “Fr. Joe's ministry to the indigenous people of Panama provides him with a unique perspective. These people have a distinct language and culture which Fr. Joe has come to learn, respect, and love. He invites us to recognize the blessedness of these Children of God and the lessons which they provide. His talk fit well within the overall theme of our Founder's Week, as we recognize what people of very different experiences have to teach us—if only we listen with humility and openness.”