Founder’s Week Seeks a Path to Justice

Founder's Week Image
September 28, 2021

St. Vincent de Paul said, “There is no charity without justice.” It was not enough for him to bring aid and comfort to those who suffered—he wanted to bring systemic change to the institutions that fostered and emboldened poverty.

This year, St. John’s University’s annual Founder’s Week celebration, held September 20–27, encompassed the Investiture of its 18th President, Rev. Brian J. Shanley, O.P., Ph.D., in the midst of a series of events centered around the theme, “Be Vincentian: Work for Justice.” As always, this celebration of the University’s Vincentian heritage combined lectures and prayerful reflections with tangible service opportunities, such as University Service Day. The Vincentian Convocation, which celebrates individuals and organizations that walk in St. Vincent’s footsteps, served as the week’s capstone event.

“When people speak about peace, one of the most frequently applied quotes comes from Pope Paul VI: ‘If you want peace, work for justice,’” noted Rev. Patrick J. Griffin, C.M., Executive Director, Vincentian Center for Church and Society.

He added, “One cannot exaggerate the importance of justice in our world or in our hearts. It reaches across all acts of service and support to our brothers and sisters. In this very difficult period in our country, a focus upon justice seemed most appropriate for Founder’s Week—and our Vincentian resolve as a St. John’s University community.”

Several online lectures were held that narrowed the focus on this year’s theme. Catherine Baylin Duryea, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Law, School of Law, presented a discussion for faculty, “Searching for Justice in the American Occupation of Afghanistan.”

Dr. Duryea explained, “As researchers and teachers, we have immense power and autonomy to work for justice in our scholarship and in our classrooms. But as scholars who remain engaged in the work of the world, we’re also faced with the challenges of knowing what justice looks like to the communities we study and when we’re not well positioned to work toward that mission.”

While a law student at Stanford University, Dr. Duryea participated in a federally funded program that enabled a student group to research and write English-language law textbooks about Afghan and international law, hire faculty and fellows to teach a full range of classes at a law school there, bring Afghan professors to the US, and send students like Dr. Duryea to Afghanistan to meet with other students.

“Here was a way to provide some tools, research, money, and books to help Afghans build a more honest, effective government,” she said, adding that higher education and law provided these students with opportunities that were not available on a wider scale. Unfortunately, the vision for Afghanistan that existed within the walls of that school did not exist elsewhere, Dr. Duryea stressed, noting that the atmosphere fostered during the occupation was rife with corruption, inefficiency, and violence.

Sharod L. Tomlinson, Director of Student Development and R.I.S.E. Mentoring, Division of Student Affairs, presented a talk to University administrators and staff, “Overcoming a World without Mutual Respect.” Mr. Tomlinson spoke of the University’s efforts to become a truly antiracist institution.

“An essential element of being part of this community is being able to carefully review our own selves—and do all we can to promote justice and solidarity among ourselves,” he said.

University Service Day was held September 25 across all of St. John’s University’s campuses and included a mix of virtual and in-person service opportunities. Among many other projects, members of the St. John’s community worked at St. John’s Bread & Life, participated in the St. Vincent de Paul Friends of the Poor Walk in Bethpage, Long Island, and the entire freshmen cohort of Ozanam Scholars traveled to Germantown, PA, to meet with a variety of Vincentian service sites to learn how they address the issues of poverty and social justice in the community. On the Staten Island campus, participants prepared over 10,000 meal kits for Rise Against Hunger.

Founder’s Week concluded with a special Mass celebrating the Solemnity of St. Vincent de Paul in St. Thomas More Church on September 27. Fr. Shanley served as celebrant and homilist and joked, “As most of you know, I am a member of the Order of Preachers, and there’s nothing I like to do more than preach.” He cited this homily as one of the most intimidating experiences he has ever had as a preacher -- discussing St. Vincent de Paul in a church filled with Vincentian priests.

Fr. Shanley noted that St. Vincent’s priesthood fell into two distinct categories that were divided by a profound conversion experience. “What he came to realize about himself was his own radical poverty—just how needy and insecure and dependent he was upon God.”

Fr. Shanley added that St. Vincent, in his own crisis of faith, realized, “He was completely and utterly dependent on God. It was all a gift. In discovering his own poverty of spirit, Vincent finally realized how loving, merciful, and good God is. Nothing is earned. Everything is a gift and grace. So he ministered to the poor not as someone who could do something for them in a sort of condescending way, but as someone who truly identified with them.”