Echoing this year’s Founder’s Week theme, “Be Vincentian: Be a Healer,” St. John’s University’s annual Vincentian Convocation celebrated the healers in our midst, paying special tribute to one in particular—the late Paul Farmer, M.D., Ph.D., a man who spent a lifetime improving conditions for those most impoverished on a global level. Dr. Farmer founded Partners In Health (PIH), an organization devoted to bringing the benefits of modern medical science to those most in need.
The Convocation, held on September 22 at St. Thomas More Church on the Queens, NY, campus, serves as the capstone celebration for Founder’s Week. This is a special time at St. John’s as the University community honors the life and legacy of St. Vincent de Paul, the founder of the Congregation of the Mission, culminating in his feast day on September 27.
In his opening remarks, Rev. Brian J. Shanley, O.P., President of St. John’s, posed the question, “What does it mean to live a life well?”
He noted that those being honored were primary examples of such lives. “We are honoring you today, and it’s important for us to do that because it affirms the value we place on the lives you have led.” He added, “You need to have examples put before you of what a good life looks like. That’s the important thing we do today as a community. We affirm the common values of our Vincentian foundation that have taken root and are lived out in the lives we celebrate today. You are inspirations to us and our students.”
The following awards were presented and honorary degrees conferred.
During the Convocation, the annual Vincentian Chair of Social Justice Lecture, “In the Company of the Poor: St. Vincent de Paul and Paul Farmer, M.D., Ph.D.,” was delivered by Jennie Weiss Block, O.P., D.Min., PIH’s Senior Health and Policy Advisor, and a close friend and spiritual advisor to Dr. Farmer.
Dr. Block noted that while St. Vincent de Paul and Dr. Farmer were of two different worlds, they were of one mind and had much in common—especially a devout love of the poor. “Both of these men loved God with their whole hearts and minds, and loved their neighbor as themselves. They have modeled for us endless compassion and a zeal for service to others.”
Like St. Vincent de Paul, Dr. Block noted, Dr. Farmer straddled the line between the rich and powerful at top universities, Congress, the United Nations, and the White House, serving under former US President William J. Clinton as Deputy Special Envoy to Haiti, “while making his true home among the poorest and sickest people of the world.”
She added that both St. Vincent de Paul and Dr. Farmer were masterful at getting others to support their causes, as St. Vincent founded two religious orders and Dr. Farmer founded an international global health equity movement.
Dr. Block called both men pragmatic innovators who saw problems and addressed them directly, creating new models in ministry and the delivery of health care in settings of dire poverty. They both made sure that the care they delivered was more humane and more effective than what came before. The final shared trait, Dr. Block stressed, was an extraordinary commitment both men shared for those who were incarcerated unjustly.
Jeffrey Farmer was in attendance to accept his brother’s posthumous honor. “My brother was a faithful Catholic, and would love all that St. John’s University stands for,” Mr. Farmer said. “My brother envisioned a world in which justice prevails. The glasses with which he saw the world were with the lenses of love for all humanity.”
“The Convocation offers the University community an opportunity to reflect upon the virtues and actions of our Vincentian family as they are captured in the lives of good people and organizations,” offered Rev. Patrick J. Griffin, C.M. ’13HON, Executive Director, Vincentian Center for Church and Society. “An added blessing—in this year when we heed the call to be healers—was the opportunity to recognize Dr. Paul Farmer with an honorary degree, a man who left behind a huge store of service and advocacy on behalf of the poor.”