The full measure of the Vincentian commitment to social justice was brought to light for a group of St. John’s University students during a visit to the United Nations in Manhattan on Wednesday, October 26.
Student leaders from the University’s Ozanam and Catholic Scholars programs and its chapter of Catholic Relief Services toured the headquarters of the international agency, thrilled to discover how closely aligned the goals of the UN are with the mission of the Vincentians.
“To see how people decades ago made history in this very room, it does make you think, what can I do?” said senior Raphael Civil, a member of the University’s Catholic Scholars program. “The UN does so much, not only for world peace, but for sustainability, development, and human rights around the world.”
Nine students accompanied Victoria O’Keefe, Residence Campus Minister for Social Justice, on the trip to Manhattan’s East Side, home of the UN since the building’s completion in 1951. The organization was established in 1948, three years after the end of World War II. The St. John’s group toured the facility exactly 60 years after the Cuban Missile Crisis played out on the floor of the General Assembly, a signature moment in 20th-century geopolitics.
“It is impressive to see all these parts of history you can relate to,” said first-year student and liturgical minister Daniel Sullivan from Hicksville, NY.
But the trip was about more than history. The group also met Jim Claffey, the Congregation of the Mission’s (Vincentians) Representative to the UN. He explained how the order collaborates with UN member nations on matters of common interest, including homelessness, the rights of women and girls, environmental stewardship, and more.
Acknowledging 400 years of the Vincentian mission to the underprivileged, the order in 2017 embraced homelessness as its chief UN campaign, a message Mr. Claffey shared with the St. John’s group during its visit, which included a stop at the Vincentian mission to the UN on East 46th Street.
“What is at stake here?” he asked, responding to a student inquiry. “Nothing less than the fulfillment of our vocation. This is our evangelization, our good news, that God loves poor people and we can change the dynamics of homelessness and poverty.”
Also joining the group were alumni Joliz Claudio ’22CCPS and Gracie Bagdon ’22C, who both are interning with the Vincentians’ UN mission while attending graduate school. Speaking to the St. John’s students, Ms. Claudio stressed the need for continued action against violations of human rights.
“Doing nothing in a period of repressive violence is itself an act of violence,” she said.
“You learn at St. John’s, and it is reinforced at the UN, that everyone deserves a seat at the table, so what can we do to make sure we all have a voice on world issues?”
The Vincentian mission is one of about 4,000 nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs, that lobby the UN and its 193 member states. Also included in the Vincentian family of NGOs are arms of the Daughters of Charity, the International Association of Charities, Sisters of Charity Federation, and the Society of St. Vincent de Paul.
Mr. Claffey, the Vincentians’ primary voice at the UN, said the order provides an essential service, educating member nations on the plights of the poor and socially marginalized, and even on proper care of the environment. While advocating for change can be challenging in an organization as large as the UN, he views it as essential to the mission of the Vincentians, calling the UN “the one indispensable organization in the world.”
“If it didn't exist, we would have to invent it,” he added.
The mission of the UN seemed quite real to the group from St. John’s. Siobhan Kelly, a Catholic Scholar and first-year student from Rockville Centre, NY, was particularly impressed with The Golden Rule mosaic, a gift from the United States government to the UN that features people of near every race and way of life in a display of dignity and basic human rights.
“That is the whole mission of the United Nations,” Siobhan said. “It is that spirit of service that empowers us to help those who need it most.”