We stand on the side of the poor!
Sieger Köder (1925-2015), a German priest, painted this 4×4 meter mural located at St. Vincent’s Parish in Graz (Austria). With great empathy and skill, he depicts Frédéric Ozanam, founder of the St. Vincent de Paul Society, and his commitment to the poor.
The poor have always been pushed to the margins of society. Even the Church has not always stood clearly on their side nor fought for their rights and dignity. The Church is often satisfied with alms, rather than advocating for change in the lives of the poor.
So it was at the time of Frédéric Ozanam, in the first half of the 19th century. In this mural, note the following symbolism:
- The windows of Notre Dame Cathedral are dark; not a ray of hope comes from the church.
- It is no wonder that people turn to other ideologies (red flags) and in their need for violence, engage in desperation to fight for their rights.
- Frédéric Ozanam, at the center, is one of the few who recognize that taking care of the weak and exploited is essential for society, and hence for the Church. He strongly urges the Church especially to care for the vulnerable.
- He stands behind the principles of the French Revolution– liberty, equality and fraternity appeared to him as the consummate expression of the demands of the Gospel. The tricolored flags on the houses represent this conviction.
- Frédéric was greatly concerned about the Church’s lack of interest in the misery of industrial workers at the time. In 1836, factory workers’ children had an average life span of less than two years. In the mural, Frédéric reaches for these children with one hand. They represent all those individuals whom people want nothing to do with, then and now. His other hand is stretched wide open to that of the One who said, “Whatever you did to these least of mine, you did to me.”
- The suffering Christ, in white, looks filled with pity and compassion, not only then, but looking across at us now. He wants us today, by our commitment, to bestow His love upon those for whom we are the last and only hope. This is what we as Vincentians are called to do.
Lord, You’re no longer with us
in Your body of flesh and blood,
because You willed that we be Your presence among the people of today.
No longer Your hands,
but our hands.
to caress the foreheads of
the sick and the elderly.
Our eyes, to look at them,
and to look around to see those whom no one sees.
You have our smiles,
awakening, savoring life
that each of our human actions, Lord, may be a sacred act, a true sacrament.
Stretched in the tension
between salvation and deepest poverty
we are in today’s world
as was 170 years ago
a young professor at the Sorbonne,
Frédéric Ozanam, who said:
“The question which divides men in our day is […] whether society is a system of exploitation for the benefit of the strongest, or a consecration of each one for the welfare of all and especially the protection of the weak.”
Specifically, this means:
“You must sit by his bedside, feeling the same cold that pierces him. Only then will you understand how you can truly help him.”
The eyes are the windows of the soul.
Fr. Henri Boulad, SJ, calls it the “sacrament of the gaze”.
St. Vincent de Paul said, “How beautiful are poor people to look at, if we consider them in God and with the esteem in which Jesus Christ held them.” (XI:26)
The painter, Fr. Sieger Köder (left) during a visit to Vinzidorf.
“Serving the poor is going to God
and you should see God in them.”
St. Vincent, Conference of 31 July 1634 to the Daughters of Charity.
To serve the poor is to worship
Many thanks to Fr. Wolfgang Pucher, CM, for writing these beautiful reflections, and to the Austrian community of St. Georgs, Istanbul for permitting us to re-use this material.