Formation

Contemplation: To You Alone

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To offer the benefit of the doubt is to assume the best of somebody even when you are uncertain of the truth. Is this not what we are called to do in our encounters with the neighbor?

Thomas, we are told in John’s gospel, would not believe Christ had risen until he had first seen the wounds for himself. To be clear, it wasn’t Christ’s word he was doubting. Quite the contrary, he was insisting that he only would trust Christ, and not his friends, who had already testified to the resurrection. Their words were not good enough for Thomas without tangible proof to back them up. If St. Thomas the Apostle struggled to trust in the word of the other ten closest followers of Jesus, how can we hope to trust in the word of a neighbor whom we have only just met?

Perhaps, like Thomas, we can find ourselves assured not by Christ’s words, but by His wounds. “In the poor,” our Rule reminds us, “[we] see the suffering Christ.” [Rule Part I, 1.8] Not the risen Christ in all His heavenly glory; not Christ the evangelizer and servant; not Christ the performer of miracles. No, we are called to see the suffering Christ, the broken Christ, the Christ who felt abandoned, alone on the cross.

As Blessed Frédéric put it, when we look at the poor, we can, like Thomas, “put finger and hand in their wounds and the scars of the crown of thorns are visible on their foreheads; and … we should fall at their feet and say with the Apostle, ‘Tu est Dominus et Deus meus.’ You are our masters, and we will be your servants. You are for us the sacred images of that God whom we do not see, and not knowing how to love Him otherwise shall we not love Him in your persons?” [137, to Janmot, 1836]

The poor will rarely share with us their “whole story”, at least not before we have formed “relationships based on trust and friendship.” [Rule, Part I, 1.9] Instead, they offer us their needs, much like Christ suffering on the cross, who Saint Louise points out “does not address His Father. He does not ask for something to drink. He simply cries out, ‘I thirst.’” [SWLM, A.21]

We can never really know the neighbor’s “whole story”, so at some point, we have to extend the benefit of the doubt; at some point we have to offer the same trust that we ask for in return. We are called to judge the need, not to determine what kind of person we are serving. We are called to serve for love alone. And that love, as St. Vincent teaches, means that “We do not believe a man because he is very learned but because we consider him good and love him.” [CCD I:276]

For Thomas, all doubt was removed at the sight of Christ’s wounds. If our love leads us to see Christ’s wounds in the suffering poor, we will be better able to respond as St. Louise calls us to do: “Listen to Him, O my soul, as if He were speaking to you alone, ‘I thirst for your faithful love.’” [SWLM, A.21]

Contemplate

Are there times I let my doubts overcome my mercy and compassion?

Recommended Reading

Mystic of Charity

Contemplation: Happy Travelers

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Our Vincentian formation, we are taught, is a lifelong process of becoming. Like all of God’s people, our lives are not simply a series of events, but a journey – a spiritual journey towards perfection in union with our Creator. For us, this journey follows the Vincentian pathway, our special way of living our faith, which we call Vincentian Spirituality. If we seek to imitate the lives of our saints and founders, then, it is helpful to study their lives as examples of spiritual journeys that found their destination in holiness. When we do this, we will see that for Vincent, Louise, Frédéric, and Rosalie alike, several things distinguish their journeys, their spirituality, in ways that we can imitate, perhaps most especially two things that link their actions to their spiritual growth.

First, for each of them, the practice, the actual, physical work of charity, was foremost a spiritual exercise. As Saint Vincent once explained, “loving those who are poor is to love Him in that way; serving poor persons well is to serve Him well”. [CCD XIIIb:434] “Seeing the face of Christ” is not a mere slogan for Vincentians, it is our calling by Jesus, who promised us we would find Him in the poor, and our spirituality, inherited from Saint Vincent de Paul. On our shared and individual journey then, we must, as Frédéric declared in founding the Society, “go to the poor.” [Baunard, 65]

Second, each of these role models of Vincentian holiness took the time to reflect on their encounters with the neighbor and to share with their communities the insights they’d gained. As Blessed Frédéric reminds us, “the blessing of the poor is the blessing of God.” [Baunard, 96] What a shame it would be if we were to spend so much time in the presence of Jesus Christ and not take the time to pray, to meditate, and to share with each other how He spoke to us, what He said, and how He transformed us! As Saint Louise put it, we should “reflect that Our Lord wills that, after we have worked for our neighbor, we must tum our attention to preparing ourselves for heaven which is our blessed home.” [SWLM, L.346]

Blessed Rosalie believed that reflection needn’t be done only after the work, but that “you can make it right here, without leaving your work. Reflect that your souls should be as white as these soapsuds and as light so that they can mount toward God”. [Sullivan, 116] It was Rosalie who taught this practice of Vincentian spirituality to the first members of the Society, gathering them together in her parlor after each visit to reflect on it together in the hope of better discerning their growth, and God’s will.

Our Conferences, our communities of faith, are at the center of our spiritual journeys. They are communities of “faith and love, prayer and action.” [Rule, Part III, St. 5] They are communities in which we do the work of charity, grow in faith together, and share with each other our own spiritual journeys through spiritual reflections in which “members are always invited to comment as a means of sharing their faith”. [Rule, Part III,St. 7] May we continue to share, and by sharing, be “happy travelers at the end of our journey”. [13, to Materne, 1830]

Contemplate

Do I truly open my heart in sharing my spiritual journey and theirs with my fellow Vincentians?

Recommended Reading

Walking the Vincentian Pathway

Contemplation: Seeking His Will Together

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“Life,” the old saying goes, “is what happens to us while we are making other plans.” There is a deeper truth captured in this witticism, one that St. Vincent often repeated. It is not that we should make no plans and simply wait for things to happen, but rather, that we should take time not merely to examine what we have accomplished, but to examine what we can learn; in short, to discern God’s will from the people and events in our lives, especially in our Vincentian service.

It is often observed that we can learn more from failure than from success, or as Vincent put it, “the Will of God cannot be made known to us more clearly in events than when they happen without our intervention or in a way other than we requested.” [CCD V:459] When our plans and actions are made with our best effort to do God’s will as we understand it, the results of those plans and actions will either be in accordance with His will, or can give us new insight into His will. Our failures also, then, remind us that any success we experience is not ours but God’s. We may “have the joy of triumph,” Bl. Frédéric explained, “Providence will have the glory.” [Baunard, 209] Indeed, this is the very definition of our virtue of humility! [Rule, Part I, 2.5.1]

Our true measure of success, then, can never be limited to achieving our own goals, because success belongs to God, who does not need us to write His résumé. Rather, we should first examine whether we entrusted our works to the Lord, conformed to His will, glorified Him, and grew closer to Him. While our duty to accountability requires us to properly account for our actions, our funds, and other details of our work, the more important accounting, the core of our spiritual growth in this community of faith, comes through deep reflection upon our experiences, first individually, and then with our Conferences.

Certainly, this practice of apostolic reflection should always follow our Home Visits, beginning with the discussion between the two visitors, and continuing through prayer, and perhaps journaling. We continue by sharing our reflection with other Conference members at our regular meetings. They, in turn, will have a glimpse of the God who was present in our neighbor, which will give them new insights they reflect back to us. This won’t yield the definitive “answer” but will draw us closer to each other and to Christ.

In a similar way, it is important for us to reflect on all of our plans and all of their results — food pantries and special works, systemic change initiatives, advocacy — not in order to tally success on our own terms, but to discern whether we are serving God first, and how we can do that better, always asking, “Where was God present? Did we see Christ’s face? What is He telling us now?” In this way, we all grow together in holiness by growing closer to Christ and to each other. This, not “business,” is the reason we have Conference meetings, and the reason we have them often. [Rule, Part I, 3.3.1]

Contemplate

Do I take time to discern God’s will in both success and failure? Do I share this with my Conference?

Recommended Reading

A Heart on Fire: Apostolic Reflection with Rosalie Rendu

The VisionSVdP Prayer

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The VisionSVdP Prayer

Come, Holy Spirit, open our eyes, our hearts, and our imaginations to Your inspiration as we embark on our VisionSVdP journey and seek to discern the Father’s holy will for the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and how it will adapt to a changing world.

Come, Holy Spirit, transform our doubts, ignite our zeal. Help us discern new and innovative ways to bring more people into the joy of service in the Society of St. Vincent de Paul.

Come, Holy Spirit, grant us the simplicity to share honestly with each other, the humility to serve a mission greater than ourselves, and the gentleness to listen to each other without judgment.

Amen

Oración de la VisiónSVdP

Ven, Espíritu Santo, abre nuestros ojos, nuestros corazones y nuestra imaginación a Tu inspiración Divina mientras nos embarcamos en nuestro viaje hacia la VisiónSVdP y lograr discernir en la santa voluntad del Padre, en cómo se adaptará la Sociedad de San Vicente de Paúl a un mundo cambiante.

Ven, Espíritu Santo, transforma nuestras dudas, ilumina nuestro fervor.  Ayúdanos a discernir con formas nuevas e innovadoras de llevar a más personas a la alegría del servicio en la Sociedad de San Vicente de Paúl.

Ven, Espíritu Santo, concédenos la sencillez de compartir honestamente los unos con los otros; la humildad para servir a una misión más grande que nosotros mismos; y la gracia de escucharnos unos a otros sin juzgarnos.

Amén

Contemplation: Old and Ever New

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With the rapid growth of the Society within its first two years, there arose a debate as to whether the first Conference, now grown quite large, ought to split in two. “Do you not think that our charitable society itself ought to make changes in order to survive,” asked Blessed Frédéric, noting that the change was necessary not to become something different, but to maintain our special character as a small group of friends acting and praying together. [85, to Bailly, 1834] To continue, then, it could no longer be a single conference, but would instead become many conferences.

In our Conferences, Frédéric later observed, “there is change as in all human things.” When the loss of members causes “some weakness … the cleared ranks are soon filled with newcomers … whose more ardent zeal, new ideas, and original insights prevent routine from setting in and the primitive fervor dying.” [141, to Ballofet, 1837] This is why we continue to welcome “all those who seek to live their faith loving and committing themselves to their neighbor in need.” [Rule, Part I, 3.1]

Founded in a time and place where the Church was far weaker, and poverty far greater than today, the Society had as its primary purpose the renewal of the faith — first among the members, then the poor, and finally throughout society. Challenged to show the good of the Church by those who believed that “modern” systems of philanthropy could do greater good by merely distributing bread, our founders recognized that there is no greater good than to do as our Savior did: to go to the poor, to encounter Jesus where he told us He would be, and to share His hope and His love through our person to person service.

Throughout our 191 years, the Society has adapted to many changes in the world around us. We especially try always to recognize and understand new forms of poverty so that we can truly “strive to seek out and find those in need and the forgotten, the victims of exclusion or adversity.” [Rule, Part I, 1.5] Time and again, we find that adaptations are necessary not to change who we are, but to preserve our essence; to renew, not to replace the vision of Blessed Frédéric and his six friends.

As Ozanam biographer Msgr. Louis Baunard explained, the Society “is not old, if you mean by that term superannuated, withered; but it is old, meaning thereby experienced, powerful; old and ever new; as with all things immortal and divine. It is, I admit, not modern, in the sense that a thing is the fashion for a particular time, or in a particular country. But it is, and continues to be, young with eternal youth, with the youth of Charity that knows not decay.” [Baunard, 416]

Contemplate

Do I take the time to recommit myself to growing in holiness through service to Christ’s poor?

Recommended Reading

Antoine-Frédéric Ozanam

Contemplation: A Friend of a Friend

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Have you ever had a friend with very different interests than your own? Maybe he was a big baseball fan, and you just didn’t follow that sport, or he had a great appreciation for art, but you couldn’t stand museums. How did that affect your friendship? Often, over time, we find that our own interests start to converge with those of our friends; we begin to appreciate the art or the sport or the hobby that animates our friends. We go to a ball game, or watch it on TV, and even begin to cheer for our friend’s team. And why wouldn’t we? We are interested because they are interested. It’s one of the ways we naturally show our friendship and our love.

There is, Our Savior tells us, no greater love than to lay down one’s life for his friends. As a result, St. Vincent asks, “Can we have a better friend than God?” And if He is our friend, “Must we not love all that He loves and, for love of Him, consider our neighbor as our friend!” [CCD XI:39]

It turns out that God, our best friend, has a more fanatical love for the neighbor than any sports fan has for his favorite team. As St. Catherine of Siena put it, God is pazzo d’amore, ebro d’amore (crazy in love, drunk with love) for each and every one of us! If we can watch the game with our friend, we can love the neighbor for our God — it should be completely natural for us to do so. This is exactly what the words of our catechism mean when they call us to love God above all things for His own sake, and the neighbor as ourselves for the love of God. St. John even went so far as to say that “whoever does not love a brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen”.

We may begin our service solely to fulfill our duty to Christ’s instruction, but if we love God, if we truly seek to make His will our own, we will find that we cannot help but begin to share His passions. God loves the neighbor; He is rooting for the neighbor; He is weeping for the neighbor. As His beloved friends, how can we not devote ourselves just as passionately to that same neighbor?

We see then, that it is our friendship with God that leads us to friendship with the neighbor; to what the Rule calls a “relationship based on trust and friendship”. [Rule, Part I, 1.9] Yet true friendships are mutual, and so, as Frédéric put it, the neighbor “whom you love loves you in return.” [O’Meara, 177] What is our passion that the neighbor might begin to share?

We often say that we evangelize through our actions, that we show the beauty of our faith through our example. If this truly is so, then our love for God should be as obvious as our friend’s team jersey on game day. In our manner and in our actions, the love of God and for God should illuminate every home visit, shining forth in our gentleness, simplicity, and humble service. Through us, God arrives as a friend of a friend, and we welcome each neighbor into our circle of friends.

Contemplate

Does my friendship invite the neighbor to friendship with God?

Recommended Reading

Turn Everything to Love

Contemplation: To Do a Little Good

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In Monsieur Vincent, the 1947 movie about our patron’s life, he is asked near the end of his life if there is anything he wished he had done. His reply is simple: “More.” This captures the indefatigable commitment to new and creative works that characterized his life, but perhaps does not fully capture his belief or his teaching.

In a 1657 report to the Ladies of Charity, Vincent took care, while praising their many good works, to caution them to “moderate these practices; for, according to the proverb, ‘Whoever embraces too much, loses his grip.’ It has happened to other Companies … that, because they took on things beyond their strength, they collapsed under the burden.” [CCD XIIIb: 437] More is not always more virtuous, bigger is not always better. In his turn, Frédéric also expressed this idea often, especially in defense of the Society’s works against those who criticized it as the “charity of a glass of water.” In other words, the critics only measured success in worldly terms, by pounds of bread, or vast numbers of people reached. The Society, on the other hand, measures success by the tears we dry, the hands we hold, and the hearts we touch with the love of God. We imitate Christ in celebrating each home visit like the shepherd who leaves his entire flock for the sake of a single lost sheep.

In a letter to his cousin Ernest Falconnet he elaborated on this idea, saying that “… it would be a thousand times better to languish in obscurity for half a century, edifying others with a spirit of resignation and doing some little good, than to be intoxicated for a few brief months with worldly pleasure, and then die in its delirium.” [Baunard, 349]

If our reward for our works is in heaven, so is our motive for pursuing them in the first place. We are not called by ambition, but by God to this vocation. Ours “is a work of God and not a human work. I have said this before; human persons would be unable to achieve it, so God Himself became involved in it. Every good action comes from God; He is the author of every holy work.” [CCD XIIIb: 431]

So we are bound not always to do “more,” but always to do His will, always to share His love, always to love Him in the neighbor. And when our work is done each week, we pray and reflect on it together, discerning together what God has told us through our Vincentian encounters, how we have grown closer to Him, and to hope, with Bl. Frédéric, “that this Society of St. Vincent de Paul … which has been allowed to do a little good, will continue to prosper under the divine benediction.” [141, To Ballofet, 1837]

Certainly, some of our works are, or may become great, but every one of us can do a little good. Then again, when you think about it, since all good is from God, there really is no such thing as “a little good.”

Contemplate

Do I try to pause and focus on the “little good” first?

Recommended Reading

The Frédéric Ozanam Story

Contemplation: Guideposts on the Journey

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To boast about our accomplishments in works of charity brings to mind a routine by the comedian Chris Rock, in which he jokes about people who brag when they do what they are supposed to do. (“I graduated high school!” “You’re supposed to graduate high school!”, etc.) We are Christians — we’re supposed to feed the hungry, comfort the sick, welcome the stranger; to seek and to serve Christ in the poor, just as he said we should.

Humility should remind us that no matter how great the material result of our works may appear, it is not our accomplishment anyway, for “all that God gives us is for others … we can achieve nothing of eternal value without His grace.” [Rule, Part I, 2.5.1] St. Vincent de Paul, whose works we know truly changed the world, often explained that they were not his doing, but God’s. “Worldly respect,” Frédéric warned, is the “greatest danger” to the integrity of our work. [Baunard, 297]

We undertake these works for one primary purpose: in order to “to journey together towards holiness.” [Rule, Part I, 2.2] This journey doesn’t happen by itself; we must take each step intentionally. We must strive consciously to connect our works to our growth; to discern in the people and experiences of our Vincentian vocation the face of Christ, the voice of the Holy Spirit, and the will of God in our lives.

We do this first by reflecting silently and prayerfully after each home visit, perhaps writing down in a journal the feelings and thoughts it brought to our mind and to our heart. We also take time to “re-read” experiences long past; like coming to the end of a mystery novel, and surprised by the ending, turning back to an early chapter where we find that the clues were there all along, we just didn’t see them before. In a similar way, we now see past experiences with new eyes, transformed by more recent experiences. God remains present to us in our memories, still speaking the word He meant for us to hear; ready for us to hear it and to understand it whenever we are ready.

Growing together in holiness also necessitates that we share our experiences and our insights with each other. We are created as social beings, meant to live in community, and our Conferences are our communities of faith. This is why our Rule calls us to spiritual reflection at every Conference meeting, where “members are always invited to comment as a means of sharing their faith”. [Rule, Part III, St. 7]  As the Catechism explains, it is “through the exchange with others, mutual service and dialogue with his brethren, man develops his potential; he thus responds to his vocation.” [CCC, 1879]

Sharing our faith, our insights, and our growth makes yours a part of mine, and mine a part of yours. In this way, we are privileged to act as guideposts for each other on our shared journey towards holiness.

Contemplate

Do I take the time to pray, reflect, and share the ways that I have grown spiritually through my service?

Recommended Reading

The Spirituality of the Home Visit – don’t just read it, use it!

Contemplation: Not to Be Forgotten

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There are thousands of agencies, organizations, and individuals who offer assistance to the poor. In our Conferences we often get to know them and refer neighbors to them when it seems they may be better able to provide for the needs we’ve encountered. We live in a very wealthy nation, filled with generous people. What is it then, that sets the Society apart? What do we bring to the neighbor?

In Frédéric’s time, also, there were other organizations, many of them better funded than the fledgling Society. Yet, he observed, “help is generally dispensed with such culpable indifference.” [1457, Report, 1834] Now, as in Frédéric’s time, our primary purpose in visiting the neighbor is not merely to bring them material assistance. Anybody can do that, and if we measured success in bread alone, it could probably be delivered more efficiently by Amazon, but if we believe as we say, that the hungry one is Christ, surely we are called to do more than toss a loaf of bread on His porch.

In a beloved scene from the 1947 movie Monsieur Vincent, the saint explains that “Only because of your love, and your love only, will the poor forgive you for the bread you’re giving them.” More important than what we give is the manner in which we give it – not carefully measured out from our treasuries, but poured out from our hearts. For Frédéric, this devotion is what prevented Conferences from “degenerating to welfare bureaus.” [182, to Lallier, 1838] The assistance we offer is guided by “the inspirations of the heart rather than the calculations of the mind.” [82, to Curnier, 1834]

And after all, a loaf of bread or an electric bill are only temporary comforts; bringing more of them doesn’t really make them less so. As Frédéric observed, “a donation of bread and money is very meager compared to the support our religion requires us to bring for the comfort of sick souls.” [1457, Report, 1834] As our Rule still reminds us, “Vincentians should never forget that giving love, talents, and time is more important than giving money.” [Rule, Part I, 3.14]

We are called to serve in hope; not the hope of a paid bill, a full belly, or a word of practical advice. All those things, as important as they may be in the moment, will pass. We are called to bring with us what Pope Benedict XVI called the “great hope that cannot be destroyed.” [Spe Salvi, 35]

The poet Maya Angelou once said that “people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” So it is with the neighbors we serve. They will forget the groceries or the light bill; those things anybody can bring. But through our visit, they will feel no longer ashamed, no longer forgotten, no longer alone. They will feel loved — by us, and by the God who sent us.

Contemplate

Do I, in my actions and my manner, always reassure the neighbor of God’s love?

Recommended Reading

Faces of Holiness

Contemplation: Payment for Tears of Joy

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“Help …becomes honorable,” Bl. Frédéric taught, “when it may become mutual.” [O’Meara, 177] It is this teaching that inspires our Rule’s call for Vincentians to “form relationships based on trust and friendship” with the neighbor. [Rule, Part I, 1.9] Because after all, what is friendship if it is not mutual?

Asking for help can be humiliating. In some places, beggars on the street prostrate themselves, hiding their faces as if ashamed, literally with hats in hand to ask for pocket change from passersby. In the impersonal offices of many agencies, people in need often interact primarily with impersonal clipboards and application forms – forms that can be more complicated than a loan application. And unlike a loan, the assistance they receive for food, medicine, housing, and other needs is not something they will ever be expected to pay back. Yet, it is natural to feel an obligation to repay gifts, and when we can’t, to feel emptied in spirit while being replenished materially.

In Frédéric’s time, there were even critics who believed that charitable works wrongly obligated the poor. To them, Frédéric replied that you could only believe assistance imposes a one-way obligation if “you have never experienced the obligation it confers on him who gives.” Those who visit the poor, he explained, “know that in accepting bread from their hand, as he takes the light from God, the poor man honors them; they know that the theatre and every other place of amusement can be paid for, but that nothing in this world can pay for two tears of joy in the eyes of a poor mother, nor the grasp of an honest man’s hand when one has enabled him to wait till he gets work.” [O’Meara, 177-178]

Not only is the obligation mutual, so are the gifts. This is natural among friends. That’s the reason why, when we need help with something – especially something difficult, or that we’d rather not confide in a stranger — we ask a friend. A friend won’t judge us for the mistake we made that led to our predicament. A friend won’t abandon us. A friend won’t embarrass us. A friend won’t ask us to repay the favor.

In a way, asking for help is proof of friendship in itself. Asking somebody to be Best Man or Maid of Honor at a wedding is asking for a very great commitment of time, effort, and sometimes money, yet no friend considers this request an imposition. Rather, it is an honor, and a demonstration of trust.

In this sense, then, it is the neighbor who calls us for help who takes the first step in establishing this friendship. They trust us with their problems and their secrets. When we respond as friends, for love alone, we earn their trust. When we offer not only material assistance, but our time and ourselves, we earn their friendship. In our mutual giving and receiving, in both seeing Christ and in imitating Him, perhaps both we and the neighbor may exclaim, “Oh, what a friend we have in Jesus!”

Contemplate

Do I thank God in my prayers for the friends I have made on my Home Visits?

Recommended Reading

Apostle in a Top Hat

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