Contemplation – The Whole Secret

Contemplation – The Whole Secret 940 788 SVDP USA

My kingdom does not belong to this world,” Christ said to Pilate, when asked if He was “King of the Jews”. Indeed, He went on to explain, if it were, there would be armies of angels fighting to free Him from His earthly captivity. In this, Christ modeled for us what St. Vincent de Paul often called “holy indifference” – a detachment from worldly suffering and reward in order that we might better discern God’s will.

Before His passion, Christ had already explained that we must “seek first the kingdom,” that same kingdom which is not of this world. We must, like the birds who neither reap nor sow, like the grass that neither works nor spins, let each day’s troubles be enough for the day. In short, He calls us to trust in providence.

Where does this leave our neighbors in need? Does trust in providence mean that they are on their own, or that we need not “give them the necessities of the body”? On the contrary, Bl. Frédéric once cautioned that we must not let our detachment turn into discouragement from our duties! This, he said, was ”the whole secret and the whole difficulty of the Christian life.” [Baunard, 423]

While we constantly seek to discern God’s will in different circumstances, we already know that “the same authority which tells us that we shall always have the poor amongst us is the same that commands us to do all we can to ensure that there may cease to be any.” [O’Meara, 230] For the poor, it is we who are called to be God’s instruments, providing for their needs as best we can, and by this work, reminding them of God’s love and their hope.

Detachment, indifference, or unrestricted readiness is not an excuse to neglect our works of charity but instead is the necessary condition to pursue them tirelessly and selflessly; to love our neighbor as ourselves for the love of God. As we remind ourselves on each home visit, it is Christ we serve in the person of the neighbor; the same Christ who sent us, the same Christ who awaits us.

“We must think,” Bl. Frédéric said, “as if we were to quit the earth tomorrow, and we must work as if we were never to leave it.” [Baunard, 423]


How can I better offer up my own rewards and my own suffering to God?

Recommended Reading

Faces of Holiness

Contemplation – Sufficient Graces

Contemplation – Sufficient Graces 940 788 SVDP USA

Servant leadership is the calling of every Vincentian, and term-limits for Conference Presidents ensure that every three to six years, somebody new will be invited to serve in that role. [Rule Pt III, St 2 & 12] The next time, it might be you. All too often, though, many of us pull back, insisting that we are not the “take-charge” sort; that somebody else should be President. St. Vincent would say that if this is how you respond, you probably are the right person to lead.

In fact, writing about a priest who had “an unimaginable passion for being in charge” Vincent remarked that “this frame of minds frightened me” even though he was “having a hard time finding anyone among the others willing to be a Superior in certain circumstances.” [CCD II:326]

He went even further in a Conference for the Daughters of Charity, explaining that “to be ambitious for more honorable offices or duties, leading one to want to become a Sister Servant” (the superior) is a “diabolical” sign of hidden pride. [CCD IX:532] By no means, though, did he teach that we ought to avoid invitations to serve as leaders!

Instead, he taught, to be called to leadership is to be called by God, and that therefore when “obedience designates us for a leadership position … we must submit”. [CCD XI:128] Our Rule explains further that leadership positions “are always to be accepted as service to Christ, the members and the poor.” [Rule, Part III, St 11]

When invited to serve, we should always prayerfully discern the invitation, but remember that it is not our own talents or strengths that we are discerning! Rather, we are discerning whether we hear God’s call, whether it comes to us in an invitation from our fellow Vincentians, or in an invitation within our hearts.

Vincentian servant leaders are not commanders or bosses – quite opposite! We believe, as Christ taught, in the leader as the servant, and as leaders we then then take the last place, in imitation of Christ, “who was the natural Master of everyone and yet made himself the least of all”. [CCD XI:124]

It is not so difficult to step up to leadership when you understand it instead as a call to step down, to be humble and gentle, to serve and not to be served. And since it is God who calls us to servant leadership from time to time, we also needn’t worry about our capabilities, because “God gives sufficient graces to those He calls to it.” [CCD IX:525]


Am I open to God’s call to servant leadership, even though I may feel unworthy?

Recommended Reading

Walking the Vincentian Pathway

Contemplation – Where Charity is Practiced Cheerfully

Contemplation – Where Charity is Practiced Cheerfully 940 788 SVDP USA

Commenting on Conference meetings, President-General Jules Gossin wrote that “In France, what even the best men fear most is boredom; and, in that respect, the men of every country are more or less French.” He went on, in his Circular Letter of November 1, 1847, to say that “Boredom is to a Conference what smoke is to a beehive.”

Much of the responsibility for avoiding boring meetings rests on the Conference President and other leaders. Indeed, the Manual stresses that “meetings should not be lengthy” and goes on to suggest ways in which leaders can keep the meetings short, but meaningful. While a tight agenda is important, though, the Manual also explains that “the Conference meets less to conduct business than to celebrate and deepen its unity for essentially spiritual reasons.” [Manual, Ch. 2]

Indeed, this drift towards pure business meetings became a problem in the very first Conference, of which Bl. Frédéric wrote “the session is nearly always concerned with business, it seems long.” [Letter 90, to Curnier, 1835] As a result, he said, they were losing their enthusiasm, not growing in friendship, and many were becoming discouraged.

In almost all cases, the meetings, the works, and the Conference itself can be rejuvenated with a renewed focus on keeping the Spirit at the center of our meetings, bringing to them once again what our Rule describes as “a spirit of fraternity, simplicity and Christian joy.” [Rule, Part I, 3.4]

As St. Vincent reminds us: “Be quite cheerful, I beg you. Oh, what great reason people of good will have to be cheerful!” [CCD I:84] Our laughter not only erases tensions between Members and alleviates boredom, but makes our meetings more welcoming for new and potential Members!

In that 1847 letter, Jules Gossin observed the importance of laughter in Conference meetings, noting that although you don’t go in in hopes of “provoking occasions of hilarity” it is nevertheless the “Conferences that afford the most generous relief to the poor are those in which charity is practiced cheerfully.”


Is there joy and laughter in my Conference meetings? Do I help to foster it?

Recommended Reading

Instead of reading this week, let’s pray together.

Contemplation: The Best Way to Give Help

Contemplation: The Best Way to Give Help 940 788 SVDP USA

A central principle of Catholic social teaching, necessary for respect of human dignity and a properly ordered social life, is subsidiarity. [CSDC, 185-186] Naturally, the organization, governance, and traditions of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul reflect this important principle, too. [Rule, Part I, 3.9] How does subsidiarity guide the practice of our Vincentian works of charity?

Councils, the Rule explains, “exist to serve all the Conferences they coordinate.” [Rule, Part I, 3.6] In turn, the work of directly serving the neighbor, remains with the people closest to those served: the Conferences. Yet it is not the entire Conference, or only the officers, that go on home visits, it is the Members, in pairs, on home visit teams.

Placing responsibility for the Home Visit with the National Council obviously would not be better for the neighbor, not only because that Council is remote, but because, as the Catechism explains, certain organizations “correspond more directly to the nature of man”. [CCC, 1882] Personally connecting with our neighbors, forming “relationships based on trust and friendship”, makes us more responsive to their needs, and better able to serve them. [Rule, Part I, 1.9]

For the Conference, subsidiarity in service of the neighbor is expressed not only by the organization of home visit teams, but by our assumption that the Members who made the Home Visit have “special insight into the best way to give help.” [Manual, 24] We don’t seek to replace that insight with arbitrary, pre-set guidelines. In other words, subsidiarity calls us to give ourselves up to “the inspirations of the heart rather than the calculations of the mindnot [tying ourselves] down with rules and formulas.” [Letter 82, to Curnier, 1834]

The Catechism explains that subsidiarity means “a community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it…” [Catechism, 1883] In respect of this, we often illustrate the Society’s hierarchy by flipping it over, with the International Council General on the bottom, with other Councils, then Conferences, then members above, and the neighbor at the very top of our “org chart.”

The neighbor then, the least among us, is the “lowest order” of the Society’s organization, yet also is for us Christ himself. The principle of subsidiarity is our constant reminder that the last shall be first.


How does humility help me to respect subsidiarity – and vice versa?

Recommended Reading

The Manual, especially Bl. Giuseppe Toniolo, pp 90-91

Contemplation – Our Wordless Witness

Contemplation – Our Wordless Witness 940 788 SVDP USA

Our Vincentian virtue of zeal is more than simply enthusiasm or evangelical fervor. It is, St. Vincent de Paul said, “a pure desire to become pleasing to God and helpful to our neighbor”. [CCD XII:250] Zeal, then, requires first our own interior conversion, and then our concrete action.

As the first Rule explained, we must always serve the needs of the poor without regard to whether they are Christian. Even if they are “impious” we should always to speak to them in a way that makes them comfortable, for it is “by charitable gifts that we prepare the way for spiritual benefits.” [Rule, 1835, Intro]

Similarly, St. Vincent once advised his missioners “show no apparent difference in your treatment of Catholics and Huguenots, so that the latter may know you love them in God.” [CCD VIII:209] It should be noted that the Huguenots were a Calvinist sect that was fanatically opposed to the Catholic Church, going so far as to kill priests and to destroy churches and relics. Yet Vincent’s advice was to seek their conversion by being “more reserved in their presence, more humble and devout toward God, and more charitable toward your neighbor so that they may see the beauty and holiness of our religion and be moved to return to it.” [Ibid]

We evangelize through our works, “through our witness to follow Christ through service to those in need and so bear witness to His compassionate and liberating love.” [Rule, Part I, 1.2] As Pope St. Paul VI explained, the Gospel must above all be proclaimed by the witness of our own devotion and action:

Through this wordless witness these Christians stir up irresistible questions in the hearts of those who see how they live: Why are they like this? Why do they live in this way? What or who is it that inspires them? Why are they in our midst? Such a witness is already a silent proclamation of the Good News and a very powerful and effective one.” [Evangelii Nuntiandi, 21]

Zeal, of course, is a necessary part of the evangelical nature of our charitable works. After all, the challenge our founders answered in 1833 was to “show the good of the church in the world”. Distressed by the attacks on the church, Frédéric proposed bearing witness through action, as a group of friends “who would work as well as talk, and who would thus, by showing the vitality of their faith, affirm its truth.” [Baunard, 65]

As we seek to grow in holiness, we seek also to draw others to Christ, by demonstrating our faith through our works.


If you were accused of being Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?

Recommended Reading

The Rule, Part I

Contemplation – Christ in the Cellar

Contemplation – Christ in the Cellar 940 788 SVDP USA

Born and baptized in 1786, it was under the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution that Bl. Rosalie Rendu’s earliest faith life was born and fed. Little Jeanne-Marie, called Marie by her family, learned from her parents a simple and generous manner. From the youngest age, following their example, she was known to be especially generous and kind to those in poverty, and to the sick.

Only seven years old in 1793, she became suspicious of a new gardener employed by her parents when she noted how they treated him with reverence. Following “Pierre”, she observed him saying Mass in the cellar one night, and later threatened to tell everybody who he really was.

Rosalie’s parents had hoped to protect their young daughters from the knowledge of the very real dangers of their times. Priests and bishops who refused to take the “Civil Oath of the Clergy” were sentenced to execution. Many of them fled France, and on their way through Confort, a farming village in the foothills of the Alps, the Rendu family sheltered them.

This was a real and serious risk to take, for the death sentence extended beyond the clergy to anybody who might shelter them. Rosalie’s mother, forced to explain that “Pierre” was really the Bishop of Annecy, also had to explain to her young daughter why this must be kept secret.

It was in this world of great danger, and with the example of her mother’s fearlessness in practicing her faith, that Rosalie prepared for and received her First Holy Communion.

The sacrament was administered in the cellar by the family’s pastor, who was himself under a sentence of death. As her friend and biographer, Armand de Melun, would later write, “There were before the altar a priest, who was preparing himself for martyrdom, and a virgin who promised God whom she was receiving for the first time, to love him all her life in the person of the lowly and the poor.” [Sullivan, 23]

As Vincentians, our journey towards holiness includes a special “devotion to the Eucharist” [Rule, Part I, 2.2] which we share together, especially on our feast days. [Rule, Part III, St. 9]  Perhaps when we partake of Holy Communion, we might call to mind Bl. Rosalie Rendu.

Bl. Rosalie’s example of holiness and courage may have become known during her long service as a Daughter of Charity, but it began when little Jeanne-Marie first accepted the Body and Blood of Christ in a candle-lit cellar in a war-torn land.


How can I partake more fully, and make the Eucharist a central part of my Vincentian vocation?

Recommended Reading

Faces of Holiness – especially Rosalie Rendu

Contemplation – The Call to Imitation

Contemplation – The Call to Imitation 940 788 SVDP USA

Imitation, it is said, is the sincerest form of flattery – a distinction that must be made, because flattery is by its nature insincere. We flatter in order to gain something for ourselves by playing upon another’s vanity. The things we say when flattering might or might not be true, but that isn’t really the point.

By imitation, though, our praise is expressed with a concrete action; we show through imitation that it is the very habits or actions of another that will lead us to the thing we seek to gain. Think, for example, of children learning to play a sport well by trying to imitate the professional athletes they admire.

For Vincentians, what better way could we find to follow Christ’s call to be perfect, just as our heavenly Father is perfect, than to imitate Christ? This, after all, was the very basis of the Society’s founding – to go to the poor, just as Christ Himself had done; to show God’s compassion and love through our actions. In Aristotelian terms, we “become builders by building”. [Nicomachean Ethics, Book II:1]

Christ, then, is not an object of flattery, but is instead our ultimate role model. He is the God who shared our humanity so that He could “fully reveal man to himself.” [Redemptor Hominis, 8] Yet our humility can cause us to shy away from imitating Christ, seeking instead role models closer to our personal experience. In a similar way, that child athlete, however ambitious, will usually try first to imitate an older friend before swinging for the big leagues. For us, our “older friends” include especially the saints and blessed of the Vincentian Family.

In 1838, one of the first Conferences had been studying The Imitation of Christ, but then began reading The Life of St. Vincent de Paul. As Frédéric explained it, our patron “is a model one must strive to imitate, as he himself imitated the model of Jesus Christ.” [Letter 175, to Lallier, 1838] In our day, we also have the holy life of Blessed Frédéric to imitate. Perhaps, as a lay Catholic, he is even closer to us.

The Little Leaguer believes that if he can swing the bat like Ken Griffey, Jr., then he might become a great player on his own. For Vincentians, imitation has a deeper goal, an interior goal. We hope that someday it will be no longer we who love, but Christ who loves through us. [Rule, Part I, 2.1]

We seek, then, not simply to behave like Christ, but “to empty ourselves of self so that God alone may be manifest”. [CCD XII, 247]

Our imitation, it turns out, is not flattery at all. Flattery will get us nowhere. Imitation of Christ will lead us home.


In what way can I better imitate the life of Blessed Frédéric Ozanam?

Recommended Reading

Apostle in a Top Hat

Contemplation – The Robbers’ Victim

Contemplation – The Robbers’ Victim 940 788 SVDP USA

In the Parable of the Good Samaritan, Christ tells of a man who stopped to care for a victim of a robbery who had been left naked and dying by the side of the road. Others had passed by, averting their eyes. Who, Christ asks us, was neighbor to the robbers’ victim? The one who showed mercy.

This parable is a Vincentian favorite as we seek to “go and do likewise”, to form mutual relationships “based on trust and friendship.” [Rule, Part I, 1.9] But if we are the Samaritans, the neighbors, who are the robbers’ victims?

The Samaritan had no helpline; he was, as far as we know, minding his own business on his journey. There was nobody else around but the man lying in the ditch, and he could have kept walking as others had. Unconscious, the victim did not cry out for help. Called only by his own conscience and his own mercy, he stopped and gave his time, his possessions, and himself. [Rule, Part I, 2.5.1]

As Vincentians, though, are we not called to do even more than the Samaritan? Our Rule, after all, says that we are “to seek out and find those in need and the forgotten…” [Rule, Part I, 1.5] Are “the forgotten” the robbers’ victims? How do we find them?

Bl. Frédéric believed that the victims of his time were the people who had been robbed of “the treasure of faith and love” and left so badly wounded that even the priests who stopped to help were turned away by the victims who could no longer recognize them. Frederic believed that we “weak Samaritans” might be able to soothe and comfort them, to welcome them into community, and to reassure them of “the hope of a better world”. [Letter 90, to Curnier, 1835]

Who are the robbers’ victims in our world? Who do we pass by, from whom do we shift our gaze, at whom do we look without touching? [Fratelli tutti, 76] It is easy to answer the phone, or to send a check – to solve a math problem. And while indeed we should never neglect to care for the necessities of the body, anybody can do those things.

It is only on our home visits, face to face, person to person, that we can truly discover those left on the side of the road, forgotten. It is by setting aside our own plans, and needs, and desires, that we reassure them that they are important. Through our loving presence we show them that God has not abandoned them.

Our visit is proof that even on the side of the road, beaten down, with the world passing by, God sees them. He cares for them, He loves them, and He awaits them.


Am I truly giving myself to the neighbor in need?

Recommended Reading

A Heart on Fire

Contemplation – Proof of Friendship

Contemplation – Proof of Friendship 940 788 SVDP USA

All of us have had many friends in our lives: childhood friends, work friends, teammates, Army buddies, fishing buddies, maybe you even have a “BFF.” Still, when we hear the word “friend” one or maybe a few come to mind first.

Often, we become much closer to people when we have a shared experience. From the examples above, the friends you sweated with on the practice field become much closer friends. Talking, or writing, to each other draws us closer. We share little pieces of ourselves – we give to each other.

So why do some friends stand out? Is it the friend who really bailed you out of jam? The one who stood by you when nobody else did?

Christ, after all, tells us that there is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for your friends – the very gift he gave to us! “Can we have a better friend than God!” said St. Vincent, and consequently, “Must we not love all that He loves and, for love of Him, consider our neighbor as our friend!” [CCD XI:39]

Friends help us, friends give to us, but (short of giving their lives) what are the greatest gifts they can give? We might remember that friend who got out of bed in the middle of a rainy night to come drive us home when we got stranded, but have you stopped to consider that the reason he did so was not that you were stranded. After all, how would he have known?

The reason your friend helped you is that you asked. The reason you asked, is that you knew only a friend would help. Bl. Rosalie once responded to a request for a favor by saying “I cannot tell you how you please me in giving me the opportunity to do something for your interests. Always act this way with me, without any hesitation. It is the proof of friendship that I hope for.” [Sullivan, 237]

The greatest favor we offer our friends is to ask for their help. In his will, written on his 40th birthday, Blessed Frédéric asked of the Society for the greatest of help: their prayers. “If I am assured of these prayers, I quit this earth with less fear. I hope firmly that we are not being separated, and that I may remain with you until you will come to me.” [Baunard, 386]

“The entire Society,” the Rule tells us, “is a true and unique worldwide Community of Vincentian friends.” [Rule, Part I, 3.3] And this community extends to the neighbors we serve; the ones who offer us proof of friendship: they ask for our help.


How can I be a better friend?

Recommended Reading

Book of Prayers by Frédéric Ozanam

Contemplation – From the Fullness of Our Hearts

Contemplation – From the Fullness of Our Hearts 940 788 SVDP USA

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, there was a rash of people across the country who swore they’d seen the late Elvis Presley filling his gas tank or eating in diners. Some perhaps really imagined they’d seen him, while others just wanted to sell their story to the tabloids.

By contrast, Vincentians are called not to imagine Christ, but to see Him, and to serve Him exactly as He asked us to do. “There’s no need,” St. Vincent taught, “to represent Him to yourselves by certain mental images: it suffices for you to believe, since faith teaches you this.” [CCD X:473]

Or, as St. Augustine taught, “faith means believing what you don’t yet see, and the reward of this faith is to see what you believe.” [Sermon 43] The reward of our faith can be seen on every home visit. If we go to the poor ten times a day, ten times a day we will find God there! [CCD IX:199]

If we believe what we profess, if we truly “see Christ in the poor and the poor in Christ” [Rule, Part I, 2.5], we will describe our neighbor with words honor our encounter with the true embodiment of Christ.

One way to check whether our words truly express this belief, is to replace the “Christ” in “Jesus Christ” with our word. For example, “Jesus Brother”, “Jesus Neighbor”, or “Jesus Friend” not only make sense, but are comforting to say. All of these are words Christ Himself used.

By contrast, “Jesus Client”, “Jesus NIN”, or “Jesus FIN” are quite unsettling to hear! After all, the Greatest Commandment is not to “love our client as ourselves.” Jesus did not tell the disciples He no longer called them servants, but FINs. He did not ask the young lawyer, “Who was the NIN?”

Indeed, that question would have made no sense, given that the answer was not “the one in need”, but “the one who showed mercy.” To have a neighbor, you have to be a neighbor. To have a friend, you have to be a friend. To have a brother or sister, you have to be a brother or sister. Our relationship with the neighbor is mutual, respecting and promoting their dignity, and serving Christ in their persons.

Elvis has left the building, but Christ is with us always, to the end of the age. We are “serving Jesus Christ in the person of the poor,” St. Vincent said, “And that is as true as that we are here.” [CCD IX:199]

This is what we believe in our hearts, and from the fullness of our hearts, our mouths speak.


Could the words I use to describe the neighbor also be used to describe Christ?

Recommended Reading

The Spirituality of the Home Visit

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