Contemplation — Our Universal Mission

Contemplation — Our Universal Mission 1080 1080 SVDP USA

At the heart of Vincent’s charism was a deep passion for the universal mission of the church. It was, after all, his taking of the general confession of the old man at Gannes, followed by his homily at Folleville which marked the beginning of the Congregation of the Mission. That, and every mission that followed, was designed to feed both body and soul, to nourish both individuals and communities.

With the founding of the Confraternities of Charity, the missions also included the foundation of a new Confraternity in each town visited, involving the laity in both the initial, and more importantly, the ongoing corporal and spiritual works of mercy. The people, rich and poor, could live their faith through their actions, and to encounter Christ in each other.

Vincent’s zeal drew him to offer the priests of the Mission to the church’s service not only in France, but in far flung lands where Christ’s word was yet unknown. The Vincentians not only ministered to the slaves of the Barbary pirates in North Africa but ransomed the freedom of twelve hundred of them, all the while showing the church’s beauty through their humble prayers and actions.

Vincent’s special zeal for these foreign lands was partly driven by his fear that “that God might gradually do away with {the church] … because of our depraved morals, those new opinions’ which are spreading more and more, and the general state of affairs in another hundred years we may lose the Church entirely in Europe.” [CCD III:40-41]

Two hundred years later, young Frédéric Ozanam and his friends faced a world which, in his words, had “grown cold”, and it called “us Catholics to revive the vital beat to restore it, it is for us to begin over again the great work of regeneration…” [Letter 90, to Curnier, 1835]

This is the “good of the Church” that the founders were challenged to show, and their answer was not a debating response, not merely words, but actions, not merely actions but a way of living; of living their faith in every part of their lives, bearing witness to Christ’s love in their actions, and “by showing the vitality of their faith, affirm its truth.” [Baunard, 65]

This work was, and is, at the heart of the “new evangelization” Pope Saint John Paul II describes in Redmptoris Missio, reviving, as in Frédéric’s time, “a living sense of the faith.” Like the communities Vincent visited 400 hundred years ago, it is we who are first evangelized when we encounter Christ’s suffering in the neighbor. May they in turn see His love not in the bread we offer, but in its bringing; not in our works, but in our love; not in our presence alone, but in the presence of Him who is among us on each home visit, as He promised, when we gather in His name.


Will they know we are Christians by our love?

Recommended Reading

Praying with Vincent de Paul

Contemplation — In the Vincentian Spirit

Contemplation — In the Vincentian Spirit 1080 1080 SVDP USA

Because it is the heart of our vocation, and our primary means of serving the neighbor, Conferences and Councils offer training for the Home Visit. As important as this training is, it really comes down to one thing. As our Rule puts it “visits to the poor are made in a Vincentian spirit.” [Rule, Part III, St. 8]

It is important to note that the statute quoted above doesn’t actually say “Home Visit,” it only says “visits to the poor,.” This is important to keep in mind, because as central and indispensable as the Home Visit remains, there always have been other Vincentian encounters. And just as the Home Visit is the source of all of our other works (systemic change, special works, advocacy, and more) the spirit, and spirituality of the Home Visit must be a part of every Vincentian encounter.

We cannot visit the homeless in a home, yet we bring the same humble, kind, patient deference to the encounter that we would when entering a neighbor’s home. When people visit our food pantries, we are not clerks in a store, but servants of Christ, who is hungry. When shoppers, rich or poor, patronize our Thrift Stores, we offer more than retail “best practices,” we offer our hearts.

While it may be only Active or Associate Members who go on Home Visits, volunteers and staff of the Society also encounter the neighbor in the course of our many works. They often are the only face of the Society some people will ever see. This is why we do not jealously hold onto the word “Vincentian” only for Active Members. All of us who do the work of the Society are serving Christ in serving the neighbor. All of us are Vincentians.

From the earliest days of the Vincentian Family, the priests of the Mission, the Daughters of Charity, and the Confraternities of Charity sought out the poor wherever they were – in hospitals, in the streets, rowing the galleys, or in prisons. To serve them, they enlisted help from others throughout society. Indeed, this was the origin of the Daughters of Charity, formed from poor farm girls who assisted the mostly upper-class Ladies of Charity.

Just as Members bring our Vincentian spirit to every Home Visit, our Vincentian spirit grows as a result of them. The Vincentian spirit animates everything we do, every encounter we have; it is meant to be shared not only with the neighbor, but with each other. Not all volunteers will become Members, not all employees will join Conferences, but then again, not all Members will become Popes or Saints… but John Paul II did.

Our Vincentian Pathway has many starting points, and many routes, but on each of them we will find Vincentian encounters, and all of them lead us to Christ.


Do I welcome volunteers and staff to prayer, reflection, and training with the Members?

Recommended Reading

A New Century Dawns

Contemplation — Let Us Open Our Hearts

Contemplation — Let Us Open Our Hearts 1080 1080 SVDP USA

When we think about the meaning of friendship, particularly as one of our three Essential Elements, we could hardly have a better role model than Blessed Frédéric Ozanam. Friendship was so central to his life, and to the founding of the Society, that two of his biographers chose to highlight this in the titles of their books: The Great Friend, by Albert Schimberg, and My Friend Ozanam, by Pere Lacordaire.

Shimberg says of Frédéric that he “had a genius for friendship, which was for him a communion of spirits, a meeting of minds. He poured out his heart in letters to his friends, was happy when they were happy, shared their disappointments and griefs, let them share his joys and sorrows, gave them counsel and asked for theirs. Above all, his friendship was an apostolate. He prayed with his friends; in life and after death he asked for their prayers.” [Shimberg, 313]

In Frédéric’s words and actions we see friendship’s intimate connection to both service and spirituality, and it is through this connection that it becomes essential – the essence of the Society. In addition to praying for and with one another, he wrote, “the strongest tie, the principle of a true friendship, is charity, and charity could not exist in the hearts of many without sweetening itself from outside. It is a fire that dies without being fed, and good works are the food of charity.” [Letter 82, to Curnier, 1834]

This particular character of friendship in the Society is the means by which we arrive at consensus in our decision-making. We trust one another enough to be honest – to speak with simplicity. Indeed, honest disagreement between friends can only strengthen the friendship. “Let us dare to contradict each other sometimes: truth and concord will end up by banishing strife,” Frédéric wrote to Auguste Materne. “Let us open our hearts and discuss things with wisdom. Our friendship will only become firmer.” [Letter 11 to Materne 1830]

And so it always should be in our Conference meetings. No member should ever feel unable to express disagreement, and no other member should take disagreement as an affront. We are joined together with the common purpose of growing in holiness by serving Christ in the neighbor. It is through the simplicity born of friendship that we reach consensus and alter our plans for the better. Without spirituality, our service is merely work. Without friendship, we won’t “journey together towards holiness…” [Rule, Part I, 2.2]

It was in all three essential elements that Frédéric wished us to grow. May we share in his hope that “as each of us grows older, may we also grow in friendship, piety, and zeal for good!” [Letter 157, to Le Taillandier, 1837]


Is having and being a friend always at the center of my Vincentian service and spirituality?

Recommended Reading

The Frédéric Ozanam Story

Contemplation — Our Eucharistic Home Visit

Contemplation — Our Eucharistic Home Visit 1080 1080 SVDP USA

The evangelical model of the Home Visit may be likened to the Last Supper, with Christ as the visitor, and the disciples – and ourselves – as the neighbors. Hungry, the disciples greeted Christ, who first demonstrated His love by humbly serving them, washing their feet, then by breaking their bread, and pouring their wine.

And then He prayed for them, that the Father might welcome them as He welcomes His own Son. In a way, we might say that He saw Himself in us, just as we are called to see Him in the neighbor.

On the Home Visit, the first act of evangelization occurs when the neighbors open their door, “because, in them, Vincentians see the face of Christ.” [Manual, 48] The poor are our evangelists, not by their own intent, but by God’s design. They call us, they invite us in.

We, in turn, evangelize first by serving humbly, in the model of our Savior. As St. Vincent instructed the missioners going to serve even the most anti-Catholic people, we seek to be “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.” [CCD VIII:209]

The visited, as well as the visitors, edify one another,” as Bl. Frédéric explained, “living in the unity and under the shelter of the mantle of St. Vincent de Paul.” [Baunard, 123]

We evangelize first and always through our “wordless witness.” Each visit, each act of service, is a washing of the feet, which asks the neighbor to receive Christ as servant. When we move to words, they are the words of prayer, offering the needs of the neighbor to God, and asking for His blessings upon them, just as Christ prayed for us to be welcomed into the kingdom.

Jesus calls each of us to take up our cross and follow Him. In the Eucharist he gives us a model to follow. As Mahatma Gandhi once said “There are people in the world so hungry, that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread.”

Because His love was “inventive to infinity” [CCD XI:131] Jesus becomes the bread that feeds us in the Eucharist. On our Home Visits, we are blessed in turn to share Him with the neighbor in the form of our bread, our time, our service, and ourselves.


In sharing the “bread” of assistance, do I seek always to truly share myself?

Recommended Reading

Mystic of Charity

Contemplation — This Gentle Word

Contemplation — This Gentle Word 1080 1080 SVDP USA

One of the four permanent principles of our Catholic Social Doctrine is solidarity. [CSDC, 160] This word is often used in secular contexts to signify shared interests or goals within a group, for example among workers as in a labor union. It is also used to signify common interests between different groups, united on a particular interest or goal. For us as Catholics, this captures one sense of the term, but in a much narrower way than we are called to understand and live the principle of solidarity.

Our church’s social teaching begins with our foundational belief in the dignity of the human person, each us of made in God’s image, unique and unrepeatable. We are called by Jesus to pray to “Our Father” just as He does, uniting us as a human family; not symbolically, but truly as sisters and brothers, children of the one God.

And while our principle of solidarity, like the more commonly used phrase, does indeed refer to shared interests and goals, it is our interests and goals that distinguish solidarity in the Catholic view. Our common interest is our common origin as God’s precious creations, and our shared goal is our shared calling towards union with God in eternal life, and we share these interests with all people.

Our solidarity then, as Pope St. John Paul II explains, must be more than “a feeling of vague compassion or shallow distress at the misfortunes of so many people, both near and far”, and instead calls us to complete commitment to the good of all, and of each individual, “because we are all really responsible for all.” [Solicitudo Rei Socialis, 38] When any member of our family suffers, we suffer.

Solidarity calls us to truly love the neighbor, “even if an enemy, with the same love with which the Lord loves him or her.”[Ibid, 40] In this, as in all things, we have Christ’s example, as St. Vincent once explained: “‘Friend,’ He said to Judas, who handed Him over to His enemies. Oh, what a friend! He saw him coming a hundred paces away, then twenty paces; but even more, He had seen this traitor every day since his conception, and He goes to meet him with this gentle word, ‘Friend.’” [CCD XII:159]

Solidarity calls us to follow Christ’s example fully, to “be ready for sacrifice, even the ultimate one: to lay down one’s life for the brethren,” even if an enemy. [Solicitudo Rei Socialis, 38]

This is a call we are not likely to face with the neighbors we serve, but we are called, as Bl Frédéric once said, not to give our lives all at once, but in all of our actions, a little bit each day, to “smoke night and day like perfume on the altar.” [Letter 90, to Curnier, 1835] May our sacrifice be known by “this gentle word, Friend.”


Do I see my service in the Society as a willing sacrifice?

Recommended Reading

Faces of Holiness

Contemplation – From This Day Forward

Contemplation – From This Day Forward 1080 1080 SVDP USA

On milestone anniversaries, married couples sometimes renew their vows, not as a way to atone for falling short of them, but as a way to celebrate their fidelity by refounding their marriage, beginning anew in different circumstances, but with the same commitment. In a similar way, Members of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul are called to “annually renew their promise of service to the members and to the poor.” [Rule, Part III, St. 4] It only makes sense that we would so celebrate our “relationships based on trust and friendship” with the poor. [Rule, Part I, 1.9]

And so, individually and collectively, we begin anew once every year, celebrating what has gone before, and recommitting ourselves to serve not only as we have, but in new ways, “striv[ing] for renewal, adapting to changing world conditions.” [Rule, Part I, 1.6] This has always been the way of the Society.

In 1848, following a revolution, a second failed revolution, and in the midst of a cholera epidemic, the Society faced greater needs among the poor than ever before, and along with the poor, faced new societal challenges. Addressing his fellow Vincentians, Bl. Frédéric asked “Is it enough to continue to do the little which we have been accustomed to do? When the hardships of the time are inventing new forms of suffering, can we rest satisfied with old remedies?” [Baunard, 274]

By no means was he advocating throwing out tradition. On the contrary, he was calling on the members to do all they had done before and more: to be more inventive, to seek out even the poor who did not call for help. In the wake of a failed revolution, after all, there were many who didn’t wish to draw any sort of attention to themselves. Our Rule continues to call us to this very commitment, not to simply wait for the phone to ring, but “to seek out and find those in need and the forgotten, the victims of exclusion or adversity.” [Rule, Part I, 1.5]

Our annual recommitment, like a renewal of marriage vows, is first a celebration of our growing closer to Christ, of serving Him exactly as He calls us to serve – in the poor, the sick, the lonely, the least among us. With great joy, we acknowledge, as our regular Conference Meeting prayers remind us, “the many blessings which we receive from those whom we visit.”

Second, again like the married couple renewing their vows, we promise not to take our spouse for granted, but instead to proactively seek new ways to serve the neighbor, not for our own sake, but for love alone.

After all, we, the church, are Christ’s spouse, and the poor, to us, are Christ.


How can I better serve and better love the neighbor?

Recommended Reading

A New Century Dawns

Contemplation — The Image of God

Contemplation — The Image of God 1080 1080 SVDP USA

The first of the four permanent principles of our Catholic social doctrine is the dignity of the human person. [CSDC, 160] What does that mean for us as Christians and as Vincentians? The word dignity comes from the Latin dignus, meaning “worthy.” In the normal interactions of life, we may not naturally apply this idea to everybody we know. We tend to apply terms like “dignitaries” or “worthies” mainly to a special few who have proved themselves in some way.

Yet our belief in the dignity of the human person – of every human person – derives from our belief that we are made in God’s image, each of us and all of us: “God created mankind in his image; in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” He didn’t create only one of us, or only some of us, in His image. We all are worthy.

We can remember this more easily when we think of our family members and close friends. They needn’t prove their merit in any way for us to know, deep in our hearts, that they are worthy. We believe this not because of anything they have done to earn our esteem, but simply because we love them.

Vincentians are called to see the face of Christ in our neighbors; we are called to serve them for love alone. Our love is the reason we never adopt the attitude that the assistance we offer is our possession, or that the neighbor has “to prove that they deserve it.” [Manual, 23] We are serving the God whom we love, and just like our family and friends – even more so – we already know that He is worthy.

This is why Christ offered the Greatest Commandment to us in two parts. They are alike, He said, and the “whole law” depends on them: to love God with all of our heart, soul, and mind, and to love the neighbor as ourselves. Our love for the neighbor cannot be separated from our love for God because the neighbor – each neighbor, every neighbor – is the very image of the God who created us.

In poverty and in wealth we have a tendency to measure our worth by the things we possess, or by the things we lack. We can begin to believe we are more worthy because we have a nice job, home, or car, or we can begin to believe we are less worthy because we are unemployed, addicted, or homeless. Neither is true, but both can separate us from God. The bread we bring to the hungry belongs to them already, because God did not create anybody so that they should starve, but it is in the bringing, not the bread, that we reassure the ones we love that they are indeed loved, and that they are worthy. It is how we “[help] them to feel and recover their own dignity”. [Rule, Part I, 1.8]

In a similar way, God’s gratuitous presence and love assures us that we are worthy, too. At the heart of our vocation is love. At the heart of our love is God.


Do I approach every home visit as if it is worth my time and effort?

Recommended Reading

Mystic of Charity (especially “Home Visits in the Vincentian Tradition”)

Contemplation: Doing More

Contemplation: Doing More 1080 1080 SVDP USA

There is an old saying that nobody, on his deathbed, ever said “I wish I had spent more time at the office.” Yet in a famous scene in the movie Monsieur Vincent, St. Vincent, near his own death, tells the queen that he has done nothing in his life. She asks then, if he has done nothing, what should the rest of us do? St. Vincent de Paul replies, “More.”

Vincent’s life’s work, though, was not a job! Likewise, for us, our work of charity is not a job, nor are we simply “volunteers”. Instead, ours is a vocation; it isn’t what we do, it is who we are. There is no question of “clocking out” for the day, for ours is a “vocation for every moment of our lives”. [Rule, Part I, 2.6]

A vocation is a calling; the word itself comes from the Latin vocāre, meaning “to call”. Every person is called; our church teaches, to the common vocation “to show forth the image of God and to be transformed into the image of the Father’s only Son.” [CCC, 1877] This common vocation takes a personal form, leading each of us to our particular road toward the perfection to which Christ directs us.

Our road is the Vincentian pathway. It leads us to Christ; it is our way of being Catholic. We sons and daughters of St. Vincent are called by his example to “love God…with the strength of our arms and the sweat of our brows.” [CCD XI:32] With these words, Vincent recalls that labor is the common lot of mankind since being cast out of Eden, sentenced to eat bread only by the sweat of our brows, but as Blessed Frédéric Ozanam put it, this “applies as much to the nourishment of the soul as of the body.” [Letter 6, to Materne, 1829]

Ours is not a job for pay, but a labor of love – to serve Him in the poor, the hungry, the lonely, and the desperate; to dry their tears, to offer our hearts, and to share with them this great hope that lights our path. “That is what is proposed to us, the sublime vocation God has given us.” Frédéric said. “Would that we were a little bit worthy of it and bent easily to its burden.” [Letter 90, to Curnier, 1835]

We needn’t be ashamed that we tire, from time to time, at the labor required to visit the poor, to stock the pantries, to answer the calls, to talk to the landlords, and even to fill out the paperwork, but let us always remember the Savior’s call to “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest.”

And let us also ask Blessed Frédéric to pray for us, as he did for his brothers, “that you may know your vocation and will not fail in the courage to follow it…” [Letter 387, to his brother Charles, 1842] In becoming Vincentians, we answered His call, and each time the Conference helpline rings, He is calling us again.


How can I seek to do “more”?

Recommended Reading

Walking the Vincentian Pathway

Contemplation: Justice, Charity, and Subsidiarity

Contemplation: Justice, Charity, and Subsidiarity 1080 1080 SVDP USA

One of the oldest traditions of the Society is our embrace of subsidiarity as our standard of operation. By this, we mean that Conferences and Councils have great freedom of action, empowering them to pursue local initiatives to help the poor spontaneously and effectively, without the burden of excessive bureaucracy. [Rule, Part I, 3.9] Bureaucracy, after all, is the hallmark not of Christian charity, but, as the word itself suggests, of what Bl. Frédéric referred to as “the assistance bureaus.” He explained that Conferences should instead keep in mind that each city “has different needs … and provides different resources” and not “tie [themselves] down with rules and formulas.” [Letter 82, to Curnier, 1834]

It only stands to reason, then, that it cannot be a remote Council that dictates the works of the Conferences, for it could have little basis to do so outside of “rules and formulas.” Councils instead exist not to supervise, but “to serve all the Conferences they coordinate.” [Rule, Part I, 3.6] As Emmanuel Bailly explained this relationship in an 1841 Circular Letter, Councils are “rather a link than a power” and in that link from Conferences to Councils and back, “there is neither authority nor obedience; there may be deference and advice; there is certainly, above all, charity; there is the same end, there are the same good works; there is a union of hearts in Jesus Christ, our Lord.” [Circ. Ltr. 14 Jul 1841]

Subsidiarity, then, works hand in hand with our Vincentian friendship, and our Cultural Belief in One Society. We are united by our Rule, by our Catholic faith, and by the celebration of our diversity in the many communities where we serve. We respect the Conferences’ determination of the best way to serve their communities in much the same way as Conferences are called to assume that the home visit team has “special insight into the best way to give help.” [Manual, 24]

Subsidiarity, of course, also is one of the four permanent principles of Catholic social doctrine, necessary to recognizing the dignity of the human person. It extends not only from Councils to Conferences, but to the neighbor, reminding us that it “gravely wrong to take from individuals what they can accomplish by their own initiative and industry and give it to the community.” [CSDC, 186]

This is one reason why, rather than dictating solutions for the neighbor, “Vincentians endeavor to help the poor to help themselves whenever possible, and to be aware that they can forge and change their own destinies and that of their local community.” [Rule, Part I, 1.10]

At times, it seems easier to simply dictate to others rather than allow them to make their own decisions, but subsidiarity calls Councils to respect the judgment of Conferences, Conferences of members, and members of neighbors. Subsidiarity, being rooted in respect for the dignity of the human person, is a measure of both justice and charity.


Are there times I become frustrated because I believe that “I know what’s best” for others?

Recommended Reading

The Rule, Part I

Contemplation — Rejoice in God Always

Contemplation — Rejoice in God Always 1080 1080 SVDP USA

In our works of charity, we come to know many neighbors whose circumstances seem so overwhelming that they begin to overwhelm us, too. It weighs on us, and we begin to suffer from what some call “compassion fatigue,” a sort of despair that perhaps what we do is simply not enough.

Our Rule reminds us that “in the poor [we] see the suffering Christ.” [Rule, Part I, 1.8] If we stop right there, it’s no wonder we despair. Yet every week at Mass, as we ponder the crucified Christ, there above the altar, we find peace in the reassurance of His great promise. On the cross, Jesus suffered unimaginably. Our very word in the English language for unbearable pain – excruciating – comes from the Latin ex cruce meaning “from the cross.” Yet to meditate upon that image brings us not sadness but joy; not despair, but hope.

That is because the faithful see the cross with hope-tainted eyes. We know Christ’s story does not end on that cross, and because of that, neither does ours. The cross is suffering, yes, but it is also redemption, it is also glory, it is also hope.

So, as we are called to see the suffering Christ in the neighbor, we also are called to see Him with the same hope-tainted eyes with which we gaze upon the crucifix. Both the neighbor’s troubles and our own will surely pass, and there is never a time that we should not, as Blessed Frédéric’s father advised him during a time of great sadness, “Gaudete in Domino semper.” (Rejoice in God always.) [Letter 160, to Laller, 1837]

To be sure, it is important to share the tears of the neighbor, but not without also sharing the hope of Christ. We can express our sympathy in no more sincere way than to share a tear, to bear with us part of the sadness, stress, or sometimes even anger that the neighbor may be feeling. This is, as St. Vincent once explained, “an act of love.” [CCD XII:221]

But to share only the despair is not our calling. “Help honors,” Blessed Frédéric wrote, “when it may become mutual.” [O’Meara, 229]

Vincentians serve in hope. Not merely the hope of paying a bill, because there always will be another bill. We serve in the eternal hope, “the great hope that cannot be destroyed,” and we “can always continue to hope, even if … there seems to be nothing left to hope for.” [Spe salvi, 35]

In suffering there is redemption, in the neighbor there is God, and in hope there is joy enough to share.


Why do I find it difficult to “rejoice in God always”?

Recommended Reading

Turn Everything to Love

Sign Up for Our Newsletter

    Skip to content