Contemplation

Contemplation: Our Call to Servant Leadership

Contemplation: Our Call to Servant Leadership 940 788 SVDP USA

When we think of leaders, we are acculturated to envision military commanders, heads of state, celebrity CEOs, and the like; dynamic, charismatic, larger than life. Leaders, we are taught, are “large and in charge.” It is difficult, then, for most of us to believe that we can be that person; that we are called to leadership. But if you are a Vincentian, you are called.

Rather than the province of kings and generals, ours is a special type of leadership, modeled for us by Christ Himself. Most memorably, in the Gospel of John, Christ washed the feet of the disciples, afterwards explaining: “You call me ‘teacher’ and ‘master,’ and rightly so, for indeed I am. If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet. I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do.”

In a passage that was a favorite of St. Vincent’s, Christ further explained the role of a leader, saying, “let the greatest among you be as the youngest, and the leader as the servant.”

A Vincentian servant leader, such as a Conference President, is not called to be the boss or the commander. Rather than making all the decisions, Presidents fulfill the decisions of the Conference members.

In 1651, one of Vincent’s confrere superiors wrote to him, complaining of the men in his care, even going so far as to complain that he “preferred to direct animals rather than men.” In reply, Vincent explained that this approach “is true of those who want everything to give way to them, nothing to oppose them, everything to go their way, people to obey them without comment or delay, and, in a manner of speaking, to be adored.”

But that, Vincent explained, is not our way. He reminded the missioner that leaders should “consider themselves the servants of others, who govern in the light of how Our Lord governed.” [CCDIV:181-182]

Christ could have come to us as a king, a warrior, or a man of wealth. Instead, as Frédéric pointed out, he “was hidden for thirty years in the workshop of a carpenter.” [Complete Works, Lecture 24, quoted by Gregory] He “did not come to be served but to serve…” [Matthew 20:28]

In the Society, the person does not seek the office, the office seeks the person. [Manual, 35] Servant leaders are called less to be something, than to do something; we are called not to be “large and in charge,” but instead, to be small, and for all.

Contemplate

Am I called right now to servant leadership? To be an officer, committee chair, or something else?

Recommended Reading

Characteristics of a Vincentian Servant Leader

Contemplation: More Ancient and Therefore More Sacred

Contemplation: More Ancient and Therefore More Sacred 940 788 SVDP USA

Our Rule calls us to be a “voice for the voiceless,” helping the poor and disadvantaged to speak for themselves, but also, when necessary, speaking on their behalf. [Rule, Part I, 7.5] But where do we begin? To whom do we speak? And who are we to presume to speak for anybody?

Blessed Frédéric once pointed out that “the knowledge of social well-being and of reform is to be learned, not from books, nor from the public platform, but in climbing the stairs to the poor man’s garret…” [Baunard, 279] It is through the relationships we form on our Home Visits that we gain an understanding of poverty that cannot be learned by all the academic study in the world. It is this knowledge, and this spirit of friendship with our neighbors in need that gives us our voice.

Like many Vincentians, I think, one of the most eye-opening things I learned when I first began doing Home Visits was how much poverty there was right in my own neighborhood. In most communities, there is no shortage of people willing to help, but there are many people who are quite convinced that poverty is a problem that exists primarily in far-off places; not in their own city, town, or suburb.

What a service we can do simply to let our own communities know that their neighbors are in need. Imagine the outpouring that might happen if people only knew how many were hungry, how many were being evicted, or how many were sitting in the dark after the power had been shut off.

This knowledge we have gained is not our secret to keep, but our sacred trust to fulfill.

Advocacy by Vincentians is not partisan in any sense. Indeed, Frédéric once described the Society as “a community of faith and works erasing little by little the old divisions of political parties…” [Letter 290, to Amelie, 1841] As members, the Rule stated in 1835, we should “abstain from being inflamed by political leanings which array parties in opposition, and from starting among themselves those irritating questions which divide mankind. Our Society is all charity: politics are wholly foreign to it.”

No community, no government, no political party can even begin to solve problems that they do not understand. Among other groups, dedication to the poor may be fleeting, and may change with times or fashions.

We will always remain dedicated, and we will always be a voice for the voiceless, because we believe, with Blessed Frédéric, that this cause is “more ancient and, therefore, more sacred.” [Baunard, 301]

Contemplate

What do my friends and neighbors know about the needs in their communities?

Recommended Reading

Voice of the Poor Guide

Contemplation: To Have A Friend

Contemplation: To Have A Friend 940 788 SVDP USA

Sometimes, caught up in the bustle of our lives, we allow our Home Visits to become transactional: pay the bill, say a prayer, and move on. We love our neighbors no less for this habit! Indeed, it’s important to keep the lights on, to avoid the eviction, and to provide food! The situations are often dire, and the assistance we offer can seem like first aid. But is this enough if our Home Visits are “the means, not the end of our association?” [Letter 182, to Lallier, 1838] Can our growth in holiness be transactional?

Father Dennis Holtschneider once offered this useful exercise for measuring how well we are living our Rule: would an outside observer write these words to describe how we behave? Watching me paying a bill and move on, would that observer say, “wow, he really establishes relationships based on trust and friendship!” [Rule, Part I, 1.9]

For the past ten years (or so) the Society has promoted a concept called “Systemic Change,” which is often misapprehended as if it were something new. It isn’t! Its roots run as deep as the Society itself, in which the very first Conference in 1833 did not merely drop off food or firewood, but adopted families in need, visiting them regularly, seeking to truly walk with them, and change their lives.

It isn’t easy. Bl. Frédéric said so himself. He once recounted that on his earliest visits, he would drop the firewood and exit as quickly as possible. As time went on, he grew in his understanding of what Christ had modeled, and what was asked of us who seek to follow Him; he saw that firewood alone is not “help which honours.” [O’Meara, 229]

Trust and friendship are built over time, not all at once or instantly. Sometimes our one bag of groceries is truly all that is needed, but how would it be if we took the time to call and check in a few weeks or months later? We will not only see how they are, we will show who we are: friends.

In 1841, Frédéric wrote about the hundreds of families who had received food from the Society, but also about the boys who received schooling, young men placed in apprenticeships, and “future tears” dried because of the loving friendship of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. [Letter 290, to Amelie, 1841]

The letter of James, a favorite of Bl. Frédéric’s, reminds us of the importance of caring for “the necessities of the body.” These needs are the primary reason our neighbors come to us, but they are not the primary reason we go to them. We are called to see and to serve Christ in the person of the poor; to put our “hand in their wounds,” as Frédéric said. [Letter 137, to Janmot, 1836]

But Christ asks more of us than merely to recognize Him, he calls us to follow Him and to walk with Him, not only for one day. To have a friend, you have to be a friend. We serve in the hope that both the poor and Christ will say to us: “I no longer call you servants. I call you friends.” [John 15:15]

Contemplate:

How can I be a better friend to those in need?

Recommended Reading:

Serving in Hope Module VII, Our Vincentian Home Visit

Contemplation: Connected by Unbroken Spokes

Contemplation: Connected by Unbroken Spokes 940 788 SVDP USA

In 2018, a list of Cultural Beliefs was added to our Rule, better defining for us the commitments we make in this vocation. Among them is the commitment to “contribute to the success of our Vincentian work when we support One Society.” [Rule, Part III, Statue 2] Although only added to the text of the Rule in recent years, this ideal of solidarity was dear to our founder, Blessed Frédéric Ozanam.

As it has always been, the work of the Society is done by individual members, visiting in pairs to serve the poor in their neighborhoods, and meeting and praying frequently with their local Conferences. With respect for the principle of subsidiarity, Conferences, within the limits of the Rule, govern themselves. It would be quite possible, if you chose, to go a very long time without so much as being aware of any Vincentians from other Conferences. But we are called to choose otherwise!

Even without seeing one another, “what magic there is in words from afar and in the approbation of so great a number of friends,” Frédéric wrote, likening the bonds between Conferences to the living and life-giving bonds between conjoined twins. [Letter 169, to Lallier, 1838] Celebrating a local success in Paris, he was quick to add that “our moral strength…comes from other conferences in Paris and the provinces. This solidarity raises us in the eyes of the world at the same time that it gives us confidence.” [Letter 173, to Lallier, 1838]

Each new member, each new Conference, immediately inherits 188 years of tradition, becomes part of a network of charity spanning the globe in 152 countries, on all five continents. Each Conference, with its local character and concerns, enriches and is enriched by the greater whole. That is why Frédéric cautioned that the Society’s growth is not important without “unity in proportion as the circle widens, each of its points connected with the center by unbroken spokes.” [Letter 137, to Janmot, 1837]

This unity, this solidarity, is the reason we have District, Diocesan, and National Councils, it is the reason we have an annual National Assembly, and the reason we celebrate Vincentian Feast Days together. Following one such celebration, Frédéric marveled that “at the same hour, thirty other conferences established in the farthest removed sections of the country celebrated the same solemnity. How can there not be given some hope to such a strength of association?” [Letter 310, to Amelie, 1841]

As we seek to serve Christ in the person of the poor, we constantly bless and are blessed by our fellow Vincentians, assuring each other “that we are not alone, and that our works and prayers are surrounded with much better works and prayers, which protect them against corruption from without and draws upon them the blessing of heaven.” [Letter 165, to Bailly, 1837]

Contemplate:

Do I meet with members from other Conferences, and remember them in my prayers?

Recommended Reading:

Antoine-Frédéric Ozanam

Contemplation: The Spirit of Youth

Contemplation: The Spirit of Youth 940 788 SVDP USA

The Society of St. Vincent de Paul is blessed with many active youth and young adult members, whose fresh enthusiasm for the Lord’s work infuses all of us with renewed energy in our vocation. Like the first Conference, formed by young men barely out of their teens, we seek out and welcome young members! For the rest of us, though, our own advancing age does not excuse us, as our Rule reminds us, from striving “to preserve the spirit of youth.” [Rule, Part I, 3.5]

Blessed Frédéric often invoked the spirit of youth in his speeches and writing, beginning when he was a student. He was acutely aware that others might find him “very rash to propose [his] young man’s ideas,” [Letter 85, to Bailly, 1834] yet he proposed them anyway. He even went so far as to once say that his ideas really were not even his own, but “the echo of the young Christian people among whom I live.” [Letter 97, to Curnier, 1835]

It was Frédéric’s vision not only that a network of charity might encircle the world, but that renewing the faith in young people would carry on throughout their lives, and in turn light a fire in the hearts of their countrymen. Recognizing the Society as “a vocation for every moment of our lives,” [Rule, Part I, 2.6] he believed it could help to prepare “a new generation which would carry into science, the arts, and industry, into administration, the judiciary, the bar, the unanimous resolve to make it a moral country and to become better themselves in order to make others happier.” [Letter 290, to Amelie, 1841]

Throughout his life Frédéric continued not only to call on young people to serve, but to be energized by the fire of the young people in his classes and in the Society, by what our Rule calls their “enthusiasm, adaptability and creative imagination.” [Rule, Part I, 3.5]

As Vincentians, we grow together in holiness and in friendship, challenged by youth to greater energy and ambition; tempered by age to seek the achievable; each of us at our stage in life blessed by the gifts of all the others, united in work that is ageless and timeless.

Founded 188 years ago, the Society itself “is not old,” wrote Ozanam biographer Monsignor Louis Baunard. Rather, “it is, and continues to be, young with eternal youth, with the youth of Charity that knows not decay.” [Baunard, 416]

“Life is however not standing still,” Frédéric wrote late in his life, “and I shall have to seize whatever little youth remains…and to keep my 18-year-old promise to God.” [Baunard, 331]

Contemplate

As I grow older, how do I keep my promise to God young?

Recommended Reading

The Frédéric Ozanam Story

Contemplation: Man’s Best Friend

Contemplation: Man’s Best Friend 940 788 SVDP USA

Ours is a ministry of presence. For all the bread, for all the rent, for all the material things we may at times provide, there is nothing more important, nothing more valuable, and nothing more lasting than simply to be in the presence of our neighbors in need.

This is sometimes difficult to remember because we Vincentians are people of action. We want to identify the problem and fix it! Efficient “interviews,” though, are not what makes the Society unique. There are hundreds of agencies ready to dig for information in the name of solving the problem.

But what the suffering poor need much more than a thorough form to fill out is somebody who will sit with them; who will share their sadness, if only for a moment. Like a true friend.

Blessed Rosalie Rendu, who taught and inspired the earliest members of the Society, genuinely enjoyed being in the company of the poor. She would often go to the soup kitchen and spend hours there in conversation. In Queen by Right Divine, biographer Kathleen O’Meara recounts that men who “came for their plate of rice and beans” would often confide to Rosalie “almost unawares, some secret of moral or physical misery worse than the hunger they had come to assuage.” [P. 73]

They didn’t share their stories in response to a list of questions, or an application form; they opened up to a friend who cared about them, who respected them, and who loved them. Somebody who was with them because that was where she wanted to be.

Our Rule calls us to “establish relationships based on trust and friendship.” [Rule, Pt. I, 1.9] It was trust and friendship that led those men in the soup kitchen to open up to Rosalie; her trust in them, and her friendship towards them, inspired them to respond in kind.

In 1869 Florence Nightingale found that patients often responded more to dogs than to people. Modern science has found that a dog’s presence can not only relieve anxiety but can even lower blood pressure. Dogs seem to sense when a person is sad, and simply sit alongside them, asking nothing in return. People even open up and speak to dogs about their problems.

A dog doesn’t answer, offer advice, or solve your problem. He’s just there, fully and completely, for you.

Imagine if we could take the first steps towards the holy example of Blessed Rosalie by learning from the example of “man’s best friend!”

Contemplate

On my Home Visits, do I sometimes interrupt the silence?

Recommended Reading

A Heart on Fire – especially III. “A Network of Presence and Charity”

Contemplation – Filled With God for the Day

Contemplation – Filled With God for the Day 940 788 SVDP USA

Vincentians are people of prayer. Together as Conferences, we pray to open and close each meeting, retreat, and reflection; we attend Mass together on our Vincentian feast days; we ask God’s blessings upon each other and upon the neighbors we serve. We are, as Blessed Frédéric often said, “united in works and prayers.” [Letter 135 to Bailly,1836]

Our Vincentian vocation, though, is not limited to our Conference meetings or to our works, but is “a vocation for every moment of our lives.” [Rule, Part I, 2.6] Our call to prayer is an individual one. We hear this call repeated throughout our Rule: we “pray before personal encounters or visits” [Part I, 1.7]; we promote “a life of prayer and reflection;” and our “personal lives are characterized by prayer…” [Part I, 2.2]

Saint Vincent de Paul famously began each day with three hours of prayer. And what better way to start the day? Conversing with a God who loves us so much, St. Vincent taught, we will “rise promptly and joyously.” [CCD X:101] Beyond that, he advised, “prayer being your first occupation, your mind may be filled with God for the rest of the day.” [CCD IX:23]

We humble ourselves in prayer, but dwell “more on His strength than on [our] own weakness” in the hope that He will accomplish His good in us and through us. In prayer, we abandon ourselves to what Vincent called “His paternal embrace,” [CCD V:166] and what Frédéric called “the maternal guidance of Providence.” [Letter 310 to Amelie, 1841]

Finally, in our individual prayer, we remember not only to lay out our own needs before God, but the needs of our Vincentian friends. Frédéric once described this mutuality of prayerful intentions as the “one rendezvous where Christian souls are sure of meeting and conversing together.” [Letter 493 to Dufieux, 1843]

Vincentians are people of prayer. It is the basis of our friendship, of our meetings, and of our service. It is through our prayer that we daily recommit ourselves to our vocation, to each other, and to Divine Providence.

Amen!

Contemplate

Is prayer a part of my day — every day?

Recommended Reading

15 Days of Prayer With Blessed Fredric Ozanam

Contemplation – The Joy of Angels

Contemplation – The Joy of Angels 940 788 SVDP USA

To trust in Providence and to do God’s will are two sides of the same coin. After all, without trust in His Providence, doing His will would be merely a chore that would quickly become burdensome. Instead, it should be for us a source of joy!

Our Rule tells us that our Conference meetings are held in a spirit of “Christian joy.” [Rule, Part I, 3.4] How quickly that spirit of joy went missing in the early days of the Society, Blessed Frédéric recounted to his friend Léonce Curnier, when the Conference began “fulfilling [its] duties from habit,” and was “stricken with a general discouragement.” [Letter 90, 1835]

How could it be otherwise if we merely deliver bread and pay bills; if we let our works become … work?

Like our Patron, we seek to “love God with the strength of our arms and the sweat of our brows,” [CCD XI:32]  That sounds an awful lot like work, but it is a labor, quite explicitly, of love! Knowing this, we soon see that however challenging it may be at times, “those very things that we thought would cause us pain, on the contrary give us joy.” [CCD X:50]

Charity itself is not work, but love – the love of God. That is why, as St. Vincent teaches, “God does not consider the outcome of the good work undertaken but the charity that accompanied it.” [CCD I:205] The outcome is never up to us, but when we seek to do His will, we can trust the outcome to His providence.

And so, through prayer, discernment, and reflection, individually and in our Conferences, we seek to know God’s will. As Vincentians, our ultimate goal is for God’s will to become our own, so that “it will be no longer [we] who love, but Christ who loves through [us]” [Rule, Part I, 2.1]

Benet of Canfield, a great influence on St Vincent, taught that God’s will is “all the whole spiritual life.” That is why, for Vincent, “the goodness of God, the Will of God, the pleasure of God, and the joy of God” were of one piece. [CCD X:86]

To do God’s will is not to labor in vain, but to serve in hope, and to rejoice in hope!

At the beginning of every Conference meeting, we say the Lord’s Prayer, asking that His will be done on earth as it is in heaven. “Not as it is in Hell, where it is done of necessity,” Bl. Frédéric once explained, “nor among men, where it is often done with murmuring, but as it is in Heaven, with the love and the joy of angels.” [Baunard, 343]

Contemplate

When I feel that I am doing His will, do I open my heart to joy?

Recommended Reading

Instead of reading, watch this particularly joyful rendition of Ode to Joy from Beethoven’s Ninth.

Contemplation: A Voice That Speaks To Our Hearts

Contemplation: A Voice That Speaks To Our Hearts 940 788 SVDP USA

On his way to Damascus, Saul of Tarsus, feared Roman tormentor of the early Christians, was struck from his horse, temporarily blinded by a great bolt of lightning, and commanded by Christ Himself to cease his persecution. Soon after, he began to preach God’s word as Paul the Apostle.

For most of us, our moments of conversion are not so obvious. Instead, they require senses that are both open and willing to perceive a light, silent sound, a tiny whispering voice, a voice that speaks only to our hearts.

God speaks often enough to our heart,” St. Vincent assures us, “it’s up to us to be attentive to His voice…” [CCD X:128] It’s easy for a quiet voice to be lost in the moment; to be drowned out by our daily stresses. It’s easy to let those stresses harden our hearts.

As Vincentians, we are called to see Christ’s face in those we serve. We pray and prepare to see Him before every home visit. Shouldn’t we also seek to hear His voice?

The voice that says to us “I need your help,” also is whispering, quietly but insistently, “I am here.”

If we don’t understand Him immediately, that’s okay. God speaks outside of time; His voice is still there to be heard when we pause to reflect on our experiences, to discern what He is telling us. We do this through individual contemplation and prayer, but also through Apostolic Reflection within our Conferences, relying on what Father Hugh O’Donnell describes as St. Vincent’s “absolute conviction that ‘God is here!’”

Our hearts are converted in many small moments, calling us sometimes to leaps, but more often to smalls steps of faith, “content to see the stone on which we should step without wanting to discover all at once and completely the windings of the road.” [Letter 136. To François Lallier, 1836]

Like Saul walking in blindness down the road to Damascus, we take our first, stumbling steps, however small they are, knowing that “God is especially pleased to bless what is little and imperceptible: the tree in its seedling, man in his cradle, good works in the shyness of their beginnings.” [Letter 310, to Amelie, 1841]

Contemplate

Reflect on a recent Vincentian experience. Can you hear God’s voice?

Recommended Reading

Apostolic Reflection with Rosalie Rendu

Contemplation – Putting Ourselves First?

Contemplation – Putting Ourselves First? 940 788 SVDP USA

To become a member of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul is to dedicate ourselves to serving others, to “love God…with the strength of our arms and the sweat of our brows.” We hope that our works always are characterized by the Vincentian virtue of selflessness.

And yet, as Bl. Frédéric put it, “it is in our own interest first of all that our association has been established, and if we assemble under the roof of the poor, it is at least equally for them as for ourselves, so as to become progressively better friends.” [82. To Curnier, 1834]

It is an idea he repeated often, and one that remains in our Rule today, “that the end of the Society is especially to rekindle and refresh … the spirit of Catholicism…and that visiting the poor should be the means and not the end of our association.” [182 to Lallier, 1838]

If the Society was formed in our own interest first, what happened to selflessness? Even Frédéric once remarked on the “egoism which is at the bottom of our work…” [82. To Curnier, 1834]

Recalling the Society’s founding, when the young Catholics were challenged to show the good of the church in the world. Frédéric’s answer was not merely to bring bread and firewood to the poor, but, through these works of charity, to share Christ’s love and promise of salvation.

Our works feed our charity, and our charity feeds our friendship, which is what Aquinas calledthe friendship of charity, which is God.”

This friendship grows through our “community of faith and works erasing little by little the old divisions of political parties and preparing [us] to become better … in order to make others happier.” [290, to Amelie, 1841]

As the Apostle John reminds us, “whoever does not love a brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. This is the commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother.”

We make our home visits for love alone; the most important thing we share with our neighbors is ourselves.

In other words, if our purpose in the Society is to better ourselves, it is ultimately for the benefit of others; to make of ourselves more worthy gifts.

Contemplate

Do I see the face of Christ in my fellow Vincentians?

Recommended Reading

Praying with Louise de Marillac, especially Meditation 14: Love One Another

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