Formation

Contemplation — To Boldly Go

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The bold, five-year mission of the starship Enterprise was “to seek out new life and new civilizations” on “strange new worlds.” Vincentians, though constrained to our same old world, and not limited to a mere five years, are similarly called “to seek out and find those in need and the forgotten” in our mission of charity. [Rule, Part I, 1.5]

Our hands are full, it may seem, just answering the calls for help that arrive unannounced; our treasuries may strain to meet the needs presented to us. So why would we go around trying to find more? After all, don’t our neighbors find us, just as we receive donations, through God’s providence? Of course! But recall that trust in Providence is not a mandate to be merely passive. As Blessed Frédéric once wrote, “Providence does not need us for the execution of its merciful designs, but we, we need it and it promises us its assistance only on the condition of our efforts.” [Letter 135, to Bailly, 1836]

What greater or more important effort could we offer but to seek out those in need – especially the forgotten? After all, as both Moses and Jesus remind us, the land will never lack for needy persons and the poor will always be with us. The most needy may be forgotten by their neighbors and by society, but they are not forgotten by God, their Creator. It is exactly that message, that hope, that we are called to share on our home visits.

It is our respect for the dignity of every person that should motivate us to seek them, to find them, and to share God’s love in the form of bread, in the form of help, and most importantly in the form of our presence and love. We can never let the fear of a depleted treasury stop us from seeking out those most in need, because we know that “giving love, talents and time is more important than giving money.” [Rule, Part I, 3.14]

God does provide. He provides generously and lovingly. It is the will of God that our neighbors in need call us, and the will of God that enables us to help them. But as St. Louise reminds us, we must “never take the attitude of merely getting the task done.” [SWLM, A.85] We are not the Society of Bill Payments, we are the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, following the example of our Patron, as he in turn imitated Christ.

We are called to see the face of Christ. He is out there; not on a strange new world, but perhaps on a park bench, perhaps in a darkened apartment, perhaps in a hospital or prison. The world may have forgotten Him, but we hear His cry, and seek Him, unafraid.

Contemplate

Where can I go to find Christ, and how can I serve Him best?

Recommended Reading

Faces of Holiness

Contemplation: The Heart of the Matter

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There are times when the demands of serving the neighbor can weigh heavily on us, sometimes because there are so many calls to answer, and sometimes because our efforts often seem to be in vain; the poor remain poor, the struggling continue to struggle. We are called to serve in hope, but how do we raise our own spirits? How do we return to what Bl. Frédéric called “the rays of charity which at the beginning came sometimes to illuminate and warm our souls”? [Letter 90, to Curnier, 1835]

Our own physical rest and health, of course, is not only for our own benefit. As St. Vincent once explained to St. Louise in telling her to get some rest, “Increase your strength; you need it, or, in any case, the public does.” [CCD I:392] And as our Rule reminds us, “Vincentians are available for work in the Conferences only after fulfilling the family and professional duties.” [Rule, Part I, 2.6]

Resting our bodies is often enough to restore our energy, but not necessarily our zeal when we feel weighed down by the feeling that our work is not accomplishing enough; when the neighbor continues to struggle, no matter how much we help. It is at these times that it becomes most important to reflect deeply upon the nature of our works, and the purpose of our Society.

We are not the Society of Rental Assistance or Food Pantries. We serve in hope not only of offering some material relief, we serve in the hope of eternal life in Christ, and we visit the neighbor to share that hope through our friendship, our prayer, and our love.

In the history and traditions of the Society, and of the whole Vincentian Family, our visits have been not only to the poor in their homes, but to hospitals and prisons. As Chaplain of the Galleys, St. Vincent de Paul brought prayer, and hope, and the love of God to thousands of prisoners without freeing a single one. For the rest of his life, he could hardly speak about the galley prisoners without weeping.

The emotional burden we carry with us from sharing our neighbor’s suffering is part of our expression of love, and we can take great solace in knowing that we truly lighten their burdens by sharing them. And just as we share the neighbor’s burden, we pray that the neighbor may share our hope. We visit to show them that God has not forgotten them; that they too may share in the hope of everlasting life.

Knowing this hope in our own hearts, serving in His name and for His sake, may our hearts not be burned out, but on fire, and our souls “in a continuous state of joy and happiness”. [SWLM, A.14b]

Contemplate

Do I always seek first to offer the suffering of the neighbor to God, and the love of God to the neighbor?

Recommended Reading

The Spirituality of the Home Visit

Contemplation — At the Top of the Stairs

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The little Society of St. Vincent de Paul is alive and growing,” wrote Bl. Frédéric, “the extraordinary needs of this winter have reinvigorated the activity of our almsgiving.” [Letter 224, to Lallier, 1840] This was, he said, the way in which they strove to keep the fire of Christian brotherhood burning. But for this seven-year-old Society, “almsgiving” had already expanded to include the kind of works we now describe as “systemic change”.

Frédéric went on to explain that a “great many of our members have volunteered to help young ex-prisoners, and the excellent La Perrière is engaged in establishing preventive assistance.” [Ibid] Not content only to serve the needs of those already hungry and in poverty, the Conference at Lyon was working to help ex-prisoners make their way back into society and setting up other programs to help people avoid poverty in the first place. This only makes sense – as the old saying goes, we fight poverty, not the poor. So why would Vincentians not try to head it off at the pass?

Such approaches do not contradict our mission of person-to-person service, of seeing and serving Christ in the poor whom we visit. On the contrary, it is our home visits that give us the insights necessary to determine what sort of programs are most needed in our own communities. That is why the Rule explains that the “Society should work not only with individuals in need but also with families and communities.” [Rule, Part I, 7.9] Special Works and Systemic Change are, and have always been, the natural outgrowth of the home visit, and the regular practice of the Society. [Manual, p. 5]

Social scientists may do their studies, and offer insights in their publications, but it is as true today as it was in Frédéric’s time that “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, sitting by his bed side, feeling the same cold that pierces him, sharing the secret of his lonely heart and troubled mind.” [Baunard, 279] We are called not to simply drop the groceries at the top of those stairs and walk away, but to gain from our neighbors the knowledge Frédéric described, and put it to use beyond the home visit.

There is no act of charity that is not accompanied by justice,” St. Vincent wrote, “or that permits us to do more than we reasonably can.” [CCD II:68] Charity and justice go together in our church’s teaching, our Patron’s spirituality, and our founder’s example.

Justice places its demands on each of us and all of us, not just the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. And while justice and charity are inextricably bound together, Vincentians remain especially committed to solve those problems that we understand uniquely through the eyes of our neighbors, always “[making] charity accomplish what justice alone cannot do.” [Letter 136, to Lallier, 1836]

Contemplate

My Conference serves many individual needs. Can I add them up to a wider problem we can address?

Recommended Reading

Seeds of Hope

A Week in Prayers December 27 – December 30

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Tuesday, December 27

Lord Jesus Christ
Son of the Father, Son of Mary,
Help me to seek you in Your poor,
To imitate Your life,
To share in Your hope,
To be emptied of self,
And filled with You.
Amen

Wednesday, December 28

I walk in Your light, Lord Jesus.
In Your light is no darkness or sin.
You are the Savior, Light of the world,
That I seek my redemption within.
Amen

Thursday, December 29

Save me, Savior of the world,
Through Your sacrifice for all.

I will bear Your cross in suffering,
I will serve the poor as You,
I will love the Father above all else,
As You command, so shall I do.

Save me, Savior of the world,
Though I am unworthy and small.
Amen

Friday, December 30

Lord, bless my father and mother,
As they have blessed me in Your name.
May they live in Your love
For all of their days,
And rest in Your peace at the end.
Help me, in my weakness,
To honor them through my faith,
As Your Son honored You,
Along with His parents on earth.
Amen

Daily Prayers are written by Tim Williams, National Vincentian Formation Director.

Contemplation — Pray, Pray Again

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In advising a young priest who was departing to become the Superior of the Agde Seminary, Vincent offered guidance that was both deeply spiritual and profoundly practical – advice that remains pertinent to those in servant leadership in the Society today. [CCD XI:310-316]

He urges the new leader to focus on imitation of Christ, discernment of God’s will, and especially on the virtue of humility. Indeed, it is Christ’s humility that Vincent holds forth as an example to imitate. Christ, as leader of His disciples did not “lord it over them”, despite, in fact, being the Lord! He taught us that he had come not to be served, but to serve.

Vincent contrasts this very basic tenet with those who that you have to “make it clear you are Superior.” Instead, he emphasizes that the superior should live just like the others, and always seek God’s will in prayer and meditation, rather than rely on his own personal judgment. Observers should not be able to tell by watching how we live, which is the leader.

Again and again, he comes back to humility, and to imitation of Christ’s humility: The superior does not take personal satisfaction in the works or successes of the company, instead always attributing them to God. He does not offer his words of advice or make decisions without recourse to prayer and meditation to God. He asks God to tell him the needs of the others and to guide him in serving them.

No matter how dedicated we may feel that we are in our prayer lives, Vincent’s words here remind us how much more room there is for prayer and meditation – and how very practical this advice is. For those times when, even subconsciously, we think “this problem is not important enough to bring to God,” Vincent reminds us, echoing the Sermon on the Mount, that God counts even the hairs on our head. Not to bring our “little things” to Him more regularly is, in a sense, to deny the great humility of God’s incarnation in Christ; it is to elevate our own judgment in place of God’s.

As servant leaders, we should marvel each day that Providence led us to this place and to this role and pray that we are giving back to heaven all that we have been given. Perhaps this, from St. Vincent, should be one of our daily prayers:

Lord, what have I done to have such a ministry? What works of mine correspond to the responsibility being placed on my shoulders? Ah, my God, I’ll spoil everything if You yourself don’t guide all my words and works!”

Contemplate

How often do I pray for God’s guidance in all of my decisions and all of my works?

Recommended Reading

Praying with Vincent de Paul

Contemplation — A Persevering Fidelity

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As Vincentians, our primary purpose is our own growth in holiness. Achieving this is very closely tied to another core tenet of our spirituality, which is that our “ideal is to help relieve suffering for love alone, without thinking of any reward or advantage for [ourselves].” [Rule, Part I, 2.2] It only stands to reason that our ideal is also the greatest commandment, Christ’s express will that we love the neighbor as ourselves, for the love of God.

Saint Vincent de Paul once explained to the priests of the mission that in order to do this, we must make our intentions clear at the start. He suggested this prayer, which members of the Society might also consider offering before each home visit: “My God, I’m going to do this for love of You; for love of You I’m going to stop doing this thing in order to do something else.” [CCD XI:284]

Making this good intention, he said, is much like saying the words of the sacrament of Baptism – it isn’t the water that baptizes the child. Water is only matter; the prayer is the form. In a similar way, our charitable works, by themselves, are only matter if not expressly offered for the love of God alone.

There are many temptations that can distract us from this. Vincent described five vices that act contrary to our virtues: “(1) mere human prudence; (2) the desire for publicity; (3) always wanting everyone to give in to us and see things our way; (4) the pursuit of self-gratification in everything; (5) attaching no great importance to either God’s honor or the salvation of others.” [CCD XII:254]

So, for example, although we owe an accounting of our works to our donors, we can sometimes get too caught up in the narrative of our great successes, and even begin to see our works as achievements, forgetting “that giving love, talents and time is more important than giving money.” [Rule, Part I, 3.14]

Fr. Corpus Delgado, C.M., in a conference on St. Louise de Marillac, shared this great insight from her example: “To follow Jesus the Crucified Lord is to learn little by little that success is not one of the names of God, and that in our vocation and in our service, we are not asked for percentages of effectiveness but a persevering fidelity.” [CEME, Salamanca, 2010]

The home visit isn’t about the light bill, or the rent, or the groceries. If it were, we could leave those things at the doorstep. It’s about the love of God and the neighbor, which perhaps can’t be measured or reported but is exactly the thing that can lead to our growth in holiness, so that it is no longer we who love, but Christ who loves through us. [Rule, Part I, 2.1]

Contemplate

Do I make my intention clear to God before each work of charity?

Recommended Reading

The Manual

Contemplation — On Our Way

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One of the central activities of the Conferences and Councils of the Society is formation. Because we often use this word as a synonym for “training” we can begin to think of it as an isolated event, something to check off on a list when we join the Society or enter into specific positions. But formation is not a single event – it is a lifelong journey of becoming…of becoming what?

As Vincentians, we have chosen a specific way of being Catholic, and this way, this vocation, forms us. The Foundation Document on Vincentian Formation, adopted by the Society more than twenty years ago, suggests four different dimensions of formation, closely mirroring the areas outlined in Pastores dabo vobis, an apostolic exhortation on the formation of priests.

Our human formation, the basis for all formation, begins with our actions, which are shaped by our virtues. We become by doing, we build habits of virtue in order to become virtuous. For Vincentians, these include the Cardinal Virtues, the Theological Virtues, and our Vincentian Virtues.

Our spiritual formation has to do with the transcendent aspect of our nature; the aspect in which we are truly made in God’s image. Our spiritual formation reminds us that we are created to live in community. The model of the Holy Trinity reminds us that the eternal life is a shared life, and that our path to it is also shared. As Vincentians, we pray and reflect together often. Our spiritual reflections and prayers in each Conference meeting are a vital part of our ongoing formation. Our individual prayers, retreats, Mass – and prayers shared with the neighbor are all part of our spiritual formation. We journey together towards holiness. [Rule, Part I, 2.2]

Our training falls within our intellectual formation. The efforts we make to learn the practical aspects of our vocation, to learn about poverty, and about specific works and programs. But our intellectual formation also demands that we take the time to read about our heritage, the words and deeds of our saints and blessed, as well as to devote time to personal study of Holy Scripture.

Finally, ministerial formation comes from a commitment to our vocation as mission, accepting our service as a means to our growth, and remaining open to all ways to serve, including servant leadership.

Our particular way of being Catholic, our particular process of becoming, is our Vincentian vocation. We follow, in every part of our lives, our Vincentian pathway towards becoming what Christ calls us to be, “perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Contemplate

In what way was I formed today? How did I grow closer to holiness?

Recommended Reading

Faces of Holiness

Contemplation — He’s Right Over There

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Vincentians are people of prayer – it is central to our vocation. Equal to it, though, is our commitment to go out and do. In the doing, we receive God’s transformational grace; we grow closer to perfect union with Christ by serving Him exactly as he has asked us to do, in the person of the poor.

St. Vincent once offered an interesting analogy for the balance between contemplation and action, likening it to the dove that eats its fill, then chews more food only in order to feed it to the little birds. In the same way, he said, we “gather light and strength for our soul in meditation, reading, and solitude on the one hand, and then to go out and share this spiritual nourishment with others.” [CCD XI:33]

Yet we also acknowledge the truth that it is really we who receive. And so, our person-to-person service becomes mutual, as Frédéric taught that it must be. From us, the neighbor receives not only some material relief, but the assurance that God has not abandoned or forgotten them; that He loves them so much he sends us to listen and to pray with them. We, in turn, receive a true revelation and a conversion of our hearts.

In the life of St. Vincent, we note several important moments of conversion, transforming him from the young, ambitious priest seeking benefices and connections, to the humble servant of the poor. In 1617 especially, when he received the confession of the poor farmer in Gannes, and later that year encountering the poor farming family in Châtillon. Like most of us, he was not converted in a blinding flash on the road to Damascus. Instead, through a series of experiences, some of which he may not have even noticed at the time, his heart was turned fully towards Christ.

Spiritually, he had been influenced strongly by the teaching of several mystics, especially Benet of Canfield, whose Rule of Perfection would be echoed fifty years later in the Common Rules of the Congregation of the Mission. Yet he could be somewhat dismissive, at times, of mystic visions of God.

What Vincent came to understand viscerally through his own encounters with the poor is that if you wish to have a vision of Christ, well, he’s right over there! He is asking for food, or shelter. He is begging to be seen. If you want a revelation of His will, listen; listen with your ears, your eyes, and your heart to the cry of the poor.

We give our time, our talents, our possessions, and ourselves; we serve the will of God and of the poor in providing material assistance and prayer. When we do so, two or three of us together, the Christ who sent us is, as He promised, there with us, making every encounter a moment of revelation and conversion if we seek it.

Contemplate

When did I last see Christ, and what did He reveal to me?

Recommended Reading

Mystic of Charity

Contemplation — Enough

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We are called to see the face of Christ in those we serve. In imagining His face, it is easy to imagine the peaceful face portrayed in so many great works of art over the years, or the glorified Christ, or even Christ crucified on a clean cross at the front of our churches.

Which Christ, then, are we called to see? Christ, our Lord, risen in glory? Jesus of Nazareth, carpenter? Jesus the condemned, bloodied, and humiliated? For St. Vincent, the great lesson of the incarnation was that “Since Christ willed to be born poor … he made himself the servant of the poor and shared their poverty.” [Manual, 54] Through Vincent’s vision, we are called to see the carpenter, the unemployed, the single mom – all those neighbors who so regularly call our Conferences for help. He is there.

Blessed Frédéric’s vision reminds us that in the poor before us “we can 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.’” [Letter 137, to Janmot, 1837] We serve Him, and we also share in His suffering.

Who is Frédéric’s Jesus in our neighborhoods today? In whom can we see Christ’s scars? Who is wrapped in tattered clothing, wounded, unwashed; who sleeps in the cold, and on the street? From whom is it sometimes easier to turn away?

Do we “[speak] about them with euphemisms and with apparent tolerance”? Do we “look at those who suffer without touching them”? [Fratelli Tutti, 76] Do we offer them our prayers but not our hearts, wishing them to go in peace, but not providing for their needs? Are we sometimes paralyzed into inaction not by lack of charity, but by the fear that their needs are too great for our efforts?

As he walked towards Golgotha, Jesus stumbled under the weight of His cross. Veronica stepped forth, offered Him a cloth with which He wiped away the blood, sweat, and tears, and then continued on His way. Should she have held back, knowing she could not save Him from the cross?

There is not a Jesus of Frédéric or of Vincent. There is only one, and if we seek to see and to serve Him, we must remember that our smiles, kind words, handshakes, consolations, and prayers [O’Meara, 177] are not an extra thing for the neighbor without electricity, they are the most important thing we offer – especially to the neighbors who have nothing.

Do not be afraid. As He promised He will be with us to the end of the age.

Contemplate

Do I believe in my heart that my friendship, prayers, and love are enough?

Recommended Reading

500 Little Prayers for Vincentians

Contemplation — The Vincentian Tradition

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The Catholic Church teaches the importance of tradition in addition to Scripture. It is through tradition that the divine revelation is passed along from the Apostles to us. Tradition and Scripture “form one sacred deposit of the word of God”. [Dei Verbum, 10] It should be no surprise then, that the Society of St. Vincent de Paul is governed by both the Rule and by the traditions of the Society. [cf Rule, Part II, 7.4]

The Rule, of course, has been revised from time to time over the past 187 years, often in order to incorporate accumulated traditions into the Rule itself. One of the changes made to Part III of the Rule in the most recent revision (in 2018), was to slightly change the wording of Statute 7 to allow Conferences a little more flexibility in conducting their meetings, specifically so that they might have meetings wholly dedicated to spiritual reflection, but not necessarily including the “business” items of the agenda every week.

After all, “the end of the Society is especially to rekindle and refresh … the spirit of Catholicism,” Bl. Frédéric wrote, explaining further that “fidelity to meetings, and union of intention and prayer are indispensable to this end”. [Letter 182, to Lallier, 1838] In other words, while our home visits are the primary means to our growth in holiness, we cannot achieve that growth without meeting together regularly in prayer and reflection.

The Manual further explains our Rule and is one of the best resources for understanding our traditions. In the case of the meeting agenda, for example, the Manual makes clear that “Every Conference meeting includes a spiritual component that promotes active participation and discussion.” [Manual, p. 18] While there is not a prescribed form for the spiritual reflection, both the Rule and Manual explain that the center of it is discussion and sharing between members.

Writing about the meetings of the first Conference, Bl. Frédéric related that they were reading and discussing The Imitation of Christ, and the Life of St. Vincent de Paul in their meetings, for example. [Letter 175, to Lallier, 1838] More recently, using tools such as the Spirituality of the Home Visit booklet, many Conferences have begun using home visit reports as the basis for their reflections. In this way, all members, not just the visitors, benefit from the visitors’ experience. In turn, by adding their own insights, they enrich everybody’s growth.

Through our spiritual reflections, we seek to explicitly connect our service, spirituality, and friendship. This is one of our most precious traditions, if we believe, as Bl. Frédéric did, “that visiting the poor should be the means and not the end of our association.” [Letter 182, to Lallier, 1838]

Contemplate

How can I better foster shared growth in holiness in my Conference?

Recommended Reading

The Manual

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