Contemplation: A Union of Hearts

Contemplation: A Union of Hearts 940 788 SVDP USA

Subsidiarity, Pope Pius XI taught, is a “most weighty principle, which cannot be set aside or changed, remains fixed and unshaken in social philosophy”. [Quadregesimo Anno, 79]  Indeed, more than ninety years later, it remains one of the four core principles of Catholic Social Doctrine. [CSDC, 160] Given Blessed Frédéric’’s influence on the Church’s social teachings, it should come as no surprise that subsidiarity is and has always been a core principle of the Society, also.

Our Catechism explains that subsidiarity means that “a community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order” leaving most decisions to the smallest associations, beginning with the family. Subsidiarity, it further clarifies, “aims at harmonizing the relationships between individuals and societies.” [CCC, 1883-1885]

For the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, this means that most of the decisions are made by Conferences, which are “as close as possible to the area of activity” and that in this way, “the Society promotes local initiatives within its spirit.” [Rule, Part I, 3.9]

This principle has been recognized since the Society’s earliest days. When Léonce Curnier was starting a new Conference in Nîmes in 1834, he wrote to Frédéric, seeking guidelines that the Paris Conference had followed. In his reply, Frédéric cautioned his friends against tying themselves down with “rules and formulas”, and instead being guided by Providence through the circumstances around them. After all, he explained, “the end that we set ourselves in Paris is not completely the same as that you set yourselves, I think, in the province.” [Letter 82, to Curnier, 1834]

In an 1841 Circular Letter written when he was serving as our first President-General, Emmanuel Bailly reflected on the formation of Councils during the Society’s rapid growth, explaining that Councils are “rather a link than a power” because from each Conference to the Council General 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]

In our social teachings, subsidiarity affirms “priority of the family over society and over the State” as the “first natural society”. [CSDC, 209, 214] Our Society was born as a single Conference. The principle of subsidiarity reserves to each Conference great freedom to act according local circumstances, conditions, and considerations It equally imposes a responsibility to be faithful the Scripture, to our Rule, and to our worldwide network of friends in this One Society.


Faithful to the spirit of the founders, how can I use “creative imagination” to better serve the neighbor?

Recommended Reading

Mystic of Charity

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 – 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.

Daily Prayers May 2 – May 6

Daily Prayers May 2 – May 6 940 788 SVDP USA

Monday, May 2

Lord, in my anger calm me
With the peace of knowing Your love
In my impatience reassure me
With the peace of trusting Your will
In my suffering comfort me
With the peace of Your kingdom above

Tuesday, May 3:

Lord Jesus, I thank You for Your sacrifice
That greatest act of love
Help me to give my life for You
Repaying to heaven
All that I have received
One prayer, one act, one day at a time

Thursday, May 5:

Lord Jesus You are
My one and my all
My light and my hope
My way and my truth
My death and my life
My Lord and my God

Friday, May 6:

Lord, like the morning sun
That begins to glimmer
At the edge of darkness,
Like the parting rainclouds,
Your kingdom comes.
When darkness falls,
When rain rolls in,
When flowers fold at night
Your kingdom remains
On earth as in heaven.
Help me to do Your will.
Daily Prayers are written by Tim Williams, National Vincentian Formation Director. 

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 – 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

Contemplation – Save Space for the Neighbor

Contemplation – Save Space for the Neighbor 940 788 SVDP USA

The spiritual dimension of our Vincentian formation is based on the understanding that we are created to live in community, to grow in faith together. This is why we always visit the neighbor in pairs, and this is why we share reflections on our service and our faith at our Conference meetings. We are a community of faith, growing closer to one another as we grow closer to Christ.

Just as the example of the Holy Trinity shows us that the divine life is a shared life, we see that our pathway to that life also is shared. “Following the example of the Blessed Trinity,” St Louise said, “we must have but one heart and act with one mind as do the three divine Persons.” [Sp. Writings, 771]

In our Conferences, we fill our meeting rooms, however few or many we may be. We build true Christian friendships, where “the strongest tie, the principle of a true friendship, is charity” as Blessed Frédéric wrote. [Letter 82, to Curnier, 1834]

Charity, the Catechism reminds us, is not merely to give things, but to “love God above all things for his own sake, and our neighbor as ourselves for the love of God.” [Catechism, 1822] Charity is not our practice, but our gift; a love “which multiplies itself, which is present in many places at once, and whose intensity is increased in the measure that it gains in extension.” [Letter 107, to Curnier, 1835]

Our community of faith, then, is not meant to be a gated community! Just as we welcome new members to share in our works, our prayer, and our friendship, so our Rule reminds us to “establish relationships based on trust and friendship” with the neighbor. [Rule, Part I, 1.9]  It is vital to offer our material assistance, our works, but ultimately we seek to serve for love alone. [Rule, Part I, 2.2]

We Catholics have a habit, when Mass is sparsely attended, of spreading out to all four corners, from entrance to altar, from aisle to aisle, with ten feet and two pews between us. You could call it “Catholic distancing”, or you could see it another way: we fill the church as best we can, but always save space for more to join us, not in the back, but in our midst.


How can I better “save space” and welcome the neighbor into a community of faith?

Recommended Reading

Face of Holiness

Contemplation – Small Things Compose Great Things

Contemplation – Small Things Compose Great Things 940 788 SVDP USA

Today’s Society of St. Vincent de Paul, with nearly a million members worldwide, may fairly be said to have fulfilled Blessed Frédéric’s vision of a “network of charity and social justice encircling the world.” [Rule, Part I, 2.2] Let’s pause to consider, though, that it is neither our combined strength, nor less our loud voices that impact the world, but our small and humble acts, performed by two or three in His name, which quietly bear witness to the power of God’s love.

From the earliest days, Frédéric recognized the importance of small Conferences, observing that rapid growth had caused the first Conference “lose in intensity what [it gained] in expansion.” He said the meetings were “nearly always concerned with business” and seemed long. [90, to Curnier, 1835] Of course, he did not propose to reduce the number of members, but to increase the number of Conferences; Conferences small enough to serve personally, and to grow together in holiness, as friends.

Perhaps he was unconsciously aware of the now well-observed psychological phenomenon of “diffused responsibility,” in which the more people are present, the less responsibility each one feels to offer help, even when help is desperately needed. Vincentians are called to form relationships based on trust and friendship; to see in our neighbors the face of Christ; to serve them, person to person, for love alone.

Our Conferences are first and foremost communities of faith, not administrative subdivisions of a Council that commands them. On the contrary, it is the Council that exists to support the Conference, so that each Conference can do its work, as Frédéric put it, “by your own strength, under the inspirations of your heart, under the influence of local circumstances…” [90, to Curnier, 1835]

For its part, the Conference supports its members, who “meet as brothers and sisters with Christ in the midst of them, in Conferences that are genuine communities of faith and love, of prayer and action.” [Rule, Part I, 3.3] Members, in turn, see and serve the poor, each of them individually. It is the home visitors, not the Society writ large, who are assumed to have special insight into the best way to help.

There is, as the saying goes, strength in numbers, and we can rightly be proud of the great and providential presence of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul around the world. But as Thomas Paine once said, “‘Tis not in numbers, but in unity, that our great strength lies.” [Common Sense]

Indeed, our unity is expressed not in numbers, but in faith, in friendship, and in service. As our Rule says, “In every Conference throughout the world and in their personal lives, Vincentians raise their prayers to God, united with the prayer of Christ, on behalf of one another and their masters the poor, whose suffering they wish to share.” [Rule, Part I, 2.3]


Do I always accept my personal responsibility to serve, no matter how many other people are around?

Recommended Reading

Ozanam’s Letter 90

Contemplation – The Best Way to Help

Contemplation – The Best Way to Help 940 788 SVDP USA

“In appearing again before you after the great events that have taken place,” Frédéric said in a classroom lecture in 1848, “I am happy to say that, looking back over six years of lectures, I do not recollect one word which I shall have to unsay today.” [Baunard, 261]

For a man of so many words, both written and spoken, to be able to say this is testament to our founder’s embodiment of the virtue of simplicity – frankness, integrity, genuineness. [Rule, Part I, 2.5.1] Always saying in the first instance exactly what we mean relieves us of the need to “walk back” statements we have made.

In serving the neighbor, we should never avoid frankness; frankness builds trust. At the same time, we are called to act always with gentleness, and to judge the need, not the person. Vincentians “do not judge those they serve.” [Rule, Part I, 1.9]

Imagine a neighbor who just can’t seem to hold on to a job for very long, and constantly calls for more assistance. Would it be truly honest, truly simple, to say, “we can’t help you anymore”? After all, if the same neighbor were to call next year, having fallen a little short despite keeping a new job for a year, wouldn’t you need to “unsay” that statement in order to help again?

For that neighbor who can’t hold on to a job, we rarely know the reason, although we might suspect. But as St. Vincent reminds us, “Suspicions are often deceiving.” [CCD IV:85]  Rather than walk away, or make an accusation based on our suspicions, why not ask, “Why do you think you are having trouble keeping jobs, and how can I help?”

It is rarely true that we really can’t help, but it is often true that we are not sure how best to help. Rather than avoid this truth, perhaps simplicity and friendship call us to explain that we are struggling to find the best way to help. By being honest, we keep the door – and our hearts – open; we show our trust, and hope for trust in return.

The best way to help is not always financial, so we “should never forget that giving love, talents and time is more important than giving money.” [Rule, Part I, 3.1] And there is no better way to offer our love than with simplicity.


How can I be more simple in talking to my neighbors in need?

Recommended Reading

‘Tis a Gift to be Simple


Contemplation: Thy Will Be Done

Contemplation: Thy Will Be Done 940 788 SVDP USA

We often use the word “discernment” simply as a synonym for decision-making, with an added sense of prayerful consideration. While this captures part of the meaning, discernment could also be considered the opposite of decision-making. When we discern, we seek not our best option between two choices, but true insight into God’s will in the situation. But how can we do that?

A friend of mine once asked a fellow Vincentian who was explaining the constraints of his Conference guidelines, “Is that how you will explain it to St. Peter?”

Discernment, he was suggesting, isn’t so much the actual decision, but the process by which we arrive at it. In this, he echoed St. Ignatius of Loyola, who argued in the Spiritual Exercises that to make the best choice, we should always “consider what procedure and norm of action I would wish to have followed in making the present choice if I were at the moment of death.”

In other words, while the decision itself is important, how we go about making it is even more important. Recall St. Vincent’s teaching that “God does not consider the outcome of the good work undertaken but the charity that accompanied it.” [CCD I:205] How, then, can I share the love of God (charity)? How can I do God’s will, not mine? In this way, all choices become a single choice; a choice by which we are called to live our whole lives.

Father Hugh O’Donnell’s definition of Vincentian Discernment cuts to the heart of it: “Discernment is a prayer-filled process through which each of us can discover the difference between what is my will and what is God’s Will.”

At the heart of it, discernment is meant to lead us to the discovery of God’s plan – for us, for our lives, and for our Vincentian organizations. To help us, we often follow the process that Fr. O’Donnell explained, which begins with what St. Vincent called “unrestricted readiness.”

In unrestricted readiness, we set aside our anxieties about whether we are right, how we will convince others, or even about how things will turn out. Instead, we enter into discernment with both our minds and our hearts wide open to accepting God’s will.

Simple decision-making is about closing off all choices but one. Discernment is about opening ourselves to the one true choice.


Do I sometimes let my own biases or pride blind me to God’s will for me and for my Conference?

Recommended Reading

Vincentian Discernment and Apostolic Reflection by Rev. Hugh O’Donnell, CM

Sign Up for Our Newsletter

    Skip to content