Monday Contemplation

Contemplation: Gifted

Contemplation: Gifted 1080 1080 SVDP USA

As members of the Vincentian family, we share in the great charism of our patron, St. Vincent de Paul. A charism, our church teaches, “whether extraordinary or simple and humble [is a grace] of the Holy Spirit which directly or indirectly benefits the Church, ordered as they are to her building up, to the good of men, and to the needs of the world.” [CCC, 799] Indeed, the very word charism derives from the Greek cháris, meaning favor, or gift. This same word from the Greek is at the ultimate root of eucharist, meaning thankfulness.

Similarly, both grace and gratitude comes from the Latin grātia, which means a favor or gift. It should not be surprising that gifts are so closely tied to gratitude. After all, saying thank you is a basic social obligation when we receive gifts. Gifts are not payment of debt; they don’t come with stings attached. They are gratuitous (another word from grātia).

We express our gratitude for Christ’s greatest gift, His sacrifice on the cross, in our celebration of the eucharist. Like all gifts, His sacrifice is not something we earned, but was instead freely given. In the same way, our Vincentian charism, and our individual charisms, are gifts from the Holy Spirit, unmerited and freely given. More importantly, they are given in order that we might share them.

This understanding of our own gifts, “that all that God gives us is for others and that we can achieve nothing of eternal value without His grace”, is at the heart of our virtue of humility. [Rule, Part I, 2.5.1] This beautiful Vincentian charism, this gift of the Spirit, shared across four centuries by generations of priests, brothers, sisters, and lay people, is given to us to share.

We do this by offering our presence and material support purely as gifts to our neighbors in need, “never adopt[ing] the attitude that the money is [ours], or that the recipients have to prove that they deserve it.” [Manual, 23] And because the gifts we share – our time, our talents, our possessions, and ourselves – are ultimately not our gifts, but God’s, all thanks for them goes only to Him; all glory for our works goes only to Him.

So let us share freely of our gifts, recalling always the words of St. Louise de Marillac: “I praise God with all my heart for the blessings His goodness bestows upon your holy works. I beg you to be most thankful to Him for them because you must not believe that these graces are merited.” [SWLM, L.368]


Do I seek always to give thanks for my gifts, by giving gratuitously and freely, in imitation of Christ?

Recommended Reading

Spirituality of the Home Visit – use this journal to reflect on this aspect of your Home Visits.

Contemplation: The Chosen

Contemplation: The Chosen 576 576 SVDP USA

It was not you who chose me, but I who chose you,” Jesus explained to the twelve at the Last Supper. This small and most loyal group of His followers, who had left behind home and family, dropped their fishing nets to walk with Him, were not there because they had figured something out about Him – they were there because He had called them.

In His call, they were invited not only to follow, but to be taught, nourished, led to become like Him, and to bear fruit that would remain. This is the calling of all Christians, indeed, of all people. It is our vocation.

It is no coincidence that our specific Vincentian vocation follows Christ’s words almost exactly. Our vocation, as our Rule puts it, is “to follow Christ through service to those in need and so bear witness to His compassionate and liberating love.” [Rule, Part I, 1.2] Like the Apostles, to “seek to draw closer to Christ.” [Rule, Part I, 2.1] Also like the Apostles, it is not we who chose Him, but He who chose us.

This Vincentian vocation is our particular and special way of living our faith, and it is all the more special when we realize that we were chosen and specially called to it by Christ. If we are tempted from time to time to instead credit ourselves too much, we receive regular calls from Him to remind us who is chosen, and who chooses. He may call us from a darkened apartment, with the electricity cut off. He may call us at our food pantries because He is hungry. He may call us from a park bench, seeking shelter from the cold.

Time and time again, we do not choose Him, He chooses us, and when He does, we hear again His words that “as I have done for You, You should also do.”

And what is it He has done for us? What is it He calls us to do in turn for others? What is it He seeks when He calls the Conference helpline? Yes, we surely are called to bring whatever relief we can for the material needs presented to us, but we also must “never forget that giving love, talents and time is more important than giving money.” [Rule, Part I, 3.14]

The poor cry out, and often their cries are unheard, or ignored. What a great gift it is when they cry out to us, when they call us, when they give us the opportunity to answer and to serve. This is what Blessed Frédéric called “the sublime vocation God has given us. Would that we were a little bit worthy of it and bent easily to its burden.” [Letter 90, to Curnier, 1835]

And why shouldn’t we bend easily to it? The poor do much more than just call us. They choose us.


Am I joyful to answer each time He chooses me?

Recommended Reading

The Rule, Part I and the Gospel of John, Chapters 1415

Contemplation: Faith, Hope, Love, and Trust

Contemplation: Faith, Hope, Love, and Trust 1080 1080 SVDP USA

In this vocation, we are called to trust, especially in two important ways. First, we are called to trust in Divine Providence. [Manual, 63] Second, we are called “to establish relationships based on trust and friendship” with the neighbor. [Rule, Part I, 1.9] It seems important, then, to examine exactly what it is to trust; what is the meaning of the word?

Our trust in providence is certainly an act of faith. We believe that God will provide. More importantly, we place this trust in Him fully understanding that what he provides may not be at all what we thought we needed; our trust is that He knows better than we do. As St. Vincent puts it, we “Trust fearlessly in Him who has called you, and you will see that all will go well.” [CCD III:136] Trust, then, overcoming fear, is also an act of hope.

God understands our weaknesses, but trusts us, also, and blesses us when we seek to do His will. In this way, we strengthen our relationship with God, and our trust becomes also an act of love. And so, in faith, hope, and love of God, we seek to serve the neighbor because we know this is God’s will.

We seek the face of Christ in the neighbor, we see His suffering in theirs, and, just as with our trust in providence, we seek to establish a relationship based on trust and friendship. This means not only trust in the neighbor; it means earning the neighbor’s trust. Relationships must be mutual. Offering our trust begins with an act of faith — extending the benefit of the doubt. Because we can never know any neighbor’s “whole story,” we always must decide not whether, but at what point, we will extend that benefit of the doubt.

It is helpful to remember St. Vincent’s reminder that “We do not believe a man because he is very learned but because we consider him good and love him.” He goes on to explain the mutuality of this trust, saying that “Do what we will, people will never believe in us if we do not show love and compassion to those whom we wish to believe in us.” [CCD I:276-277] The poor are accustomed to skepticism. By showing instead our faith in them, we earn their trust in us.

We know that there are often times we simply cannot provide the material assistance the neighbor seeks, but by earning their trust, by bearing witness to God’s love through our own, we offer something greater than bread alone: hope. The dictionary even suggests that a synonym for trust is hope, and for Vincentians especially, that makes perfect sense.

If we seek to serve in hope, we must serve also in trust.


How can I better trust, and earn the trust, of the neighbor?

Recommended Reading

Mystic of Charity

Contemplation: The Measure of Success

Contemplation: The Measure of Success 975 975 SVDP USA

In Blessed Frédéric’s famous essay “Help Which Honors” he points out that when we focus on mere material assistance when there is no reciprocity, when we “give the poor man nothing but bread, or clothes, or a bundle of straw — what, in fact, there is no likelihood of his ever giving [us] in return” it can be humiliating. This is so not only because the neighbors cannot literally repay us for the assistance, but because without having earned it through their own work, they have lost some of their dignity.

Because we are accountable to civil authorities and to donors for the material resources that we give, we regularly (and rightly) report the totals. As a result, it can become easy to allow ourselves to begin measuring our works by people, dollars, loaves of bread, bills paid – the things that are easy to tally up. We can point to each of these things, patting ourselves on the back for all that we’ve done.

But nowhere in the Rule or the Gospels are we called to measure our success this way.

Instead, we are called to offer “any form of help that alleviates suffering or deprivation and promotes human dignity and personal integrity in all their dimensions.” [Rule, Part I, 1.3] To alleviate is not to eliminate. Like Veronica, we offer some relief, some temporary alleviation of suffering.

Certainly, we are called to identify “unjust structures” and to work towards eliminating the root causes of poverty, but we must remember always that justice cannot replace charity. [Rule, Part I, 7.1] After all, the seeking after justice, while it is to the benefit of all society, is not going to put food on a particular hungry neighbor’s table tonight. We are called, as Frédéric said, to “make charity accomplish what justice alone cannot”. [Letter 136, to Lallier, 1836]

Because suffering “can shake our faith and become a temptation against it” [CCC, 164], our service to the neighbor must above all demonstrate the care of a loving God who does not abandon us in our suffering. Ours is an association not only of works, but of faith. We serve the neighbor in charity – the love of God – and walk with him in friendship.

We cannot always know – in fact, we may rarely know – whether we have drawn another towards God, and so we can’t report that accomplishment. But the conversion of hearts is never really our accomplishment, it is God’s. The more we focus on the material, the more we risk robbing the neighbor’s dignity, rather than restoring it.

Instead, we are called to selflessly offer our time, our talents, our possessions, and ourselves; to gently offer our friendship and our prayers; to humbly demonstrate our faith through our works; and with zeal to “do all the good we can, and trust to God for the rest.” [Baunard, 81] Even if it doesn’t seem measurable.


How do I measure success?

Recommended Reading

A Heart on Fire

Contemplation: This Sweet Business

Contemplation: This Sweet Business 714 714 SVDP USA

“Let us go to the poor!” was the stirring declaration which founded the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. Challenged to demonstrate the good of the church in their modern world, our young founders could find no better way than to imitate Christ, who descended from heaven to visit us in our poverty. [Baunard, 416]

As Christ Himself explained, He “did not come to be served, but to serve”, to give…to visit. The one that hosts is the one in the place of honor; the one that visits is the servant. Our Rule emphasizes this aspect of our vocation explaining that visits to those in need “should be made in their environment” (their homes). [Rule, Part III, St. 8] But where are they? Where is “their environment” except in their home?

Of course, we know that “home” may be usually, but is certainly not always, a house or apartment. Poor prisoners cry out from their prisons, the poor elderly from assisted living facilities, and the poor homeless from the streets. They cry out to us if we have ears to hear them.

Similarly, poverty takes many forms. “Blessed are you who are poor”, Christ tells in the Gospel of Luke. “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” as Matthew recounts this teaching. Whatever the poverty in whatever the home, it is we who are the visitors, we who knock on the door, sit by the bedside, or go to the park bench. After all, as Pope Benedict XVI reminds us “one of the deepest forms of poverty a person can experience is isolation”, and that other kinds of poverty often are “born from isolation … by man’s basic and tragic tendency to close in on himself “. [Caritas in Veritate, 53] How better to alleviate material and spiritual poverty than to break the isolation which contributes to it?

Home visits,” the Rule continues, “are always made in pairs.” [Rule, Part III, St. 8] By visiting in pairs we continue the tradition begun when Christ sent forth His disciples in pairs. In this way, we begin to evangelize through our “wordless witness”, as two friends in Christ, sharing their time with a neighbor, showing them by our presence that they are not forgotten, letting them know we are Christians by our love, gathering as two with the neighbor as a third, and Christ is in our midst.

Christ offered a gift on His visit: His very life. Although the gifts we bring in the form of food, or money, are much more modest than that, those material gifts also are not really the point of the home visit. Though we may not give our lives as Christ did, Frédéric calls us to give them a little at a time, through every action we take, to “smoke night and day like perfume on the altar.” [Letter 90, to Curnier, 1837]

We are called invest much, to pour our hearts into each visit. And yet, as Frédéric tells us “He who brings a loaf of bread to the home of a poor man often brings back a joyful and comforted heart. Thus, in this sweet business of charity, the expenses are low, but the returns are high.” [Address in Lyon, 1837]


What is my investment in charity, and what is my return?

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 — Chosen as Friends

Contemplation — Chosen as Friends 1080 1080 SVDP USA

Childhood friends, friends from school, friends from the neighborhood, teammates, Army buddies, work friends, Facebook friends, new friends, and old friends — we all have many lists of friends, and many ways of forming friendships. But when you hear the word “friend,” whose face comes to your mind first? Is it a friend you see often, or a face from long ago whose bond of friendship has not been weakened by the time and distance that separate you?

Frédéric Ozanam once explained friendships can be strengthened by both words and actions. Words, by letters or emails, allow us to share our thoughts and share ourselves with each other even when we are far apart from our friends, but he went on, “there are bonds stronger still than words: actions.” Nothing can draw friends closer than to eat together, travel together, or work together.”

Indeed, remember that school trip, and how much closer the group became? Or studying together for a class, going out to dinner, having a backyard barbecue? Each time, we build memories of a shared experience and grow closer to our friends.

But if purely human acts have this power, moral acts have it even more, and if two or three come together to do good, their union will be perfect.” [Letter 142, to Curnier, 1837] This is the special character of friendship that we form in the Society of St. Vincent de Paul; the friendship that we call an Essential Element of the Society — a friendship that is strengthened by the other two Essential Elements.

After all, what better moral acts could we perform together than to serve Christ in the poor, and to seek holiness together? Indeed, we are called very specifically to share our service, to visit the poor in pairs. Our Rule also reminds us that during spiritual reflections at our meetings “members are always invited to comment as a means of sharing their faith.” [Rule, Part III, St. 7] We receive by giving first of ourselves — to each other in reflection and prayer, and to the neighbor in service.

We cannot truly understand or live our Vincentian friendship apart from service and spirituality. These are the friends with whom we have walked together, seeking, and finding Jesus Christ. Sitting with Him. Listening to Him. Praying with Him. Working to ease His burdens.

It is not we who chose the neighbor, any more than it is we who chose Christ. The neighbor chose us when he made the call to our Conference help line. And when go to him, when we sit with him, two or three of us together, we also will have in our midst the greatest Friend, just as He promised.


In what ways have I seen my Vincentian service strengthen my friendships with fellow members?

Recommended Reading

Vincentian Meditations II

Contemplation — A Seamless Garment

Contemplation — A Seamless Garment 1080 1080 SVDP USA

In Blessed Rosalie’s time, every working-class family with three or more children was registered with the Bureau of Public Assistance; it was simply assumed that in the conditions of the times, they would not be able to support themselves. Work was often disrupted by revolutions which shut businesses down, or by epidemics that both shuttered businesses and ended lives. A man’s death could leave his widow and children in complete destitution.

In the midst of this, Rosalie and the Daughters of Charity worked both tirelessly and cheerfully to bring food, medical care, and more to the homes of the poor. Rosalie, it was said, would not leave those homes without having also helped with some housework.

Mentored in our earliest days by Rosalie and the Daughters, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul carries on this tradition, meeting and befriending our neighbors in their homes and seeking ways to provide for their needs. Also, like Rosalie, this can lead us beyond the Home Visit.

After all, if her husband had died, leaving her penniless, the widowed mother of Rosalie’s time would have to go outside the home and find work to support herself and her children, but then who would care for the children? The Daughters could have simply kept bringing more bread, but instead, Rosalie founded the Saint-Marcel Day Nursery to care for newborns while their mothers worked. She saw that this would do more than provide food, it would remove a barrier to their own self-sufficiency – a barrier over which the widows themselves had no control. The women even paid 15 of the 55 centimes that the childcare cost per day.

By respecting the dignity of the widows and the duty of people to work, and continuing to walk in friendship with the neighbor, Rosalie modeled for us both our Catholic Social Doctrine and our Vincentian vocation.

It is no wonder that the young men who founded the Society would follow this example, as well, creating an apprenticeship program for young men in Paris shortly after the very first Conference was founded. It was in the course of their Home Visits they saw a way to break the cycle of poverty among young men who had no fathers to guide them into a trade.

It turns out that “systemic change” is only a new phrase, not a new idea. After all, who would sew a new patch to an old cloak? All of our works grow naturally from the knowledge we gain by climbing the stairs to the poor man’s garret. Systemic change may be beyond, but it is inseparable from the Home Visit, part of a seamless garment, rooted deeply in both our tradition and our Home Visit.


What barriers can I help to remove from the neighbor’s path?

Recommended Reading

Seeds of Hope

Contemplation — There Is Truly Nothing Better

Contemplation — There Is Truly Nothing Better 1080 1080 SVDP USA

What does it mean to serve in hope — serviens in spe, as our international logo says? Surely, when we visit a neighbor whose lights have been shut off, who faces eviction, whose cupboards are bare, we (and they) hope for relief from these needs. Thankfully, more often than not, we are able to provide the assistance that is needed. Sometimes, though, the needs are too great, or our resources too limited, and what then?

Thinking back on our own lives, we all can recall times that we narrowly escaped misfortune — the car wreck we walked away from that easily could have been fatal; the illness that was almost accidentally diagnosed before it became untreatable; the unemployment we weathered until finding a job that was better than the one we lost.

“God was with me!” we exclaim with joy. “He answered my prayers!” Surely He was and surely He did, and our joy is not misplaced! Yet when we think it through, we realize that God was also with the ones who don’t survive the crash or the illness, and the ones whose joblessness leads to destitution. He heard their prayers, He loves them equally, His great and universal plan of redemption is for them, too. It is, if we are to take the Savior’s words to heart, for them especially.

This knowledge of God’s special blessings on the poor can ironically make us hesitant at times to even try to offer the true hope, the eternal hope, through our gentleness and our prayers; to allow ourselves to be caught up in the tyranny of the moment, too; to become too discouraged when our own money runs short.

We can remind ourselves that our prayers are the most important part of our home visits, and say them even if only from a sense of habit or duty, but, Bl. Frederic once asked, “How do we preach resignation and courage to the unfortunate when we feel devoid of it ourselves?”

Our virtue of humility is a reminder that everything we have is from God, and everything we do is for His glory. That includes the comfort we may offer, because all comfort comes from God. We don’t ask His comfort on behalf of the neighbor, but together with the neighbor. We ask Him to wipe away our shared tears, to lift the burden not of bills, but of fear from both of us — from all of us.

This is the joy and the challenge of our vocation. It is also the reason that whenever we share our stories with each other, whether in correspondence or in the home visit reports during Conference meetings, our focus must first be on the true hope of salvation, and not, as Bl Frédéric explained in 1838, “statistical documents where success is defined in prideful numbers. We have to exchange ideas, inspiration perhaps, fears at times, and always hope. These … communications are like a form of circulation that brings the Society to life. There is truly nothing better.”


What inspiration, fear, and hope can I share with my fellow Vincentians?

Recommended Reading

Apostle in a Top Hat

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