Monday Contemplation

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.

Contemplate

How does humility help me to respect subsidiarity – and vice versa?

Recommended Reading

The Manual, especially Bl. Giuseppe Toniolo, pp 90-91

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.

Contemplate

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

Contemplation: A Conference in Heaven

Contemplation: A Conference in Heaven 940 788 SVDP USA

The Society is united by our three Essential Elements of spirituality, service, and friendship. [Rule, Part III, Statute 1] Frédéric once remarked that perhaps friendship was “the reason that in Paris we wished to found our little Society of St. Vincent de Paul, and it is also for this reason perhaps that heaven has seen fit to bless it.” [142, to Curnier, 1837] Like the Communion of Saints, bound together in baptism and in Christ, our Vincentian friendship, bound by charity and friendship, remains unbroken by death.

The very first Rule explained that the Society’s unity “will be cited as a model of Christian friendship, of a friendship stronger than death, for we will often remember in our prayers to God the brothers who have been taken from us.” [Introduction, Rule, 1835] We continue to honor this tradition, praying at every Conference meeting for our departed Vincentian Brothers and Sisters.

Our primary purpose is to “journey together towards holiness… perfect union with Christ…” [Rule, Part 1, 2.2] so we have good reason to hope that our departed Vincentians continue to pray for us, as well!

Indeed, while trying to establish a new Conference in Siena shortly before his own death, Frédéric wrote to the pastor, telling him of the many Conferences that had been established around the world, adding also that “we have certainly one in Heaven, for more than a thousand of our Brothers have, during the twenty years of our existence, gone to the better life.” [Baunard, 394]

We should never forget that one of the corporal works of mercy, alongside feeding the hungry and giving alms to the poor, is to bury the dead. When our fellow Vincentians depart this earth, we should always offer comfort to their families, while also celebrating their entrance into “the better life.” Our Vincentian Celebrations book includes several ceremonies to help plan these occasions.

We serve in hope! Not merely the hope for material comforts, but the eternal hope that we may be united with Christ and with each other in heaven. And so, we pray with and for each other, including, always, the departed. As confident as Blessed Frédéric’s assurance of a Conference in heaven may have been, he asked his fellow Vincentians, in a will written on his 40th birthday, not to cease in their prayers for his own salvation, saying:

“Do not allow yourselves to be stopped by those who will say to you, he is in Heaven. Pray always for him who loves you dearly, for him who has greatly sinned. If I am assured of these prayers, I quit this earth with less fear. I hope firmly that we are not being separated, and that I may remain with you until you will come to me.” [Baunard, 386-7]

May we honor our founder with our own unceasing prayers for all our Vincentian brothers and sisters!

Contemplate

Do I pray regularly for departed Vincentians, and ask their prayers for me?

Recommended Reading

Book of the Sick

Contemplation: The Holy Joy of Your Heart

Contemplation: The Holy Joy of Your Heart 940 788 SVDP USA

In our dedication and zeal, we sometimes feel as if we cannot rest as long as there are neighbors in need of our help. As laudable as this sentiment may seem, in practice it serves neither ourselves or the neighbor if we do not pause for both mental and physical rest.

Writing to a missioner who had labored without rest for many weeks, St. Vincent urged him to slow down: “Have you somewhat moderated your excessive fervor? I beg you, in the name of Our Lord, to do so.” [CCD II:27] Of another priest, whom Vincent believed may have literally worked himself to death, he remarked, “In short, his zeal made him do more than he was able.” [CCD II:375]

Of course, St. Vincent was not afraid of hard work! After all, it was he who said we must “love God…with the strength of our arms and the sweat of our brows.” [CCD XI:32] Yet we also must be mindful that “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” The harder we work ourselves without respite, the less able we will be to continue the work. And so, advising St. Louise not to feel guilty about her own exhaustion, Vincent once went so far as to tell her, “I am ordering you, moreover, to procure for yourself the holy joy of your heart by all the relaxation you can possibly take…” [CCD I:145]

There is always more work to be done, but there is only one of you. We prepare to follow God’s will by resting our hearts in His peace and love, filling ourselves to overflowing so that we may share that love with the neighbor. We must also reserve and recover our physical strength through rest, knowing that “There is no act of charity that … permits us to do more than we reasonably can.” [CCD II:68]

In a sense, pushing ourselves to do more than we reasonably can could be seen as an act of vanity; believing ourselves so indispensable that our efforts cannot be spared. But trusting in providence doesn’t mean only that the money or materials resources we need will be provided, it is trusting that God has called enough people to do His work, as well.

When you think about it, when we insist on carrying too much of the load ourselves, we can even rob others of the opportunity to serve more fully!

Our Rule reminds us that work in our Conferences comes “only after fulfilling the family and professional duties.” [Rule, Part I, 2.6] Certainly among those personal duties is care for our own well-being, including rest and relaxation.

Caring for ourselves is not just for ourselves. As Vincent once reminded Louise, “Increase your strength; you need it, or, in any case, the public does.” [CCD I:392]

Contemplate

How can I better share God’s love by sharing God’s work?

Recommended Reading

Mystic of Charity

Contemplation: According To How We Use It

Contemplation: According To How We Use It 940 788 SVDP USA

Formation is not a single thing we do; it is a lifelong process of becoming. In all that we read, in all that we contemplate, in all those we meet, and in all that we do, we are being formed. We can allow ourselves to be formed passively – consuming the pop culture, feeding our appetites – or we can form ourselves deliberately, with a specific end in mind.

In other words, as Blessed Frédéric once wrote, “Life is despicable if we consider it according to how we use it, but not if we recognize how we could use it, if we consider it as the most perfect work of the Creator…” [Letter 136, to Lallier, 1836]

Aristotle proposed that we become by doing: if you want to become a builder, you build. By extension, he argued, if you wish to become virtuous, you do virtuous things; you practice the virtues. [Nichomachean Ethics] St. Vincent echoed this idea when he taught that “the will has to act, and not just the understanding; for all our reasons are fruitless if we don’t go on to [actions.]” [CCD XI:175]

And so, from our earliest days, following the guidance of our families and churches, we learn through our actions how to be better. Our actions form us, and they can form us for better or worse, and this is the core of what we call the Human Dimension of Formation. As Vincentians, we choose our actions more deliberately, more specifically. We choose to serve our neighbors, exactly as Christ asks us to do. If it is really that simple, why does it take a lifetime?

It would be wonderfully easy if our Christian formation could be completed with a single home visit, wouldn’t it? It also would be wonderfully easy if a single trip to the gym would make us fit and slender for life! Simple, it turns out, does not always mean easy. After all, even a clearly marked path may be narrow, or steep.

Each time we serve the neighbor and do so for love alone, we seek to do His will. Our actions bring us closer to God, a little bit at a time. Our actions form us, and transform us, but not all at once.

The Lord tells us, in the Book of Leviticus, to be holy, for He is holy. Christ tells us, in the Gospel of Matthew, to be perfect, just as the Father is perfect. The word “holy” comes from the Old English hāl, meaning “whole” or “complete.” The word “perfect” comes from the Latin perficere, meaning “to complete.”

Christ is the light and the life; He is perfect; He is complete. The rest of us continue in our formation, our lifelong process of becoming.

Contemplate

How was I formed today? What drew me closer to God?

Recommended Reading

Vincentian Formation, A Foundation Document

Contemplation: Chopping the Wood

Contemplation: Chopping the Wood 940 788 SVDP USA

Trust in providence is central to our Vincentian vocation. This means more than simply trusting that “everything will be okay.” It means trusting that if we do His will, the outcome will also be His will, whether we understand it completely or not.

In our Conferences, doing His will means we gather together in His name, we serve Christ in the person of His poor, we love the neighbor as ourselves, we treat him with mercy, and we are generous with our time, our talents, our possessions, and ourselves. [Rule, Part I, 2.5.1]  It may seem frustrating, at times, when it seems that our help…doesn’t help. But what is the outcome we seek?

St. Vincent taught that “God does not consider the outcome of the good work undertaken but the charity that accompanied it.” [CCD I:205] Charity, the love of God, is our purpose. The true outcome we seek is the full flourishing and eternal happiness of all persons, [Rule, Part I, 2.5.1] which we know is not in our control!

Just as Christ wept for God’s mercy to deliver Him from the agony of the cross but submitted to the Father’s will, Frédéric Ozanam wrote down his own lament on his fortieth birthday. Bedridden with the illness that would take his life a few short months later, he poured out his wishes to “grow old alongside my wife, and to complete my daughter’s education.” Still, he said, “I am coming if you call me, and I have no right to complain.” [Book of the Sick, Prayer from Pisa]

Trust in providence is most important exactly when it is most difficult. Frédéric expressed during his own suffering, that it might become “a source of merits and blessings,” bringing with it “those inexpressible consolations which go hand in hand with [God’s] real presence.” [Ibid]

Ours is a ministry of presence; not only our physical presence, as true friends with those in need, but our presence as a sign from a loving God, who sent us to the neighbors to sit with them, to listen to them, to pray with them, and help in any way that we can. We bring what material assistance we can, but we seek most importantly to bring some part of God’s “inexpressible consolation.”

Trust in providence is not passive; it is actively doing God’s will – tirelessly, devotedly, and for love alone. To paraphrase an old Frank Clark “Country Parson” saying, “Trust in providence is what makes you feel the warmth of the hearth while you’re outside chopping the wood.”

So perhaps, if we are to “to bring this divine fire, this fire of love” as St. Vincent calls us to do,[CCD XI:264] we’d best keep chopping the wood.

Contemplate

Do I tire too easily while chopping the wood?

Recommended Reading

The Book of the Sick, by Frédéric Ozanam

Contemplation: Neighbors in Deed

Contemplation: Neighbors in Deed 940 788 SVDP USA

Although we do not mean it to, giving material assistance to people puts them at a disadvantage; they “owe” us something they likely will never repay. The fear of indebtedness often makes asking for help more difficult. Even when we are in very dire straits, we don’t want to impose, we don’t want to be burdens, and we don’t want to be indebted.

Yet on nearly every home visit, we meet a neighbor with a light bill, rent, or other need, and not enough money to pay for it. The math is simple; what else can we do?

“Help honors,” Blessed Frédéric taught, “when it may become mutual.” [O’Meara, 229] He went on to explain that this means offering not only material help, but a kind word, a handshake, some encouragement – all those things that we may one day need, as well.

As our Rule puts it, “Vincentians should never forget that giving love, talents and time is more important than giving money.” [Rule, Part I, 3.14] Or, as Blessed Rosalie Rendu put it, “They will appreciate your kindness and your love more than all else you can bring them.” [Apostle in a Top Hat, 57]

How many times can we hear “you are the only ones who called me back” before we realize that this personal connection is the whole point?

In other words, a home visit is not a math problem. It is the beginning of a “relationship based on trust and friendship.” [Rule, Part I, 1.9] This is why we don’t visit “clients.” There is nothing mutual in a relationship with a client; it does not “honor.”

It is good to use the right words, but using the words is not enough. After all, in the Parable of the Good Samaritan, Christ did not ask us simply to call each other neighbors, but to be neighbors, and to love our neighbors as ourselves.

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 brothers, sisters, neighbors, and friends don’t owe us a dime. They repay us fully with their handshakes, their prayers, and their friendship.

And for those things, we are all neighbors in need.

Contemplate

How can I become a better friend?

Recommended Reading

Mystic of Charityespecially 6. Home Visits in the Vincentian Tradition

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: 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

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