Praised be our Lord Jesus Christ! My dear members of Saint Vincent de Paul Conferences around the world, I first wish to ask for the abundant blessings of Our Lord Jesus Christ on you, and for our Blessed Lady to be with everyone, particularly those in need whom our Society helps, whether in special works or in Conferences.
I am very pleased to be writing to you all again, for the sixth time since I was elected as 16th President General of the Society o St. Vincent de Paul, with this Circular Letter for 2021. It has been the custom since 1841 for the Presidents General to write Circular Letters addressed directly to the members, covering important matters on the Vincentian agenda, or for guidance to improve the work of the Conferences, special works, and Councils.
This past year has been a time which will be marked out in the history of humanity as one of the worst‐ever health crises, affecting millions of lives, as well as leading to countless negative consequences for the economy of countries and of the whole world, increasing poverty, unemployment, and vulnerability in society. The poor have been worst affected. The number of refugees around the planet has increased. Students have been unable to attend class. Religious believers have not been able to attend worship or receive the sacraments. People cannot embrace or greet each other properly. Families are separated, in order to avoid large gatherings. Conferences and Councils cannot hold regular meetings. Many people in need have no help from governments or charitable organizations. It has been a very difficult year, and we will not have good memories of it.
In this Circular Letter of 2021, a year for rebuilding and new beginnings, I want to address some matters on which we all need to reflect, so that our work for those who suffer can be improving all the time. The ideas and questions I am going to cover here are also intended to alert us to the way our Councils operate, as their only purpose is to provide services for the grassroots.
I humbly suggest that this letter should be divided into blocks or topics and read in short sections at the meetings of Vincentian conferences. I would be delighted to receive comments, criticisms and suggestions about the content of this Letter, as well as proposals for the coming years. We have set up an e‐mail address for this, firstname.lastname@example.org which you can use.
Despite the 2020 health crisis, we have managed to continue work on several initiatives, set up in the International Strategic Plan (2016/2022), and we have also added new aspects, giving greater energy to our management. In the area of training, there have been dozens of on‐line events, which have helped expand the capabilities of our members. In the field of communications, the Council General’s website has been completely redesigned, and is much more attractive, informative, and user‐friendly. Our “Ozanam Network” newsletter is always full of content, news, and training materials.
When the pandemic began in March 2020, Council General did not slow down for a minute. On the Council General’s web page, we publish all the administrative actions we have approved, so that the Confederation can get through this sad time for humanity. We have granted extensions to the terms of office of several Superior Councils. We have increased our international aid, sending additional resources to many nations (over 300,000 euros to some 70 countries). My main concern is the health (physical and mental) of our members, and of course the harmful effects of this crisis among those in need (especially children, young people, and the elderly), the unemployed and those who have lost hope. Covid‐19 is a terrible illness, but even worse than this are the panic and fear the illness has aroused.
As regards canonisation of Blessed Antoine‐Frédéric Ozanam, with God’s grace the work of the Vice‐Postulator in Brazil has not been delayed, and at the moment the process is already with the Postulator in Rome, beloved Father Giuseppe Guerra (priest of the Congregation of the Mission), who will continue with it at the Vatican. The Brazilian phase was fairly quick, even with the health restrictions in force, over an 11‐month period of intense work and investigation. I ask all members of our Society to stay firm in hope of the canonisation, becoming truly devoted to Ozanam. Similarly, our Conferences must prepare properly to welcome a new group of interested people after the canonisation, who will join us on the same path to holiness, in the steps of Ozanam through Vincentian service to those in need.
We were delighted to declare the 14th August as INTERNATIONAL DAY FOR FEMALE MEMBERS, honouring Ozanam’s devoted wife, Amélie Soulacroix, who dedicated her life, especially in old age, to taking care of his legacy, his biography, image, objects, and writings. This date has had an excellent response from all the SSVP around the world, and many countries have celebrated this new Vincentian date, even during the health crisis. It is a proper homage to the role of women in the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul. And, the more we know Amélie, the closer we can come to Frédéric.
In April 2021, close to Ozanam’s birthday , with God’s grace, we are intending to open the new head office for Council General in Paris, along with the official opening of the “Ozanam Museum” and an exhibition about the seven founders. It will be a very special moment for our Society, since from now one we will have a headquarters which is twice as large as the previous one, properly organised for the growth of the Society over the next 50 years. I want to thank again the members of the Commission who studied the economic viability of this step, and especially all the countries who voted in favour of buying the offices, in a historic, unanimous vote at the Oporto assembly (Portugal), in 2019.
At the Plenary Assembly of Council General in 2020, we approved some important documents for the SSVP. The first of these was the “Child Safeguarding Protocol,” a statement protecting children who are involved with Conferences and Vincentian works. We signed a cooperation agreement with the International Center for Formation (CIF) of the Congregation of the Mission, which will allow us to improve our training in terms of the anthropology of people in need and the theology of Saint Vincent.
We awarded the “Charity in Hope” medal to the Jesuit Refugee Service, for its amazing work carried out all over the world. Last year, we also marked 100 years since the declaration of the independence of the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul by the Vatican, and 95 years since the opening of Frédéric Ozanam’s beatification/canonisation process.
I end this section with the subject of Council General’s finances. Because of the health crisis, which has led to a serious economic crisis, many countries have slightly reduced their annual contributions to Council General, forcing us to rescale our procedures and adapt to the new, more restricted circumstances. I do not know if everyone is aware that Council General’s finances are maintained through the generous donations from Superior Councils. For this, fifteen years ago saw the creation of the “Concordat” (a group of countries which committed to making fixed annual contributions to Council General). These extremely generous countries made themselves responsible for 95% of the expenses of the Council, and the other countries in the Confederation cover the remaining 5%.
I believe that the most important thing in the life of a member of the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul is the meeting with those in need, through Christ. This personal encounter brings us to conversion of heart and a full life in the Lord, achieving happiness. Charity in all its forms is at the heart of Vincentian spirituality9 and is obviously the focus of our faith. It is the modus operandi of the members, in every one of the 48,000 Conferences spread all over the world. It is a grace and a privilege to live in this way, when we devote our existence to good, and to service in solidarity with those in poverty. The life of the Conference is vital for the life of our members.
But we meet challenges on the way. In some parts of the world, I have seen the adoption of excessive rules and regulations, hierarchical structures, and very bureaucratic procedures. We must avoid transforming our Society into one great bureaucracy, as Ozanam warned us. Rules are essential, but charity is more important; excessive rules and regulations deter and scare away new Vincentian vocations. Rules must also be updated and adapt to changing circumstances. We have to bring light, goodness and hope into places where sometimes there seem only shadows, crosses to bear, and darkness.
I am very concerned about the fall in the number of Conferences and Councils, and their closure, particularly in countries of importance in the history of our SSVP. Messages come to me from various countries saying that, after Covid‐19, many Conferences will disappear, which breaks my heart. Knowing that some of the Vincentian special works are also closing is a real shame, bringing tears to my eyes. It is mad, in my view, to be closing Conferences and special works in the post‐pandemic world, when poverty and inequality are increasing. Therefore, I am asking presidents of the Councils responsible for Conferences and special works to fulfill their role in the organisation, and before any drastic decision, avoid closing any operations without addressing the challenges which lead to such closures. It is a real challenge to keep these Vincentian works operating, but on the other hand, it is of great benefit to so many people in need, especially children and the elderly who depend on them.
In terms of training, I think that online courses are here to stay, finally. It is important that the training sections of each Superior Council offer a range of courses, seminars, and meetings, using the latest information and communications technology to help in this task. Another area which can grow significantly is that of special or social projects, which several countries and Council General sponsor, to generate work and income so that those whom we help can succeed in life. Congratulations go to Conferences who are using this model.
I have also observed, in some parts of the world, a certain unnecessary abrasive attitude among members, generally caused by disagreeing about secondary issues or those unconnected to our service to the poor. Pride, egoism, vanity, and envy unfortunately also affect our members; so, we must ask the good Lord to drive away these feelings and thoughts which divide us and destroy our unity. So many accounts of badly organized, stormy elections reach the Council General! Failure to accept election results is also another damaging effect which we must resist.
In order to avoid such conflict, we must above all improve our Vincentian training. The disparity of ideas is healthy, and even advisable, without upsetting our Society. But when such conflicts are raised without charity, or verge on a lack of fraternity, kindness and decency, I believe we have reached a most unfortunate stage. Many of our leaders have been selected without proper qualifications, in areas such as diplomacy, crisis management, dialogue and governance. In fact, some of the problem is rooted in the choice of the right candidates, and this is entirely our responsibility.
When we have any doubts about the position to take in the face of complex or tricky issues that may arise, we simply need to ask ourselves what St. Vincent or the seven founders would do in our place. Do we take on Vincentian virtues in the service of those in need, or do we set these virtues aside? Do we understand the principles and fundamentals of the Rule, or do we confuse charity with philanthropy? All this can be overcome, if we allow ourselves to be surrounded by the love of Christ, in faith and hope, serving our neighbour unstintingly. After all, our main purpose in joining the SSVP was for our personal holiness through the practice of Christian charity.
Young people are the present of our Confederation. They aspire to fraternal coexistence, “founded in truth, justice, charity and love of freedom.” In the SSVP, young people will find all those factors which give energy to Vincentian life and help to support those most in need. So, understand that from this President General, you will always receive support, encouragement, space, a voice, and time. Thank you for your commitment to those most in need, and to our beloved Society. Forgive our faults, report any problems arising in Councils from people who do not have a Vincentian vocation, focus your energy on what unites us, and prepare very soon to take on important roles in the Society, because we have great hopes of you. Let us trust in you.
As active members of the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul, we face enormous challenges every day, which we have to overcome, either with those we help, or in our own surroundings, that is, among ourselves, the members. But by God’s grace, these obstacles can be overcome with three factors which are characteristics of every Vincentian: tenderness, empathy, and courage.
Tenderness is essential to the way a Vincentian works. Without gentleness, tact, and generosity, without friendliness and fraternal love of neighbour, it is humanly impossible to practice charity. A Vincentian who does not offer great tenderness will find it difficult to achieve the virtues (cardinal and theological) of Ozanam, the other founders and Saint Vincent. Without tenderness it is difficult to listen to the poor. Without tenderness, it must be difficult to know how to advise those who are suffering. Without tenderness, the Vincentian message will struggle to be heard. We have to act with gentle hearts, especially those of us who are Vincentian leaders, who often govern with too firm a grip, generating discord and unnecessary conflicts.
Empathy is particularly apparent in the home visit, when members can feel more powerfully how hard life is for those in need. Empathy is also revealed in the Vincentian social projects, where children, the sick and the elderly also struggle to overcome adversity in everyday life. But empathy is also apparent in internal relationships, that is among the procedures and experiences of the SSVP itself, for instance among members of a Conference, or in the administrative management of Councils. Without empathy, we cannot be members. Without putting ourselves in another’s shoes, it is practically impossible for someone to become a Vincentian. Empathy is everything. It is the foundation of charity and human relationships. An egoist cannot exercise charity. A person seeking their own interests does not practice human solidarity; they only appear to practice it. Charity can only happen if empathy comes first.
Finally, without courage, nothing can be done. We are so small and weak in the face of the powerful and the systems of the world, that without courage we can never face troubles with our faith, peace, and hope. Courage gives us the innovative and creative spirit we need to find peaceful and effective solutions, in the search for a more fraternal and just society. Being courageous means “thinking big”, always wanting to do the best for those we help, and looking for different ways to practice charity, achieving positive results. Courage flourishes with enthusiasm. A sad or discouraged member will never radiate courage, which comes from joy and a passionate heart. Being courageous means being a visionary, a person of hope and an idealist. Being courageous also means knowing how to be outraged, seeking the material, moral and spiritual well‐being of the children of God. Putting the talents and faculties God has given us at the service of charity effectively means to be courageous. So dear brothers and sisters, we follow the Vincentian path with tenderness, empathy, and bravery, in the name of Our Lord Jesus Christ, in the person of the most humble and needy.
We invite all Superior Councils to publish articles and reflections on the dominant role of Jules Devaux in the process of founding the SSVP, stimulating the study of his life and work, in personal, professional, academic and Vincentian terms, contributing with Council General to the start of the 2021 International Themed year.
Council General suggests that on 8 December 2021, the closing date for the “International Year of Jules Devaux,” a thanksgiving Mass is celebrated in all parishes around the world, as a memorial for our founder Devaux. Also, on 27 October 2021, the anniversary of Devaux’s death, Conferences should recall his story, reading passages on him as the spiritual reading at conference meetings.
The present board of Council General is continuing to work to make the seven founders better known, loved and admired, because the SSVP’s foundation was a collective action, and they are all equally important in the story of this new Society. It would be a great injustice to neglect this.
On the flag of the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul, we find the motto of the Vincentian mission, on behalf of the humblest people, written in Latin: “Serviens in spe” (serving in hope). Why does this phrase appear on our emblem? What does the SSVP have to do with hope? Hope for what, or hope in what?
The International Rule of the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul devotes a lot of space to the theological virtue of hope. Several articles, provisions and notes mention the word hope. In “The Vincentian vocation,” hope is very important: “The vocation of the Society’s members, who are called Vincentians, is to follow Christ through service to those in need and so bear witness to His compassionate and liberating love. Members show their commitment through person‐to‐person contact. Vincentians serve in hope.”
Whenever the word hope appears in the International Rule, it is combined with the following terms: service, joy, spirituality, vocation, faith, and charity. This list of references is based on the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which describes the theological virtues (those which bring us closer to God): faith, hope, and charity.
Analysing these two virtues (hope and charity) in detail, we understand that both are related, one depending on the other: I am loving to my neighbour and I hope for eternal life in God. It’s that simple. So, dear brothers and sisters, let us centre ourselves in hope, seeking salvation for our souls and providing help for those in any need, with the same devotion and energy. During this pandemic through which we are living, hope and generosity are the only viruses we share. With hope, following in Vincent’s footsteps and the example of our seven founders, we will transform the world. I believe this is true, do you?
Moreover, on our daily journey as baptised, Vincentian Christians, we can experience countless troubles and challenges, in all areas of our life: in the family, at work, in our studies, seeking a job, in our health and so many other aspects of being human. In the Church and in the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul too, we sometimes experience heartaches and setbacks which leave us very disappointed and disillusioned with people on occasion.
I want all the members, and the volunteers and employees of the SSVP around the world, to keep doing the necessary and demanding work of charity, together with the humblest people, with care, love and charity, never judging the poor without above all understanding the reality of their lives and their needs. Sometimes we do not realise our own strength which comes from God. Be peaceful, gentle, loving towards those who suffer. Avoid conflict and bureaucracy; instead, follow the Rule in love of the seven founders. Seek to resolve any conflict, and do not waste time on less important, secondary, and mundane affairs. Salvation awaits us.
We ask God, through the intercession of our Lady, that those persecuted in various parts of the world, for religious or political reasons, might be protected and supported. We ask the Lord for peace in the world, care for the environment and an end to all forms of poverty, whether moral, material, or spiritual. May all of us, as members, always defend life, and fight against abortion and euthanasia, bringing Gospel values and Vincentian virtues wherever we go (Acts 10:38).
Council General can never slow down, as the International Confederation depends on its vitality and energy to “inoculate” the world with good viruses. We are absolutely certain that the good Lord will never abandon us. We Vincentians are in the world as the soul is in the body. So, my dear brothers and sisters, in this year of 2021, let’s remain firmly devoted to Ozanam and true champions of hope, charity and peace!
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May the peace of Christ be with you all,
Member Renato Lima de Oliveira
16th President General