Contemplation — The Vincentian Tradition

Contemplation — The Vincentian Tradition 940 788 SVDP USA

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Recommended Reading

The Manual

Contemplation: Falling Forward

Contemplation: Falling Forward 940 788 SVDP USA

There is a commonly used exercise in corporate training events called a “trust fall.” In it, one person stands with his back to the others, with arms crossed and eyes closed, then simply falls backward from a platform, trusting his team members to catch him. The point is not to overcome a fear of falling, but to build trust that you will be caught before crashing to the floor.

In a similar way, St. Vincent teaches us to “abandon all that we love to Him by abandoning ourselves to all that He wishes, with perfect confidence that everything will turn out for the best.” [CCD VIII:298] To abandon all that we love seems to be a very demanding call, but it is the same one to which Christ calls us.

As Vincentians, we are called to abandon ourselves to His will by hearing the cry of the poor whose calls often interrupt us, demanding that we abandon our plans for that evening, or our precious free day, or an activity we enjoy, in order to serve Christ in their persons.

Indeed, we are called to share not only our time, but our talents, our possessions, and ourselves. [Rule, Part I, 2.5.1] You might even say that we are called to share, to abandon, “all that we love” to God in the person of His poor. Sometimes, we pat ourselves on the back too quickly when we pay the bill, and sometimes we wallow in regret too deeply when our whole Conference treasury is not enough.

But the Home Visit is not a math problem – it is an encounter with Christ, and an opportunity to imitate Christ. We don’t know, before the visit, whether we have the means to meet the material needs that will be presented to us. All that we know is that Christ is calling, and we must answer – it is the call, and the will, of God. So, if we begin our works of charity with the understanding that we are doing God’s will, then we must accept that the outcome of those works also will be His will.

We serve not with resentment for what we have given up, nor with regret that we haven’t been given enough, but with the joy of knowing that we are serving Christ exactly as he asked us to do, with exactly the gifts we have been given to share.

We serve in hope not that the light bill will be paid, but in the hope of eternal union with Christ and with the neighbor, trusting that the gifts we have been given are enough. We serve in hope, we serve in faith, and we serve in love.

We don’t fall backward, but forward, our hearts and our eyes open, and our arms spread wide. Our whole vocation is a “trust exercise” – trust in Providence.


Do I sometimes place more trust in myself than in Divine Providence?

Recommended Reading

Faces of Holiness

A Week in Prayers: September 26 – 30

A Week in Prayers: September 26 – 30 940 788 SVDP USA

Monday, September 26

Lord, I thank You
For the gifts You have given me
For all that I have
And all that I am
Given to be shared

Tuesday, September 27

Pray for us, St Vincent de Paul
That we may love God as You did
With the strength of our arms
And the sweat of our brows
Never hesitating to do the hard work

Pray for us, St Vincent de Paul
That we may always be gentle
With the neighbors we serve
Offering our smiles and good cheer
For in them we see and serve Christ

Pray for us, St Vincent de Paul

Wednesday, September 28

Lord Jesus, lead me
Away from worldly distractions
That tug at my sleeve
Or stand in my way,
Diverting my attention
From the kingdom.
Lead me, Lord Jesus,
I seek to follow.

Thursday, September 29

Lord, in Your name
I will seek out and find
The poor and the suffering
Lord, for Your sake
I will give my time, my talents,
My possessions, and myself
Lord, by Your grace
I will be a humble servant
And cheerful giver
Lord, with Your love
I will be filled
Even as I share it

Friday, September 30

Thank You, Lord,
For all that I am,
For the gifts I do not deserve,
Given by You
To be shared with all.
I will empty myself,
My Lord,
To be filled with Your light
And Your love,
Only to share that, too.
Daily Prayers are written by Tim Williams, National Vincentian Formation Director.

Contemplation: Our Inheritance and Legacy

Contemplation: Our Inheritance and Legacy 940 788 SVDP USA

In studying our own genealogy, we first catalog the names and dates and places of our ancestors. Our understanding and our love for them truly comes alive, though, when we find photographs, objects they owned, and best of all, words that they wrote. In a similar way, the portraits, relics, and words of our Vincentian saints and blessed help us to understand and fulfill our place in our shared Vincentian Family.

A treasure trove of St. Vincent’s words is contained within the fourteen(+) volume Correspondence, Conferences, and Documents, from the mundane, such a real estate transactions, to the personal, revealed in letters that were intended originally only for one recipient, to the conferences in which he gave spiritual lessons to his followers. While Vincent himself did not want his conferences recorded, designated note-takers recorded them surreptitiously anyway, realizing that the words of this holy man would feed generations who succeeded them.

Coincidentally, we also see Christ admonishing people more than once in the gospels not to tell anybody of some of His particular words or works – yet there they are, written in the gospels.

Bl. Frédéric Ozanam’s words are collected for us (in English) in a volume called A Life in Letters, with translation of more of his work currently underway. It was Frédéric who said that we owe to our patron “a two-fold devotion… imitation and invocation.” He argued that we could escape our personal imperfections “appropriating the thoughts and virtues of the saint”. [Letter 175, to Lallier, 1838]

How, after all, do we truly imitate Vincent’s example without his words, his teaching, his very personality that is visible to us in the collections of his words? Vincent’s insights were meant not only for 17th Century France, but are, as Frédéric put it, “for all lands and for all time.” [Baunard, 275]

It has often been observed that the third generation of a wealthy family is the one that tends to squander that wealth; no longer appreciating the work that it took their ancestors to earn it, they no longer are inclined to work themselves.

“The poor,” St. Vincent taught, “are our inheritance.” [Gallican Church, Vol.2, 8] Through the words preserved for us, we receive from his spiritual estate our way of seeing, serving, and loving them, so that we will be better able to pass this along to future generations of our Vincentian Family.


How often do I pause to study the words of our Vincentian saints and blessed?

Recommended Reading

Frédéric Ozanam, A Life in Letters Letter 90

Contemplation — Seeking Help From the Neighbor

Contemplation — Seeking Help From the Neighbor 940 788 SVDP USA

The parable of the Good Samaritan is a Vincentian favorite. In Christ’s command to “go and do likewise”, we hear the call to our lay vocation: to tend to the helpless, the hungry, the sick, and the lonely with acts of both corporal and spiritual mercy.

For Frédéric, the robber’s victim represented all the “humanity of our days” which had been robbed not only of its possessions, but of its “treasure of faith and love” by the “cutthroats and robbers of thought”. [Letter 90, to Curnier, 1835] In Frédéric’s retelling, the priest and Levite had not passed by, indifferent to suffering. Shaped by his own experiences with widespread rejection of the church, the priest and Levite had instead been rejected by the traveler, who did not recognize them as helpers.

Because of this, the task of tending to the wounds of “the great sick one” was left to us, “weak Samaritans” whose task was not only to tend to the necessities of the body, but to offer “words of consolation and peace” so that he might return to the church. In this interpretation, Frédéric echoed the commentary of St. Augustine, who had taught that the innkeeper represented the church. [Quaestiones Evangeliorum, II]

We can hear this idea repeated in Frédéric’s later essay on “Help Which Honors”, in which he explains that to give material help only, without our love and friendship, is humiliating. Instead, we honor those in need by offering those things that we may need ourselves – a handshake, consolation, kind words. “Help then becomes honorable,” he said, “because it may become mutual.” [O’Meara, 229]

When you consider it this way, it would seem that when we “weak Samaritans” crouch down at the side of the road to offer our help, we also are seeking help from the victim, in whom we see the suffering Christ. [Rule, Part I, 1.8] Our service to the neighbor, given freely and generously, is a means to the end of our own growth in holiness. We grow closer to Christ by serving Him.

After all, the question Christ was answering with the parable was about what we must do to inherit eternal life. How could we do anything but to “go and do likewise”?


Do I feel gratitude to the neighbor for drawing me closer to Christ?

Recommended Reading

15 Days of Prayer with Bl. Frédéric Ozanam

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

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

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