Tim Williams

Contemplation: To Know Fully

Contemplation: To Know Fully 1080 1080 SVDP USA

In his 1978 book, God and the Astronomers, astrophysicist Robert Jastrow concludes that the astronomers, following science alone to scale the mountain of ignorance, would, when reaching the truth at its peak, be “greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.” This metaphor captures a truth at the heart of our vocation, since the founders were challenged by those who scoffed at the church’s role in the “modern world.”  Then, as now, the truth we serve is much deeper and more permanent than the temporary circumstances of the times in which we live.

In Frédéric’s time, many philanthropic associations formed whose goal was to get material resources out to as many people as possible, using every modern efficiency of the day. As Frédéric observed, after “only a year in existence … they already have large volumes of resumés.” [Letter 90, to Curnier, 1835] He went on to contrast those works with what he’d been challenged to show: the true good of the church.

The Society’s purpose is not service delivery, but charity — love. Our success is not measured by the quantity of dollars or food we may distribute, but by the quality of the relationships we form. In the recent pandemic, we were forced to make do with alternate forms of contact, rather than home visits. While being grateful for the ability to continue to serve, we quickly saw they were only “half a loaf.”

In 1834, Blessed Frédéric explained that “at-home assistance is one of the best rendered charities and one that produces the best results”, especially, he continued, “in these times when help is generally dispensed with such culpable indifference.” [Doc. 1457, report on works, 1834] As Pope Francis explains, we set aside our own wishes and desires in serving the vulnerable. “Service always looks to their faces, touches their flesh, senses their closeness and even, in some cases, ‘suffers’ that closeness and tries to help them. Service is never ideological, for we do not serve ideas, we serve people.” [Fratelli Tutti, 115]

It’s a well-known axiom that most human communications are non-verbal. We pick up cues such as social context and body language from other people even when we are not aware of them consciously. There really is no substitute. The Apostle Paul even explains arriving at holiness and understanding by contrasting an image in a mirror with seeing face to face, when he will “know fully, as I am fully known.”

Recent psychological research has compared the effects of remote and face-to-face communication. Their conclusion has been that relationships and communication are not only better formed face to face (“fully known” you might say), but that face-to-face meeting is even associated with better mental health. If only today’s researchers had consulted Frédéric Ozanam first. Not to worry – when they reach the mountaintop, he will be waiting for them there…in person.


Do I truly stop to see and to know the neighbor in front of me?

Recommended Reading

Mystic of Charity, especially “Home Visits in the Vincentian Tradition

Contemplation: To Become Better

Contemplation: To Become Better 720 720 SVDP USA

The Society of St. Vincent de Paul is the largest lay Catholic organization in the world, with about a million members and volunteers in 155 countries around the world. As the primary founder, and inspirational leader of the earliest Conferences, we can very fairly say that Blessed Frédéric Ozanam left a very large legacy – he literally changed the world. Yet we know him to have been a very humble and modest man. Although there is no record of him saying this actual phrase that is often attributed to him, it is very fair to say that he truly sought in his life “to become better, and to do a little good.”

How could such a modest goal become such a great, apostolic legacy? Perhaps it would be better to ask how it could not. After all, the very Kingdom of Heaven, Christ taught, is grown from the smallest of seeds. Frédéric accomplished great things not by setting out to accomplish great things, but by setting out to make himself better by growing closer to Christ, and to share the good news with others. This was his vision for the Society, too, as a “a community of faith and works erasing little by little the old divisions” made up of members resolved “to become better themselves in order to make others happier.” [Letter 290, to Amélie, 1841]

Frédéric believed that the church offered the solution to “the social question” precisely because it was not of this world; because through the saving word of Jesus Christ we will be able to place all questions in their proper place, and be united by love, not divided by material concerns. At the same time, he recognized the great challenge of this, and asked the very same kinds of questions we often ask ourselves: Am I holy enough? Who am I to try to teach others the path to holiness?

As Frédéric once put it, “how does one make saints without being a saint oneself? How do we preach resignation and courage to the unfortunate when we feel devoid of it ourselves? How do we reproach them for things we too are guilty of?” We’re challenged, he said, when we see “we are equals in infirmity and in virtue often inferior to those we are visiting.” [1372. Report to Gen’l Assly, 1838]

In his deep and lifelong kerygmatic commitment, Frédéric recognized that it is we who are first evangelized when we see that it is Christ we serve, that love of neighbor can never be separated from love of God, and that our own growth in holiness makes each of us not a mighty tree, but something much greater – a tiny mustard seed.

To seek personal holiness might seem, Frédéric conceded, a “motive of personal interest, this egoism which is at the bottom of our work.” [Letter 82, to Curnier, 1834] But we only become better by becoming smaller, greater by becoming more modest, and we change the world by first changing ourselves.


Am I holy enough?

Recommended Reading

15 Days of Prayer with Blessed Frédéric Ozanam

Contemplation: The Wages of Love

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Unlike that of humans, God’s judgment, we are taught, is equal to His mercy. This is one reason that we refrain from judging the neighbors we serve; our judgments, sometimes harsh, can cloud our vision, and limit our charity. Mercy, on the other hand, is indispensable to charity.

St. Thomas Aquinas went so far as to say that the “sum total of the Christian religion consists in mercy” in our actions. It is an outward expression of our internal love of God. In other words, mercy unites us externally with the neighbor just as charity unites us internally with God. [Summa, II:II:30:4]

What, then, is mercy? The Latin word for mercy, misericordia, literally means a miserable heart, which captures the emotional and passionate nature of mercy. When we see the suffering of another and we are moved to sadness ourselves – we can’t help it. We are all connected. Vincent went so far as to say that “to see our brother suffering without weeping with him, without being sick with him [is] to be lacking in charity; it’s being a caricature of a Christian; it’s inhuman…” [CCD XII:222] Mercy, again, is indispensable to charity.

Recall, also, that Jesus calls us to mercy, not to judgment. To those who criticized Him for associating with tax collectors and sinners, he replied “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” He warned us that we would be judged in the same manner by which we judge others.

The English word mercy has its root in the Latin mercēs, meaning wages, which perhaps suggests new way to understand mercy – and a new way to practice it. Wages, after all, are what is owed to another, and to give to another what he is owed is an act not of charity but of justice.

This is exactly what Vincent taught, praying that God would “[soften] our hearts toward the wretched creatures” so that we might realize “that in helping them we are doing an act of justice and not of mercy.” [CCD VII:115]

The wages of sin is death, but because God’s judgment is equal to His mercy, the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. He grants us the grace of His unlimited mercy, like all His gifts, only so that we might share it. If this is so, then it is through sharing God’s mercy that we also share His justice.

The wages of sin, in other words, may be death, but the wages of love is mercy.


Do I sometimes let my human judgment cloud the grace of God’s mercy?

Recommended Reading

Serving in Hope Module IV

Contemplation: Abundance

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“Why on earth would they do that?” we sometimes ask ourselves after a Home Visit in which the neighbors explain a decision they’ve made which makes no sense to us. Perhaps they’ve used their last dollars to pay a past-due cable bill, and the rent is due next week. They’ve quit a job in anger, despite having nothing to fall back on. Or they’ve used their tax refund on recreation when their electricity is already cut off.

In their book Scarcity, authors Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir examine how human decision-making and cognitive abilities are affected when resources become scarce. Whether it is money, food, or even time that is insufficient, or barely sufficient for our needs, we don’t tend to make rational decisions. It’s not a matter of wealth or education. Very busy people, for example, for whom time is scarce, often mismanage the time that they have.

For the poor, of course, scarcity is a constant in their lives. We should hardly be surprised that some of their decisions make no sense to those of us who have in abundance what the poor lack. Scarcity is not affecting our thinking. At the same time, while we set aside our judgment, as we are called to do, and set about trying to provide for whatever scarcity the neighbor faces, we may ourselves lose sight of the most important scarcity we can address: love.

Man cannot live without love.” Pope St. John Paul II reminds us. “He remains a being that is incomprehensible for himself, his life is senseless, if love is not revealed to him...” [RH, 10] That is why our Rule explains that “Vincentians should never forget that giving love, talents and time is more important than giving money.” [Rule, Part I, 3.14] Of all the resources we may have at our disposal, love is the only one that is never scarce.

All the things of this world, after all, will pass; both scarcity and abundance of material things is an illusion. It is much easier to remember that life is more than food, and the body more than clothing when we want for nothing; it is more difficult when we are hungry and poor. The material assistance we offer is meant not to create false abundance, but to demonstrate God’s love; to be God’s instrument in providing what is needed, just as He promised it would be provided; and so, “by showing the vitality of [our] faith, affirm its truth.” [Baunard, 65]

It is the who poor evangelize us by sharing Christ’s suffering with us. In turn, we evangelize first by fulfilling Christ’s promise to provide for their needs, and through our works, offering the only true abundance, an abundance that sweeps away all scarcity: the abundance of God’s love, and His hope.


Do I let my love grow scarce enough to affect my thinking during encounters with the neighbor?

Recommended Reading

Turn Everything to Love

Contemplation: Will and Grace

Contemplation: Will and Grace 653 653 SVDP USA

The word vocation, as we know, is from the Latin vocāre, meaning “to call. A vocation, then, such as our Vincentian vocation, is a calling, specifically a call from God. If you have heard the call, it is for you. What matters most to our own salvation, then, is not the call, but our answer to it.

God’s call can come to us in many forms — a nagging feeling that we cannot shake, a pang in our conscience, an event in our lives that seems to hold deeper meaning, or a person who raises new ideas. It is in times of reflection and prayer that we may feel most attuned to God’s voice, but His call is not bound by our attention to it. If you hear His call, it is for you.

Nevertheless, even having heard the call, we often question our fitness to answer it. “Am I holy enough?” we wonder, when asked to consider serving as a spiritual advisor. “Am I really a leader?” we wonder when the nominating committee asks to consider us as a future president. “Do I have the compassion, or the knowledge, to be a home visitor?” we wonder, especially as new members.

If you hear His call, it is for you, and if He has called you, He will give you the graces you will need to fulfill His will. With our friends, we can offer all the well-considered reasons why we cannot do things; we can list out our other obligations, our shortcomings, or our self-doubts. All these things may be reasonable and true, and they may be quite convincing to our friends, but God already knew all of those things before calling.

Yet He called, and we heard Him.

When Gabriel appeared before a young girl in Nazareth to tell her she would bear a child by the power of the Holy Spirit, he was asking her to do some very difficult things. She might believe she was carrying the Son of God, but who in her community would see it that way? What would her betrothed think? Was she capable of raising a child in those circumstances? How could she even be sure she could provide food and shelter for the two of them?

But the angel in his greeting, “Hail, full of grace”, made clear that God had already given her all the gifts, all the graces, all the ability to fulfill His will, and so, in her humble obedience, she answered “yes” to His call. We, like Mary, are called only to those things that God wills for us. He knows what we can do, even if we don’t, and we can take the same reassurance as the angel offered to her, to not be afraid, for the Lord is with us. He has given us sufficient grace. And God’s will does not remove His grace.


Am I sometimes hesitant to answer God’s call because I doubt my own gifts?

Recommended Reading

Faces of Holiness

Contemplation: A Communion of Friendship

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We are called as individuals to the virtue of charity, expressed as complete love of God for His own sake, and love of the neighbor as ourselves for the love of God. [CCC, 1822] Charity is not only the greatest of the theological virtues, [1 Cor 13:13] but also the greatest commandment of Jesus Christ. [Mark 12:30-31] Our expression of this love requires us to share our personal graces, our individual charisms, in the service of one another, [1 Pet 4:10] united in this same love. Therefore, this virtue of charity, the central calling of our faith, is best expressed in communion – indeed, it is only expressed in communion – and communion is the heart of our Conferences, and our essential element friendship.

God’s people – each of us and all of us – also are called to share in the “threefold mission of Christ as Priest, Prophet and King” [CF, 14]. Since “God is love” [1 John 4:8], this necessarily means that our exercise of mission must be an embodiment of love, of charity, of agape. In Conferences, our works of charity are always works of the Conference, not of individual members. Even our home visits are always conducted in pairs, not alone.

It was Christ’s mission to enter into this world, where He “fully reveal[ed] man to himself”, [RH, 8] not only by taking on human nature along with His own divine nature, but by living in perfect communion with His creatures, especially His disciples. He expressed the call both to communion and to mission most clearly at the Last Supper, asking God the Father that the disciples might “be one” with one another, and be united in perfect union with God the Father. Just as importantly, He prayed the Disciples might lead others to be joined in this union. [John 17:18-23] This prayer calls us all to the mission of evangelization in communion with each other, with Him, and with all His creatures.

We all are parts of one body, as the apostle teaches, each with his own role, each with his own graces; part of not just a body, but of Christ’s body [1 Cor 12] which is His church. [Eph 1:22-23] Consequently, mission can only be fully realized in communion as one body, as one church, in the fullness of charity.

In His own mission, Christ was not alone. Who saw Him saw the Father, with whom He is fully united. Our model of communion, then, begins with the unity of the Father and Son, sealed by the Holy Spirit, whom He sends to strengthen and unite us. [John 14:16-17] The example of the Holy Trinity shows us that the Divine life is a shared life. United in perfect Communion with one another, the three persons of God also call us to communion. Our pathway, then, to the divine life, and our mission to call others to it, must also be shared. In this way, “The specific ministry of the Conference belongs not only to the Society, but to all Christian people.” [Manual, 16]

Our social nature, Christian charity, and individual gifts all are meant to be placed in the service of mission, in communion with our Conferences, and through the church which Christ founded.


Do I live my vocation in a community of friendship with both fellow Vincentians and the neighbor?

Recommended Reading

Turn Everything to Love

Contemplation: Gifted

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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

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