Tim Williams

Contemplation: This Sweet Business

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Contemplate

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

Recommended Reading

Mystic of Charity (especially Home Visits in the Vincentian Tradition)

Contemplation: Doing More

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There is an old saying that nobody, on his deathbed, ever said “I wish I had spent more time at the office.” Yet in a famous scene in the movie Monsieur Vincent, St. Vincent, near his own death, tells the queen that he has done nothing in his life. She asks then, if he has done nothing, what should the rest of us do? St. Vincent de Paul replies, “More.”

Vincent’s life’s work, though, was not a job! Likewise, for us, our work of charity is not a job, nor are we simply “volunteers”. Instead, ours is a vocation; it isn’t what we do, it is who we are. There is no question of “clocking out” for the day, for ours is a “vocation for every moment of our lives”. [Rule, Part I, 2.6]

A vocation is a calling; the word itself comes from the Latin vocāre, meaning “to call”. Every person is called; our church teaches, to the common vocation “to show forth the image of God and to be transformed into the image of the Father’s only Son.” [CCC, 1877] This common vocation takes a personal form, leading each of us to our particular road toward the perfection to which Christ directs us.

Our road is the Vincentian pathway. It leads us to Christ; it is our way of being Catholic. We sons and daughters of St. Vincent are called by his example to “love God…with the strength of our arms and the sweat of our brows.” [CCD XI:32] With these words, Vincent recalls that labor is the common lot of mankind since being cast out of Eden, sentenced to eat bread only by the sweat of our brows, but as Blessed Frédéric Ozanam put it, this “applies as much to the nourishment of the soul as of the body.” [Letter 6, to Materne, 1829]

Ours is not a job for pay, but a labor of love – to serve Him in the poor, the hungry, the lonely, and the desperate; to dry their tears, to offer our hearts, and to share with them this great hope that lights our path. “That is what is proposed to us, the sublime vocation God has given us.” Frédéric said. “Would that we were a little bit worthy of it and bent easily to its burden.” [Letter 90, to Curnier, 1835]

We needn’t be ashamed that we tire, from time to time, at the labor required to visit the poor, to stock the pantries, to answer the calls, to talk to the landlords, and even to fill out the paperwork, but let us always remember the Savior’s call to “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest.”

And let us also ask Blessed Frédéric to pray for us, as he did for his brothers, “that you may know your vocation and will not fail in the courage to follow it…” [Letter 387, to his brother Charles, 1842] In becoming Vincentians, we answered His call, and each time the Conference helpline rings, He is calling us again.

Contemplate

How can I seek to do “more”?

Recommended Reading

Walking the Vincentian Pathway

Contemplation: Justice, Charity, and Subsidiarity

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One of the oldest traditions of the Society is our embrace of subsidiarity as our standard of operation. By this, we mean that Conferences and Councils have great freedom of action, empowering them to pursue local initiatives to help the poor spontaneously and effectively, without the burden of excessive bureaucracy. [Rule, Part I, 3.9] Bureaucracy, after all, is the hallmark not of Christian charity, but, as the word itself suggests, of what Bl. Frédéric referred to as “the assistance bureaus.” He explained that Conferences should instead keep in mind that each city “has different needs … and provides different resources” and not “tie [themselves] down with rules and formulas.” [Letter 82, to Curnier, 1834]

It only stands to reason, then, that it cannot be a remote Council that dictates the works of the Conferences, for it could have little basis to do so outside of “rules and formulas.” Councils instead exist not to supervise, but “to serve all the Conferences they coordinate.” [Rule, Part I, 3.6] As Emmanuel Bailly explained this relationship in an 1841 Circular Letter, Councils are “rather a link than a power” and in that link from Conferences to Councils and back, “there is neither authority nor obedience; there may be deference and advice; there is certainly, above all, charity; there is the same end, there are the same good works; there is a union of hearts in Jesus Christ, our Lord.” [Circ. Ltr. 14 Jul 1841]

Subsidiarity, then, works hand in hand with our Vincentian friendship, and our Cultural Belief in One Society. We are united by our Rule, by our Catholic faith, and by the celebration of our diversity in the many communities where we serve. We respect the Conferences’ determination of the best way to serve their communities in much the same way as Conferences are called to assume that the home visit team has “special insight into the best way to give help.” [Manual, 24]

Subsidiarity, of course, also is one of the four permanent principles of Catholic social doctrine, necessary to recognizing the dignity of the human person. It extends not only from Councils to Conferences, but to the neighbor, reminding us that it “gravely wrong to take from individuals what they can accomplish by their own initiative and industry and give it to the community.” [CSDC, 186]

This is one reason why, rather than dictating solutions for the neighbor, “Vincentians endeavor to help the poor to help themselves whenever possible, and to be aware that they can forge and change their own destinies and that of their local community.” [Rule, Part I, 1.10]

At times, it seems easier to simply dictate to others rather than allow them to make their own decisions, but subsidiarity calls Councils to respect the judgment of Conferences, Conferences of members, and members of neighbors. Subsidiarity, being rooted in respect for the dignity of the human person, is a measure of both justice and charity.

Contemplate

Are there times I become frustrated because I believe that “I know what’s best” for others?

Recommended Reading

The Rule, Part I

Contemplation — Hearts Filled with Joy

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The primary purpose of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul is the spiritual growth of its members. We seek, by serving the poor, to see His suffering and to grow closer to Him and welcoming the neighbor into His love. All this suffering serves a purpose in God’s plan, but that does not mean we serve in sadness!

Vincentians receive many dimensions of God’s grace as a result of our home visits, but perhaps the most important dimension is joyful grace. We are like children who have just cleaned up their rooms without being asked, racing to tell our parents what we have done! We are bursting with pride not only because know this will please our parents, but because in the course of our cleaning we saw for ourselves that it was good.

Similarly, we have sat in the pew and listened to the words of Gospel of Matthew many times, and many times we have nodded along as Christ explains the Judgment of Nations. It all makes sense – serve the least among us, feed the hungry, welcome the stranger…probably most of us can recite it by heart. But as Army General Norman Schwartzkopf once said, “You almost always know the right thing to do. The hard part is doing it.”

And so we are filled with joy as we fulfill God’s will through our works. But our hearts are doubly filled with this joyful grace of God as we realize that we have encountered Christ Himself – exactly as he told us we would.

We go to the homes of the poor and, as Vincent explains, we “find God there!” [CCD IX:199] This is a source of wonder not because it is so surprising, but precisely because it is not. Christ’s word is fulfilled through our actions and our hearts are filled with joy!

When we think about finding new members to join with us in our Conferences, or to form new Conferences, extending this worldwide network of charity, no “recruiting pitch” should be necessary. We have been in the presence of a loving God and have in turn shared His love with others. This joyful grace fills us to overflowing – why would we not want that for all of our friends? Why would we not invite them to share in our joy? Why would we keep it to ourselves?

Contemplate

Do I hesitate to share this great joy of God’s grace with my friends?

Recommended Reading

‘Tis a Gift to be Simple

A Week in Prayers February 6 — February 10

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Monday, February 6

Heal me, Lord, in Your mercy,
Make me free in both body and soul.
May I rise in Your love every morning
And sleep in Your peace every night
And through all of my waking hours
May I serve You with all of my strength.
Amen

Tuesday, February 7

Pray for us Blessed Rosalie Rendu!
May our faith, like yours, be fearless;
A beacon in turbulent times.
May we live your example in serving
By offering first our hearts.
Pray for the Society, Blessed Rosalie,
As you’ve prayed for us from the start.
Amen

Wednesday, February 8

O Lord, in Your promise is joy,
For Yours is the word of life.
You fill my heart,
And You fill my soul,
And I overflow with Your light.
Amen

Thursday, February 9

Lord Jesus, Your voice cries out,
Insistent, persistent, unceasing,
From the mouth of the stranger,
The orphan, the widow,
The beggar, the neighbor in need.
Grant me patience for each interruption.
Knowing that my time is Yours.
Help me always to answer You gently.
Amen

Friday, February 10

I give my heart to You, O God,
In gratitude and love
Make my will Yours
So that Your great love
Will shine upon my neighbor
Through my works
Amen

Daily Prayers are written by Tim Williams, National Vincentian Formation Director.

Contemplation — Spiritual and Religious

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Perhaps you have friends who say “I am spiritual, but not religious.” For Vincentians, our spirituality is not only religious, it is our very special and specific way of living our Catholic faith.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that there are many and varied spiritualities that have been developed throughout history, and that “the personal charism of some witnesses to God’s love for men has been handed on… so that their followers may have a share in this spirit.” [CCC, 2684] For us, that “refraction of the one pure light of the Holy Spirit” is the charism of St. Vincent de Paul.

Unlike many well-known saints, Vincent never wrote a treatise about his spirituality; there is no Vincentian Summa Theologica, Introduction to the Devout Life, or Spiritual Exercises for us to study. We can learn a great deal by reading the words he spoke in conferences and letters, but more importantly, we learn through his example, his actions, passed down to us through more than 400 years of Vincentian Family tradition, and especially through our primary founder, Blessed Frédéric Ozanam.

It seems only right that our spirituality is learned first through action. After all, as Vincent once said, we must “love God…with the strength of our arms and the sweat of our brows”. [CCD XI:32] Two hundred years later, Frédéric would found the Society by declaring “Let us go to the poor!” [Baunard, 65]

Ours a spirituality of action, of doing, of serving. At the same time, we pray “both at the individual and community level” with our own lives “characterized by prayer, meditation on the Holy Scriptures and other inspirational texts and devotion to the Eucharist and the Virgin Mary”. [Rule, Part I, 2.2] Our prayers always include reflection on our service, reminding us, as Frédéric put it, that “visiting the poor should be the means and not the end of our association.” [Letter 182, to Lallier, 1838]

We trust in Divine Providence, in the love and the abundance of God. We do not worry about running out of resources – everything that is given to us belongs to the poor already, and “members should never adopt the attitude that the money is theirs, or that the recipients have to prove that they deserve it”. [Manual, 23] We trust, with Frédéric, that to do works of charity, “it is never necessary to worry about financial resources, they always come.” [Letter 121, to his mother, 1836]

Finally, and most importantly, we see, we serve, and we love Jesus Christ in the person of the neighbor whom we serve. As St Vincent taught, “you go into poor homes, but you find God there.” [CCD IX:199] As Frédéric taught, the poor “are for us the sacred images of that God whom we do not see, and not knowing how to love Him otherwise shall we not love Him in [their] persons?” [Letter 137, to Janmot, 1836]

Through these actions, we grow closer to Christ. This is our spirituality. This is our religion.

Contemplate

How often do I share my Vincentian spirituality with other Catholics?

Recommended Reading

The Manual (especially 3.2, Vincentian Spirituality)

Contemplation — A Simple Aspiration

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We celebrate the great vision of our primary founder, Blessed Frédéric Ozanam who, along with six others, started that first Conference which has since grown to literally encircle the world, as he had envisioned. [Rule, Part I, 2.4] Lest we confuse vision with ambition, though, Frédéric’s oft-stated goals for himself and the Society were simply to become better, and to do a little good. On its face, this may seem to be a contradiction. After all, how does one reconcile a vision of charity and justice sweeping across France and the world, restoring the church, and making the world better with the humble personal aspiration simply to do a little good, or to become better?

In Frédéric’s estimation, the Society’s rapid growth was not the work of its members, least of all himself, but had grown so rapidly only through Divine Providence, through which it also had “been allowed to do a little good”. [Letter 141, to Ballofet, 1837] He understood, exactly as St Vincent had repeatedly taught, that any success we may have, or that our Society may have, is entirely the work of God, not ourselves. Indeed, the whole point of the work is not the earthly result, but our own growth in holiness; our “becoming better.”

While their works, as Frédéric hoped, may indeed “[erase] little by little the old divisions of political parties” and “make it a moral country”, it won’t because of a grand strategy, but because the members seek “to become better themselves in order to make others happier”. [Letter 290, to Amélie, 1841]

Remember, we seek “to help relieve suffering for love alone, without thinking of any reward or advantage for [ourselves]”. [Rule, Part I, 2.2] If the world changes, it changes – that’s up to God. We’re called to serve selflessly, to “do all the good we can, and trust to God for the rest.” [Baunard, 81] To become better, then, is not a matter of earning accolades; it is something we do for others, and for God.

Indeed, as Frédéric once advised his friend Ernest Falconnet, “it would be a thousand times better to languish in obscurity for half a century, edifying others with a spirit of resignation and doing some little good, than to be intoxicated for a few brief months with worldly pleasure”. [Baunard, 349]

Ours is “a vocation for every moment of our lives”. [Rule, Part I, 2.6] We seek to do a little good, to become better, because, as Frédéric wrote, as “a Christian, a believer in God, in humanity, in country, in family, never forget that your life belongs to them, not to yourself”. [Baunard, 349]

It may seem a simple aspiration, to become better, but simple does not necessarily mean easy. We grow in holiness together, each of us and all of us, seeking to fulfill God’s will by doing a little good, and there can be no greater aspiration than that.

Contemplate

How can I become better, and do a little good, today?

Recommended Reading

Apostle in a Top Hat

Contemplation — On Our Way

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One of the central activities of the Conferences and Councils of the Society is formation. Because we often use this word as a synonym for “training” we can begin to think of it as an isolated event, something to check off on a list when we join the Society or enter into specific positions. But formation is not a single event – it is a lifelong journey of becoming…of becoming what?

As Vincentians, we have chosen a specific way of being Catholic, and this way, this vocation, forms us. The Foundation Document on Vincentian Formation, adopted by the Society more than twenty years ago, suggests four different dimensions of formation, closely mirroring the areas outlined in Pastores dabo vobis, an apostolic exhortation on the formation of priests.

Our human formation, the basis for all formation, begins with our actions, which are shaped by our virtues. We become by doing, we build habits of virtue in order to become virtuous. For Vincentians, these include the Cardinal Virtues, the Theological Virtues, and our Vincentian Virtues.

Our spiritual formation has to do with the transcendent aspect of our nature; the aspect in which we are truly made in God’s image. Our spiritual formation reminds us that we are created to live in community. The model of the Holy Trinity reminds us that the eternal life is a shared life, and that our path to it is also shared. As Vincentians, we pray and reflect together often. Our spiritual reflections and prayers in each Conference meeting are a vital part of our ongoing formation. Our individual prayers, retreats, Mass – and prayers shared with the neighbor are all part of our spiritual formation. We journey together towards holiness. [Rule, Part I, 2.2]

Our training falls within our intellectual formation. The efforts we make to learn the practical aspects of our vocation, to learn about poverty, and about specific works and programs. But our intellectual formation also demands that we take the time to read about our heritage, the words and deeds of our saints and blessed, as well as to devote time to personal study of Holy Scripture.

Finally, ministerial formation comes from a commitment to our vocation as mission, accepting our service as a means to our growth, and remaining open to all ways to serve, including servant leadership.

Our particular way of being Catholic, our particular process of becoming, is our Vincentian vocation. We follow, in every part of our lives, our Vincentian pathway towards becoming what Christ calls us to be, “perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Contemplate

In what way was I formed today? How did I grow closer to holiness?

Recommended Reading

Faces of Holiness

Contemplation — My God, I Give You My Heart

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Our Rule repeatedly emphasizes the importance of prayer to our vocation. We pray often, the Rule reminds us. We live “a life of prayer and reflection, both at the individual and community level,” [Rule, Part I, 2.2] Prayer is central to our lives and to our vocation. So, as in all things, we must ask: what does St. Vincent teach us about our life of prayer?

In a general audience in November 2020, Pope Francis expressed four characteristics of prayer, given to us through Christ’s example. [General Audience, 4 Nov 2020] The first of these is the primacy of prayer; prayer is “the first desire of the day.” We listen, we encounter God from our first moment of consciousness.

Similarly, St. Vincent de Paul urged that we should “always do whatever you can so that, prayer being your first occupation, your mind may be filled with God for the rest of the day.” [CCD IX:29] Vincent himself began each day with “mental prayer,” interiorly seeking God’s guidance. The Common Rules of the Congregation of the Mission would later incorporate this practice for all the priests and brothers of the mission.

We are only human, and it is easy to seek coffee first – to try to physically jolt ourselves into the energy we need to get up and to get going. But how full are our hearts when we open them instead, first thing each day, to God? Caffeine may well make our hearts beat faster, but prayer will make them beat more insistently, more persistently, more patiently, and more purposefully.

Coffee doesn’t give us the empathy to understand the neighbor as we would a brother or sister. Coffee doesn’t help us to form relationships based on trust and friendship. [Rule, Part I, 1.9] Coffee is indeed a joyful way to help us greet the day, but coffee is only physical. It warms us from the outside in.

Prayer fills us from the inside out, from where God touches us most deeply so that His love may take root and grow to where we can share Him and His love with all those we encounter. But first, and to start each and every day, we must open our innermost hearts to Him.

On awaking, his biographer Joseph Guichard said, St. Vincent would begin each day by crossing himself and saying, “My God, I give You my heart.” May we follow his example, not only in our words, but in our devotion, our practice of prayer, and in our hearts – every day.

Contemplate

As a Vincentian, a Catholic, a Christian, how do I greet each day?

Recommended Reading

500 Little Prayers for Vincentians

Contemplation — Practice Makes Perfect

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When we become Vincentians, whether as active or associate members, one of the things we promise is to live our Rule. This is, of course, a promise we should make only after reading it! Although our Rule is relatively brief, it’s still a little long to memorize. So, in order to live it, we need to reread it from time to time, by ourselves and with our Conferences. It seems like a tall order to live by some lengthy set of instructions, and few people are naturally inclined to try to do that. But the Rule, in its essence, is not a lengthy set of instructions at all. There are some specific instructions, such as how to elect a president, and how long the term of office is, but the Rule is primarily a spiritual document.

Like the rules of various religious orders, it is meant less to prescribe a long list of actions and behaviors, but to describe what a Vincentian looks like. For example, the Rule tells us that Conferences meet “in a spirit of fraternity, simplicity, and Christian joy.” [Rule, Part III, St. 8] That’s it. One sentence. It doesn’t go on to describe the specific steps we must take to live this part of the Rule, so how do we know if we are living it? One way to measure this is to ask ourselves whether a visitor to our Conference write the words above to describe our meetings. Would we describe our own Conference meetings with these words?

To live our Rule means not only to do the things, such as our home visits and other person to person service, but to truly internalize our spirituality, our traditions, and our virtues. If I have to remind myself from time to time, to be patient, gentle, kind, and understanding, that’s okay. At some point, I will no longer just be acting gently, but I will be gentle; I will no longer be doing Vincentian things, I will be Vincentian.

We promise to live our Rule, and Vincentians keep their promises! We can only do this fully by reviewing that Rule from time to time, and asking ourselves, “Do these words describe the way I act as a Vincentian? Do they describe my Conference?”

Do I “serve the poor cheerfully”? Do I “form relationships based on trust and friendship”? Do I help the neighbor “to feel and recover their own dignity”? Do I “never forget the many blessings I receive from those I visit”? [Rule, Part I, 1.8ff] We reread to remind ourselves, so that we can practice, and become better.

To be a Vincentian is to have a particular way of living our faith, and to pursue our primary calling as Christians, as Catholics, and as Vincentians: to be perfect, just as our heavenly Father is perfect. And we all know the old saying: practice makes perfect.

Contemplate

What parts of the Rule describe me and my Conference? What parts do not?

Recommended Reading

The Rule (especially Part I)

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