Vincentian Formation

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.

Contemplate

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.

Contemplate

How do I measure success?

Recommended Reading

A Heart on Fire

Contemplation: This Sweet Business

Contemplation: This Sweet Business 714 714 SVDP USA

“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

Contemplation: Doing More 1080 1080 SVDP USA

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

Contemplation: Justice, Charity, and Subsidiarity 1080 1080 SVDP USA

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 — Chosen as Friends

Contemplation — Chosen as Friends 1080 1080 SVDP USA

Childhood friends, friends from school, friends from the neighborhood, teammates, Army buddies, work friends, Facebook friends, new friends, and old friends — we all have many lists of friends, and many ways of forming friendships. But when you hear the word “friend,” whose face comes to your mind first? Is it a friend you see often, or a face from long ago whose bond of friendship has not been weakened by the time and distance that separate you?

Frédéric Ozanam once explained friendships can be strengthened by both words and actions. Words, by letters or emails, allow us to share our thoughts and share ourselves with each other even when we are far apart from our friends, but he went on, “there are bonds stronger still than words: actions.” Nothing can draw friends closer than to eat together, travel together, or work together.”

Indeed, remember that school trip, and how much closer the group became? Or studying together for a class, going out to dinner, having a backyard barbecue? Each time, we build memories of a shared experience and grow closer to our friends.

But if purely human acts have this power, moral acts have it even more, and if two or three come together to do good, their union will be perfect.” [Letter 142, to Curnier, 1837] This is the special character of friendship that we form in the Society of St. Vincent de Paul; the friendship that we call an Essential Element of the Society — a friendship that is strengthened by the other two Essential Elements.

After all, what better moral acts could we perform together than to serve Christ in the poor, and to seek holiness together? Indeed, we are called very specifically to share our service, to visit the poor in pairs. Our Rule also reminds us that during spiritual reflections at our meetings “members are always invited to comment as a means of sharing their faith.” [Rule, Part III, St. 7] We receive by giving first of ourselves — to each other in reflection and prayer, and to the neighbor in service.

We cannot truly understand or live our Vincentian friendship apart from service and spirituality. These are the friends with whom we have walked together, seeking, and finding Jesus Christ. Sitting with Him. Listening to Him. Praying with Him. Working to ease His burdens.

It is not we who chose the neighbor, any more than it is we who chose Christ. The neighbor chose us when he made the call to our Conference help line. And when go to him, when we sit with him, two or three of us together, we also will have in our midst the greatest Friend, just as He promised.

Contemplate

In what ways have I seen my Vincentian service strengthen my friendships with fellow members?

Recommended Reading

Vincentian Meditations II

Contemplation — A Seamless Garment

Contemplation — A Seamless Garment 1080 1080 SVDP USA

In Blessed Rosalie’s time, every working-class family with three or more children was registered with the Bureau of Public Assistance; it was simply assumed that in the conditions of the times, they would not be able to support themselves. Work was often disrupted by revolutions which shut businesses down, or by epidemics that both shuttered businesses and ended lives. A man’s death could leave his widow and children in complete destitution.

In the midst of this, Rosalie and the Daughters of Charity worked both tirelessly and cheerfully to bring food, medical care, and more to the homes of the poor. Rosalie, it was said, would not leave those homes without having also helped with some housework.

Mentored in our earliest days by Rosalie and the Daughters, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul carries on this tradition, meeting and befriending our neighbors in their homes and seeking ways to provide for their needs. Also, like Rosalie, this can lead us beyond the Home Visit.

After all, if her husband had died, leaving her penniless, the widowed mother of Rosalie’s time would have to go outside the home and find work to support herself and her children, but then who would care for the children? The Daughters could have simply kept bringing more bread, but instead, Rosalie founded the Saint-Marcel Day Nursery to care for newborns while their mothers worked. She saw that this would do more than provide food, it would remove a barrier to their own self-sufficiency – a barrier over which the widows themselves had no control. The women even paid 15 of the 55 centimes that the childcare cost per day.

By respecting the dignity of the widows and the duty of people to work, and continuing to walk in friendship with the neighbor, Rosalie modeled for us both our Catholic Social Doctrine and our Vincentian vocation.

It is no wonder that the young men who founded the Society would follow this example, as well, creating an apprenticeship program for young men in Paris shortly after the very first Conference was founded. It was in the course of their Home Visits they saw a way to break the cycle of poverty among young men who had no fathers to guide them into a trade.

It turns out that “systemic change” is only a new phrase, not a new idea. After all, who would sew a new patch to an old cloak? All of our works grow naturally from the knowledge we gain by climbing the stairs to the poor man’s garret. Systemic change may be beyond, but it is inseparable from the Home Visit, part of a seamless garment, rooted deeply in both our tradition and our Home Visit.

Contemplate

What barriers can I help to remove from the neighbor’s path?

Recommended Reading

Seeds of Hope

Daily Prayers July 5 – 8

Daily Prayers July 5 – 8 940 788 SVDP USA

July 5

You are the Lord of hope,
In my works done in Your name,
May I be a servant of faith
With heart, mind, body, and soul,
May I help build the Kingdom of love
Amen

July 6

I commend my soul to You, Lord,
May my body be a temple
Of the Holy Spirit.
I am yours in body and spirit, Lord,
Make of me what You will.
Amen

July 7

Lord help me to serve
In humility and selflessness
So that through my wordless witness
You may gather Your children
As one in Your love
Amen

July 8

Lord God Almighty,
Creator of heaven and earth,
And all who dwell here,
Hear my prayer,
Walk beside me,
Lead me home.
Amen

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.

Contemplate

Faithful to the spirit of the founders, how can I use “creative imagination” to better serve the neighbor?

Recommended Reading

Mystic of Charity

Contemplation: Thy Will Be Done

Contemplation: Thy Will Be Done 940 788 SVDP USA

We often use the word “discernment” simply as a synonym for decision-making, with an added sense of prayerful consideration. While this captures part of the meaning, discernment could also be considered the opposite of decision-making. When we discern, we seek not our best option between two choices, but true insight into God’s will in the situation. But how can we do that?

A friend of mine once asked a fellow Vincentian who was explaining the constraints of his Conference guidelines, “Is that how you will explain it to St. Peter?”

Discernment, he was suggesting, isn’t so much the actual decision, but the process by which we arrive at it. In this, he echoed St. Ignatius of Loyola, who argued in the Spiritual Exercises that to make the best choice, we should always “consider what procedure and norm of action I would wish to have followed in making the present choice if I were at the moment of death.”

In other words, while the decision itself is important, how we go about making it is even more important. Recall St. Vincent’s teaching that “God does not consider the outcome of the good work undertaken but the charity that accompanied it.” [CCD I:205] How, then, can I share the love of God (charity)? How can I do God’s will, not mine? In this way, all choices become a single choice; a choice by which we are called to live our whole lives.

Father Hugh O’Donnell’s definition of Vincentian Discernment cuts to the heart of it: “Discernment is a prayer-filled process through which each of us can discover the difference between what is my will and what is God’s Will.”

At the heart of it, discernment is meant to lead us to the discovery of God’s plan – for us, for our lives, and for our Vincentian organizations. To help us, we often follow the process that Fr. O’Donnell explained, which begins with what St. Vincent called “unrestricted readiness.”

In unrestricted readiness, we set aside our anxieties about whether we are right, how we will convince others, or even about how things will turn out. Instead, we enter into discernment with both our minds and our hearts wide open to accepting God’s will.

Simple decision-making is about closing off all choices but one. Discernment is about opening ourselves to the one true choice.

Contemplate

Do I sometimes let my own biases or pride blind me to God’s will for me and for my Conference?

Recommended Reading

Vincentian Discernment and Apostolic Reflection by Rev. Hugh O’Donnell, CM

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