Vincentian Spirituality

Contemplation: Not to Be Forgotten

Contemplation: Not to Be Forgotten 656 656 SVDP USA

There are thousands of agencies, organizations, and individuals who offer assistance to the poor. In our Conferences we often get to know them and refer neighbors to them when it seems they may be better able to provide for the needs we’ve encountered. We live in a very wealthy nation, filled with generous people. What is it then, that sets the Society apart? What do we bring to the neighbor?

In Frédéric’s time, also, there were other organizations, many of them better funded than the fledgling Society. Yet, he observed, “help is generally dispensed with such culpable indifference.” [1457, Report, 1834] Now, as in Frédéric’s time, our primary purpose in visiting the neighbor is not merely to bring them material assistance. Anybody can do that, and if we measured success in bread alone, it could probably be delivered more efficiently by Amazon, but if we believe as we say, that the hungry one is Christ, surely we are called to do more than toss a loaf of bread on His porch.

In a beloved scene from the 1947 movie Monsieur Vincent, the saint explains that “Only because of your love, and your love only, will the poor forgive you for the bread you’re giving them.” More important than what we give is the manner in which we give it – not carefully measured out from our treasuries, but poured out from our hearts. For Frédéric, this devotion is what prevented Conferences from “degenerating to welfare bureaus.” [182, to Lallier, 1838] The assistance we offer is guided by “the inspirations of the heart rather than the calculations of the mind.” [82, to Curnier, 1834]

And after all, a loaf of bread or an electric bill are only temporary comforts; bringing more of them doesn’t really make them less so. As Frédéric observed, “a donation of bread and money is very meager compared to the support our religion requires us to bring for the comfort of sick souls.” [1457, Report, 1834] As our Rule still reminds us, “Vincentians should never forget that giving love, talents, and time is more important than giving money.” [Rule, Part I, 3.14]

We are called to serve in hope; not the hope of a paid bill, a full belly, or a word of practical advice. All those things, as important as they may be in the moment, will pass. We are called to bring with us what Pope Benedict XVI called the “great hope that cannot be destroyed.” [Spe Salvi, 35]

The poet Maya Angelou once said that “people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” So it is with the neighbors we serve. They will forget the groceries or the light bill; those things anybody can bring. But through our visit, they will feel no longer ashamed, no longer forgotten, no longer alone. They will feel loved — by us, and by the God who sent us.

Contemplate

Do I, in my actions and my manner, always reassure the neighbor of God’s love?

Recommended Reading

Faces of Holiness

Contemplation: Payment for Tears of Joy

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“Help …becomes honorable,” Bl. Frédéric taught, “when it may become mutual.” [O’Meara, 177] It is this teaching that inspires our Rule’s call for Vincentians to “form relationships based on trust and friendship” with the neighbor. [Rule, Part I, 1.9] Because after all, what is friendship if it is not mutual?

Asking for help can be humiliating. In some places, beggars on the street prostrate themselves, hiding their faces as if ashamed, literally with hats in hand to ask for pocket change from passersby. In the impersonal offices of many agencies, people in need often interact primarily with impersonal clipboards and application forms – forms that can be more complicated than a loan application. And unlike a loan, the assistance they receive for food, medicine, housing, and other needs is not something they will ever be expected to pay back. Yet, it is natural to feel an obligation to repay gifts, and when we can’t, to feel emptied in spirit while being replenished materially.

In Frédéric’s time, there were even critics who believed that charitable works wrongly obligated the poor. To them, Frédéric replied that you could only believe assistance imposes a one-way obligation if “you have never experienced the obligation it confers on him who gives.” Those who visit the poor, he explained, “know that in accepting bread from their hand, as he takes the light from God, the poor man honors them; they know that the theatre and every other place of amusement can be paid for, but that nothing in this world can pay for two tears of joy in the eyes of a poor mother, nor the grasp of an honest man’s hand when one has enabled him to wait till he gets work.” [O’Meara, 177-178]

Not only is the obligation mutual, so are the gifts. This is natural among friends. That’s the reason why, when we need help with something – especially something difficult, or that we’d rather not confide in a stranger — we ask a friend. A friend won’t judge us for the mistake we made that led to our predicament. A friend won’t abandon us. A friend won’t embarrass us. A friend won’t ask us to repay the favor.

In a way, asking for help is proof of friendship in itself. Asking somebody to be Best Man or Maid of Honor at a wedding is asking for a very great commitment of time, effort, and sometimes money, yet no friend considers this request an imposition. Rather, it is an honor, and a demonstration of trust.

In this sense, then, it is the neighbor who calls us for help who takes the first step in establishing this friendship. They trust us with their problems and their secrets. When we respond as friends, for love alone, we earn their trust. When we offer not only material assistance, but our time and ourselves, we earn their friendship. In our mutual giving and receiving, in both seeing Christ and in imitating Him, perhaps both we and the neighbor may exclaim, “Oh, what a friend we have in Jesus!”

Contemplate

Do I thank God in my prayers for the friends I have made on my Home Visits?

Recommended Reading

Apostle in a Top Hat

Contemplation: Fulfilling His Promise

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A young Vincentian, complaining about Conference meetings, noted that the members seemed discouraged, that they were just doing good works “by habit”, and that the meeting “is nearly always concerned with business, it seems long.” It’s no wonder members with this experience question the Rule’s requirement that we meet twice a month. [Rule, Part I, 3.3.1] Who would want to be subjected to that twice a month? Yet the International Council General’s commentary makes clear that twice a month is only a minimum — Conferences are expected to meet every week “to talk about all the issues — concerning the poor, and concerning God.[Rule and Commentary]

It would seem they are talking about two very different sorts of meetings. Indeed, that young Vincentian didn’t seem to be attending Conference meetings whose purpose, as the Manual tells us, is “less to conduct business than to celebrate and deepen its unity for essentially spiritual reasons.” [Manual, 18] And it seems unlikely that he was complaining about the meetings the Rule describes as being “held in a spirit of fraternity, simplicity and Christian joy.” [Rule, Part I, 3.4]

It’s easy to fall into habits formed in business, or other organizations, in which meetings become a place, as the old joke goes, “where minutes are kept, and hours are wasted.” Conference meetings in the Society are meant to be a sacred place where members pray, reflect on their service and their faith, and grow in friendship and holiness together, not in isolation. We are not a service delivery organization, and we never have been. We serve for love alone. Our primary purpose is our growth in holiness, and as Frédéric explained, “fidelity to meetings, and union of intention and prayer are indispensable to this end”. [182, to Lallier, 1838]

When our meetings become too business-focused, it shouldn’t be a cause for discouragement, but a cause to rededicate our meetings to prayer and friendship. After all, that young, complaining Vincentian was Frédéric Ozanam, and he was writing about the very first Conference less than two years after it was formed. [90, to Curnier, 1835] Shortly after that letter, the first Rule was written – the Rule that reminds us still that “members meet as brothers and sisters with Christ in the midst of them, in Conferences that are genuine communities of faith and love, of prayer and action.” [Rule, Part I, 3.3]

The spiritual reflection is not merely a checkbox on the agenda. It is the main reason we meet, and the time we devote to it should reflect that. When we spend our time together in this way, we will find, as Frédéric soon did, that “by seeing each other more often, we love one another all the more; seeing even more of us gathered together in the name of Him who promised to be among those who gather in his name, one feels all the more keenly that his promise is fulfilled.” [1372, to the General Assembly, 1838]

Contemplate

Do I invite Christ to my Conference meetings, reflecting with my friends on our service in His name?

Recommended Reading

The Manual – especially “Conference Meetings” p. 18 – 19

Contemplation: A Perpetual Expression

Contemplation: A Perpetual Expression 624 624 SVDP USA

One of our essential elements is spirituality, but what is spirituality? How do we express it? How do we live it? What is its goal? Given that the spiritual growth of members also is the primary purpose of the Society, we probably ought to have some idea how to answer these questions.

To begin with the end in mind, the purpose, the ultimate goal of our spirituality, is as Jesus told us: to “be perfect, just as Your heavenly Father is perfect.” This is the universal calling of all God’s people. He calls us to Himself. He sent us His Son to share in our humanity so that we might share in His divinity. Jesus, the Son of Man, is our role model for perfection. He is the union of the human and the divine, not half of each, but fully both. In a similar way, we are created not as bodies with spirits, nor spirits with bodies. We are unitary, body and spirit together. [GS, 14] It is the spiritual dimension of our nature that sets us apart from His other creatures, and that enables us to glimpse the transcendent.

Yet, while each of us is made in God’s image, at the same time each of us is “unique and unrepeatable.” [CSDC, 131] As a consequence, each person’s spirituality, each person’s pathway of spiritual growth, also is unique. Just as we are given different gifts, so we are called to use them in different ways in order to fulfill God’s will for each of us — and for all of us. We are all parts of one body, sharing God’s gifts with one another.

Spirituality cannot limit itself to a simple set of practices. As important as it is to attend Mass, pray the rosary, and study Holy Scripture, true spirituality calls us to much more. Spirituality is our entire manner of living our faith; “not a part of life, but the whole of life,” as Pope Saint John Paul II reminds us. [Ecclesia in America, 29]

As Vincentians, we walk together along a very special pathway towards holiness, towards the perfection to which Christ calls us. We live our faith in imitation of Christ, and also in imitation of our patron, Saint Vincent de Paul, who, Frédéric teaches, “is a model one must strive to imitate, as he himself imitated the model of Jesus Christ. He is a life to be carried on, a heart in which one’s own heart is enkindled, an intelligence from which light should be sought; he is a model on earth and a protector in heaven.” [175, to Lallier, 1838]

We devote ourselves, in our little Society, to the spiritual practices modeled for us by Saint Vincent and all the saints and blessed of the Vincentian Family, who found holiness by seeing and serving Christ in the poor, by loving God with the strength of their arms, and by trusting fully in Divine Providence in their lives. And if these are our beliefs, as Christians, as Catholics, and as Vincentians, “let us,” as Frédéric said, “take them seriously, that our lives may be their perpetual expression.” [53, to Falconnet, 1832]

Contemplate

How can I better live my beliefs at work, at home, with neighbors, friends…everywhere?

Recommended Reading

A Heart with Much Love to Give

Contemplation: Answering God’s Call

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Central to the spirituality of St. Vincent de Paul is the importance of fulfilling God’s will. Even more than that, he teaches, we must unite our will with His. In order to fulfill God’s will, to make it our own, we must first discern His will, we must hear His calling for our lives.

From the Latin vocare, “to call,” we have our English word “vocation.” God’s calling, then, is our vocation. The Catechism teaches us that all people “are called to the same end: God himself.” [CCC, 1878] Each of us also has personal vocations specific to our particular gifts and talents. [CL, 49] Whether it is the vocation to marriage, to the ordained priesthood, or to the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, our personal calling is meant to help us answer the universal vocation to holiness. But to answer God’s call, we must hear it.

In founding the Society, Blessed Frédéric clearly heard God’s call, sharing with his friends that “we must do as Our Lord Jesus Christ did when preaching the Gospel. Let us go to the poor.” [Baunard, 65] In this, he anticipated Pope Saint John Paul II’s teaching that all the lay faithful are called to share in Christ’s mission as priest, prophet, and king. [CL, 14]

When we gather together, especially when meeting fellow Vincentians for the first time, we often exchange stories of how we came to join the Society. Those stories usually begin with “I wanted…” or “I thought…” Somehow, many of us managed to answer before truly understanding God had called us.

God speaks to us through the events and people we encounter in our lives, and while we do not always hear His call at the moment it happens, we can always “re-read” our lives, just as we can re-read books in order to find things that we either missed, or were not prepared to comprehend the first time. We do this individually, and we do this together through spiritual reflections, especially apostolic reflection. God speaks to us in His own time. His call awaits our readiness to hear it and to answer.

Alongside the importance of doing God’s will is St. Vincent’s understanding that in the poor we serve the person of Jesus Christ. The neighbor is God to us, and if we see His face in them, we also hear His voice. This is our vocation, this is our calling, and if we are blessed today to hear His voice on our Conference helpline, let us harden not our hearts.

Contemplate

How often do I pause to discern God’s will for me and God’s call to me?

Recommended Reading

Faces of Holiness

Contemplation: To Know Fully

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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.

Contemplate

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

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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.

Contemplate

Am I holy enough?

Recommended Reading

15 Days of Prayer with Blessed Frédéric Ozanam

Contemplation: What Good Have I Done?

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In the course of the works of a busy Conference, we often become overwhelmed. The needs are many, and often are greater than our resources enable us to alleviate. We no sooner complete one Home Visit than the phone rings again. It can be exhausting, and even discouraging, if we measure our works the way they are measured by social service agencies or philanthropic societies. We may begin to question whether we are really helping the neighbor at all.

This feeling can lead us to a crossroads where we must choose: do we seek “efficiency” by trying to divvy up the resources as widely as possible, substituting phone calls for Home Visits, or asking the neighbor to come to us instead of we to them? Do we stop meeting, because our “business” can be conducted by phone or email? Or do we pause to reflect that these are the same questions that led to the Society’s founding and defined its purpose; the perpetual questions raised in the minds of members for nearly 200 years? Do we choose to recommit ourselves to the true good that we are called to do?

The introduction to the first edition of the Rule, written in 1835, assures us that “we must never be ashamed on the smallness of our alms.” Indeed, shortage of funds for “considerable works of charity” is, it said “one of the conditions of our existence.” [Rule, 1835] Our works and the good that we do have never been measured by the amount of money we can offer, or by the number of problems that we “fix.”

In founding the Society, Frédéric and his friends were challenged to show the good of the church in the modern world. Their challengers were quite convinced that they had better answers to poverty and the social question. What they could not see, but Frédéric could, was that the true good of the church, the message of Christ’s incarnation, is not that we are promised material abundance, but that we are promised eternal life by a God who loves us so much, He sent us His only Son. Bringing ourselves closer to eternal life and His love to the poor, is the good that God calls us to do.

Our Conference meetings are not business meetings. They are opportunities to share in prayer and reflection the ways in which we have grown closer to God, and the ways in which we have encountered Christ in our works. To the critics of his own time who accused the Society of not doing enough, Frédéric replied that they were only repeating the challenge the Saint Simonians had posed 15 years earlier. [Baunard, 279-280] But the measurement of achievement only in material terms will always lead to disappointment. The poor, we are taught, will always be with us – not as burden, but as a challenge, a measure not of our alms, but of our love.

The good that we do is not in our works, but in our charity – our love of God and neighbor.

Contemplate

How often do I pause to reflect on the presence of Christ in my Vincentian encounters?

Recommended Reading

What Good Have I Done – a poem that asks and answers the question

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.

Contemplate

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.

Contemplate

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

Recommended Reading

Faces of Holiness

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