06-20-24 A Letter From Our Servant Leaders

06-20-24 A Letter From Our Servant Leaders

06-20-24 A Letter From Our Servant Leaders 1200 1200 SVDP USA

My last Servant Leader column on Encounter generated quite a few comments and discussions. That is great, because these columns should be opportunities for us to exchange thoughts and ideas, not just read what someone else has to say.

I wanted to continue the discussion for another week, with a few thoughts and clarifications generated from the exchanges from two weeks ago.

Some people mistakenly got the impression that I was advocating the elimination of the term Home Visit completely and replacing it with Encounter. That is wrong. Home Visits are what they are: Home Visits. All Home Visits are Encounters with those we serve.

But not all Encounters are Home Visits, and that is the point. Our service to people in need goes well beyond the Home Visit, and therefore, we must speak in a more inclusive way about what we do to make sure that we make ALL Vincentians feel welcome and valued in the work they do.

Some people asked why I am even advocating for this new “weird” term. Why do we have to change?

This is my answer.

As Christians, we are called not just to act with charity, but to infuse our actions with the love and presence of Christ. This calling goes beyond mere acts of kindness; it requires us to engage deeply and spiritually with those we serve.

When we talk about charity, the first image that often comes to mind is giving: giving food to the hungry, clothes to the naked, shelter to the homeless. These acts are indeed vital, and Jesus emphasized their importance in the Gospel of Matthew 25. However, Jesus also calls us to a deeper level of engagement. He calls us to see His face in those we serve, to recognize the divine image in every person we encounter. This is the essence of a spiritual encounter in charitable relationships.

A spiritual encounter transforms charity from a transactional act into a relational and sacramental experience. It is not just about what we give but how we give it — and the spirit in which we engage with others. When we allow our acts of charity to be infused with prayer, compassion, and genuine love, we offer more than just material assistance; we offer the healing presence of Christ.

The spiritual encounter in charitable relationships also enriches the giver. When we open our hearts to truly see and engage with those we serve, we too are transformed. We begin to understand the depth of human suffering, resilience, and the beauty of human dignity. This transformation fosters a deeper connection with God, as we become more attuned to His presence in the world around us.

Spiritual encounters in charitable relationships help to break down barriers of prejudice and indifference. When we see others through the eyes of Christ, we can no longer categorize them as “the needy” or “the less fortunate.” Instead, we recognize them as brothers and sisters, equal in dignity and deserving of our love and respect. This recognition compels us to address not just the symptoms of poverty and suffering but their root causes, striving for justice and systemic change, as called for by Blessed Frédéric Ozanam.

In our work as Vincentians, we can engage in these spiritual encounters through all our many services (not just Home Visits) by being present, listening with empathy, and praying for and with those we serve.

We must understand that every act of charity, no matter how small, can be a conduit for God’s love if done with a pure heart. Blessed Frédéric said, “No act of charity is foreign to the Society.”

As Saint Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians 13:3, “If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.” Love is the soul of charity, and it is through love that our actions become transformative.

We must strive to make our charitable actions more than mere transactions. We must seek to encounter Christ in those we serve and allow these spiritual encounters to deepen our faith and love. By doing so, we will not only fulfill our Vincentian vocation, but also become true bearers of God’s love in the world, creating a network of charity, grace, and compassion that embraces the world.

That is why I advocate for using the term Encounter when we refer to our work. By calling a meeting between two people an Encounter rather than a Visit, we highlight distinct nuances in the nature and impact of the interaction. An Encounter implies a deeper level of engagement, where the individuals involved might experience a transformative or enlightening moment. Encounters are often seen as pivotal, potentially altering perceptions, emotions, or relationships.

In contrast, a Visit denotes a more planned, routine, or casual interaction. Visits are typically structured and can be social, professional, or obligatory, often lacking the depth of an Encounter. While a visit can certainly be meaningful, it does not inherently suggest the same potential for profound impact or unexpected significance as an encounter. For instance, a visit to a friend’s house might involve catching up and enjoying each other’s company, whereas an encounter with a long-lost friend in an unexpected place might lead to a heartfelt reconnection and emotional revelations. Therefore, the word Encounter emphasizes the extraordinary and potentially transformative nature of the meeting, while  Visit emphasizes the intention, regularity, and social aspects of the interaction.

In the Catholic faith, the concept of an Encounter transcends mere physical meeting to embody a profound spiritual connection graced by God. This belief is rooted in the idea that when two people come together in faith, God’s presence enhances their interaction, transforming it into a sacred moment. This encounter is not just an exchange of words or gestures, but a divine engagement where God’s grace becomes manifest.

If we are honest, we will admit that many of our interactions with the people we serve have become transactions. They have lost all semblance of Encounter, becoming a purely obligatory visit to get in, find out how much the rent/utility/medical/insurance/ bill is, get it paid, and move on to the next one.

At the top of this column, I said all Home Visits are Encounters. The reality is, that is not 100% true. Far too many Home Visits and other special works services, have become no more than secular visits with the sole purpose of getting someone off the call list.

That is why I am so passionate about us understanding the term Encounter and using it to describe what we do.

Because if we do not, we are just going to be another social service agency doing good for people in need — but not doing much to grow spiritually in our service to those people.

Peace and God’s blessings,

John Berry
National President

  • Casey Guilfoyle June 20, 2024 at 4:13 pm

    Thanks John for this Letter which so beautifully explains the beauty of the “encounters” we as Vincentians strive for as we love God and neighbor!

  • John,

    I didn’t use your exact language, but my Executive Director’s report to the board of directors this month has some familiar echoes:

    This month started with two deaths among our homeless population. Last week I experienced the death of my father-in-law while Chris experienced the death of his mother. As I reflect on this, it is not the deaths that are tragic. It is the unfulfilled lives lost.

    As I reflect on life and my experience as a Vincentian, I question what the true value of charity is. Is it to prevent suffering and hardship? Or is it to give meaning and value to lives of people who feel worthless, discarded, or invisible? I can reflect on the reaction of Alaska Native Medical Center to the death of Dr. David Templin. I can reflect on my last call to Maude, dying of COVID but so grateful for being housed and promising to pay up her overdue rent. Others dying of cancer express appreciation for the limited services we provide, but I question what is the true value of our services? Is it the money we give, the housing we find, the temporary small food bags passed out? Or is it that we make a person feel valued and provide inspiration and hope?

  • Thank you John for continuing the discussion. Let us all go forth and do a better job when we encounter our brothers and sisters whether during a home visit or when we give them a bag a groceries. We provide hope more than anything else to our friends during our Vincentian encounters. We need to keep the helplines turned on so that we can listen to our brothers and sisters, after which we can give hope, provide empathy, pray with, provide resources and advice and when available provide financial assistance, if needed.

  • Well said!! Very clear and provocative!! It is Not tradition, but improving and enhancing spiritual formation through encounters rather than formulaic visits that should be our Society’s road to heaven.

  • Pope Francis uses the encounter also in his last letter Tutti Frutti (sp ?)

    • Fratelli Tutti!

    • Pope Francis isn’t my favorite Pope, but then it’s unfair to compare everyone to John Paul II. But Pope Francis did say we must . . . “integrate the poor into the Church and society, rather than simply see them as objects of assistance.”

      Also, I’m not familiar with the letter Tutti Frutti but I think the spelling is indeed wrong. “Tutti Frutti” is a Little Richard song. I’m guessing the Pope is not a Little Richard fan, although Richard himself became a preacher later in life, so who knows?

    • Louis Arceneaux June 21, 2024 at 1:58 pm

      Fratelli tutti, meaning brothers a.

  • you have put into words eloquently but also clearly how I have seen our mission especially since covid when we had to be so much more creative in our work.
    1. Being a Vincentian doesn’t turn on and off but if we are to make the most of it, it is a different way of living which goes way beyond the home visit
    2. the encounter better describes all the various ways we interact with people. it has always been clear that the people who take the initial call are that individuals first ‘encounter’ with SVdP and sets the tone for the relationship to come
    3. we are called to serve on so many ways:
    phone visits, face to face, home visits, chance engagements with those who need but have not sought, our help
    I so appreciate this shift in terminology which expands our scope of potential. thanks for addressing

  • Perhaps what we need is better and on going Home visit training since this has always been our main calling

  • A good reminder that we are to see Christ in all our neighbors and to not be trapped in a routine and lose awareness of our mission. Thank you.

  • “Because if we do not (Encounter), we are just going to be another social service agency doing good for people in need – but not doing much to grow spiritually in our service to these people.”

    We’re not even a social service agency. Without spiritual growth for ourselves and the people we serve, we’re just the Amazon driver and everything is free. I have no interest at all in being a Vincentian any more if it completely devolves into this. Luckily, as you indicate here, there is increasing spiritual awareness. A bit late in the day, but we can catch up. Indeed, in 2024 Pagan America, we must. Our Council meetings now begin with spiritual content and reflection. It’s the best part of our meetings. Now we need to carry that forth in our home Encounters too. I have some ideas that seem to be working for our conference, if anyone is interested.

    Thank you for the clarification in this article, although it was well stated and pretty clear to me the first time.

    • Carolyn Quadarella June 21, 2024 at 9:08 pm

      You have some good thoughts and perhaps stating those would be beneficial to others.

    • Tom,

      I echo your sentiments completely! I also believe that we have some catching up to do. I am working toward that goal here, but I would be interested in any ideas that you might want to share.

      Thank you,

  • In my opinion, the need to change terms and expand upon what we are called to do is not what I signed up for. A Conference has a specific purpose and cannot become everything for everyone. I have worked with other non-profit Christian organizations that attempt to provide more services and delve into attempting to go beyond their capabilities. I have seen, first hand, how thinking that you are helping somone turning into possible further dispair. A Conference may rarely have actual Parishioners reaching out for assistance. This being the case, I am not prepared or even trained to become a Missionary.
    What we do as a Conference is critical and works. It’s only when we attempt to be something we’re not that problems arise.
    Spirituality can be the littlest event during your day. so every act we do should start and end in prayer. Because we have Faith, we serve as we do.

    • sad to say you are right….our Parish conference the only conference on the Northeast side of Detroit , in a failing Parish with 4 members found 24 calls a week most for rent beyond what we could handle. In reaching out in conversation to our Diocesan council , we found our selves alone. So after 83 years our Vincentian are now Christian Service …A new Vincentians has said to me this isn’t what I signed up for…..this is too stressful….Eviction timetables and thousands of dollars in requests….To grow our membership we need to look at our Vincentian caseload especially in the poorest areas…We need to talk…..

  • Dear John,
    Thanks for keeping this discussion alive because I feel that it may relate to the very essence of being a Vincentian. Your letter states many agreed upon issues that are inherent in what we do, and why we do them. When you get to the issue of encounter versus visit you suggest that “visits” might be too structured, “professional or obligatory”. I completely disagree with this assessment. I commented previously that there are times when we are challenged with guests who are homeless and, in those circumstances, we meet them where they live – in their car, in a tent or where they might be more comfortable. But in each instance, we do our best to understand how they got there and how to get them to a better place – going forward.

    Vincent made the point that the work we do needs to include organizing the help we provide, and understanding all the dynamics of the challenge are critical to the solution. I saw my dentist yesterday and he asked me how I was doing. I told him “Ok”, but that didn’t distract my dentist from the need to get into my mouth, pick and probe and analyze the situation to come up with a plan. It’s the same with a home visit. We can ask a few questions, empathize with the crisis that our guest faces, but unless we are willing to “get into the mouth” we will never really know.

    I think that the issue of encounter vs. visit is very much a case of semantics and for some reason, home visit doesn’t ring true to you. You prefer to “rephrase” our work as encounters to be “inclusive”. The truth is that your effort to be “inclusive” could lead the exclusion of the need to visit our guest. I suggest to you, as I did before, that doing the hard work, going to the residence of our guests, wherever that may be, and feeling their pain is critical for us to come up with good recommendations for them. Suggesting that “encounters” are the best way to describe our efforts opens the opportunity for our organization to move into the space served by so many social service organizations that look for the most comfortable and convenient way to get their work done. We need to humble ourselves before our guests, come into their lives and be the face of Christ for them.
    Home visits are not easy. Convincing volunteers that going to our guests is necessary to our work, is just as difficult. To suggest that our home visits are no more that secular visits with the sole purpose of getting someone’s name off the call list is very offensive to those who take on this difficult responsibility. If we move in the direction of softening our “encounters” to looking for “transformative or enlightening moments” without doing the very hard work of going out to them and understanding their dilemmas in whatever they call home, we will no longer be walking in the footsteps of Vincent.

  • WE as Vincentians as most thing we have to make changes or we do not grow ,Our conference is make a change in one of our gathering it starts with rosary, Gospel reading , and sharing . we had our first and looking forward to the next one ., inviting all to attend in parish to show we do more than just food. Thank you Barbara Hooper Diocese of Nashville St.Patricks mcewen svdp .

  • “Spiritual encounter” – for me, that term really helps clarify this discussion.

    Do my home visits feel like spiritual encounters? Most of the time. And when they don’t, most often it’s because my head was in it, but my heart had wandered off somewhere else.

    Have I had a spiritual encounter in a place other than their home? Yes, in a hospital room, in a McDonald’s, and so forth. Not any random place, though. Without time and privacy, the spiritual encounter rarely happens.

    Could I have a spiritual encounter while sitting behind a desk with a queue of people lined up outside the door? Not me, I just wouldn’t be able to have the right frame of mind. Even if I got rid of the desk, the queue would be preying on my mind.

    Can a phone call be a spiritual encounter? During the pandemic, I found this nearly impossible. The phone introduced so many barriers.

    I think that potentially any interaction between people *could* be a spiritual encounter (God can do anything) but a spiritual encounter is far more likely under some conditions than others. Some of those conditions have to do with the world around us – being in person, absence of time pressure – and some conditions have to do with our neighbors – an interaction in a place of their choice, where they feel ownership – and some have to do with our own hearts. And the conditions might be easier or harder to achieve in different communities or different places within a community.

  • Hello, John,

    Thank you for your emphasis on the “encounter” in our ministry to our neighbors. Your latest message arrived right in time for our regular SVDP meeting, and we had discussions throughout where we addressed the issue of encounter vs. transaction. Our “leads” generally try to use an encounter approach, but all of us acknowledged that we need to provide more focus on how to do this comfortably and well during our home visits. I foresee us having more emphasis on educating ourselves and particularly working with our new members. on how to encounter our neighbors during our home visits.

    God continue to bless you in your ministry as president of this big organization.

  • I find it easier when I have a list of things to do.
    What must I do to make a home visit or any visit an encounter.
    1. do this
    2. do this
    3. do this
    A little more help please.

    • 1. Pray
      2. Let the Holy Spirit Guide You
      3. Don’t go into the visit/encounter with preconceived ideas or thinking everything needs to be completed in this one visit/ encounter.
      4. Give food, discuss what needs they feel they have. Set up another visit/encounter to bring resource lists even if you have it with you.
      5. 2nd visit/encounter allows person to receive/hear about other resources without the stress of asking a stranger for help that is usually experienced in the first encounter. It also allowed time to pass in case they think of other needs.
      6. Always make the person feel like you have all the time in the world for them. Isn’t that what you would do if visiting/encountering Jesus?

  • Thank you, John. A visit means nothing if there isn’t the encounter with Jesus in the person in need whom we are called to serve…. the empathetic connection, the sincere showing of love from us to them, the sharing their burden with them. Those are the important things and can happen anywhere and in any setting.

  • John, I’d like to start by quoting recent words spoken by Pope Francis while celebrating the vigil of Pentecost in Verona Italy. He said that “we all received the Holy Spirit at baptism and, even more, with confirmation.” He noted that the apostles gathered in the upper room were filled with fear and said, “then the Holy Spirit came and changed their hearts, and they went out and preached the gospel with courage.” It was this “courage” that allowed people to change their lives. It is this courage, that we, as Vincentian’s, imbued with the Holy Spirit, bring to our neighbors in need. I repeat, we as Vincentian’s, as Christians, bring the Holy Spirit to those we meet.
    You claim that the “encounter” will change the way we see our guests from just “the needy” or “the less fortunate” to recognizing them as “brothers and sisters“ equal in dignity and deserving of our love and respect. I find it sad that you think we don’t already see them in that light.
    No other charitable organization I know of goes into the homes of their neighbors, meets with them, listens to them, offers them hope and encouragement, prompts them to consider new life skills, shares personal stories with them, and finally after careful consideration and collaboration with other conference members, calls them back or revisits them to offer hope and solutions that were identified and approved. To say that those actions without “encounter” means we haven’t fulfilled our Vincentian vocation, to me, is demeaning.
    You want “encounters” to be “transformative” or “enlightening” moments, “potentially altering perceptions, emotions, or relationships”, stating those possibilities can’t or don’t exist in what you state are “no more than secular visits.” To that I say – don’t forget that the Holy Spirit is always riding shotgun!
    I encourage you to maintain your mission of helping those in need through a process of “encounter” by “Encountering” the forces that work against those most vulnerable and needy amongst us. Let’s encounter the politicians, the greedy corporations,, the understaffed social service agencies. Let’s call out some of our Bishops who turn a blind eye to social justice initiatives and the needs of the sheep who don’t look or smell right.
    We are Vincentian’s carrying the spirit with us, visiting our neighbors, helping people change their lives.

  • Your explanation makes a lot of sense. I could better see what you are trying to accomplish through a pretty detailed explanation. When I first heard the word “encounter”, I thought it as a distant and cold word compared to “home visit”, perhaps a movie title of some kind. Unfortunately, I think it is already proving out that it is a word that does need some explanation to go along with it, to understand the intent. Would a better approach be to put it out to the membership for the need to come up with a more engaging word than “home visit” for what we are asked to do, and then take suggestions from the troops on a good word or two? Just a thought. Perhaps someone out there would come up with a really thoughtful response. We do appreciate your leadership and helping us think of the “big picture”.

  • I hear your desire to make sure that all contacts with our friends has a spiritual focus, as much as attending to the practical needs of the friends. I also hear that you want to make sure that each visit with our neighbor is an Encounter with Jesus for us as well as the person we are seeing. Unfortunately, the word encounter has many meanings that are not positive, unless someone has been reading a book that speaks about Encounters with God. I think that is part of the problem. Here are some synonyms: skirmish, argument, quarrel, spat, hassle, fray, battle, oppose. When I first read the proposal of calling our visits encounters, I thought we were going to enter into some type of conflictual relationship with our friends. Upon rereading your letter, I understood your goal better, but still find the word Encounter to be unhelpful. I wonder if we should stick with the word “meeting” while asking each conference, at every meeting, to remind members that every meeting with our friends is an Encounter with Jesus for us and for our neighbor.

Sign Up for Our Newsletter

    Skip to content