It is a deeply ingrained tenet of our charism that Vincentians are doers. We don’t just talk about serving, we serve. At the same time, we must always remember that we are not called to action for action’s sake, but for our growth in holiness. The more selflessly we serve, the more it benefits our own souls – the central irony, you might say, of our vocation.
It is easy to seek ways to more “efficiently” distribute assistance, either because the needs are truly great, or because we have personally become tired, but whatever the reason, when we turn our focus to the groceries or the light bills, we lose sight of Christ’s face.
In the earliest days of the Ladies of Charity, there was a proposal that the ladies might find somebody else to cook the food to be brought to the Hôtel-Dieu, but Vincent could see that once we parcel out part of our charitable works, an unfortunate chain of events is likely to follow, because when we relieve ourselves of the obligation to cook, “you will never again be able to restore this practice”; if you hire out the work, it will become too expensive, soon you will conclude that whoever cooks the food should deliver it, and “in this way your Charity will be reduced to failure.” [CCD I:70]
The Ladies were not managing a hospital cafeteria, they were bringing the love of God – the literal meaning of the word “charity” – to the suffering poor. It was their presence, members of the France’s upper class, welcoming the poor into this great community of faith, reminding them that God had not forgotten them, that was the real work.
And so it remains for us today. From time to time, circumstances may require us to compromise on our person to person service, meeting virtually or by telephone, but this will always be a compromise, a half of a loaf – better than no loaf at all, as the saying goes, but never equal to the whole loaf. We are called to “grow more perfect in love by expressing compassionate and tender love to the poor and one another.” [Rule, Part I, 2.2] Officers at all levels of the Society are expected to “visit the poor as often as possible.” [Rule, Part III, St. 12] We recognize, as Bl. Frédéric said, “ that visiting the poor should be the means and not the end of our association.” [Letter 182, to Lallier, 1838]
Vincentians serve for love alone, in the “hope that someday it will be no longer they who love, but Christ who loves through them.” [Rule, Part I, 2.1] Anybody can deliver a pot of soup, but we’re not Door Dash, we’re the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, and ours is a ministry of presence.
Do I sometimes let my focus on the material needs cause me to lose focus on the person?