Ours is a ministry of presence. For all the bread, for all the rent, for all the material things we may at times provide, there is nothing more important, nothing more valuable, and nothing more lasting than simply to be in the presence of our neighbors in need.
This is sometimes difficult to remember because we Vincentians are people of action. We want to identify the problem and fix it! Efficient “interviews,” though, are not what makes the Society unique. There are hundreds of agencies ready to dig for information in the name of solving the problem.
But what the suffering poor need much more than a thorough form to fill out is somebody who will sit with them; who will share their sadness, if only for a moment. Like a true friend.
Blessed Rosalie Rendu, who taught and inspired the earliest members of the Society, genuinely enjoyed being in the company of the poor. She would often go to the soup kitchen and spend hours there in conversation. In Queen by Right Divine, biographer Kathleen O’Meara recounts that men who “came for their plate of rice and beans” would often confide to Rosalie “almost unawares, some secret of moral or physical misery worse than the hunger they had come to assuage.” [P. 73]
They didn’t share their stories in response to a list of questions, or an application form; they opened up to a friend who cared about them, who respected them, and who loved them. Somebody who was with them because that was where she wanted to be.
Our Rule calls us to “establish relationships based on trust and friendship.” [Rule, Pt. I, 1.9] It was trust and friendship that led those men in the soup kitchen to open up to Rosalie; her trust in them, and her friendship towards them, inspired them to respond in kind.
In 1869 Florence Nightingale found that patients often responded more to dogs than to people. Modern science has found that a dog’s presence can not only relieve anxiety but can even lower blood pressure. Dogs seem to sense when a person is sad, and simply sit alongside them, asking nothing in return. People even open up and speak to dogs about their problems.
A dog doesn’t answer, offer advice, or solve your problem. He’s just there, fully and completely, for you.
Imagine if we could take the first steps towards the holy example of Blessed Rosalie by learning from the example of “man’s best friend!”
On my Home Visits, do I sometimes interrupt the silence?
A Heart on Fire – especially III. “A Network of Presence and Charity”