On milestone anniversaries, married couples sometimes renew their vows, not as a way to atone for falling short of them, but as a way to celebrate their fidelity by refounding their marriage, beginning anew in different circumstances, but with the same commitment. In a similar way, Members of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul are called to “annually renew their promise of service to the members and to the poor.” [Rule, Part III, St. 4] It only makes sense that we would so celebrate our “relationships based on trust and friendship” with the poor. [Rule, Part I, 1.9]
And so, individually and collectively, we begin anew once every year, celebrating what has gone before, and recommitting ourselves to serve not only as we have, but in new ways, “striv[ing] for renewal, adapting to changing world conditions.” [Rule, Part I, 1.6] This has always been the way of the Society.
In 1848, following a revolution, a second failed revolution, and in the midst of a cholera epidemic, the Society faced greater needs among the poor than ever before, and along with the poor, faced new societal challenges. Addressing his fellow Vincentians, Bl. Frédéric asked “Is it enough to continue to do the little which we have been accustomed to do? When the hardships of the time are inventing new forms of suffering, can we rest satisfied with old remedies?” [Baunard, 274]
By no means was he advocating throwing out tradition. On the contrary, he was calling on the members to do all they had done before and more: to be more inventive, to seek out even the poor who did not call for help. In the wake of a failed revolution, after all, there were many who didn’t wish to draw any sort of attention to themselves. Our Rule continues to call us to this very commitment, not to simply wait for the phone to ring, but “to seek out and find those in need and the forgotten, the victims of exclusion or adversity.” [Rule, Part I, 1.5]
Our annual recommitment, like a renewal of marriage vows, is first a celebration of our growing closer to Christ, of serving Him exactly as He calls us to serve – in the poor, the sick, the lonely, the least among us. With great joy, we acknowledge, as our regular Conference Meeting prayers remind us, “the many blessings which we receive from those whom we visit.”
Second, again like the married couple renewing their vows, we promise not to take our spouse for granted, but instead to proactively seek new ways to serve the neighbor, not for our own sake, but for love alone.
After all, we, the church, are Christ’s spouse, and the poor, to us, are Christ.
How can I better serve and better love the neighbor?