Contemplation – Small Things Compose Great Things

Contemplation – Small Things Compose Great Things

Contemplation – Small Things Compose Great Things 940 788 SVDP USA

Today’s Society of St. Vincent de Paul, with nearly a million members worldwide, may fairly be said to have fulfilled Blessed Frédéric’s vision of a “network of charity and social justice encircling the world.” [Rule, Part I, 2.2] Let’s pause to consider, though, that it is neither our combined strength, nor less our loud voices that impact the world, but our small and humble acts, performed by two or three in His name, which quietly bear witness to the power of God’s love.

From the earliest days, Frédéric recognized the importance of small Conferences, observing that rapid growth had caused the first Conference “lose in intensity what [it gained] in expansion.” He said the meetings were “nearly always concerned with business” and seemed long. [90, to Curnier, 1835] Of course, he did not propose to reduce the number of members, but to increase the number of Conferences; Conferences small enough to serve personally, and to grow together in holiness, as friends.

Perhaps he was unconsciously aware of the now well-observed psychological phenomenon of “diffused responsibility,” in which the more people are present, the less responsibility each one feels to offer help, even when help is desperately needed. Vincentians are called to form relationships based on trust and friendship; to see in our neighbors the face of Christ; to serve them, person to person, for love alone.

Our Conferences are first and foremost communities of faith, not administrative subdivisions of a Council that commands them. On the contrary, it is the Council that exists to support the Conference, so that each Conference can do its work, as Frédéric put it, “by your own strength, under the inspirations of your heart, under the influence of local circumstances…” [90, to Curnier, 1835]

For its part, the Conference supports its members, who “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] Members, in turn, see and serve the poor, each of them individually. It is the home visitors, not the Society writ large, who are assumed to have special insight into the best way to help.

There is, as the saying goes, strength in numbers, and we can rightly be proud of the great and providential presence of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul around the world. But as Thomas Paine once said, “‘Tis not in numbers, but in unity, that our great strength lies.” [Common Sense]

Indeed, our unity is expressed not in numbers, but in faith, in friendship, and in service. As our Rule says, “In every Conference throughout the world and in their personal lives, Vincentians raise their prayers to God, united with the prayer of Christ, on behalf of one another and their masters the poor, whose suffering they wish to share.” [Rule, Part I, 2.3]


Do I always accept my personal responsibility to serve, no matter how many other people are around?

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Ozanam’s Letter 90

  • I have much guilt when I turn someone away who asks for help. I do when I feel used by that person. When I take the responsibility of helping that individual, I am angry at myself , it comes out to the person and I go through terrible guilt and shame for my actions. Are we to say YES to anything, anyone? Now, I have much depression caught up in anxiety of being selfish, of which I am not.

    • Timothy P Williams January 31, 2022 at 12:53 pm

      Thank you so much for posting this note, Nancy, and for your Vincentian service. Perhaps the anxiety you are feeling would be a good topic for a future “Contemplation.” In my own experience, I have never regretted offering material assistance, but almost always question myself when I don’t. I think that’s just our nature.

      One thing that has always been helpful to me (and to the neighbors I’ve served) is to try to practice our virtue of simplicity; be honest about what I am thinking, and always to remember that the best way to help may not be financial. As a very experienced Vincentian once explained it to me years ago, “no” is sometimes the most loving answer.

      So, in a way, the answer is always “yes, we want to help.” It’s just that sometimes we may not think the material assistance requested from us would be the best way to help, based upon the relationship we’ve built with the neighbor.

    • I think you have hit on the dilemma that most ALL Vincentians face. It is daily, case by case, decisions made after asking the Holy Spirit before considering a decision. Your conference buddies will help you on the when to feel guilty part. As you will help them.

  • Oh, the genius of meeting ore friends in teams! We don’t make decisions on our own. My partner always sees something I don’t see, and together we find good reason to help folks that come to us. We are channels of God’s generous love, which is always open to us. God doesn’t always give us what we want, but gives us what draws us closer to Him. Our gifts do that also.

  • You always have such beautiful insight. Thank you so much for writing the Contemplations.

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