Contemplation: A Culture of Encounter

Contemplation: A Culture of Encounter

Contemplation: A Culture of Encounter 800 800 SVDP USA

By Tim Williams, Senior Director of Formation & Leadership Development

The Society of St. Vincent de Paul and the Home Visit both were formed when Frédéric Ozanam declared in 1833 that “we must do what Our Lord Jesus Christ did” and “go to the poor.” [Baunard, 65] The very first Rule in 1835 enshrined “the object of this Conference” as first, to grow in faith and spirit, and second, “to visit the poor at their dwellings.” [Rule, Intro, 1835] One hundred and ninety-one years later, the Home Visit remains the core, the very heart and soul, of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul.

At first, Home Visits were not merely the central work, but the only work of the Society, whose young members guided by Bl. Rosalie and the Daughters of Charity “adopted” poor families and visited them regularly to bring food, firewood, clothing and other assistance. But more importantly, they formed true relationships, “relationships based on trust and friendship” as today’s Rule says. [Rule, Part I, 1.9]

It was personal relationships formed on Home Visits that led the first members towards what we now call systemic change. They didn’t start from an abstract vision of what society ought to be, but from a practical understanding of the real lives of their friends and neighbors, from “climbing the stairs to the poor man’s garret, sitting by his bed side, feeling the same cold that pierces him, sharing the secret of his lonely heart and troubled mind.” [Baunard, 279] That’s why, in its first year, the first Conference created an apprenticeship program for young men. It’s why, three years later, the new Conference in Lyon began a library and school for soldiers. It is also why, as Frédéric said, “home visits to the poor have still remained our principal work.”[1369, Rpt. to Gen.l Assembly, 1837]  The Home Visit inspires us to other works, and so the same Rule which declared Home Visits the “object” of the Conference, also insisted that “no work of charity should be regarded as foreign to the Society.” [1835 Rule, Art. 2]

Yet, even more important than this practical benefit of Home Visits is that they are our primary path to our growth in holiness. That is why our Rule still considers “home visitation reports” an essential part of the Conference Meeting. [Rule, Part III, St. 7] Sharing and meditating on our work leads us to “internal spiritual knowledge of [ourselves], others, and the goodness of God.” [Rule, Part I, 2.2]

We are called to see the face of Christ in the poor. When Christ calls us, we don’t ask Him to come to us, take a number, and fill out a form. We go to Him, we seek to encounter Him, wherever He lives – in a house, on the street, in prison, in assisted living, or in a hospital. The Home Visit is not our central work only for practical and historical reasons, but because it is an encounter that changes us.

Each visit is a holy encounter, and we make it with the deep understanding that “one does not live by bread alone,” that our assistance is only temporary, but that the love of God which sends us is eternal.


When was my last Home Visit?

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Serving in Hope Module VII: Our Vincentian Home Visit

  • My last home visit was Thursday of last week. Our friend is someone well known to our conference who reaches out when she truly has a need. The new Vincentian who went with me wanted to counsel her on her smoking, which she did with love and empathy, but I tend to just be present, visit and see how life has been treating her and her family. I probably should do more to bring biblical and spiritual conversation in on our visits other than inviting them to our church. But, I tend to let our friend(s) let me know if praying with them outside of our Prayer with the Family is needed. I think our presence speaks volumes to those in need and I certainly want to be the face of Christ to them and the hands and feet of our Lord. Each visit is different and I feel I am growing in my faith and my relationship with God. Learning a lot about myself, others and the culture and society in which I live. God bless the SVdP Society!

    • We evangelize by our presence and by living our faith. It’s always best to let the neighbor guide us beyond that!

  • In this day and age, the home visit has become dangerous under many circumstances. Many communities present dangers both to the Vincentians performing the visits and to those being visited.

    I had a personal experience several years ago that ended tragically. Around 2 PM, another volunteer and I completed a home visit with a traveler who was staying with a local citizen. At 5 PM, I concluded our assistance to the petitioner by helping him secure bus tickets to return to his permanent home. Sometime between my last call to the individual and 7 PM that evening, the person whom we assisted murdered the kind person with whom he was temporarily staying.

    Through my contact with local law enforcement, the perpetrator was apprehended and placed on trial. Due to various circumstances, I was called upon to testify at the murder trial at which the individual was convicted and sentenced to spend many years in prison.

    Visiting unknown individuals, even in communities with which are intimately familiar, can have consequences far beyond anything Blessed Frederick might have conceived during his lifetime. The concept of the home visit as currently practiced demands serious reconsideration.

  • Hi Tim and many thanks for your reflection.

    Here in Australia, home visitations have become challenging and difficult for many reasons. Many Conferences are unable to home visit due to numbers, safety and personal wellbeing. On occasions, Vincentians meet people outside of the home, in hubs or parish rooms, on the street, or Conference rooms in the back of retail shops. So, have we lost our grassroots approach to compassionate care?
    Two aspects of the Visitation may assist our reflection for I sense that Elizabeth offered visitation to Mary as much, if not more, than Mary did for Elizabeth.
    Firstly, is Elizabeth’s joy at seeing face to face her younger cousin. We may not always perceive this joyful moment when we have a visitation moment to offer assistance, but I remember perceiving a sense of joy in relief and simply being listened to especially though devastating flood in the north of NSW a few years ago. People knew that they could merely come to us, and we were there in “visitation” for them. They could pause and feel a deep sense of dignity given to them, we listened to their story, and we offered our hearts in hospitality. This visitation is the grassroots of our pastoral and compassionate care. This spirituality of “visitation” needs to be nurtured as our way in serving divinity or the sacred in the disadvantaged, marginalized and those doing it tough.
    The other is that when Mary visited her cousin, she had only just learnt of her own pregnancy outside of a married union. I could only imagine the rumours around this event at home. There would have been disbelief and accusations of infidelity to her betrothed. I am sure she was fearful of being stoned by the elders of the Jewish law and the loss of any shred of dignity. But in the arms of her cousin, celebrating the gift that each carry, it seemed that she was fully accepted, honoured, without any form of judgement and fully celebrated, understood and loved.
    The Vincentian Rule reminds us that our service is without judgment and that in reverence Vincentians serve, “listening to them, respecting their needs and recover dignity”. Wherever we meet those in need, whether in the homes or on the streets, Vincentians are visiting. We continue this wonderful tradition in our actions, our conversations and our prayers.
    Through the insights of the Visitation, I believe the well-known anthem of the Rule of “No work of charity is foreign to the Society” , is given a deeper meaning. These charitable works are not purely transactions of a duty but a spirituality of visitations of hope.
    Just some added thoughts from across the Pacific
    Leo Tucker
    Spiritual Adviser, NSW State Council & Executive Director Mission and Spirituality

    • Thanks, Leo, and it is good to hear from you! You are exactly right that it is the neighbor who first evangelizes us, as Elizabeth (and John
      “leaping” in the womb) surely did for Mary. I hope we all understand that to “go to the poor” is inclusive of more than just apartments and houses; we visit prisons, hospitals, nursing homes, park benches – wherever we “seek out the poor” – and the spirit of encounter, and of service to Christ, should always be part of our visits or in our many special works inspired by the relationships we’ve built with the neighbor.

  • Dear Tim,
    Thank you for providing us with these wonderful reflections. I have used a few of them when I present the Ozanam Orientation and they have been very well received. This Contemplation on the Home Visit would be perfect the next time I present the section on home visits. In our ministry, the home visit truly touches our heart and brings us closer to God!

  • I understand that the current age may be dangerous, but the incident mentioned in one of the posts is more the exception than the rule. No one is asking Vincentians to rusk life and limb. In fact, the section of Paris that Ozanam and his friends visited was terribly dangerous. But he trusted in the Lord.

    The Home Visit is still the model of personal encounter. It is not for everyone, but it is at the heart of who we are.

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