The Spiritual and Charitable Experience of Vincent de Paul
by: Patricia P. Nava AIC and a member of the Commission to Promote Systemic Change
When I received Carmen’s invitation to give this presentation at this National Congress many volunteers and Daughters and Missionaries whom I have come to know during the many years that I have been a members of the International Association of Charity encouraged me to accept the invitation. It was you, who in the middle of the nineteenth century came to Mexico (my homeland) and through the example of the Missionaries, both men and women, you introduced us to the charism of our Founder. We are indebted to you and therefore we will never, I myself will never cease to thank you for having provided us with the opportunity to live out our Christian vocation through service and, even more, to serve in the manner of the great saint of charity, Vincent de Paul.
After accepting this invitation I asked myself why was I asked to speak about the ecclesial dimension of Saint Vincent, a theme that appears to be quite unrelated to my own personal experience. At first this invitation made no sense because in Spain there are many Missionaries and Daughters who are experts in this theme. At the same time I was enthusiastic about this invitation because it provided me with the opportunity to learn something new about Saint Vincent, to learn about a dimension of Vincent’s life that I had not previously examined.
As I attempted to write an outline of my presentation I noticed that I had several sub-themes that at first sight appeared to have no connection with the theme. Later, however, I concluded that Vincent had a vision of the universal church that was inseparable from charity, a vision that is most valid today. Indeed, Vincent’s vision has given direction to the Commission to Promote Systemic Change and the members of this commission have reflected on the life and teaching of our founder and brought forth those principles of systemic change which indicate new paths for those who have dedicated their lives to serve their sisters and brothers who are in need.
2.] Systemic Change
For almost thirty years the systemic approach has been utilized in various disciplines. This has become an interdisciplinary approach that enables us to discover and to understand the complexity of certain situations that could never be understood as isolated events. These situations (like that of poverty) are so complex that frequently we have been led to believe that it is impossible to obtain the necessary knowledge that will provide us with a clear and precise idea of the reality. Systemic thinking enables us to put aside our fragmented vision in favor of a global vision. The whole system and its dynamics are considered. A system is composed of numerous sub-systems which interact with one another and thus affect one another. A change in one element of the system, regardless of whether this change is favorable or unfavorable, will affect the whole system
Systemic change provides us with tools to interpret our experience and to focus on the ways in which the elements of the system interact with one another.
In our case, the process of systemic change endeavors to change the complex structures that form the social system in which we live and move and thus enables us to see the world in a different way. This form of thinking prevents us from unconsciously using the same mental medels that have caused the problem we want to resolve. We cannot help people break out of poverty and achieve some change in their life unless we take into consideration the different systems that are related to poverty. It is necessary to break the vicious circle of poverty. Unemployment, lack of money, malnutrition, lack of self-esteem, precarious health, lack of education … all of these are realities that form a chain, a circle of poverty that must be broken. Systemic change invites us to approach problems in a global, holistic manner.
For us as Vincentians, this process of systemic change leads to a radical transformation of the life of those people excluded from society and does this by using specific strategies that are required in order to produce profound change. These strategies, like the whole process, are sustained by a series of values and beliefs grounded in the Christian and Vincentian charism and at the same time these strategies are oriented toward a vision: a vision of a world of greater justice and equality, a vision of a world in which the poor occupy their rightful place.
3.] Strategies to achieve systemic change
The content of this presentation will be elaborated within the framework of the strategies for change which have been identified by the Commission. Said strategies are very important, we might even say that they are indispensible if we want to bring about real and profound change in the projects of the Vincentian Family and if we want our projects to transform in a radical manner the life of our brothers and sisters. To facilitate our understanding I have divided the strategies into four categories according to their specific orientation:
• Strategies oriented toward the mission • Strategies oriented toward people • Strategies oriented toward tasks • Strategies oriented toward solidarity and participation.
3.1.] Strategies oriented toward the mission (motivation and direction)
Strategies oriented toward the mission begin with a fundamental premise. Vincentians have to be very clear that poverty is not the inevitable result of circumstances but the product of unjust situations that ought to be modified. This reality should encourage us to focus our policies and our creative and transformative actions in such a way that they have the possibility of breaking the circle of poverty. These actions should flow from our mission and our Christian and Vincentian values and should lead us to inculturate said values so that we have a profound respect for local culture.
We know that in the beginning Vincent was not clear about his mission. He saw priesthood as a means to obtain a stable situation, one that would allow him to put the poverty of his childhood behind him. As time passed and in light of different life experiences, he clarified the meaning of his mission and centered his life and activity on following Jesus Christ, the evangelizer of the poor. Vincent believed in the Jesus of Saint Luke’s gospel, Jesus who came to bring freedom to people, Jesus who came to free people from slavery, who came to heal the physical and spiritual wounds of people, who came to promote an integral liberation.
The example of Jesus Christ that was embraced by Vincent redeems our prophetic voice and affirms our faith in the God of life, in the God of liberation, in the God who desires to give new life to the poor who so often find their own life threatened, in the God who also desires to give new life to those who minister on behalf of the poor.
Saint Vincent’s activity on behalf of the Church of his era
Father Juan José González, CM, in his article on the church (1), tells us: The ecclesial vision of Vincent de Paul is inseparable from his spiritual and pastoral experience. His understanding of the ecclesial community was purified, expanded and deepened as his religious experience matured.
For Vincent the church is a community incarnated in history, a pilgrim community, sinful, visible, interdependent of the state, divided, with some pastors who are incompetent and unworthy, with some religious communities in need of reform, with people who are faithful but lacking adequate evangelization. This is the church that Vincent experienced and loved despite its defects. Without distancing himself from this reality he attempted to respond to the ecclesial needs. Vincent lived and gave life to a new and more evangelical image of the church (2).
Here we see that Vincent had a systemic vision of the reality of the Church of his era. He placed himself in the midst of the social and political situation of his time and his ministry with the poor, the oppressed and forgotten members of the people of God was not carried out in an individual manner. Rather he involved in ministry people from all the different social sectors. He communicated his vision to laypeople, clergy, government officials and decision makers and they in turn committed themselves to the process of evangelization. Vincent understood that history could also be written “from below” and committed himself to the transformation of the hierarchical church of his time. Vincent modified his vision of the Church and attempted to transform the church through different means and in this process not only relied on his own experience but also analyzed in depth the reality of the church.
Vincent, after having spent some time looking for a comfortable position in the hierarchical church, began his transformational ministry. We mention here some important events that you are all aware of, events that contributed to his transformation. These events contain a systemic rapprochement:
• The experience of Clichy (1612-1613) allowed him to discover the people and his priesthood recovered its meaning as “service to the people of God”. • In Gannes, Folleville (1617) he discovered that the church continues the evangelizing mission of Jesus Christ and this mission is one of preferential evangelization of the poor. Vincent also discovered that the poor evangelize us: My God, how happy am I to have such good people (CCD:IX507). • In Châtillon (1617) he came to understand the totality of his mission in the church. He discovered the other side of evangelization, that is, charity, and he empowered the laity, especially women, to engage in this ministry. • In Montmirail (1620-1621) he discovered that the evangelization of the poor has to be a characteristic of the church and ultimately the evangelization of the poor verifies the fact that the Church is guided by the Holy Spirit. • In 1625 Vincent and the de Gondi family sign a contract that is considered the foundational contract of the Congregation of the Mission. Vincent committed himself to find, in one year, six priests who would dedicate themselves to work exclusively on behalf of those people living in the countryside. • In Beauvais (1628) he discovered the importance of the formation of the clergy and the meaning of ministry in the church. • In 1633 two important events occurred. The Tuesday Conferences were established. These conferences played an important role in the formation of the clergy and when the clergy gathered together on these occasions they were instructed on the virtues that were proper to their state. In the same year the Daughters of Charity were established. Vincent is considered the founder even though he insisted that God was responsible for this work and Louise de Marillac consolidated this work. The foundation of this Company and its way of life was something totally new and every illiterate peasant woman who entered this Company became one of the most authentic models of faith that the church of Christ produced during the seventeenth century (3). • The mission in Madagascar (1648) helped Vincent understand the universality of the people of God and their missionary vocation.
Vincent brought about change that had a profound effect on the life of the church. He also saw the process of evangelization as an essential task of all the people of God. When we commit ourselves to the process of systemic change, we enter a search for the liberating transformation of the world, a transformation that is in accord with the saving plan of God, a transformation that demands justice, communion and fullness of life for all people.
Vincent de Paul’s charitable experience as the impetus for systemic change
One can see in these events that Vincent’s charitable experience is inseparable from his ecclesial vision. He not only does the unimaginable to renew the Church but also, as a member of the church, he dedicates himself to the service of the people who are most poor. This dedication to the poor did not arise solely from the fact that Vincent was a member of the clergy, but rather because of his experiences in parishes and his experiences during the missions, his experiences with the institutions that he founded and his experiences with the laity, with the people of God.
We have reflected on the strategies oriented toward the mission and applied them to the ecclesial vision of Vincent de Paul. Nevertheless these are not strategies that are applicable only to Vincent’s ecclesial mission. Rather they are or ought to be essential to any project or initiative of the Vincentian Family and ought to be present in the life of all the members of the Vincentian Family. Systemic change will never produce results unless we are convinced that the effects of poverty and the causes of poverty are the product of injustice.
We will now briefly analyze the other strategies. As I speak about each group of strategies I will try to introduce into these ideas what Father Maloney has called the ten seeds of systemic change in the life and ministry of Saint Vincent. Father Maloney formulated these ideas while using Vincent’s vocabulary and thus showed the parallels between Vincent and the vocabulary that we use today when referring to systemic change.
3.2.] Strategies oriented toward people
I will begin with those strategies oriented toward persons, strategies that focus on the person of the poor and that view these people as most capable people of changing their own situation. These strategies speak to us about our attitude toward those men and women who live in situations of poverty, namely, that we should be attentive and respectful toward them; we should promote their self-esteem and create an atmosphere of mutual trust. It is impossible to initiate a project of transformation if we believe that the poor are the result of God’s work or that the poor are lazy or in need of our salvation or other such aberrations that are part of the mentality of many people.
The educational and formational processes that we promote ought to deeply involve people in an analysis of their own reality, thus provoking a critical reaction that leads to a free, responsible and transformative commitment.
Strategies oriented toward the person are intimately connected to processes of empowerment and formation (spiritual as well as technical) and to an educational process in the area of citizenship which our sisters and brothers have a right to. These strategies also highlight the importance of involving the poor in the process of needs identification and the evaluation of our projects. The formation of leaders and others who will carry on the project allows the dispossessed to become agents of their own development and the development of their communities and empowers them to utilize the strategies they have learned and their own forms of solidarity which we ought to support and respect.
I mention some of the seeds of systemic change that refer to people who are poor
• "spiritually and corporally" --- holistic service
St. Vincent loved to say that we minister to the poor "spiritually and corporally." He used this phrase in speaking to the three principal groups he founded: the Confraternities of Charity, the Congregation of the Mission, and the Daughters of Charity. He tells the Daughters of Charity that they should tend not only to bodily needs, but also share their faith with the poor by their witness and their words. And he warns the members of the Congregation of the Mission that they should not think of their mission in exclusively spiritual terms but should attend to the poor and provide them with a service that is holistic, a service that takes into consideration their physical and spiritual needs.
• To see Christ in the face of the poor = quality of service'
Vincent wanted quality, competence, gentleness and respect to characterize the service provided in a project. He insisted that not only should we do good, but that we should do it well, with adequate resources and at the same time with warmth and concern.
When encouraging quality service Vincent returned to the fundamental vision that inspired his life and work: to see Christ in the person of the poor … the poor are our lords and masters … the poor are your lords. When Vincent gathered together his first priests, he placed certain conditions on them, conditions that referred to their possession of certain qualities: intelligence, piety, natural abilities. Father Corera affirms that this reality demanded careful work when selecting possible candidates. The Congregation of the Mission is constituted as a body of select individuals who dedicate their whole life to the task of evangelizing the poor country people and the galley salves. Therefore not just any priest is fit for this ministry.
• Les petites écoles = education and job-training
Vincent and Louise de Marillac were deeply committed to the education and the formation of poor young people, especially so that they might have the skills to work. For that reason, with Vincent’s support, Louise founded the petites écoles and made the instruction of poor young people one of the principal works of the first Daughters of Charity. At the present time the schools of the Vincentian Family have more than a million students.
Education and job-training are extremely important in order to obtain systemic change. Pope Paul VI wrote in his encyclical, Populorum Progressio: Lack of education is as serious as lack of food; the illiterate is a starved spirit (#35)(4).
In a strategic plan to eradicate poverty in Macon, Vincent pointed out the need to teach young people a trade. He felt that some workshops had to be established so that these individuals could be taught some simple tasks that would enable them to earn a living.
The Dream Project, coordinated by Father Maloney, is a clear example of strategies oriented toward people. This project, which includes the active participation of the Daughters of Charity and occasionally other branches of the Vincentian Family, is intended to empower poor women who are infected with the HIV-AIDS virus so that their children can be born disease-free. This project promotes physical and mental health, self-esteem, and empowerment. Thanks to DREAM, which has been established in a number of countries in Africa and Asia, thousands of children can live a happy and carefree life in the company of their mothers who, as a result of specific treatment, have recovered their health and are able to live a better life as a result of the education they have received.
Video (1:35 minutes).
3.3.] Strategies oriented toward tasks (organization)
These strategies speak to us about the initiation of projects only after a profound analysis of local reality and the particular situation of the poor people who will be served. Vincent was a great organizer and designed plans for very concrete projects. In Macon and, later in Folleville, Vincent analyzed the reality and this is basic for any organization. In those places an investigation was begun to determine the exact number of poor people, invalids, children, elderly men and women, lazy people, and people who were unable to work (strengths and weaknesses, opportunities and risks).
Following Vincent’s manner of thinking, the Commission encourages us to adopt a holistic vision so that a series of basic human needs might be satisfied (individual and social needs, spiritual and physical needs, especially needs that revolve around work, health, housing, education, and spiritual growth). All of this should be done with an integral vision that is focused on prevention and sustainable development. This requires an organization that allows us to implement coherent strategies, that is, a strategy that enables us to begin modestly, to delegate tasks and responsibilities and to provide quality services that respect the dignity and the fundamental rights of the person.
Good organization requires adequate planning, evaluation and coordination. Such an approach enables us to foresee all the resources that will be needed in order to achieve and guarantee the sustainability and continuity of our projects. Transparency and honesty are indispensible values for any project or action that is undertaken by members of the Vincentian Family.
All that we have said here is expressed by the following “seeds” of systemic change oriented toward tasks. • Châtillon = organization
When he gathered the initial group of women to form a Confraternity of Charity at Chatillon-les-Dombes in November 1617, Vincent stated, in the Rule he composed for them8, that the poor sometimes suffer more from a lack of “order” in the help offered them rather than from a lack of charitable persons who want to help. He believed that well-intentioned charity must also be well-organized, that it must be planned and executed with precision and care. Vincent was a gifted organizer and that is what made his work effective. A sign of his organizing ability is seen in the fact that his three establishments and other Vincentian branches that he inspired have continued his mission and vision despite the many obstacles that they have encountered.
When speaking about the organizational ability of Saint Vincent we must make reference to his work in Champagne and Picardy, regions that were devastated by war. In this same regard we must also include Paris and its suburbs. This was possibly the first example of large scale mobilization and assistance that was carried out systematically, almost scientifically, utilizing all available resources. The Missionaries and the Daughters of Charity formed true charitable brigades that distributed the many goods and materials that were collected in Paris to more than two hundred places. Today the Missionaries and Daughters in Haiti and in many other places continue to follow the model of their Founder and organize similar works in areas devastated by different disasters and often do this at great risk to their own life.
As a result of its organization and strategic planning, the AIC-Madagascar has multiplied projects throughout the country. Their most recent project is Project Tsiay (Seeds) that received a systemic change award. The project has been developed in the Diocese of Farafangana, located on the southeast coast of Madagascar. The project attempts to resolve the primary problems that have a negative impact on the life of those persons who have been displaced, especially women and children. These displaced persons are empowered through integral educational programs that include literacy, spiritual, professional, technical, nutritional, and health elements.
This project utilizes all the strategies of systemic change and its planning strategy is sustained through the recruitment of people from the community who can then duplicate this project because they have been well formed. In fact, this project foresees being replicated in ten other areas in this region. An organization is being created that will allow this project to move beyond this initial area and eventually become established throughout the whole country and in other countries.
Video on Madagascar (2:12) minutes
• Contracts and Rules = solid foundations as the basis for sustainability
Through his life, Vincent negotiated detailed contracts and wrote precise rules as he set up all the groups he founded. He wanted those groups to be firmly established so that their service to others would be long-lasting. The contracts provided for the financial stability of the groups. The Rules conveyed the structure and described the charism and the spirit of the groups he founded. Both the contracts and the Rules played a foundational role in preserving these groups into the future. It is helpful to note that Vincent saw no conflict between trusting in Divine Providence and providing for the future by laying firm financial foundation and setting up structures that would make his projects sustainable.
In 1617 Vincent redacted the first of many rules for the confraternities, rules that gave structure and organization to this work. At the beginning of the rule one reads the following phrase that motivated the women and that continued to be an integral part of Vincent’s vision: charity toward the neighbor is an infallible sign of the true children of God (CCD:XIIIb:8).
• Simplicity = Transparency
On more than one occasion Vincent stated that the poor are attracted to those who speak and live simply, who are transparent and consistent in what they say and do.
Vincent immediately saw the mobilizing potential of the letters of his missionaries and how the campaign in Lorraine could be promoted by passing those letters from hand to hand. Now, however, Vincent used the printing press to reach a wider audience. Each month he printed about four thousand copies of a four page pamphlet that contained the more interesting narrations of the Missionaries. These stories described the distribution of the goods that had been received. The Missionaries also included in their letters further requests for assistance because new needs had been discovered. These pamphlets also pointed out the places and the individuals who would receive further contributions. With regard to transparency, Vincent maintained control through a detailed list of the items and money that was donated. He published another small pamphlet, The Charitable Almanac, which listed all the donations that were received in the two large warehouses in the center of Paris and then explained how these goods and money were distributed (5).
Vincent tells us again and again that the poor are attracted to those who speak and live simply, who are transparent in what they say and do. This is also one of the fundamental aspects of successful systemic change projects: their leaders have developed the ability to listen to the poor, to speak with them simply and transparently, and to involve them in the project at every stage, from the initial discernment of needs, to planning the project, to carrying it out, and to evaluating and adjusting it in an ongoing way.
3.4.] Strategies oriented toward solidarity and participation (political action and networking)
These strategies encourage us to promote social co-responsibility and networking as well as to obtain knowledge of society on all levels, that is, local, national and international. All of this is done in order to change the unjust situations that affect the life of the poor. In order to achieve this it is necessary to come to a shared vision with the various participants and with those who make decisions: communities, churches, government, public and private sector, media, local networks as well as national and international networks.
In order to achieve true transformation, that is, in order to transform unjust situation and to impact social policy and law, it is necessary to struggle and to engage in political action.
Some “seeds” of systemic change oriented toward solidarity and participation are the following:
• Affective and effective love = changing of social structures
Vincent often repeated this phrase: our love ought to be effective and affective. When Vincent spoke about effective love he moved beyond the traditional understanding of his time. He referred to political participation which many of his followers considered outside their sphere of competency. Today, many Vincentians (and here I would include the members of the Systemic Change Commission) are aware of the reality that in order to achieve transformation, beneficent assistance and promotion are not enough. It is necessary to struggle against all the unjust social structures that can and ought to be modified and therefore we ought to focus on actions that can break the vicious circle of poverty.
Father Maloney has said: Today, we are conscious that sin affects not just individuals; it deeply affects social structures too. It becomes embodied in unjust laws, power-based economic relationships, inequitable treaties, artificial boundaries, oppressive governments, and numerous other subtle obstacles to harmonious societal relationships. Some of these unjust societal structures keep the poor poor (6).
• Evangelization by word and work = integral evangelization: witness, preaching and human development
Vincent was deeply convinced that what we say and what we do must reinforce one another. Witness authenticates words. What we say is credible only if our actions corroborate it. In other words, Vincent sees witness, service, preaching, and teaching as complementary to one another, and as integral to the evangelization process. Let us remember these words: Look at how you live. Perhaps your life is the only gospel that your brother and sister will read.
Today, the unity between witness, evangelization and human promotion, so much a part of Vincent's spirit, is one of the main emphases in the Church's social teaching. First, do. Then, teach. That is Vincent's rule for effective" evangelization and in this rule we find Vincent’s effectiveness that enabled him to move the minds the hearts of people. People were able to see that behind Vincent’s words was the irresistible power of his work. • Collaboration among all the strata of society = networking
Vincent knew how to network. He brought together rich and poor, young and old, clergy and lay, men and women. He had the ability to recognize and call forth people’s gifts. He saw that collaboration was the key to success in serving the poor. So, he forged bonds, built bridges, and fostered unity among very diverse groups of people. He knew how to draw these people into his captivating vision of life. On his one side was Anne, the Queen of France, a woman of broad culture and also of political intrigue; on his other side was Marguerite Naseau, a peasant girl who did not know how to read or write. He drew together women and men of every rank in society, by sharing his vision with them and getting them excited about it. He was a wonderful networker (7). Vincent attracted men and women from every social class and shared with them his vision and communicated an enthusiasm to them that enabled them to accept his vision. He created many networks, the most important of them being the Vincentian Family.
As an example of these strategies oriented toward solidarity and participation, oriented toward effective love and the transformation of structures, we mention here the project of systemic change that is called The Passage, located in the heart of London and until recently, coordinated by Sister Ellen Flynn, DC. About 3,000 homeless people live in the streets of London. These people come from every walk of life … addiction, abuse, destroyed relationships … they each have their own reason that explains their present situation. Nathan told us his story. For three years he roamed the streets of London aimlessly and had no friend whom he could trust. His life and heath were slowly deteriorating and his family wanted nothing to do with him. His only companions where drugs and alcohol. He had no idea how to manage his situation. Luckily, he discovered The Passage whose mission is to provide resources to the homeless so that they can restructure their lives. From the beginning Nathan felt accepted and for the first time felt that someone cared about him. He was not judged and no one reproached him because of his addiction … he was treated with respect and understanding. The Passage receives an average of 240 people each day and each year distributes 75,000 meals and 55,000 hot beverages. For the first time in many years Nathan ate at a table and shared friendship. The Passage offers numerous services that satisfy some basic health, hygiene and educational needs. A team of well trained counselors provide specialized attention to these homeless individuals who have mental problems and/or addiction problems. Nathan’s counselor led him by the hand to discover the path of recovery. Besides the 48 bed shelter which provides safety to those who sleep on the street, The Passage also has apartments for those who are willing to engage in a process of recuperation and thus willing to begin a new life. For many people like Nathan, this is the first time that they have their own apartment, their own room, their own bathroom, their own kitchen, in sum, their own home.
We know that in the world, particularly in northern countries, there are many similar projects that assist homeless people and provide on a daily basis hot meals for these same individuals. These clients tend to be people who are known because they have become “institutionalized”, that is, they are dependent on the institution. In our project the service component is much broader. The creation of networks and the sensitivity of society have allowed us to provide a more encompassing service that enables these homeless individuals to slowly become self-sufficient. With the aid of other institutions and the creation of other related projects, such as detoxification programs, temporary shelter and apartments, many addicts have recuperated and reintegrated themselves into society and established new relationships with their families.
Video – The Passage (3 minutes)
• Vincent’s role at the Court = advocacy
While Vincent is best known for his practical works of charity, he also served as an advocate for the poor before the highest authorities, at times at considerable risk to himself. On two occasions he intervened personally to try to bring about peace, when war was wrecking the lives of the poor.
At some time between 1639 and 1642, during the wars in Lorraine, he went to Cardinal Richelieu, knelt before him, described the horrors of war, and pleaded for peace: Let us have peace. Have pity on us. Give France peace. Richelieu refused, responding diplomatically that peace did not depend on him alone.
One of Vincent’s biographers relates an even more striking episode, which he takes from an account written by Vincent’s secretary. In 1649, during the civil war, Vincent left Paris quietly, crossed battle lines and forded a flooded river on horseback (at almost 70 years of age) to see the queen and to beg her to dismiss Mazarin, whom he regarded as responsible for the war. He also spoke directly to Mazarin himself. But again his pleas went unheeded. Vincent attempted to speak with leaders on both sides and at times felt that a settlement was near, but ambitions and intrigues thwarted his efforts. His attempts at peacemaking earned him the enmity of Mazarin, who, in his secret diary, records him as an enemy. By the time peace finally came, Vincent had been removed from the Council of Conscience. 4.] Questions for members of the Vincentian Family
After reflecting on these Seeds and strategies of systemic change, we are invited to ponder the following questions:
• Are we true agents of change in the life of the poor? Do we believe in them as the historical subjects in their process of liberation? • As followers of Vincent de Paul, are we making the Kingdom of God present in history, that is, are we making liberation, life, justice and communion present in history? • Do we accept the commitment to move out to the margins of society, to encounter others there and then to commit ourselves to the defense of the rights of the poor? Do we live in solidarity with the desires of these people for liberation? • Are we attentive: are our eyes and ears and hearts open to the realities that surround us and do we hear the deafening cries of the poor?
We have seen how Vincent, a precursor of systemic change, was a man ahead of his time and perhaps, even ahead of our era. How many of us have not only lagged behind but have reduced the teachings of our founder to beneficent assistance which, when unjustified, simply creates greater poverty? How many of us are afraid of change, change that Vincent promoted with his words and actions? As we said at the beginning, Vincent was able to recognize in the seventeenth century that history is written “from below”, from the perspective of the poor. He proclaimed himself to be the defender of the poor and their human rights (though he did not use those words). He formed leaders and communicated to them his vision of a more just and equitable world.
He transformed the Church of his era and this transformation was in accord with the principles of the present social doctrine of the Church. His option for the poor continues to be a fundamental and preferential option of the Church at the present time. He was a teacher of solidarity which today the Church holds up before us and he was also a teacher of the principle of subsidiarity which is the foundation for social justice and human equality. In other words, we can find the “seeds” of Saint Vincent in the social doctrine of the Church, “seeds” that promote the common good and that point out the need for international structures that promote the just development of people, families and communities on the local, national and international level.
I conclude this presentation with a video called Akamasoa (Good Friends), an association that has become a reality in Madagascar (a poor country among the poor) and that was established by Father Pedro Opeka, CM and that was also inspired by our great saint of charity. With prophetic vision Father Opeka and his followers have made the garbage dumps true cities, equipped with every form of service and first class lodging (as the children of God deserve).
Video on Akamasoa (1:39)
Father Opeka believes in the people who are most poor, believes in them as active subjects of systemic change. As an authentic follower of Vincent de Paul and as a great prophet of our era he has suffered and continues to suffer. As Vincentians we have to follow through on the call we have heard and accepted. We ought to work together in order to respond to our vocation. Let us commit ourselves to transform the desert into a garden and to be promoters of real change that allows our brother and sisters to make the Kingdom of God present in their own life and in their surroundings. Notes: (1) González, Juan José, “La Iglesia” (The Church), Diccionario de Espiritualidad Vicenciana (Dictionary of Vincentain Spirituality), CEME, Salamanca, 1995. (2) Ibid. (3) Corera, Jaime, Vida del Señor Vicente de Paúl (Life of M. Vincent de Paul), CEME, Salamanca, 1995. (4) Maloney, Robert, Ten seeds in the life and work of Saint Vincent, Presentation at the regional seminars on Systemic Change, 2009, 2010. (5) Corera, Jaime, op.cit. (6) Maloney, Robert, op.cit. (7) Ibid.
Translated Charles T. Plock, CM