Vincentian Spirituality in the Twenty-First Century
A spirituality for the laity
by: Jaime Corera, CM
[This article was posted on the website “somos” on March 10, 2015 and can be found in Spanish at: http://somos.vicencianos.org/?s=espiritualidad+de+los+laicos]
There is etched in the inner most depths of every human being a fundamental vocation, namely, to make their earthly life a path that leads them to God. Saint Augustine, in a well-known passage from his Confessions, expressed that reality in an unsurpassable manner: You have made us for yourself and our heart is restless until it rests in you. Every religion offers a great variety of ways to journey toward God, ways that are more or less erroneous, ways that are more or less certain. The gospels, however, offer us the only sure and infallible path: to follow Jesus Christ, the way, the truth and the life (John 14:6); to follow Jesus Christ, the true light who enlightens every man and woman (John 1:9). The path that leads to God as a result of following Jesus Christ is known as spirituality or the Christian spiritual life.
This one sure path, however, is travelled in various ways which means that there are many different forms of Christian spirituality. Saint Francis de Sales, a friend and a contemporary of Vincent de Paul, stated that a different exercise of devotion is required of each—the noble, the artisan, the servant, the prince, the maiden and the wife; and furthermore such practice must be modified according to the strength, the calling, and the duties of each individual . The laity, who are and always have been the largest group of those who follow Jesus Christ, have their own proper way of living the Christian life. The Code of Canon Law states: Since lay people, like all Christ’s faithful, are deputed to the apostolate by baptism and confirmation, they are bound by the general obligation and they have the right, whether as individuals or in associations, to strive so that the divine message of salvation may be known and accepted by all people throughout the world. This obligation is all the more insistent in circumstances in which only through them are people able to hear the Gospel and to know Christ. They have also, according to the condition of each, the special obligation to permeate and perfect the temporal order of things with the spirit of the Gospel. In this way, particularly in conducting secular business and exercising secular functions, they are to give witness to Christ (Canon #225).
This means that the spiritual path proper to the laity is lived and enfleshed in their activity in the midst of the world, that is, in their family life and work, in their social relationships, in politics, in sports, in their leisure time. Thus, their vocation is completely secular and is developed in the world (in Latin: saeculum). Many years ago that idea was expressed by a well-known lay woman when she wrote: this is the purpose of lay spirituality, namely, to give a divine meaning to spiritual activity, a meaning that is hidden all the dimensions of worldly activity. The laity make God come down to earth and that is the reason why they raise up the earth to God. The laity incarnate Christ in the fleeting days of our history. They become the “priests” who offer up our natural life to God and that life is, in turn, saved by God . In other words, the laity have their proper spiritual path to journey, a journey that will lead them toward God.
Because we are dealing with a vocation, with a form of the spiritual life that has been defined and that is desired by God, laymen and women, then, ought to make every effort to be faithful to God’s plan and to maintain their proper identity. That task is composed of two elements: to maintain their lay identity within the Church and to maintain their Christian identity in the midst of the world. In a Church in which ordained ministers and religious occupy a place and a preeminence (a position which both the world and the Church view as excessive), the laity can be tempted to adopt ideas and a way of life that is proper to clerics and religious … neglecting their own proper spirituality. This, of course, should not be done since neither the clerical nor the religious state has as their vision and mission the obligation to permeate and perfect the temporal order of things with the spirit of the Gospel and to do this in their daily life, in the midst of their families and their various social relationships. Yet that is precisely the very center of any authentic lay spirituality.
Second, the laity are to maintain their Christian identity in the midst of the world. It is one thing to live and work in the midst of the world and another to have a worldly spirit. The identity of the lay Christian is not a worldly identity but a Christian identity. This means that the laity must be vigilant so as not to be contaminated by the criteria of the world, by the world’s way of thinking and acting. Today, more than ever before, the words of Jesus are valid for the all lay Christians: you do not belong to the world and I have chosen you out of the world (John 15:19). This same idea was expressed by Santiago Massarnau: As members of the Saint Vincent de Paul Society we do not live in a cloister; we live in the world and yet we should not live as worldly people. This is difficult, very difficult, but this is also our obligation.
The laity in the Church of the XXI century
Like every century, the twenty-first century will continue for a hundred years. True, we are only at the beginning of this century and none of us here now will see its conclusion. We are not going to attempt to offer some prognosis with regard to the role of the laity throughout all the years of this century. The best way to be mistaken about the future is to make some prediction in that regard. In reality, we can offer no guarantee that the twenty-first century will arrive at its conclusion. For some time humankind has had in its hands the power to destroy all of life on this planet Earth.
Thus as we have stated we are not going to attempt to predict the form or the shape of the future role of the laity in the Church and in the world as the twenty-first century unfolds. We will simply highlight some ideas, more or less recent, that appear to be relevant and that give us reason to expect that the laity will have an ever more influential role in the Church as they fulfill their commitment to lead the world to God.
The first idea is grounded on a solid theological vision that insists upon the radical equality of all those who have been baptized. It must be understood that the reality that is fundamental to the Church is not the ministry of the hierarchy or of those persons in religious life, but rather the condition of those who have been baptized. This idea is expressed in the Code of Canon Law: flowing from their rebirth in Christ, there is a genuine equality of dignity and action among all of Christ’s faithful. Because of this equality they all contribute, each according to his or her own condition and office, to the building up of the Body of Christ (Canon #208).
Although the Church as a whole is far from recognizing that reality in its thinking and in its structures, nevertheless it is hoped that this situation will become better as we move forward. For this to happen there is a need for the clergy and religious to greatly lower their pretensions in the Church while at the same time there is an urgency for the laity to assume their corresponding responsibility. In other words it is important for the laity to recognize their right and their obligation to cooperate in “the building up of the body of Christ”, that is, to become involved in the life and the ministry of the Church.
The spirituality of the lay Vincentian
Everything that has been said here could be applied to the members of the Saint Vincent de Paul Society because all their members are lay (and the Society as such is a lay Association). The well-known words of the founder of this Association could be applied to the Society and to its members: we want this Association to be wholly lay while at the same time wholly Catholic. If the members want to continue to remain faithful to the original idea of the founders, then during this twenty-first century they ought to maintain and strengthen the lay character of the Association. It also appears that the future of the Church is moving in that same direction in which greater recognition is given to the spirituality of laity in the internal and external structures of the Church. Therefore in the coming years the Association would gain nothing if it were to blur its lay character. This means that on a practical level the Society maintains good relationships with the hierarchy of the Church and with the whole people of God. On an internal level the Society maintains its autonomy, that is, in its planning and its finances.
The Saint Vincent de Paul Society is a lay, Catholic Association … it is also a Vincentian Association. Those characteristics are the result of the original idea of the founders of the Association who believed that in the person and the life of Saint Vincent de Paul, and not in some other saint or founder, the members would discover an experience of the Christian spiritual life that was appropriate to their own spirituality. We are not going to present a treatise on Vincentian spirituality which has been researched and written about in many books and articles during the past thirty years. Here we will limit ourselves to two fundamental ideas.
The world in which Vincentian spiritual life is lived and developed is not simply the world in general, but the world of the poor. Therefore there is no danger that the Saint Vincent de Paul Society will ever be lacking some form of ministry during the twenty-first century. One of the predictions that we can unfortunately make without any fear of being mistaken is that for the remainder of this century the poor will not disappear from the face of the earth (unless they all die from hunger or from some premature disease). As we become more and more aware of the presence of evil and injustice in our social structures we can then more easily understand Jesus’ surprising words: you always have the poor with you (John 12:8).
The second idea brings us to the very heart of Vincentian spirituality which was expressed by Vincent de Paul when he stated: to serve the poor is to serve God. That same idea was restated by Frederic Ozanam: you, the poor, are for us the sacred image of God whom we cannot see. Since we know not how to love him otherwise, we will love him in your person. Both of these individuals highlight the same idea. The spiritual path for those Christians inspired by Vincentian ideals, the path that leads them toward God, necessarily involves their ministry on behalf of those who are poor. Indeed, according to the bold words of Frederic Ozanam, we cannot love God in any other way. This second idea also has a sure future. If as the result of some unexpected miracle there were no more poor in the world, then at that moment all the institutions established by Vincent de Paul or inspired by his spirit would come to the end of their existence. But, as we have already said, there is unfortunately no chance of that happening during this twenty-first century.
Formation in order to know the poor of the XXI century
The first thing that men and women who feel called by God to live out their Christian life in accord with the Vincentian charism can do is to form themselves as Christians and this includes an on-going knowledge of the true spirit of Christ as well as the practice of an authentic Christian life which includes prayer, participation in the sacraments, a Christian family life, a Christian professional life. Without such a foundation any ministry on behalf of the poor would be classified as a philanthropic activity (certainly praiseworthy), but it falls short of the mark. Vincentians want to be true followers of Jesus Christ and we know that Jesus was not simply a social-worker but rather he redeemed the poor and opened to them the path that leads to the Father.
Those men and women who feel called by God to live out their Christian life in accord with the Vincentian charism must also form themselves with regard to their knowledge of the world of the poor, a world that today is more complex than it was during the time of Saint Vincent or during the time of Frederic Ozanam (even though Frederic understood with great clarity that the poor had suffered greatly as a result of the industrial revolution). In order to alleviate the situation of the poor, it is crucial to understand the causes that have produced such poverty. In order to do this one must study and engage in research, one must take the time to form and inform oneself. Frederic understood that and stated: Only when we have studied the poor in their homes, in the hospital, in their workshop, in the fields, only then, armed with the elements to confront such a formidable problem can we begin to understand it and to consider some ways to resolve it.
Those words that Frederic wrote some one hundred fifty years ago are still valid today. The forms of poverty that we experience today are similar to those of former eras. What has greatly changed from previous centuries are the causes of poverty: the industrial revolution of the nineteenth and the twentieth century enveloped large masses of the world’s population and now the recent globalization of economic and political relationships has produced and will continue to produce countless victims.
Globalization, like every other human phenomenon, is a very complex phenomenon that has lights and shadows. Let us first look at “the lights of globalization”. We begin with an example that we are very familiar with, the Saint Vincent de Paul Society which with each passing day is becoming an institution that is more and more globalized, an institution that is no longer limited to confronting local or national problems related to poverty. Let us reflect on two examples of “the shadows of globalization”: One is political (the decisions that are made in the Pentagon affect the life and the death of thousands of children in Iraq) and the other is economical (the decisions of the European community with regard to the price of chocolate affect the price of the cacao bean, a product that millions of campesinos are dependent upon for their livelihood).
The members of the Saint Vincent de Paul Society should take the time to inform themselves not only about the causes of the poverty that they have firsthand experience of, but also the causes of poverty that affects their nation and even the world.
What can be done for the poor of the XXI century?
There is a manner of working with the poor that has been practiced since the time of Jesus Christ, a manner of working that will continue to be necessary in the future … this form of ministry has many names but here we shall refer to it as charitable assistance. By charitable assistance we mean that form of outreach to people that is intended to provide men and women with basic necessities: food, clothing, housing and health care. There are many intelligent people (including church people) who look down upon this form of assistance and feel that such help is not effective, is outdated and has been replaced by other means. We should not listen to such words. Jesus Christ engaged in such charitable assistance as did Vincent de Paul … and from the time of its foundation so also did the members of the Saint Vincent Society. This form of ministry on behalf of those who are poor will continue to be necessary throughout the twenty-first century and will most probably be all the more urgent. Yes, there is always the need to give a fish to the person who is hungry.
Another manner of working with the poor is that of promotion, that is, to teach the man who is hungry “how to fish”. In this way those who are hungry will develop the resources that will enable them to feed themselves and to live. This form of ministry has been practiced throughout the history of the Church, for example, in schools and in formation centers that train people to engage in some professions. We can also say that there will continue to be a great need for this form of ministry throughout the century that has just begun.
A third method might sound new but, despite the fact that there are some church people who do not easily accept this method, is not new. Here we refer to work on behalf of justice, work that involves changing the unjust political and economic structures that in modern day society function as gigantic machines that produce massive poverty … for example, laws that treat women as inferior to men or laws that establish low minimum wages. This method obliges Vincentians to support the just demands of those who are oppressed. Indeed, the Social Doctrine of the Church has made it very clear that all the baptized are not only to live lives of justice but are to act justly in their relationships with others.
Such a method is very much in line with our Founder who wrote the following words: The issue that is troubling the world around us is neither a personal issue nor a question of political forms, but a social issue. If it is the struggle between those who have nothing and those who have too much, if it is the violent clash between opulence and poverty which make the earth tremble beneath our feet, out duty as Christians is to intervene between these irreconcilable enemies and as much as we are able to make equality a reality among all people. Ozanam presents us with a condensed analysis of the society of his time, an analysis that continues to be valid in our time. Today there is even greater urgency in creating such equality because the gap between the rich and the poor has widened and increased over the years.
That reality, however, should not surprise or discourage Vincentians. It is most probable that we ourselves will not see such equality established throughout the world during the twenty-first century. Unfortunately we once again are not mistaken to make such a statement. Nevertheless, it is hoped that the members of the Society will make every effort to work for justice and to collaborate with those institutions (both inside and outside the Church) that are attempting to eliminate the inequality that exists in our world.
Some questions to guide an examination of conscience
[a] In the group that you belong to, is there some program of Christian Vincentian formation?
[b] In the group is there an awareness of belonging to a large spiritual family, to a worldwide spiritual family?
[c] What charitable projects does the group engage in?
[d] Does the group engage in some promotional project? If not, would it be possible for the group to do so, even if in some modest form?
[e] Is the group convinced of the fact that ministry on behalf of justice for those who are poor is one of the dimensions of Vincentian spirituality?
[f] Does the group have some project in which the members engage in ministry on behalf of justice for those who are poor?
[g] Does the group collaborate with other Vincentian groups? With other charitable institutions of the Church? With other non-Catholic institutions that minister on behalf of the poor?
 Francis de Sales, Introduction to the Devout Life, p.10 (http://www.catholicspiritualdirection.org/devoutlife.pdf)
 Lili Alvarez, En tierra extraña, Taurus, Madrid, third edition, 1957, p. 96, 89, 93.
Translated: Charles T. Plock, CM