Leaders of 100 Branches of the Vincentian Family Gather – Why?
Why this historic gathering?
January 8-12 approximately 200 top leaders of 100 branches of the Vincentian Family will meet in Rome. Not counting travel, they will take almost a week out of their responsibility laden lives to travel to Rome for a historic first such gathering. It will also involve great expense. Some would ask the question asked of Jesus 2000 years ago “Could not this money have used to minister to the poor?” Why?
- Is it a question of forming some new juridical entity?
- Is it concerned with working out further details of the current international focus on addressing homelessness?
- Is it about simply keeping one another informed about the wonderful works each branch is doing and hoping that others will learn of new and creative ministries?
- Or is it to collectively explore Vincent’s genius in involving laity and more effectively addressing root causes and required advocacy?
Let me offer some historical perspectives on the gift we have inherited from Vincent and Louise. Most are aware of our origins.
In 1617, Vincent experienced two moments which would forever change his life and have a lasting impact on both Church and society. In Gannes and Folleville, he heard the confessions of destitute persons living in the remotest areas of France. Later that year, in Châtillon-les-Dombes, he organized the people of his parish to help alleviate the sufferings of a family plagued by sickness and impoverishment. These two events gave shape to the heart of Vincent’s charism: the service of God in the person of our Lords and Masters, the poor, in both the preaching of the Gospel (mission) and the alleviation of poverty (charity).
In the forty-plus years that followed Vincent was a consummate networker, a lens we have rarely used for Vincent. He would have been quite at home with the interconnectedness of our digital culture. After all, he wrote some 30,000 letters! Imagine if he had the internet!
We think of Vincent as the founder of wonderful mission-based organizations. But that was not his greatest contribution. His greatest contribution was his genius at networking and activating the laity in what were then called Confraternities. He asked that such confraternities be established in every place where his followers ministered. His genius was rooted in his beliefs.
- Vincent was convinced that others shared his vision and would be generous in their response to needs.
- “The poor suffer less from a lack of generosity than from a lack of organization,” he said.
- Vincent was humble enough to ask others to help. He was not wedded to any messianic delusions, tendencies of thinking that he had to do it on his own.
- Vincent was adept at involving others in what he saw needed to be done. He found his strength in accepting his limitations.
- Vincent had the courage and skill to walk where none had walked before.
Expanding the circle of solidarity today
My perspective on the meeting comes from the feast so close in time – Epiphany. Just as the Wisemen/Kings read the signs in their skies, so today the wisest men and women leaders in the Vincentian Family are attempting to read the signs of our times.
Each of these leaders stands in the tradition of Vincent and Louise seeking and serving God in the person of those who are poor and marginalized. Each leads efforts to respond to the variety of cries of the poor. We have made strides. But the inescapable reality is that we find that poverty and marginalization is leading to an expanding circle of poverty
There is more need than ever for expanding the circle of solidarity in addressing the cries of the poor in their immediate needs both physical and spiritual. There is more need than ever in heeding the words of St. John Paul II some 30 years ago when he reminded us of our heritage of understanding the underlying causes of poverty and working toward long term solutions.
In an age of interconnectivity, we need more than ever to learn how we can join our gifts together in such a way that we will be faithful to Vincent’s insight that aid for those suffering needs to be collaborative and lay-centered. We need to develop processes that will allow us each to do what we do best in collaboration with others doing what they do best.
A lesson from 30 years ago
I remember a presentation some 30 years ago. David Nygren asked the Vincentian Family in New York to explore how they could have greater impact working collectively than they could by working in silos. He then pointed out how in New York City the various branches of the Vincentian Family labored in Catholic primary, secondary and even higher education. Others specialized in Catholic health care. Still others had grassroot cells in virtually every parish and a network of thrift shops.
His question still haunts me today. What impact did we have on New York City with each working in isolation? What impact could we have had on New York City if we had met together and developed a strategy that would have utilized the unique strength of each branch by sharing a commitment to common plan not only to meet immediate needs the poor but also shape policies that leave so many in poverty of various kinds?
In 1995 by Eugene Smith, then National Vice-President, Saint Vincent de Paul Society, raised some powerful questions at was the first national meeting of the Vincentian Family. He asked can we:
- become committed advocates ready to urge legislators to act justly in all economic and policy decisions?
- urge our friends and contacts to also speak out for the people who are poor?
- take responsibility to bring about collaboration, cooperation, and
- partner with each other and in our institutions throughout the Vincentian family and the Christian family?
- refuse to get bogged down in the process and turf issues as we collaborate so as to see real results?
- refuse to settle for the easy, cautious, limited business as usual approach?
- participate with the Vincentian Family of the world in seeking solutions to world hunger, needed medical care, and education of the world’s children, building healthier communities?
The Vincentian approach is rooted in collaboration and activating the laity as Vincent did. I suspect our wise men and women will be looking beyond specific issues to the development of a process that facilitates communication and true collaboration.