Reflection 2 – Vincent and Systemic Change
Goal of the second session
To explore the meaning of Systemic Change as a Vincentian concept
Prayer for systemic change
We praise and thank you, O God, Creator of the Universe.
You have made all things good and have given us the earth to cultivate.
Grant that we may always use created things gratefully,
and share them generously with those in need.
Give us creativity in helping the poor meet their basic human needs.
Open our minds and hearts so that we might stand at their side
and assist them to change whatever unjust structures keep them poor.
Enable us to be brothers and sisters to them,
friends who walk with them
in their struggle for fundamental human rights.
We ask this through Christ our Lord. AMEN
Scripture Reading: Luke 5:17-26
In this Gospel reading we see Jesus completely transforming the life of the paralytic. Notice the part that the man plays in his own transformation. Other people are enlisted to help. At the same time the questioning of the officials is overturned.
Though systemic change is a contemporary idea, unknown in St. Vincentâ€™s time, we can find seeds of the idea in his life and works. We see his ability to hold the individual person in his heart at the same time as challenging the authorities of his day, following the example of his Lord, Jesus Christ.
One very good example occurred late in Vincentâ€™s life when his movement of charity had become widespread. The original charism which had started out as an effort to help the poor was turned into a weapon against homeless people. Various social bodies started to copy the ideas of projects that Vincent had begun but did not replicate the spirit behind them. Vincent approached the issues from the angle of a poor person who needed help but those in public office had a political end in view: society had to be protected from the rabble of beggars. Basically these were two very different views of seeing the poor: the Christian view which regarded the poor as an image of the suffering Christ, and the secular view which considered them a threat to the established order. Vincent wanted to help the poor, the politicians wanted to eliminate them.
The Ladies of Charity took up a position somewhere in between and they told Vincent what they had in mind. They would try to set up a large institution which would provide the poor with board and lodgings as well as work for those who were able. They raised all the money and then presented the project to Vincent as the crowning glory of his life-long work. They were amazed when he wanted time to think about it!
He expressed all his reservations and then advised them to proceed very slowly, building the work up gradually, being very careful about the attitudes of those involved in the work. The poor had to enter the institution voluntarily and no-one was to force them. This was his biggest fear. One of the things that saddened him most about the project was that they planned to exclude anyone who was not from Paris â€“ so refugees and peasants would be forced to return to their places of origin. Paris soaked up a lot of wealth so what right had anyone to prevent poor people from other areas enjoying its benefits?
He had huge reservations about hiding the poor away and shutting them in an institution. A long saga went on about all this until, in spite of all the investment, the parliament took over the project. Vincent was relieved, since at least it would not be in his name. He remained totally unconvinced that this project was the correct way to work with homeless people.
But, to Vincentâ€™s dismay, the project continued to haunt him. He discovered by accident that the priests of the Mission had been named chaplains to the project. This was proudly set out in the propaganda leaflet which praised the advantages to the poor and the public that this project would bring. The plan had been put into practice with complete disregard for his views and, what was worse, against his strong conviction that the poor should not be coerced. The decision had been made purely to stop people begging. He deliberated long and hard and consulted his community. In the end they provided some spiritual input for the sake of the poor, but they did not take up the official chaplaincy.
Interestingly, Vincent, out of respect for the authorities did not speak out against the project in public, even when the poor themselves misunderstood and challenged him for having them shut away. The authorities triumphed over removing beggars from the streets and held the project up as the greatest charitable enterprise of the century.
It had never been Vincentâ€™s intention to eliminate begging but to get to the roots of the problem and dig them out with love. (Cf. Roman P. 635 ff)
This story demonstrates Vincent extricating himself and his communities from a misappropriated charity, tackling the authorities and refusing to take part â€“even when pressurised by the poor themselves. Some may see his actions as a failure.
What do you think?
Individual reflection, Sharing & Listening
Have you ever faced a similar situation to the one Vincent faced above?
Does your service operate from a systemic change perspective? Is its mission transformative of systems and individuals?
How does this speak to your Vincentian heart?
Reflect together on your own service
Systemic change involves:
â€¢ A process that aims to achieve a radical transformation in the lives of the excluded
â€¢ A process that favours a structural change in the whole system.
â€œLike slavery and apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is a human creation and it can be overcome and eradicated by actions of human beings.â€ (Nelson Mandela)
â€œCharity is not sufficient. It treats the wounds but does not stop the blows that cause themâ€¦. Charity is the Samaritan who pours oil on the wounds of the traveler who has been attacked. It is justiceâ€™s role to prevent the attacks.â€(Frederic Ozanam)
â€œOur vocation is to go to all parts of the world, and to do what? To set the hearts of all people on fire, to do what the Son of God did â€“ He who came to cast fire on the earth so as to inflame it with his love.â€ (Vincent)
==> Start with a serious analysis of the local reality, flowing from concrete data, and tailor all projects to this reality
==> Have a holistic vision, addressing a series of basic human needs — individual and social, spiritual and physical, especially jobs, health care, housing, education, spiritual growth — with an integral approach toward prevention and sustainable development
==> Make the project self-sustaining by guaranteeing that it will have the human and economic resources needed for it to last
Share any new insight or action you feel challenged to undertake.
Are these strategies part of our ordinary way of acting?
Vincentian Family Prayer
Lord Jesus, you who willed to become poor,
give us eyes and a heart directed toward the poor;
help us to recognize you in them-
in their thirst, their hunger, their loneliness, and their misfortune.
Enkindle within our Vincentian Family
unity, simplicity, humility,
and the fire of love
that burned in St. Vincent de Paul.
Strengthen us, so that, faithful to the practice of these virtues,
we may contemplate you and serve you in the person of the poor,
and may one day be united with you and them in your Kingdom. AMEN