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Systemic Change - Vincentian Study Guides

The following material is taken from the "Study Guides" prepared by leaders of the Vincentian Family

The Great Example - Chatillon-les-Dombes

The original story of Vincent’s experience as Parish Priest of Chatillon-les-Dombes in many ways sets the pattern for a coherent strategy.

Vincent hears of a family in desperate need and gives a moving homily, thereby enlisting others - ‘God touched the hearts of my listeners’.

Upon visiting the family later he finds many others on the road offering assistance, including a great pile of provisions. He observes that suddenly the members of the family have more than they could possibly need, realises that some of the food would perish and be wasted – and they would be just as badly off. What was needed was organisation! Vincent made a plan, called a meeting, formed an association and delegated tasks and responsibilities to the people of the parish. From this seemingly small start a whole movement began. (Cf. Roman P. 123)

Both Vincent and Louise, and later Frederick Ozanam and Elizabeth-Ann Seton, insisted that services be carried out with competence, relevant skills and adequate resources. Louise, ever the practitioner, fretted if all was not right and would give enormously detailed instructions as to how tasks should be carried out.

Saint Vincent de Paul excelled in the process of empowerment. He listened to others’ ideas and sought their advice, and provided the tools that were needed by collaborators in achieving the Vincentian mission. He empowered his followers by stipulating core values, rules and virtues such as respect and mutual support; he encouraged participative relationships as means of serving the poor.

The many stories of Jesus raising the sick and the poor into a transformed existence is at the heart of the lives of all our Vincentian Saints and underpinned by Matt. 25:31-41

St. Vincent and Systemic Change

Though systemic change is a contemporary idea, unknown in St. Vincent’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 Vincent’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 – 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 Vincent’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 Vincent’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 –even when pressurised by the poor themselves. Some may see his actions as a failure.

The Person of the Poor and Transformation

There are several occasions in Vincent’s letters which indicate that his care for people was firstly about attending to their needs as individuals and secondly that the service was not only about relief but essentially about sustainable transformation in their lives and equipping them for the future.

Writing to Mark Coglée, superior in Sedan in 1656, Vincent encourages the missioners to invest in the future of the school children. He urges that, not only should books be bought so that the children who would otherwise not be educated might study, but that means be found for helping them in the long-term. He asks that they be trained in a trade so that their futures are taken care of and they can be independent and self-sufficient. He relies on the Ladies of Charity to provide funding for this and commends their achievements so far.

Vincentian Political Engagement

Our lives as Christians cannot be separated from politics. Love for others is not efficient if we don’t intend to modify the causes of the situations in which they find themselves.

On many occasions, St Vincent had to intervene in political issues in order to alleviate the sufferings of the poor. He became a public figure with great influence. During his life he was in contact with kings, queens, ministers, public authorities, noblemen, members of the highest church hierarchy, but also national and international figures. He called upon the powerful in order to be able to help the poorest. He knew that decisions made by the great affect the small. He took advantage of circumstances which enabled him to belong to the Council of Conscience of the Regent Queen Anne of Austria, mother of Louis XIV.

Moved by the misery he witnessed, he decided to act upon decision makers, because, just like today, political decisions cause hunger, wars and calamities.

In his time, much poverty in France was generated by the ambitious policies of its prime ministers, Cardinal Richelieu, and later Cardinal Mazarin. Vincent was never afraid to speak to the powerful. During the Fronde conflict, Paris was in a state of siege for 6 months by the royal army, which waited for famine to cause surrender. St Vincent witnessed such despair and decided to ACT politically to avoid this humanitarian catastrophe. He tried to convince Queen Anne to give up such a cruel siege and to fire Cardinal Mazarin. Doing this, he risked his own life, because he could have been considered a traitor and executed.

On many occasions, and in the face of the terrible situation of prisoners turned into slaves by the Algiers authorities, he tried to act. He appealed for their liberation to a French admiral. Another time, he went to a high state employee so that the Congregation’s missionaries would be nominated chaplains of the French consuls in Tunis and Algiers, in order to assist the prisoners better.

St Vincent labored so that the authorities of his time would understand that they must support charitable work. He sensitized politicians to their moral duty toward the poor. Thus he was able to found and operate hospitals with public monies.

On the tracks of St Vincent, the Vincentian Christian must meet the individual needs of the poor, our brothers in Jesus Christ, and at the same time, in the light of gospel principles, he must try to reform social structures that are unjust, so as not to perpetuate or hide the causes of poverty. This means we must have “a charitable heart together with a social conscience”. (P. Corera, C.M.)

Finally we can say that St Vincent de Paul was not a politician, but a Saint with all the qualities of a statesman.

For her part, St. Louise invites the early Sisters to address themselves to the authorities to make known and defend the needs of the poor if and when necessary. The Sisters should not fear to inform and to urge those who make the decisions, to reflect on the consequences of their acts on the poorest. On one occasion, Barbe Angiboust, a country girl, goes to Queen Anne of Austria. (A Way to Holiness, P. 134 – see the quotation from Louise to Barbe below)

To be prophetic in the Vincentian traditon

St. Vincent loved the truth. In fact, he focused his whole life on it. He called this passion for the truth “simplicity.” Simplicity “is the virtue I love most,” St. Vincent tells us. “I call it my gospel.”

In St. Vincent’s eyes, Jesus is utterly simple. He speaks the truth. He says things as they are. His intentions are pure, referring all things in life to God.

He is not afraid to speak out and in Luke’s Gospel starts his ministry in this way. Quoting the Old Testament, and signalling the Good News to the poor, Jesus proclaimed the pattern for his ministry. Many times in the Gospels he challenges the civil authorities and the Church authorities, inviting them to reflect on the truth. (Luke 12: 1 ff)

Today, just as in St. Vincent’s time, simplicity means genuineness, transparency. It remains very attractive to the modern men and women whom we are called to serve. It means:

• speaking the truth (a difficult discipline, especially when our own convenience is at stake or when the truth is embarrassing) • witnessing to the truth (or the personal authenticity that makes a person’s life match his words) • searching for the truth as a wayfarer rather than possessing it as an “owner” • striving for purity of intention • practicing the truth through works of justice and charity • living modestly and sharing what we have • using clear, transparent language, especially in teaching or preaching.

I say to all the members of our family today: have passion for truth. Be true. (Robert Maloney, “On Living the Spirituality of Vincent de Paul Today,” a talk given in Ireland in March 2000)

Prophecy means challenging people to a fresh vision. It is often uncomfortable.

Vincent turned the church upside down. He put the poor on top, with the rest of us in service and support, being evangelized by them and evangelizing them. Constant attention to seeking a just society necessitates solidarity, and solidarity is in the center of all Vincentian values. We can do very little without influencing and engaging others. We need, not only to understand Vincent and Louise in the context of their time, but also to translate their teachings to our contemporary period. (Robert Maloney, The Way of Vincent de Paul)