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Vincent’s Seeds of Systemic Change

by | Jul 13, 2013 | Systemic change

Robert P. Maloney, CMIn his presentation on systemic change during day 12 of the meeting of the Provincials of the Congregation of the Mission Fr. Robert Maloney presented hints of systemic change from his reading of the words and actions of Vincent. He begins with a treatment of the influence of Paul VI’s Evangelii Nuntian­di  on the vocabulary of Vincentian documents and asks…

WHY: why is a Systemic Change mentality so important for us as members (and leaders) of the Congregation of the Mission?  …

To me, it is fascinating to analyze how strongly Evangelii Nuntiandi and the terminology of the New Evangelization have influenced our Constitutions and other official documents of the Congregation of the Mission in recent years.  Our documents over the last 25 years have a number of significantly new accents, placing emphasis on:

  • following Christ as the Evangelizer of the Poor
  • seeing the poor as not merely the object of evangelization, but its subject
  • being evangelized by the poor
  •  teaching the link between evangelization and action for justice
  • searching out the causes of poverty and concrete solutions
  • investigating new forms of poverty
  • becoming specialists in the Church’s social teaching
  • forming basic Christian communities
  • acquiring a global world-view.

I suggest to you today that our Vincentian Family’s emphasis on Systemic Change is a concretization of the call to a New Evangelization.

  1. Some seeds of Systemic Change in the life and works of St. Vincent 

The concept of “systemic change” is a modern one. It was unknown to St. Vincent and his contemporaries. Like all of us today, Vincent accepted as given, and sometimes as God-given, many of the structures that surrounded him. They were like the air he breathed. For the most part, he simply took them for granted. Vincent was born and died in a multi-tiered society, with a monarchy, nobility, clerics and peasants. He would never have dreamed about changing those structures radically, as revolutionary France did 150 years later.

But, within the context of his time, Vincent expressed many ideas related to systemic change. It is useful for us to examine these seminal thoughts, since they help us to situate a systemic change mentality in the spirituality of the Vincentian Family today.  So, today I want to describe eight seeds of Systemic Change in the life and works of St. Vincent.  I will give each of the seeds a name, using the terminology that St. Vincent used and then I will relate it to the terminology found in systemic change projects today. One could do similar things in regard to the life and works of Louise de Marillac, Frederick Ozanam, and other heroes in the Vincentian Family.

  1. 1.     “affective and effective love” à  changing social structures

             You are all familiar with the phrase, which Vincent repeated over and over again; we are called to a love that is both “affective and effective.”  He says, for example, “The love of a Daughter of Charity is not only tender; it is effective, because they serve the poor concretely.”

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.  Many of these unjust societal structures keep the poor poor.

Luke’s parable of the Good Samaritan dramatizes the principle that love of God is displayed in love of neighbor. But today we recognize more and more that effective love involves not just binding up the individual victim’s wounds and pouring oil on them, but also making sure that the road from Jerusalem to Jericho is safe for all in the future.

  1. 2.     evangelization “by word and work” à integral evangelization: witness, preaching and human promotion

 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.

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.

So, Vincent encouraged his followers to examine various elements in the lives of the poor to see what their most urgent needs were: nourishment, health care, education, job opportunities, and spiritual care. He focused on the whole person and wanted to treat the person holistically.

  1. 3.      “Chatillon” à 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 them, that the poor sometimes suffer more from a lack of “order” in the help offered them than from a lack of charitable persons who want to help.

So, he organized them. 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 precise planner and organizer. This was one of his greatest gifts. It helped make his works effective.

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.

  1. 4.     writing contracts and rules à  establishing 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 last.

Today, all organizations that are initiating project put great emphasis on sustainability.

  1. 5.     simplicity à transparency

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.

Today, transparency in formulating budgets, in using our resources and in reporting to others, including the poor themselves, about how those resources are being used is one of the key themes of Systemic Change.

  1. 6.     petites écoles à education and job-training

 Vincent and Louise de Marillac were deeply committed to the education and 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. So, right from the beginning, schools have been a part of the charism of the Vincentian Family. Louise taught in these schools herself. She insisted that the instruction given should be clear and practical.

Today, the schools of the Vincentian Family have over a million members. Beyond the schools, the Vincentian Marian Youth groups offer formation to more than 120,000 young people.

Education and job-training are extremely important in bringing about systemic change. In Populorum Progressio, Pope Paul VI wrote: “Lack of education is as serious as lack of food; the illiterate person is a starved spirit.”

St. Vincent and St. Louise were concerned not only about the education of the poor, but also about the education and formation of the servants of the poor; that is, of us, the members of the groups they founded or inspired.  The formation of leaders is crucial in systemic change projects.

  1. 7.     collaboration among all strata of society à 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.

Networking and collaboration are crucial in successful systemic change projects, not just within the Vincentian Family, but also with other religious and civic groups, with foundations and with governments on various levels.

  1. 8.     his role at court àadvocacy

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 several occasions he intervened personally to try to bring about peace, when war was wrecking the lives of the poor. He went right to the top.

One of Vincent’s biographers relates a 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 (at almost 70 years of age) forded a flooded river on horseback 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 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.

All those involved in systemic change projects today emphasize the importance of advocacy and need to build a shared vision with diverse stakeholders: poor communities, interested individuals, donors, churches, governments, the private sector, unions, the media, international organizations and networks, etc.

Those are eight seeds of systemic change in the life and works of St. Vincent.

I encourage you today to reflect on these eight seeds, which are fundamental in a systemic-change mentality. Seeds are small. They develop only gradually. Like seeds, creative beginnings are recognized only later when they have grown into full-scale creative works. A seed is beautiful not when it is thrown into the ground, but when it blooms as a flowering tree. So too, a germinal systemic change project, like a seed, will bear fruit only if it is nurtured, watered and tended patiently. In fact, all the members of the Commission for Promoting Systemic Change who have been engaged in successful systemic-change works say: “Start small. Move forward patiently step by step.” So I urge you to encourage the confreres of your provinces: sow many seeds. As you work with them, let your ears be open, as were the ears of St. Vincent and St. Louise, to new, creative ideas. Urge the confreres to support new initiatives begun by others. In these challenging times, encourage creativity, and be courageous and persistent in putting creative ideas into practice. Examine with the confreres of your province the plight of the poor in its concrete context, but examine it as a whole field, a system.  Then, seek, with the confreres and with the poor, to plant seeds that will transform the entire field and make it blossom anew.

… How can we promote a systemic change mentality among our members?


[1]Medellín, VIII, 8.

[2]Medellín, XIV, 8.

[3]Puebla, 340f.

[4]Santo Domingo, Conclusions 23ff.

[5]Aparecida, Message to the Peoples of Latin America and the Caribbean, 3.

[6]Evangelii Nuntian­di 63.

[7]Constitutions 10, 11, 16.

[8]Centesimus Annus 5.

[9]Ibid.

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