A Heritage of Systemic Change

by | Jun 29, 2016 | Formation


We have a great heritage. Sharing that heritage can help the systemic change process and the process of collaboration within the Family.

Two men born in April, with feast days in September, but otherwise very different individuals in significant ways. How did two such different men become recognized as apostles of the poor?

One was a 17th century French priest; the other a 19th century husband and father. One was born poor, the son of a peasant farmer, and lived 80 years; the other was middle-class and life-long physical frailty took him at the early age of 40.

Frederic Ozanam was a celebrated intellectual, recognized even in his own day, and has a lecture hall named for him at the Sorbonne. Vincent de Paul possessed a practical intelligence, developed no treatises, wrote many letters but no books, and is known more for his organizational skills.

Whereas Frederic was gentle and pious, Vincent had to work harder to develop virtue. For Vincent, simplicity was key, “the door” to all spirituality and ultimately his favorite virtue, he would say; Frederic emphasized humility and proposed as a guiding rule “neither to force ourselves on the public gaze nor conceal ourselves from those who may wish to find us.”

Frederic turned to the poor as a result of a conversation challenging the value of his faith; Vincent did so only after a personal encounter with a dying peasant.

Besides tremendous zeal and fidelity to the mission each discovered in his quite different journey, St. Vincent de Paul and Blessed Frederic Ozanam believed that Christ most identified with poor people and was most easily discovered among them, giving rise to practices fundamental for the whole Vincentian Family:

There is no substitute for direct personal experience of the poor. A merely institutional response to their needs is not our way. Frederic reminds us “let us go to the poor” because Vincent tells us “they are our lords and masters.” The Society’s Home Visit is a great example of being personally present to the poor.

Our service should be communal, organized and practical. By working together with people stuck in poverty, we can bring greater creativity to bear on practical problem-solving so that people can emerge from poverty. “Love is endlessly creative” St. Vincent reminds us.

What does this mean for today? In the many branches of the Vincentian Family, members come from different work, family and personal experiences. It matters so much less where we begin than where we end up! What unites us, indeed what identifies us, is so much more powerful: our desire to deepen our own life in Christ through practical service to the poor!

Use VinFormation’s “Find it!” page to learn a lot more about the heritage of Vincent and Frederic.

Jim ClaffeyJim Claffey just retired from the St. Vincent de Paul Society on Long Island, where he served as Director of Formation and Programs. Jim currently serves as the executive secretary of the Vincentian Family’s International Commission to Promote Systemic Change.