Imagery of Pope Francis – Lessons for Systemic Change

by | Jul 26, 2017 | Formation, Reflections, Systemic change | 1 comment

An excellent recent article by Robert Imbelli, theologian and author, How the Pope’s Imagery on critical care can overlook long-term rehab got me thinking about implications of how some in the Vincentian Family view direct service and systemic change.

From the article…

  • Pope Francis’s famous image of the Church as a “field hospital” is so often invoked that it’s easy to forget that a field hospital is about critical care, not long-term recovery. For that, the Church also needs places where the Christian life can be nourished and deepened — a role the new movements play well, when they overcome their tendency for in-fighting.
  • Field hospitals provide immediate and urgent care for critical situations. But this legitimate need does not gainsay the imperative for more in-depth diagnosis, which may necessitate the patient’s transfer elsewhere to treat not merely the symptoms, but the deeper causes of the disease.
  • Thus, successful therapy and ultimate healing also demand the presence of a skilled pathologist able to discern the roots of the affliction.
  • I contend that Pope Francis’s own diagnoses of the spiritual malaise and pathologies of our time have not received the attention they merit.

As I read the article I thought of parallels to an implicit discussion going on between two groups of the followers of Vincent and Louise. At the risk of over-simplyfing, one group tends to think along these lines. This is the way we have always (in recent times at least) done things. The other group (influenced by recent insights) stresses systemic change and remedies focused on “root causes” and long-term rehabilitation. The result is sometimes “either/or” thinking.

Sometimes it is helpful to look at caricatures to sharpen our thinking.

The writings and actions of Vincent and Louise, in fact, do contain aspects that support both positions. And that is the point. There is support for both positions. It seems to me that we are just now rediscovering what might be called “forgotten (Vincentian) truths” to borrow a phrase from a great theologian of the 20th century.

Sr. Regina Bechtle writes,

(Our founders) had the intuition that the WAY TO GOD IS THE WAY OF BOTH/AND, not either/or. As they faced the tensions and conflicts of their times, as the Spirit opened their eyes wider and wider to see the face of Christ everywhere, they planted themselves firmly in the “AND.” Not with their heads in the sand, but with their heads and hearts and bodies in the “AND.” AND is a key Vincentian word.


Our founders were people who lived at the extremes and chose to hold them together:

Action AND prayer
Solitude AND community
Head AND heart
Now AND not-yet
Charity AND justice
Service that is material AND spiritual

In 1617, Madame de Gondi, Vincent’s benefactor, turned to Vincent de Paul and asked “what must be done?” Fr. Ed Udovic often refers to this as the Vincentian Question. It has shaped the Vincentian mission ever since.

“What must be done? BOTH! First aid AND systemic change!

PS. It perhaps might also be noted how this could apply to political discourse in the United States in recent times. But that is another reflection about the importance of both major parties (Republican and Democratic) tendencies.

1 Comment

  1. Carol De Angelo

    John, thanks for this reflection and reminding us of Regina’s insights. We need the “both/and” thinking more than ever. I know I am called and challenged to think and act in an integral wholistic way. And more than ever, I realize I need to be grounded in the contemplative stance if I am to be faithful to be and minister with others and address root causes.