We are convinced that the science of charitable reforms is not learned in the books or in the tribunes of the public assemblies, but by going up to the hovels of the poor, sitting at their bedhead, suffering the cold they suffer, getting, with the outpouring of a friendly colloquy, the secret of their desolate souls. When someone engages in this ministry, not for a few months, but over the years, then one can begin to know the fundamental elements of that problem called misery. One has, then, the right to propose serious measures, which, instead of frightening people, serve as consolation and hope.
Frederic Ozanam, address to the General Assembly of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, on December 14, 1848.
- A brief historical context: when Frederic pronounces these words, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul has been operating for more than 15 years, and has been greatly extended. It is no longer a small group of friends, but an organization that is continually growing and bringing together thousands of young people at the service of the poor. On the other hand, Frederic begins a stage of his life marked by the sickness, that would take to death in 1853.
- There are two very interesting aspects in this paragraph, which are worth emphasizing:
- The help to the poor — which is also at the core of the question they asked Jesus: “Who is my neighbor?” (See Luke 10:25-37) — is done primarily by being with them. We can not be accustomed to believe that we may fight poverty from the offices. At least, not just from there. For Vincentians, the poor are sacrament of suffering Christ, and as such we approach them, in a similar way as we approach the Eucharist on Sundays. We are called to a close relationship, one on one, with the poor.
- We will know how to bring about changes in structures only through this close relationship. We will not learn it in books. The “wisdom of God” is embodied in the poor, not in the treatises of social doctrine. Obviously, these serve as a reflection to improve the situation of the impoverished, but without the closeness to the needy we will only have a theoretical idea of how to face and solve injustices. Therefore, we Vincentians should not stop being with the poor, at their side, in a “one on one” treatment, in physical proximity. In addition, this approach of closeness will allow them to be empowered and to be the protagonists of change, which is one of the main points of Systemic Change.
- Ozanam tells us that “when someone engages in this ministry […] can begin to know the fundamental elements of that problem called misery [and to have] the right to propose serious measures, which […] serve as consolation and hope.” A Spanish proverb says that “experience is the mother of science.” What we know in our personal experience, what we accept in our heart, what becomes part of our life path, that is what serves us to propose measures that help build the Kingdom of Justice of God. It is very striking how Frederic, almost 170 years ago, had this intuition that is so close to the reflection we are making today about how we have to change the structures in order to be able to help better the poor, and that, concretized in these few sentences, are a real program of action for Vincentians today: the experience of dealing with the poor illuminates us to transform unjust reality into spaces of solidarity.
Questions for dialogue:
- We can re-read this text from Luke 10:25-37. In what does the Word of God illuminate us for our action, and what does it have to do with Frederic’s words we are reflecting today?
- Let’s review how our personal and community dealings with the poor are. How close am I to them?
- How should my attitudes change in order to be closer to this evangelical ideal of love for the neighbor that is proposed to us in this reading of the Gospel of Luke?