The Charism at 400: in a State of Permanent Reinterpretation

by | Oct 19, 2017 | News, Vincentian Family at the U.N. | 2 comments

“Reflections from the Vincentian Family Symposium”

During the days of the Rome Symposium of the Vincentian Family I was paying attention to signs, words, conversations that signal a new interpretation of our Vincentian charism in an entirely new reality. I left Rome with a concern in my heart. Even though in some of the works there were sporadic mentions of certain realities of the world today, the interpretation of our charism continues to be centered on actions of charity and a spirituality that has not yet embraced the challenges of the pastoral, ecological and relational conversions to which Pope Francis has been calling us from the beginning of his papacy.

The keeping alive of our Vincentian tradition depends on our willingness to embody our service to, and with the poor as our commitment with the entire liberation of humanity and the planet. This 400-year anniversary is challenging us to immerse ourselves in our spiritual-theological and cultural tradition, and enter into fresh dialogue with it to renew it, to reinterpret it until it becomes part of the very air we breathe, and forms the structures of our vision of God, humanity, and the world. It is urgent for us to articulate a new and dynamic reinterpretation of this Vincentian tradition in a changing history like ours.

We have a hopeful word to speak to the concerns present in today’s world and to the crises affecting our society. Can we be a prophetic and countercultural voice in the face of a secularized, technologically advanced world that progresses at the expense of the most vulnerable, the ones we want to dedicate our lives? Can we work to change not just the structures of injustice, but the structures of thinking that support and justify the injustice? For the first time in 4 centuries, we have come together as a family to recognize the gift that we are together and the capacity to renew our tradition and to keep alive, in new ways, the evangelical synthesis Vincent found in the service of the poor… we need to do this with our eyes in our founders’ hearts and what God did in them.

In the year 1617 Vincent, with 12 lay women, founded a new movement of charity, this was the beginning of a way of life, and how the story of the Vincentian movement began — in all its various institutional, historical, and cultural expressions. All these expressions were present in Rome for the Symposium we just finished on Sunday October 15th with the mass at Saint Paul out of the walls basilica. Celebrating our origins gave to all our Vincentian Family a new energy, animated our steps, tired at times, and left an imprint for the future knowing that “our life is better together”. This moment can render the entire Vincentian movement more transparent as a way of gospel living and following Christ with Vincent today, as Father Tomaz Mavric recommended to the entire family in his closing homily.

A treasure of inestimable riches our Vincentian tradition has a “word” to speak today, one that responds to deeply felt needs in our Church and our world. Our tradition can help to articulate a viable way of being Christian in the world today. . . It becomes crucial for us to understand the next steps, which will bring the tradition into dialogue with today’s questions regarding:

  • The cries of the poor and our planet
  • The new life and agenda of the Church under Francis’ papacy before the agenda of humanity expressed on the 2030 UN agenda (SDGs)
  • The world of justice and peace and the integrity of creation
  • The needs and longings of the human family

And for all these concerns we can offer a “word” from a 400 years old humble tradition, giving an account of the hope that is in us. But that word will be lost, and that alternative vision will disappear if we do not take steps in these critical years to retrieve, preserve, and re-articulate that tradition in a language that is understandable to the men and women, especially the youth, and the issues of our day. Who else if not us? When else if not now? We are at the point where we must either articulate the intellectual/experiential inheritance by updating it into new forms of life, thought, action and communication; or we will lose it — and with it ourselves.

The biggest challenge for our family today is to re-signify our persons, our collective identity, and our structures: rereading our own tradition!

There are two ways of reading our own experience. Caught as we are in the confluence of different Vincentian inheritances, that we have not yet intellectually clarified, we can feel a loss of collective identity and mission. We can lose ourselves in the quicksand of second guessing, passing judgments from one ideological Vincentian perspective or another, from one branch of the family to the other… the main obstacle for collaboration among us is that we sit uneasily with ambiguity, irony, metaphor, the coincidence of opposites; we want a clear system, part of the inheritance, I suppose, of an ingrained systematization with no previous agreement on still basic things.

One eloquent example of this was the launching of the Vincentian Homelessness Initiative… Most people around me at the St Peter’s plaza have no idea of it and were asking who decided so? And why homelessness? In most branches of the family there has not been a preparation to present this project so that it can become a common option… a collective, in collaboration, articulated, impactful action.

There is an alternative. I would like to suggest a reread of our own tradition. It seems to me that Vincent, Louise, Frederic, and companions found themselves in a similar situation, caught as they were in the confluence of a Gospel grace, the pastoral project of the church, the crisis of their times, the philosophical and theological categorizations of the society, and the religious wilderness of the time. They discovered that it was in service, giving their lives to the poor of their times, deeply rooted in contemplation, under the inspiration of the Spirit, what could hold all the parts in tension. That created the still very significant meaning of their lives till now. All of them refused to live their social, ecclesiological, and personal reality as the people of their times did. They were bold enough to create an apostolic action/wisdom way that is today, 400 years after, the inspiration of 200+ world-wide organizations and 2M+ men and women of all ages.

Thus, they remained in Paris but lived on its social and existential margins; they identified existentially and theologically with the paupers Christi, they embarked on new initiatives, and embraced the consequences, placing the charity of Christ crucified at the heart of the struggle over power, war, devastation.

Genuine human life has generally caught fire only amid long, hard, practical experience, the acceptance of life’s ironies, the struggle with others to put heart and mind and behavior together, and the discovery of God in that very experience. In this view, the conflicts we experience are part of our faith, not signs of its disappearance. They form the point of entry into the prophetic heart enfleshed by Jesus and our forbearers.

After being in Rome to celebrate the end of this year of celebrations of the Vincentian Charism… in this plane where I am collecting my experience I would like to share what I think is our challenge today… I think that we need to discover:

  • a method of living together… new ways of encounter and meaningful relationships.
  • a pedagogy of formation, with contents/experiences that help us to agree in what is the essence of our Vincentian tradition.
  • a practice of collaboration, and
  • an action that combines, direct service with systemic change and advocacy.

In a society where only 1% of humanity accumulates more than 50% of the goods, where poverty is growing in scandalous ways, and where the planet is systematically destroyed… we recognized the very little credibility of institutional religions to offer alternatives, but at the same time we understand that our mission is to open-up the experience of God-with-us by being present where other decided not to go, standing by those who are left alone or behind, protecting and restoring mother earth, creating a culture of peace so that all other collective dreams may not vanish.


  1. Jim Osendorf CM

    As always, thank you for your reflections Memo!

  2. Brenda Hermann MSBT

    Thank you for a very clear articulation of the constant refounding to which we branches of the Vincentian Family are called. It strongly resonates with my own thinking as well as experience as a member of the Missionary Cenacle Family, one of the more recent expressions of our common charism.

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