In a certain sense, I believe the aim we were proposing in Paris is not quite the same as that you are proposing in the province. In Paris we are birds of passage, away for some time from the paternal nest and on which unbelief, that vulture of thought, plans for its prey. We are poor young minds, nourished within Catholicism and scattered in the midst of an impious and sensual multitude; we are children of Christian mothers who come one by one to a strange place, where irreligion tries to attract us to our doom; well, it is a question of the fact that these feeble birds of passage are gathered under a protective coat, that these young intellectuals find a bond of union at the time of their exile, that these Christian mothers shed less tears and that their children return to them in the same state in which they were sent. It was therefore important to create an association of mutual animation for the young Catholics, where friendship, support and examples were found; where, so to say, they may find a kind of religious family similar to that where they had been brought up; where the older ones welcome the new provincial pilgrims, giving them something like moral hospitality. Now, the strongest bond, the principle of true friendship, is charity, and charity can not exist in the hearts of many without spilling outwards; it is a fire that goes out if it lacks food, and the food of charity is good works. Our meeting has been founded, above all, by our interest and, if we visit the homes of the poor, it is less by them than by us, it is to make us better and more friends.
Frederic Ozanam, letter to Léonce Courier, November 4, 1834.
- In Nîmes, Léonce Courier had just founded a Conference of Charity similar to that Ozanam and six other colleagues founded in Paris on April 23, 1813 when Frederic wrote him this letter. Again, Frederic recalls this date and the objectives that moved them to create it. We see in this text a beautiful description of what motivated these young people to establish the conference of charity, which was the germ of what we know today as the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. In an unbelieving society, one even belligerent with Christians, young university students needed an association to meet, support and encourage each other to grow in faith and charity.
- There is an important point in this text in which it is worth stopping for: “we visit the homes of the poor […] to make us better and more friends.” All Vincentians are clear about our call to the service of the needy, but perhaps we seldom dwell on these two aspects that are equally important:
- “To make us better,” that is, to grow as Christians and follow Jesus Christ, servant of the poor. St. Vincent de Paul, in the Common Rules given to the Vincentian priests and brothers, says in the first paragraph that “the whole purpose of the Congregation is: (1) to have a genuine commitment to grow in holiness, patterning ourselves, as far as possible, on the virtues which the great Master himself graciously taught us in what he said and did; (2) to preach the good news of salvation to poor people, especially in rural areas; (3) to help seminarians and priests to grow in knowledge and virtue, so that they can be effective in their ministry.” This, which Vincent proposed to the Congregation of the Mission, is equally valid — at least in its first two points — for anyone who wants to live the Vincentian Charism in full, regardless of their state, religious or secular. Sanctification and evangelization (which, let us not forget, in St. Vincent is so intimately linked to service that both aspects are like the two sides of the same coin) are the programmatic core for anyone who wants to follow Jesus Christ in the footsteps of Vincent de Paul.
- “To make us more friends.” Frederic makes it very clear: “the strongest bond, the principle of true friendship, is charity, and charity cannot exist […] without spilling outwards.” The Society of St. Vincent de Paul is, therefore, an association of brothers and sisters who live with deep intensity their friendship and Christian fraternity. The same could be said of any other branch of the Vincentian Family. At least … that is what we should live.
- We, the followers of St. Vincent de Paul, would do well in reviewing how are our relationships with our brothers and sisters who are nourished by the same charism. Living fraternity and friendship between us is not at all a secondary theme, but is at the core of our charism. If we are not charitable among ourselves, how can we be charitable to the poor? If we do not live fraternally, how can we believe in fraternity with those in need? If we do not seek our growth in faith according to Vincent’s experience, what will we be able to share with those who come to us?
Questions for dialogue:
- Do I worry about my own sanctification? How do I do it?
- In our Vincentian communities, do we care to live like true friends?
- The first conference of charity was born with the desire to welcome fraternally the Christian students who came to Paris from the provinces. How is the welcome in my Vincentian group? Do we care to approach those believers who may need a suitable place to live their faith? Do we welcome them, are we hospitable?