In the early Bulletins of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, you can find incredible texts  which are still very relevant today. Such is the case with regard to the text from a speech given by the then President of the Society in Spain in one of the General Assemblies (1857):

Let us consecrate ourselves to the Poor. Since we have many ways of consecrating ourselves to God, this will be a true consecration to God. As we bring help to those less fortunate members of society, may we also bring to them our own heart. That will be true assistance that we share with them and a step forward in deepening our spirituality. Therefore, let us fully understand, and always repeat, the words of our prayer that should always be on our lips: [Lord,] pour out that gift of charitable ardor upon your servants, so that, by your love, they may willingly share their possessions with those who are poor and ultimately share their very selves.

One hundred sixty years separate us from the time when those young men met together several times a year in order to deepen the bonds of friendship and to grow in holiness and charity. The Society was a rather new organization … not even a decade had passed since Santiago Masarnau established the first Spanish conference in the parish of Saint Sebastian in Madrid (November 11, 1849).

In the brief text that we have cited, there are several details that deserve to be highlighted because they invite us to live our Vincentian vocation with renewed zeal:

  • The first thing that draws our attention is the word Poor, capitalized like the word God. For a Vincentian this is not a minor detail: the poor person is, for us, the true face of the suffering Christ, and, seeing their poverty, their wounds and their pain, we reach out to them and thus follow the example of Jesus Christ, Saint Vincent and Blessed Frederic:

“Let us go forth and work with renewed love in service of the poor. Let us seek out the most poor and abandoned. Let us realize that the poor are our lords and masters and that we are unworthy to render them our small service.”[1].

“We see the poor with the eyes of the flesh; they are there and we can put finger and hand in their wounds. The scars from their crown of thorns are visible on their foreheads; and at this point incredulity no longer has place and we should fall at their feet and say with the Apostle, you, the poor, are my Lord and my God! You are our masters, and we will be your servants. You are for us the sacred images of that God whom we do not see, and not knowing how to love Him otherwise shall we not love Him in your person”[2].

  • Secondly, as the text says, “we have many ways of consecrating” ourselves to God in the Church and in the world. In our Vincentian Family, there are multiple paths to follow Jesus Christ, evangelizer of the poor: our family is composed of religious, consecrated and lay people; men and women; children, youth and adults … who share the vocation of growing in holiness through service on behalf of those in need.
  • But it is not enough to heal physical wounds and fill hungry stomachs. Our “help” must be accompanied by “our heart.”  We are not simply administrators of some public assistance program nor are we just another NGO that engages in the struggle against inequality and injustice. Yes, we do all of those things but there is more: God asks us to give “our heart, soul and mind” in the service and promotion of those persons who are poor..
  • Through our one-on-one encounters with the poor, our life is transformed and we grow in the “ways of grace”. From the beginning the International Statutes of the Society, which were published in Spain in 1853, highlighted the fact that the primary objective of the Society is “to imitate the Divine Model. Then, the next sentence indicates how that is to be done: visiting “the poor in their homes, bringing them relief, and consoling them piously, remembering the words of the Divine Master: ‘Man does not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God'”[3].
  • The cited text of 1858 concludes with a prayer that reinforces that idea, namely, that our charity should guide us along the path of perfection; that our “charitable ardor” should lead us to share our possessions “voluntarily with the poor” … but with an ultimate goal: to share our very selves, all that we have and all that we are.

It is amazing to discover how the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, an organization that is more than 185 years old, so zealously maintains the vocation to which it was called by God, the One whom the first members always attributed the founding of the Society.

Let us preserve, then, this precious treasure that God has given to the entire Vincentian Family … that is, the vocation of service to the impoverished. Let us live with great hope and let us discover in the words of our founders the courage to continue build up the Kingdom of God in our world that is filled with inequality and misery.

Footnotes:

[1] Saint Vincent de Paul, in Abelly, 294.

[2] Letter from Frederic Ozanam to Louis Janmot, dated November 13, 1836.

[3] Mt 4:4.

Javier F. Chento
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