We all know that the primary mission of all the members of the Vincentian Family is to provide material and spiritual assistance to those persons who are abandoned, poor, marginalized. At the same time, we cannot forget that each branch of the Family is also a family institution.
For example, the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul was thought about and established in a family environment. Bailly and the other founders maintained a family atmosphere in the midst of this group of young students who lived in the same rooming house and who adopted Bailly and his wife as their “moral” parents.
In addition to this family environment at the time of its foundation, we also have to admit that the manner in which the Conferences have evolved is the result of this family element. In other words, the leaders emerge from the Conferences and it is in the midst of the conference that our leaders are formed and prepared and developed. Yes, the preparation of the leaders of the Society takes place within the structure of the Conference.
Another interesting aspect which we see in this family structure is the fact that our heritage, our values and our manner of acting is transmitted through the conferences. This reveals the need for solid, on-going formation that will ensure that new members continue to journey along the path that has been mapped out for us by Frederic Ozanam … this is one of the responsibilities of the present members of the Society.
Another responsibility of the present members of the Society is to remain faithful to its origins, thus ensuring its growth without losing sight of its original purpose. To remain faithful to its origins, its vocation and chrism is the duty of all the members. Indeed, our heritage must be transmitted to all new members of the Society. It is as though there is an “invisible governance structure” within this family entity called the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul.
Groups, like ours, that have existed for hundreds of years, have certain “family” characteristics, some of which are intuitive. It can even be difficult to be more specific in this matter since some of our procedures unfold so naturally that we do not even realize that we are a family entity. Returning to the issue of leaders, we find ourselves in a position similar to that of the owner of a family business in which the father of the family prepares his children to be future directors of the business.
The same occurs in the Society. When members assume a position of leadership in a Conference or a Council, then from the very first day of their term of office they must be concerned about a process of succession. It is necessary to prepare good people so that when the time of a new election arrives, there is no discontinuity in our service activities. In other words, we must elect responsible leaders, individuals who know how act as servants.
Every company has a specific purpose and the purpose of the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul is charity. Let us not lose our way. At times, newcomers will propose ideas/activities that might not be in accord with the Vincentian charism … and that can ultimately harm the Society as a whole. I am not advocating that we become a closed group, but I simply want to indicate that we have to reflect upon such innovations and together discern whether those innovations are consistent with our origins. For example, some members are almost obsessed with activities that are social in nature, thus forgetting that the home visit is the original “social activity” of the Society … its greatest work. We should not focus our efforts or diversify our “business” in things other than charity.
Therefore, valuing and respecting the “primitive spirit” of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul is key to maintaining the Society so that its members are united to the universal Church and are ministering on behalf of those who are poor, those who are God’s beloved and blessed. Let us be a family inside and outside the confines of the various conferences.
Written by: Renato Lima de Oliveira
16th General President of the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul
Translated: Charles T. Plock, CM
Eastern Province, USA