What’s Your Take on Systemic Change?

by | Feb 5, 2020 | Formation, Reflections, Systemic change | 3 comments

Pope St. John Paul’s approach to systemic change.

Pope St. John Paul II never used the words “systemic change” but he challenged our family in 1986:

“Search out more than ever, with boldness, humility, and skill, the causes of poverty and encourage short and long term solutions; adaptable and effective concrete solutions. By doing so, you will work for the credibility of the Gospel and of the Church.” (Osservatore Romano, English Edition, August 11, 1986, p. 12).

Vincent de Paul speaks of systemic change

Former Superior General speaks of Vincent and systemic change…

The concept of “systemic change” is a modern one. It was unknown to St. Vincent and his contemporaries. Like all of us today, Vincent accepted as given, and sometimes as God-given, many of the structures that surrounded him. They were like the air he breathed. For the most part, he simply took them for granted. Vincent was born and died in a multi-tiered society, with a monarchy, nobility, clerics and peasants. He would never have dreamed about changing those structures radically, as revolutionary France did 150 years later.

But, within the context of his time, Vincent expressed many ideas related to systemic change. It is useful for us to examine these seminal thoughts, since they help us to situate a systemic change mentality in the spirituality of the Vincentian Family today. So, today I want to describe eight seeds of Systemic Change in the life and works of St. Vincent. I will give each of the seeds a name, using the terminology that St. Vincent used and then I will relate it to the terminology found in systemic change projects today. One could do similar things in regard to the life and works of Louise de Marillac, Frederick Ozanam, and other heroes in the Vincentian Family.

Read full article: Fr. Maloney on the eight seeds of systemic change

What do you think?

Periodically I ask the question “What do people really think about systemic change?” Certainly, I am in no position to answer that question in any authoritative way. But it always does strike me as a question worth asking not only of myself but of others.

I must admit that over the years I have encountered a wide range of attitudes toward systemic change.

  • Deeply committed to and actively engaged in fostering systemic change.
  • Sympathetic to the thrust of the Vincentian Family but not actively engaged.
  • Still trying to figure out what it is and how a systemic change mentality would affect “my ministry.”
  • Puzzled why Vincentians are even talking about it.
  • Turned off.

So, I thought I would ask you to share what you think is the state of systemic change in the Vincentian Family.

This is not a scientific survey of the state of the Vincentian Family’s understanding and implementation of a systemic change thrust on behalf of those on the margins. It is simply an effort to surface what helps and hinders an approach called for by leaders of the Vincentian Family as well as St. John Paul II.

Hopefully, many of you will share your honest reactions to things such as:

  • What makes sense to me in this thrust of the Vincentian Family?
  • What experiences helped me understand the value of the approach?
  • What experiences turned me off?
  • What would help me shift my horizon to include sensitivity in how I approach the way I could serve more effectively?
  • Has this weekly series helped you grow in understanding and practice?
  • And anything else you care to share.

It is time to talk about these things.

How do I join the conversation? Go to the bottom of this page and share your opinion by leaving a comment, or replying to a comment



  1. Roger Playwin

    A thought provoking article. In the 3rd paragraph you make mention of eight seeds of Systemic Change in the life of St. Vincent using his terminology and relate it to the terminology of today. it would be helpful to include this in the next article. it might provoke new insights to the questions in the survey you propose here. Thanks.

  2. Jack Murphy

    When I first became involved with systemic change, I had visions of making a big impact in the structures that keep people in need. Over the years, I have come to realize that the systemic change starts with us. We have to see ourselves as capable to doing more than paying rent or distributing food. We need to see ourselves as a channel for disenfranchised voices to get into the public arena.
    If you look at the continuum of what we consider “systemic change” in The Society of St. Vincent de Paul, you will find small scale projects like Getting Ahead group empowerment, micro & high interest loan conversion programs, reentry and jobs programs, Neighborhoods of Hope community interventions, and Voice of the Poor advocacy. Each of these approaches takes the direct service practiced on home visits and builds on that to spread more social capital in our communities. That takes conversion on the part of the home visitor and those visited.
    For example, in advocacy, most Vincentians have some social standing in their communities so politicians may listen to them. But the real systemic change comes when the person with lived experience is standing next to them speaking with a legislator. That starts the real metanoia.

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This