“Seeing” – the Necessary Beginning of Systemic Change

by | Aug 5, 2020 | Formation, Reflections, Systemic change | 2 comments

“Seeing” is the necessary beginning of systemic change.

We take seeing for granted. That is until we develop some eye problem and are in danger of not being able to see. Seeing is not to be taken for granted when facing persistent pastoral problems.

There is “seeing” and there is “seeing”! Systemic change requires looking anew at something we see… but do not see. This kind of seeing is really more like reading; reading the “signs of the times.”

St. Vincent was a man who learned to see in the sense of understanding. His starting point is direct knowledge of events about which he reflects before acting. We often find in his letters and conferences the verbs “see” or “look.”

He not only began to see reality as it was but “envision” or see possibilities.

Vincent did not always see with such clarity of vision.

What changed Vincent?

A combination of influences of his mentors and his reading of scripture combined with his peasant practicality led him to see beyond the obvious.

  • In the encounter with the dying peasant in Folleville he “saw” spiritual poverty… and this seeing led to the missions that followed.
  • In the encounter with the poor sick family in Châtillon he “saw” physical poverty… and this seeing led to the formation of the first Confraternity of Charity.

Once he began to see, Vincent asked questions. Could the things that led to such poverty of body and spirit be changed? He then judged that it could and should be changed. “What needs to be done?”, he judged!

Seeing, Judging led to Action

Having seen and judged he then acted. He put all his energy and talent into changing what he could… step by step.

Vincent’s first thought centered on the possibilities of going from parish to parish to help others see the spiritual and physical problems. Then he realized that reforming the clergy was necessary. Who else would continue the work after he left? He began with what we would today call continuing education. But he realized that initial formation would be a more effective solution.

There you have it! His pastoral insight was “See, Judge and Act.”

I doubt whether Vincent saw that this way of thinking would take root in Frederick Ozanam and later follower Giuseppe Toniolo. It was Toniolo who influenced Leo XIII’s pioneering social teaching in the face of “New Things” (Rerum Novarum). Seeing, judging and acting in the face of the social inequities of his day.

I doubt whether Vincent saw that a man we now know as Francis would use the methodology in drafting a ground-breaking document that emerged from a meeting of bishops in Latin America in 2007. Nor that this man as Pope would shape his pastoral vision of the church, Evangelium Gaudium, drawing on this same pattern of problem-solving– “See, Judge and Act.”

So much was set in motion by the simple process of “seeing”!


And now what for us?

  • What are the experiences that have made me see physical poverty?
  • What might be the Châtillon moments in my life?
  • What might be the Folleville moments in my life?


  1. Larry Huber

    Good reflection.

    So many times in my life, I “saw” and “judged” but didn’t feel empowered or courageous enough to “act.” One of the heartening things of my later years is seeing young people who feel emblazoned into action. Perhaps, they’re standing on the shoulders of those who went before them, but then again, so did we.
    History is filled with charismatic leaders that some followed, but most didn’t. Systemic change has its work cut out for it, but I am encouraged that it will find champions in this new generation.

  2. Larry Huber

    Years ago, at a yard sale, I picked up a paperback book which was a compilation of Paul Harvey’s “The Rest of the Story.” I stumbled onto it again a few days ago and marveled at what a great story teller he was and how the backstory added a whole new dimension to what you already knew. I like your observation that they probably would have jumped from A to Z and skipped all the transitions that had to happen in between. A lot of pre-judging rallies around that concept: “I know how that story ends because I know A.” Meanwhile, the meat of the story is at H, L and R and they never hear it or appreciate it.

    As fate (Divine Providence?) would have it, we’re using that Gospel for our Vincentian Reflection for Saturday’s Board Meeting. Sr Kieran Kneaves, who prepared the reflections, omitted that ending of the Gospel “tell no one.” Her focus was on listening (“this is my beloved Son; listen to him”) and she used two excerpts from Fr Bob Maloney’s books about listening. Maloney’s insights are significant so no objection there.

    But your “don’t tell” and the other Gospel (Mt 14: 22-33) dismissing the crowds really got me thinking about the crowd reaction to things. I guess it’s obvious that the Gospels weren’t written in real-time so they had plenty of hindsight to help understand events or words spoken when Jesus was physically in their presence. Still, they remembered that. They remembered what he told them even though it made little or no sense. They remembered how he managed crowds, how he engineered miracles so that they would have greater impact on the disciples even if they might have been lost on the crowds who were around at the time.

    Prior to your insights about that Gospel, I had often spent time reflecting on how “Peter, James and his brother John” (that’s an odd construction also) knew that it was Moses and Elijah transfigured with Jesus. In that circumstance, they had immediate knowledge (not hindsight) since Peter wanted to build three tents in real-time. Peter, as you pointed out, was jumping to the end-game without really knowing what the end-game might be. That might be why Peter had to deny him (and be reconciled later) – to learn that he doesn’t know what he doesn’t know.

    I love this stuff. So much more than a simple rendering of the Gospel. Fr Jack Kane would be proud that we’re “listening” to the Gospel and not just “reading” it.

    Lessons for us all.