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“There is no Charity without Justice” – St. Vincent de Paul

by | Nov 12, 2020 | Formation, Reflections

As a Daughter of Charity of Saint Vincent de Paul, I am often taken with his words and accompanying reflections. The quote above is one such example. Most of us recognize it is easier to provide bread to those who are hungry then to dedicate time and move beyond our comfort zones, to change the systems and social structures which keep people in a perpetual state of hunger.

The same could be said of many, if not all, human struggles in our society today. The question I pose in this reflection is, “How is our Vincentian Family, within its various congregations and organizations, forming members to recognize it takes both justice and charity to truly affect change.

I admit, in my formation, Social Justice and Systemic Change took a back seat to Direct Service. Over my years of working in Social Justice, I have heard the same from many of my brothers and sisters in other Vincentian Family groups. When I was asked to establish the Office of Social Justice and Environmental Advocacy for my Province I found little initial or ongoing formation being offered. It made sense to me to determine where social justice lie in our charism to know the foundation from which I was starting. Sure enough, as I perused our Constitution, it was right there. It read in part, “While respecting the situation of the individual, they take up the cause of those who are poor and collaborate, according to the directives of the Church, with those who are working to defend their rights. They commit themselves to work for social transformation to change the unjust structure that cause poverty.”

Given St. Vincent de Paul’s proclivity toward providing spiritual and corporal assistance while working to breakdown the systems that kept people in need, I would wager there is something to this effect in all Vincentian organizational documents. So, the question is, “How can we harness this seminal call in Vincentian organizations and in their members?” Is there room in our initial and ongoing formation to elevate individual members’ role to affect societal change? To work to break down unjust systems and rules that contribute to the perpetuation of poverty for some, while others reap the benefits?  To see that educating ourselves on an issue, standing up to make our voice heard, participating in local initiatives and national movements, are all responses to the Vincentian call to serve?

The Church has a well-intended initiative representing both parts of our Vincentian Charism: USCCB’s Two Feet of Love in Action.  This initiative promotes the importance of both Social Justice and Charitable works to move forward the Gospel into action.  That, in itself, is wonderful. But I ask you to consider taking it one step further (no pun intended).

Perhaps we consider rethinking the concept through the prism of St. Vincent’s words above, “There is no Charity without Justice.” In other words, there is no love without justice. There is no living the Gospel without Justice.

If we accept and see this “bend of the light”, then we are called to look at how our institutions might move further away from a dualistic model, into an integrated one. It starts with our members’ initial and ongoing formation.  All Vincentians are formed to serve those living in poverty in a myriad of ways. But what level of importance do we ascribe to the works of breaking down systems that keep people in poverty? Based on my limited knowledge, some are, institutionally, light years ahead of others. But I still hear from members of those enlightened institutions a yearning that individual members be informed and formed more fully to realize their individual call in furthering the Gospel and Vincent’s admonition to love by ensuring justice.

My hope is that those, for whom this reflection might resonate, feel urged to represent these questions and concepts to their leadership and formators.

Sister Margaret Louise Brown, DC

Director, Office of Social Justice and Environmental Advocacy

Province of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton


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