Each Approach Is Necessary

by | Dec 9, 2020 | Formation, Reflections, Systemic change | 4 comments

An image each Vincentian should consider!

It is a simple image of people imperiled by a river flooding out of control. Read on to learn how a Franciscan uses that image to explore various approaches to saving people.

He writes

I think there are three basic levels of social ministry, and none is better than the other.

I believe all are the movement of the Holy Spirit within us for the sake of others.

I like to imagine a river flooding out of control—symbolizing the circumstances and injustices that bring about suffering—overflowing its banks and sweeping those in its path off their feet.

At the first level, we rescue drowning people from the swollen river, dealing with the immediate social problem right in front of us: someone hungry comes to our door and we offer them some food, or invite them inside.

These are hands-on, social service ministries, like the familiar soup kitchen or food pantry. Such works will always look rather generous, Christian, charitable, and they tend to be admired, if not always imitated.

At the second level, there are ministries that help people not to fall into the swollen river in the first place, or show them how to survive despite falling in.

In general, these are the ministries of education and healing. Most of the religious orders in the Catholic Church in the last three hundred years went in that direction, filling the world with schools, hospitals, and social service ministries that empowered people and gave them new visions and possibilities for their lives.

Finally, on the third level, some ministries build and maintain a dam to stop the river from flooding in the first place. This is the work of social activism and advocacy, critique of systems, organizing, speeches, boycotts, protests, and resistance against all forms of systemic injustice and deceit.

It is the gift of a few, but a much-needed gift that we only recently began to learn and practice. It seeks systemic change and not just individual conversion.

I don’t think most people feel called to activism; I myself don’t. It was initially humiliating to admit this, and I lost the trust and admiration of some friends and supporters.

Yet as we come to know our own soul gift more clearly, we almost always have to let go of certain “gifts” so we can do our one or two things well and with integrity. I believe that if we can do one or two things wholeheartedly in our life, that is all God expects.

The important thing is that we all should be doing something for the rest of the world! 

 We have to pay back, particularly those of us born into privilege and comfort. We also must respect and support the other two levels, even if we cannot do them.

Avoid all comparisons about better or lesser, more committed or less committed; those are all ego games.

Let’s just use our different gifts to create a unity in the work of service (Ephesians 4:12–13), and back one another up, without criticism or competition.

Only in our peaceful, mutual honoring do we show forth the glory of God.

Thus writes Richard Rohr OFM. Thank you Richard for helping this Vincentian see more clearly!


An examination of:

  • Consciousness – How aware am I of my preferred approach to Vincentian service?
  • Conscience – How have I failed to support those who engage in a Vincentian form of these ministries?
  • Commitment – What I can do to support those who are engaged and gifted in one of the other forms of ministry?

This adaptation of Fr. Rohr’s post first appeared on Vincentian Mindwalk.


  1. Doris Kay Hartter

    I really like the images of ministry and gives me much to think about. I am also finding myself, as I am elderly, deepening my ministry of prayer since I am unable to be actively engaged in service as once I was. So I am wondering if maybe there is a fourth level of ministry that is separate from the other three where prayer support is the main function and the Holy Spirit becomes more active in the salvation process rather than us. Thanks for sharing the social ministry concepts – will focus my prayer life more specifically.

    • John Freund, CM

      Excellent followup! Thanks.

      I tend to respond with the “Vincentian AND” I think it may be both something that runs through all levels as well as a special form of ministry.

      In the Eastern Province of the Congregation of the Mission we consider our confreres in our acute care facility to be officially assigned to the “ministry of prayer”. Even though I am still active in the ministry I have had for over 25 years, at 82 I am much more mindful of this form of support ministry than ever before.

  2. Ross

    St. Vincent’s June 19, 1658 letter to a missionary reads in part:

    “If you say you would not want to be a burden to the Company,
    you will not be; for the INFIRM ARE NO BURDEN [emphasis mine] it, thank God. On
    the contrary, it is, in a certain sense, A BLESSING to have some. And
    if you were to convince yourself that your health would improve
    in your native place and you would have greater means to procure
    God’s glory there than elsewhere, that would be a ruse of the evil
    spirit who, by showing you a seeming, uncertain good, would try
    to make you leave an actual, real one.”

  3. Jim Claffey

    Thanks for this, John, the image puts life in the words. I’m often perplexed at the general lack of outrage about many social ills & injustices, but I know so many people are just struggling to get by.
    But I also believe everyone can do something, and that some advocacy/social activism, some active concern for the poor and the common good, is important to live a full faith response to the God who first loved us. As in, all of us! Especially now in our polarized society and fractured world.