|Saint Vincent de Paul |
model of Christian Charity
Frédéric Ozanam is generally credited with beginning the society and in the strictest sense of the matter, he should be so credited. However there was a Daughter of Charity, Sister Rosalie Rendu, who worked among the poor of Paris in the cities slums and it was Sister Rosalie who guided Ozanam and his associates in the project of organizing poor relief in Paris. At the time (1833) Frédéric Ozanam was a young man of only twenty years of age studying in Paris! He would go on to become a noted lawyer and a professor at the Sorbonne and was beatified by John Paul II in 1997. His family were of Jewish origin and he was actually born in Milan. Ozanam and his fellow students organized the Conference of Charity to help the poor of Paris. The Society really understood the mission of Vincent de Paul and continued the work he had begun of motivating the urban bourgeois of looking with compassionate interest on the poor who so often were not only suffering materially but also spiritually as too often the Church was doing far too little for their needs. The French Church of the nineteenth century was linked inextricably to the moneyed classes—blue-blood and Bourgeoisie — and too often indifferent to the needs of the poor. Clergy and many Religious were not interested in serving the poor. The Catholic Church in France had become like the State Church of England—the ‘Conservatives at prayer.’ But at least in England one had the Methodists and the Baptists to keep the Gospel giving hope to those at the bottom of the social heap; in France they were left without any real access to faith.
Oznam and his associates, at the urging of Sister Rosalie and in the example of Vincent de Paul went into the homes of the poor and discovered what they needed—medical care, food, clothing, schooling for their children—and worked to provide it for them. They did this on a one-to-one basis—not as some sort of charitable program but as a fraternal relationship with the poor. And they used the relationships that developed not merely to provide material needs but to catechize the poor and reconcile tens of thousands to the Church. They stood godfather to infants and sponsor to those being confirmed. They provided wedding dinners and trousseaus for those wishing to marry. They pleaded with the Jesuits and the de la Salle Brothers and the Madames of the Sacred Heart to take the children of the poor into their schools and give them an education. Too often charity means writing a check but these men knew that true charity is always one to one. True charity is far more than giving, it is a relationship. In this way they anticipated the theology of Solidarity long before the writings of John Paul II.
The Society spread from Paris to other French towns and cities and then across the channel to England and Wales in 1844. Shortly thereafter it came to the United States, a country in which many of the Catholics were immigrant and poor. But no one is ever more dedicated to helping the poor than those who are themselves poor. The Saint Vincent de Pal Society has always been part of the Vincentian Family, like the Daughters of Charity, the Vincentian Priests and Brothers (also known as the Congregation of the Mission, or in Europe, the Lazarists), The Ladies of Charity, and the Sisters of Charity of the Seton heritage. Non-Catholics may join and many have come into the Church through their cooperation with the Saint Vincent de Paul Society. Today the Saint Vincent de Paul Society comprises almost a million members in over a hundred and thirty countries! I don’t know why we don’t hear more of them here in the United States—or at least in the part of our nation where I live. There is as much a need as ever for such an organization today when so many in our nation are without work. When countless immigrants are being lost to the faith because the institutional Church is not capable of supporting sufficient ministries to Hispanic and Pacific Rim Americans and when many parishes—and parish priests—see liturgies and catechetics for Hispanics, Haitians, Vietnamese, and other immigrant Catholics an inconvenience. And it is not only the immigrants, or the Catholics, for that matter who need to be on the helped end of a helping relationship. Our “new translation” or restored communion rails or keeping women out of the sanctuary is not the greatest need of the American Church today—fulfilling the Gospel of Christ to bring Good News to the Poor is, always has been, and will be forever our first priority if we are to truly be the Church of Jesus Christ.