I recently realized that I need to move past my habitual cynicism if I am to contribute to positive and creative solutions in overcoming challenges—in my personal life, in my work life, and as a citizen of our city and world. I am learning that in a society in which emotions increasingly seem to drive behavior, exercising thoughtful agency and intentionality in how we live and respond, regardless of how we feel, can be a great spiritual challenge.
For example, can we choose to be enthusiastic and do so authentically, even when our emotions or life circumstances might weigh us down? And, if so, will it even make a positive difference? To a certain extent the answer is yes, in that our emotional state can often change simply with a shift in perspective. Life habits, like exercise, meditation, or friendship, can also do much to cultivate enthusiasm and gratitude for what is present and possible before us. Our communities also play a vital role in helping us to cultivate and sustain an enthusiastic hope and vision. Moreover, rather than cynicism, in terms of its generative impact enthusiasm certainly tends to be more inspiring and effective in persuading others toward positive action.
Dictionaries suggest enthusiasm involves enjoyment, interest, and an energy or zest for life. Our current day understanding of enthusiasm shares something in common with what Vincent de Paul, in his day, named “zeal.” Vincent said, “if love is a sun, zeal is its ray.” He seemed to see zeal as closely tied to courage and to an abiding trust in Providence, but also as something that one could acquire through lived experience and grace. Vincent once described zeal as the “soul of virtues.” Zeal, for Vincent, was more than mere sentiment; it seemed to involve channeling our own conscious will and giving ourselves over to a purpose beyond ourselves. For him, this larger purpose was what he called “the spirit of the Mission.”
How might we remain enthusiastic or cultivate the virtue of zeal in the face of today’s challenges, both personal and societal? As we witness the most recent destruction in Haiti, the horrific situation in Afghanistan, the pernicious gun violence in our city, the continued havoc caused by the pandemic and natural disasters like hurricanes, or the intractable systemic problems of racism, poverty, and war… and on and on… pain, sadness, and anger are perfectly understandable feelings to be experiencing. How do we get from there to enthusiasm or zeal, and why even bother?
One important reason to move towards enthusiasm is because change, whether at the personal, interpersonal, institutional, or societal level, requires it. If we are to move through and past painful emotions and work towards that which can transform, uplift, and create a new reality, we need the energy and vitality of enthusiasm. We need a certain hope and zest for life and for all that is still possible. At DePaul, as a Vincentian university, we must find a way to inspire one another to embody this “zeal.” It is our mission to prepare our graduates to become “agents of transformation throughout their lives” and to address “the great questions of our day, promoting peaceful, just, and equitable solutions to social and environmental challenges.” We should consider enthusiasm, or zeal, an essential Vincentian virtue for our times.
What are the habits that help you to cultivate enthusiasm or a zeal for life?
How might you help to foster an enthusiasm for the “spirit of the Mission” in your own area of work, or in your circles of influence at DePaul
Reflection by: Mark Laboe, Associate Vice President, Division of Mission and Ministry
– On the 361st anniversary of Louise de Marillac’s death, 15 March 1660 –
God, who created “every kind of plant that bears seed and every kind of fruit tree on earth that bears fruit with its seed in it… saw that it was good.”(1) Our Creator also sowed seeds of the mission in the hearts of Vincent de Paul, Louise de Marillac, and their associates.(2) Those seeds of hope developed into the Vincentian Family which fulfils the Vincentian mission around the globe. In their conferences and writings, Vincent and Louise frequently referred to grains and seeds, particularly the mustard seed. Most religious traditions embody “seeds of the Word.”(3) In seventeenth-century France, Christians understood the allegorical use of the mustard seed as the “word of God” in the Parable of The Sower in Sacred Scripture.(4)
Raised in the rural marshlands of the Landes district of Gascony, not far from the Pyrenees, young Vincent de Paul learned to work the land and care for flocks of sheep. Before he left the farm at fifteen to attend school in Dax, Vincent probably helped his family plant hard-shell seeds of millet. When “cooked in a pot and poured into a dish,” this nutritious staple resembles fluffy mashed potatoes.(5) Memories of rural life remained vivid to Vincent, especially when he spoke from experience and referred to the “Good country folk…[who] sow their seed and then wait for God to bless their harvest.”(6)
After moving to Paris, Vincent shifted from an agrarian focus to priestly service. He realized that relationships and events are like seeds. Each contains covert energy. Through his relationship with the Gondi family, Vincent discovered a spiritual poverty among the peasants residing on the family estates. When learning of their situation, Mme. de Gondi asked “What must be done?” This good woman planted the first seed of the mission. Her query and Vincent’s zeal produced the Congregation of the Mission (Vincentian Priests and Brothers) in France in 1625. The first mission preached by Vincent at Folleville in 1617, “has always been considered as the seed for all the others to follow.”(7)
Months later at Châtillon, after visiting the home of a family where illness prevailed, Vincent grasped both their need of assistance and the full extent of material poverty. His awareness became a root for creativity and practicality to grow into action as organized charity.(8) At Vincent’s invitation, women of the town “joined forces to take their turn to assist the sick poor,” thus forming the first Confraternity of Charity. This seedling would develop branches, initially in Paris. Soon, pastors replicated this model throughout France.(9)
In 1623, another event in Paris embedded seeds of hope deep within a distressed wife and mother seeking interior peace. Louise de Marillac had an extraordinary experience of light (or lumière), which freed her from anxiety and doubts. Inner peace permeated the core of her being. Aware that she would “live in a small community” and “help her neighbor,” Louise “did not understand” how that would be possible since “there was to be much coming and going.”(10) As a widow several years later, Louise began to assist with Vincent de Paul’s charitable works. Recognizing her potential, in 1629 Vincent sent Louise to Montmirail as his deputy. This was the first of many supervisory visits to the Confraternities of Charity.
Marguerite Naseau, a woman from the countryside, learned that volunteers were caring for sick and impoverished people through the Confraternities of Charity in Paris. She heard Vincent preaching and shared her desire to render such charitable services.(11) Perceiving that this encounter held a seed of great value, Vincent sent Marguerite to Louise de Marillac, now his collaborator. Louise formed the women who desired to commit themselves to be servants of the sick poor, and Marguerite became the first Servant of the Sick Poor. Together, Marguerite, Louise, Vincent, and the first sisters planted the seeds of mission, which developed into the Company of the Daughters of Charity in 1633. The Ladies of Charity of the Hôtel-Dieu was the next foundation established in Paris in 1634.
As a Catholic priest and man of action, Vincent de Paul proclaimed the word of God like seeds sown in the hearts of his listeners awaiting their moment of grace.(12) For persons in need, Vincent was generous and practical. His benevolence included “money, food, clothing, medicine, tools, seed for sowing, and other necessities to sustain life.”(13) A master of dialogue and diplomacy, Vincent responded to the grace of the moment, believing that God speaks through events, encounters, persons, and sometimes grains of millet.(14)
Elizabeth Seton used the image of sowing “the little mustard seed” in reference to her own Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph’s.(15) She reminded the women that “Every good work…we do is a grain of seed for eternal life.”(16) In a meditation comparing heaven to a mustard seed, Louise de Marillac wrote, “I am “well aware that this seed contains great strength within itself, both in its capacity to multiply and in the quality it gives to everything that is seasoned with it.”(17) Her deep desire was that the “seed may grow to its full perfection.”(18) Vincent would have certainly affirmed the important role of each person in collaborating to plant and nurture seeds of the mission to flourish.
Believe me, there is nothing like being faithful and persevering for the greater good once we have committed ourselves. May we be faithful to the mission of DePaul University in following the “way of wisdom.”(19) Let us be persons of integrity who honor the dignity and humanity of everyone, and let us embrace our responsibilities to one another and the common good. The result will be that we shall grow in virtue and God’s grace as the tiny grain of mustard seed grows into a large shrub over time.(20) I pray that the DePaul University community collaborates to transform society—to eliminate racism and eradicate oppression—so that mutual respect, justice, compassion, and peace may prevail for all people.
How familiar am I with the energy of seeds? Their potential? What seeds have I planted? Nurtured? Harvested?
How sensitive am I to inner prompts that invite me to reflect on and recognize the veiled wisdom in unplanned events and providential encounters?
What helps me realize that an event or comment contains a powerful seed of hope or truth? How do I acknowledge its presence? How willing am I to respond by taking practical action?
As a member of the DePaul University community, what seeds would I like to plant? Seeds of hope? Seeds of equity? Seeds of respect? How could I nurture the growth of more seeds of the mission?
View the Seeds of the Mission Campaign Postscript
1) Genesis 1:11-12.
2) Louis Abelly, The Life of the Venerable Servant of God, Vols. 1-3 (Vincentian Studies Institute, 1993), 2:31. See: https://via.library.depaul.edu/abelly_english/4
3) Ad Gentes, §15. See: http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_decree_19651207_ad-gentes_en.html
4) Luke 8:11.
5) Cooked millet has a fluffy texture and slightly nutty flavor. See Conference 13, Imitating the Virtues of Village Girls, 25 January 1643, CCD, 9:70. At: https://via.library.depaul.edu/coste_en/
6) Ibid., 73-4.
7) Abelly, Life, 1:61.
8) Conference 23, Maxims of Saint Vincent, “Order in the Service of Charity,” CCD, 12:383.
9) Document 1248, Foundation of the Charity in Châtlllon-Les-Dombes, 23 August 1617, CCD, 13b:3.
10) A2, Light, in Louise Sullivan, Spiritual Writings of Louise de Marillac (New York: New City Press, 1991), 1. At: https://via.library.depaul.edu/ldm/11/
11) Conference 24, Love of Vocation and Assistance to the Poor, 13 February 1646, CCD, 9: 194; Conference 12, The Virtues of Marguerite Naseau, [July 1642], CCD, 9:64-6.
12) Abelly, Life, 2:99.
13) Cf. Ibid., 1:204.
14) Letter 704, To Bernard Codoing, 16 March 1644, CCD, 2:499.
15) 7.117, Elizabeth Ann Seton to Antonio Filicchi, 16 September 1817, in Regina Bechtle, S.C., and Judith Metz, S.C., eds., Ellin M. Kelly, mss. ed., Elizabeth Bayley Seton Collected Writings, 3 vols. (New City Press: New York, 2000-2006), 2:508. See: https://via.library.depaul.edu/seton_lcd/
16) 10.2, Red Leather Notebook, Maxims, Ibid., 3a:488.
17) A.37, “Heaven Compared to a Mustard Seed,” in Sullivan, Spiritual Writings, 803.
19) Proverbs 4:11.
20) Conference 162, Repetition of Prayer, 19 November 1656, CCD, 11:346.
Reflection by: Betty Ann McNeil, D.C., Vincentian Scholar-in-Residence, Division of Mission and Ministry
“Revitalizing our Identity at the beginning of the Fifth Century of the Congregation of the Mission” — Theme of the C.M. XLIII General Assembly 2022
Each year on the feast of the Conversion of St. Paul the Apostle, we remember the beginning of the Congregation of the Mission (C.M.). According to St. Vincent de Paul, this happened in Folleville, France, on January 25, 1617, when he preached his “first sermon of the Mission.”(1) Many say that experience with a dying man transformed Vincent’s heart and imbued him with a desire to serve those in need.
This historical event is an important one for DePaul University, though it is not widely celebrated. The Congregation of the Mission (commonly called “Vincentians”) founded our university 123 years ago. DePaul’s history and identity are deeply linked to the values and convictions of the Congregation in the United States.
Originally, Vincent founded the Congregation of the Mission to provide direct service to all those living in poverty, especially “the most abandoned,”(2) and for the formation and education of Catholic clergy in need of reform. These original intentions have evolved with time, especially over the past 50 years.
Today the Congregation of the Mission works together with many other branches of the Vincentian Family. This wider family includes the Daughters of Charity and other orders of religious sisters, as well as lay members of the worldwide International Association of Charities, and the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. They comprise an ever-growing network of people and organizations who provide direct spiritual and material service, advocacy, and the promotion of systemic change.
In many ways, the primary Vincentian mission along with its communal approach have not changed. To better respond to all kinds of needs Vincent summoned as many as he could, rich, poor, humble, and powerful, and used all means to inspire them to serve people living in poverty.(3) As a Catholic priest, Vincent privileged the image of Christ. Based on the Gospel of Luke, ‘the evangelizer of the poor’ [Luke 4, 16-22], he prompted all his collaborators to help the poor directly and indirectly as Jesus did.
The Congregation of the Mission, from the time of Vincent de Paul, and through his inspiration, recognizes itself as called by God to carry out the work of integrally serving the poor. Officially called “Congregatio Missionis,” they are also called “Vincentians” in Anglophone countries, “Paules” in Spain, “Missioners” in Slavic lands, and in Latin America they are known as “Vicentinos.” The unofficial motto of the Congregation: Evangelizare pauperibus misit me [He has sent me to evangelize the poor] sums up the works of Jesus the Congregation endeavors to follow.
While we celebrate the founding of the Congregation of the Mission in 1617, the official date of its institution is noted to be April 17, 1625. On that day, encouraged by Madame de Gondi, the lords of the Gondi family, in whose territories Vincent de Paul served as Chaplain, signed a contract with him in which they provided funding to support a group of priests to serve impoverished people in the countryside. This act gave needed economic sustainability to the project of the Congregation.
Vincent ultimately created the community he had dreamed of. By the day of his death, September 27, 1660, twenty-six Vincentian communities had been formed: nineteen in France, four in Italy, two in Barbary (Northern Africa), and one in Poland. And, by the time of the French Revolution of 1789, when religious communities were suppressed in France, a great dissemination of the Congregation had taken place around the world, with missions in the Middle East, in Asia, and soon thereafter in the Americas. Especially significant were the Congregation’s missionary efforts in China. Today the Congregation has more than 3,000 members, priests, and brothers, serving in 81 countries. They continue to provide a wide array of services including education, spiritual and pastoral care, direct service to the poor, and socio-political advocacy, while remaining dedicated to systemic change and collaborations that will end poverty and homelessness.
As we know, one of their projects was DePaul University, founded in 1898 to serve the children of immigrants in Chicago who needed both access to education and a chance to escape poverty. Without Foundation Day, DePaul as we know it would not exist. That it does, and that we are now a part of more than two million Vincentian Family members worldwide, is certainly something worth celebrating on the 25th.
1) Conference 112, Repetition of Prayer, 25 January 1655, CCD, 11:162-164.
2) Conference 164, Love for the Poor, January 1657, CCD, 11:349.
Our patron saint, Vincent de Paul, often spoke of cultivating virtues. He believed virtues develop in us through regular and habitual actions. Vincent’s understanding corresponds to an often-quoted piece of popular wisdom that it is easier to walk your way into a new way of thinking than to think your way into a new way of walking. Vincent clearly had a bias for action. It is not what you think but what you do that is ultimately the most meaningful and consequential.
In light of this, consider the virtue of gratitude. The regular practice of gratitude has been shown to improve physical health, empathy, self-esteem, sleep, psychological health, mental strength, and help you build social connections.1 Better yet, even if you are a person who struggles to feel or express gratitude easily and freely, it is a habit that can be learned and cultivated with practice at any age.
Cultivating gratitude requires the humility to acknowledge that many of the gifts and opportunities in our lives have come to us through others: those who currently grace our lives, as well those who came before us. It may be true that we have worked extremely hard and overcome a lot to get where we are. We can certainly feel proud of our accomplishments. Yet, such pride is not gratitude. We discover and develop gratitude when we humbly recognize the blessings in our lives that make clear our dependence or interdependence on others, or on a divine source beyond us all. Perhaps such gratitude is found when experiencing the natural beauty of the earth, the wonder of the sun and the stars, the generosity of others, or the beautiful uniqueness of a newborn child. For such gifts, we stand in awe and gratitude.
However, this recognition is only part of the process. Taking time to savor our experience of gratitude lights up the brain and warms the heart with positive physical and psychological effects. The full benefit only comes when we communicate our gratitude to those who made these gifts possible. Whether doing so verbally, in writing, or in physical acts of expressing thanks to others, the full power and positive impact of gratitude is realized.
From his religious worldview, Vincent de Paul understood that God is the giver of all gifts, which flow abundantly from a generous love and goodness, and a self-gift made known in the person of Jesus. Vincent expressed the desire “that God may give us the spirit of profound gratitude for so many benefits bestowed on us.…”2
As we approach this Thanksgiving season, may we be filled with gratitude for the gifts we have received, so that we, too, might become a gift for others.
Take a moment to ponder or hold in your heart one person or one recent experience for whom or for which you are especially grateful today. How does it feel to remember this gift? Is there anything about what you have received that can be passed on and shared with someone else? If so, do it today!
The Vincentian Studies Institute is extremely pleased to promote the publication of our colleague and fellow board member’s new work. Dr. Brejon de Lavergnée is a Professor of History and the Dennis H. Holtschneider Chair of Vincentian Studies at DePaul University.
“The Daughters of Charity are today the largest community of Catholic women, with 15,000 sisters in about 100 countries. They devote their lives to serving the poorest in hospitals, schools, and care centers for homeless or migrants, as well as working to promote social justice. Until now, however, the history of the Daughters of Charity has been almost wholly neglected. The opening of their central archives, combined with access to many public and private archives, has finally allowed this to be remedied.
This volume, the fruit of several years’ work, covers the history of the Company from its foundation by Vincent de Paul and Louise de Marillac as a confraternity of young women to the suppression of the order during the French Revolution. The study, at the juncture of women’s history and religious history, shows how much the Daughters of Charity contributed to the emergence of a new and ambiguous status in post-Tridentine society: neither cloistered nuns nor married women, but “seculars.” The Company has certainly offered a framework that enabled many resolute women to lead lives out of the ordinary, taking young peasant women to the royal court, intrepid hearts to Poland, and, more generally, generous souls to the “martyrdom of charity” among the poor and the ill.”
The DePaul University Vincentian Studies Institute is pleased to announce the publication of our newest peer-reviewed e-book edition of Vincentian Heritage (Volume 35, Number 2).
Of note, this edition includes a significant new translation, never before published, of Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet’s testimony on the virtuous life of Vincent de Paul. The document, at one time thought lost, follows after those prepared for the canonization process and offers insight from a man who knew the saint during his life. The book also advances our new design and features the following articles:
“Pa, Ma, and Fa: Private Lives of Nineteenth-Century American Vincentians,” by John E. Rybolt, C.M., Ph.D.
“Bishop John Timon, C.M., Sisters of Charity Hospital, and the Cholera Epidemic of 1849,” by Dennis Castillo, Ph.D.
“Elizabeth Ann Seton’s Vision of Ecological Community. Based on Elizabeth Bayley Seton: Collected Writings, Volume Two,” by Sung-Hae Kim, S.C.
“BOSSUET: Testimony Concerning the Life and the Eminent Virtues of Monsieur Vincent de Paul (1702),” Translation and additional annotation by Edward R. Udovic, C.M., Ph.D.
“Nature makes trees put down deep roots before having them bear fruit, and even this is done gradually.”1
Over the next seven days we celebrate Vincent de Paul Heritage Week. This includes a series of events leading up to Vincent’s church-designated feast day on September 27th. These events are meant to invite the university community into a deeper reflection on our shared mission and heritage, which traces all the way back to seventeenth-century France.
When facing urgent and troubling challenges such as those of our present reality, you may ask why spend our time and energy remembering historical roots going back over 400 years? How do the words and actions of those who have preceded us and lived in such different contexts so long ago speak to us now? How can this focus on history help us to discern a meaningful and relevant mission for today?
Ultimately, whenever we reflect on our sense of mission, whether personal or institutional, we are asking: what is essential to who we are? Thinking about such profound questions may spark a religious, spiritual, or philosophical impulse in us, including a consideration of our origin stories. From where do we come and why were we created? Is there a purpose to our existence? If so, who are we called to be and what are we called to do? Storytelling traditions surrounding the origins of communities of people have been common since the dawn of humanity. These stories often help us to hold and communicate values, meaning, purpose, and a sense of connectedness with one other, as well as to engage present-day circumstances with a deeply formed sense of identity.
We have a storytelling tradition at DePaul University. It is passed on within the history of the Congregation of the Mission and all those in the Vincentian family who live and sustain our shared, foundational mission rooted in the lives of Vincent de Paul and Louise de Marillac. Over his many years at DePaul, Vincentian historian, Fr. Edward R. Udovic, C.M., often reminded us that in order for the lessons of history to be meaningfully re-contextualized for today, we must first understand the historical background from which these gifts emerged.
In other words, our efforts today to be rooted in and clarify our common mission as an institution comes with a two-fold responsibility. First, we must continually seek to better understand the historical roots and foundational stories of the Vincentian family, which ultimately gave birth to DePaul University. Second, we must seek to faithfully discern how those roots can be extended creatively and effectively to sustain our lives and work today. This is so even considering that the current challenges and opportunities we face could never have been imagined by Vincent de Paul hundreds of years ago.
The roots that have sustained our Vincentian tradition over time are characterized by a generous and caring spirit, essential to both historical and modern-day Vincentian communities, religious and lay. It is a spirit that focuses its efforts and attention on the service of those in society who are most in need. It asks critical questions about who is being left out or marginalized and seeks to affirm their dignity. It is a spirit that works to change social, economic, and political systems for the better.
When we reflect upon our Vincentian heritage this week, we do so with great humility, a virtue many recognized in Vincent de Paul. We do so with a willingness to acknowledge how far we still must go to live up to the deep, time-tested ideals that urge us forward. We take heart in knowing we are not alone on this journey. In fact, we join the decades and centuries old caravan of those who have also taken the Vincentian spirit to heart and sought to improve the lives of others.
To be Vincentian is to ask, as Madame de Gondi did of Vincent de Paul, “What Must be Done?” It is to get up day-after-day and continue our mission by taking concrete action. In times like these that challenge society and our institution, we are indeed fortunate for the deep roots of our mission.
How do the deep roots of our Vincentian mission and story inform your approach to today’s challenges?
1 1796, To Charles Ozenne, Superior, In Warsaw, Paris, 13 November 1654, CCD, 5:219.
Reflection by Mark Laboe, Associate VP for Mission and Ministry
Each year on September 9th, the worldwide Vincentian family celebrates the Feast Day of Blessed Frédéric Ozanam (1813-1853), the nineteenth-century French, lay Catholic leader, widely considered the founder of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. The Society is now an international confederation present in 150 countries with over 800,000 members in 47,000 Conferences and 1.5 million volunteers and collaborators. It serves the needs of over 30 million people all over the world.
Ozanam was a French literary scholar, lawyer, journalist, and equal rights advocate in Paris. He was recognized as a skilled writer, orator, thinker, social activist, and model of faith oriented toward outward action. Following the practices of Saint Vincent de Paul and inspired by his faith, Ozanam served the poor and destitute of Paris. He especially saw the power of bringing students together to study Vincentian principles and engage with those who were marginalized and poor.
While a student of law and literature in Paris, he founded the Society in 1833 with a group of friends who gathered regularly to grow in their faith and visit the poor. With the help of the older Emmanuel Bailly, who brought his own experience of socially engaged Catholicism, they provided vouchers for bread and wood to those in need. Inspired by the gospel message of love, they provided instruction and gave of their time and presence to serve the disadvantaged.
Later, as a professor at the prestigious Sorbonne, Ozanam became a renowned scholar and intellectual. He dedicated his life to understanding what Catholicism offered civilization. Committed to the principles of democracy and social justice, he became a journalist at L’Ère Nouvelle (The New Era), advocating for social reform and a governmental regime of liberty, equality, and fraternity that included the less fortunate. Frédéric was also devoted to his wife, Amélie, and their daughter Marie, whom he loved dearly. His integration of his professional life with his personal and spiritual life, along with his simple yet open style of engagement offers us a model of servant leadership today. Frédéric Ozanam was beatified by Pope John Paul II during World Youth Day in 1997.
Today, most of us are familiar with the concept of systemic and structural change. In the context of 17th Century France, however, in which Saints Louise and Vincent lived, the idea of systemic change had yet to be developed. Instead, during this period, any efforts to improve the situation of those living in poverty tended to focus on solving the immediate material needs of the person in front of you. Given this context, the contributions of Vincent and Louise were notable and ground-breaking for their time in the way they went beyond addressing the immediate demands posed by poverty, to the level of organizing charitable efforts at a structural level. Not only did their labors lead to more effective and efficient forms of service delivery but they continue to shape the professions of health care and social work centuries later.
If we fast-forward two centuries to 19th Century France, a deeper appreciation of the world as a complex interrelated system was evolving. It was during this time that Frederic Ozanam, a 20-year old student studying at the Sorbonne, was one of the principle founders of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul in 1833. Ozanam helped recruit students for this lay Catholic organization to serve the poor in the slums of Paris, and at the same time regenerate French society to create a more just world. Indeed, after years of revolution and at the dawn of industrialization, Ozanam’s vision was to create “a community of faith and works erasing little by little the old divisions of political parties and preparing for a not-too-distant future a new generation which would carry into science, the arts, and industry, into administration, the judiciary, the bar, the unanimous resolve to make it a moral country, and to become better themselves in order to make others happier.”
Thus, during this period, even though the terms systemic change and systemic thinking were not yet in common parlance, Ozanam’s ideas were infused with the seeds of such concepts. Indeed, for this Vincentian family member, if solutions for poverty were to be found, both individual lives and societal forces had to be transformed.
Today the Society of St. Vincent de Paul continues on a global scale. It is currently comprised of more than 800,000 members in 153 countries. While the Society has grown and changed over the years, its mission has not: to serve those on the margins, and shape a more just and compassionate world.
In 2006, Reverend Gregory Gay, C.M., then Superior General of the Congregation of the Mission, founded a Commission to promote systemic change as a way to end poverty, building upon the strong Vincentian foundation dating back to the time of Vincent and Louise. He called all members of the Vincentian Family to engage in strategies to help end poverty through systemic change as an essential dimension of living out Vincentian virtues and values in today’s context.
In light of this call and reading the signs of the times in our world today, how might you be hearing a similar call in your professional work at DePaul or in your personal life to improve the larger systems that impact the lives of those who are poor or marginalized? Given the problems that confront our society, what inspiration might the example of Frederic Ozanam offer as we seek to construct a more just world?
Note: DePaul University’s former Clifton-Fullerton Hall was recently renamed Ozanam Hall. See the Newsline Article from July 23, 2020 for more information.
 Dirvin, Joseph I., CM. Frédéric Ozanam: A Life in Letters. Society of St. Vincent DePaul, Council of the United States. 1986. “Letter to Henri Pessoneaux,” 13 March 1840. p. 178
Reflection by: Siobhan O’Donoghue, Director of Faculty and Staff Engagement, Division of Mission and Ministry
Vincent de Paul’s idea of meekness is explored in an article by Robert Maloney, C.M, former superior of the Congregation of the Mission.1 He suggests that meekness for Vincent could best be translated today as gentleness. Meekness and gentleness seem like odd things to be discussing in the current political climate. Societal advances made during the civil rights era and after were largely forged using methods we certainly would not characterize as meek.
However, meekness and gentleness are ideas that Vincent used when talking about treating others with dignity and respect. He said to the Daughters of Charity, “[The] chief concern will be to serve…with compassion, gentleness, cordiality, respect, and devotion.”2 To serve others with respect and to recognize their human dignity is paramount in our times. Human dignity is not just a Catholic tenet. As a secular humanist, for example, I also believe treating everyone with human dignity is a precept.
Meekness or gentleness confers an openness to listen. To hear and recognize the struggle of others is a necessary precursor to work toward a solution. But that openness needs to be sincere. Listening without compassion and the willingness to work for real change is not enough. A lack of concrete action reflects the cycle we are trying to break right now—the empty nodding by government officials, the inaction that dooms us to return to the same old policies of systemic racism and systemic privilege.
I would caution you not to interpret Vincent’s conception of meekness and gentleness as weakness. Vincent never extolled the virtue of being meek to power. Gentleness in Vincent’s mind was to be accompanied by firmness. Such firmness is necessary so that the voices of people who have lost theirs can be heard. Given where we are today, it seems a good time to revisit Vincent’s idea of meekness or gentleness. His words advise that we respect all people for their inherent dignity, listen to those that have been marginalized, and stand side-by-side working in solidarity with them in their struggle for equality.
How can I be gentler and thus more open to recognizing other people’s struggles? How might I work in solidarity with others in their struggles?