A Heart Which Sees

Francisco Javier Fernández ChentoVincentian SpiritualityLeave a Comment

Author: G Gregory Gay CM · Year of first publication: 2006 · Source: Colloque, Journal of the Irish Province of the Congregation of the Mission, No. 54, Autumn 2006.

This is the text of the address that the Superior General gave at the Vincentian Spirituality Day in All Hallows on 24 June 2006.

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I have read Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, three times. Upon reading through it the second time, I did so with this gath­ering of the members of the Vincentian Family in Ireland in mind. What I would like to share with you this morning is how this encyclical can help us deepen our own Vincentian spirituality. There are two major points with regard to our spirituality through which the encyclical can provide us with opportunities for growth.

Firstly, our Vincentian spirituality is an action-oriented spirituality. We are, as St Vincent would tell us, contemplatives in action; “True mis­sionaries ought to be like Carthusians in their houses and like apostles outside them.” (Abelly, Book 1, 100)

Secondly, at the heart of our spirituality is charity. What motivates us to love the poor is the very love of God that we experience in our service of them.

Let’s begin with the contemplative part of our spirituality. That obvi­ously involves prayer. The Pope, in his encyclical, speaks explicitly of prayer in numbers 36 and 37. He says in number 36:

Prayer, as a means of drawing ever new strength from Christ, is concretely and urgently needed. People who pray are not wasting their time… time devoted to God in prayer not only does not detract from effective and loving service to our neighbour but is in fact the inexhaustible source of that service.

As you can see, the Pope here connects the relationship between prayer and the practice of charity. In number 37, he says: It is time to reaffirm the importance of prayer in the face of the activism and the growing secularism of many Christians engaged in charitable work. It is important that we begin with this gift that God has given us; that is, the capacity to pray, to enter into an intimate relationship with God and experience God’s love for us.

In number 7 of the encyclical, the Pope makes reference to the Pastoral Rule of Pope Gregory the Great when he says:… the good pastor must be rooted in contemplation. Only in this way will he be able to take upon himself the needs of others and make them his own. Gregory the Great also speaks of the figure of Moses, as Pope Benedict cites in the same number 7:

Moses, who entered the tabernacle time and again, remaining in dialogue with God, so that when he emerged he could be at the service of his people. “Within [the tent] he is borne aloft through contemplation, while without he is completely engaged in helping those who suffer.”

Apostolic Reflection;

The other side of our Vincentian spirituality is the action-oriented part, what takes place in what we traditionally call the apostolate or our service of the poor. To help us maintain this integral relationship between prayer that is contemplation and our action in service of the poor, there is a practice which we know as apostolic reflection. If well done, I think it is at the very heart of helping us to keep our Vincentian spirituality alive and dynamic.

Apostolic reflection is the telling of our story. It is not an intellectual or an academic exercise. It is where we share moments, experiences, relationships with the poor, which have touched our hearts, which have moved us to convictions, to actions on their behalf and with them. Apostolic reflection also speaks of those experiences that question us, in which I may have said to myself, or asked myself, what is God telling me in this moment, in this situation, in this relationship with this poor person. In apostolic reflection, that is what we share with others, and always in the context of prayer.

Apostolic reflection is the opportunity to share with one another the experience that we have of God through our service of the poor and with the poor. Apostolic reflection is done in the context of communal prayer. The experience of the poor is the content which nourishes the prayer. It is the poor themselves who serve as the link between our prayer and service. In other words, the poor are at the heart of our prayer, as well as at the heart of our mission.

Unity between prayer and mission makes our own spirituality authen­tic. On the one hand, prayer, without action, disconnected from service of the poor, can become spiritualism, where our hearts and minds are somewhere in the clouds. On the other hand, action, without the source of life that comes from prayer, is what we know as activism. In order to avoid these “isms”: spiritualism or activism, it is crucial that we con­tinually reflect on our experience in our apostolates with those whom we are called to serve and love.


The other aspect of our spirituality on which I am most interested in focusing at this time is charity. In the first place, how do we understand charity? What is it? Simply stated, we understand charity as concrete love, that love which is incarnated. The foundation of charity is the love God; it is the love that God has for all of us. It is a constant theme which is woven throughout Benedict’s encyclical, especially in the second part.

Charity is mentioned at great length in article nine of the encyclical, as well as in numbers 17, 18, 19, and 38.

In number nine, it tells us that the human person: comes to experi­ence himself [herself] as loved by God, and discovers joy in truth and in righteousness. In number 17, the Pope says: [God] has loved us first and [God] continues to do so; we too, then, can respond with love. We convert this experience of the love of God into the practice of charity.

The Pope says that charity is the work of all the Church. We, as members of the Vincentian Family, form a part of this same Church. The Pope shares a wonderful story in the encyclical in number 23, when he speaks about St Lawrence, the deacon, who, when the authorities were claiming the Church’s treasures, distributed all the Church’s money to the poor. Afterwards Lawrence presented the poor to the authorities, claiming that they were the treasure of the Church.

The poor are the true treasure of the Church, the principal beneficia­ries of the Church’s charity. This understanding should not surprise us as members of the Vincentian Family. St Vincent refers to the poor as “our Lords and Masters.” They are, in this sense, our principal treasure and our reason to be as a Family.

In number 24, the Pope speaks about charity as a “decisive feature of the Christian community.” It is impossible to consider oneself a member of the Christian community if the practice of charity is not a part of our life experience. We see in number 25 one of the key phrases of this encyclical: For the Church, charity is not a kind of welfare activity which could equally well be left to others, but is a part of her nature, an indispensable expression of her very being.

I would like to present some of my reflections on charity in greater depth, showing how charity is lived by Mary, as well as by St Vincent de Paul. I am going to speak of charity, as I have in a number of places, in its three essential dimensions.

The three dimensions of Charity

The first dimension, Pope Benedict calls personal charity; I call it direct contact, closeness, with the poor. It is not enough just to give alms or even participate in the promotion of the poor, or even to write letters to governments so that they change the structures that oppress the poor. In order to live charity, as members of the Vincentian Family, we have to express this charity, first of all, by way of our closeness with the poor. We have to know them, know them by name, share with them in their life situations, their histories, their sufferings. The poor should not be strangers to us, people who are somewhere “out there.” They should be those with whom we are relating on a regular basis, with whom we have personal contact and closeness.

I would like to speak about the three dimensions of charity in the life of Mary and do so through her experience in the scene we know as the Visitation. In that scene, Mary shows her incarnated love in her relation­ship with her cousin, Elizabeth. There is contact, there is closeness. She joyfully enters into the home of her cousin and shares with her.

The second dimension of charity, of equal importance, is what we call human promotion. It can be understood as the organization of charity. Mary, in the Visitation scene, worries about the well-being of her cousin. It is not only her first contact that suffices, but over a period of three months she stays with her, as the Scriptures tell us. She promotes her well-being in a systematic manner: an expression of charity which promotes the dignity of her cousin in need.

The third expression of charity, I like to call political charity. It is that dimension which gives us the ability to struggle, to fight with the poor. It is that desire to change the structures that oppress the poor. Charity itself gives us the energy to struggle and to fight. There is no prayer more radically in favor of the poor and against those who oppress them, than the prayer that is proclaimed from the mouth and heart of Mary in this visit to her cousin. We all know this prayer as the Magnificat. We have to read it, reflect on it. Perhaps many times we simply spiritualize it. The Magnificat is rather concrete in its challenge to put ourselves on the side of the poor and oppressed, with a deep faith that structures will change radically, so that the poor might have life and life in abundance.

St Vincent and the three dimensions of Charity;

St Vincent also manifests in his own life these three dimensions of charity. I will mention rapidly some examples, because I think they are quite well known to all of us.

Of the images we have of St Vincent de Paul, which can be found in almost all the houses of the Daughters of Charity and a good number of houses of the Congregation of the Mission, are those of him as the Patron of Charity, with a little child in his arms and another child at his side or before a poor man. You cannot really show any greater closeness. These are images which reflect what was the entire life of St Vincent de Paul. He did not live as a theorist, distant from the reality of the poor of his time. He was very involved in the situation of the suffering and the misery of the people.

The second dimension of charity, that of promoting the dignity of the poor, is evident in the capacity St Vincent de Paul had to organize the Charities. Right from the very beginning of his ministry, it is the way in which God led him to show love in a concrete, organized manner, inviting the participation of many other baptized women and men.

With regard to the third dimension, political charity, St Vincent had the capacity to confront the political powers of his time, both govern­ment leaders and Church leaders as well. Even though it was not a popular stand, he would always be at the side of the poor, speaking in their favor.

As a Vincentian Family we take Mary and Vincent, along with many others, as models of this three-fold dimension of charity.

The Pope and the three dimensions of Charity;

The dimension that is the strongest and well-presented by the Pope is what he calls personal charity, and what I call the importance of being close to the poor. In number 28 of his encyclical, he speaks of this in a very straightforward way:

The State which would provide everything, absorbing everything into itself, would ultimately become a mere bureaucracy incapable of guaranteeing the very thing which the suffering person – every person – needs: namely, loving personal concern.

In number 31, we read:… human beings always need something more than technically proper care. They need humanity. They need heartfelt concern…In order to have this attention that comes from the heart, personal charity is necessary. This is the closeness to the poor of which we have spoken. A little bit further along in number 31, the Pope says: We contribute to a better world only by personally doing good now, with full commitment and wherever we have the opportunity … The Christian’s programme…is “a heart which sees.”

To highlight the dimension of human promotion and the organiza­tion of charity, I would like to read from the letter from some of the heads of the Vincentian Family at the international level. This is the letter that comes out every year with the theme for celebrating, as a Family, the feast of St Vincent de Paul. If you have not already received it, you will do so shortly. In the accompanying document to that letter this year, we mention the following, which is taken from the encycli­cal of Pope Benedict: Love thus needs to be organized if it is to be an ordered service to the community. We find this phrase in number 20 of the encyclical. As we say, “his invitation also extends itself to collabora­tion with other organisms, which today we call ‘networking.’” The Pope mentions this in number 30:

Church agencies, with their transparent operation and their faithfulness to the duty of witnessing to love, are able to give a Christian quality to the civil agencies too, favouring a mutual coordination that can only redound to the effectiveness of charitable service.

For us, as sons and daughters of St Vincent de Paul, networking is nothing new. It was precisely St Vincent de Paul who pioneered the organization of charity. There are many situations in his own life and in the lives of others, which give faith to this expression. We need not look any farther than, for example, at the life of Frederick Ozanam or Sr Rosalie Rendu. And even today, here in Ireland, we see this experi­ence of organized charity in the Vincentian Millennium Partnership, the Vincentian Housing Partnership, and the DePaul Trust, as well as various activities of other members of the Vincentian Family.

Some considerations and limitations;

I must admit I find the third dimension, political charity, a little weak in the Pope’s encyclical. There is even a part of the encyclical that made me feel uncomfortable when I read it. It is where the Pope criticizes a word that is often used to describe the situation of the poor, in which the structures of our society are the cause of their poverty. The word is: “impoverishment.” The Pope criticizes this word because for him it is a term that comes from the Marxist theory. It is certain that it is a word that is found in Marxism, but “impoverishment” is also a reality which indicates that it is the structures of society which oppress the poor and make the poor yet poorer.

It is not a question, as unfortunately some people seem to think, that the poor are poor because they “do not want to work.” From profes­sional analysis of the various situations in different countries throughout the world, we know well that that is not the case. There are economic structures that favor those who have. At the same time, they are impover­ishing those who do not have. It is the ever-widening abyss about which John Paul II often spoke in his social encyclicals. This political dimen­sion of charity is not completely absent from the Pope’s encyclical, but as I said, it is weak. He speaks of the importance of the relationship that should exist between charity and justice, but then he does not go beyond that and say how that relationship evolves.

In my opinion, it is impossible to have authentic charity, as the Lord asks us, incarnating his love, if one of these three dimensions is absent from our expression of love.

For example, if we have only personal contact, that is, we live personal charity with regard to the poor, there could be a tendency to fall into what we understand as “paternalism” or “maternalism.” This type of attitude is not something that benefits the poor. At times it can even keep the poor poor, while satisfying the consciences of some people. If we think that the only way we can live charity is through this personal contact, we may fall into this “ism,” which does nothing for the poor.

If human promotion were the only dimension of charity, then we could have the tendency to fall into what I call “socialism,” in the negative sense of the word. Here I am not criticizing any particular style of government or political ideology. Rather, it is in the sense that we fall in the trap that Pope Benedict himself calls “social assistance” – without heart. If we live this dimension of charity alone, we risk the possibility that our charity not be an authentic expression of our love.

Even political charity, without the other two dimensions, both personal contact and human promotion, can become pure rhetoric and what we sometimes call politicking. We can say a lot of things about the poor, and even in favor of the poor, but then if there is no concretization of the talk, it can become pure blah, blah, blah.

There has to be an integration of the three dimensions, in order that love might be authentic and that our charity might be real.

Beyond local borders;

I’d also like to look into a couple of other articles of the encyclical that are related to our Vincentian spirituality and can even serve as a launching point for reflection among us, as members of the Vincentian Family.

In number 30, the Pope says: Our times call for a new readiness to assist our neighbours in need. I truly believe that the Vincentian Family, in different parts of the world as well as here in Ireland, has heard this need and is available to respond in new ways to the needs of the poor.

In the same number 30, the Pope says: Concern for our neighbour transcends the confines of national communities and has increas­ingly broadened its horizon to the whole world. I think a real concrete example of such an attitude is present, at least from my experience, in a number of the groups of the Vincentian Family here in Ireland. One group, recently begun, has given itself the name, MISEVI, and rightly so. With Fr Michael McCullagh, the volunteers have gone beyond the frontiers of Ireland to accompany the poor in Ethiopia. DePaul Trust has also gone beyond its borders. It was founded first in Great Britain as an outgrowth of the St Vincent de Paul Society. It has now moved into Ireland, Slovakia and Ukraine. It has also been brought to my attention, in my visit here to Ireland, that the Society of St Vincent de Paul has gone beyond its borders here in Ireland, having twinning experiences in many countries, especially 13 countries in Africa alone. I must also mention the Congregation of the Mission here in Ireland, as well as the Daughters of Charity, and their different missionary activities, which extend beyond their borders to Nigeria, Kenya, etc. These are certainly a way of showing solidarity. I want to encourage all of you, members of the Vincentian Family, to go beyond your own borders to show solidar­ity with the most vulnerable. The globalization of love is manifested through the promotion of the dignity of the poor.

In number 30b, the Pope speaks of volunteerism, which is respon­sible in one way or another for many services in the Church. Certainly the different branches of our own Vincentian Family would fall into this grouping. There are 90 volunteers in the Vincentian Housing Partnership alone. The Pope states: For young people, this widespread involvement [volunteerism] constitutes a school of life which offers them a formation in solidarity and in readiness to offer others not simply material aid but their very selves.

We can attract young people today through volunteerism, as is evident here. I think that the experience that all of us have in our service of the poor is much more than simply giving something. When we are truly involved in the life of the poor, supporting their needs in a very concrete way, we begin to experience a “giving of ourselves.” It is then that we realize what charity really is. We move from giving something to giving of ourselves. Charity is that motivating force.

When I read this quote from the Pope about volunteerism being a school for young people as a way of educating them in solidarity and helping them to give truly of themselves, I consider it to be one of the greatest challenges that we face as the Vincentian Family today. In many parts of the western world, especially in the First World, we find our­selves ageing as a Family. I feel that, if we unite ourselves as a Family, giving of ourselves together with the poor, this is something that will attract youth. Our witness, of a capacity to live the Gospel radically in a united way, as love in action, has to attract.


In his encyclical, the Pope makes a great effort to give us this message, not from the heights of theological thought, but rather from the reality of the People of God. The greatest need that our world today has is the need for expressions of true love, concretized through expressions of charity. Charity is nothing strange to us. As I stated earlier, it is our reason for being.

I would like to conclude with a prayer to Mary that the Pope uses in the encyclical. As the Daughters state in their Constitutions, “she is our only Mother.” Number 42, the last number of the encyclical, says:

Holy Mary, Mother of God,
you have given the world its true light,
Jesus, your Son – the Son of God.
You abandoned yourself completely
to God’s call
and thus became a wellspring
of the goodness which flows forth from him.
Show us Jesus. Lead us to him.
Teach us to know and love him,
so that we too can become
capable of true love
and be fountains of living water
in the midst of a thirsting world.

And so to her we confide the Vincentian Family here in Ireland and its mission to serve God’s people “with hearts that see.”

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