Chapter 5: Frederic Ozanam lives today
People do not simply die without leaving behind some trace of their existence. The work of Frederic Ozanam continues to live and in fact, his followers, the members of the Conferences of the Saint Vincent de Paul Society, attempt to demonstrate this reality through their charitable work and gospel witness in a pluralistic society where unbelief is so widespread. Through their service on behalf of those who live on the margins of society, the members of the Society show that Frederic’s spirit is alive. Their activity becomes a channel of God’s love and provides a path to encounter Jesus Christ. Their objectives are inspired by the spirit of their founder and they attempt to give new life to these objectives in their daily lives. Frederic was a prophet, acculturated into the life of his own era and today his followers are invited to give new life to his “secret” and prolong it in the world. They are challenged to acquire greater knowledge about their founder, to love him, to thank him for the heritage they have received and to acculturate his legacy to the situation of the present world.
The Saint Vincent de Paul Society is an open organization, one that is attentive to all new forms of assistance that can be applied to the world of those who live on the margins of society and that will draw its members closer to those who have nothing. Through their personal encounter with the poor, the members encounter Christ who lives in these persons in need: Whatever you did for one of these least brothers or sisters of mine, you did for me (Matthew 24:40). This is a determinant factor in the life of every member of the Society and is an essential and constitutive element of their own identity.
The members of the Saint Vincent de Paul Society do not approach the poor as mere social agents nor as demagogues but rather they reach out to the poor in order to serve them with the spirit and the love of Jesus Christ who encourages them to move beyond an approach that distributes alms.
The members are invited to participate in the process of promoting these women and men who are poor so that they become the subjects of their own development. They approach these individuals in the places where they live out their daily existence and thus come to appreciate the values of this sub-culture of people who unjustly live on the margins of society. In this way they are enriched by these values and discover that the poor are evangelizing them. In this movement of “give and take” they come to realize the importance of what they receive and not what they give.
According to the inspiration of their founder, the members of the Society have great independence from the ecclesiastical hierarchy and as a result a vast field lies before them and awaits their action. They act and move, however, in communion with the Church but without any bond that could hint at dependence.
Characteristics of the Saint Vincent de Paul Society
How is the society structured?
The Saint Vincent de Paul Society is a Catholic, international, beneficent association founded in Paris in 1833 by Frederic Ozanam and established in Spain in 1849 by Santiago Masarnau. On April 23, 1972 it was granted juridical status.
The official name of this organization is “The Saint Vincent de Paul Society” and is also known as “The Conferences of Saint Vincent de Paul.” The name is derived from the first gathering of a group of Catholic university students in Paris which resulted in Frederic being chosen as the leader of these six individuals. Their meetings involved conferences on history, philosophy, law, and moral theology. As a consequence of these gatherings the members responded to the social situation of the time and created the Conferences of Charity.
The Conference, then, is a cell, a basic unit of the Society’s organization. Each Conference consists of five to fifteen individuals who come together once a week, seeking their own sanctification, practicing love of the neighbor and acting in solidarity in a work that is wholly voluntary. They live out their commitment in the context of an orthodox message and a Christian spirit that is based on Jesus’ commandment of love, especially love of those most in need. They strive to console their sisters and brothers through their personal and voluntary commitment to act with a spirit of justice and charity. They also collaborate in this work through their financial contributions to the Conference.
Another objective, which is as important as those already mentioned, is that the members live the Christian message by providing mutual support through prayer, reflection and religious practices. These responsibilities fall upon a) a president who directs the group, b) a vice-president who substitutes for the president when so authorized, c) a secretary who takes notes of the decisions of the group, d) a treasurer who takes responsibility for financial matters.
They are encouraged by the International Council. There is also a National Council and all the Conferences belong to Provincial Council which is represented on the National Council … each Council enjoys great autonomy.
The reflection themes for the meetings of the Conferences can arise from questions concerning faith, Marian spirituality, Church documents (especially those pertaining to the Church’s social doctrine) or matters related to poverty and marginalization.
The Saint Vincent de Paul Society: a vocational, open and democratic society
The Society is continually concerned about renewing itself and adapting itself to the changing conditions of the time. Because of its Catholic character it is open to all those who desire to live their faith in loving service to their sisters and brothers. In some countries, circumstances dictate that membership be opened to Christians of other denominations or individuals of other faiths who are willing to follow the principles of the Society.
No charitable work is foreign to the Society. Its activity involves every type of assistance that can be done through direct contact and attempts to alleviate suffering and promote the integrity and the dignity of the human person. The Society not only seeks to alleviate misery but also to discover and resolve the situations that cause misery. Help is provided to everyone regardless of their religion, opinions, ethnic background or color. The members of the Society are united among themselves by a spirit of poverty and participation and form one family with those whom they assist. Through prayer, meditation on the Scriptures and their fidelity to the Church’s teaching, the members of the Society attempt to witness Christ’s love in their relationships with the outcasts of society and in every aspect of their daily life.
The poor you will always have with you (Matthew 26:11). The members of the Society serve, they do not judge and are always available. From the time of its foundation the Society has been noted for its democratic spirit. Each Conference has full autonomy and forms part of the Provincial Council from which they receive support and in which they participate, that is, participate in the decision making process when the Provincial Council meets in plenary session. The highest authority of the Society is the General Assembly … the National Assembly provides guidance to all the Provincial Councils.
The National President is elected by all the active members of the Conferences for a term of six years and can be re-elected for a second term of six years. The voting process is direct and secret.
The liturgy plays a very important role in the life of the Society because it is through the liturgy that the members insert themselves into the prayer of the Church. At the same time the members encourage other members of their parish to embrace an active prayer life and to lead prayer in schools and other institutions. Their relationship with God is strengthened by prayer and becomes the source for all their activity.
Today the Saint Vincent de Paul Society is a true multi-national charitable institution which combats misery not with noisy fanfare or slogans but with simplicity. The incredible struggle of their founder, Frederic Ozanam, a committed believer, was not carried on in vain. Today, like yesterday, this is proven by the countless members who continue to be present in the midst of situations of abandonment, marginalization, misery, loneliness, exploitation, and thousands of forms of poverty generated today in our society by progress, technology, and the unequal distribution of wealth. There are approximately one million organized members in one hundred thirty-two countries on five continents.
I believe it no exaggeration to apply the words of Gaudium et Spes to the Society: The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ (Gaudium et spes, 1). Without a doubt these followers of Christ are the members of the Conferences who struggle and renew themselves and place themselves in a position to continue the work that was begun at the time of their foundation at the beginning of the nineteenth century (1833). Convinced that only Christianity can relieve society of the evils that it faces, the members of the Society allow their affective love to become effective love in service of the poor. They engage in their service with joy, courage, and consistency, satisfying the material needs as well as the spiritual needs of the poor. They experience these problems as their own and they desire to participate in the Church which desires to be the Church of the poor.
So that their labor, which is both charitable and social, may be truly effective, the members of the Society do not intervene in situations in a transitory manner, but attempt to mitigate the problems until they are completely resolved, making the sufferings of the poor their own … this is the reason they are members of the Saint Vincent de Paul Society. They also collaborate with public authorities and with local corporations to lessen the impact of human misery and create situations of social justice. They are attentive to the victims of violence and oppression and become the voice of the voiceless, defending human dignity and human rights.
The members of the society practice charity through personal contact. They not only serve the poor but attempt to share everything with them. They are involved in multiple activities and adapt their action according to the more urgent needs of the people: literacy programs, hospital visits, assisting the mentally ill, orphans, drug addicts, people living with AIDS, summer camps, financial assistance to families in need, soup kitchens, visiting prisons, assistance in rural and urban parishes and schools … in summary, no need is ever ignored. All of this is done with very clear objectives of providing friendship, spiritual support, and moral and material assistance to persons who are facing difficulties and to those who are most weak. It can be said here there is no need too great that the members of the Society cannot and should not share.
The members’ commitment to action is based on a profound spiritual life and in fact the on-going development of a spiritual life is necessary in order to engage in this wonderful work. Their identity is reflected in the union of action and prayer and both elements are equally important. Each Conference is at one and the same time an oratory and a laboratory of charity. They invent their own means which enable them to exercise charity toward those who are poor. Their service is not a service to the poor but a service with the poor. The distinguishing characteristic of their service is that it is spirituality in action.
There are on-going questions that call the Society to continual reflection: what is faith without works? What is Vincentian faith without services to accompany it? In these questions the Society finds a great plan that is most urgent and necessary for today’s world, a plan that can be lived out in the midst of the world.
What gives legitimacy to the Society today? From my point of view the key is a specific way of evangelizing and seeing and serving the poor in their spiritual and material need. Viewing the poor as the sacrament of Christ enables the members to respond to their Christian vocation. This is a logical and necessary consequence of having opted to follow Christ faithfully as baptized laymen and laywomen. Because of baptism they become servants and evangelizers of the poor and seek for ways to share the goods of this earth with their brothers and sisters because they are members of the same family which detests injustice, oppression and the lack of solidarity. In the document On the Church and the Poor, we read: The followers of Jesus, called to the perfection of holiness, ought to allow themselves to be moved, inspired, and guided by the Holy Spirit if they want to live and grow and mature as Christians. In this way they can experience themselves as missionaries, participating in the mission of Jesus who was and who continues to be the proclaimer of good news to the poor, the proclaimer of freedom to captives and the healer of those who are ill.
Renewing the conferences
During these critical times for many Church institutions there is a great need to present the Society in a way that reveals its conviction of having a vocation that can be prolonged in history. Frederic Ozanam’s own confidence in the future strengthens us today in our present struggle.
In recent years the Conferences of the Saint Vincent de Paul Society have engaged in a process of self-evaluation that has highlighted the need to revitalize and renew the Society. A sign of this is the different strategies that the society has undertaken. The theme of restructuring has been examined on numerous occasions. In October 1986 in Canary Islands it was stated: revitalization has to involve the spiritual renewal of each member of the Conference and also the renewal of the way in which we approach and draw closer to those in need.
Year after year the need to restructure the Society has been highlighted by the themes proposed by different Conferences: in Barcelona the theme was: The Conferences on the Move and in Granada the theme was: Identity and Growth.
How can we come to an understanding of this renewal? The possibility of renewing the Saint Vincent de Paul Society is a great challenge. The word renew implies a commitment. It does not mean that one starts from zero or that one brings to life the events of years gone by. Rather this word has a very dynamic meaning which mobilizes groups and gives them a sense of purpose. Renewal means a transformation of schemas, mentalities and theological and religious motivations and implies prophecy in action.
The process in which an institution recreates itself should be mindful of the past. In valuing the past it seeks a change that will enable it to respond to a new situation and thus prepare itself to confront new challenges. Here we are speaking about a change that will allow the institution to position itself as a significant and proactive group in the midst of society.
To renew an institution involves a commitment to grow, flourish, and bear fruit (even in an unfavorable environment) in the midst of a pluralistic world, recognizing that as an institution it began its journey at a given historical moment and in response to events quite different from those of the present time. To renew also means that the institution is aware that in the midst of great insecurity it is called to be prophetic to all sectors of society. Change will only be possible by relying on the interior strength of the Spirit and by trusting in the Lord Jesus who loves us profoundly, who walks with us, and who communicates his life, strength, peace and joy to us. We must believe in the presence of the living Lord who walks with us and desires to share his life-giving Spirit with us. One day this same Spirit gifted Frederic Ozanam with the fire of love and today the Spirit exhorts us, impels us and brings us together in order to give new life to our activity. To recreate in perfect communion with the spirit of the founder implies that we respond to the creative power of the founder’s inspiration, that we attempt to listen to the new calls of the poor and that we open ourselves to the new realities in which “our clients”, to quote a phrase used by Saint Vincent de Paul and adopted by Frederic Ozanam, our lords and masters, live. In this way the charism is enriched and we are able to prolong the charism in history.
As we consider the reality of recreation I believe that the surest path is that which leads us to reflect on a profound change, that which leads us to put aside ourselves and … forgetting what lies behind, we strain forward to what lies ahead (Philippians 3:13). If we want to bring about a change in our lifestyle then all this is a task that must be embraced even though this may result in a certain insecurity, confusion, and anxiety with regard to that which is unknown and that which is to come.
At this time renewal is especially urgent because poverty, misery and spiritual emptiness have become so acute. Today, as yesterday, the poor are news. Thousands of people die before our eyes. We see Christ suffering in the poor in the people of Rwanda, Algeria, Zaire, Serbia, China … In almost every country there is a daily challenge to commitment and service, a challenge to recognize the new forms of poverty and the many groups of poor people who unfortunately abound in our world. This is proven by the widening gap between the people of the Northern and Southern Hemispheres where countless women and men live in absolute misery.
We should be mindful of the fact that each year 40 million people die of hunger, 100,000 people every day of whom 35,000 are children under the age of five. At the present time there are 1,300 million poor people and 1,200 million have no access to health services or running water … these numbers represent a large percentage of the world’s population.
In Spain there are more than 8 million poor people and half of them live in a situation that could be classified as critical. A minority, 14% of humanity, live in the midst of a “culture of satisfaction” produced by the consumer society while the greater majority of the earth’s inhabitants are subject to the dictatorship of poverty.
In light of this situation the members of the Conferences have become aware of the need to live in solidarity with the planet and to do so within their own country, in the situation that surrounds them, as well as with international organizations with whom they work. They have directly committed themselves to the countries of the Third World as the Conferences have opened their doors and placed themselves in these lands through concrete projects of evangelization and financial assistance. They have engaged in the struggle against extravagance and waste and have become aware of and denounced the collective sin of the century that John Paul II called the sinful structures of society that enrich the few and cause greater poverty for many. It must be clear, however, that this solidarity that is practiced by the members of the Society should not be paternalistic or something that soothes the conscience but rather should arise from the conviction that every human person should feel responsible for everyone. This is an ancient concept and in the second century Terrence wrote: I am a man and nothing that is human is foreign to me.
Solidarity ought to guide the members of the Conferences as they engage in activities that attack the root causes of injustice. Thus the members work in a threefold manner: assistance, human promotion and the transformation of structures which is the culmination of the first two actions. It is not enough to give food. Saint Vincent always preferred creating work over giving alms. So much more needs to be done in the political area in order to eliminate unjust structures. Blindness and a lack of awareness of the injustices that surround many human beings create a disproportionate situation between the studies and analysis of the situation of poverty and the formulation of specific proposals to eradicate it.
Solidarity is accepting as one’s own the debt and the problems of another, accepting as one’s own the hopes and disillusionments of another. Solidarity means that we do not walk and pass by those who are injured but make every effort to understand and assist them.
Someone said: we must cultivate crops where there are only vacant lots. We cannot continue with the same approach as yesterday. The scene has changed and the new reality demands that we do things differently. Pressure, denunciation of structures and the use of the media are elements of our prophetic responsibility to announce and denounce in such a way that justice through charity might shine forth. Frederic said: charity fills out what cannot be completely achieved through justice.
A society of charity will never achieve its objective through works of assistance, no matter how numerous these might be. Work on behalf of human promotion will be useless unless it is accompanied by a struggle to reform unjust structures.
In this attempt to recreate the Conferences and to seek a new identity we must be mindful of some obstacles and we must be willing to remain firm when objections are raised about moving away from established traditions, e.g., what will happen if we do not make home visits as they were always made? Yes, we must value tradition but this cannot be done in a way that prevents us from looking at the future with providential eyes.
There is always the danger of focusing primarily on providing for those in need and thus we never engage in the work of human promotion. Because serving as a volunteer is fashionable our activity can be done as a “hobby” and nothing more … but then there is no depth to this activity and likewise no attempt to engage in systematic change.
Revitalizing the experience of the Christian option
In order to achieve a true renewal of the Saint Vincent de Paul Society there is a need to revitalize the experience of the Christian option not only on an individual level but also on a community level. In other words there is a need to live the faith in community and to allow ourselves to be animated by Christ so that in our daily activity Christ’s life becomes our life.
When the words, I baptize you, were spoken at the time of our baptism, we were incorporated into the life of Christ, the Son of God, born of Mary, who through his death and resurrection brought salvation to the world.
When we speak about incorporation into the life of Christ through baptism, we are referring to a personal encounter with Christ, a call by Jesus and a response to that call. We have encountered the Messiah, the Savior of the world and we have experienced Him as the Master, the Teacher, the model of our lives. Thus the very core of our personal lives has been changed as a result of baptism: I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me (Galatians 2:10).
Saint John’s doctrine, as expressed in his gospel, is very clear with regard to Jesus’ intention and desire for men and women: he wants them to live in full communion with him …remain in my love. Jesus compares himself to the vine and the disciples are the branches. In order to bear fruit and to be able to act, the very life of Christ ought to be circulating in the life of the disciples: without me you can do nothing (John 15:5). Without communion with Jesus there can be no faith life, no gospel witness, no true creative action.
The Christian life is not a belief in some doctrine or the fulfillment of norms or membership in some organization or the development of a practice of worship. The center of the Christian life is a personal union with Jesus Christ as the revelation of God and as a result of this union our convictions of faith and our daily activities proclaim the same reality. In all that Christians think and decide and in all that is said and done they should have Jesus as the light who enlightens them, Jesus as the guide who leads them. To live in a Christian manner means that we are guided by the criteria of Christ and that we view Christ as the Teacher of Life. In other words, as Christians we are always in union with Christ, accompanied by Christ, and a companion of Christ. In this way we become committed to a life-long pilgrimage of faith, hope and charity.
We either establish the Christian life on the personal experience of faith or we cease to be Christian. An inherited, passive faith ends in indifference among intellectuals and in superstition among simple people (Cardinal Newman). The Christian of tomorrow will either be a mystic or will not be a Christian (K. Rahner).
To become incorporated into the life of Christ through baptism means that we become sons and daughters in Jesus, the Son. We participate in the trinitarian life of God and the action of the Holy Spirit guides and strengthens us. At the same time we are consecrated in a threefold way: as prophet, priest and king.
Once Christ died and rose he was constituted as the High Priest because of the offering of his life to the Father and became the mediator between God and men and women. Christians, who participate in the common priesthood, give worship to the Father and Christ becomes present in all: present through prayer in the apostolate, in suffering, in life together as a family, in life as a society and above all, in the sacraments, especially in the Eucharist, a privileged moment and a time of celebration. The Eucharist is perfect communion with Christ in his life. Just as the living Father sent me and I have life because of the Father, so also the one who feeds on me will have life because of me (John 6:57)
As prophets we are called to proclaim Christ and his saving action in history. We are called to do this though our words but especially through the testimony of our lives. Those who are united to Christ are conformed to him and become his messengers to others: you will be my witnesses, messengers of my life, sacraments of my person.
To live with Christ is not something transitory or something for one moment in time. Rather it is a permanent orientation, a constant and existential reality. To have Jesus as the way, the truth and the life means that each decision, each action and each interpersonal decision ought to be determined by this fundamental and permanent option that involves a commitment of one’s whole existence. If we have been chosen and have responded, then as Christians we ought to be living witnesses to Christ in the world, living witnesses to Christ to others, living witnesses to Christ who question the world.
Our action as kings requires us to become involved in a mission of charity. We ought to become engaged in a struggle to permeate individuals and the world with justice and solidarity and love. To struggle for the development of people and the eradication of poverty is the responsibility of every citizen, especially Christians who have been consecrated as kings. The gospel commits men and women to become involved in the problems of the world and involved with those who live in misery and experience great need. The gospel also commits us to shoulder these problems as our own and together with others to seek solutions. Thus, thinking perhaps in terms of a utopia, Christians ought to live with the poor and share their lives with the poor so that there might be greater mutual understanding.
Lastly, it should be remembered that the Christian life has an intrinsic community dimension. The encounter with Jesus and the experience of Jesus takes place in the environment of the ecclesial community. So also the development and the maturing of this experience takes place within the ecclesial community which is the place of commitment and the place of new experiences, the place of growing in the faith and the place of human solidarity.
The Conferences, then, are the place where its members ought to live the Christian experience of their option for Christ that leads them to an encounter with the suffering Christ in the poor. The members of the Society gather together in the Spirit and form authentic Christian communities in which they form bonds of communion among themselves and are motivated by the same profession of faith, guided by the charism of charity, to dialogue and collaborate with one another and respect the diversity that exists among the individual members.
Challenges of the present society
The members of the Saint Vincent de Paul Society are called today to inject a lively Vincentian spirituality into a Society that has been revolutionized by science and technology, both of which have caused a process of dehumanization which has affected many people. From the time of Frederic Ozanam to the present era the world has experienced a Copernican shift. At the beginning of the twentieth century it appeared that progress and technology would be the panacea and as a result misery, poverty and the other evils that afflict humanity would be minimized. The reality has shown that the opposite has occurred. In some ways science turned against humanity and became a lethal weapon that forced nations to set aside enormous sums of money to restore the social well-being of its citizens.
At the root of this reality is the fact that people no longer spoke about progress but rather adapted a pessimistic philosophy, such as that of Jean Paul Sartre, an existentialist philosopher who stated: men and women are born with no purpose and they prolong themselves through weakness and die of boredom. Our world, and we as part of this world, is in the midst of a materialized system in which only that which is useful has meaning, a system in which pleasure, comfort and competition are significant values. Heroism, expending oneself and wearing one’s self out for others has become like a fossil in a museum. In fact we have come to a state in which it now seems strange to give a seat to another person, to let another enter before us or even to say thank you.
We live in a society of accelerated change in all areas of life and very often we do not have the time to assimilate all these changes. A new philosophy comes to the forefront and immediately another one follows. There is no time to rest in order to internalize experiences. We change our place of residence, work, spouses, relationships … so many ruptures occur because of the superficiality of our relationships and since these bonds are transitory and nothing seems to be definitive. Our values change and that creates an emptiness because there are no roots, no foundation. All of this produces confusion, insecurity, disorientation and can lead to neurosis.
In light of all of this the time has come to set things in motion. This is no small challenge to undertake in the world in which we live where there are so many things that must be done. We should not ignore the great effort that must be continually exerted in order to resist the strong pressure and the countless messages that want to intrude on our life. New winds advance on history and therefore we must be attentive to the present moment since the future is contemplated as something that is uncertain. There is no doubt that we are in the midst of a society of risk, of great diversity and enormous differences. Therefore one of the most immediate challenges is to change the way we approach people who are poor. This challenge demands discernment: to seek and to confront new situations. We should not block this process of discernment by considering only previous approaches because these approaches can lead us to become self-satisfied with routine. Thus we visit the homes of the poor with over-confidence, believing we know and have experienced the only right approach. Today, however, the poor are not only found in their homes but in multiple places where they engage in different activities. The poor live on the street, on benches in our parks, in the passage ways of the metro system, in boarding houses, in city shelters, etc. The activity of the Saint Vincent de Paul Society ought to involve a struggle against poverty, a struggle against unjust structures and ought to be a voice of the voiceless. Certainly personal assistance should not be disregarded nor should direct contact with those in need … both of these are essential elements for the Society. Here, however, I am speaking about the method and the place to engage in these personal contacts and we must always remember the advice that Frederic repeated over and over again: the visit ought to be a means and not an end.
We must allow the Spirit to move where he desires and how he desires and we should be attentive to new ways of serving others. The members of the Society should be involved in an on-going dynamic process which uses creativity to discover the new forms of poverty and new possibilities for action. The voice of God is revealed in the signs of the time and therefore we must be able to interpret the signs of the time in order to commit ourselves in an authentic manner. We have the responsibility to collaborate with God in re-creating history and we do this through our commitment.
In each historical moment we have to accept our place within the situation in which we find ourselves and we have to avoid the temptation of responding to these situations in the same way we did yesterday. At this time, when everything appears to be transient and nothing appears to be permanent, we run the risk of passing into oblivion.
Another challenge that should be given a priority status and that should involve all our effort is that of recapturing in a definitive way the place of the laity within the ecclesial community. Without lessening the vocation to the consecrated life or the ministerial priesthood, it is urgent that the laity determine their mission. A good discernment process should involve the members of the society in defining their mission. The Spirit of God is poured forth on every member of the community. The most insignificant layperson can be the voice of God for others. I am convinced that we are living in the era of the laity and hopefully this becomes a permanent reality. The laity are gaining strength within the Church and all of us should be grateful for this reality because all of us are involved, in one way or another, in the same mission. Therefore we commit ourselves to the world but do so without being of the world but rather we are the sacrament of that which is beyond the world, namely, the eschatological kingdom.
In this area then the members of the Society have the challenge of recovering the lay charism for which they were established. Their on-going formation, their strong spiritual, personal, and community life, the depth of the commitment with which they engage in different forms of service as they look toward the future … all of these dimensions of their life are dependent on their willingness to embrace this challenge. The Church places in their hands new possibilities for service that previously were stripped from them and made the exclusive function of the ministerial priesthood and the function of members of consecrated institutes. There is a need to achieve a new integration into the ecclesial community without jealousy among those who serve the same Lord in the person of the poor.
From the perspective of holiness, lay people, religious women and men, and priests are all called to follow Christ: to be perfect as the heavenly Father is perfect. Each individual will chose a different path but these paths should never be parallel but rather convergent. The recovery of the layperson’s functions should be done not only because this is pointed out to them by the Church but rather this desire should arise from personal conviction. Because it is often difficult to break with old patterns that have been established over a long period of time, this should arise from a profound conviction that change is possible.
Lastly I want to point out one other challenge: it is important to form networks with other institutions. In the first place a network should be established with other branches of the Vincentian Family whose common objective is corporal and spiritual service of the poor. All are involved in a common project while at the same time each group preserves its own distinct identity. We must question ourselves: do we take advantage of the qualitative and quantitative potential of this network?
At the present time we cannot act alone. It is ever more imperative that we join together in our efforts to bring about change in the mist of this world in which we live. We begin with a basic supposition: the activities of the world involve processes of multiple interactions. To speak about networks of action implies a vision of organizational structures that seeks those that are most effective for the present situation. We have to overcome the individualism of the past in order to commit ourselves to the reality that surrounds us. Now is the time to put aside every form of individualism and form relationships with different organizations (human, social, political and religious) that can help us in our activities. In 1996 the final statement of the National Congress of Spain on Poverty proposed to collaborate with other social organizations, religious groups, public institutions, with all women and men of good will in the struggle against misery and in the work on behalf of the development of people.
I am aware of the fact that these ideas perhaps border on idealism and are not easy to accomplish in a society that lack visionary plans, plans on both a personal and universal level where there is a tendency to take refuge in the realm of subjectivity. But Christianity is the same yesterday and today and would not be so except that it has been entrusted with these utopian ideals that urge women and men to seek more lofty goals. We must also be ever mindful of the power of the Spirit who continues to act in our midst in order that the kingdom of God might continue to be built up.