The role of Counsellor to Vincentian Family groups

Francisco Javier Fernández ChentoVincentian FormationLeave a Comment

Author: José Antonio Ubillus Lamadrid, C.M. · Year of first publication: 2004 · Source: Echoes.
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This account is meant to provide some guidelines concerning the profile, role and functions of the counsellor to groups of lay people within the Vincentian Family. I will be presenting it in outline form and I do not claim to say all that there is to say on the subject.

I. Significance of the Counsellor’s function

Before undertaking this service, and in carrying it out, it is important that the counsellor should have a clear idea of his or her role, that is to say, about the objective towards which they have to direct the group that they are accompanying. In my view, this objective has two elements: following Christ and sharing the spiritual experience of Vincent de Paul.

1. Following Christ

The counsellor’s function as teacher of the Christian faith is essentially geared towards the formation of men and women which will help them to become genuine disciples of Jesus Christ, and adult Christians whose lives are increasingly centred on Christ.

Looked at in this way, the mission of the counsellor presupposes a Christocentric form of teaching, one that will help individuals and communities to make Christ more and more the centre of their lives.

Being a Christian means committing oneself to following Jesus of Nazareth and recognising him as Christ and Lord, the One through whom the Father offers us salvation. It means recognising that his way of living and of speaking is “messianic”. His personal identity is revealed in the answer he gave to the disciples sent by John the Baptist to ask him who he was: “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard….” (Lk 7:22). But this recognition brings with it some practical obligations: one has to identify one’s life with that of Jesus. Recognition implies that we will follow him. Believing means committing oneself to Jesus Christ and making one’s own His way of life. Faith is a personal decision to follow Christ, it is a new way of viewing and appreciating life by taking Jesus Christ as the ultimate criterion for, and the original source of, this new life.

Jesus did not simply want people to listen to his teaching. He worked at forming disciples, men and women who would choose Him as their life-option. With this in mind, he called some of them and invited them to share His experience of life. He invited them to follow him: “Come, follow me” (Mk 1:17) and “Come and see” (Jn 1:39).

In the synagogue at Nazareth, Jesus announced his mission in these words from the prophet Isaiah: “The spirit of the Lord has anointed me to bring the Good News to the Poor, to proclaim liberty to captives, and to the blind new sight, to set the downtrodden free, to proclaim the Lord’s year of favour.”( Lk 4:18-19). These words, described by John Paul II as “Christ’s first messianic declaration”, show that the Good News of the Kingdom is not simply a matter of proclamation but it involves the implementation of what has been proclaimed. Jesus’ mission was to evangelise the poor, to give them life and to liberate them. Here we have two clear aspects of Jesus’ mission: his way of life and liberation, and the special place in his ministry for the poor, the weak and sinners.

For us who today desire in faith to have the experience of being a “disciple”, it is necessary to go back to Galilee, to see him there and to learn how to follow him: “It is there that you will see him, just as he told you.” (Mk 16:7) The phrase that Saint Paul uses about discipleship: “To live in Christ” and his even bolder assertion, “It is Christ who lives in me” (Gal 2:20) imply the need to follow Jesus and conform our standards, our options and our lifestyle, to the teaching and the life of Jesus.

So the function of the counsellor as teacher of the faith and discipleship, must be to bring people to set off together for Galilee to find Jesus there, ”teaching in the synagogues, proclaiming the Good News of the Kingdom and curing all kinds of diseases and sickness among the people.” (Mt 4:23). So following Jesus means holding to his way of life and continuing his mission of proclaiming the Good News of the Kingdom and curing those among the people who are suffering.

2. Saint Vincent de Paul’s spiritual experience

Apart from his letters, Saint Vincent did not write anything down about his spirituality, even less did he try to categorise it. This means that if we are to uncover the key points of what we call Vincentian spirituality, we have just to refer to Saint Vincent’s life and his spiritual experience as he himself describes this, or as it comes across in his conferences and his letters. These will help us to see how he followed Christ in his daily life and in the unfolding of events. The starting point for this spiritual experience was his encounter with the poor. This led him to know in a profound way, and to follow, Jesus Christ, Evangeliser and Servant of the poor and the marginalised.

In a letter to Monsieur Portail he wrote, ”Remember, Monsieur, that we live in Jesus Christ through the death of Jesus Christ and that we should die in Jesus Christ through the life of Jesus Christ: our life should be hidden in Jesus Christ and filled with Jesus Christ, and that to die like Jesus Christ we must live like Jesus Christ.” According to his first biographer, Abelly, Vincent “one day made up his mind to take the firm and irrevocable resolution to honour Christ more perfectly than he had done in the past; this resolution meant offering his whole life, in love, for the service of the poor.” (L. Abelly, Life of the Venerable Servant of God, Vincent de Paul, I, Paris, 1664, p.241).

Saint Vincent’s followers have the grace and the happiness of being inspired and strengthened by this spiritual experience which is the fundamental motive for serving the poor and proclaiming the Kingdom to these people who represent the suffering face of Christ. So the counsellor has to guide the group towards this same goal.

II. Profile of the Vicentian Counsellor

As a rule, the counsellor is not called to give this service without first having the appropriate training. But even so, it is possible for the counsellor to make mistakes, so this training needs to be revised and updated on a regular basis. I will now indicate just a few points that merit our attention.

1. Spiritual experience and experience of life

It is only by having a genuine experience of Jesus Christ, Evangeliser and Servant of the poor, that the counsellor will be able to listen to the Spirit working within the group. A knowledge of theology and Vincentian spirituality are essential but these are not enough if the counsellor fails to make Vincent de Paul’s spiritual experience his own. It is not a matter of sharing this experience to a high degree, but of living out one’s encounter with God,. bearing in mind one’s limitations and our different circumstances in life. It also means that the counsellor should have experience of life and be in constant dialogue with the world around him.

2. Pastoral experience

The counsellor must also engage in pastoral work with the poor, should be familiar with their sufferings and aware of their spiritual and material needs. It is through his own personal experience of evangelising the poor that the counsellor will have the sensitivity needed for guiding groups of lay people in the Vincentian Family. These lay people are not theorists, they work with the poor and operate in situations of poverty.

3. The counsellor’s prayer

The counsellor’s mission has to have prayer as its foundation. Union with God and with the group constitute the twofold axis of his prayers of intercession; he has to come before God and before the group, praying for its members and for himself, setting aside his personal interests and letting God transform his heart. In this way the counsellor grows in transparency and is docile to the action of the Spirit, so that through him God can speak to the group and help these people to commit themselves to following Jesus Christ, the Evangeliser and Servant of the poor. Authentic dialogue requires many human qualities: welcome, respect, a balanced outlook, conciliation and love: all these are rooted in this form of prayer.

4. Psychology of the counsellor

Experiencing God is a living process. When people have this divine experience, the whole person is involved and this includes one’s psychological makeup. To forget this would be to ignore the teaching of the best spiritual guides, including Vincent de Paul who had a good understanding of human psychology.

The counsellor should be psychologically mature. Maturity does not mean perfection but it leads to self-acceptance. We are speaking here of someone who is kindly, who can have a good relationship with others, and who has a good level of self-esteem. This, in turn, comes from a good knowledge of one’s limitations, one’s strong points, tendencies, and the pitfalls to be avoided: it means, especially, owning these realities.

Still more is required, however. The mission of guiding a group means that the counsellor must have at least a basic knowledge of psychology so as to avoid the pitfalls that can arise in relationships: the counsellor has to know what is permitted and what is not. Images of God, prayer, affection, desires, wishes, moral imperatives, etc. are areas where psychology has much to teach us. The same can be said about dialogue: we learn about transference, the possibility of the group becoming dependent on the counsellor. Also, a counsellor might find himself dealing with people who are not normal or who have various psychological problems. In these cases, he should be sufficiently well-informed to be able to direct these to people who are more competent to deal with these matters and he should avoid anything that really belongs to the field of therapy.

To take up another point: the counsellor has to be aware of the dignity and the vocation of women, their crucial role in the Church and in society, as well as the contribution they can make within a lay Vincentian group.

5. Sense of belonging to the Church

The counsellor has also to fulfil his role within the framework of the Church. He has to help the members of the group to live out their vocation of service of the poor, in union with the universal Church, and to understand that every individual action has a universal value. As well as this, the counsellor ought to have adequate background knowledge of the Church’s social teaching which has its origins in the writings of Leo XIII. This teaching is now over a hundred years old but it is a way of expressing the Church’s current option for the poor. Similarly, if the counsellor is to carry out his duties properly, it would be good for him to have some knowledge of contemporary trends in theology which give a special place to the poor.

6. Having a good knowledge of the Association he is working with

The counsellor should have a good knowledge of the Association he is working with: its history and its distinctive characteristics as part of the Vincentian Family. The various Associations differ from one another and these differences have to be preserved so that the Vincentian family can maintain this rich diversity and not become a mere amalgam of its various branches. As well as this theoretical knowledge, the counsellor must have genuine love for the Association he is working with and must seriously devote time to this mission.

III. The role of the Counsellor to Vicentian Lay Groups

We have now come to the heart of the matter we are dealing with today. I hope that what I have said so far will help you to understand what I will now be saying about the role of the man or woman who is a counsellor to a Vincentian group of lay people.

1. Some introductory clarifications

*Accompaniment has to be liberating, not prescriptive.

The person who takes on the work of counsellor can only do so in a self-effacing way and in humility at being asked to accompany a group on its spiritual journey. With these interior dispositions, the counsellor will walk respectfully, as though on tip-toe, realising that he is treading on holy ground.

* “Moved by the spirit of God” (Rm 8:14).

The Spirit is the source of life, the only guide for a Christian. It is He who points out the way, who leads us and gives us the strength we need in our everyday lives. Nobody can take the place of the Holy Spirit.

* ”Do not allow yourselves to be called ‘Teacher.’ Do not call anyone on earth your Father.” (Mt 23:8-10) And don’t let anyone call you “Director”!

The counsellor is not exempt from the danger of dominating or of taking over people’s consciences or manipulating their relationship. There is only one Father, our Father in heaven, and there is only one Teacher or Director and that is Christ. From the Father and from Christ we receive the Holy Spirit.

* “He must increase and I must decrease” (Jn 3:30)

As time goes on the accompaniment is less intensive, so the counsellor tends to withdraw. The aim in accompanying a group like this, is for the person of Christ, the Evangeliser and Servant, to occupy an increasingly important place in the heart and life of each member and for Christ “to be formed in them.” (Cf. Gal 4:19).

* A Vincentian lay group is destined to fulfil a mission

The lay members of a Vincentian group are preparing themselves to fulfil a mission, that of serving and evangelising the poor. Consequently their Association is not a Bible study group or one for theological reflection; it is not a prayer group or a group that meets to exchange ideas.

2. Role and functions of the counsellor

After giving you these explanations, I can now say that there are four criteria for the role of the counsellor to a Vincentian group.

2.1 Spiritual Qualities

*First and foremost, the counsellor is someone who passes on to the group his own experience of Christ. He encourages the members to become, as Saint Vincent de Paul, did, more faithful followers of Christ in order to carry out, with Him, the mission of evangelisation and service.

*He is careful to see that the group is animated by a Vincentian spirit and not by all sorts of trends in spirituality, be these traditional or contemporary, which are not in keeping with the Vincentian spirit. (cf. Jaime Corera, o.c.p.87). However, he may benefit, as Vincent de Paul did, from forms of spiritual teaching that have ties with Vincentian spirituality.

* When we say that a Lay Vincentian Group is not a prayer group, we are not suggesting that the counsellor should not help the members to have an authentic prayer life. Similarly, the Eucharist must nurture their faith and sustain their efforts to evangelise and serve the poor. However, for a Vincentian person, prayer and the Eucharist are only a brief stop on the road of following Christ, a halt we make in order to gain spiritual strength and fulfil in a better way our mission.

2.2. Human qualities

The counsellor tries to help people to advance in these four basic dispositions:

* The first is that of being welcoming: this involves more than just politeness, kindness or sympathy. Having a welcoming attitude means listening to people in a friendly and sensitive way, showing respect for the experiences and personal circumstances of the other person: it means being in tune with a person’s feelings which can lie deeper than words that are said or listened to, not imposing silences and never being afraid of listening and not being able to understand fully what the other person is saying; treating everyone with a compassion that is in no way paternalistic, but recognising our own limitations.

* The second attitude we should have is that of true humility. We need to be very much aware that we are not the prime movers in this work but simply God’s instruments in His saving action; it is not a question of teaching but of learning, day after day, the lessons we give to the group. We do not know everything, in fact, we know hardly anything.

* The third disposition is that of patience, so that we will be tireless listeners, giving people the time that they need, not being calculating or mean with our time, not giving it unwillingly. Before we say anything to the other person we need to listen well and know how to remain silent. If it becomes necessary to correct or to reprimand someone, we must do this not only with great respect, but also being very sure that all we want to do is to help that person.

* The fourth disposition is that of self-sacrifice. Accompaniment is a service and that is why the counsellor puts him or herself at the other person’s feet. We must take care that we do not become the main focus, we must not make people dependent on us and we must not demand more than Jesus and the service of the poor ask of people. We have to give freely without expecting in return affection, gratitude or respect.

2.3 Formation

Although accompaniment is in itself an excellent means of formation, the counsellor must see that the members of the group receive biblical, spiritual, Vincentian and pastoral formation in order to help them to serve and evangelise the poor, not simply with goodwill and warm-heartedness, but also using their intelligence.

2.4 Pastoral care

From a pastoral standpoint, the counsellor has to motivate and guide the group in the evangelisation and service of the poor. This takes for granted that:

* The counsellor is aware of the social, economic and political problems of today’s world, situations that are not in accordance with God’s Kingdom, problems which affect the poor particularly. He can help the group to be aware of these problems, to think about them in the light of the Church’s social teaching, and to keep them in mind in their approach to the poor.

* The counsellor will also help the group members to discover that the Good News of Jesus is meant to reach all peoples and it is not tied to any particular culture. The Gospel has to be inculturated, to take on the good values inherent in the different cultures and, like the leaven in the dough, it has to transform any counter-values. The same can be said, of course, about spiritual experience and the Vincentian charism.

* The counsellor should be sufficiently well-informed about the situation and the most urgent needs of the Church in his particular diocese or country. This is a key issue. Lay people live out their vocation in the context of their mission work.

IV. The way that Jesus taught the twelve as their “Counsellor”

At the beginning of his public life, Jesus called some people to follow him and become his disciples. He shared his life with them and paid particular attention to them, especially after the “Galilee crisis.” He spoke to the crowds in parables but he explained the meaning of these to his disciples. “He would not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything to his disciples when they were alone.” (Mk 4:34). The disciples were able to question Jesus about his actions and about the reasons for their own failures: they were not able to drive out the evil spirit from the epileptic demoniac: “When he had gone indoors his disciples asked him privately, ’Why were we unable to cast it out?” (Mk 9:28).

Jesus is always in dialogue with them, he instructs and counsels them, balancing the hard and demanding stricture: “This is not to happen among you” (Mk 10:43) with consoling concern, ”You must therefore be on your guard. I have forewarned you of everything…Be on your guard, stay awake…” (Mk 13: 23,33).

But there is no doubt that the fundamental basis of Jesus’ teaching was his sharing of everyday experiences: the disciples observed his life and his teaching very closely and these were to be their rule of conduct for the future. As He said to them on one occasion, “It is enough for the disciple that he should grow to be like his teacher.” (Mt 10:25).

The disciples watched closely how Jesus acted, the way he dealt with people and responded to their needs. They took this as their model for living according to the teaching of the Gospel.

In the past, and in our own times, following Jesus has meant continuing his mission of evangelising and serving the poor and the marginalised in different historical contexts, while at the same time, trying to discern and be converted to the dispositions he had, the options he made and the way he acted. The counsellor to a group called to mission has a crucial role in this task.


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