Last year, I was asked to write a brief description of Vincentian spirituality. Having given the subject some thought, I suggested that it involved three main components, compassion, friendship and prayer. I’m quite sure that affective and effective compassion is the key Vincentian characteristic. It is empathy with people who suffer as a result of material and/or spiritual poverty. Effective compassion is an ability to respond appropriately to those sufferings by means of such things as prayer, deeds of mercy and action for justice1. I also believe that Vincentian spirituality values non-exclusive friendships which are characterised by mutual respect and warm affection. Talking to Daughters of Charity in 1658 St Vincent observed: “St Paul says that whoever abides in charity has fulfilled the law… It is a means of establishing a holy friendship among you and of living in perfect union, and in this way enabling you to make a paradise in this world.”2 St Vincent believed that our evangelisation, whether in word or deed, would only be effective to the extent that it was rooted in the experience of God’s love as mediated by the members of the community3. Finally, I believe that we have a distinctive Vincentian way of praying. It involves what modern spirituality refers to as praxis, namely, the belief that there is a reciprocal relationship between prayer, community living and service of the poor. Our encounter with the compassionate Lord in prayer, not only prepares us to experience his compassion in and through the members of the community, it also empowers us and to share that same compassion with the suffering poor4. Having done so, we go on to reflect prayerfully on those experiences and their implications. This transforming process prepares us to return, hopefully with greater selflessness, to renewed service of Christ in one another and the poor.
I mention this because I was excited recently, when I visited the Vincentians at de Paul University in Chicago. There I was told about a way in which these three elements had come together in a new, down-to-earth way. I heard how hundreds of students, Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist and un-churched were engaged in social work and action for justice. Most of them did so without explicitly relating their experiences with their beliefs or spirituality. As a result, Fr. Guillermo Campuzano CM of the Colombian province had been asked to help those responsible for university ministry to facilitate a reflection process on the connection between faith/spirituality and practical action. Among other things, he recommended that they read an article which had been published in Spiritual Life by the late Fr Theodore Wiesner CM, entitled, “Experiencing God in the Poor.” It suggested that that a person who serves the afflicted, passes, typically, through three stages of spiritual development, “The Way of Appreciation,” “The Way of Dialogue,” and “The Way of Solidarity.”5 When the staff responsible for college ministry read Fr Wiesner’s article it occurred to them that it provided a template which could be adapted as the basis of an inter-faith process of theological reflection. From 2003 onwards, a new methodology, which was influenced by the Wiesner article, was adopted by the students. The ensuing process, of action followed by reflection, became know as Vincentians in Action or VIA.
Each week students who serve the needy members of local communities in Chicago come together in the large student centre which is beside the confreres residence. One of them begins the meeting with a prayer. It is followed by a sharing of food and conversation. Then the so-called “check-in” takes place. It is a 45-minute period during which the students engage in shared reflection on their experiences of compassionate action. Read in the light of the threefold understanding of Vincentian spirituality, already mentioned, it seems that VIA is an example of that spirituality in so far as it encourages friendly relationships and compassionate solidarity with the poor, within a context of prayerful reflection. Incidentally, the VIA meetings include what they refer to as “shout-outs” i.e. announcements about such things as opportunities of getting involved in justice issues either in the university, the city, or during holiday time either in the U.S.A. or South America.
When I read Fr Wiesner’s article, I suspected that it was written by a confrere who had experienced what he wrote about. When I talked to an older confrere in Chicago about him, he confirmed that, prior to his premature death in 1987, Fr Theodore had indeed undergone a spiritual conversion as a result of his involvement with the poor, especially in the diocese of Marsabit, in Kenya. Not only did I find his article to be moving, insightful and challenging, it articulated many of my own nascent impressions in a helpful way. Although it was written twenty years ago, it still has a lot to say to the current members of the Vincentian family. It struck me that any group, such as Vincentian priests, Daughters of Charity, members of the St Vincent de Paul Society or student groups in our college chaplaincies would not only be inspired by Fr Wiesner’s words they could use the VIA methodology, which benefit.
- St Thomas wrote: “Compassion is heartfelt identification with another’s distress, driving us to do what we can to help… As far as outward activity is concerned, compassion is the Christian’s whole rule of life.” Timothy Mc Dermott, ed., Summa Theologiae: A Concise Translation (London: Methuen, 1989), 360.
- SV, X, 478.
- Pat Collins CM, “Friendship and Evangelization in the Vincentian Tradition,” Vincentiana (Jan-Feb 1998): 45-57.
- The charism statement which was formulated in Dublin nearly a generation ago, said: “We Vincentians are called to experience the gentle, compassionate love of Christ in community and to share this love with those to whom we are sent.”
- Spiritual Life 33 (4), 213-221.