We say it to each other all the time: “Keep going. Just keep going.” We say it to each other as Vincentians when we’re tired or sick or just plain sick and tired! We say it to each other as a word of encouragement when we feel that there are fewer of us and yet we need to do more; when we feel like we’re being stretched beyond our capacity or when we feel that we just can’t get things right and we’re copping criticism from all sides.

We’re not glum about it. We often say it to each other with a laugh. It’s good to be able to laugh at ourselves. Sometimes it’s even good to laugh at each other!

I think it was Leon Bloy, the French writer, who said that “joy is the most infallible sign of the presence of God.” I’m not going to argue with that. I find it very comforting.

So we keep on going. We persist because we are impelled by the Gospel in which Jesus reminds us:

I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.' Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?' And the king will answer them, 'Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.'  (Mt 25:35-40)

But here’s the rub. Is it good enough to keep going the same way we’ve always been going?

We could say yes, of course it’s good enough because our mission doesn’t change. This is true. Our mission to stand on the side of the people doing it tough doesn’t change. It is why the St Vincent de Paul Society exists. One could even say that if this goes by the wayside we’ve really lost the plot.

That’s what I’d call a non-negotiable!

But if we are to really stay true to this mission then mustn’t we look at how we seek to fulfil it? Mustn’t we say to ourselves that to be faithful to our mission we are obliged to evaluate how we carry it out? Isn’t it true, in fact, that we risk letting people down if we are unwilling to change our ways?

This is what I would like to challenge you to reflect on. What aspects of the St Vincent de Paul Society in Australia are actually holding us back from being there for Christ’s Poor? Is there anything that we cling to that has outlived its usefulness? Are we guilty of the very human frailty of staying with what is comfortable instead of changing to what is right?

It’s very tempting, of course, to tell ourselves that a certain structure or practice is sacred because we’ve been doing it that way since forever. On closer examination we might find that this is not the case and that we have been lazy in our assessment.

If we are brave enough to look a little more closely we might even find that the answers to why we are tired and why we have fewer people to do even more work lie precisely in our ability to question our current practices. Let me give you a few examples to get the ball rolling. I would be interested in your views.

How can we imagine new models for Conference participation so as to attract and sustain new members who are young?

Are there different ways we should be thinking of visitation? Can the experience of home visitation as it now stands sometimes be embarrassing (even humiliating) for the people we visit? Are there alternatives?

Does our current federated structure really maximise the use of our resources in serving the poor?

What are we doing to actually end homelessness? I know that we do great work in providing shelter and support for people experiencing homelessness and I know that many people in this situation have complex needs, but are we doing all that we can to ensure that they are really and truly no longer homeless? In other words, it’s one thing to manage homelessness but another thing to end it!

Are we as courageous and creative as we could be in giving expression to a spirituality that really reflects what we receive from the people we assist?

I might stop there for now with that one. I hope I’ve provided enough food for thought.

In the end we are challenged to read the “signs of the times”, as Vatican II taught us, while listening carefully for the Spirit of God, like Elijah, in the “still, small voice” of the people who are pushed to the edges of society.

Anthony Thornton, National President of the St Vincent de Paul Society

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