When we speak of social justice and what it looks like in action it is helpful to have some form of definition. We all know there are many definitions of social justice; the one I have selected is about equality and fairness where all people, irrespective of ethnic origin, gender, possessions, race, and religion should be treated equally and without prejudice. And when we speak of societies it is worth remembering that the moral test of a society is how it treats its most vulnerable members. And this is equally true of our Society, the Society of St Vincent de Paul; we are tested on how we treat those who call on us, the most vulnerable of our community.
As we know the St Vincent de Paul Society grew from a group of Catholic University students who met regularly to talk about their faith and what it meant to them; they were challenged by another group of students to put their faith into action, to put their money where their mouth is. And they did, they took their first nervous action by delivering a bundle of firewood to someone in need. From there it spread.
Today the Society operates in 148 countries, has about 1.4 million volunteers and about 750,000 members. So that is what it looks like in action.
There is an important lesson in this story for us today. We should not in any way dismiss the importance of those students meeting together to talk. It was a good first step. But there comes a time when words are simply not enough and action must be taken. The same goes for our social justice activism.
The Society in Australia has gained a reputation as a powerful voice for the voiceless. We have made some gains in influencing social policy at both the national and state levels. But there is so much more that needs to happen. There is so much more that needs to change, so many unjust laws and policies.
Frederic embraced this need for social justice activism at a time when it meant being condemned by many of his fellow Catholics. A similar thing has happened to the Society in Australia in recent years. This should never make us afraid; it should strengthen our commitment to Christ’s poor. We should never shy away from taking the side of the poor.
What are our greatest challenges? I believe they are;
We should also remember that Frederic wrote in one of his lectures that: “Charity is the Samaritan who pours oil on the wounds of the traveller who has been attacked. It is justice’s role to prevent the attacks”.
The Society requires a total commitment of ourselves, and to the Rule which is always important. No work of charity is foreign to us. The Society’s funds must be handled with the utmost prudence and generosity, the rule is clear it must not be hoarded.
We know that there are over 100,000 homeless every night in Australia. Donors continually give us money to help the poor and marginalised, those suffering domestic violence, those with a mental health problem, the homeless, and those who simply cannot help themselves. These donors expect that their donations will be put to good use, immediately; they expect us to do what we say we will do. They expect us to be the servants of the poor, not their bankers.
We do a great job at fundraising, we seek and get donations, people have a very high opinion of the Society, they know where they want their money to go, they know what they want to achieve, and they hope we will make it happen. And by and large we do.
Unfortunately, we see people sleeping rough, families in cars, or under bridges. Or maybe we do not see them at all because they are invisible. Often we look the other way because it is too hard. If we are part of the Society we cannot continue to ignore those in need, if we cannot help them then we need to find someone who can, and we need to find them quickly. Perhaps we need to get together and work out ways to be more effective.
If we really want to help the poor and marginalised you could call in to talkback radio programmes, write to your local Member of Parliament to support the advocacy causes of the Society, become politically engaged. We have a unique vision and experience of the reality of poverty and marginalisation in Australia. If you feel strongly about this join a political party and speak up for the poor in the midst of them. Frederic had a go at politics, he did not get elected, which was probably a good thing for us, but there is nothing stopping you having a go.
Certainly we need reserves to continue our good works it would be stupid to think otherwise. But are we doing our job as a charity? If there are people in need, and we have donated money in the bank are we doing our job efficiently? Maybe we need to review how we do things, can we work better together. After all it is not how we feel that matters, it’s how those we assist feel, that matters.
Let’s make this a year of not just talking about injustices, but of being out there and correcting them.
Anthony Thornton, National President of the St Vincent de Paul Society
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