At the Last Supper Jesus prayed to the Father that we “may all be one” (John 17:20). This is my prayer for the Society in Australia.

There’s a well-known saying, usually applied in the political arena that “disunity is death.” I believe that the same applies to us. We have a strong tradition of allowing and even celebrating the highest possible degree of autonomy for Conferences in their ministry to Christ’s Poor. This is something that we should continue to nourish and sustain, although I think that we should be doing more to ensure that all members are given the opportunity for formation and development. It’s not the grass-roots level of autonomy that is problematic, as long as we are all on the same page about why we are here.

The problem occurs when, instead of thinking and acting like we belong to One Society, we start talking and behaving as if we were eight Societies. We might consist of eight State and Territory Councils but we should never see ourselves as eight Societies. How can we possibly use our resources in the best way for the poor if we fail to work together? Poverty in Australia knows no boundaries. The people who are pushed to the edges are often pushed from State to State in search of housing or employment or family support. We can do a lot better at behaving and thinking as One Society in the service of Christ’s Poor.

For us to all be one doesn’t mean we all have to agree with each other. It doesn’t even mean that we all have to like each other. It helps though, if we can listen to each other. And it is essential that we show real love for each other by respecting each person’s dignity. We need to accept another opinion that may differ from ours without feeling threatened.

None of us are the same and there are some things that, as members of the Society, we might never agree on. But there is one thing that should be exactly the same for all of us and that we should agree on without exception. And that is our love for Christ in the Poor and marginalised.

As one overseas Bishop recently said: “The only question we will have to answer at the end of time is how we treated the poor.”

And as our Lord said: “Whatever you did for the least of my brothers and sisters, you did for me.” (Mt 25:40)

And that is why we need to become One Society.

That is why we cannot afford, in the name of the Poor, to be disunited or to waste our resources, which really belong to the Poor, because of duplication or a failure to take advantage of our potential economies of scale on a national basis. That is why we have a real chance of attracting members, especially younger members, if we show a greater sense of being a united presence in Australia.

We have developed a strong and faithful Society through each of our State and Territory entities. But we let ourselves down when we talk as if we are separate Societies or when we speak about the assets and resources of one State as if they were the sole preserve of that State instead of being the sole preserve of the Poor wherever they may be.

There is no “us” and “them”. Well, there shouldn’t be, anyway. Which is why I invite you to join me in praying, with Jesus, that we “may all be one”.

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

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