I’ve had two encounters recently that couldn’t be more different to each other.

In the first encounter an enthusiastic and energetic professional was trying to explain to me why the St Vincent de Paul Society needed to learn more from the business world. He stressed to me that we needed to learn how to “make tough decisions” and how we desperately needed to make use of what seemed to me to be some fairly complex management theory.

I have to admit to you that I came away from the conversation very impressed by his display of knowledge. I could tell that he must be pretty smart because the language he used was not the sort of language that most of us would use. The long and the short of it is that I really understood very little of his message. Unless of course the message was that I should be in awe of his expertise! Don’t get me wrong. He was genuinely enthusiastic about what the Society could achieve if it embraced a more corporate way of thinking.

The second encounter was with a man who spent nearly the whole time listening. This man was also a professional; an academic in fact who had just returned from a stint of lecturing at Oxford. He also happens to be a priest. But you saw neither of these roles being flaunted as signs of superiority or prestige. He is a man who has clearly “settled into his own skin”. He didn’t need to prove anything to anyone, certainly not to me. So he sat and listened. I shared with him some of the challenges that the Society faced; some of the things that trouble me; the things that I feel distract us from why we are here. He just listened.

Then, when I had said everything I’d wanted to say, he sat in silence with me for what seemed liked like an eternity.

Then he spoke.

He spoke slowly.

And simply!

He reminded me that the founding story from the Gospel for the St Vincent de Paul Society is the parable of the Good Samaritan.

He took me gently back through the story that, like most of us, I had heard a thousand times: the assault on the traveller, the assault on his dignity, the culpable behaviour of the priest and the Levite and, of course, the uncomplicated but highly dangerous response by the Samaritan, a man who was automatically despised because of the social group to which he belonged.

Then he hit me right between the eyes with the question Jesus posed at the end of the parable:

“Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”

“The one who showed him mercy,” replied the young lawyer.

“Go and do likewise,” said Jesus.

One could be forgiven for paraphrasing our Lord here and asking: Who then is a Vincentian?

Is the answer as simple as the one in the Gospel? The one who shows mercy?

Unlike my first encounter, I came away from this one with plenty to think about. I reflected on the confusion felt by some members of the Society in regard to a revision of The Rule made some time ago and approved by National Council on the recommendation The Rule Review Committee:

The Members of the Society are those who are:

1. Supportive of the aims, objects and ethos of the Society, and who recognise Catholic affiliation.

2. Who work for the Society, in any of its works on a regular basis; and

3. Who apply for membership in accordance with the legal constitution of the relevant State or Territory.

Members of the Society come together in groups known as Conferences and act through these Conferences. A Conference may be established within a parish, town, suburb, school, workplace, ethnic or social group. There is a strong tradition of young people working together in Conferences.

Does this mean, some have asked me, that if you are an employee of the Society then you are automatically a member?

No. It clearly doesn’t mean that since all three of the above criteria are necessary, according to The Rule, for someone to be counted as a Member.

But can employees be Members? Absolutely. Many already are. No problem.

And what about Volunteers in our Centres? I want to suggest something here. Why can’t we establish Centres as Conferences in their own right? That we would be able to do away with the sometimes hurtful distinction between “Members” and “Volunteers”.

We really need to think creatively about new forms of coming together as Conferences. We need to be more willing to ask the question, “Why not?” rather than dogmatically asserting that “we can’t do it this way because that is not the way we’ve done it in the past.”

Why can’t a Centre of Charity be a Conference, with all who work there being Conference Members if they wish, coming together regularly in a format that suited their needs.

Fr Greg Cooney, National Council’s Spiritual Adviser, explained at the last National Council meeting that from the very beginnings of the Society there have been three simple elements that were necessary for a Conference to exist. The participants:

  1. Prayed together (noting that this does not mean that it has to be from the Society’s Prayer Card but can take the form of other spiritual reflections).
  2. Shared their experience of serving the Poor.
  3. Encouraged each other to continue this activity.

So what’s stopping us from developing new forms of Conferences alongside the more traditional model of Conference that suits many existing members? We already have some Conferences that are structured around a specific ministry such as assisting asylum seekers or visiting prisoners. Why stop there? Is there anything, for example, stopping us from having an Online Conference?

Something for us to think about.

But in the end, I just can’t help going back to the Gospel from which we have received our original mission.

Who is a Vincentian?

The one who shows mercy!

I know there are some who have real scruples about who might “qualify” as a Vincentian; scruples based on whether someone is a practicing Catholic, or what their personal lives consist of.... the list of prejudices is long.

To those I simply say: remember the Samaritan, the last person in mainstream Jewish society at the time of Jesus who would ordinarily be called “good”.

Something to think about...

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

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