Living mercy two by two: the work of the St. Vincent de Paul Society
September 20, 2019
In this week’s interview, communication manager David Hazen speaks with Archbishop George J. Lucas and Diane Mead, president of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul in the Omaha archdiocese, about the work of the society and its purpose of building spirituality and friendship through service.
Q: Diane, would you tell us about your role with the St. Vincent de Paul Society?
Diane Mead: I am currently the council president for the Society of St. Vincent de Paul in the Omaha archdiocese, and I help oversee our parish-based chapters (which we call conferences). We have 30 in the Omaha area, one in Norfolk and three in Columbus.
Q: Archbishop, you have spoken before about how many people have a general sense of the work being done in our archdiocese in the name of charity – most Catholics have at least heard of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul – but this conversation is an opportunity to explore what “living mercy” means in concrete ways.
Archbishop: Yes, living mercy is a key part of our pastoral vision in this archdiocese. When we formulated the vision, we intended that this would be something we would experience in practical ways, and not just think merciful thoughts about other people.
We know the Lord has given us some very clear direction about how we are to encounter and offer accompaniment and assistance to our brothers and sisters who are in real need. The Society of St. Vincent de Paul conferences and members have been doing that here in this archdiocese for many years.
Q: Before we delve into the particulars of that work, let’s start with some background: Who is St. Vincent de Paul?
Diane Mead: St. Vincent de Paul was a priest who lived in the late 1500s, early 1600s, and he had a passion for the poor. He’s known as the apostle of charity. He reached out to people in need, and led hundreds of missions. He founded the Daughters of Charity and other organizations. He did not found the Society of St. Vincent de Paul – that came later with Frederic Ozanam in Paris in 1833 – but he was the model for it.
Q: Archbishop, you have some history with St. Vincent de Paul as well, correct?
Archbishop: The priests who became associated with him in this country are commonly called the Vincentians, and several of them were my teachers and formators in the seminary in St. Louis. Through them I became well acquainted with St. Vincent de Paul himself.
Also, the first parish conference of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul in the United States began in St. Louis. When I grew up, it was very common to see St. Vincent de Paul conferences in parishes, and my father was involved in our parish conference. So, I was delighted when I came here to Omaha to find out that the St. Vincent de Paul Society is also very active here, even though I think not as many people know about it as we would hope.
Q: Diane, please tell us about the work of the society as it exists locally, and maybe a few things we should know that we don’t know.
Diane Mead: I’ll start with our parish-based activities. If someone calls their local Catholic church and says, “I’m worried. I think I’m going to be evicted or my power is going to be turned off,” the parish takes the call and passes it on to the Society of St. Vincent de Paul conference in that parish. They then respond to that caller very quickly and arrange to make a home visit, which is the core mission of the society; we send people out as Christ did, two by two. We send them to that person’s home to let them tell their story. From that, we often learn there are more aspects to the story than initially reported and can help them think through those issues.
We try to bring the face of Christ to them. We try to see the face of Christ in them. We offer to pray with them, and we certainly pray for them. We don’t make any financial commitments at the initial visit. We think and pray about what we’ve seen and heard. And then, usually within 48 hours, we respond to the need – typically that means we are going to make a payment to a utility or a landlord. We don’t give the money directly to the people, but we make contact with the landlord and explain that we’re trying to help. We invite that landlord to help as well, maybe by forgiving some late payments or something along those lines, and we hope they can learn that there’s another way to deal with the tenant’s situation.
That’s the core of what the society does in terms of service outreach and the part that is least understood. An aspect that’s often overlooked, though, is that we’re not a service organization. We’re an organization which was founded to build the spirituality of its members.
Q: I think it’s worth exploring that point further. Most of us think of charity in terms of visible outcomes, in terms of doing good work in the form of direct service. Taking nothing away from doing direct service, of course, I think it is very interesting to note that your aim is primarily the spiritual formation of the members of the Society of St. Vincent De Paul.
Diane Mead: That’s exactly right.
Q: So, is that why you go two by two?
Diane Mead: Yes – we’re really all about spirituality, friendship and service. The building of the spirituality and friendship comes from working together. So we see – and this happened to me as well – a lot of times people start out thinking we’re just about service, but as we do the work, the friendships that we build and the spirituality that we pick up from each other build upon one another.
Archbishop: The center of our pastoral vision is the encounter with Jesus. We know that for disciples of Jesus, the works of mercy flow from an ever-deepening relationship with him. We also want to see that those who have been called by Jesus to be his disciples are equipped to go out and share the light of the Gospel. A beautiful aspect of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul is that they hold regular meetings to pray together and to be formed in Vincentian spirituality.
Those who go out two by two to visit their neighbors in need feel strengthened by the formation they have received in prayer, but also strengthened by their friendship with each other. To walk into situations that are often unpredictable and in which families or individuals are under a great deal of stress takes a good deal of trust in the Lord and in one another.
I think one of the most beautiful and attractive aspects of the society is that it is so personal, and that contact with those in need is made face to face. There is the opportunity, as Diane said, for those who are visited to see the face of Jesus in those who visit. Even if those receiving help are not well acquainted with Jesus, the Vincentian volunteers see the Lord in them, just as he promises that we will when we reach out to those who are in need.
Diane Mead: I think that this is a beautiful aspect that our Catholic faith brings to today’s world, which has a tendency towards secularism rather than toward faith. Most of the folks we visit are not Catholic. In fact, they’re probably not associated with any church. It’s really something for them to take the step of calling a Catholic church, and they get a call back. We call back and we show up. We don’t judge, and we try to be welcoming. What a perfect way to be introduced to a different aspect of the church than what people might otherwise see.