by John Forrest & Robert Leach
The St Vincent de Paul Society of Australia was represented at FAMVIN 2017—a celebration to mark the 400th anniversary of the worldwide organisation that is the Vincentian Family. State President of the Society in Queensland John Forrest and National Council Spirituality Committee member Robert Leach attended the Symposium held in Rome in October. They have kindly shared their account of the presentations and dialogue.
This remarkable event was a celebration of the 400th anniversary of the Vincentian charism. The Vincentian charism refers to the teachings of St Vincent de Paul, the 17th century priest who, along with St Louise de Marillac, established the Company of the Daughters of Charity in Paris in 1633.
Early in January 1617 St Vincent de Paul heard the confession of a dying man which made him aware of the spiritual abandonment of the poor country people. On 25 January 1617 Vincent preached ‘the first sermon of the mission’ in Folleville, France. In August 1617, as pastor in the village of Chatillon, Vincent experienced the material poverty and misery of some of his parishioners—an event which transformed him into the Saint of Charity.
The theme of the 2017 Symposium was ‘Welcome the Stranger’ and with these words resonating: ‘I was a stranger and you welcomed me’ (Matthew 25:35), the worldwide Vincentian Family inaugurated a Jubilee Year—a time during which it celebrates the 400th anniversary of the origin of its charism of service on behalf of the poor.
Up to 200 different Vincentian organisations from 99 countries were represented at the event and amongst these were not only lay people but many priests and nuns. As many as 8700 Vincentians attended the symposium.
Due to the numbers attending, complexities of travel arrangements and the diversity of languages spoken, a number of venues were utilised. Much preparatory work was done on line but formal registration was undertaken from 11 October at the Collegio Apostolico Leoniano. We each received a shoulder bag containing a poncho, a lanyard with identification details, a scarf and the symposium booklet. The next day a prayer service in honour of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal was to be held at the Basilica of St Giovanni in Laterno. We arrived at the venue as advertised, together with five other attendees of the Symposium, but discovered belatedly that it had been changed, possibly due to numbers attending. Thankfully however, we were able to attend Mass.
Member dialogue and mini workshops were held during a breakout day on 13 October. There were a number worthy and inspiring presentations from guest speakers, opportunities for questions and answers and, at the end of a very informative day, a concelebrated Mass.
The highlight of the next day, 14 October, was the visit to the Basilica of St Peter. In St Peter’s Square we listened to more Vincentian presentations and were gifted with a visit from Pope Francis. He was driven in and around the square and then, after an official welcome, gave a special blessing to all the 8700 Vincentians present. The atmosphere was electric.
Sunday followed with mass in the Basilica of St Paul Outside the Walls. After a very long procession of Vincentians grouped according to nationality and the various Vincentian organisations, Mass was celebrated.
The pomp and ceremony was remarkable: with over 100 priests, dozens of bishops and a cardinal and a large, enthusiastic choir in an acoustic cauldron supporting the Mass dialogue, which switched between three languages. At the conclusion of the blessing at the end of Mass, the Symposium came to a close. We were very grateful to have participated in this wonderful event and were inspired by the fervour of the attendees, especially the joy and enthusiasm shown by the young, in particular the Marian Youth from Syria and the courageous group representing the Vincentian Family in China.
Lord, Merciful Father, who instilled in Saint Vincent de Paul a great concern for the evangelisation of the poor, now fill the hearts of his followers with that same spirit.
Today, as we hear the cry of your abandoned children, may we run to their assistance, ‘like someone who runs to a fire’.
Revive within us the flame of the Charism, that flame which has animated our missionary life for 400 years.
We pray in the name of your Son, Jesus Christ, Our Lord, ‘the Evangeliser of the Poor’.
Presentations at the symposium
The following are reports on some of the presentations and dialogue conducted at the symposium.
Topic: New ways of living—new dimensions of Christianity
A summary of the presentation given by Sr Peggy O’Neil, SC, a Professor of Theology from New Jersey
Sr O’Neil asked ‘How do we remain fruitful in our times?’ and ‘What and how should we teach a world so broken?’ The world is desperately in need of love. God is the life-force within everyone and so there are no strangers. Humanity is created in the image of community; in the image of the Trinity. The Trinity isn’t just about the life of God but the life of community.
We praise God by building right relationships: bonds not bombs! We must be co-creators of justice, peace and mercy. Catholicity is about connectedness, feeling the pain, the loneliness of the other. In a plea for radical solidarity with people in need, the speaker made reference to The Apocalypse (perhaps 22:4) and claimed that the angels will be waiting for us to wipe away our tears but ‘woe to you who arrive with dry eyes’.
Sr O’Neil went on to say that in the end it is love that matters—a tenderness that transforms, a revolution in solidarity.
Topic: Edited extracts from Testimony of Aida Balada, a leader of the Vincentian Marian Youth in war-torn Syria, given in St Peter’s Square on 14 October.
We have been through a disastrous war which frequently forced us to put our scheduled activities on hold. Now, thanks be to God, we have got though it and survived. We learned from this war to appreciate things around us and to start from scratch. We are a family that stands up for each other … we are the youth that have been called to action by the Virgin Mary and we are going to continue, with her blessing.
We will keep going with our slogan ‘Live, Contemplate and Serve’. The most important message we should deliver to the world as Vincentian Marian Youth is ‘Love’ and the only thing that love requires is courage, because the person who loves does not let fear dominate him or her. We were and are still showing the world that there is light in darkness.
Before the war the Vincentian Marian Youth enjoyed a period of growth but the onset of war caused a decline in membership and the cancellation of some of our meetings. But now we are trying to stand again as the situation in Syria is getting better. Our activities include Christmas parties and we arrange workshops for children around Damascus. With our country’s situation, the important therapy for the youth is to be united in prayers— united in a place where we belong.
I want to close this by saying that seven years of war did not make us cowards. We did not run away; we did not hide. Instead this war made us stronger, united, bonded with our belongingness to our country through belongingness to the Vincentian Marian Youth in Damascus.
A special thanks to all those who support us and to those who helped us participate in this Symposium. I am fully pleased and thankful to Pope Francis who always prays for Peace in our beloved Syria.
Topic: Ending homelessness
Edited extracts from the presentation by Mark McGreevy, Group Executive Chief of Depaul International, to Vincentians gathered in St Peter’s Square on 14 October.
We are a group of homelessness charities established as a collaboration of the Vincentian Family 27 years ago. We began life as one small homeless shelter in London in 1999 and today Depaul International works in seven countries assisting over 22,000 homeless people every year.
I am here today because the heads of the Vincentian family have asked me, on their behalf, to announce the launch of the Famvin Homeless Alliance. We aim, with your help, to change the lives of hundreds of thousands of homeless people globally and to make sure that their voice is heard by policy makers at a local and international level, including the UN. In short, our ambition is to join the crusade to end homelessness globally.
As St Vincent told us: ‘It is not enough to do good, we must do it well’. How can we reach out to those suffering discrimination and isolation because of their faith or the colour of their skin? How do we help those living alone with poor physical and mental health? The elderly coping with loss and a rapidly changing world?
The UN estimates that over 1.2 million people on this planet are homeless in one form or other and that this situation will most likely grow as a result of poverty, economic downturns, conflict, natural disasters and urbanisation.
- There are 65 million refugees globally at the moment—the highest level ever recorded.
- There are 863 million men, women and children living in slums and favelas across the world.
- It is expected that the number of people living in cities will grow to 6.4 billion by 2050.
There are rising numbers of homeless street people here in Europe and elsewhere. We know that Vincent worked very hard to help refugees, providing safe havens, raising money, offering education and vocational training. As Vincentians today we must ask ourselves: Can we do more? With this in mind I am delighted to announce the launch of the Famvin Homeless Alliance. Its aims are:
- to make a real and sustainable difference to the lives of hundreds and thousands of homeless people by encouraging the growth of new services for refugees, slum dwellers and street people
- to build a strong network between existing Vincentian groups working across the spectrum of homelessness
- to support and develop existing and emerging leaders in homelessness across the globe
- to share the best research, practices and models through our websites and planning conferences
- to lobby for structural change in support of homeless people
- to educate the world about homelessness
- to end street homelessness in 150 cities across the world by 2030 in collaboration with other partners.
Please get in touch with us by email, Facebook and Twitter. I hope that together we can we can build bridges in order to ensure everyone in the world has a place they can call home and a stake in their community.
Extracts from the sermon given by Fr Tomaz Mouri, Superior General CM, during Mass at the Basilica of St Paul Outside the Walls in the final session of the symposium on 16 October.
It is with overwhelming joy, happiness and gratitude that we gather here today at this closing Eucharist of the Symposium celebrating the 400th anniversary of the Vincentian Charism.
We follow in St Vincent’s footsteps, seeking to live out his charism and spirituality. The mustard seed planted by Providence, by Jesus, in the heart of St Vincent de Paul in 1617 has grown to a tree of two million-plus members in 150 countries around the world.
St Vincent realised with time that all the effort put into something would not bring lasting fruit if one were not identified with Jesus, with his ideas, his feelings, his mission—if Jesus did not become the centre of one’s life. The Vincentian Charism is a way of life—a way of life within the Church. It is a road to sanctity, the sanctification of our own lives and the lives of others. Let us seek new and creative ways to come to the assistance of the poor. Our common wish and dream is that more and more people will join the walk toward the Globalisation of Charity.
John Forrest is State President of the St Vincent de Paul Society Queensland and Robert Leach is a member of the National Council Spirituality Committee.