Our plenary councils, past and future
A time of preparation is underway. Australia’s bishops, with the approval of Pope Francis, are holding a Plenary Council in 2020. We are being asked to listen for what the Holy Spirit is saying. In this, Vinnies has a special role to play.
Vinnies is, after all, part of the breath of the Church. As liturgists well know, Mass starts with the ingathering of people and ends with their outgoing, back into the world. Each week the Church breathes in, then out, blowing us Vincentians on our particular way into the streets and homes of our towns and cities. As part of this breathing Church, it is time to raise our voices.
The St Vincent de Paul Society predates the first Plenary Council in Australia. When the assembled bishops issued a Pastoral Letter to the faithful after that first Plenary of 1885, they referred to ‘the St Vincent de Paul Society for the succour of the bodily or spiritually destitute’ in a section about Catholic Associations.
A decade later, the Society was not singled out for such mention in the Pastoral Letter that followed the second Plenary Council held in 1895, but our charism was evident: ‘The Church loves the poor for their sufferings,’ the bishops wrote, ‘but does not wish their poverty.’ This greater concern with the poor reflected the changed times. Since the first Plenary Council, the Australian colonies had become gripped by widespread economic depression. The second council had to speak to these conditions.
A long boom period was over, unemployment and under-employment were rife, and workers were agitating for a fairer go. Against this backdrop the bishops remembered the Church’s humble origins: ‘She is not ashamed to be stigmatised as the Church of the poor’, they wrote in those challenging times.
With the passing of another decade, the third Plenary Council of 1905 once again spoke of Vinnies, putting the Society at the forefront of the Church’s regular breath:
Charitable organisations, such as the Society of St Vincent de Paul, can do much good, especially in the larger centres of population. Combining as they do, in the spirit of genuine Christian charity, the relief of spiritual and of bodily needs, they are a source of numerous unrecorded blessings to the objects of their assistance as well as to the members themselves. We heartily wish to see these charitable organisations widespread and active.
By this time Vinnies had grown from being merely one among many Catholic associations to being recognised as a distinct ‘source of numerous unrecorded blessings’, a leading light of the Church in Australia.
A World War and another great Depression separated the third Plenary Council from the fourth, held in 1937. Here again Vinnies attracted specific mention, the bishops writing that, ‘for the relief of the indigent we warmly commend the work of the St Vincent de Paul Society, and we exhort all Catholic men who can do so to become active members of its ranks.’ While the admittedly gendered language now sounds dated, the wider charitable focus of this Catholic pronouncement still feels imminent:
The existence of unemployment to the extent to which it is found even in Australia calls for the attention of all who can in any way contribute to its abatement, for not only is it a serious blot on our social system on account of the suffering it entails on the poor, but it supplies a fertile ground for the fostering of spurious remedies more dangerous than the disease. It is the duty of governments and employers to remove as far as possible the cause of unrest, discontent and revolt among the wage-earners by giving them the fullest measure of justice. Working men whose paramount interest is in their homes and families have no desire to become revolutionaries, but they must be treated fairly in all respects.
It was, in short, a sort of ‘fair go’ theology.
This line of thinking had eminent origins. The Plenary pronouncements of the past were, after all, not straightforwardly local affairs. Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum novarum of 1891 likely inspired the bishops to speak of being ‘the Church of the poor’ in that decade, for instance; and Pius XI’s Quadragesimo anno of 1931 probably nudged the bishops to view wage justice as the best weapon against Communism in the 1930s. Evidently, the workings of the hierarchy informed the Plenaries of old.
But the Australian experience undoubtedly also contributed something to the drafting, of which Vinnies was a prominent part of the background hum: ‘The Church cannot be indifferent to the sufferings of the poor,’ wrote the bishops in 1937. ‘She cannot witness miserable and degrading institution without raising her voice against it’, they added. These lines could almost be a Vinnies’ mission statement.
Such past charitable synergy between people, popes and episcopacy is surely a source of great hope. Generations have passed and much has changed, but Vincentians can look to the next Plenary with the optimism borne of long Plenary association. Ours is an age of homelessness, at home and abroad. Ours is an age where workers endure tenuousness instead of ‘the fullest measure of justice’. But ours is also an age where a pope is prominently going to the margins, and where the bishops of Australia have announced a readiness to listen. Which is good because, at least some of the time perhaps, the Holy Spirit speaks with a Vincentian accent.