Spring 2020

President’s Column

Welcoming the stranger: Pope Francis calls on each of us to care for the other

National President, Claire Victory joined an international webinar hosted by the University of Notre Dame on 14 October. Each of the six participants examined different elements of Pope Francis’s most recent
encyclical, Fratelli Tutti.


St Vincent de Paul Society National Council of Australia President Claire Victory
Claire Victory

For all the tragedy and disruption it has brought to our lives, COVID-19 has presented decision makers, and all of us, with the opportunity to closely examine the things that matter in a civil society. The Church has an opportunity and an obligation to be present in a real and meaningful way in reshaping the post-pandemic world.

Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis’ third encyclical which was published in October, talks about welcoming the stranger, feeding the hungry, listening to and giving a hand up to the poor, defending the rights of all and ensuring that each person, at every stage of life, is valued and invited to contribute to the community.

As the church’s largest lay organisation, the St Vincent de Paul Society in Australia is central to the Church’s practical response to need and challenge within our community. Vincentians welcome and give a hand up to people in need every day; those plunged into poverty, homelessness or despair through drought, or bushfire, or pandemic, or through historical and systemic disadvantage and discrimination. Walking with people is our core business.

We use this experience and understanding to advocate on behalf of our companions in the hope of influencing hearts and minds not just in governments where big decisions are made but in local communities where small actions can make a big difference.

In this edition of The Record, you will read about some of our advocacy work, which is rooted firmly in the day-to-day experiences of our members.

Central to our advocacy is the capacity to listen to our companions. This is not always easy, and we could probably get better at this – especially at inviting and receiving feedback on how we are going in the work that we do. We need to hear about companions’ experience of us, including things that might be challenging for us to hear.

The message running through Fratelli Tutti stands in stark contrast  to the messaging that runs through much public policy and discourse which would have us consider people to be economic units and to treat them accordingly.

We hear members of parliament and the media talk in such a way that makes it clear they consider some people experiencing disadvantage to be deserving of help, while others are derided and made to feel guilty or morally deficient for requiring help.

As Catholics, we know – and Fratelli Tutti emphasises – that we are deserving of love, and the manifestations of that love, simply because we are human we are all endowed with human dignity; we do not have to prove ourselves worthy of God’s love or the love and care of our neighbour.

One part of the encyclical which really struck me, perhaps partly because it involved one of the parables that really imprinted itself on me when I was a kid, was Pope Francis’ discussion of the Good Samaritan. Pope Francis calls us not to overlook the detail that the passers-by were religious.

He says: “A believer may be untrue to everything that his faith demands of him, and yet think he is close to God and better than others. The guarantee of an authentic openness to God, on the other hand, is a way of practising the faith that helps open our hearts to our brothers and sisters.”

“Paradoxically, those who claim to be unbelievers can sometimes put God’s will into practice better than believers.”

I think that sometimes organisations like ours, and the Church more generally, can fall into the trap of not truly practising what we preach. And by that, I mean that we talk about how to treat people – that we should act with compassion and understanding and welcome to those in need – but then don’t truly put that into practice.

A lot of us can probably think of people – good, Catholic, charitable people – who talk a lot about not judging people based on their gender, age, gender identity, sexuality, life situation, marital status and so on, and who do indeed act accordingly when it comes to their charitable work or what they do out there in the world; but who then shun, judge, or bully the person next to them at church, or across the table from them in a meeting.

This can of course have the effect of excluding gender diverse people, people who are divorced or in domestic partnerships, differently abled people, people in non-heterosexual relationships or people who are not baptised Catholics from our ranks, and thus from our decision making; our decision making is the poorer for their absence, which ultimately makes us less effective in responding to those in our community who need our care.

Pope Francis says that “each day we have to decide whether to be Good Samaritans or indifferent bystanders”. To me, that is a call for us to be kind and compassionate not just to our companions, but also to our fellow Vinnies members, volunteers and employees. ♦

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