Renewal: Why we need to have a congress in October

Adelaide is hosting a congress for the Society’s regional presidents and youth this October. It coincides with a need to address new forms of poverty and inequality, while attracting and retaining more youth, writes South Australian state president Brian Spencer.

‘Do not be afraid of new beginnings. Be creative. Be inventive. Organise new works of love in the service of the poor.’

These are challenging words from our Founder, Frederic Ozanam. Words that we should contemplate, as the needs of the communities we serve undergo change.

In October this year we are holding a Congress of Regional Presidents in Adelaide to consider:

  • the spiritual sense of who we are and how we relate to each other
  • the social imperative to address injustice and build a better society.

As part of meeting Frederic’s challenge, we need to look at how we operate in our conferences and other works. The Rule of the St Vincent de Paul Society in Australia describes some of the characteristics we should strive for:

Faithful to the spirit of its founders, the Society constantly strives for renewal, adapting to changing world conditions. Members of all ages strive to preserve the spirit of youth, which is characterised by enthusiasm, adaptability and creative imagination.[1]

The Rule also refers to how we should treat one another. We are invited to share a deep relationship of solidarity as brothers and sisters. How is it possible to love those we don’t know if we are unable to love each other as brothers and sisters?

Members must experience three dimensions of the Society:

  • Work for the poor, deprived and suffering
  • Spiritual development
  • Mutual support, inspiration and friendship.

Let’s reflect on these aspects of The Rule and assess how we are going.

Do we have a culture in our own conference /shop /special work that is looking at new ways of meeting the needs of people in our community? One of enthusiasm and creativity, where new members and volunteers feel welcomed and able to contribute to our work? Do we operate in a way that makes it possible for younger people, working people, people we have assisted in the past, people from different ethnic and social backgrounds, to be able to join us and be part of what we do?

Or are we locked into the way we have always done things, finding it difficult to change or not seeing a need to change?

The world around us is changing and we need to reconsider the needs of the people we serve and how we serve them.

Bertrand Ousset, the previous French National President, visited our National Council in November 2016. He outlined ‘renewal initiatives’ the Society is pursuing in his country, along with the new relationship it is attempting to build with the poor and marginalised.

‘The Society must give a new place to people in a situation of precariousness’, Mr Ousset said.

He maintained the importance of allowing people to feel active when he stated: ‘Participation offers an opportunity of empowerment and renewed dignity. This will allow them in turn to serve their brothers or sisters.’

The French Fraternity Initiative is based on the concept that ‘companionship with the most vulnerable people can transform societies’.

We in Australia also need to look at developing a new relationship with the people we are here to serve. Can we move our mindset from ‘people we assist’ or ‘assistantship’ to a relationship where ‘eventually there is no beneficiary or caregiver, but rather, a meaningful friendship?

‘People we assist’ might become ‘companions’, walking with us and giving us guidance so we can be part of their journey.

Mario Trinidad, who is the project leader of the Community Response Team pilot in South Australia, offers the following observations:

The etymology of the word ‘companion’ is Middle English from Old French compaignon, literally ‘one who breaks bread with another’, based on Latin com ‘together with’ and panis ‘bread’. The English (com+pan+ion), the French (com+pagn+on) and the Spanish (com+pañ+ero) retain those roots. ‘Bread’ of course is a symbol for life.

From a Christian point of view, the word has strong Eucharistic undertones—it was at the Last Supper where Jesus called his disciples ‘friends’ and it was through the breaking of the bread that the disciples at Emmaus recognised the Risen Lord. Jesus calls himself ‘the bread of life’.

I think the word implies a mutuality of relationship: in the process of assisting others we—both the ‘helper’ and the ‘person we assist’—[should] discover our shared humanity. The ‘helping process’ allows us to enter into each other’s worlds. If we are open to it, our respective worlds become intertwined and enriched. It gradually ‘equalises’ the relationship. We accompany them, they accompany us—we are companions.

Are we able to develop new relationships both within the Society and with the people we are here to serve? Challenging, isn’t it? But these are the type of challenges we need to contemplate as part of our Congress.

Photo: Vinnies volunteers at an Elizabeth, South Australia store. Photo by Mario Trinidad.

[1] The Rule, 7th Edition 2012. Section 1.6, Adaptation to a Changing World’.

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