'What you do is as broad as friendship', Cardinal tells SVP
posted on 02 May 2006
Poverty in Britain is all the more “painful” because it is surrounded by plenty, the Archbishop of Westminster said last Saturday in a homily at Mass for the St Vincent de Paul Society.
“We may live in a wealthy nation, with a welfare state, but the poverty that exists is no less real – and is in many ways more painful – because of it is surrounded by plenty,” Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor told the congregation of 1,000 at a “Mass of Rededication” at Westminster Cathedral.
“This is most vivid at present in the spiralling cost of housing, which eats more and more into the disposable income of the poor, leading many further and further into debt,” the Cardinal said.
The Mass was attended by representatives of the 23 central councils of the SVP from across England and Wales, who renewed their vows during the liturgy.
The SVP Conference in Britain was founded in 1844 – in the first wave of expansion of the French movement founded by the Blessed Frederic Ozanam.
SVP members in England and Wales made more than 630,000 visits in 2004-5 to people in need, in hospitals, care homes and prisons.
“Poverty and need are always personal,” the Cardinal told the Congregation. “Two people in an identical material state might nonetheless experience poverty quite differently. Everyone has different needs. You attend to those needs in a way that is very loving, very Christian: in a way that is direct and personal, whether it is transport, food, money, clothes, furniture or fuel; or help with language or dealing with authorities. The range of what you do is as broad as friendship.”
Text of Homily given by His Eminence, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, at Westminster Cathedral, 29th April 2006 for Society of St Vincent de Paul.
Dear friends in Jesus Christ, dear friends of the poor:
In the Parable of the Good Samaritan we see all the elements of that charity which the St Vincent de Paul Society lives so faithfully. The Samaritan sees the suffering where the priest and the Levite simply fail to. The Samaritan stops, and allows himself to be diverted from his path. He tends the wounded man directly, then takes him where he can be taken care of, bearing the cost. And he promises to return, because being a neighbour doesn’t stop with single acts of compassion.
Since the first SVP Society conference in England and Wales was founded in 1844, this is what you have been doing, following the example of Blessed Frederic Ozanam. Your founder was a very gifted intellectual and writer, who immersed himself in books; but he said that the knowledge of social well-being, which we might call the secret of neighbourliness, “can be learned not from books,” he said, “but in the climbing the stairs to the poor person’s garret, sitting by their bedside, feeling the same cold that pierces them, sharing the secrets of their lonely hearts and troubled minds”.
When Ozanam and those first students took firewood to an old man in a garret in Paris , they realised afterwards that much more than firewood he needed to be warmed by their presence. He needed to know that someone cared. He needed someone to share the secrets of his lonely heart and troubled mind.
Visiting those in need and sitting side by side with them rightly remains your core work. From that encounter everything else flows. Poverty and need are always personal. Two people in an identical material state might nonetheless experience poverty quite differently. Everyone has different needs. You attend to those needs in a way that is very loving, very Christian: in a way that is direct and personal, whether it is transport, food, money, clothes, furniture or fuel; or help with language or dealing with authorities. The range of what you do is as broad as friendship. That is why you so find it so hard to describe easily, in secular terms, what you do. One has to know and understand the parable of the Good Samaritan in order to understand the SVP.
Do not doubt the contemporary relevance of your vocation. Poverty and need remain hidden from view, in the way that the beaten traveller was hidden from the view of the Levite and the priest. Many people might doubt the need for an SVP in the way that it was needed in Ozanam’s day. But as he pointed out, “not everyone knows how to look for poverty.” We may live in a wealthy nation, with a welfare state, but the poverty that exists is no less real – and is in many ways more painful – because of it is surrounded by plenty.
You know all too well how the poor are directly affected by the rush for prosperity around them. This is most vivid at present in the spiralling cost of housing, which eats more and more into the disposable income of the poor, leading many further and further into debt. Your understanding of these situations, and the help you are able to give, is so precious, both in their eyes and in the eyes of God.
I know you face challenges at present – challenges of numbers, and the need to recruit new members. It seems there’s continuing labour shortage in the vineyard! But this is nothing new. It seems that presidents of the SVP have often complained, in the C20 about the lack of new people; yet they continue to come, and the SVP continues. This is something that depends on God, not human effort, and as long as we have recourse to him in our need, we will grow, if not in numbers then in qualities much more precious to the Lord.
But this is not a charter for complacency. It is always worth returning to the life of the founder to understand his passion and his energy and to be inspired by them. You are lucky in the great legacy of Ozanam which you have, above all in his nine volumes of books and letters. It is worth, too, returning to your history here, to those busy first six years and seek to capture again that passion which was so infectious. Are there lessons we have lost?
“He that will have loved the poor in his lifetime,” said Ozanam, “will behold the moment of death approach without fear.”