Vincentians ‘represent goodness of God to the poor’

Bishop Barry C. Knestout visits the St. Vincent de Paul Thrift Store in North Chesterfield on April 4, 2023, blessing the first SVDP thrift store in the diocese and its volunteers before the grand opening day. (Photo/Dorothy Abernathy)

Growing up, the work of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul was an important part of my spiritual development. My dad was a Vincentian who visited homes in our parish. He would often bring one of us children along, especially during the holidays.

We would meet the “friends” – the term the Society of St. Vincent de Paul uses for those they serve – and listen to their stories and learn about their need for material help, be it food, assistance with rent or utilities, and other basic needs. Those were formative experiences for my life.

Last Friday, I was among more than 100 Vincentians at the diocesan St. Vincent de Paul Council’s Day of Hope gala. As I listened to the featured speakers and others at this fundraiser, I was reminded how the work of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul is not only an exemplary expression of Christian charity, but that the spiritual dimension which permeates the service they provide is unique to Catholic outreach to people in need.

That spirituality is rooted in the Gospel and in the Rule of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. That Rule makes clear who a Vincentian is to be: “The vocation of the Society’s members, who are called Vincentians, is to follow Christ through service to those in need and so bear witness to His compassionate and liberating love. Members show their commitment through person-to-person contact [emphasis added]. Vincentians serve in hope.”

But it’s more than that. Vincentians, guided by the Rule, pray about their vocation individually and in fraternity, assume the needs of the poor as their own, and “transform their concern and compassion into practical, effective love.”

The first St. Vincent de Paul conference in our diocese was established in 1865. Fortunately, thanks to the inspiration of a pastor and groundbreaking work by a deacon and a handful of dedicated lay people, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul experienced a “reboot” in 2016, when another parish established a conference. Their efforts caught hold elsewhere in our diocese so that today there are more than 300 Vincentians in eight conferences affiliated with 12 parishes.

Whenever I visit our parishes, I am pleased to hear about their outreach to the poor. Many sponsor or co-sponsor food pantries and meal programs – hallmarks of their social ministries.

What makes the work of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul unique is that their engagement with the poor goes far beyond the material help they provide. Last year in our diocese, that amounted to more than $800,000 in assistance to more than 8,000 people.

What I saw in my dad, and what I see in our diocese, is that being a Vincentian is a way of life. Through home visits – the core of the St. Vincent de Paul mission – Vincentians are the face of Christ to the poor. At the same time, they see the face of Christ in the poor. As the Rule states, “In the poor, they see the suffering Christ … their hearts beat with the heartbeat of the poor.”

I strongly encourage pastors and their parishioners to prayerfully consider how a St. Vincent de Paul conference can complement your parish’s outreach to the poor and fortify the spiritual life of the parish. Please contact Dan Kearns, the diocesan St. Vincent de Paul Council president, at [email protected] for further information.

As ours is the only diocese in the United States of which St. Vincent de Paul is its patron saint, it is fitting that we reflect upon what he wrote in 1657: “After the love of God, your principal concern must be to serve the poor with great gentleness and cordiality, sympathizing with them in their ailments and listening to their little complaints … for they look on you as people sent by God to help them. You are, therefore, intended to represent the goodness of God in the eyes of the poor.”

St. Vincent de Paul, pray for us!


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