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The Society of St. Vincent de Paul: Ending Poverty Through Systemic Change

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Mark Gordon - published on 10/15/14

Within a few years, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul had spread across France. At the time of Frederic’s death (at the age of 40) there were 2,000 Vincentians in Europe and a Vincentian outpost had been established in St. Louis, Missouri. Today, there are 700,000 members of the Society in 140 countries around the world. In the United States, the Society is present in 4,600 parishes, includes over 150,000 members and provided assistance to 15 million Americans in need last year. Frederic Ozanam was beatified by Saint John Paul II in 1997.

Historically, much of the Society’s emphasis has been on ameliorating immediate conditions like a lack of food and clothing, or else providing rental, utility, and other cash assistance. But in recent years, the Society has begun focusing more and more on “systemic change,” a broad-based approach to ending poverty; if not for all, or even for most, then at least for a few who are ready to take the journey up from destitution.

The idea is for the Society to provide deep resources that address elements in the “circle of poverty,” things like job training, education, basic health and dental care, transportation, housing, and so on. At the same time, needy individuals who desire to understand and overcome the roots of their personal situation are being identified and mentored through a process designed to equip them with the skills they need to build independent and sustainable lives. Finally, through its Voice of the Poor initiative, the Society is taking an active part in political debates over issues like food assistance, the minimum wage and income inequality, with the aim of preserving the social safety net and correcting those injustices that lead to poverty.

All of this is perfectly aligned with Blessed Frederic’s thinking. He wrote, “You must not be content with tiding the poor over the poverty crisis: You must study their condition and the injustices which brought about such poverty, with the aim of long-term improvement.” That improvement is what Vincentians call “systemic change,” and it takes place on the personal, community, and national level. In this way, the Society’s notion of systemic change can be seen as a bridge between the approaches proffered by the political left – which professes compassion but prefers to keep people as perpetual wards of the state – and the political right, which would like to shame or starve the poor out of their condition.

In his landmark encyclical, Rerum Novarum, the father of modern Catholic Social Teaching, Pope Leo XIII, wrote that the Church’s “desire is that the poor should rise above poverty and wretchedness, and should better their condition in life; and for this it strives.” He wrote those words in the same document in which he called for vast changes in the economic and social systems of the emerging industrial world. The Society of St. Vincent de Paul’s work on systemic change is of a piece with Leo’s: Provide the economic, social and personal means for the needy to walk out of poverty on their own. Fail to do so, and reap the whirlwind.

Mark Gordonis a partner at PathTree, a consulting firm focused on organizational resilience and strategy. He also serves as president of both the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, Diocese of Providence, and a local homeless shelter and soup kitchen. Mark is the author of Forty Days, Forty Graces: Essays By a Grateful Pilgrim. He and his wife Camila have been married for 31 years and they have two adult children.

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