An experience at a hospital has made me realise just how extraordinary the Society of St Vincent de Paul really is, writes Damian Thompson in The Catholic Herald.
Earlier this year I paid several visits to a hospital in the Home Counties to see someone very close to me. Thank goodness the outcome was a full recovery – but there were some harrowing moments for which nothing in my previous life had prepared me.
But then an angel arrived at the bedside. Now, that may seem rather a banal and sentimental description of a middle-aged lady from the local Catholic parish, but the effect was almost supernatural. Angela (not her real name) exuded compassion, cheerfulness and – most welcome of all – a relaxed air that produced a smile from the patient and unclenched my fists.
She was from the Society of St Vincent de Paul – the SVP.
So last week I read a little book about the founder of the Society, whom I vaguely remembered wasn't St Vincent de Paul (1581-1660) but a Frenchman of a very different era: Frédéric Ozanam, a married professor of foreign literature at the Sorbonne who died at the age of 40 in 1853. He was beatified in 1997, though that was news to me.
Ozanam lived his life amid religious and political turmoil. Despite the restoration of the monarchy after Napoleon, the intellectual climate in France became dogmatically anti-clerical. Catholicism did not go into decline, however. It was adopted with new fervency by sections of the middle class, who wanted the Church to reach out to workers in order to quell revolutionary passion.
Ozanam was, by the standards of the day, a liberal. He didn't dislike Jews or Protestants. He organised 'conferences' of Catholic scholars and businessmen who ministered to the suffering. His motto was: 'Beware of discouragement; it is the death of the soul.' By 1848 nearly 10,000 people belonged to these conferences, which became the Society of St Vincent de Paul. The SVP believed in social justice, if not yet in social equality.
These are the roots of the Catholic social teaching that bore fruit, many years after Ozanam's death, in the encyclical Rerum Novarum.
- Damian Thompson
The Catholic Church's best-kept secret (The Catholic Herald)