Published below is the full text of John Monaghan's personal testimony. Monaghan is the vice president for the Society of St. Vincent de Paul in Ireland. He offered some sobering stats on the number of people served by the SVDP, increasing poverty and isolation (especially for young people) in Ireland and the resources needed to keep the society active and running.
Hello, my name is John Monaghan. I have been married to Catherine for just on 40 years and we have 3 grown up children and 3 grandchildren and we live in Leixlip, Co. Kildare. Both Catherine and I have been involved in various activities within our parish in Leixlip over the past 40 years. Back in the early 1990 I chaired the parish committee for Parish Development and Renewal and in 2005 I chaired the fist Parish Pastoral Council in Leixlip. By profession I am an engineer and have recently retired as Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Trinity College Dublin.
I am a volunteer with the Society of St Vincent De Paul since the mid-80’s when I joined my local Conference in Leixlip. Currently I am a National Vice President for the Society of St Vincent de Paul here in Ireland with responsibility for Social Justice and Advocacy and I have held this role since the late 90’s.
I was asked to focus on how the word of God, heard in the communion of the Church, takes flesh in the response of Christian Solidarity. But before speaking of my personal experience of trying to apply Christian Solidarity through the application of Catholic Social Teaching in my everyday life I think it’s worthwhile reminding ourselves of the origin of this requirement for each of us to show solidarity to one another and particularly to those, of our friends, our neighbours and their children, who are most in need.
It is worth recalling that when Jesus was asked, ‘Master what is the greatest commandment?’ he replied that there are in fact two commandments and they are intertwined. The first is to love God with all your heart and the second is to love our neighbour as ourselves. So these two great intertwined and inseparable commandments indicate that we cannot say we love God if we do not simultaneously love our neighbor in a very tangible way, in other words through showing solidarity. Consequently in loving God we are all expected to look beyond our own personal needs, spiritual and worldly, and actively reach out to our neighbour, whoever and wherever they might be.
Thankfully Jesus left us with many very clear examples of how we should live out these two great intertwined commandments to love God and love our neighbour. One powerful source is the Beatitudes (Matthew 5: 3 -12) which provide us with examples of the personal characteristic of solidarity expected of each of us:
Blessed are the poor in spirit…. not blessed is the comfortable.
Blessed are they who mourn…. not blessed are the uncaring or hard hearted.
Blessed are the lowly… not blessed are the mighty and self-important.
Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for what is right…. not blessed are those who cheat and behave unjustly.
Blessed are they who show mercy…. not blessed are they who extract vengeance.
Blessed are the pure in heart…. not blessed are the amoral or immoral.
Blessed are the peacemakers… not blessed are those who ferment strife and unrest.
Blessed are the persecuted for holiness sake… not blessed are they who are sectarian.
Blessed are those who are persecuted in the cause of right…. not blessed are those who are corrupt and prey on people.
It is also worth recalling the response by Jesus when he was asked by the apostles what would happen on the last day, and he replied:
‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me…….. Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ (Matthew 25: 31-46)
What I have always been struck by is that throughout the gospels there are many powerful examples of how Jesus very cleverly used stories about people from the marginalised groups of his day to emphasise his message of love, hope and above all solidarity.
For example, consider the role of women in the world 2000 years ago and contrast this with the prominence he gave to their role in his ministry, often to make a very important point. This included the virgin birth; his friendship with Mary Magdelaine; the fact it was women who lined the road to Calvary; that it was women who stood longest at the foot of the cross when the men had run away and it was women who were the first to know of his resurrection.
Remember also the powerful gospel stories highlighting issues of faith, forgiveness and charity. For example, the story of the Roman centurion who came asking Jesus to cure his sick son illustrating that the power of faith is available to everyone irrespective of background, even to a soldier of an occupying army; or the story of Zacchaeus the small and hated tax collector, yet Jesus sought him out from the crowed emphasising that acceptance, forgiveness and the love of God is there for everyone. And then the powerful story of the Good Samaritan demonstrating so vividly that charity, goodness and kindness is so often to be found among strangers. Each of these gospel stories and so very many more provide us with very clear powerful reminder that we should be very careful of how we treat and judge one another, because God can, and will, work through each one of us if we let him.
Faith and Works
And so for us Roman Catholics if our faith is to be meaningful and effective it must be lived out in our everyday life in the world around us in solidarity with others, particularly in these difficult times. The words of St James provide us with another very clear challenge in respect of our attitudes and behavior in living out Christian Solidarity with those in need, when he said: ‘What good is it if someone says they have faith but do not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister has nothing to wear, has no food for the day, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, keep warm and eat well,’ but you do not give them the necessities of the body, what good is it? So also faith of itself, if it does not have works, it is dead.’ (James 2: 14-17)
And the words of the late Pope John Paul II were equally emphatic when he spoke of the role of laity in the Church and in the world, he said, ‘There cannot be two parallel lives in your existence as lay men and women: on the one hand the so called ‘spiritual’ life and the other the so called ‘secular’ life, because every opportunity in the family, at work, in engagement in public life presents an opportunity for the continuous exercise of faith, hope and charity’.
So caring for one another, showing Solidarity, and not just to our immediate family or friends, is not optional for us Roman Catholics, it is mandatory.
Catholic Social Teaching
Thankfully the Church has provided us with a clear pathway that guides us as to the attitude and the actions necessary to help us fulfill our dual obligation to love God and Love one another. That pathway is clearly signposted by the 10 principles of Catholic Social Teaching, sadly sometimes referred to as the ‘Church’s best kept secret’. These 10 principles are:
The human face of Catholic Social Teaching
While the principles of the Social Teachings of the Church are all very noble they do need a ‘human face’ to bring them alive. They have to be conveyed in words and images that move the heart of each one of us to live out the Eucharist in Christian Solidarity.
In my own case from an early age I was fascinated and greatly influenced by the messages of love and hope contained in the Gospels, that’s where I first encountered the ‘human face’ of what was later to be called Catholic Social Teaching. Indeed it was the social message of the Church that always seemed to me to be more authentic and closer to the teachings of Jesus than the autocratic focus on rules and regulations that characterised so much of Church life up to the Vatican Council when I was growing up. For me another great source of inspiration is the powerful message of concern for the well being of ordinary people contained in the great social Encyclicals, such as, Rerum Novarum published back in 1891; the expansion of its core principles contained in Quadragesimo Anno published by Pope Pius XI in 1931; in Laborem Exercens by Pope John Paul II in 1981 and Centesimus Annus by Pope John Paul II in 1991 on the centenary of Rerum Novarum. All of these have provided me with a clear focus for the practical application of my faith and Catholic Social Teaching. Because what I always found striking about these important encyclicals is that they were not just based on the conditions affecting the lives of people at the time they were written, but had in fact evolved from the lived experiences of so many great women and men over many years, people who lived out the solidarity of the Eucharist in their daily lives. These great men and women who worked hard to put their faith into action in the world around them included the extraordinary lives of people such as St Anthony; St. Francis of Assisi; St Anthony; St. Vincent de Paul; Sister Rosalie Rendu and Blessed Frederic Ozanam and many, many others. Their lives and work provide a striking practical confirmation that for them it was the innate dignity of the people they served and not their possessions or status that mattered most, just as had been the case with Jesus during his short ministry on earth. For me their lives were obvious examples of how to live out the commandment to love God through service to and love of our neighbour in a very practical way. Also when growing up I was very impressed by the kindness and dedication of so many good and kind priests and religious, wonderful men and women who spent their lives in the services of the poor and needy in areas such as, education, health and in many other ways both here in Ireland and on the missions. And so it was probably not surprising that as a lay person in an effort to put my faith into action I eventually ended up as a member of the Society of St Vincent de Paul, the largest lay Catholic organization for social action in Ireland with over 10,300 volunteers, 1300 Conferences (Branches), nearly 600 employees and a budget of over €75,000,000 per annum.
The Society of St Vincent de Paul: - How did it begin?
So let me tell you a little of the origins and background of the Society of St Vincent and the Vincentian ethos of love, hope, charity and justice that underpins our work of living out the Eucharist by attempting to apply Christian Solidarity each day in the world around us .
In 1617, Divine Providence called an ordinary man to an extraordinary mission, by touching the heart of Vincent de Paul and leading him to the service of the suffering and destitute poor in the villages of France. However, it was nearly 200 years later in 1833, that Divine Providence once again called an ordinary young man to undertake an extraordinary mission by touching the heart of Frederic Ozanam, a young 20 year old university student, who along with six friends founded what they called the first ‘Conference of Charity’. Frederic and his friends took St Vincent de Paul as their patron because as Frederic said, ‘Even the revolutionaries admired St Vincent and forgave him the crime of having loved God’. In his early work Frederic was mentored in serving the poor by an ordinary woman with an extraordinary mission, Sister Rosalie Rendu, a Daughter of Charity who was at that time working in the slums of Paris and she provided invaluable advice and support to Frederic and his young friends. After a short, but eventful life, Frederic died on September 8th 1853 in Marseilles in France and he was beatified by Pope John Paul II on August 22nd 1997. And due to the influence and vision of Frederic the Society of St Vincent de Paul, that started with just six people in 1833, has grown so that today there are approximately 1 million member of the Society working in over 130 countries on all 5 continents. Yet despite his short life Frederic left us with a great legacy of writings rich in inspiration and practical suggestions for the members of the Society of St Vincent de Paul as to how they should live out the Eucharist.
The three essential principles of that first ‘Conference of Charity’ are still the cornerstones of the work and ethos of the Society of St Vincent de Paul today, and they are:
- The dignity of the Human Person – that a human person is never a means, always an end.
- Respect for Human Life – that it is always wrong to directly attack innocent human life.
- Association – that the organisation of society; in economics, politics, law and policy all directly affect human dignity and the capacity of individuals to grow in community.
- Participation – that all people have a right and duty to participate in society and especially the poor and vulnerable
- Preferential Protection for the Poor and Vulnerable – that we must protect the hungry, the thirsty, the sick, the homeless, the prisoner – those affected by poverty and lack of power – those with no voice.
- Solidarity – that we are in fact our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers wherever they live and that ‘Loving our neighbor’ has a global dimension, so we must all work for more just social structures throughout the world.
- Stewardship – that we have a moral responsibility for the protection of the environment and the proper use of natural resources.
- Subsidiary – that limits must be put on oppressive government and that no higher level of an organisation should perform any function that can be handled efficiently and effectively by persons or groups that are closer to the ground.
- Human Equality – that this comes from a person’s essential dignity and while differences in talents are part of God’s plan, however, cultural and social discrimination in fundamental rights are not.
- The Common Good – means the promotion of social conditions that allows every person to reach their full human potential and realize their human dignity. This takes on a global dimension today and so we must always be sensitive to the impact that our actions, lifestyle, politics, economics, etc. can have on our neighbour, irrespective of where they live in the world.
- Spirituality - to bear witness to Christ and his Church by showing that the faith of Christians inspires them to work for the good of humanity, in other words in living out the Eucharist. But remembering that focus on spirituality alone is not Vincentian; because you can join any number of dedicated groups if spirituality is your only concern.
- Faith Community – to bring together men and women of good will and to assist them by mutual example and true friendship and to love and see God in the person of others. But also remembering that a focus on fellowship alone is not Vincentian, because there are lots of organisations and groups within parishes that have a social focus.
Consequently being a Vincentian has always required the integration of all three of these intertwined principles of spirituality, faith and service The Society tries to live out Frederic’s vision of ‘Embracing the world in a network of love,’ and so today the SVP is a world-wide lay Catholic organization of men and women of all ages and backgrounds serving people in need and remembering that ‘No work of charity is foreign to the Society’. These statements mean that the possibilities for Vincentian action are almost limitless. Because being poor is not just about being short of money and material things. It can also mean having a physically or mental disability, being sick, or old, or illiterate. The poor also includes those who are made to feel alone and unwanted, for example, immigrants, asylum seekers, migrant workers, the abandoned or rejected, or those who find themselves among others who are indifferent, even hostile. Being poor can also mean being a prisoner, an alcoholic or a drug addict. All these forms of poverty and deprivation, and many others, are to be found in every country in the world. Consequently as the Society of St Vincent de Paul continues to reach out to the lonely and troubled and indeed all those who have a need for care and friendship.
The innate Dignity of the person, Justice and Charity and the Vincentian Mission
Frederic knew that service to those in need must promote their human dignity and integrity. He told the early members of the Society that:
‘Yours must be a work of love, of kindness; you must give your time, your talents, yourself, because the poor person is a unique person of God’s fashioning with an inalienable right to respect’.
He was telling the members of the Society of St Vincent de Paul to look for, and find, the face of God in all those we meet. But Frederic was also very strong in his belief that the Society of St Vincent De Paul must not only be concerned with relieving immediate need but must also redress the structure within society that causes it, he said:
‘You must not be content with simply tiding the poor over a poverty crisis: but rather you must study their condition and the injustices which brought about such poverty with the aim of a long term improvement’.
And so in fact he was advocating that the concepts of Christian social justice, the rights and dignity of ever individual and the need for equality of opportunity in education and employment, nearly 60 years before the great encyclical Rerum Novarum was published in 1891. For example as a professor of Commercial Law at the Sorbonne in Paris Frederic was active politically as an academic, especially in the material he wrote on social justice. He challenged his students with his teachings and he touched them deeply with his great compassion. He showed and taught them that, indeed ‘Charity and Justice must go together,’ that the Principles of Social Justice do need a human face. He also told his students that:
‘The knowledge of social well-being and reform is to be learned not from books nor from the public platform, but by climbing the stairs to the poor man’s garret, sitting by his bedside, feeling the same cold that pierces him. When these conditions have examined in all different parts of the country it is then and only then that we know the elements of these formidable problems, it is only then that we begin to grasp it and may hope to solve it.’
In other words Christian Solidarity requires active engagement with our neighbours and particularly the poor and the deprived no matter how difficult or challenging that might prove for each of us.
So the missions of both St. Vincent and Blessed Frederic were firmly rooted in the virtues of charity and justice. Vincent said: ‘There is no charity that is not accompanied by justice.’ And Frederic tells us: ‘the order of society is based on two virtues: charity and justice. However, justice presupposes a lot of charity already, for one needs to love a person a great deal in order to respect his rights that infringe on our rights, and his freedom that infringes in our freedom.
Consequently today the Mission of the Society of St Vincent de Paul in Ireland stems directly from the words and Inspiration of Frederic Ozanam. That Mission has three intertwined strands:
- Service – to establish personal contact between its members and those who suffer and to provide them with the most appropriate charitable aid possible. But remembering that a focus on Service alone is not Vincentian; because there are many other good and active community service groups in most parishes.
In some respects the first two strands of the Mission can be considered as a modern application of the story of the Good Samaritan, providing financial and emotional support to those we find lying hurt and bruised on the road of life. But the third strand asks the awkward question of both the State and each one of us, ‘Why is this person lying on the road in this condition in the first place?’
While the words and teachings of St Vincent del Paul and Frederic Ozanam were first made many years ago the daily experience of the members of the Society of St Vincent De Paul here in Ireland is that sadly they are as valid and necessary to day as they ever were. Consequently the three principles of the SVP Mission; offering love and friendship; helping people achieve independence and working for social justice are more than ever necessary in the Ireland of 2012. For example, last year here in Ireland the Societies 10,300 volunteer members in over 1000 Visitation and 300 Special Works Conferences, here in Ireland assisted by 600 supporting staff, spent more than €75 million responding to calls for assistance within nearly every parish in Ireland. In other words responding to calls from our friends, our neighbours and their children. That expenditure was divided nearly equally between spending on services such as:
- To offer Friendship and Support – both financial and emotional
- To help people achieve independence with dignity from both the Society and the State
- To identify the structural cause of poverty and need in Irish society and to advocate for their elimination.
In direct financial support to households the Society spent over €42million, this included:
- 1000 social housing units – mainly for older people
- 14 hostels, providing accommodation for over 350 homeless people each night.
- Over 150 Charity Shops
- 11 Holiday Centres, providing holidays for families, older people and children.
- 15 Family Resource and Day Centres, including pre-schools and crèche facilities
- After School Activities such as Homework and Breakfast Clubs for children.
- Special works – such as visiting prisoners, patients in hospitals and older people in Nursing Homes.
It is a chilling fact nearly 80% of the calls for assistance to the Society come from people receiving some form of social welfare payment and nearly two-thirds of all calls come from households with children. Strikingly, in a still wealthy country, the three most frequently requested items are; money to buy food; help with the cost of energy bills and help with the cost of education and over Christmas 2011 we estimate that we helped over 150,000 households. So it is our daily experience that the extent of poverty and need in Ireland is increasing due to the corrosive impact of rising unemployment; the breakdown of families and the continuous reduction in welfare, health and education supports to the poorest households in the country resulting from the austerity measures introduced by the Government in recent budgets. Sadly therefore the words of Frederic to the members of the Society are as relevant today as they were in 1842:
‘I am asking that we look after people who have too many needs and not enough rights, who demand with reason a fuller share in public affair, security in work and safeguards against poverty. It is in these people that I can see enough faith and morality left to save a society whose higher classes are lost.’ Frederic Ozanam, February 1842
Consequently this means that the third strand of the Societies Mission, to highlight the structural causes of poverty and need in Irish society and to advocate for their elimination is of greater importance today than at any time over the past 15 year. And so it is my firm belief that it is the duty and responsibility of each one of us to work for a society, indeed for a world, in which the vision of Frederic Ozanam, the example of so many great saints and Popes and the principles of Catholic Social Teaching are actively applied. In essence we as Catholics must continuously work for a world in which the concept of the Common Good takes precedence over the sectional interests of the powerful, whether individuals, Governments or business interests. Because as long as our friends, neighbours and their children are still in need, not just here in Ireland but in any part of the world, it is our duty as Catholics to actively show love and solidarity in a practical way. We need to continue to try, in a very real and tangible way, to live out the everlasting and powerful message of love and hope contained in the Gospel and the message of Christian Solidarity set out so clearly by the late Pope John Paul II when he said:
‘I appeal to all who love freedom and justice to give the poor and the powerless a chance. Break open the hopeless cycles of poverty and ignorance that still trap too many of our brothers and sister; the hopeless cycles of prejudice that linger: the cycles of despair in which the poor are imprisoned because they lack decent food, shelter or employment; the cycles of underdevelopment that are the consequences of international mechanisms that subordinate human existence to the domination of partially conceived economic progress; and finally the inhuman cycles of war that spring from the violation of fundamental human rights and that produced greater violations’. Pope John Paul II, October 1979.
And so if the Eucharist is to be lived out in the world around us and if the word of God is to be heard clearly in the communion of the Church then the challenge for each of us is to respond courageously to the call for Christian Solidarity. This will not always be easy; it will at times cost us, both financially and emotionally, and we will encounter powerful interest groups and individuals opposing what we say and do. But we need to remember the prize which is the realization of the message of love and hope contained in the Gospels and the immense benefits for mankind in each of us trying to live out the Eucharist in Christian Solidarity with one another.
- €15m in cash assistance, general bills; rent mortgages; medical and funeral expenses, etc.
- €9million on food
- €6.7million on energy bills
- €4.2 on education from pre-school to university.
Credit: CNS photo