As Katrina relief begins, Vincentians reaffirm commitment to poor

By Michelle Martin
Catholic News Service

CHICAGO (CNS) -- As scenes of destruction along the Gulf Coast played on television, more than 700 members of the St. Vincent de Paul Society gathered Aug. 31-Sept. 3 in Chicago to discuss and reaffirm their mission to serve the poor.

Samuel Carocci, chairman of the society's national disaster response committee, took the microphone before the keynote address Sept. 3 to update members on the situation.

"We have to aid these people," said Carocci, a member of a St. Vincent de Paul council in Buffalo, N.Y.

That means raising money and sending it to volunteer councils in the affected areas, Carocci said, where local members can use it to provide direct aid to those in need. But, he said, the affected areas have spread far beyond Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama as people displaced by the storm and the aftermath make their way to other areas.

When they appeal for funds, Carocci said, local councils should emphasize that every penny donated to hurricane relief through the society will be used to help victims.

He said the disaster also should serve as a wake-up call to members of local councils to get disaster response training from their local Red Cross chapters to prepare themselves for other disasters.

Most importantly, Carocci said, members should pray for the victims and for those working directly with them.

"Pray for them to have patience," he said, noting the stress stretching both victims and volunteers to the breaking point. "People in distress don't act normal."

The emphasis on prayer and Vincentian service is what sets the St. Vincent de Paul Society apart, said its leaders.

"We pray together," said Eugene Smith, the outgoing national president. "We reflect on the service of Jesus, and then we do that. The faith is what drives us to serve the people who are in need. It's Jesus washing the feet of the poor."

Doing so means Vincentian volunteers render direct service. They go in twos to visit people in need, and offer whatever aid is necessary, said Smith, who volunteers with his local council in San Francisco. "It's neighbors helping neighbors."

Joseph Flannigan, the incoming president, agreed.

"We see the face of Christ in the poor," he said. "So when we visit them, we visit Christ."

Emphasizing the need for Vincentian formation was one of the main accomplishments of his six-year term, Smith said.

That was part of the strategic plan Smith helped create -- a plan that Father Michael Boland, the society's spiritual adviser, said helped to unite the councils.

"The work flows from the spiritual side," said Father Boland, who also is administrator of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Chicago. "With the strategic plan, the spiritual component really helped bring every one to an understanding of why we do what we do."

The plan also focused on increasing membership, which nearly doubled, to 120,000. Last year, the society, through its local councils, raised and spent more than $200 million to help 15 million people in the United States.

The aid included money for rent and utilities, food, goods donated to St. Vincent de Paul stores and other items. Perhaps more important, it came with the hand of friendship.

Flannigan, a volunteer with a St. Vincent de Paul council in East Brunswick, N.J., said he wants the society to continue to work against racism and advocate for social justice.

"We need to create an awareness that we are an organization that is called to serve the poor regardless of our race," he said. "We also need to find a way to welcome people from other cultural and language groups."

The society must welcome them as friends, as they welcome those whom they serve. That is the key aspect of Vincentian spirituality, said Father Gregory Gay, the general superior of the Congregation of the Mission, who offered the keynote address.

Father Gay discussed the spirituality that unites the lay St. Vincent de Paul Society, Vincentian priests and brothers, the Daughters of Charity and their lay associates.

"The poor are not objects of our charity," Father Gay said. "They are members of our Vincentian family. ... They are sent to prove our justice and charity, to save us by our works. The more difficult they will be, the more you must love them."

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