Excerpted from: The Living Rule

Rev. Dennis H. Holtschneider, CM
Keynote Address, August 31, 2006
Society of Vincent de Paul Annual Meeting

The Rule Has Its Reasons
In fairness, I was asked to speak today about your printed Rule. So, let me take a moment to tell you why I think your Rule is such an extraordinary document.

Rules like this one give an odd gift: Structure. Yes, structure’s a gift. Your Rule tells us:

Who does what
How often you meet
Who will be in charge
How people get elected
How the meetings are conducted
How the charity is conducted
What you do and what you don’t do.

That way, each conference and each council operates similarly, so people can work together well, and so that the poor are served in a similar fashion everywhere in the world. If every council went off in its own direction, or spent all its time arguing about structure, the organization would unravel.

Clark Kerr, the former and long-serving president of the University of California, observed in his book, The Uses of the University, that since the year 1520 only about 85 institutions have remained continuously in existence. They include the Swiss cantons, the parliaments of Great Britain, Iceland, and the Isle of Man, about 70 universities, and perhaps the best known of all, the Catholic Church. That’s it. 85 institutions in nearly 500 years have survived. The truth is, institutions and organizations go out of business all the time. Even religious orders of priests and nuns go out of existence. I won’t argue that the reason they survive is always structure, but I will argue that no organization survives without a strong structure. Clear rules. Clear purpose. Clear identity. Clear ways of operating. Clear lines of authority. Clear provision for the change of authority over time. Structure is a gift to an organization, and we should be grateful for good structure. Yours is both clear and blessedly simple. It’s easy to understand, and yet anticipates many of the challenges you are likely to face. Structure’s a gift.

And yet, Rules like this one provide more than just structure. The thing about Founders is that they want something to last. It’s not enough to do good now; they want to set up the conditions so that the good continues.

Let me give you an example from the arts. Have any of you ever seen the Broadway musical Les Miserables? On any given night, there were often ten productions of that musical showing on various stages across the world. The musical itself ran on Broadway for over ten years. Night after night. City after city. Constantly changing actors and actresses. Different directors. Different sizes and shapes of theaters. Different languages. But every night, that show had to be exactly the same as the show the night before. Exactly the same as the show ten years ago. Exactly the same as the show in London and Australia and Germany… How did they do it? A script. A musical score. And a central leadership of directors who traveled all over the world and inspected the shows and gave directions to the actors whenever anything wasn’t perfect. Three things. A script. A score. A central group of leaders. That’s what you have in this Rule and in this room. The purpose of a Rule is to make sure that the good that started in 1833 continues happening – and that it keeps happening in a way that’s faithful to the founding inspiration.

But that doesn’t mean that you never change. The very first page of your Rule says this:

Faithful to the spirit of its founders, the Society constantly strives for renewal, adapting to changing world conditions. It seeks to be ever aware of the changes that occur in human society and the new types of poverty that may be identified or anticipated. It gives  priority to the poorest of the poor and to those who are most rejected by society. (1.6)

Organizations suffer when the members simply follow the Rule blindly, without looking to what their corner of the world needs. Organizations thrive when members know and understand the heart and founding inspiration of the organization, when they understand the reasons for the specific rules, and when they can faithfully adapt their actions to better meet the stated purpose. That’s what your Rule asks for. It asks you to adapt for the needs of the poor in your region. Listen:

The Society embraces the Principle of Subsidiarity as its basic standard of operation. Decisions are made as close as possible to the area of activity to ensure that the local environment and circumstances (cultural, social, political, etc.) are taken into consideration. In this way, the Society promotes local initiatives within its spirit. This freedom of action of conferences and councils, which has been kept faithfully since the origins of the Society, enables them to help the poor spontaneously and more effectively, free from excessive bureaucracy. (3.9)

A Way to Christ

One last observation about your Rule, and the most important:

Your Rule has many structures, but, ultimately, it isn’t about just imposing structures.

Your Rule wants to make sure your organization survives long into the future, but, ultimately, it’s not just about
        organizational survival.

Your Rule wants the lives of the poor to be changed in powerful and effective ways, but, ultimately, it’s not just about
         the poor.

No, your Rule has an even more lofty intention. It wants to help your salvation. This Rule wants to help you get into
        heaven, by offering you a way toward holiness.

St. Benedict and his sister St. Scholastica founded the Benedictine abbeys through Europe in the sixth century, and they created a simple Rule for all monks and nuns to live by. It treated many things, such as cooking, working, welcoming guests, times for prayer, times for silence, how to elect an abbot, how to become a member, etc. All the details about daily life and work.

But the purpose of the Rule wasn’t just how to run the household. St. Benedict quoted scripture extensively at the beginning of his Rule, and then commented:

God waits for us daily to translate these holy teachings into action. . . . We must, then, prepare our hearts and bodies for . . . obedience to God’s instructions. If we wish to reach eternal life, then – while there is still time, while we are in this body and have time to accomplish all these things by the light of life – we must run and do now what will profit us forever.

Benedict brought monasticism to the western world not as an alternative lifestyle, but so that his monks might take Jesus’ teachings seriously, put them into practice, grow in holiness, and find a way to Christ. The whole reason for Benedict’s monasteries and his Rule was to help people find their way to salvation.

So, too, the Rule of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. Listen to your Rule:

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. (1.2)

Vincentians pray that the Holy Spirit may guide them during their visits and make them channels for the peace and joy of Christ. (1.7)

Vincentians serve the poor cheerfully, listening to them and respecting their wishes, helping them to feel and recover their own dignity, for we are all created in God’s image. In the poor they see the suffering Christ.

Vincentians never forget the many blessings they receive from those they visit. They recognize that the fruit of their labors springs, not from themselves, but especially from God and from the poor they serve. (1.12)

Vincentians seek to draw closer to Christ. They hope that someday it will be no longer they who love, but Christ who loves through them. (2.1)

Vincentians are called to journey together towards holiness, because true holiness is perfect union with Christ and the perfection of love, which is central to their vocation and the source of its fruitfulness. (2.2)

Therefore, their journey together towards holiness is primarily made through:

Visiting and dedicating themselves to the poor

Attending the meeting of the conference or council, where shared fraternal spirituality is a source of inspiration

Promoting a life of prayer and reflection . . . meditating on their Vincentian experiences offers them internal spiritual
        knowledge of themselves, others and the goodness of God.

Transforming their concern into action and their compassion into practical and effective love. (2.2)

The professors used to teach us in the seminary to be an “Alter Christi,” loosely translated, “another Christ.” This Rule calls every member of the Society to be an “Alter Christi.”

Another “Benedict,” Pope Benedict XVI, agrees. He summed up his encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, in this way:

“Saint Paul in his hymn to charity (1Cor.13) teaches us that [charity] is always more than activity alone: “If I give away all that I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but do not love, I gain nothing.” This hymn must be the Magna Carta of all ecclesial service; it sums up all the reflections on love which I have offered throughout this Encyclical Letter. Practical activity will always be insufficient, unless it visibly expresses a love for [humanity], a love nourished by an encounter with Christ.”

There’s so much more to your Rule:

It talks about your relation to the Church.

It talks about key aspects in St. Vincent’s life and spirituality.

It talks about essential virtues of any Vincentian.

It talks more about your vocation - your call from God to love in very practical ways.

It talks about preserving the spirit of youth – enthusiasm, adaptability, and creative imagination.

About making sacrifices and taking risks for the benefit of the poor.

It talks about being a servant-leader in those moments when you are voted into leadership.

It talks about the spirit of poverty and encouragement that should characterize your lives.

It talks about how to form new members so that they know Christ and Vincent, the poor, and ultimately themselves.

It talks about the importance of partnering side-by-side with others,  non-Catholics, others members of the Vincentian
        family, government and community organizations – anyone who can help.

But, in the end, what is most striking about this plan is the way it strongly and unapologetically says the purpose of this plan is for us to find our way to Christ. The purpose of this plan is for us to follow Christ who gave his own life to the poor and marginalized, and who asks us to love as he loved. The purpose of this plan is for all of us – the poor and Society alike – to find our way to Christ together. The rest is details and good organization. The heart of this Rule is the following of Christ.

Take this Rule as you would take a holy book or an inspirational text, and read it in small doses. Let its words wash over you. We’re human, and we each grow in holiness at different times and in different ways. Rules like this are printed because there are important things to be said and remembered, and we are not always ready to hear them right now. So, the Rule sits quietly on a page, waiting for that moment when our heart is ready to learn an important lesson. Then it can speak directly to us, as if it were written for us alone.

In the end, of course, it isn’t the Rule that brings us closer to Christ. It’s the poor, and it’s God’s action in our lives. Grace. But the Rule keeps drawing our attention to it. It’s like a roadmap – a Way. This Rule is a source of inspiration, and a spiritual director of sorts. It exists to keep your heart on track.

Let me end with a cautionary tale. A warning of sorts. By the time I knew him, Fr. Jimmy Collins was an elderly Vincentian priest living with us at the seminary. He had been the provincial, the leader of our province, in the late 1960s and early 1970s when many priests were leaving the priesthood. Many Vincentians left at that time, and Fr. Collins found it very painful. He always wondered in those later years what he could have done to help these priests stay true to their vows and vocation. But he often repeated one lesson that he learned from the far too many conversations he had with priests who were leaving. He said simply, “I learned that if a priest told me that he no longer prayed, there was nothing I could do.”

Take your Rule seriously. All the parts of it. But especially the parts that call you to pray and grow closer to Christ. This Rule is a great gift precisely because it keeps you from becoming mere social workers. You are followers of Christ. And this Rule is your Way.

So take this Rule into your heart. Become Living Rules. If every copy of your Rule were to disappear from the earth, let the Rule be rewritten because people observe how you live your life. Let this Rule inspire you, and keep you focused, grounded, and challenged. Let this Rule bring you closer to Christ. And, I think, Blessed Frederic, St. Vincent, Jesus Christ, and even my grandfather would be proud.

God bless you and God bless the important work you’ve been given.