Starting point for Vincentian Formation

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What follows is the text of Fr. Dennis Holtschneider's presentation On Vincentian Formation.

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Initial Comment

The word, “Formation,” typically refers to the preparation one should undergo for the service of the poor. In this room, we represent very different lifestyles and types of ministry, so formation is going to look a bit different for each of us. But I believe there are some constants that are true for any Vincentian formation.

A “GO-THEN” philosophy

First, Vincentian formation doesn’t begin with a classroom, or a book, or a lecture. The philosophy of Vincentian formation is a “GO-THEN” philosophy. Go serve them, then come back and talk about it. Go serve them, then begin to ask what works and what doesn’t work. Go serve them, then begin to figure out why they (and others like them) are poor in such a wealthy society. Go serve them, then begin to ask others who serve them how they keep serving over the years. The best learning happens when it’s grounded in real life and real questions. The Vincentian mission must always be deeply rooted in the lives of the poor. Start there. We don’t learn the Vincentian Spirit from a book. We can only get it working with the poor.
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I remember my first visit to a sick woman’s hospital bed. I was 20. I came into the room while she glared at me, I proceeded to talk too much - introduce myself, explain why I was there, told her about the chaplain’s office, and how mass was on tv, and how communion would be provided daily if she liked, try to draw her into conversation, etc. Finally, I decided that she wasn’t going to respond, so I said I would be going and I asked her if there was anything I could get her. Suddenly her face lit up and she motioned me closer, then she said into my ear… “You can get…OUT!” It was a good lesson she taught me that day. She was sick and miserable, and I had invaded her space on my terms, without her permission, and finding out what she wanted or didn’t want. I was ministering AT her, not to her. So I learned…, and not from a book.
I went back and told the story to the other chaplains. They actually laughed, told me not to worry too much about it, told me about her reactions when they visited her room, and told me other stories of working with the sick, and welcomed me into their camaraderie. Then they gave me some suggestions just by telling me what they had done – and learned - in the doing. And thus, a second philosophy of Vincentian formation: WE FORM EACH OTHER. That’s where much, if not most, formation for the work happens. It’s critically important for the Vincentian mission that we tell our stories. Successes and defeats. Ideals and frustrations. Humerous stories, characters we’ve met, things we’ve learned along the way. Those little stories may seem unimportant to us, but that’s the primary way that we teach one another and support one another. Don’t underestimate them, and don’t excuse your own responsibility from sharing those stories. Others’ little stories helped you along the way.

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Another theory… IT’S THE POOR WHO MAKE YOU A VINCENTIAN. It happens when they let you into their lives. I don’t mean that they let you give them something; I mean that they let you into their lives as a fellow human being. I remember my first visit to the projects in Bedford-Stuyvescant Brooklyn 21 years ago. I was really scared, but I didn’t say anything because I was going with a Daughter of Charity and she didn’t seem frightened, so I didn’t want to either.
We walked through the crowd of toughened young men at the door, (I glanced at them; she said hello), got to the elevator, and I realized there was no where we could go if this group decided to come in our direction. We rode the urine-smelling steel elevator to a high floor, got out and walked down the institutionally turquoise, graffitied hallway to Nelly’s apartment. I don’t remember her mother’s name, just 7-year-old Nelly. Both Nelly and her mother had been raped a year before. Her mother was so traumatized that she no longer left the apartment, so 7-year-old Nelly picked up groceries on the way home from school each day.
Sr. Chris was wonderful with both of them, and they were really happy to see her. I caught Nelly’s eye sneeking a peek behind the sofa from time to time, and got her to smile. When I left, Nelly brought me one of those small school pictures, wrote her name on the back of it, and told me she wanted me to have it. Nelly’s mother started to cry, and told me that I was the first male that Nelly had spoken to since the rape. I was so overwhelmed, I didn’t know what to do with that vote of confidence and love from that child.
I learned a lot that day. I learned about my fear. I learned about the poor’s fear. I learned about how little it takes to touch another’s heart. Most of all, I learned that all the enormous differences between me and this traumatized mother and child can melt away into human friendship. The great divide can be crossed. I still have Nelly’s picture. It’s in my framed picture of Vincent DePaul. Somehow I connect that moment to part of my own journey to becoming a Vincentian. Nelly and her mother were two of the many poor people who welcomed me into their lives, and by doing so, made me a Vincentian.

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A fourth theory… Sooner or later, IT HELPS TO LEARN THE STORIES, OUR HISTORY AS VINCENTIANS. When I first went to the novitiate program, that one year of intense study of Vincent DePaul and his writings and spirit, I read the three volumes of Coste’s biography of Vincent. At first thought I was spending the time to learn the history. It wasn’t until many years later that it dawned on me that I wasn’t being taught these stories to know them; I was being taught them to be inserted into them. The story of Vincent’s service to the poor and the service to the poor from all those who have followed in his footsteps since that time, was now to include me as part of the story.
The purpose of reading about our founders and our histories is not to assemble interesting information, it is to insert ourselves into the story, and to absorb the values and the lessons about serving the poor that they had learned along the way and wanted to pass on to us. There’s a lot of wisdom that Vincent DePaul and our respective founders wanted us to take in, and a lot of mistakes they wanted us to avoid. That’s really helpful. But when we read Elizabeth Ann’s life, or Louise’ correspondence, or the wisdom of Frederic Ozanam, it’s important to see them as flesh-and-blood real human beings. Not some idealized figures in an idealized history.
Vincent and his contemporaries had to figure it out on their own. They didn’t have a model to copy. Those who came after Vincent had to figure it out on their own too, because the world changed and they had to figure out how to serve the poor in their times and countries. We study the past not to copy, but to take heart from it, and to bring the values and purposes forward into a new time and place. We too have to figure it out for this time and place, but we are now part of the story. That’s what Vincent understood. He was continuing the love of Christ for the poor, and wanted us to do the same. We are continuing the Lord’s and Vincent’s service. We are part of the story now. Someday, they’ll study what we did in our time. We’ll be part of this history.


Which brings me to a fifth theory about formation. If you’ve flown on an airplane, you know the instructions: If you are traveling with a small child, and the cabin looses oxygen, and the air masks drop down, what are you supposed to do? (Correct response: “Place the mask over your own face first, then over your child’s.) Exactly! SEE TO YOUR NEEDS FIRST.
Vincentian Formation is about learning to be effective ministers of the poor, to be sure, but it’s also about shaping our inner selves so that we continue in this demanding, sometimes thankless, work for a long time. You’ll be no good for the poor if you are cynical, burned out, frustrated, distant from God, and distant from your own heart. You must learn to pray. You must learn how to step back and reflect on what how you are being changed by the work you do. You must learn how to balance your own life against the infinite needs of the poor, learning how to help but walk away for relaxation, family, rest, and fun. Your person and your heart need to be fully alive if you are going to be any good for the poor long term. You must see to your own needs before you see to the needs of the more vulnerable ones around you. Most of us make mistakes in this regard and find ourselves worn out. Formation for mission must teach this lesson. We must see to our deepest needs. It’s critical.
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And finally, one last theory of Formation: The “IT’S NOT OVER TILL IT’S OVER Theory.” This is the other half of the “GO-THEN Theory.”
  • You serve the poor, then you do something to build up your heart.
  • You serve the poor, then you go back and read scripture and realize, perhaps for the first time, how much of scripture is about the poor.
  • You serve the poor, then you start to learn about the services that are available from various governmental and charitable agencies, and you learn how to work the system to help the poor.
  • You serve the poor, and then you read Vincent’s or Louise’s or Elizabeth Ann’s letters to let them strengthen your inner self and teach you something you weren’t ready to hear before you had actually met the poor.
  • You serve the poor, and then you spend time reflecting with others who serve the poor to learn from them and to support one another. You serve the poor, and then you pray, and read the writings of the spiritual masters, and perhaps begin to meet with a spiritual director.
  • You serve the poor, and then you begin to ask why it has to be this way, and then begin to read sociology, economics, social work, psychology, substance abuse, history, politics, government, housing, nutrition, health, management, spirituality, and so much more.
The “IT’S NOT OVER TILL IT’S OVER Theory” insists that we keep learning along the way. The “IT’S NOT OVER TILL IT’S OVER Theory” insists that there’s always more to learn, there always room to grow as a human being, there’s always a gap between God and ourselves than can be made closer, there’s always more we can understand that will help us help the poor. This doesn’t have to be steady. There are other important things in life too. It can come and go in waves, but formation isn’t something that’s meant to be front-loaded at the beginning, once for all time. IT’S NOT OVER TILL IT’S OVER.
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