St. Vincent de Paul group focuses on long-range planning, unity



COLUMBIA – The Diocese of Charleston Council for the Society of St. Vincent de Paul (SVDP) recently received an intimate portrait of its founder, Blessed Frederic Ozanam, helping them reconnect to the organization’s spiritual roots. No one was more capable of such a task than Vincentian priest, Father Ronald Ramson, guest speaker for the council’s annual meeting held Nov. 10.

Ramson not only wrote numerous articles on Ozanam including the book titled, Praying with Frederic Ozanam, but also is working on his cause for canonization.

“The spirituality of Frederic Ozanam is relevant and applicable for the layperson of the 21st century. It works. It makes people holy,” said Father Ramson, the national director of Spiritual Formation for SVDP, who spoke first about Frederic’s ability to maintain balance in his life with work, family and God, something many people struggle with today.

Father Ramson made comparisons with Frederic’s spirituality and that of St. Vincent de Paul who is the patron of the organization. He pointed out the many similarities, even though the two men lived during different times and had different vocations. St. Vincent was a priest, and Frederic was a husband and father.

“Frederic said that his first holy Communion (at age 13) was the ‘hallmark of his life,'” said Father Ramson, a statement that illustrates a deep love for the Eucharist. According to the priest’s research, Frederic frequented the sacraments, read Scripture every day, and would not pass a church without going inside to pray. He also had a devotion to the Blessed Mother whom he believed interceded for the family when they had difficulty conceiving a child.

Father Ramson then showed how Frederic practiced the spiritual and cardinal virtues, something required when presenting a cause for sainthood. The virtue of charity, tied closely to holiness, was prominent in Frederic’s life. “He had a great love and respect for the poor. He knew their names,” said Father Ramson, who mentioned how Frederic encouraged people to see the “scarred and risen face of Jesus” in the poor and afflicted, an image that demands great faith because one must see the suffering but still remain hopeful in the resurrection.

The Vincentian priest found the virtue of hope visible in Frederic’s life. Father Ramson said, “He once said, ‘The mistake of many is that they hope too little.’ This man of hope told his students to ‘have faith in the time you are living,’ urging them not to be fearful like the apostles in the boat during the storm.”

Another topic Father Ramson addressed was how Frederic re-examined his motivation for helping the poor and insisted that the ‘why’ be clear with a purity of intention.

“You might say you are involved with SVDP because ‘It makes me feel good when I help others,’ or ‘I do it because I like people.’ Although these reasons are fine, we should try to aim higher,” said Father Ramson, who believes Frederic served humanity because of his love for God.

Father Ramson also differentiated SVDP from other worthy organizations, ones that work for social justice causes, trying to alleviate suffering and change social conditions.

“Vincentians differ in that they see their mission as personal growth in holiness through service to the poor,” said Father Ramson, describing it as “a person-to-person service” that grows out of a need to experience Jesus more intimately and to grow in personal spiritual formation.

After the guest speaker’s presentation, SVDP conference presidents and other members went to informal breakout session on “Setting Up a Pantry,” “Client Aid,” “Computer, Directory and E-mail Update,” “Society Materials,” and “Long Range Planning.”

“What we are trying to do is work closer with the diocese and individual parishes. We need to be connected to the church, working and complimenting one another,” said Tom Serra, Midland District Council president, who spoke on their long-range planning that involves greater unity. Although South Carolina is a rather young diocesan SVDP compared to more established Catholic regions of the country, it is fast-growing and hard-working.

“The number of persons contacted total 19,000, a 12 percent increase from last year, and the total hours of service is 22,000, a 15 percent increase from last year,” said Serra. Also, more than $185,000 was collected in 2000-2001 for the poor either through donations, church collections or the poor box. Their helping hand extended beyond the state when they responded to the Sept. 11 tragedy by sending some money budgeted for disasters to the national organization; so it could reach the local SVDP in need.

Tom’s wife, Eleanor Serra, is the diocesan council president and trustee who reports annually the accomplishments of councils to Bishop Robert J. Baker and to the national SVDP. The diocese has received praise for their national presentations because of its accuracy and the use of state-of-the-art equipment.

Pope John Paul II referred to Blessed Frederic Ozanam, as the “precursor of the social doctrine of the church.” In many ways the Vincentians today, like those in South Carolina continue to break new ground in reaching out to the poor yet remain united with the pure intentions of their patron, St. Vincent de Paul, and founder, Blessed Frederic Ozanam, who challenge Catholics of every age to see the face of Christ in the poor.