Keynote address of the Rev. Dennis H. Holtschneider, C.M.,  at the Society of Vincent de Paul annual meeting

August 31, 2006

I'm honored to be with you this morning. You do amazing and holy work, and I'm deeply humbled to stand among you. I'm also happy to finally meet all of you. I've heard about you for a long time. It's true that I'm a Vincentian priest, a member of the Congregation of the Mission founded by St. Vincent. But that's not how I came to understand St. Vincent. It's also true that I went to a Vincentian University—Niagara University—as a college student. But that's not how I came to know about St. Vincent either.

No, I first learned about St. Vincent from my grandfather, John Holtschneider. From my earliest years, I remember the stories he'd tell. He was a member of the Society, belonging to the conference at St. Andrew's Catholic Church in Cape Coral, Fla., from 1966 to 1988, some of those years as its president. Like many of you, he joined his parish conference and became active soon after he retired, in his case from Westinghouse in the Pittsburgh area. He and my grandmother moved to Cape Coral and started a new life. She volunteered extensively in her own way, but my Grandpa joined Vincent DePaul (he never called it "The Society," just Vincent DePaul) for 22 years, until his health turned poor in the final years of his life. But it was the stories, not the years of service that captured my imagination. I was four years old in 1966, so I had the advantage of hearing the stories from him well into my adulthood.

They were stories of going out—always in pairs—to assess the situation of those in need and then see what could be done to help them. He never mentioned their names, but I heard about:

  • retirees whose benefits had stopped for whatever reason
  • women whose husbands had abandoned them
  • people recently released from jail
  • fires where the family was left with nothing
  • migrant workers
  • young people without an education, who couldn't seem to pull it together
  • young mothers who were trying to get themselves and their children set up
  • retirees cutting their pills in half because they couldn't afford the full dose
  • men who were living in cars and needed money to get back home
  • "repeaters"
  • people who were trying to scam the system
  • and, especially, people who used air conditioning and had cable tv 

Air conditioning and cable TV were issues for my grandfather. He had left Westinghouse with a modest retirement. My grandparents weren't poor, but they lived simply in order to stretch their dollars. Each day, my grandfather would open all the windows to let in cool breezes, and then close the windows and lower the blinds in the heat of the day to keep out the heat. They had air conditioning, but they tried not to overuse it. When my grandfather would meet people asking for help who were heavily air conditioning their homes or paying for cable tv when he himself didn't have cable, he would find a way to gently suggest to those families that there were better ways to stretch a dollar.

There were other stories too:

  • stories about the various people he'd go visiting with. Those men became close friends over the years, and visited him to the end
  • stories about women he was training when women were first welcomed into his conference. My grandfather just seemed to take it in stride
  • stories about the condition of the places where they would meet people
  • Masses they would go to together
  • furniture and canned goods they would collect and distribute
  • collections the parish would take up for their work, and their job in counting that collection and accounting for it to the parish 

When I read over this new Rule of yours, I was amazed. I think I could have written most of it just from the stories my grandfather would tell us about how the Society worked. I already knew about:

  • always visiting in pairs
  • conference meetings every two weeks
  • beginning each meeting with roll call, prayer, a reading and reflection, all the reports, and "the secret collection."
  • meeting for certain Masses each year—though I couldn't have told you which ones
  • commissioning of new members
  • I knew there was a larger structure, because my grandfather would have to go to a meeting in Fort Meyers or up in Sarasota every once in a while. I didn't know they were called councils, but I knew about the meetings.
  • I knew also about the rule that visits were always to be nonjudgmental and full of respect.
  • I knew that Vincent de Paul charity was for everyone, not just Catholics.
  • I knew there was a spiritual advisor, though the pastor Fr. Murphy seemed a bit more directive than your Rule seems to indicate. He served more like a central clearinghouse. The poor would call him for help, and he would call the Society members to go check it out. Sometimes my grandfather would get a call late at night. He'd tell us that the retirees got those calls, because the younger men had to stay with their families. So I knew that family responsibilities come first in your organization. 

Why am I telling you all this? Because of the great "Rules" of the Catholic Church.

You've heard of St. Basil, St. Benedict, St. Scholastica, St. Augustine, St. Francis, St. Clare, St. Dominic, St. Vincent, and St. Louise … What did they all have in common? They were all founders of religious orders. Every one of them wrote a "Rule" for their fledgling orders.

And every one of them taught—in one form or another—of the idea of the "Living Rule."

What's a "Living Rule?" The idea is very simple. Before the invention of the printing press, documents like your printed Rule were rare, for they had to be hand-copied. Monasteries would have limited copies of the scriptures, a copy or two of the writings of the saints, etc. That was also true of the Rule. So, the sainted founders used this situation to teach their followers about the idea of the "Living Rule." In short, if the Rule itself were ever to be lost or destroyed, anybody who visited the monastery should be able to rewrite it just by looking at the way the monks and the nuns lived their lives. There were "Printed Rules" and "Living Rules," and ideally they should match up.

I won't make a saint out of my grandfather, but that's how I learned about the Society. I watched him. I listened to his stories. And then, when I read your Rule earlier this year, I chuckled out loud. I already knew it. I knew it, because I knew him. He was a "Living Rule" for me. Just as many of you are "Living Rules" for one another.

I'll come back to that in a few minutes.

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 10 productions of that musical showing on various stages across the world. The musical itself ran on Broadway for over 10 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 10 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)


One Notable Adaptation Let me pause for a moment, and talk about one very significant adaptation to your Rule that Frederic Ozanam and his companions could not have anticipated. I'm speaking of the seventh and final section of your Rule: Work for Social Justice. The social sciences—economics, psychology, sociology, political science—were only in their infant stages when Ozanam was forming the Society. But, in time, the world would come to know what we know today: most of the poor didn't become poor simply because of laziness. There's much more to it than that.

The largest single reason people become poor in the United States is divorce. It's women trying to raise children on their own in country that is shifting from an industrial economy where unskilled jobs paid a living wage to a knowledge economy and a service economy, where unskilled jobs pay minimum wage.

We used to say that "it is not enough to give a piece of bread." Today it is not necessarily enough to give a job. Today, in the United States we have a new type of poverty where people work full-time jobs at Walmart and other large employers and still can't afford housing, food, and health care all at the same time, and so must chose among the three— not to mention having nothing to set aside for retirement or a rainy day. We have among us now something called "The Working Poor."

The world has changed, and we've come to understand that world much better. Poverty has changed, and we've come to understand poverty better as well. We know now that people are poor not just because of their own mistakes and poor decisions, but because their mistakes get caught into a larger economic, political, and sociological world that pulls away solutions that might save them.

  • People are poor because they are unskilled in a skill-based economy.
  • People are homeless because they are mentally ill and the government has closed their institutions.
  • People are homeless because family size has gotten smaller, and there are less family members around to take care of their poor relatives.
  • People are poor because the country has no real response to the ever growing substance abuse problem.
  • People are poor because the high school graduation rate is so shockingly low. (In Chicago, only half of our 18-year-olds graduate from high school. The number is similar in many other major cities.)
  • People remain poor because we've created mandatory prison sentencing and simultaneously cut nearly all education programs in prison. Prisoners are released with no skills, no support and little chance of getting a job that pays anything beyond minimum wage.
  • People remain poor because we require women on welfare to go to work to keep their benefits, but don't provide sufficient money for childcare, or sufficient money for transportation to childcare, or any solution when a child is sick and the childcare won't let them come in that day.
  • People are poor because there's no give in the system, and a single tragedy can set off an unforgiving set of crises.
  • People are poor because minimum wage is $5.15, which doesn't even approach the poverty line. The federal government in 2006 says that one adult and three children living in a household are poor if they live on less than $20,000. Let's do the math. To make $20,000 in a full-time job working forty hours a week for all 52 weeks of the year, a person would have to earn $9.62 an hour. No state in the union has a minimum wage that high. Most states only require $5.15 an hour. If you aren't educated or skilled in our country—even if you are working full-time—it's getting harder and harder to stay out of poverty
  • The best book I've read on poverty in a very long time was published by the Pulitzer prize-winning reporter David Shipler. Shipler spent several years of his life following the lives of people who are working full-time but are still shockingly poor. The book is called simply, The Working Poor: Invisible in America. He says that if you want to assign blame for poverty, you have to blame both the poor themselves and society. I think he gets the balance right. Listen to what he has to say:​

    "The working individuals [whose stories I tell] in this book . . . stand on various points along the spectrum between the polar opposites of personal and societal responsibility. Each person's life is the mixed product of bad choices and bad fortune, of roads not taken and roads cut off by the accident of birth or circumstance. It is difficult to find someone whose poverty is not somehow related to his or her unwise behavior – to drop out of school, to have a baby out of wedlock, to do drugs, to be chronically late to work. And it is difficult to find behavior that is nor somehow related to the inherited conditions of being poorly parented, poorly educated, poorly housed in neighborhoods from which no distant horizon of possibility can be seen . . . The poor have less control than the affluent over their private decisions, less insulation from the cold machinery of government, less agility to navigate around the pitfalls of a frenetic world driven by technology and competition. Their personal mistakes have larger consequence, and their personal achievements yield smaller returns.
    In Frederic Ozanam's world, poverty was something to be remedied by charity. Poor people needed food, clothing, shelter, furniture. In our time, we know now that poverty can only be solved by focusing on both the poor and the structures that keep them poor.

    Last year, I gave a talk to the assembled leadership of the various Vincentian families in the United States. I told them about a story that I heard when I was working in Bedford-Stuyvesant Brooklyn that changed the way I saw the world. It's a simple story, often told by the United Way in its fundraising activities.

    A villager is walking by the river early one morning. The villager looks out into the water and sees a baby floating down the river. Horrified, the villager races into the water, grabs the baby, and brings the baby to shore. The baby is fine. Relieved, the villager looks back into the water and sees another baby floating down the water. The villager again dives into the water and rescues this baby as well. Once more, the villager looks into the water . . . and sees dozens of babies floating down the river. The villager calls out an alarm, and the entire village comes running to the river to rescue as many babies as they can before the water carries them away. The village decides to mobilize. Every villager is at the river, trying to save the babies from the water. This is a village that is improving lives. Many of the babies are being saved. But the babies keep on coming . . . because no one is going upstream to find out who is throwing the babies into the water in the first place.
    You may have heard this story before. It's simple and a bit fantastical, but it came along at a time in my own life when it changed the way I looked at the world. I was drawn to the Vincentian way of life because of its charity, and the way real, flesh-and-blood people were assisted. I loved working in the soup kitchen; teaching people to read in the literacy classroom; building up the self-confidence and spirituality of youth in an inner-city youth groups; getting people into housing; spending time cooking, cleaning, speaking with, and housing people overnight in the shelters; referring people to social services that would make a difference; referring people to legal aid to help them stay in this country, and so much more. Those were tangible projects. When I went to bed that evening, I had done something real.

    Then came this baby-in-the-river story, and it was like I opened my eyes and saw something I hadn't looked at before. I had wondered about the conditions that made other people's lives so different from my own, but it was such a big question, and I really didn't know much about it, that I usually set the larger questions aside, and just continued doing charitable work. This story made me stop and wonder if I was just like those villagers who kept rescuing the babies, and never solved the problem. What difference was my charity—and life—making?

    I have come to believe that it is not enough to give food and shelter, important as that is. If I do nothing to change the situations and structures that make people poor, then I've only dabbed a bleeding wound. I haven't stopped the bleeding. I now believe that God wants us to stop the bleeding. He wants us to go upriver, to fix the problem, not just minister to the symptoms of the problem.

    We must be advocates for the poor. We aren't professionals. I know that. We aren't government officials, policy wonks, economists, analysts, or anyone important who can change society. But even if we aren't professionals, we must be advocates. Advocates are important. There aren't enough professionals out there to make a political difference. Things change because enough people come together and create energy. The professionals can't make that change, only large groups like us. Advocates.

    It crystallized for me during the recent presidential election. No one mentioned the poor. Neither side—Republican or Democrat—mentioned the poor. The poor were invisible in the last election. And that's what where we can help. We know the poor. We may not be policy experts, but we know the poor—and we can tell people about them!

    That's the beauty of your Voice of the Poor initiative. And that's the beauty of Section Seven of your new Rule. Section Seven says this:

    The Society gives immediate help, but also seeks midterm and long-term solutions. The Society is concerned not only with alleviating need but also with identifying the unjust structures that cause it. It is, therefore, committed to identifying the root causes of poverty and to contributing to their elimination. (7.1)

    The Society helps the poor and the disadvantaged speak for themselves. When they cannot, the Society must speak on behalf of those who are ignored. (7.5)

    Where injustice, inequality, poverty or exclusion are due to unjust economic, political, or social structures, or to inadequate legislation, the Society should speak out clearly against the situation, always with charity, with the aim of contributing to and demanding improvements. (7.6)
    Giving "Voice to the Voiceless"
    In Vincent's day and in Frederic's, few thought of changing larger structures to keep people from becoming poor in the first place. They thought about charity. But in our age and time, we have realized that if we make changes to our laws, to our government programs, to our city and educational policies that many more people can be helped that way than can ever be taken out of poverty by our charitable works. I challenge you today to take seriously your own Rule.

    Think about the baby story and ask if you are merely rescuing the babies in the river, or if you are doing something to solve the problem. Let that story haunt you. And then ask what you can contribute.

    Here's the good news. All those new social sciences gave us a new set of tools to remedy poverty. The advantage of all these new social sciences—economics, political science, sociology, and psychology—is that we've learned that the structures and policies that create the world as we know it can be changed.

    • Cities and governments can change economic priorities.
    • Towns and states can change educational policies.
    • We can improve healthcare for the poor. (Illinois just established healthcare for all children, for example.)
    • Welfare systems can be reformed.
    • Minimum wage can be adjusted.
    • Prisons can be made more effective.
    • Cities and developers can find ways to build affordable housing.
    • Medicare and social security can be saved.
    • Immigration law can be strengthened.
    • And so much more.
    Much of this change can happen if you first help people know about the poor. Don't presume that they know what you know. Tell people about the poor. Give voice to the poor. You could tell friends over coffee or your parish in the bulletin. You could take the boy scouts with you when you distribute furniture and tell them about the poor while you are doing it. You could invite local elected officials to go with you to soup kitchens and tell them what you know. There's so many easy ways to tell people. It would be a shame, though, if after all your years of work with the poor, you kept it to yourself and no one else ever knew anything about the poor in your area. You don't need to be the expert, just advocate for them in your small corner of the world.

    I encourage you to go to your own Web site on the Voice of the Poor and learn many easy, practical, effective ways that your own organization is finding to play a simple role in changing the lives of the poor for good. It's www.voiceofthepoor.org. It's your own website. Take a look at it. Your organization has adapted to this new world. Take a look into your own heart and see if you can adapt too. Section Seven of your Rule is quite clear.

    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. 
    ​​