Keynote address by the Rev. Dennis H. Holtschneider, C.M., to Atlanta's Society of St. Vincent de Paul Evening for Hope

October 4, 2008

Thank you. I’m honored to be with you this evening.

I attended the funeral of an 11-year-old boy, recently, who bravely fought a malicious brain tumor. Throughout the ordeal, he and his family brought together their town - and indeed parts of this nation - in ways I’ve rarely seen. You might keep them all in your prayer.

But here, this evening, I’d like to speak about someone else I met at that funeral. I’ll leave his name aside, because I don’t know if I have his permission to use it. This gentleman was an altar server for the funeral Mass. A good guy. You just knew it when you met him. Mid-50’s. Professional, a banker all his life. Educated at a Catholic university that was a rival to my own – so we took some good jabs at each other, and then began to compare the long list of people we know in common. He’s held impressive jobs at the two banks in which he had worked through much of his life. He clearly has an ethic of giving back as well, serving as a trustee of his alma mater and being deeply involved in other charitable work. Very involved in his local parish, he was immediately willing to help when the pastor called and asked him to serve the funeral that morning.

The reason he was free to serve Mass on a weekday, however, was because this good, educated, generous man is now unemployed. There are many like him in our country this week. Women and men who have seen their famous and fabled corporations swept away in the mortgage and liquidity crisis. 760,000 jobs lost this year so far, according to CNN yesterday. In my hometown of Detroit, the Detroit News reported that nearly one out of 13 homes are in foreclosure. One out of 13.

Yes, tragically, there are many like him. And there will be more before this economic crisis is over. To add to the misery, there is anger and accusation all over television, the blogs, and even the Congressional floor, saying:

“It’s their fault, why should we help them?”

They’re not wrong.

In truth, these businesses did indeed plant the seeds of their demise. They took massive risks and lost it all. Not unlike a bad weekend in Vegas or Macau, they put the money into a very risky game and are now heading home empty-handed.

Financial instruments like collateralized debt obligations or credit default swaps are opaque and confusing to ordinary humans, but these weren’t ordinary humans. These were professionals, people who were mathematically and financially trained. If we don’t understand these arcane markets and instruments, they should have.

It would satisfy a need to blame to remind them of this. That they got what they deserved. That it was their fault. But that wouldn’t be entirely fair. Nearly all are victims of a perfect economic storm far beyond their decision-making or pay-grade. Certainly they at least share responsibility with millions who accepted mortgages they could not responsibly manage, and with Congress who pressed hard on Fannie, Freddie and others to make these loans available against the advice of the experts.

And so, I cringe for them the way I’ve always cringed for anyone who is poor when I’ve heard words like, “It’s their fault, why should we help them?” I think of this man serving the funeral of a little boy last week, quietly praying during the mass for his own family and his ability to support them.

I’m reminded of another time and place when the economy was slipping out of control. There was massive unemployment. The traditional jobs were disappearing. 54 percent of the businesses failed. The new jobs that did appear paid far less than the old jobs, forcing people to work longer hours for less pay. Credit was unattainable. People called for government to subsidize the old jobs and government couldn’t or wouldn’t undertake such massive subsidies. Citizens came to believe that government did not care for them, and so they overturned two successive governments, until they ended up with Napoleon, who assumed total and brutal control. Yes, I’m speaking of France in the 1840’s.

That was the Paris of Blessed Frederick Ozanam’s day. Your founder. It was precisely in another economic credit crisis that the Society was built. There was desperate need for the Society, and God blessed it beyond Ozanam’s imaginings.

He wrote on February 28th, 1841:

​“[Tonight] was one of the four annual meetings of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul.  We numbered 600 young people, as many as would fill a large lecture hall, assembled to learn about the small good already accomplished and the great deal of good yet to be done.  … It is reckoned that 1,500 families here in Paris alone have been helped, the daily bread brought under the needy roof, wood assured for many a dismal home.  Besides 20  boys educated for free in a paternal household, a truly large number supervised, protected, and encouraged, apprenticed in reliable shops, brought together each Sunday for divine service, corrupt fathers have been brought back to an ordered and frugal life, and future tears of so many good mothers of families dried.”   

A few months later, on April 30th , he wrote: 

“Last Sunday the Society of St. Vincent de Paul held its general assembly.  Full hall, a well-written report,… 30 conferences in the provinces, 25 in Paris; in the future, a weekly conference of the 25 presidents, a general council which functions, ….  Never have things gone better.  Please God it will last.” 

In Ozanam’s mind and writings, the Society’s existence and growth is clearly the work of God.  He sees himself almost as a passionate observer watching the hand of God, rather than its founder. 

Yet, make no mistake, he had ambitions for this Society and for all of you, the people he hoped would follow.  He wanted the Society to do far more than provide food, clothing and shelter.  He truly hoped that the volunteers – the members of the Society – would come to understand the poor’s situation and share that understanding with the larger world.  He wanted to bridge the divide between the rich and poor of his time. 

Listen to a letter he wrote [in 1837] to Leonce Curnier in Lyon:

 “Alas!  We see each day the schism started in society become deeper: there are no longer political opinions dividing men, they are less opinions than interests, here the camp of riches, there the camp of the poor.  In the one, self-interest which wishes to keep everything, in the other, self-interest which wishes to take everything from everybody; between the two, an irreconcilable hatred, rumblings of a coming war which will be a war of extermination.  One only means of salvation remains, that is, that in the name of charity Christians interpose themselves between the two camps, that they fly over them, going from one side to the other doing good, obtaining many alms from the rich and much resignation from the poor, bringing presents to the poor and words of gratitude to the rich, getting them used to looking upon one another as brothers, infusing them with a bit of mutual charity; and this charity paralyzing, stifling the self-interest of both sides, lessening the antipathies day by day, the two camps will rise up and destroy the barriers of their prejudices, throw away their angry weapons, and march to meet each other, not to battle, but to mingle, embrace, and become one sheepfold under one shepherd.”   

That was part of the plan.  Not just help the poor with immediate food, clothing and shelter, but use the Society to bridge the divide so that all of society would begin to care about the poor. 

Listen again.  This letter is to Louis Jamot, a leader of the Society in the town of Lyon:

“The problem that divides men in our day is no longer a problem of political structure; it is a social problem; it has to do with what is preferred, the spirit of self-interest or the spirit of sacrifice, whether society will be only a great exploitation to the profit of the strongest or a consecration of each individual for the good of all and especially for the protection of the weak.  There are a great many men who have too much and who wish to have more; there are a great many others who do not have enough, who have nothing, and who are willing to take if someone gives to them.  Between these two classes of men, a confrontation is coming, and this menacing confrontation will be terrible: on the one side, the power of gold, on the other the power of despair.  We must cast ourselves between these two enemy armies, if not to prevent, at least to deaden the shock.  There is the possible usefulness of our Society of St. Vincent de Paul.”   

That’s your founder, and that was his dream for you.  To bridge the divide so that the wealthy would come to know and care for the poor.   

I thought of this recently while talking to an alumnus of DePaul University, who was telling me of an assignment that a professor gave him back when he was a student.  He dressed like a homeless person, and wandered in front of the DePaul Center on Jackson Boulevard where other homeless people sometime spend the morning hours.  As students and Chicagoans went past, he remained polite and well behaved at all times, regardless of how he was treated.  He did not ask for help, but merely greeted people and said hello.  He did this for about an hour while a classmate filmed from inside the building.   

He quickly observed that people were walking around him to avoid him, and that they would quickly look away if he looked them in the eye or said hello.  The film confirmed it, and sparked a powerful conversation in class about how society avoids the poor – and why.  By spending just a little time with the poor, he learned something about their lives firsthand, and then shared that learning with his class.  Everyone was changed. 

That was Frederick Ozanam’s vision for you.  Learning about the poor and then sharing what you’ve learned. 

You know a great deal about the poor, certainly more than the day when you made your first visitation.  You know that the principal reason for poverty in this country is divorce – usually a woman raising children on her own, trying to make it, but unable to do so.   Most people don’t even know that most of the poor in this country are women and children, but you do, and you could tell them. 

The Society re-wrote its Rule two years ago, and made a commitment not only to serve the poor, but to make their situation known so that more people would serve the poor.  It’s just like the gospel story that says no one should put their light under a bushel basket.  They should take that light out so that all can see.  Certainly, you won’t publish pictures or name names.  Even the poor deserve their privacy.  But you can tell people about the poor without using names.  You can tell their stories.  Those stories are powerful.

You can tell people about: 

- People who lost good jobs in industries that left the U.S. and who didn’t have the education to get a new one.

- People who found new jobs in the service sector that paid less, and realized that even if they worked full-time, they could not afford food, rent and health care, and so had to choose to drop their health care – and then got into real trouble when they got sick. 

- The mentally ill who live on the streets because the institutions that used to house them have closed.

- The person, like so many others, living check-to-check, whose car broke down, couldn’t go to work and was fired. 

- Those who grew up in poverty, went to substandard schools, and never had the advantages or connections that give someone a decent start in life.

- And so much more. 

You know that the poor are poor both because of their own bad decisions and because of the life circumstances that overwhelmed them.  Poverty is indeed their fault, and indeed the result of a world that treats them cruelly even as we enjoy its blessings.  And this knowledge helps us set aside the blaming, and instead get right to the heart of the matter: What do they need? 

And so you feed, clothe, house and help with medicine, but you also search for more permanent solutions so that they can help themselves.  Your new initiative here in Atlanta to mentor people out of poverty is impressive in that regard.   

So is the Society’s national initiative, THE VOICE OF THE POOR.  And that’s why I’m here tonight.  I’m here to encourage you to tell what you know, to give voice to the poor.  Someone has to speak for the poor in this country.  They are largely ignored, but you know their stories.  Go to your own Web site and learn about this new and important part of the Society.  It’s not enough to keep feeding people if the Society can play a role in changing the things that are making them poor.   Your stories are part of that, if you are willing to tell what you know.  Your stories have more power to create change than you probably realize. 

Do you know the story of Richard Driehaus? 

Richard Driehaus is the founder of Driehaus Capital Management.  He is a very bright man who invests in ways that parts of the market have still to trust or understand.  Like others, he invests in undervalued businesses with solid fundamentals, but he also pays attention to the ways investors act in certain situations, and then makes financial bets that will take advantage of their predictable behavior.  In some ways, he’s like the poker player who watches for the ticks and tells of the other players and then uses those to his advantage.  Richard is a proud graduate of DePaul University, who often tells the story that when other colleges would not accept him, DePaul gave him a chance and financial aid that made all the difference.   

Richard also talks about the Society.  He remembers his family relying on the Society at a particularly challenging moment, and that too made all the difference.  It might have been a source of embarrassment, but he mostly remembers the kindness of that act, and the fact that he and his family needed that kindness at that moment.  Untold people are employed today in Richard’s worldwide business.  His charity is remarkable.  But none of that would have been possible without our two institutions: DePaul University and the Society of St. Vincent de Paul.  

That’s why I’m honored to be with you tonight.  You feed, clothe, house and furnish the poor.  My colleagues and I educate their children so that their families will never be poor again.  Together, we try to continue the work of Vincent de Paul, and give people like Richard Driehaus a chance.   

I don’t know if Richard’s parents were the “deserving poor” or the “undeserving poor.”  I just know that it doesn’t matter, and that it never mattered.  In the end, words like “It’s their fault. Why should we help them?” don’t make any sense to Vincentians.   We simply know that if we help, people’s lives change.   

We know that the poor are human beings, with stories about their early hopes and dreams, with stories about the difficulties and challenges that came their way, and how they found themselves unable to surmount those difficulties.  And we know what Frederick Ozanam knew, what St. Vincent de Paul knew, and what Jesus Christ knew:  that if you look through the eyes of faith, you can see the image of God in them.  


“The poor we see [in] the flesh; they are there and we can put finger and hand in their wounds and the scars of the crown of thorns are visible on their foreheads; and at this point [unbelief] no longer has a place and we should fall at their feet and say with the Apostle, “Tu est Dominus et Deus meus” [My Lord, and my God.].  “You are our masters, and we will be your servants.” You are for us the sacred images of that God whom we do not see, and not knowing how to love Him otherwise shall we not love Him in your persons?”  [1836 to Louis Jamot, a friend and collaborator in Lyon] 

The words, “Why should we help them, it’s their fault?” don’t mean anything in the light of that Love: God’s love for the poor, God’s love for us, and our love for God.   

In the next few weeks, I’m afraid there will be many new people who need your help.  Unemployed people who never imagined they might need your help.  Help them, for it makes all the difference in the world.  And start telling people about them.  That will help too.    

Go to your Society of St. Vincent de Paul Web site and click on the words, VOICE OF THE POOR.   Come to understand what the Society is trying to do.  You can help people in positions of influence to better understand the needs of those who need their help.  You can bridge the divide between the rich and the poor, just as Ozanam once dreamed you would.  You can tell stories like I told you about the man at the funeral.  I think about him every day, and I pray for him every day, hoping he gets a fresh start for himself and his family.  If we dare to tell the stories we know, people’s hearts will change.  And the work we do will grow.    

Frederick Ozanam once ended a letter by praising the members of the Society for all they were doing:

“You have already done an excellent work in establishing the conference down there … God will give you the blessing He himself gives to all first works: ‘Increase and multiply.’”

Increase and multiply, indeed.  May God bless the good work that he has begun in you here in Atlanta.  May the poor be a blessing for your life, and may you continue to be a blessing in theirs. 

God bless you and God bless the work of Atlanta’s Society of St. Vincent de Paul.​​​