Date of publication: 14/02/2020

Charity in a smile

Council General International

Conversation with the President General International of the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul

Interview in “L’Osservatore Romano” 

The poor, the environment, the social projects, as well as young people, the organisation and a renewed presence are some of the themes covered during the visit to Italy of Renato Lima de Oliveira, President General International of the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul, to take part in the Italian SSVP’s Board meeting held in Rome, which brought together dozens of representatives from Conferences across the country. 

In conversation with “L’Osservatore Romano”, Lima de Oliveira, in post since 2016, reported on his term of office as President General, and spoke of his plans for the next three years.

“I am grateful to the national president, Antonio Gianfico and his working group, who have focused on the aims of the international society, while fostering social awareness and the sense of belonging to a lay association, and re-drafting their statutes in line with new Italian legislation”, he said, among other things, emphasising the work of the National Federation of Italy of the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul, which keeps on launching campaigns and projects, and releasing press releases. 

How important is the term ‘collaboration’ for the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul, present in so many parts of the world? 

It is essential. We are all volunteers, working without pay or compensation for what we do. So we believe that working together on behalf of those in need is the greatest strength of our groups, and of every Vincentian branch. Collaboration is in our blood, in our DNA. Vincentians who do not collaborate with the Church, with politicians, with the press and with anyone who can help, will not be so successful in what they do. Alone, we can do nothing. We have to look for other groups, other people and other organisations to improve people’s lives, because there is truly so much suffering. And I am not speaking only of material poverty, but spiritual poverty as well. 

What is your wish for 2020? 

This year, we will be working in the field of mental health. Also, every year we are studying the work of one of our seven founders, and in 2020, we are looking closely at Félix Clavé’s life, who suffered from depression, harassment and the pain of unrequited love. He was like us: he was a founder, a saint, but not invulnerable or inimitable. Vincentians will be focusing on these topics this year, in order to address the issues of depression, drugs, suicide and melancholy. These are all new forms of poverty. They cause spiritual suffering, which destroys families and young lives. People no longer have hope, they do not want anything, families do not even want to have children. It’s the same all over the world, but if we go on this way, the world will come to an end. Vincentians have to redeem the dignity of the spirit within families, especially those most in need. 

What is the happiest memory you have of these years in the SSVP? 

The smile of a Vincentian. I believe that a sad Vincentian is not a Vincentian. When we arrive at the home of a poor person, the first thing we give them is our smile. I believe this is charity. Charity is not only about offering a bag of food, clothing or shoes. Everything is charity for me, especially a smile. If everyone smiled more, things would certainly be better today. 

Is there any one experience which changed your life? 

When I visited the home of a poor family in Brazil, it was love at first sight. I was 15 years old. At this moment, I said to myself, this is how I want to spend my whole life: serving Christ and serving the Church like this. The Church provides many options: pastoral care, various movements and services. Thanks to charity, prayer, friendship, fraternity and spiritual growth, I stayed with the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul. I think all these elements bring us together, so I feel part of it. This poor family marked my life, because from then on, I told myself: “This is my place, this is my life, I want to stay here until the end of my days”. 

Let’s talk about the new projects about to begin… 

We have lots of them. There are plans to expand the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul into at least fifteen more countries. We have many initiatives involving young people, because in some countries our organisation has few members. The new generations can renew our Society.  We will be publishing manuals, and together with priests, we will be working with young people preparing to receive the sacrament of Confirmation, to ensure that they join Vincentian groups. At the request of the national spiritual advisor, Father Francesco Gonella, we intend to hold an international meeting to discuss how to strengthen our youth training programmes.