It was in 1833, during the Industrial Revolution, that a group of young French students, including Blessed Frédéric Ozanam, formed the first Conference of Charity in Paris, with the aim of increasing the holiness of its members through the practice of works of mercy. The commitment of these young Christians also bears witness in a world fascinated by technological progress, and increasingly indifferent or even hostile to religion.
Faithful to the insights shown by the first group, the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul is defined today as “a network of Friends who seek their personal holiness through service to those in need and through defending Social Justice”. It is composed of lay faithful, women and men, children and teenagers, young and old, of all conditions in life and of all cultures. The Conference is led by Catholics, but membership is open to all people of good will. It is essential however for the leaders to be Catholics.
Volunteers from the Society of Saint Vincent Paul, also known as “Vincentians”, go out to meet people who are lonely or deprived, where they live: at home, in the street, in shelters, in hospital or in prison. They create a relationship of trust and friendship, built on a long-term commitment. In all their actions, Vincentians seek to bear witness to our Lord, Jesus Christ, who gazes at each one with love and mercy.
The members of the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul have a vocation to a personal relationship with Christ, whom they meet in the people they are helping. With their gift of time, availability, generosity and concern for the other person, Vincentians show their kindness and compassion for all.
They make themselves “all things for all people”, welcoming people of all beliefs and backgrounds, whatever their social or economic background. They offer comfort with goodwill. They listen and never judge, because they know that “any of us who gives a word of comfort, advice or friendship today, may need the same comfort, advice or friendship tomorrow”, Blessed Frédéric Ozanam. They treat the poor person “with respect, not only as an equal but as a superior, since he is suffering what perhaps we are incapable of suffering » Blessed Ozanam. From this experience, they emerge richer, uplifted, evangelised and transformed. Contact with vulnerable or deprived people inspires in them a profound change of heart.
The actions of the Society are always based on love of neighbour. The visit is the most widespread of our traditional actions, central to our work, marked by a person-to-person relationship. This makes it of great relevance in today’s world, marked by “globalised indifference” (Cardinal Robert Sarah) where many people suffer alone. “Love is infinitely inventive” exclaimed Saint Vincent de Paul. So the works of the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul are many and varied, covering numerous fields: health, agriculture, education, housing, professional training, help for isolated or excluded people. In all it does, the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul endeavours to relieve material need, as well as moral and spiritual deprivation.
The Society of Saint Vincent de Paul is present on all continents, present in 150 locations (each with its own Council). It has 800,000 active members and over 1.5 million volunteers in local teams called “Conferences”, forming a vast network of Charity around the world. The Conferences are united by a fraternal bond, offering mutual support to each other through prayer, twinnage relationships or material assistance. Councils are the authorities responsible for maintaining unity with Paris, the headquarters of the International Council General of the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul, chaired by the Brazilian fellow member Renato Lima de Oliveira, 16th President General.