• International Confederation

    Society of Saint-Vincent-de-Paul

    30 million poor people served in the world

  • International Confederation

    Society of Saint-Vincent-de-Paul

    "I would like to embrace the World in a network of charity"

What is beneath the surface in the SVP ?

David Lawlor is a former journalist and public relations manager. He gave a talk to Refugee Applications staff in their offices at Mount Street, Dublin, on this topic. David has degrees in social science and history. His book, ‘Divine Right? The Parnell Split in Meath’ was published in 2007 by Cork University Press. He was president of conference St. Andrew and St. Mary à Pearse Street during almost 6 years.

Scratch the surface of an SVP Conference today and you will find people who, unlike the vast majority of their fellow citizens, have sat in many a Traveller’s trailer, who count Muslim migrants among their friends or who go into jail to let prisoners know that they are not outcasts. In addition to these life-enhancing experiences, SVP members also have the satisfaction of lifting the weight of despair and worry from another’s shoulders, often by pointing them in the right direction and sometimes by simply giving them the means to buy food or pay a bill.

You can feel like Santa Claus sometimes, but other times decisions are hard: Whether to fulfil a dying woman’s wish to go to Lourdes – yes; whether to enable a mother to spend 500 euro on her daughter’s first communion dress, because she believes she should have as good as anyone else – no; whether to replace an elderly Traveller man’s caravan which was burned out – yes; whether to give vouchers to a mother who has surrendered her child benefit book to an illegal money-lender and who refuses to go to MABS – no. The acid test, especially where large amounts are concerned, is to ask whether our donors would approve of our decision.

Of course if you are in the business of giving away money you have to retain a healthy scepticism, as there are always people who will take advantage. Every Conference worries about making the mistake of giving to someone who does not really need help, but who has the hard neck, sense of entitlement or sheer dishonesty to seek it. We worry even more about the bigger mistake of missing out on people who may desperately need our help but who, through natural pride, unawareness or inability to cope, do not call on us. That is why we advertise our services locally and nationally and also maintain contacts with social workers, teachers, community welfare officers, MABS and others who are in a position to point people in our direction.

All of this brings me to our “Catholic ethos” - which I think has been moving in recent years more to a Christian one. Obviously the basic Christian precept of loving your neighbour, i.e. everyone, is at the root of everything we do. But we are aware that charity is a basic component of all the great world religions and non-Christians are therefore not excluded from SVP membership. We are a lay organisation in structure and governance and prayers are said by the president at the beginning and end of each meeting as a psychological preparation for what follows.

While we do have prayers with a purpose at our Conference meetings, we are not all ‘Holy Joes or Josephines,’ but a sample of Irish people, some Mass-going, some not and most varying in-between. I would place myself somewhere in the no-man’s-land between faith and hope, but I think that a relevant church should serve as a kind of power point, where the individual plugs in to be re-charged before going back into the world to continue trying to live up to the Christian ideal.

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