On Saturday, 9 September – co-inciding with the Feast Day of Blessed Frederic Ozanam, the founder of the St Vincent de Paul Society – Teboho Vincent Williams was officially commissioned as the New National President of SSVP in South Africa.
Message from Archbishop Buti Tlhagale
Charity is a tenet of our Catholic faith. This conviction flows from the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 25: “When you do this to the least of my brothers and sisters you do them to me.” (Mt. 25:28)
The mandate is therefore not just to bring the good news of salvation to the poor. It also instructs us to feed the hungry, to give water to the thirsty, to welcome the refugees and to visit the sick and the prisoners. When we do these works of charity, we will be proclaiming “the Lord’s year of favour”. (Lk. 4:18) In so doing, we would be advancing God’s Kingdom in our own communities.
St Vincent de Paul Society is probably one of the best known church voluntary organisations in the Archdiocese of Johannesburg. In many places, it has been taken over by the youth and young adults. The charitable work of St Vincent de Paul has become a concrete expression of their commitment to accompanying the poor and the needy. St Vincent de Paul is a grass-root movement that gives ordinary church members a brilliant opportunity to share with the poor and needy what they have in the wallets, wardrobes, and pantries. It is the power of grace that moves members of St Vincent de Paul to respond to the cry of the poor.
Most unequal society
The disproportionate distribution of wealth in South Africa has created the most unequal society. If this challenge is not confronted directly and timeously it threatens eventually, to plunge the country into a war between the rich and the poor.
While a more radical economic and social change is desirable, St Vincent de Paul has quietly stepped in. The Society has openly and aggressively taken the side of the poor. Members have committed themselves to bring some relief and joy into the lives of the poor who are discarded as the unwanted people. They are unwanted because they trouble the conscience of members of the greedy and wasteful society. They are unwanted because poverty has a stain and an unpleasant stink about it.
The generosity of the members to the less fortunate springs from their Christian knowledge of the twofold Commandment of Love, that there is an intrinsic connection between the love of God and the love of neighbour who is in need. The First Letter of John raises a disturbing challenge to those who claim to be Christians: If you are not able to love your poor and needy brothers and sisters, how could you possibly love God whom you do not see? (1Jn. 4:20).
Moral and religious duty to be keepers of our needy neighbours
St Vincent de Paul members are a visible, gentle and friendly nudge that if we claim to love God, then we have a moral and religious duty to be the keepers of our needy neighbours. St Vincent de Paul is essentially individuals and a community of love in action. It is a rich and living symbol of God’s abundant love and grace. This love is the love which St. Paul, in his First Letter to the Corinthians, goes out of his way to heap praise on. He says love is the cornerstone, the essential quality of Christian life, that it is a gift beyond compare, a “sine qua non” (a can’t live without) of Christian living (1 Cor. 13). St Vincent de Paul is that biblical hen that longs to gather all its chicks under her wings.
The Society enhances the Gospel message in a creative and wonderful way. The accent on the parable of the Good Samaritan is understood by members, not so much to fall on the victims of poverty, but rather on every one of us. The stunning and yet disturbing message is that all of us should treat everyone we meet – however foreign, naked, victimised and abused, with dignity and compassion. Women and children should enjoy the respect, dignity and freedom which they have been denied for so long. Those who feed the hungry and clothe the naked are the champions of human dignity and human worth. It is this noble attitude and commitment which the Society wishes to entrench and promote.
Promoter of human dignity
St Vincent de Paul is a tireless promoter of human dignity. This Society belongs to the esteemed family, the same tribe and race of Mother Theresa and the Missionaries of Charity whose vocation it is to dispense charity to the poor and needy.
The Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 25, is the source of their mandate to feed the hungry, and to visit the sick and the prisoners. This is what Christ did. This is what they do, and teach by example. St Vincent de Paul is a forceful, persuasive and yet humble reminder that faith without works of charity is lukewarm, if not already dead. (Jas. 2:17)
I wish that the Society could, on the side, encourage the children of the poor to stay in school and earn a profession in order to break out of the entrapment of their parents’ abject poverty. This is the ardent prayer of all poor parents, that their children must not become like them. St Vincent de Paul cannot, after the experience of so many decades, just continue to deliver mielie meal and cooking oil. The Society must up its game.
St Vincent de Paul has long been around, long before the Gift of the Givers. The Society ought to alleviate the real needs of the poor. How about helping the poor to build their own houses, to cultivate their own gardens, to create their own jobs? St. Vincent must move with the times and emulate the Gift of the Givers or quite frankly close shop.
The new leadership of St Vincent de Paul has its job cut out for it. If you are not going to bring and implement a new vision for the Society Mr. Williams, I challenge you to hand in your resignation today, on the day of your inauguration.
Message from the Outgoing National President, Peter Keshwar
I write to you today with a mix of emotions as I reflect upon my tenure as the National President of the Society of St Vincent de Paul in South Africa. Over the past seven years, it has been my honour to serve in this role, alongside my devoted office bearers and National Council, who have truly made our organisation impactful and transformative in the lives of those in need. As I reflect on our shared accomplishments, I am confident that we have laid a solid foundation for the future of the Society of St.Vincent de Paul in South Africa.
One of my main goals has been to alleviate poverty, and I am humbled to say that we have made significant progress in this regard. Our initiatives and programmes, supported by the commitment of our dedicated and faithful members, have successfully assisted numerous individuals and families in need. Through community based projects, food distribution programmes, and financial assistance, we have made a positive impact on poverty stricken communities. Our pilot Container Project in Freedom Park, Soweto, has the potential to bring much-needed aid to those in need throughout the country as we seek to implement similar projects nationally.
Prioritising the spiritual growth and personal development of all members has been of utmost importance to me. We have organised numerous training sessions to enhance our members’ skills, knowledge, and spirituality. Under the guidance of our Spiritual Advisers and Training Officers, we have fostered growth and promoted the Vincentian charism and values.
Recognising the value of effective communication and innovation, we have made significant advancements in these areas. We have launched a national website to improve information sharing and transparency and implemented online member registration. Additionally, the adoption of online activity reporting has allowed us to better monitor and evaluate our impact, enabling us to measure our achievements accurately.
Improved administrative processes
Improving our administrative processes and procedures has been crucial to the efficiency and growth of our organisation. We have established a national office to facilitate centralised coordination and support. Furthermore, the introduction of a levy policy ensures sustainable funding for the Society in the future. Streamlining financial reporting, strengthening internal structures, and enhancing communication have fostered greater accountability and collaboration at all levels of the organisation.
As I express my gratitude to each one of you, remember that we have faced extraordinary challenges in recent years. From leading the Society through the hardships of the COVID-19 pandemic and its socio-economic aftermath to dealing with the KZN riots, Knysna Fires, Soweto riots, KZN floods, and numerous other crises, our resilience and dedication have been truly commendable. Together, we have stood united, providing emergency relief, assistance, and comfort to those affected. These tumultuous times have only strengthened our determination and reaffirmed our commitment to serving those in need.
Harness the treasure of our youth
I encourage you to grow our Society in South Africa by engaging with the Youth. Life has given us a huge and noble gift and that is the youth, therefore, we must empower them. It is only by harnessing this treasure we are blessed with – our youth – that we can build a much better Society.
I am confident that Brother Vincent Williams, our incoming National President, will continue to lead the Society with fervour, wisdom, and vision. Brother Vincent has been an integral part of our organisation, and I have no doubt that under his guidance, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul in South Africa will continue to strive for excellence and make a tangible difference in the lives of those we serve.