OTTAWA – Faith formation and evangelization are the keys to carrying out the Society of St. Vincent de Paul's (SSVP) focus on justice and charity, says the society's international president-general.
"Catholics have a shallow knowledge of their faith and lack commitment," Michael Thio told the annual general assembly of the SSVP's Canadian national council June 28. Many "possess a lukewarm faith often without understanding.
"We should warm up," he said. All Catholics are called to a life of sanctity.
"Material aid is not the most important part of service to the poor," Thio said. Spiritual formation comes first.
In a plenary address, Thio traced the history of its founder Blessed Frederic Ozanam who began the lay movement to put faith and charity into action serving the poor.
The SSVP marks the 200th anniversary of Ozanam's birth this year.
Ozanam did not imitate exactly what St. Vincent de Paul did, Thio said, but adapted his mission to the circumstances in France after the revolution, a time of terrible poverty as represented in Les Misérables.
Ozanam was one of a few people at that time who came from the educated upper middle class, Thio said. In one of his visits to the poor, he discovered two families sharing one room with no furniture, no light and no heat. A basket suspended from the ceiling held a loaf of bread away from the rats.
"The living conditions were appalling."
The founder realized no political solution would solve the problems caused by the Industrial Revolution, Thio said. Ozanam "saw Christianity as the most important basis for change."
As an advocate for social justice, Ozanam stressed "social problems must be the primary concern of everybody" and "all classes must be allowed to propose solutions," he said.
The liberty, equality and fraternity of the French Revolution should be duties, not only rights, according to Ozanam, Thio said. Ozanam realized that justice alone could not save society.
The founder's vision was of peaceful reform through willing cooperation, he said. He believed no one could secure reform without help from God and through others. Reform was implemented through democracy and the saving of souls.
Since Ozanam and his companions formed the first SSVP conference in Paris, the society has spread to 148 countries with 780,000 members serving more than 30 million poor people.