I am very honoured to have been invited to address the Birmingham St. Vincent de Paul Society (SVP) annual festival gathering, not least because both my mother Joan Short and her brother, my uncle, Frank O’loughlin were activists in the SVP for very many years. I would like to dedicate this talk to both of them and to all of you and to the generous and important work that you do.
When John Barley asked me to outline the topic for my talk, I chose “the Sermon on the Mount, the SVP and the state of Britain and the world”. I was at that time thinking of two verses from the Sermon on the Mount. Blessed are the poor. And blessed are those who hunger and thirst after justice for they shall have their fill. I wanted to make the link between the acts of kindness and care to individuals – which is the constant work of those who volunteer to work for the SVP – and the wider quest for a more just, kind and sustainable world order. But when I came to check on the words of the Sermon, in Matthew, we have “how happy are the poor in spirit; theirs is the kingdom of heaven”. Luke, in a similar account of the sermon says ” how happy are you who are poor: for yours is the kingdom of God”. There is of course much debate about what Jesus meant by the poor in spirit but I think for our purposes today, we can conclude that they go beyond the materially poor to those who are isolated, lonely and depressed – who are also recipients of your care. And “those who hunger and thirst for justice – or – in the translation of the Jerusalem Bible “… who hunger and thirst for what is right…” who are promised they will be satisfied, are you, or I hope they are you.
What I want to put to you today is that, contrary to the argument made by some, acts of kindness and charity are not an alternative to a quest for a more just society but are stepping stones towards that more just society. Such work helps inform those who do it of the changes that are needed, and of the necessity and the possibility of creating a more just world order.
Regarding the history of the SVP, which I’m sure you know better than I, it is notable that the organisation started in 1833 as a debating society. According to the SVP website:
[its’] members were committed Catholics who found themselves defending the church against accusations of always backing the rich and powerful. Following taunts of ‘call yourselves Christians, what do you care about the poor’ they realised these taunts had some validity. They resolved ‘ there had been enough talk, it’s time for action’ and went out into the streets and brought material assistance and listened to the needs of those living in poverty”.
Of course, at that time in France only a few decades after the French Revolution, the church had faced enormous attacks for being on the side of the rich and powerful and caring little for the poor. The same accusations were made in many places for example in Italy at the time of unification, Mexico at the time of the revolution and in Franco’s Spain. One might even argue that something similar is happening now with Pope Francis’ focus on the needs of the poor, and the need for us to reorder the way we live to make the world sustainable, and the attacks he faces. On this occasion the attacks come from parts of the establishment within the church, who want to turn back the wonderful breath of new life, of mercy and radicalism Pope Francis is bringing to renew the church.
But, back to the SVP. Your mission is to “seek and find those in need, to help them in the spirit of justice and to tackle the causes of poverty where we can”. And you say you offer “friendship and practical help to all you visit, without regard to faith, ethnicity, status or sexual orientation”. I admire that. It contrasts with the practise a priest told me of long ago, that when beggars knocked on his door, he made then say the Our Father, to make sure they gave the Catholic version before he offered any help!
There are nearly 10,000 of you in the UK and last year your members made nearly 500,000 visits to people in need. In addition you organise various projects providing debt advice, hostels for men on bail, summer holiday camps and much more. And through your twinning arrangements, you also provide support to people working in much poorer countries across the world. For all of this you are to be congratulated.
I think we live at a time when people are feeling increasingly powerless. Most know that things are not right both in the UK and across the world and yet there is an overwhelming feeling that one can do little about it. I think to myself that if my granny – the mother of my SVP activist mother and uncle – could come back and see how we live now, she would be astonished how many possessions most people have and how unhappy so many people are. We have built a society where freedom is dominantly the freedom to go shopping and to consume. I have a friend who manages a number of those storage blocks that are dotted across the country, where firms, for example store paperwork they do not have room for. But my friend tells me that half of the space is taken up with domestic possessions. People have so much stuff that they do not have room for it in their houses and so they pay to store it; whilst others do not have enough to eat or enough space to live in.
Britain is the fifth richest country in the world. Many of us are more comfortable than our forebears could ever have dreamed of for us, yet there are many people in Britain who are poor materially and many more who are lonely and unhappy.
And when we look worldwide, there’s been much progress in the reduction of poverty. There are more children in school, infant mortality has dropped considerably and maternal mortality has reduced, there is less hunger. There is much left to do there has been considerable progress in the last few decades; yet, troublingly, the economic and social model that is spreading across the world is the one we live with; and we know – and you in particular know – it is not a model that makes most people happy. And, it is not sustainable – climate change and the destruction of natural resources will bring untold crisis and trouble unless we change this social and economic model.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after justice for they shall have their fill. Those blessed people are you and there are many more working in different ways. We are living at a time of unprecedented knowledge, technological capacity and the availability of capital. It is completely possible for all the people of the world to have access to all that they need to live a civilised life. And if all could have enough, then it would give us the chance to start to live sustainably and not seek more and more material goods.
And as you also know, trying to do good make you happy. This is a paradox. If you help others in order to gain praise, it will not work. As Matthew says “be careful not to parade your good deeds before men to attract notice… so when you give alms, do not have it trumpeted before you, this is what hypocrites do…to win men’s admiration”. But genuinely giving of yourself and helping to make others feel cared for and happy, makes you happy. That is the paradox of altruism.
And the conclusion is quite simple, by trying to do good and hungering and thirsting for what is right, it is possible to spread a vision of a better world order and help to bring it into being. I do most sincerely congratulate you for all you do.