Archbishop Diarmuid Martin has warned the Society of St Vincent de Paul not to shy away from its Catholic identity and values.
It comes amidst concerns expressed by some members that the organisation risks drifting away from its religious roots towards a generic ideal of secular charity.
In a pointed homily given at a Mass in the Dublin Convention Centre to mark the 175th anniversary of the founding of the charity in Ireland, Archbishop Martin warned that while the society has changed down the years, there are “some constants that you might say if they are not present then you are really no longer the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul”.
He insisted that the SVP is “fundamentally in its inspiration about God”.
“Some will immediately react that today the society would feel itself much less denominational or evangelical than in the past,” he said.
However, Dr Martin also rejected the suggestion that the modern SVP be less denominational or evangelical than it once was.
Referring to the Gospel mandate to put vulnerable people first, Dr Martin insisted that “the Christian is called to such service because authentic Christian life must reflect who our God is”.
He said Christian life is not simply about helping people from afar, but must be about encounter and becoming real friends with the poor.
He said that this cannot “be simply realised from behind a desk.
“Advocacy and administration may be a dimension of the work of any organisation, but becoming friends with the poor means seeing more than statistics and policies,” he told volunteers from parishes all across Ireland.
The archbishop’s comments come against the backdrop of a letter having been circulated among SVP members expressing disquiet at President Michael D. Higgins being scheduled to address the conference, owing to how he signed an abortion bill into law in December.
The letter followed grassroots disquiet in the Northern region of the Irish SVP first reported in The Irish Catholic last year about the failure of the society elsewhere in Ireland to take a stance in last year’s abortion referendum and concern that a similar failure to publicly witness to Catholic values could hurt the pro-life cause in the North.
The SVP last year responded to criticism of its refusal to take a stance on the referendum by underlining that members and supporters of the SVP should understand that the society is a Catholic organisation committed to Church teaching.
Echoing Dr Martin’s comments, SVP Mid Antrim area president Henry O’Loan told The Irish Catholic that SVP is “not just a generic charity. We’re very much aware that we are a Christian charity, and that people are looking up to us for love, first and foremost.
“They may be calling for physical assistance, but our first response is with love. People would be very, very aware of that,” he insisted.