International Vincentian leader visits Madison Print
Around the Diocese
Written by Jane Lepeska Grinde, Catholic Herald Correspondent   
Thursday, Mar. 12, 2020 -- 12:00 AM


SVdP Group
Volunteers Teri and Ray Cobb (blue T-shirts) join Society of St. Vincent de Paul officials for a picture during the visit of the international president general to the Middlecamp Center for Vincentian Charity, Madison. With the Cobbs from left are: Ernie Stetenfeld, head of the district council; Ralph Middlecamp, national president; and Renato Lima de Oliveira, International president. Teri Cobb is president of the society’s conference at St. Christopher Parish, Verona. (Catholic Herald photo/Jane Lepeska Grinde)

MADISON -- "Spirituality, friendship, and service," the essential elements of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, clearly exuded from Renato Lima de Oliveira, the international president general of the society during an interview at the Middlecamp Center for Vincentian Charity here.

The first Brazilian to hold the high office was warm and friendly and full of gratitude for the work of the society volunteers in the Diocese of Madison.

Holding a copy of the February 6 Catholic Herald with Bishop Donald J. Hying's column on the "Life and Legacy of Blessed Frederic Ozanam," Lima de Oliveira said he was grateful to the bishop, who has been a Vincentian for 20 years and is advocating for the sainthood of the founder.

How he became involved in society

Established in France 175 years ago, the society is the largest organization in the Catholic Church. Lima de Oliveira became involved in 1986 at the age of 15 as a volunteer while at a military boarding school in Sao Paulo. It gave him something to do while away from his home in Brasilia. "In retrospect," he said, "God sent me to Sao Paulo. Now I understand perfectly."

After three years, he went home to study journalism and eventually earned three postgraduate degrees and a master's degree in political science from the University of Brasilia.

In the fourth year of his six-year elected term as president, Lima de Oliveira travels worldwide but still maintains a full-time job with Anatel, Brazil's equivalent of the Federal Communications Commission. He is married and the father of two children, ages 19 and 16.

Before his election to the highest office, he held an appointed position of society vice president for South America. He is fluent in Portuguese, Spanish, and English.

When asked how he has time to be international president, his first response was "God is leading the process." He also calls on the Italian society vice president to represent him in Europe when he isn't able to attend a meeting.

First visit to Madison

The international president general made his first visit to Madison at the invitation of National President Ralph Middlecamp. A Fitchburg resident, Middlecamp served as the executive director and CEO of the society for the District Council of Madison until his retirement in 2017, when he was elected national president. He had served in various managerial positions with the society in Madison since 1976.

Ernie Stetenfeld, who succeeded Middlecamp as district head, issued an invitation to SVdP volunteers to meet Renato Lima de Oliveira during his Saturday morning visit.

The international president came to Madison from Chicago, where he presented a talk at DePaul University for its lecture series, "Poverty: Vincentian Responses around the World," hosted by the Center for World Catholicism & Intercultural Theology in collaboration with the inaugural Dennis H. Holtschneider, CM, Chair of Vincentian Studies, Matthieu Brejon de Lavergnée.

The day after his DePaul lecture, Lima de Oliveira came to Madison and spent the day visiting Port St. Vincent, where 32 men are living; the original Madison store on Williamson St.; Dig & Save on Park St.; and the processing center for the Society's Dane County stores.

Saturday, he visited the Middlecamp Center with its food pantry, locker program, and charitable pharmacy.

Praised Americans' generosity

He said America is a great example of generosity. "You are very kind in America. Every time I visit places in America, I express my gratitude." His enthusiasm was infectious as he took pictures, asked questions, and graciously thanked volunteers.

The leader of the largest Catholic organization in the world emphasized that empathy is an important value. "We suffer together with those in need. Empathy is very important to me. Without empathy, we don't suffer together. We need to care for our neighbors. We need to be empathetic."

Working toward systemic change

Organized in more than 150 countries and continuing to grow, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul works toward a goal of systemic change, Lima de Oliveira said. "One of the best solutions is to provide jobs for people to have an income. If you have a job, you have dignity, you can be somebody. The biggest problem is lack of jobs."

The first level is to provide basics, he said. "It is important to provide charity; the second level is getting people out of poverty, breaking the cycle of poverty."

Society volunteer efforts range from working at the food pantry a few hours a month to being Vincentians who formalize their involvement as lay members of the organization.

As a Vincentian, an active member agrees to meet regularly with other Vincentians for prayer and sharing and volunteer for various programs and projects. Many members work in pairs to visit the homes of people coping with poverty who request assistance. Such home visits have been a core focus of the society since its founding.

Engaging youth

Considering his early involvement with the society and the young ages of the founders in 1833, Lima de Oliveira lists engaging youth as a priority. Youth is included in one of the 10 areas of strategic focus "with the intention of rejuvenating the average age of the members" to include more young people among its ranks.

In his letter to members this past January, Lima de Oliveira called for the founding of Vincentian conferences in universities, colleges, and schools, including non-Christian bodies as well.

The University of Wisconsin-Madison through its St. Paul University Catholic Center has a very active, long-standing conference of members.

Lima de Oliveira said being a Vincentian is a "good way to practice our Catholic faith, make good friends, and improve society."

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