Itinerary and Elements of Vincentian Spirituality
by: Jean Pierre Renouard, C.M.
Third Asian Vincentian Institute (Mother House, Paris, September-December 2006)
We cannot separate Vincentian spirituality from the person of Saint Vincent. We should enter first through the door of the spiritual experience of Saint Vincent. This is an absolute prerequisite. But, conscious of the time element, I am inviting you, therefore, to visualize his journey, in outline form, from what he said.
1. A childhood spent in the country marked by faith, toiling the earth and by the example of his family.
2. A hasty entrance into the priesthood which can be viewed from the perspective of faith but also from a possibility of integrating himself in society; a career enhancement for him and for his family.
3. A life marked by numerous and varied geographical stages (Dax – Toulouse – Buzet – Tarbes – Chateau l’Eveque – two un¬known years – Avignon – Rome – Paris) according to intellectual and ecclesial exigencies… with a certain taste for independence and for fantasy—or perhaps even for adventure.
4. A race towards obtaining benefices as was the custom of the time. Saint Vincent would have three benefices at the same time within the years 1612-1615 (Saint Leonard de Chaumes, Clichy, Gamaches).
5. A difficult, turbulent arrival in Paris (many houses, many locations).
6. A first encounter with injustice that involved his reputation, through an unmerited accusation of theft and the temptation against faith which at first shook him and caused him moral and psychological distress. These were his interior spiritual experiences.
7. An extraordinary situation with his coming to the Gondi house¬hold, the nobility and introduction to the world of prisoners by his chaplaincy among the galley slaves.
8. Significant encounters like those with Berulle (from 1608), Duval (and through him, Benedict of Canfield, Thomas a Kempis, the Rhenish-Flemish mystics), Saint Francis de Sales, Louise de Marillac, (from 1620), Marguerite Naseau, Jeanne de Chantal, etc…. From the man of many acquaintances that he was to a man of mutual spiritual influence.
9. A first external experience marked by events in Gannes¬Folleville in January 1617. From that experience came the idea and the realization of the Mission.
10. A second external experience, complementing the former, in Chatillon when Vincent discovered the urgency and the necessity of the Confraternity of Charity.
11. In January 1618: organization of Mission-Charities, in the course of which Saint Vincent proclaimed the truths; reconciled (with God and man), converted and engaged in the service of the less fortunate.
12. From this date on, what follows can be called institutional experiences: Following Folleville: the foundation of the Congregation of the Mission (1625-1628), the deacons (1628) with all their ramifications (retreats for the priests, opening of seminaries, Tuesday Conferences), foundations in Rome, in the foreign land, in Madagascar. The particular mission pushed Vincent to the universality of the mission.
Following Chatillon: we find the foundation of the Charities in the villages, then in Paris and followed by the establishment of the Daughters of Charity (1633), Ladies of Charity, the ran¬soming of the slaves, the foundlings, the aid to victims, etc….
Through this rapid outline of the life and spiritual journey of Saint Vincent one finds the repeated pattern of his spiritual synthesis, for which every Vincentian should hold himself accountable:
• Rootedness in the baptismal faith • Event as expression of the will of God • Special attention to disastrous situation (material and spiritual) • The importance accorded to action • Prayer as the place of “verification” of all actions • The special link between faith and life • The conviction of the importance of announcing the Gospel as a force for salvation • The necessity of alleviating corporal and material needs rooted in charity • Misery and disbelief as forces that question/challenge
“All our work is in action.”
One cannot think otherwise: the disciple of Saint Vincent is a “man of action.” In the field, on the way to visit the sick and the afflicted, in his work bench, on his knees in the chapel, he only thinks of his mission. He hears the instructions of Saint Vincent as a perpetual command of Mission: “Love God, my brothers, with the force of our arms and the sweat of our brows.” That concurs with the favorite saying of Saint Vincent, “All our life is in action.” “Totus opus nostrum in operatione consistit.”
To consume oneself for God and for the poor
It is said that Saint Vincent was full of zeal. The word has become obsolete but is always relevant. Audacious in soul and a man with a heart, he wanted to take risks, to dare, to count on his boldness. He did not give in to moods, nor withdrew into himself. Saint Vincent called this “indifference/ insensibility.” A real Vincentian “can do all.” He is committed, involved completely in his work of service to the poor. A true disciple of Saint Vincent should have more work than he can do. Laziness is a plague to avoid.
Given to God
But where does this fierce energy, capable of martyrdom, come from? From a sense of fundamental belonging. The Vincentian is rooted in God, anchored in Him. He is his untiring rock. He constantly reminds himself that his first vocation is “given to God” (Saint Vincent made use of the verb to give 563 times in the writings that he has left us.). This commitment precedes all others: “Given to God for the service of the poor.” The Vincentian knows the love of the Father and that of the Son for His Father. He listens to the call of the Holy Spirit. He has a privileged relationship with the Trinity. The Trinity is the principle and the model of all his/her spiritual dynamics. The Vincentian goes back to the Trinity as to the source.
To be a man of prayer
How can he live that way? There is only one secret: prayer. To unite in love to the loving God, the disciple of M. Vincent knows only one way, to devote enough time daily to prayer. He has learned from his master that meditation (another name for prayer) is a vital principle: the soul, the fountain, the air, the food, the dew, the bread. He said moreover: the reservoir, the center of devotion, an impregnable fortress, or simply the gift of God. Never does a Vincentian feel exempt from this basic duty. He hears every morning the saying of Saint Vincent “Give me a man of prayer and he can do all things.” Sometimes because of weakness, he has the bitter experience of infidelity that weakens him (causes atrophy of the soul!).
To live for Christ
This grace of prayer is the vehicle that brings him straight to Jesus. For Christ is his all, his Rule “the life of his life and the only desire of his heart.” Being familiar with the Gospel, he knows that there is no other way, no other truth, no other life for an apostle, for an authentic servant. “Our Lord is the true model and the hidden portrait according to which we should form all our actions.” The words addressed to Antoine Portail remain engraved in his heart. “Remember Monsieur, we live in Jesus Christ, through the death of Jesus Christ and we die in Jesus Christ through the life of Jesus Christ, and our life must be hidden in Jesus Christ and filled with Jesus Christ, and in order to die as Jesus Christ, we must live as Jesus Christ. Now, once those foundations have been laid, let us give ourselves up to contempt, to shame, to ignominy, and let us disclaim the honors people pay us, the good reputation and the applause they give us, and let us do nothing which has not that end in view.” He makes his own the sublime words of Saint Vincent: “Nothing pleases me except in Jesus Christ.” Each Vincentian favors two evangelical phrases: “He has sent me to bring the Good News to the Poor” (Lk. 4, 18) and “All that you do to the least of my brothers you do unto me” (Mt. 25, 40). These are the two engines that move the Vincentian to action.
Serving the Poor, he serves Jesus Christ
And Christ does not stop pushing him forward, towards his privileged horizon, the poor. They are his patrimony and therefore his preferred place of action. In fidelity to Christ and to M. Vincent, he wants himself for the poor, to be the first for them. He could knock over rules, structures and persons. He is the friend of the poor because they are the friends of Christ. In spite of his repugnance and fear, he lives for the love of his neighbors, for the humble and hidden service, for the word that encourages, the smile that accompanies, the Gospel that frees and raises them up. Given to the poor by vocation and therefore by the call of God, he knows that the poor are “his master, his Lords” and God repays him royally. Serving the poor one serves Jesus Christ. There is nothing simpler, nor is there a greater revelation. God does not pay with words, and when He gives, He gives flowing over. The gift to the poor becomes an intimate encounter with Jesus. And like a new sacrament, it becomes the center of his spirituality; it is where all Vincentian traditions are assembled and united into a one big family. One of the first Daughters of Charity said, “I will see Jesus Christ in the poor and I will serve them for love of Him.” How well she has learned her lesson! Like a sponge, she, the uneducated one, has learned by instinct what M. Vincent wrote to Louise de Marillac, his collaborator and often his inspiration. “Our Lord wanted to fit Himself to the poor to give us the example and do the same.” In fidelity to this conviction and to this equation (Jesus = Poor and Poor = Jesus), the Vincentian goes to them as a privileged person bringing them warmth, goodness, understanding, material help and spiritual attention, respect, kindness and an unflagging mercy. Never will he forget that Vincent wants him to be a “man of reconciliation, man of compassion and mercy.” Following his example, he forms himself to see; he makes himself an avid observer of people and events with a passion for truth, for efficiency and pure goodness. He should know them by sight, even if we have to appear as naïve, if necessary.
To serve the whole man
This service of Christ in the poor is not limited to corporal or material service, even if that is the priority and vice versa. The Vincentian knows that he helps the whole man and wants the promotion of “the whole man and all men.” He is scrupulously “missionary” in his approach to others and wants to announce to them the Gospel because this will make them free. This is also the preferential way for those visited by suffering or oppressed and crushed by injustice. Make God known to the poor, announce to them Jesus Christ, tell them that the Kingdom of God is at hand and it is for the poor. Oh! How great will that be. Today, he loves to listen to theologians repeat with reason that the priority that God gives to the poor means taking into account the situation of inequality in which they find themselves. He loves to hear “the preferential option of the poor” spoken of.
To pass into action
All Vincentians should above all pass from affective love to effective love…. To pass from tenderness to love of service of the poor undertaken in joy, courage, constancy and love, not contented with words or of sentiments however animated they are. What is needed is action. Saint Vincent places his followers in line with the Gospel, with the first letter of Saint John and Saint James.
To live that way, he must take on “the virtues of his state” or the fundamental virtues. Charity, simplicity, humility (for the Ladies and Daughters of Charity); simplicity, humility, sweetness, mortification and zeal (for the Lazarists).
Simplicity is the virtue that brings us close to God. Simple, the Vincentians remember that he is made to the image of God, since “God is very simple.” Duplicity is not for the apostle.
Humility is the best approach to self. One must be humble to know oneself well. Humility is his password. It is also a virtue loved by all missionaries who are brought to encounter simple people in their apostolate, who are sometimes uneducated and poor. Humility, well understood, helps them to “adjust oneself to them.”
In the same vein, one can speak of asceticism. How can we be credible in speaking of the cross, of mortification if one does not learn to live “the hard way” in struggling against one’s passion and faults without cuddling oneself too much?
Such a commitment entails also meekness. Jesus has chosen this virtue as one of his preferred virtues. “Learn from me for I am meek and humble of heart” (Mt. 11, 29). Meekness conquers the world! And Saint Vincent said, “Meekness opens the heart of men.” It has an apostolic finality and allows each one to be received like credible messengers of the Good News. Saint Vincent had the experience of it: with anger one closes hearts, with meekness they are won over to God.”
We have seen that zeal which characterizes a Vincentian is like the flame of the fire, which is also charity. All the basic virtues of the Vincentian shine in her. Zeal unites hearts, animates and moves them and allows the Vincentian to find himself among brothers and sisters. The advice of Saint Vincent de Paul is surprisingly up to date, “that nothing happens, that nothing is done, that nothing is said that each one of you do not know. You should have this mutuality.” Charity among us, charity for the poor.
We should also add some other elements: joy, sign of peace that is a “fruit of the Spirit;” cordiality, “the outpouring of the heart” that goes by itself. It communicates joy to others. It shows unity of hearts, same affection, same esteem for virtue, the same horror of evil. To be always happy for others—that is the best effect of charity and of joy. The Vincentian claims as his own the famous words, “If charity is an apple, cordiality is its color.” Never does he resort to misunderstanding and division. He is a man of patience, of dialogue, always actively connected to the whole Vincentian family and reflecting “the spirit of Saint Vincent.”
Finally, he is just, a lover of justice in the name of the poor. Because of this, he is very attentive to the poor. Above all, he respects their person and refuses to play favorite. He remembers that in the name of natural right “the works of justice are preferable to those of charity.”
All these counsels presume fraternal life or teamwork. More than communitarian, life should be fraternal. It is inconceivable to act as a free lancer. In fidelity to Saint Vincent, his disciple wants to be someone that “gathers,” that “federates” and that knows that community is a specific characteristic of his vocation. Confreres, brothers, better still “very dear friends.” With an enthusiasm that does not allow itself to be overcome either by antipathies, by anger, or by malice. Deliberately fraternal… for life. And happy to be so!
For the pleasure of God
That being so, the Vincentian is persuaded to do the will of God, the key to all of Saint Vincent’s counsels. Saint Vincent was filled with wonder at the happiness of his disciples “in doing always the will of God in all things, in imitating the Son of God Himself, who came to earth to teach what the Son of God came to do on earth.” All that contributes to the work of integral development does the Will of God and should not have any doubt that they are doing what God wants. This is the key to the vault of Vincent’s spiritual synthesis.
With such perspective, each one of us should live in abandonment to Providence. Availability and trust are its “trumps.” The Vincentian should always abandon himself to Providence since M. Vincent has made it his practice: “true wisdom consists in following Divine Providence, step by step. It is not slowness but attentiveness to the signs of God and to the wisdom of the Holy Spirit.
From day to day, he is attentive to the signs of God who manifests to him His will through events. All his skills consist in putting his life and action in harmony with this “pleasure of God” and to showing himself “inventive unto infinity;” in the choice of the means to proclaim Jesus, a good “evangelical worker.” Following him, the Vincentian is a missionary and a servant of his brothers in humanity, the poor that God loves, and wants in His Kingdom. He steps back to decipher and to decode events through which the Divine Will expresses itself. He confronts his life with the Word of God with the aid of a third person, who helps him in his action of gratitude.
Words for the future
Never would a true Vincentian have enough time to praise God during his lifetime and in eternity! He is aware of living a life that is not ordinary and of being asked by someone bigger than him. He knows he is imbued by the spirit of Jesus Himself, “A spirit of perfect charity, filled with a high regard for the Divine and an infinite desire to honor Him worthily….” A Vincentian is a man possessed.
Grace flows in him from his baptism (Gal. 3, 26-27; Rom. 6, 3¬4; Col. 11,12 etc…). Revitalized by his commitment, he is like the sap of the old oak tree of Ranquines that after 800 years, still flows in the trunk and in the branches, fighting against the ingratitude of time and civilization. For him that tree is a symbol and he says to himself whenever he sees it and while thinking of the heritage of M. Vincent: “I shall prevail.”
1. Conferences to the CM’s, Conference 222, p. 799; Cf. Coste IX, Conference 13, p. 67.
2. Coste XIIIa, Documents 1 and 2, pp. 1-2ff; Cf. Coste V, Letter 2027, p. 569.
3. Conferences to the CM’s, Conference 150, p. 318.
4. Op. cit., Conference 17, pp. 42-43.
5. See the 5 articles on the Mission: Conferences to the CM’s, Conference 2 and 3, pp. 18-22; Conference 112, pp. 169-171; Conferences to the CM’s, Conference 180, p. 415; Coste IX, Conference 9, pp. 49-50 of unequal value but builds the missionary engagement.
6. Coste IX, Conference 20, p. 162; Cf. Coste X111b, Conference 124-142, pp. 1-103.
7. Coste XIIIb, Document 127, p. 2.
8. Conferences to the CM’s, Conference 22, p. 49.
9. Ibid., p. 50.
10. Conferences to the CM’s, Conference 212, p. 692.
11. Op. cit., Conference 83, pp. 105-107.
12. Coste IX, Conference 45, p. 432.
13. Ibid., Conference 14, p. 80 and Conference 28, p. 231; Coste X, Conference 67. pp. 69-70 and Conference 88, p. 308.
14. Coste IX, Conference 3Z p. 327.
15. Ibid., p. 328.
16. Coste X, Conference 105, p. 468.
17. Coste IX, Conference 37, pp. 321-322.
18. Op. cit., Conference 36, p. 316.
19. Op. cit., Conference 37, p. 322.
20. Coste XI, Conference 153, p. 324.
21. Coste IX, Conference 1, p. 3; Conference 4, p. 25.
22. Conferences to the CM’s, Conference 51, p. 77.
23. Coste IX, Conference 37, p. 324.
24. Conferences to the CM’s, Conference 198, p. 472.
25. Coste V, Letter 2001, pp. 536-537.
26. Conferences to the CM’s, Conference 128, p. 208.
27. Abelly 1, p. 78.
28. Conferences to the CM’s, Conference 13, pp. 20-24.
29. Coste X, Conference 106, p. 489.
30. Coste IX, Conference 24, p. 199.
31. Op. cit., Conference 10, p. 53.
32. Coste I, Letter 228, p. 327.
33. Conferences to the CM’s, Conference 65, p. 82.
34. Op. cit., Conference 181, p. 426.
35. Op. cit., Conference 195, p. 602.
36. Coste IX, Conference 51, p. 466.
37. Abelly III, p. 242; XI, p. 50.
38. Conferences to the CM’s, Conference 203, p. 535.
39. Coste I, Letter 70, p. 110.
40. Coste VIII, Letter 3027, p. 202.
41. Coste XI, Conference 17, p. 31.
42. Coste XIIIb, Document 60, p. 281.
43. Coste X, Conference 96, p. 390.
44. Ibid., p. 391.
45. Coste VII, Letter 2884, p. 633.
46. Conferences to the CM’s, Conference 142, p. 297.
47. Coste II, Letter 473, p. 113.
49. Conferences to the CM’s, Conference 102, p. 147.
50. Coste VIII, Letter 2285, p. 334.
51. Conferences to the CM’s, Conference 196, p. 627.