Monsieur Vincent: the Saint
by: Jean Pierre Renouard, C.M.
Third Asian Vincentian Institute (Mother House, Paris, September-December 2006).
Saint Vincent was not a speculative man. A man of action, he did not get lost in ideas and even less so in their systematization. We have no writings of his beliefs related to the “Common Rules” of the Congregation of the Mission that reflect an experience of thirty years.
Nevertheless, he is a truly spiritual man if not a mystic. We have today the opportunity to appreciate a bit more the heritage he left us and we see well that it is the fruit of a commitment to the good of the Church, its living tradition, along with certain other personal touches that were often revolutionary.
Vincent demonstrates a strong biblical culture. He often quotes Scripture, incorporating it into his own experience in instructing his confreres and the Sisters. The Word of God truly lives in him. For example, this is clearly seen in the paragraphs of the chapter of the Common Rules of the Mission on the “evangelical maxims,” a masterpiece and a condensed form of a short treatise of spirituality. Those who put these teachings into practice will be saints.
He is resolutely part of the Church, as his doctrine repeats tirelessly. As Fr. Robert Maloney said in a recent conference, he and Saint Louise “both absorbed the ‘standard theology’ of their era.”
Saint Vincent’s “Study on Grace” shows that he is nourished by the Bible, the Councils (especially the Council of Trent whose decrees he tried to put into practice in France), the Church Fathers and reason. He knows “the classics” and we cannot understand his judgment when he considers himself “an ignorant man, a scholar of the fourth class.”
I present him to you as a man fully alive and filled with the Holy Spirit and as a man of prayer. You may add to this other virtues found among the saints.
I. A man fully alive and filled with the Spirit
The evangelization of poor persons! With very precise goals, Saint Vincent diverged from the other spiritual men of his time, especially Berulle, from whom he separated at a certain moment of his life, when he decided not to enter the Oratorians and instead set off independently to found his own congregation.
Replete with his own experiences and overwhelmed by the events of Folleville and Chatillon, he had but two goals in mind that would direct his life and guide his thoughts: Mission and Charity. And in these he is revolutionary!
The book that remains his bedtime reading is experience. As Father Dodin has emphasized, “his life is experience, and this experience designs and verifies his doctrine.” In following his spiritual itinerary, we notice that he takes a considerable amount of time to read events and to find in them the action of God.
Consequently, he tries to allow action to take priority in his missionary process. His great principle is as follows: “all of our life consists of action.” It is necessary to act, to serve poor persons, to evangelize them, rather than resting “in a state of laziness and inactivity.” It is necessary to strive for perfection, seek the Kingdom and work for its extension, “to begin by establishing the Kingdom in oneself and then in others.” His interior life nourishes his action, while charitable and apostolic work unites him to God, leading him to require of his followers: “we must sanctify these occupations by seeking God in them, doing them with a view to finding Him therein, rather than merely to see them done.”
Why does he live this way? Why is he so committed? It is because he is ceaselessly turned towards Christ, Christ the Servant and Missionary. He says with much conviction: “Nothing pleases me except in Jesus Christ.” The great big open book in which he gains strength to act and to believe is Christ! His life is that of Christ, Savior of all people, Missionary of the Father, Evangelizer of those who are poor. He sees Christ kneeling before poor persons and hidden in them. And you know the words that are his: “in serving persons who are poor, we serve Jesus Christ.”
For a long time such words had not been spoken, such a commitment had not been lived out in the Church.
Saint Vincent assumes this new way of being and acting. He wants us to bring charity to life, the real love of God in committed charity. The essential is to live “not turned in on self,” but rather “filled with God,” “self-giving…” towards God and those who are poor. Everything else comes from this approach and unites with the most classic spiritual perspectives.
What a modern way of understanding God, of living through Christ and serving “his suffering members!”
There are two adverbs that recurrently appear in the guide¬lines or written rules: to come to the aid of poor persons “corporally and spiritually.” Vincent knows, moreover, what he must do, how he must do it and where he must do it. He is driven by a spirit that he describes in the following way: “all of our life consists of action.” Despite it all, he does not fall into the trap of activism. He insists on a life of prayer. In speaking of prayer, he refers to it as food, dew, water, bread… prayer is “the center of devotion,” a reservoir. Without prayer, it is impossible for the Missioner or the Daughter of Charity to persevere. All good things come through prayer; it unites one to God. Vincent, who never wrote his own methodology, borrowed from Saint Francis de Sales his method of prayer, and on numerous occasions, insists on the good that comes from being faithful to prayer, even when he affirms that when necessary, it is important to know how to give preference to service of poor persons over Mass and prayer…. That advice remains an extraordinary one: “in case of necessity;” it is the famous “leave God for God.” It supposes a deep interior life and a flawless unity of life. Christ is encountered in poor persons according to Mt. 25:40: “Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” He is the same Christ encountered in prayer. In both cases, the Spirit of the Lord is at work. Saint Vincent returns frequently to Luke 4: 18: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.” He made this the motto of the Congregation of the Mission. And at the same time, he gives to the Daughters of Charity the following motto: “The love of Jesus Christ crucified urges us.”
“In serving persons who are poor, we serve Jesus Christ” because both the work of evangelization and service are the work of the Spirit. There is no lack of continuity between prayer and true Vincentian work. It is the same Spirit who assures the ongoing presence of Christ in the poor person and in prayer.
All this is possible thanks to the Spirit of Christ. And here is where Saint Vincent joins together in the best way the spirit of Christ and the Holy Spirit. Listen to his words:
“The rule then says that, to do this, as well as to tend to our own perfection, we must clothe ourselves with the Spirit of Jesus Christ….
But what is the Spirit of Our Lord? It is a spirit of perfect charity, replete with the marvelous esteem of the Divinity and with an infinite desire to honor. It is, worthily, a knowledge of the greatness of the Father so that it may be admired and extolled unceasingly….
His humiliations were only love, His labors only love, His prayers only love, and all His interior and exterior operations were only reiterated acts of His love. His love gave Him a great contempt for the world, contempt for its goods, contempt for its pleasures, contempt for its honors.
That is a description of the Spirit of Our Lord with which we should be clothed and, in one word, it is always to have a great esteem and a great love of God. He was so filled with it that He never did anything of Himself or to satisfy Himself: ‘I always do the will of my Father.’ I always perform the actions and works that are pleasing to Him. And as it is by the Will of the Father that the Eternal Son despised the world, its good, pleasures and honors, so too it is by despising them as He did that we shall enter into His Spirit.”
This text, as you have figured out, is of utmost importance for our topic. M. Vincent makes no distinction between the Holy Spirit and the spirit of Christ. To clothe oneself in the spirit of Jesus Christ is to receive the Holy Spirit. Pay attention, moreover, to how he ex¬plains it, or more precisely, the way that the Spirit of God guides every Vincentian:
• “a spirit of perfect charity” meaning the love of God
• “a high esteem for the Divinity” meaning the glory of God
• “understanding of the grandeurs of God the Father in order to admire them and unceasingly extol them” meaning such a sense of God that one is necessarily led to a desire to make God known.
• clothing oneself in the same spirit as Christ (humiliations, work, sufferings, prayer, action and everything that can be summed up in one word: love!)
Here is the key word for the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Christ, Servant and Evangelizer of those who are poor: Love! Vincent sees the disciple of Christ clothed in his spirit and thus he reflects back on his baptism. Through this sacrament, he is called to empty himself, to die to self and to attach himself to God (cf. Gal. 3:26-27; Rom. 6:3-4, 12; Col. 11:12). As Fr. Dodin, who had a profound understanding of the spirituality that radiates from the writings of Saint Vincent (even if our saint lived out more from experience than from a doctrine) noted: “The spirituality of the Mission is not based on a theology of priesthood, but on a deepened understanding of the doctrine of identification with Christ through baptism.” We should add here something that is very important for us: “Through baptism, Christ transmits His character to us and in giving us ‘in this way the essence of His spirit and His grace’ allows us to act through these divine actions.” The action of the Vincentian is action through grace, thus it is God’s action. It is an action sustained by the Spirit of Jesus, an action inspired by God so much so that Saint Vincent affirms: “we must sanctify these occupations by seeking God in them, doing them with a view to finding Him therein, rather than merely to see them done.”
Finally, we must say that above all, this action begins and grows with the Church.
As Fr. Morin often emphasized: “For Vincent, the Holy Spirit is the spirit and soul of a people, the soul and inspiration of the Church, because it is the Spirit that animates, assembles and unites.” Vincent has a marvelous way of using the talents of others, and he receives great support many times from the lay people, especially the rich.
He sees the Church as the “city of poor people” according to the beautiful expression of Bossuet in his sermon on the “eminent dignity of poor persons.” For this little shepherd of Ranquines, “The Spirit is manifested in the people of the Church, most especially in poor persons, often in those who are the most poor.” In summary, he wants us to be united with the Church, with our attention most particularly focused on those who are poor, (we like to say “our eyes fixed on them”) always to evangelize and to serve. Should we add that he does not approach the Church from its hierarchical aspect, even though he contributes to the nomination and formation of good bishops and wants all his foundations to be connected pastorally with the bishop of the area. Instead, he approaches the Church from its base, from the perspective of those who occupy the last place, before whom he gladly comes on bended knee. With great admi-ration he exclaims: “Oh! what an honor to us, Missioners, to carry out the action of the Holy Spirit on the Church, in working as we do, in the instruction and sanctification of the poor.”
II. A man of prayer
Of course, Saint Vincent did not give us a treatise on prayer. He was far removed from the spirit of systematization and he never wrote a manual or a work on spirituality. In this way, he is distinct from the great spiritual men of his time, such as Berulle, Olier and Condren who founded and animated the French School of Spirituality. These men were significant in recentering faith on Jesus Christ and prayer through the Eucharist, but they approached it from a very scholarly and somewhat complicated perspective.
It seems to me that Vincent’s teachings on prayer, presented occasionally, can be summarized in three points. All Vincentian prayer worthy of the name must be:
• centered on Christ,
• a way of bringing growth to others,
• nourished by the life of poor persons.
1. Prayer centered on Christ
There is nothing special about the idea that the prayer of Saint Vincent must be centered on Christ; that is the understanding of the prayer of the Church. However, it is more original in the way in which it applies the principle of the imitation of Christ. Jesus shows us the way; he is “our guide and our conductor.” Our life must be modeled on his and our actions rooted in him. The fundamental question is this: “0 Lord, if Thou wert in my place, what wouldst Thou have done? How wouldst Thou instruct the people? How wouldst Thou console this illness of body or mind?” Fr. Morin liked to refer to this as a “companionship with Jesus Christ.” It is what Saint Vincent speaks about in his advice given to Antoine Durand who was named Superior of the major seminary in Agde at the age of 27: “depend greatly on the guidance of the Son of God.” We understand that this was the way he willingly imitated Jesus the Servant and Jesus the Missionary, in the way that he would insist on Charity (the service of poor persons) and Mission (the evangelization of poor persons).
Christ is the focal point of all our actions and all our prayer. This is what creates the unity of our life, as we have already had the opportunity to emphasize. From prayer to poor persons and from poor persons to prayer, it is always the same Christ who is encountered and recognized. For M. Vincent, there is perfect continuity between prayer and life.
2. Prayer that is shared
In his apostolic work, Saint Vincent immediately sees the community dimension.
It is thus completely natural that he would suggest that his sons and daughters pray together, not simply to be together for prayer. This was done from the beginning, but very quickly Saint Vincent sensed the benefits to be found in sharing prayer among everyone. This was a real revolution. After a half hour of silence, one or another, at the request of the superior, would share with the others the fruits of his prayer: his thoughts, his encounter with Jesus Christ, the feelings that inspired him. Based on the results, this method had to become a regular practice.
The most astounding aspect is that everyone participated: priests, seminarians, brothers. Saint Vincent admits one day to the surprise of the Daughters of Charity: “The priests make it well and so do the seminarians — some better, some worse, according to what God communicates to them—but as for our poor Brothers, God’s promise of revealing Himself to the humble and to little ones is verified in them, for we are astounded at the inspirations God gives them; and it certainly seems that they come from Him alone because they have no education. It may be a poor shoemaker, a baker, or a carter, nevertheless they fill us with astonishment…. What great, incomprehensible goodness of God, to take His delight in communicating with the simple and unlearned to let us see that all the knowledge in the world is only ignorance in comparison with what He shares with those who earnestly seek Him by way of holy prayer.”
He notes quite humbly that in the case where he has difficulty praying: “My hope is that I will learn from one of the good Brothers some of the inspirations he had, and from which I will benefit.”
3. Prayer inspired by poor persons
The prayer that Saint Vincent teaches and puts into practice is readily shared because it carries with it the needs and the sufferings of poor persons. These persons have full right; they can even, because of the priority that they have, interrupt the material act of prayer, disturb the rule, be in our prayer. The clearest example we have is that of July 24, 1655; here Saint Vincent shares with his confreres his worries at that time:
“I renew the recommendations which I have already made and which cannot be made too often to pray for peace, that God may be pleased to reconcile the hearts of all Christian princes. There is a state of war in all Catholic kingdoms; war in France, Spain, Italy, Germany, Sweden and Poland which has been attacked on three sides, in Ireland, even amongst the stony mountains and almost uninhabitable rocks. Scotland is scarcely any better; we know the deplorable state of England. War is every¬where; wretchedness and misery everywhere. In France, how many, many people are suffering! 0 Savior! 0 Savior! if during the four months war has been waged here, we have had so much misery in the very heart of France, where there were plenty of provisions, what must be the state of those poor people living on the frontier who have been in a state of wretchedness and misery for the last twenty years? Yes, they have been living under war conditions for the last twenty years; if they sowed, they had no certainty of reaping; armies arrived and pillaged and carried away everything, and what the soldiers did not take, the sergeants seized and carried off. And after all that, what can they do? What is to become of them? They must die.”
He then speaks about the Missioners of Barbary and Madagascar in ending this repetition of prayer with a prayer that shows his gratitude and his apostolic heart: “May the Divine Goodness be pleased to give us the spirit with which they are animated, a big heart, vast and ample! Magnificat anima mea Dominum!’ Our soul must magnify, must amplify God and, to that end, may God amplify our soul, may He give us the breadth of mind enough to see and truly recognize the greatness, the plenitude of the goodness and power of God; to recognize the full extent of the obligation we are under to serve Him, to glorify Him in every possible way, and may He grant us such an amplitude of will as to make us embrace every opportunity of producing the glory of God. Yes, the Congregation of the Mission can do all things because we have within us the germ of the omnipotence of Jesus Christ.”
Please excuse the length of these texts but when one possesses such jewels, it is unthinkable to keep them for oneself or to water them down. Life springs forth from the mouth of Saint Vincent. Numerous times, he opens himself up freely before his confreres, sharing with them the experiences of poor persons and other Missioners. He wants his companions to have hearts in tune with the misery of poor persons. We understand that this was a way for each member, on concluding this time of prayer, to be inspired to go forth to evangelize and serve those who are poor, to liberate and promote each one of them.
Vincentian prayer is Christological, communitarian and sociological. It places those who carry it out in the continuation of the Incarnation: together they experience Christ in order to announce Him to those who are poor and by the grace of God, to find Him in giving of themselves.
The most beautiful conference of Saint Vincent is without a doubt his conference “On Charity” of May 30,1659. The most beautiful instructions to the Sisters are those on “Vocation.” Nevertheless, I think that the best summary of his spiritual experience and thus his spirituality is in this extract from Abelly, undated, as if to be a timeless, living source offered to us for our meditation:
“Let us love God, my Brethren, but let us love Him with all our strength and in the sweat of our brow. For very often many acts of love of God, of complacency, of benevolence, and such like interior affections and practices, although very good and very desirable, are yet to be suspected if they do not reach the practice of effective love. ‘In this,’ said our Lord, ‘is my Father glorified, that you bring forth much fruit.’ (Jn 15:8) And this is what we ought to be on the lookout for because there are many who, if they have a recollected exterior, and an interior filled with lofty feelings about God, rest there; but when it comes to deeds, and there is need of action, they stop short. They flatter themselves by the warmth of their imagination; they rest content with the sweet discourses they have with God in prayer; they even speak to Him as though they were angels. But apart from this, should there be question of working for God, of suffering, of self-denial, of instructing the poor, of going out to seek the lost sheep, of loving to be in want, of accepting illness or disgrace, alas! they are no longer to be found; their courage fails them.”
“And this is so true,” said M. Vincent, “that the holy Apostle tells us that only our deeds will accompany us into the next life. Let us therefore,” he continued, “reflect upon this; and with all the more reason because there are many in this age who seem virtuous, and in reality are so, who are nevertheless more inclined to a soft and easy life than to solid and hardworking devotion. The Church is compared to a great harvest field that needs laborers; but the laborers are wanting. There is nothing more in keeping with the Gospel than on the one hand to gather up light and strength for the soul in prayer, spiritual reading, and solitude and then to go forth and dispense this spiritual good to men. This is to do what our Lord, and His Apostles after Him, enjoined. This is to join the office of Martha and Mary. This is to imitate the dove, that half digests its food and then with its beak places the remainder in the mouths of its young to feed them. That is how we should act; that is how we should by our deeds bear witness to God, that we love Him. All of our work consists of action.”
If we are to reconcile in our personal and community life action and prayer, tradition and innovation, initiative and revision, we would be worthy heirs, the landowners who know how to draw forth from their treasury “both the new and the old” (Mt. 13:25).
SAINT VINCENT DE PAUL, alive with the Holy Spirit and Teacher of Prayer, pray for us!
1. He quotes Scripture 164 times and uses Biblical language 1,755 times implicitly! Cf. M Vincent et la Bible. Mairice Vansteenkiste in Bulletin de la Societe de Borda (1982) n° 388 p. 585.
2. “The Cross in Vincentian Spirituality” talk given by Father Maloney, Motherhouse, January 1, 1993, in Echoes of the Company. No. 2, February 1993, p. 59.
3. Pierre Coste, C.M. Saint Vincent de Paul• Correspondence, Conferences, Documents. 12 Volumes.X11 la, Document 48, p.164. Referred to in the following as Coste followed by the volume number; Conference, Letter or Document number and page.
4. Conferences to the CM’s, Conference 198, p. 476.
5. Andre Dodin, C.M. Saint Vincent de Paul et la charite (Paris, 1960), p. 65.
6. Conferences to the CM’s, Conference 22, p. 50.
7. Coste II, Letter 463, p. 97.
8. Conferences to the CM’s, Conference 198, p. 473.
9. AbeIly I, p. 78.
10. Coste IX, Conference 24, p. 199.
11. Conferences to the CM’s, Conference 196, pp. 626-628.
12. Saint Vincent de Paul, according to Aubier (1949) p. 24.
13. Conferences to the CM’s, Conference 198, p. 473.
14. Carnets Vincentiens 3. p. 39.
16. Coste XII, p. 37.
17. Conferences to the CM’s, Conference 153, p. 327.
19. Coste IX, Conference 37, pp. 331-332.
20. Coste XIIIb, Document 162, p. 301.
21. Conferences to the CM’s, Conference 125, pp. 197-198.
22. Ibid., p. 200.
23. Op. cit., p. 581.
24. Coste IX, Conference 2, p. 13; Conference 3, p. 16; Conference 24, p. 190.
25. Conferences to the CM’s, Conference 22, pp. 49-50.