Vincent de Paul and the Gospel
This article appeared in Volume I of En tiempos de San Vicente de Paúl … y hoy, Editorial CEME, Santa Marta de Tormes (Salamanca) Spain, 1997, p. 223-233. The above cited work was translated from the French by Martín Abaitua, CM (Au tempts de St. Vincent-de-Paul… et aujourd ‘hui), Animation Vicentienne, 16, Grande rue Saínt-Michel, Toulouse, France … this work is not attributed to any one author but it is stated in the Introduction that the articles were written by various authors].
Presentation of the theme
The recent discovery of ancient cultures created an enthusiasm in men and women during the Renaissance … a time of intoxication (as if people were drinking some aged wine). There was a new interest in the ancient languages of Greek and Hebrew and even Aramaic … this interest was extended to the Bible, especially the gospels … it was like the arrival of a new spring! The good news became accessible once again in the language in which it had been written. Parallel to this discovery and at a time when society was in a period of reconstruction after having endured decades of religious wars, spiritual men and women (with the eyes of faith) meditated on the gospel during their prayer and applied the word of God to their life and their activity. It is in this sense that we use the phrase “the gospel according to Vincent de Paul.”
Like everyone else, Vincent had listened to the gospel as the Liturgical Year moved from one season to another. After his ordination Vincent also read the Scriptures. What Vincent discovered, however, was not a doctrine but a person, the person of Jesus Christ … the same Jesus Christ whom he encountered with every poor person that he met. Vincent simply turned the medal over and there he saw the presence of the divine.
For Vincent the gospel was the place of encounter, that is, an encounter with the person of Jesus Christ. The truth of this encounter guaranteed the truth of the teachings of the gospel. The Christ of the gospel was also for Vincent, a person filled with life and spontaneity, a person whom Vincent referred to in prayer as “Savior”.
The gospels, which the poor taught Vincent to read, are literally the good news that is addressed to the poor … the good news tells the poor that they are “blessed” because they are the special children of the Father. They are “blessed” because the kingdom of God is theirs. That is, indeed, good news … heaven and the secrets of the Father are only revealed to those who become poor, who become like “the little ones”. Such is the gospel of Vincent de Paul. Vincent learned that Jesus, as he proclaimed the good news, gave preference to those who were poor (Jesus in the synagogue at Nazareth [Luke 4:18]; the proclamation of the beatitudes [Luke 6:20-23; Matthew 5:3-12]; the description of the final judgment [Matthew 25]).
Vincent easily identified himself with the words of Saint Paul: there will come a day when, according to my gospel, God will judge people’s hidden words through Christ Jesus (Romans 2:16).
Jesus did not keep this good news to himself. Jesus, sent by the Father, came to proclaim the good news and all those persons who have received the good news ought to become missionaries of that same good news. Jesus entrusted this mission to his followers before he left them and he asked that his disciples would go to every part of the world: As the father has sent me, so I send you (John 20:21).
Vincent spoke to those who had embraced the missionary life, those who were to continue Jesus’ mission and told them: Set out, you Missioners, set out! You’re still here, and there are poor souls waiting for you, whose salvation depends perhaps on your preaching and catechizing! (CCD:XI:121). Every Christian has the obligation to be missionary but some have a greater obligation than others because they have committed themselves to do this: We have given ourselves to God for that purpose (CCD:XI:122).
Vincent, like Saint Paul, exclaimed: If I preach the gospel, this is no reason for me to boast, for an obligation has been imposed on me, and woe to me if I do not preach it (I Corinthians 9:16). He also stated that it would be a disgraceful situation if the Missionaries became lax in their ministry. On one occasion he told his confreres that when he returned to Paris he felt as though the gates of the city should have fallen upon him and crushed him because he has left behind so many poor men and women who needed to be evangelized.
Vincent also explained that those to whom the good news is proclaimed often do not hear the message because it is too difficult to hear the words “blessed are the poor” … too difficult to hear those words because people are either rich or so poor that they have no interest in anything.
For Vincent and for us the good news is like the fire that Jesus came to spread throughout the world … a fire that we possess and that devours us from inside. The gospel is, for us, the good news of salvation, a light that guides our steps. The beatitudes are not only some wonderful themes for our preaching but are also a rule for our life. In the second chapter of the Common Rules (gospel teachings) Vincent applied the teaching of the gospel to the everyday life of the Missionaries and contrasted the gospel maxims with the teachings of the world.
Vincent had a great distrust of those persons who were able to speak about God with such great facility but never went beyond their words. If there is a question of working for God, of suffering, of mortifying themselves, of instructing poor persons, of going in search of the lost sheep or some other misfortune, alas! they are no longer around (CCD:XI:33).
At times we are satisfied with preaching the word and we forget that the Word of God became incarnated in a living person, a person who lived and did all the things that he taught to others. A religious reporter has recently stated: “the Catholic Church speaks too much and as a result is not listened to … and this includes many Christians. Look at the gospels and the number of pages that they consume and then compare that with the incredible number of documents that the Church has published during the last forty years.” The good news as a proclamation that is directed toward those who are poor must begin with our personal conversion (just as Vincent de Paul underwent a conversion) … if not, then our proclamation is simply more news, a form of deception, a foreign movie.
Vincent and the gospel
Vincent gave a priority to life and experience and to the practical … he preferred those realities over doctrine and theory and teaching (no matter how enriching or important such teaching might be). When he referred to Jesus Christ he liked to remind his listeners that Jesus wanted to save the world and that he did not begin by teaching but rather began by doing. Thus we see that for Vincent the gospel is word of salvation that is proclaimed to the poor … it is a rule of life for the mission and for service on behalf of the poor. Above all else, however, the gospel is the privileged place where one is able to encounter the life-giving person, Jesus Christ who practiced what he taught.
The gospel: an encounter with Christ
Vincent did not view the gospel as some Magna Carta or some rule … rather he viewed the gospel as a place of encounter. What attracted Vincent to the gospel was the life of Jesus Christ, the missionary of God who was sent to the poor. Vincent liked to reflect on Jesus’ attitudes and was continually surprised by the various reactions of people to the person of Jesus Christ … all of this became a source of inspiration for Vincent. Abelly, the first biographer of Vincent de Paul, has preserved three accounts of Vincent’s contemporaries that reveal this practical, spontaneous manner of reading the gospel.
“…When he read the holy gospel…”
One of the oldest members of the Company remarked that the extraordinary devotion of Monsieur Vincent in the celebration of mass was especially apparent when he read the holy Gospel. Others, too, noticed it when he came to some of the words of our Lord. He pronounced them with such tender love that it struck a chord in all who heard them. On many occasions those who did not know him, but who attended his mass, were heard to say, there indeed is a priest who knows how to say mass; he must be a holy man. Others said that while he was at the altar, he seemed to them to have the appearance of an angel. Several others noticed that when he read the holy Gospel and came upon the passages where our Lord said Amen, amen dico vobis, that is, I solemnly say to you, he paid particular attention to the words that followed, as if he were amazed that these were the words that God himself truly used. By the affectionate and devout tone of his voice, he testified to the prompt submission of his own heart in recognizing the great mystery and importance of these words. He seemed to be nourished by the passages of Scripture like a child taking his mother’s milk. He drew such nourishment for his soul that in all his words and actions he seemed filled with the spirit of Jesus Christ. When he turned toward the faithful, the expression on his face was modest and serene. By his gesture of extending his arms, he portrayed the attitude of his heart, and the great desire he had that all present should be united to Jesus Christ (Abelly III:76).
“….I often admired how he would apply the words and deeds of our Lord…”
We have the following written testimony of a superior of one of the missions. Monsieur Vincent’s love for our Lord resulted in his always keeping the Savior in mind. He walked always in his holy presence, and modeled himself upon him in his actions, words and thoughts. I can truly say, as we all know, that he was so filled with God’s spirit that he hardly ever spoke unless it was to recall a Gospel teaching or some action of the Son of God. I often admired how he would apply the words and deeds of our Lord whenever he counseled or recommended something. Monsieur Portail had lived and worked for forty-five or fifty years with Monsieur Vincent. He is one of the oldest priests of the Congregation. I have heard him say that Monsieur Vincent was the perfect image of Jesus Christ whom he knew upon earth, and that he had never heard Monsieur Vincent say or do anything except relating to him who said: Exemplum dedi vobis, ut quemadmodum ego feci, ita et vos faciatis ["What I just did was to give you an example: as I have done, so you must do"]. This is what Monsieur Vincent so often urged us to do. In the advice he gave me on the occasion of my leaving to take over the Mission which I now guide, he recommended that when I was to speak or to do something, I should reflect within myself and say, What did our Lord say or do in this case? How did he do or say this? O Lord, inspire me with what I must say or do, for by myself I can do nothing without your help (Abelly III:87-88).
“…Christ was his light and mirror…”
One day a noted doctor asked one of the priests of the Mission who knew Monsieur Vincent well, what his chief virtue was. He replied: It was undoubtedly the imitation of our Lord, Jesus Christ, for he always kept him before his eyes to serve as his model. Christ was his light and mirror, and in him he saw everything else. If in some particular case he doubted how he should act, to be perfectly agreeable to God, he reflected on how our Lord acted in similar cases, or what he said, or what he taught in his various sayings. Without hesitation he then followed his example and his words. He walked in the brightness of this divine light, and trampled under foot his own judgment, human respect, or the fear his actions would be unacceptable to those who found the Gospel too severe, or who wanted to accommodate Christian piety to the spirit of the times. He sometimes said, "Human prudence fails and often leads one away from the right path, but the words of Eternal Wisdom are infallible, and its guidance right and secure" (Abelly, III:88)
Above all else Vincent looked for the living person of Jesus Christ and found Jesus in the gospel. He reflected on Jesus’ actions and gestures and words and on a daily basis was inspired by the events in Jesus’ life. Vincent’s interpretation/exegesis was in accord with his era and we note here that Vincent’s method of reading the gospels always involved a search for and an encounter with Jesus Christ.
“…let’s walk on this path with assurance…”
Let us use our intelligence and reason well … it must be our inviolable rule to judge everything as Our Lord did ... and to ask ourselves, if need be, How did Our Lord judge this? How did he act in a similar situation? What did he say about it? I have to adjust my way of acting to his teachings and example. Let’s be determined to do that, Messieurs, let’s walk on this path with assurance; it’s a royal rule; heaven and earth will pass away, but his words will not pass away …let’s bless Our Lord, my dear confreres, and strive to judge as he did and to do what he has recommended by word and example … let’s enter into his mind so that we may enter into his workings. Doing good isn’t everything; we have to do it well, after the example of Our Lord, of whom it’s said in the Gospel that he did all things well: Bene omniafecit. Fasting, keeping the Rules, turning our attention to God isn’t everything; we have to do all that in his spirit, that is, with perfection, with the purpose and appropriateness with which he himself did them. So, then, prudence consists in judging and acting as Eternal Wisdom judged and acted (CCD:XII:148).
The gospel: a world that has to be proclaimed
For Vincent one of the key gospel passages was Luke 4:18: The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind and to let the oppressed go free. Thus the gospel is a word that has to be proclaimed to the poor and this proclamation is an essential element in the life of the missionary. Because this proclamation is the primary task of the missionary it demands competency and conviction. The proclamation of the gospel involves preaching and teaching … thus the “little method” was placed before the missionaries as a way to combat the lofty oratorical approach of so many preachers at that time.
“…O Savior, it’s your own method...” My second reason is that it is the method Our Lord Jesus Christ himself willed to use to convince us of his teaching; it is also by this method that the Apostles made the word of God known throughout the world. O Savior, it’s your own method! Yes, Messieurs, it’s the method the Son of God used to proclaim his Gospel to us. O Savior! The Son of God, who was the Word and Eternal Wisdom, willed to treat the loftiness of his mysteries in language that seemed lowly, ordinary, and familiar. And will we be ashamed to do this? Will we be afraid of losing respect if we act like the Son of God? O Sauveur! (CCD:XI:242-243).
“…To preach as Jesus preached…”
But this method is so lowly! What will people say of me for always preaching like that? For whom will they take me? In the end, every single one of them will despise me, and I’ll lose my honor! You’ll lose your honor! O Sauveur! Is it losing your honor to preach in the way Jesus Christ himself preached? To treat the word of Jesus Christ as Jesus Christ himself willed to treat it is to have no honor? To speak of God as the Son of God spoke of him is to lose your honor? O Sauveur! O Sauveur! So then, Jesus Christ, Word of the Father, had no honor! To preach sermons as you should, in simplicity, in familiar and ordinary speech, as Our Lord did, is to have no honor; and to do otherwise is to be an honorable man? To distort and falsify the word of God is to have honor? To dissimulate the word of God --- the sacred word of God --- so pretentiously, to put a mask on the word of God and make it look like a courtesan filled with vanity? O Sauveur, Divine Sauveur! What’s all that? What is it, Messieurs? To say that preaching the Gospel as Jesus Christ did is to lose one’s honor! That’s as much as saying that Jesus Christ, who was Eternal Wisdom, didn’t really know how to treat his own word, didn’t understand it clearly, and should have acted in a way other than he did. O Sauveur, what blasphemy! And that’s what’s said, if not outright at least tacitly and in the heart; if not outwardly before others, at least before God, who sees the heart; and people dare to utter those horrible blasphemies before God, who sees the heart, and to say those things to his face! And they’re ashamed before others! Before God! O Savior, merciful Savior! Alas, Messieurs! You see clearly that it is blasphemy to think and to say that we lose our honor by preaching as the Son of God preached, as he came to teach us, as the Holy Spirit instructed the Apostles to do (CCD:XI:258-259).
Vincent frequently presented concrete examples, such as the following which was based on the passage of the Samaritan woman at the well and was used to illustrate the Lord’s concern for proclaiming the world … the same passage was also meant to highlight the concern that the Missionaries should have with regard to connecting the gospel to the everyday life of the people.
“…imitate Our Lord when he went to sit on that stone…”
In this he will imitate Our Lord when he went to sit on that stone that was near the well, and, once he was there, began to instruct that woman by asking her for some water. “Woman, give me some water,” he said to her. So, he [the Brother] can ask one, then the other, “Eh bien! How are your horses getting along? How’s this? How’s that? How are you doing?” beginning in this way with something similar and then moving on to our plan. The Brothers in the garden, the shoemaker’s shop, or the tailor’s can do likewise, and the same for the others so that there’ll be no one here in this house who’s not sufficiently instructed in all the things necessary to be saved (CCD:XI:344).
The gospel: the rule for the life of the Missionary
The gospel, the place of encounter with Jesus Christ, is the word of God that we must proclaim to the poor. Like Jesus Christ, we must live and practice this word before teaching it to others. That is how the gospel became a rule for the life of Vincent de Paul … and that is how the gospel becomes a rule of life for all those men and women who commit themselves to continue the mission of Jesus Christ and serve those who are poor.
We know the importance of the evangelical maxims in the life and the teachings of Vincent de Paul. The second chapter of the Common Rules is dedicated to this theme and constitutes a rare spiritual synthesis of Vincent’s thinking on this matter (the only such synthesis). Vincent frequently presented the gospel maxims in opposition to the teachings of the world. On February 14, 1659 Vincent dedicated the entire conference to this theme of the gospel teachings. Here we present some of the thoughts expressed in that conference.
“…the teaching of Our Lord states…”
First, the teaching of Our Lord states, “Blessed are the poor.” And those of the world say, “Blessed are the rich.” The former tell us to be gentle and good-natured; the latter tell us to stand fast and make people fear us. Our Lord says that suffering is good, “Blessed are they who mourn,” and worldly people say just the opposite: “Blessed are those who enjoy themselves and have a good time.” “Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for justice,” but the world laughs at that. It says, “Blessed are those who look out for their temporal advancement and to become important.” “Blessed are they who curse you,” says the Savior; and the world says that we should not put up with insults: “The person who makes himself a sheep will be eaten by the wolf,” that we have to preserve our reputation at all costs, and that it’s better to lose life than honor. That’s enough to know what the teaching of the world is and to what it tends. Our Rule, then, by committing us to follow the teaching of Jesus Christ, which is infallible, obliges us at the same time, as we’ve said, to act contrary to the teaching of the world, which is an abuse. Not that there aren’t some good adages in the world, but they’re not opposed to Christian teachings. Take this one, “Whoever does good will find good.” That’s true; pagans and Turks declare it, and there’s no one who doesn’t agree with it. One day I was traveling with a member of the Great Council; he was telling me that the good teachings of the world are like evangelical counsels. For example, “Grasp all, lose all.” That’s a constant, proven truth; everyone has seen that. So, there are good and bad maxims in the world; the good ones are those that everyone agrees on and which don’t contradict the Gospel; the bad ones are the ones that are opposed to those of Jesus Christ and are approved only by wicked, worldly persons. There is, however, a difference between the good teachings of the world and those of the Gospel, for we acknowledge the former through experience because we’ve had proof of them in their effects, but we know the infallibility of those of Our Lord through his Spirit, which gives knowledge and perception of them and shows where those divine consequences lead, and that, since they have been given by the Eternal Truth, they’re very genuine and always effective. Good country people know that the moon changes, and eclipses of the sun and other stars occur; they speak about them often and can witness these events when they take place. But an astronomer, who knows the principles of art or science, not only sees them along with them but foresees them ahead of time and will say, “We’re going to have an eclipse on a certain day, at a certain hour, at a certain minute.” Now, if the astronomers, through their knowledge, have this infallible perception, not only in Europe but among the Chinese, and, by the rules they have, see so clearly into the darkness of the future as to know for certain the strange effects that are bound to occur by the movement of the heavens a hundred years, a thousand years, or four thousand years from now and even to the end of the world; if, I repeat, men have this knowledge, how much more has this Eternal Light, which penetrates the most hidden things, even to the slightest details, seen the truth of these teachings! Ah, Messieurs, would that we were convinced that, since these same teachings have been proposed to us by the infinite charity of Jesus Christ, they can’t deceive us! Nevertheless, our malady is that we don’t trust him but look to human prudence. Don’t you see that we’re guilty of putting greater trust in human reasoning than in the promises of Eternal Wisdom, and in the deceptive appearances of the world rather than in the paternal love of the Savior, who came down from heaven to free us from illusion? O Savior, you were well aware of the value of this teaching when you gave it, and yet few people can understand it. “If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn the other.” Your Providence often allows us to see the importance of this, and yet we go so far as to do the opposite. So, l ask you, brothers, what’s the better teaching: that of turning the left cheek when someone strikes us on the right one, or the worldly one that would have us resent it? Who, I ask you, has known the nature of these teachings better: the world, that would have us avenge ourselves, or the Son of God, who would deter us from this? Let’s take a gentleman who has been slapped. Resentment causes him to take his sword in hand; everyone comes to encourage him to avenge this insult; blows are exchanged, but he finds himself in danger of losing his property by confiscation, his life by this duel, his soul by this crime, and his wife and children by this misfortune. Wouldn’t this wretched man have done better to hold fast to the teaching of Our Lord, which would have maintained his person and his home in their prosperity and drawn down on him great graces from God, than to follow those of the world, which cast him into this strange reversal of fortune and with the very great danger of eternal damnation? Don’t you see that the maxims of the world are built on false premises, whereas those of Our Lord are always advantageous in practice, even though they may seem difficult? We must, then, hold fast to these truths, my dear confreres; we must be guided by heavenly wisdom (CCD:XII:102-105).
“…A summary of the gospel…”
Lord, pardon our failings in this matter, renew in us the heart that led us to undertake them, and increase in us the grace of living them as they are in our little Rules. In this way, my dear confreres, we’ll find in them the Spirit of Our Lord, the spirit of his teachings and everything he points out to us in them to make us worthy workers of his gospel. We’ve always had this devotion, but, through my fault, the Company hasn’t borne the fruits of it to the point it should have. We have to hope in God’s goodness, brothers, in your present dispositions, and in the grace of the Company, which has made these Rules, as a précis of the Gospel, adapted to the use that’s most fitting for us in order to unite ourselves to Jesus Christ and to correspond with his plans. He’ll grant us the grace to carry each teaching and each Rule to the highest degree of perfection. We have to form a Company animated with the Spirit of God and preserved by the operations of this Spirit. Blessed be God who has laid its foundations and chosen you for this purpose! Blessed be his holy name for having disposed you to do so! That’s obvious, because you’ve left the world and made vows to devote yourselves more closely to the holy imitation of Our Lord. So then, by his mercy we’re quite ready and strictly obligated to practice these teachings, if they aren’t contrary to the Institute. Let’s fill our minds with them, fill our hearts with their love, and live according to all that. Let’s ask the Apostles, who loved them so much and kept them so exactly; let’s ask the Blessed Virgin, who, better than anyone else, fathomed their essence and showed how to practice them; lastly, let’s ask Our Lord, who laid them down, to grant us the grace to be faithful to practicing them, stirring ourselves up to this by being attentive to their virtue and example. There’s reason to hope that, seeing us here in the process of living according to these teachings, they’ll be favorable to us in time and in eternity. Amen (CCD:XII:109-110).
Questions for reflection and dialogue
A] The gospel: an encounter with Christ
• What do we seek to discover in the gospels: intellectual satisfaction, justification for our commitment and behavior, principles for personal holiness or the living person of Jesus Christ?
• When, why and how do I read the gospels?
B] The gospel: a word that ought to be proclaimed
• Vincent reminds us that evangelization supposes a concern for the spiritual and material needs of the poor … a concern to evangelize in word and deed … how are we faithful to this twofold demand when proclaiming the good news? Do we give preference to one dimension over the other? Why? How can we proclaim the gospel in an explicit manner today?
C] The gospel: the Rule of life for the Missionary
• How does the gospel provide us with light and a point of reference?
• How do we allow the gospel to guide our activity?
Translated: Charles T. Plock, CM