Who should be called men/women of the gospel:

by | Feb 17, 2012 | Vincentian Family

St. Vincent de Paul: A Man of the Gospel: Sister María Angeles Infante, DC . The lengthy article will be presented in four parts.

She begins by describing elements that characterize the lives of those whom we call gospel men/women.

  • their faith and works are rooted in the gospel of Jesus Christ;
  •  they live in solidarity with the poor;
  • they are attentive to the signs of the time and allow themselves to be questioned and challenged by these signs as they attempt to respond in a manner that is in accord with the maxims of Jesus Christ;
  • trusting in and guided by Divine Providence they discover the gifts of others and then involve these individuals in the cause of the Kingdom.

Some other important characteristics of the spirituality of a gospel man/woman are added to this list by other authors: Christ-centered, centered on Jesus Christ and his gospel; spiritual, that is, guided by the Holy Spirit;ecclesial, they experience themselves as children of the Church and therefore act in communion with the Church and everything they do is an expression of the Church’s holiness and catholicity.

What follows corresponds to the introduction to her exploration of the theme.

“Throughout the history of the Church many men and women who have followed Jesus Christ have been classified as men and women of the gospel. In reality all the saints could be referred to in the same manner because they took the gospel seriously and made the gospel a part of their life; they also allowed the gospel to inspire their behavior and through their words and actions they communicated the gospel message. The theologian, Henri J. M. Nouwen, a professor at Yale University (United States of America) affirms that the man/woman of the gospel knows the story of Christ and experiences a burning desire to make this knowledge a heartfelt reality. In this way these individuals not only give a new meaning to their lives but are also able to make all things new in Christ [1]. This heartfelt conviction as well as renewal in the spirit of Christ were very much a part of the life of our Founder. Therefore we approach Vincent de Paul as a man of the gospel and on this 350th anniversary of his death we draw closer to him with a very clear objective: we allow him to question our life and we pray that he will intercede before God so that we all become men and women of the gospel.

At the beginning of this presentation we want to state that there is currently much discussion in the Church about the need for people who root their life in the gospel. Vincent de Paul is a bright star who, through his passionate love of Jesus Christ and his works, continued the mission of the Divine Teacher and now guides us and challenges us. This presentation has a twofold focus: first, spiritual theology in the present day Church and second, a Vincentian perspective on spiritual theology that was formulated by Vincent and that he now offers to us.

As I speak about spiritual theology, I am going to follow two authors of the Dictionary of spirituality, Giuseppe E. Panella and Carlos María Martini, who have defined gospel men and women as those individuals who are aware of the reality of the Church as a pilgrim Church. According to these authors, this awareness animates the faith of believers and the ecclesial community and leads them to seek the perfection of Christ. Both authors cite Anthony of Padua, Francis Assisi, John of the Cross, Therese of Jesus, Ignatius of Loyola, Saint Dominic of Guzman and other saints as people of the gospel. Therefore, we place Saint Vincent de Paul among these other saints who were aware of the Church as a pilgrim church [2].

The authors that I have mentioned and other spiritual teachers [3] list specific elements that characterize the lives of those whom we call gospel men/women. These characteristics are:

  • their faith and works are rooted in the gospel of Jesus Christ;
  •  they live in solidarity with the poor;
  • they are attentive to the signs of the time and allow themselves to be questioned and challenged by these signs as they attempt to respond in a manner that is in accord with the maxims of Jesus Christ;
  • trusting in and guided by Divine Providence they discover the gifts of others and then involve these individuals in the cause of the Kingdom.

Some other important characteristics of the spirituality of a gospel man/woman are added to this list by other authors: Christ-centered, centered on Jesus Christ and his gospel; spiritual, that is, guided by the Holy Spirit;ecclesial, they experience themselves as children of the Church and therefore act in communion with the Church and everything they do is an expression of the Church’s holiness and catholicity.

A cursory examination of Vincent’s life enables us to see that this champion of charity and mission more that verifies the characteristics of a man of the gospel.

Vincent’s faith and good works were rooted in the gospel. We only have to recall the testimony of Louis Abelly: There was no frivolity or undue vehemence in his person. His conduct was founded not on simple human reasoning but on the maxims and truths of the Gospel. These were engraved on his heart, and he took them as the foundation of his life and had them ever present to his mind. He conformed himself in all things to the doctrine and example of Jesus Christ (Abelly I:126) [4].

  • Vincent lived in solidarity with the poor. His life, his thoughts and his works were a clear manifestation of that solidarity. All his biographers and the numerous studies on his spirituality affirm this same reality. His secretary, Brother Bertrand Ducournau, provides us with many anecdotes on this aspect of Vincent life. Here we recall one of Brother’s conversations with Vincent in which he spoke about his concern for those persons who were poor: Paris, he told me, is the sponge of France and attracts people of great wealth … yet the poor are unable to find treatment at the General Hospital. What will happen to them, especially those poor men and women from Champagne and Picardy and the many other areas of the country that have been devastated by the war? … These words are an expression of the mercy and compassion that Vincent felt for those who are poor [5]. This solidarity with the poor led Vincent to exclaim from the depths of his heart: We should sell ourselves to rescue our brothers and sisters from destitution (CCD:IX:390) [6].
  • Vincent was attentive to the signs of the time and responded to these with creativity and effectiveness. He never “passed by on the opposite side of the road” when confronted with situations of misery, conflict, ignorance or poverty. He always posed the question: what is God asking of me in this situation? What is God’s will for me? What can I do? Rooted in the gospel Vincent responded in an effective manner. This is clear when we reflect on the events that occurred at Gannes, Folleville, and Châtillon, as well as his encounter with the galley slaves, the abandoned children, the war refugees and so many others groups of people that are described by his biographers. This facet of Vincent’s life has been studied and reflected upon in previous Vincentian Study Weeks.
  • Vincent heard God speaking through other persons. The peasant in Gannes and his alarming deathbed confession was the voice of God that called Vincent to organize missions among the country people. Vincent was attentive to the concerns of Madame de Gondi who was moved to found the Congregation of the Mission. On August 20, 1617 he listened to the woman who entered the sacristy of the parish church in Châtillon and told him about a poor family who was in dire need. Vincent was moved and in his sermon he explained the needs of this family to the parishioners. His compassion was contagious or, as he would say, God touched the hearts of those who listened to him. As a result of this event the Confraternity of Charity was established in Châtillon. A few years later, in 1628, Vincent listened to the concerns of the Bishop of Beauvais and again heard God calling him to become involved in a life-long project of reforming the clergy.
  • Vincent had great trust in Providence: he neither rushed forward in an attempt to anticipate Providence not retreated when the designs of God were revealed. Louis Abelly affirmed this reality when he stated: If Monsieur Vincent’s confidence in God was great in the pressing needs which he and his community experienced, it was no less firm in the reverses, difficulties, and other annoying and threatening things that happened to him. It was noticed that no matter what occurred, or in what difficulties he found himself, he was never beaten down or discouraged, but was always full of trust in God. He enjoyed a constant evenness of spirit and a perfect abandonment to his divine Providence. He seemed pleased to be put in such disturbing situations, to give himself the opportunity to put himself more completely and absolutely into the hands of divine Providence (Abelly III:25).

Vincent lived in all its fullness the various characteristics that we would associate with one who is a man of the gospel. His first biographer, Louis Abelly, makes this very clear when he refers to Vincent’s spirituality as one that was centered on Christ and then notes that his ministry and spiritual journey were rooted in the life of Our Lord, Jesus Christ: He was so filled with God’s spirit that he hardly every 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 … I have heard [Monsieur Portail] say that Monsieur Vincent was the perfect image of Jesus Christ whom he knew upon earth (Abelly III:87).

Before Abelly wrote his biography he studied Vincent’s writings and gathered together testimony from individuals who had lived with or who had a relationship with Vincent. Listen now to these words of Abelly:[Vincent] had taken Jesus Christ, our divine savior, as the only exemplar of his life. He had so imprinted the image of Jesus Christ upon his mind and was so penetrated with his holy maxims that he spoke, thought, and acted only in view of God. The life of our divine Savior and the lessons of the Gospel were the sole rule of his life and actions. They were his book of morals and his book of politics, and they guided him in all the matters that passed through his hands. They were, in a word, the sure foundation on which he built his entire spiritual edifice. We can say in truth that without realizing it, he left us a miniature portrait of his whole life and a sort of motto, when he said one day: “Nothing pleases me except in Jesus Christ.” That was the source of his unshakable constancy and firmness in doing good and of his being able to stand unmoved by any consideration of human respect or his own personal interest. This source enabled him to support the contradictions, to endure the persecutions, to put his life on the line and, as the wise man says, to defend to the death justice and truth (Abelly I:103).

Among Vincent’s writings we find a letter dated May 1635 that was addressed to M. Antoine Portail. In this letter Vincent spoke about the reality of being rooted in Christ, a spiritual experience that gave meaning to his life: Remember, Monsieur, we live in Jesus Christ through the death of Jesus Christ, and we must 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 (CCD:I:276). This was not some game of words but rather these words expressed in a very natural way Vincent’s identification with Jesus Christ. This was an expression of his Christ-centered spirituality. Vincent’s words seem to summarize the conviction of Saint Paul when he stated: I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me (Galatians 2:20).

Vincent’s spirituality was inspired by the Holy Spirit whom Vincent often referred to as the spirit of Jesus Christ. This aspect of his spirituality is revealed in his correspondence with M. Bernard Codoing, one of the missionaries who was sent to Rome in 1642. Vincent stated that his spirituality was inspired by the Holy Spirit who led him to act with calmness and humility: The spirit of God proceeds discreetly and always humbly. Remember that you and I are subject to a thousand outbursts of nature and recall what I told you about finding myself, in the early states of the project of the Mission, with it constantly on my mind. That made me wonder whether the affair sprang from nature or from the evil spirit, and I purposely made a retreat in Soissons so that God might be pleased to remove from my mind the pleasure and eagerness I was experiencing in this matter. God was pleased to answer my prayer in such a manner that, by his mercy, he took them both away and allowed me to be in the opposite dispositions. I think that, if God is granting some blessing to the Mission and I am less a subject of scandal to it, I attribute it after God to this fact. I wish to remain in this practice (CCD:II:278).

Vincent invoked the Holy Spirit at the beginning of his prayer and conferences and any other charitable or missionary activity. He attributed to the Holy Spirit all the good that he did and the good done by the members of the Confraternities of Charity and the two Congregations that he founded. He admired and praised God because in the midst of temptations and other difficult situations Vincent experienced the presence of the Holy Spirit (CCD:II:123-124; V:166, 463-465).

Vincent’s spirituality was ecclesial as seen by the way he drew closer to God and related to God … this was done in full communion with the Church and was inspired by his love for the Church. In 1644 he wrote to Bernard Codoing about the question of seminaries: the Council’s ruling is to be respected as coming from the Holy Spirit (CCD:II:234). Vincent experienced himself as a son of the Church, a committed member. It pained him to see the ignorance of the country people and the state of abandonment that was so widespread in the rural parishes. He was equally moved by the abandonment of poor women and men, the ignorance of the clergy, the lack of transparency in the appointment of bishops, the errors and the controversy stirred up by Jansenism, the situation of the Christian slaves in Algiers, and the ignorance of the inhabitants of Madagascar. As a result of his ecclesial spirituality and his deep sense of being a son of the Church, Vincent responded to these situations: In order to remedy the situation of abandonment and ignorance in the rural parishes, Vincent organized popular missions and, guided by the Spirit, he gave stability to these missions through the establishment of the Congregation of the Mission;

  • Vincent resolved the situation of the sick-poor and the ignorance among children in the cities and the rural area by organizing the International Association of Charity and the Company of the Daughters of Charity;
  • He responded to the deplorable situation among the clergy by arranging retreats for those who were about to be ordained as priests and began the Tuesday Conferences for those priests with pastoral obligations and responsibilities in seminaries … in this way he was able to assure a solid formation for future priests;
  • To make the process of appointing bishops more transparent Vincent accepted a position on the Council of Conscience;
  • He joined forces with other individuals and engaged in a struggle against the spread of Jansenism;
  • In order to alleviate the situation of the Christian slaves in Algiers Vincent, with the help of the Duchesse d’Aiguillon who established a house for missionaries in Merseilles, was able to send Missionaries to North Africa;
  • Despite the man dangers, Vincent also sent Missionaries to Madagascar to evangelize and instruct the native population.

These few facts are sufficient to affirm and present Vincent de Paul as a man of the gospel who embodies those characteristics that are enumerated by specialists in spiritual theology.

In the following sections we are going to look at Vincent as a man of the gospel but we will do this from a Vincentian perspective. Through his conferences to the Missionaries and the Daughters of Charity Vincent revealed himself as a man of the gospel. From the fullness of his heart Vincent spoke (with no pretentiousness) as a man of the gospel:

  • his ideas, thoughts, and convictions were in accord with the gospel;
  • his attitudes were similar to those of Jesus Christ;
  • throughout his life Vincent revealed that the beatitudes were the norms that guided his conduct.

I will now develop this perspective that Vincent shares with us. The sources for my study and reflection were the following: the words and testimony of Vincent; the testimony of Louis Abelly, Vincent’s first biographer; the testimony of Louis Robineau, Vincent’s secretary. I believe these three are the most important eye-witnesses. I have also utilized some written studies of various Vincentian scholars.

To be continued….

(This article first appeared in La experiencia espiritual de San Vicente de Paúl, XXXV Semana de Estudios Vicencianos, [The spiritual experience of Saint Vincent de Paul, XXXV Vincentian Studies Week], Editorial CEME, Santa Marta de Tormes, Salamanca, 2010)

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