Vincent frequently meditated on and commented on Saint Paul’s recommendation (have among yourselves the same attitude as Christ that is also yours in Christ Jesus [Philippians 2:5]) and the content of the Christological hymn that is found in the letter to the Philippians (Philippians 2:6-11). Vincent clothed himself in the attitudes of Jesus and therefore he did not view power and wealth and prestige as the most important values in life. Rather, he opened his heart to God and the poor and, guided by the Holy Spirit, bore the weight of his own life and the weight of the lives of the poor. Vincent opened his heart to God with complete trust and confidence and was able to clothe himself in the attitudes of Jesus Christ: as a good Christian, this was a daily exercise of Vincent’s life.
The following sentiments of admiration and charitable commitment were the fruit of Vincent’s meditation: O Savior! Source of love humbled even to our level and to a vile agony, who showed, in that, greater love for the neighbor than You yourself did? You came to lay yourself open to all our misfortunes, to take the form of a sinner, to lead a life of suffering and to undergo a shameful death for us; is there any love like that? But who else could love in such an outstanding way? Only Our Lord, who was so enamored with the love of creatures as to leave the throne of His Father to come to take a body subject to weaknesses. And why? To establish among us, by His word and example, love of the neighbor. This is the love that crucified Him and brought about that admirable work of our redemption. O Messieurs, if we had only a little of that love, would we stand around with our arms folded? Would we let those we could assist perish? Oh, no! Charity cannot remain idle; it impels us to work for the salvation and consolation of others (CCD:XII:216).
Christ, incarnated and humiliated by a most vile death through crucifixion … this Christ is placed before us as a model for our life. All Christians are called to have the same attitude as Christ (Philippians 2:5). Vincent knew this and in fact he was ever mindful of this reality. Each day he learned how to clothe himself with the attitudes of Jesus and how to conform his attitudes to those of his Master. This was not some isolated form of sentimental contemplation but had direct implications on his life of faith and charity. He expressed his admiration of Jesus Christ and his compassion toward the poor: I must not judge a poor peasant man or woman by their appearance or their apparent intelligence, especially since very often they scarcely have the expression or the mind of rational persons, so crude and vulgar they are. But turn the medal, and you will see by the light of faith that the Son of God, who willed to be poor, is represented to us by these poor people; that He scarcely had a human face in His Passion, and passed for a madman in the mind of the Gentiles and a stumbling block in the mind of the Jews. With all that, He describes himself as the Evangelizer of the poor: Evangelizare pauperibus misit me. O Dieu! How beautiful it is to see poor people if we consider them in God and with the esteem in which Jesus Christ held them! If, however, we look on them according to the sentiments of the flesh and a worldly spirit, they will seem contemptible (CCD:XI:26).
Just as Jesus wept at the tomb of his friend, Lazarus, so, too, Vincent allowed his heart to be touched by the death of his friends. He was filled with emotion at the death of M. Jean de La Salle in 1639 (CCD:I:581ff) and the death of M. Jean Pille in 1643 (CCD:II:364) and other Missionaries and coadjutor brothers.
Vincent was most impacted by Jesus’ compassion. Jesus was not indifferent to the sufferings of people … Jesus paused, listened, embraced and resolved various situations … Jesus cured and healed, restored sight to the blind, raised the dead and freed those who were possessed by evil spirits. This compassionate attitude of Jesus captivated Vincent’s heart and, impelled by the Spirit, Vincent desired to act in the same way. Vincent admitted that he felt that his heart was moved with compassion by the peasant at Gannes and the family that was ill in Châtillon: Someone came to tell me there was an indigent man who was sick and very badly lodged in a poor barn … moved by great compassion, I made a strong plea, speaking with such feeling that all the ladies were touched by it (CCD:IX:165).
When Vincent reviewed the history of the Daughters of Charity he attributed the different works that had been entrusted to them to God’s compassion: Sisters, what a happiness to serve those poor convicts abandoned into the hands of persons who have no pity for them! I’ve seen those poor men treated like animals; that caused God to be moved with compassion. They inspired pity in Him; as a result, His Goodness did two things on their behalf: first, He had a house bought for them; second, He willed to arrange matters in such a way as to have them served by His own daughters, because to say a Daughter of Charity is to say a daughter of God (CCD:X:103).
Just as Jesus related with women who were engaged in the cause of the Kingdom of God so too Vincent corresponded with women and did so with complete interior freedom and shared with them his sentiments of compassion, gratitude, admiration, confidence and also affirmed and recognized the good work that these women were doing (CCD:I:-10-12, 155-156, 590-592). This is reflected in his correspondence with Louise de Marillac, Jeanne-Françoise Frémoit Chantal, Madame Goussault, and duchesse d’Aiguillon (the niece of Cardinal Richelieu). Vincent de Paul utilized this communication of sentiments as a means of establishing relationships and employed this as a gospel strategy to attract and involve others in the proclamation of the Kingdom of God.
On various occasions Jesus communicated his sentiments to his followers. In the sixth chapter of Saint John’s gospel Jesus expressed his sorrow and pain as he witnessed the lack of faith of some of his disciples:the words I have spoken to you are spirit and life; but there are some of you who do not believe (John 6:63-64). On the occasion of restoring life to his friend Lazarus, Jesus expressed his esteem and love for his friend and wept with those who wept over the death of Lazarus (John 11:33-36). At the last supper Jesus expressed his feelings of anguish and sadness (John 16:5-13). In the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus spoke of his sorrow and asked the disciples to keep watch with him (Matthew 26:38).
Vincent revealed his sadness and surprise when he became aware of the fear and the cowardice of some of his confreres who had heard about the death of the Missionaries in Madagascar. He motivated them as he said: Someone in the Company may say perhaps that Madagascar should be abandoned; flesh and blood will use that language and say that no more men should be sent there, but I am certain that the Spirit says otherwise. Quoi! Messieurs, shall we leave our good M. Bourdaise all alone there? The death of those priests will, I am sure, astonish some. God led 600,000 men out of Egypt, not counting women and children with the intention of bringing them into the Promised Land; yet of all that great host only two entered it — not even Moses, the leader of them all. God has called our confreres into that country; and yet some die on the way, and others shortly after arriving there. At this we must bow our heads, Messieurs, and adore the wonderful incomprehensible way of Our Lord (CCD:XI:372).
Vincent expressed his sentiments in order to communicate enthusiasm and in order to touch the hearts of those who were listening and thus attract individuals to the cause of God’s kingdom. When he became aware of some criticism that he felt was not in accord with the gospel, he confronted the situation directly. Therefore when some confreres began to speak about the end of the Congregation if there were more failed expeditions to Madagascar, Vincent addressed them and said: My dear confreres, after knowing that, could we possibly be so base and unmanly as to abandon this vineyard of the Lord to which His Divine Majesty has called us merely because four, five, or six men have died? And tell me what a fine army it would be if, because it lost two or three, four or five thousand men — as they say happened at the latest siege of Normandy — it would abandon everything! What a nice sight an army of runaways and poltroons like that would be! Let us say the same of the Mission; it would be a fine Company of the Mission if, because five or six had died, it were to abandon the Lord’s work! What a cowardly Company, attached to flesh and blood! Oh, no! I do not think there is a single member of the Company who has such little courage, or who is not ready to go to take the place of those who have died (CCD:XI:373-374).
Vincent spoke in the same way to the Daughters when he appealed to their hearts as he addressed their fear. Look at how he referred to the Sisters who were being sent to Calais: I seem to hear our Sisters who remain here say to me, “But, Monsieur, where are our Sisters going? We saw four of them setting off a short while ago; now one of them is dead, and the rest are ill and may perhaps die, too. Now you’re sending off four more to replace them, and maybe we’ll never see them again. We’ll lose our Sisters. Meanwhile, what will become of the Company?” Dear Sisters, that’s the objection people made to the holy martyrs who went off to die. It was believed that, with so many martyrs, the Church would die out and there would no longer be anyone to sustain it; but my reply to that is the one given to that question, the blood of martyrs is the seed of Christians. For one who will suffer martyrdom, many more will come; his blood will be like the seed that brings forth fruit, and fruit in abundance. The blood of our Sisters will bring others to the Company and will merit for those who remain the grace of God to sanctify themselves. At these words Most Honored Father was obliged to stop on account of the abundance of his tears; then, in a voice choked with sobs, His Charity said, “So then, Sisters, you’re about to make the highest act of the love of God that can be made and that you’ve ever made, for there’s no greater act of love than martyrdom. What grounds for humbling yourselves, Sisters, that God prefers your Company to so many others which would perhaps do better than you! But He’s the Master, so He does what He pleases” (CCD:X:443). The Sisters ceased their criticism and now willingly offered to go to Calais.
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)