Rather than simply refuting a Protestant who was attacking the Church Vincent hears the truth of his charge and grows. (Frederic Ozanam had a similar experience.) The following excerpt from an insightful article by Santiago Barquín, CM, might well lead us to ask today how open are we to hearing the truth from those who challenge us… and letting our lives be shaped by it
It was 1620 and Vincent was accompanied by another priest as they both were giving a mission to the people living in Montmirail. One day a Huguenot approached Vincent, one who would not be convinced by words alone. This individual told Vincent that the Church of Rome was no longer the church of the poor and therefore was also not inspired by the Holy Spirit. It was not the church of the poor because it had abandoned the peasants and left them to fend for themselves.
His argument was simple and perhaps no exaggeration at all. He simply wanted to state the facts: You see Catholics in the countryside abandoned by their evil and ignorant shepherds. They are not taught their duty and for the most part scarcely know what Christianity is all about. If, on the other hand, you look at the cities, you see them filled with do-nothing priests and monks. In Paris alone there are perhaps ten thousand who leave the peasants in lamentable ignorance, leading to their damnation. And yet you would have me persuaded that the Holy Spirit is behind all of this? That I will never believe (Abelly I:81).
This attack was frontal and direct. Vincent was aware of the truth of the words that were spoken to him. He had experienced this reality in the priest who did not know the formula for absolution and for a time he was one of those “do-nothing” priests who was looking for an “honest retirement”. Even though Vincent was aware of this reality from his own experience, he was, nevertheless, impressed by the words of this man. He was shaken and profoundly moved because the Huguenot’s argument confirmed the failure to proclaim the essential message. The original concept of the church as the church of the poor seemed to have been forgotten and lost. Thus the priesthood was no longer a concrete expression of the Church because the priests no longer reached out to the poor as the image of Christ.
From that time forward Vincent no longer wasted time on discussion. He spoke through his efforts and his ministry, he evangelized and comforted the poor in the countryside and involved all his followers in the same mission. In reaching out to the poor Vincent de Paul found the gospel of Jesus who was sent to the poor. Therefore the poor Christ (represented by the poor) reaches out to the poor and affirms himself as their evangelizer and in this way points out to Vincentians their privileged ministry.
In the poor and with the poor Vincent discovered the gospel of Jesus and also discovered the meaning and the mission of the Church. He made this discovery only when he committed himself to them, evangelizing and serving them, bearing their poverty and misery. This total commitment enabled the poor to become a sign of Christ, a presence of Christ, and above all else, a call of Christ, which in turn heightened Vincent’s awareness, gave meaning to his vocation and led him to a deeper understanding of his vocation: God used the poor in order to evangelize and recreate Vincent. Aware of this instrumentality of the poor who were used by God, Vincent did not forget to inform us about the role of these initially insignificant individuals … their presence was the communication of God’s demand and their misery marked out the stages of his journey toward God and toward his brothers and sisters.
God established a relationship with Vincent de Paul through the poor and it was these poor men and women who inspired Vincent’s activity, his words and his ministry that was directed toward removing them from the situation of misery and marginalization in which they found themselves. Thus Vincent embarked upon a new path and was concerned about the poor, individuals who were abandoned and forsaken. As Vincent engaged in charitable activity, the most abandoned always had a privileged place.
The mystery of Christ in the poor inspired the Vincentian charism and gave it meaning. The poor gave a certain focus to Vincent de Paul and to his followers, a focus that no other perspective could have provided. The poor and service and evangelization (which in justice is owed to the poor) were the only reason for Vincent’s being and existence … in the poor Vincent found God and Christ.
The Poor: Theological Perspective of the Vincentian Charism by: Santiago Barquín, CM
This inspires me to hope (and pray) for the grace to look truth in the face, accept it and learn from it rather than to try to smooth things over, ignore responsibility and basically put up a wall to protect me. I hope and pray for this attitude to be present in those in authority, especially within the church — but I can’t ask for others something that I am not willing to accept for myself.
Vincent’s response is not only one of being open and learning, but of taking on responsibility and being “made new” himself. He acted himself. He didn’t say “Oh, so true! The Bishops should do something about this. It’s all their fault.”