In the past month, I have been in a number of places where a particular presence has caught my eye. I have noticed on many shelves the fourteen volumes of Saint Vincent de Paul: Correspondence, Conferences, Documents. This collection is a real gift which Sr. Marie Poole, Sr. Ann Mary Dougherty, Fr. John Carven and others in the past have provided for current and future generations of the Vincentian Family in the English-speaking world. We are blessed by this resource.
I have made the connection between this boon and another experience. During my time in Rome, I had the pleasure of the company of Fr. Tom Davitt for several years. Tom, one of our confreres, carried out the responsibilities of Archivist for the General Curia. He had that Irish gift for saying some things which could make you think because he was always thinking himself. One day, rather offhandedly, he said to me that a Vincentian should always be reading a biography of St. Vincent. He meant exactly what he said. He did not mean to exaggerate. His point was that Vincent can only be appreciated as one spends time with him and ponders his words and decisions and life. It is an ongoing relationship. I understand that idea.
Bob Maloney has a wonderful paragraph in a letter which introduces the final document from the 2008 General Assembly of the Congregation. We can borrow its spirit as we speak about the writings of our founders:
The world is filled with undigested documents. I encourage you to bite into this one, chew it, and digest it well. I hope that it can then be a source of energy for deepening our Vincentian spirituality side by side with the members of our family, and for formulating with them concrete, practical projects that will be of genuine service to the poor.
The goal is not to memorize all the dates and actions which made up Vincent’s life, but to appreciate his soul and drive. We do not presume to identify the precise decisions which made him the man that he was, but to ponder how/why the changes took place. After an event, where did his heart and mind go which made such a big difference? What did he discover about himself? What did he consider as most important to convey to his followers? Do we know the details of his life well enough that we can see the pattern as it repeats itself in our lives?
One idea which plays about in my mind flows from my belief that Vincent discovered the power of words honestly and passionately and convincingly spoken. Sometimes, he may have surprised himself by the impact of things he said. Imagine some of his discourses: the words which he spoke at Chatillon—never intending to marshal a charitable rescue for a beleaguered family; the words of absolution which he spoke to a serf at Gannes which changed that man’s life; the words of repentance preached at Folleville which moved the heart of a community; the compassionate words which attracted the zeal of Marguerite Naseau; the challenging words which he used before the Ladies of Charity in summoning them to take up the care of the abandoned children. Vincent did not speak to hear his own voice, but he discovered the power inherent in the spoken word—that leads to “the mission.” With the correct words: hearts can be moved, suggestions can be accepted, positions can be swayed, service can be initiated. In short, the divine can be revealed and promoted. Vincent understood these dynamics.
Still, Vincent warned his confreres against speaking in a way which suggested great learning and intelligence. He wanted simplicity to characterize our expression and lifestyle. Clarity and directness trumped entertainment.
And so, what about the 14 volumes of CCD? The editors have probably read each volume 10 times, but, for most of us, that will not be a goal or the direction of our effort. Perhaps, these texts will serve as more of a resource. At the very least, they offer an opportunity to hear the voice of our founder occasionally. To read one of his conferences enables a Vincentian to discern his mind at work; to take up one of his letters permits an insight into the way in which he offered guidance to confreres, sisters, and others. We are a fortunate family to have such ordinary treasure so available to us!
As a Vincentian, I am reminded of my commitment to stay connected to our spirit. What we read need not be directly from Vincent or Louise, but many, many writings available to us touch on Vincentian themes. Our publications, both printed and digital, offer a wealth of articles on our heritage. Reading some of the material on FamVin can keep us connected to the wider world in which our charism flourishes. In these writings, we can find contemporary encouragement and examples of how our boldness becomes flesh and blood in the modern world. We feel the pride of association with successful efforts among the poor, as well as the call to be prayerful companions for our colleagues who suffer in their labors with our people.
In this year of Collaboration, Fr. Greg urges our Vincentian Family to feel the connection which links us together for the sake of the mission. As each of us takes the opportunity to lift up a volume of the writings of our Founder for a short reading or to open one of our publications, we can allow these words to summon us to that same cooperation which marked our original ministries and hopes. We engage not only our past, but our future.