In Paying Attention Father Patrick Griffin continues his reflection series on Considering Consecrated Life
Can you imagine Vincentian History playing out in another fashion?
Let us suppose that it all began in a like manner, but then something changed. We know the story. In the beginning, Vincent de Paul carries out his ministry at Clichy and then goes to work for the de Gondis. His encounter with the peasant at Gannes and his preaching in Folleville happen the same way as we tell the story. In Chatillon, he experiences the generosity of his people in the service of the afflicted family and this leads to the Charities. When he returns to the de Gondis, he takes up the work of preaching the missions and he begins to attract similar minded priests and brothers to himself. Wherever he or his priests go to preach, they establish the Charities for the care of the local people in need. As he begins to work more widely in Paris, he comes to know the generosity of well-established and wealthy women. They become his Ladies of Charity and the basic resource for the service of the poor because of their charitable hearts and their willingness to be guided by his vision. These influential women enable the care of those most marginalized. As it happens, oftentimes, these women send their servants to carry out the actual hands-on ministry. This reality does not correspond with Vincent’s sense of service, but perhaps represents the best that can be done in the current situation. When he meets the competent, and sometimes difficult, Louise de Marillac, together they develop an effective means of responding to the needs of their time through the Charities and the Ladies of Charity.
We know that Louise, like Vincent, is highly intelligent. She has a good education both in the classical and practical sense. During the serious sickness of her husband, she has her lumière experience at Pentecost. The Spirit offers direction and purpose for her life. At the death of her husband, she draws closer to Vincent and begins to become more and more involved in giving direction to the Charities and in associating with the Ladies of Charity. In these efforts, she discovers the ways to make the best use of her training and education on behalf of the poor.
It does not require a genius of the Vincentian Family to discover what is missing. There is no establishment of the Company of the Daughters of Charity! Vincent tells the Daughters:
“I’ve told you many times, Sisters, that you can be very certain that God is your founder, for I can tell you before Him that in my whole life I never thought of it, and neither, I think, did Mlle. Le Gras.” (VdP, CCD 9. L. 24, p. 192)
We need to take Vincent at his word. Both he and Louise were at a loss as to how to serve the needs of the poor more effectively, given the world in which they lived. They sought for an answer which was under their noses! God’s solution had to walk literally into their presence and make herself known—Marguerite Naseau. For all their intelligence and desire to do good, they needed to be taught by another of less training. Their willingness to pay attention, however, won the day. But, she made the difference.
I love the Gospel stories of the post-resurrection when Mary Magdalene has the opportunity to talk with Jesus, but does not recognize him. He is right there, looking her in the face, but she does not see him because she is looking for something else. Jesus has to call her by name before she allows her eyes to focus on the object of her hope that is only feet away. (We note how, later, the disciples on the road to Emmaus have a similar experience.)
One can imagine how often Vincent and Louise saw these strong, young countrywomen on their journeys and in the villages, but the saintly duo never made the connection with the very ministry which they sought to accomplish. Marguerite needed to introduce herself to them and explain how she could be the very solution which they sought. One can imagine a cartoon in which a light bulb lit up above the heads of our Founders! Do you think that Vincent thought back to this first encounter when he spoke about the foundation of the Company being the work of God alone?
The Vincentian Family needs to continue to pay attention to the wisdom which surrounds us and particularly which arrives from places where we (perhaps in our pride, perhaps in our distraction) are not prepared to recognize it. Those with whom and for whom we minister have much to teach us. The circumstances of our times and lives can be the ways in which the Lord points out the path to better and more collaborative service. In these matters, Marguerite may be our inspiration. This attentiveness could be the difference which changes our history.