Years before Vincent de Paul founded the Congregation of the Mission or the Daughters of Charity, the Vincentian charism of service began to take its first steps in a small town in eastern France, called Châtillon-les-Dombes (today Châtillon-sur-Chalaronne).
Today, August 23, 2016, marks 399 years of an event quite well known for the Vincentian Family. In 1617 we find Vincent de Paul being the tutor of the children of Phillip de Gondi, count of Joigny. Vincent lived among them and his first major “conversion experience” was in the village of Gannes (part of the lands of the Count) where, in January 1617, Vincent went to hear the confession of a gravely ill peasant. As the penitent himself later recounted to the countess and others, all his previous confessions had been sacrilegious and he owed his salvation to the goodness of Vincent. The countess easily persuaded Vincent to preach in the church of Folleville and instruct the people about confession.
After the first sermons, the multitude of those who came to make their general confession was so great that Vincent had to seek help from the Jesuits of Amiens. Vincent then began to wonder: Was he doing the right thing, allowing his priesthood to be spent serving only to three members of a noble family, when in the lands of the same family were about eight thousand farmers who needed to be cared for?
The response Vincent is well known: he decided to dedicate his life to poor country people and, with the support of Bérulle, Vincent ran away from the house of Gondi and reached Châtillon-les-Dombes (of about 1200 inhabitants) as their new pastor, at the beginning of August, 1617 (although it is quite possible that Vincent had already been in the area several months before, during Lent).
St. Vincent himself mentioned the event three times in his correspondence. Let us talk to him (emphasis mine) in a conference he gave to the Daughters of Charity in 1645:
I, though unworthy, was Pastor of a small parish. As I was about to give the sermon, someone came to tell me there was an indigent man who was sick and very badly lodged in a poor bam.
I was informed of his illness and poverty in such terms that, moved by compassion, I made a strong plea, speaking with such feeling that all the ladies were touched by it. More than fifty of them set out from the town, and I did the same. When I visited him, I found him in such a state that I judged it wise to hear his confession. As I was taking the Blessed Sacrament to him, I met the ladies returning in droves, and God gave me this thought: ‘Couldn’t these good ladies be brought together and encouraged to give themselves to God to serve the sick poor?‘ As a follow-up, I pointed out to them that these great needs could very easily be alleviated. They immediately resolved to see to it. Afterward, the Charity was established in Paris to do here what all of you can see. And all the good began with that.
(CCD IX, 165-166)
The same Vincent puts the origin of “all the good” in this experience that led to the creation of the first Confraternity of Charity, what is now known as AIC.
This is why the Vincentians will celebrate the 400th anniversary of our charism from now on, and over the next year, 2017. This is a special date for AIC, but also for any follower of Vincent de Paul, because from that experience in Châtillon a spiritual call to action started, making us followers of Jesus Christ who came to help the needy: “It is not the healthy who need the doctor, but the sick. I came to call not the upright, but sinners.” (Mk 2, 17)
It would be pointless to hold this commemoration if we were not moved again, with renewed energy, to the service of the poor. Although 400 years have passed since that event, the Vincentian charism is fully actual, valid and necessary. We, the spiritual descendants of St. Vincent and St. Louise, are obliged to put it into action.
Want to know more?
- Do not forget the project for the 400th anniversary celebration the Vincentian Family is organizing.
- Look at this excellent presentation summarizing the event of Châtillon.
- There is a recently published interesting reflection on the foundational fact of AIC. You can read it in Español ♦ English ♦ Français ♦ Italiano ♦ Português.
- Deepen your knowledge by reading chapter 3 and chapter 4 of Frances Alice Forbes’ book “Life of St. Vincent de Paul.”