What did it mean to say #IamVincent in the earliest days after the “birth” of the Vincentian charism? What spirituality was born and still lives? As we ready ourselves to celebrate our 400th anniversary as bearers of this particular gift of the Spirit, we need to ask, “What is at the heart of our charism?”
The center, the very heart of this spirituality is expressed succinctly in the Rule of Confraternity in Châtillon: to dedicate oneself to God in order to serve him in the poor and to do this for the glory of Jesus. This is a most fundamental element and without it, beneficent activities, no matter how noble and worthy of praise such dedication might be, yet such activity could not be classified as Christian (even though it might spring forth in some implicit manner from the Spirit of Christ). With this offering of self to God eternal life becomes a spiritual sacrifice that is offered to the God of Jesus Christ. Therefore the most humble acts of service on behalf of people who are poor and those actions that are most unappreciated by larger society become spiritual actions (we will see later that Louise de Marillac expressed this same idea).
Clearly, it was not simply organized social activity, but something permeated with the goodness of Jesus and his Spirit.
Work with the poor is not just another form of social work activity but, strictly speaking, is part of the evangelization process in which the spiritual and material aspects are accomplished by word and action. As the members of the Confraternity of Charity severed the sick poor, they continued the ministry that was begun by Jesus as he served in the poor in Galilee. To act in this way is to serve the poor, to be servants of the poor. Years later when Vincent spoke about the servants of the poor he came to the logical conclusion that the poor are our lords and masters. Therefore since these individuals are our lords and masters they are to be given personalized service and should be encountered face to face so that they are known by name. As a result of this vision the Confraternity in Châtillon and later foundations could never become simply beneficent institutions that distribute money and other resources in a bureaucratic manner that distances its members from the lives of those persons who are poor.
Closeness. Today, we would almost call it a type of spiritual friendship, in which both persons — the servant and the one served — are known and valued.
But not just any action on behalf of the poor can be referred to as Vincentian action. Thus our charitable-evangelizing activity ought to be done in collaboration with other believers and in well-organized groups whose members are animated and united by bonds of mutual affection. This is fundamental if we want to understand the true Vincentian spirit.
A charism that is deeply relational, collaborative, organized, and now “systemic” as it comes into its maturity. That’s what was born in Châtillon. When we serve in this way we can say #IamVincent.
If these thoughts interest you, read Vincentian Father Jaime Corera’s entire article, “Vincent de Paul in Châtillon: the birth of a new spiritual vision” on vincentians.com.