As we celebrate the 400th anniversary of the founding of the Vincentian charism we should remember that Vincent did not have any grandiose plan for systemic changes. Yet, in one of the paradoxes of history, he is now being recognized as one of the most effective systemic change agents in the history of the church.
He pioneered the role of women in ministry. In reforming of the clergy, he became known as the Father of the Clergy. He networked across all layers of society. His organizing of charity earned him the title Patron of Charity. In reframing consecrated life he set in motion the development of a new category in canon law centuries later.
Yes, he founded the Ladies of Charity, The Daughters of Charity, the Congregation of the Mission. He inspired Blessed Ozanam through a Daughter of Charity to be instrumental in the founding of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. (For more details on all this see the series on Contributions of the Vincentian Charism to the mission of the church).
But, Vincent himself was quite surprised by the systemic changes set in motion 400 years ago. In his own words, we see that he never dreamt of these changes, let alone followed a preconceived grand plan. “That happened gradually, almost on its own, one thing after another.” SV XII:9
Have you ever wondered how something happened? Vincent certainly did!
Even a quick reading of the next six quotations from his conferences points to some lessons for us. Just follow Providence by being attentive to the “signs of the times” and be “creative unto infinity.” All another way of saying he did the next right thing that came to his mind.
Vincent in his own words
It is tempting to try to summarize but best to listen to Vincent directly…
1) “It may be said in truth that it’s God who established your Company. I was thinking about this again today and I said to myself, ‘Did you ever dream of founding a Company of Sisters? Oh no, not I! Was it Mlle. Le Gras? Just as little.’ I can tell you in all truth that I never thought of it. Who then had the idea of establishing in the Church of God a Company of women and Daughters of Charity wearing ordinary attire? That wouldn’t have seemed possible. Yes, I did think about the ones [the Charities] in the parishes, but I can tell you once again that it was God, and not I. “ IX: 165
2) “I’ve told you many times, Sisters, that you can be very certain 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 Mile I.e Gras. I told you how it came about. However, because many of those here present weren’t here then, I’ll repeat it once more so that you may see God’s guidance of your establishment. IX: 192
3) “O Sauveur! What Rules! And where do they come from? Had I ever thought of them? Not at all! For, Messieurs, I never had a thought either of our Rules, or of the Company, or of the very term ‘Mission.’ God did all that; men had no part in it. As for myself, when I consider the means God was pleased to use in bringing the Company to birth in His Church, I confess that I don’t know where I am, and everything I see seems to be a dream. Oh! That’s not human; it’s from God. Would you call human what human understanding didn’t foresee and what the human will neither sought after nor desired in any way whatsoever? Poor M. Portail never thought of it; neither did I; it has all come about contrary to my every hope and without my ever thinking of it in any way. When I consider that and see the ministries of the Company, it truly seems like a dream to me, and I think I’m dreaming; I can’t explain it to you. It’s like the poor prophet Habakkuk, whom an angel grabbed by the hair of his head and carried off a great distance to console Daniel, who was in the lions’ den; then the angel brought him back to the place where he had seized him and, when the prophet saw himself in the same place from which he had set out, he thought he had dreamed all that. XII:6
4) Who could ever have imagined that this would reach its present state? If anyone had said that to me then, I would have thought he was making fun of me; yet, that was the way God was pleased to give a beginning to what you now see. Eh bien, my dear confreres, would you call human something no one had ever intended? For neither I, nor poor M. Portail ever thought of it. Ah, we never thought of it! It was very far from our minds! “Had we ever imagined the ministries the Company now has, with the ordinands, for example, who are the richest and most precious deposit the Church could entrust to us? That had never entered our minds. Did we ever think of the Confraternity of Charity? How did we happen to undertake the rescue of poor foundlings? I don’t know how all this came about; for my part, I couldn’t tell you. M. Portail over there can attest that nothing was further from our thoughts than all that. XII:8
My two favorites
5) “And how were the Community practices introduced? In the same way; little by little, and I couldn’t tell you how. The conferences, for instance-of which this may be perhaps the last I’ll give you – we never thought of them. And Repetition of Prayer, something that was as yet unheard of in the Church of God, but which has since been introduced into several well-regulated Communities, where it’s now practiced successfully. How did the thought of it occur to us? I have no idea. How did the thought of all the other exercises and ministries of the Community occur to us? Again, I haven’t the slightest idea. That happened gradually, almost on its own, one thing after another. The number of those who joined us increased, everyone worked at acquiring virtue, and, as the numbers grew from one day to another, good practices were introduced to help us to live closely united and to assure uniformity in our ministries. Those practices have always been observed and, by the grace of God, are still observed today. XII:9
6) In the beginning, nothing was further from our mind than to be at the service of the clergy; we were thinking only of ourselves and of the poor. How did the Son of God begin? He hid himself, and He seemed to be thinking only of himself; He prayed and acted only as a private individual; that’s all that was apparent, and then He began to announce the Good News to the poor. But, in the course of time, He chose Apostles, took the trouble to instruct, warn, and form them and, finally, animated them with His Spirit, not tor themselves alone but for all the peoples of the earth. In addition, He taught them all the maxims for forming priests, for administering the Sacraments, and for carrying out their ministry. It would take me too long to go into detail about all that.
So, in the beginning, the Company was concerned only with itself and the poor; at certain times it withdrew in private; at others it went out to teach the country people. God allowed that this was all we seemed to be doing, but, in the fullness of time, He called us to assist in the formation of good priests, in providing good Pastors to parishes and teaching them what they should know and practice. Oh, what a lofty, sublime ministry! Oh, how far above us! Who had ever thought about retreats for ordinands and about seminaries? This undertaking had never entered our minds until God indicated to us that it was His pleasure for us to be engaged in it. So then, He’s led the Company to these ministries without our choosing them, and yet He asks us to commit ourselves to them earnestly, humbly, devoutly, constantly, and in a manner that corresponds with the excellence of the work. XII:74
What is the lesson for us in all these quotes?