Adaptation – The Genius of Vincent in Recognizing Lay Women

by | May 20, 2017 | Formation, Reflections | 1 comment

mission and reform

Alison Forrestal, in her groundbreaking book, “Vincent de Paul, the Lazarist Mission, and French Catholic Reform” (Oxford Press), points to Vincent’s genius in adapting pastoral strategies to new situations and pioneering the role of women, not just via the Daughters of Charity, but especially through the Confraternities of Charity.

In Vincent’s time, there were many pious associations of clerics. But there was nothing for ordinary lay women who desired to serve and grow spiritually. His genius was in taking the rule of the Brothers of Charity and adapting it to fit a parish setting and to suit the needs of a new set of practitioners, that is, lay women who were neither institutionalized nor clericalized.

She writes,

Again, the Jesuits in particular had been to the fore in encouraging the foundation of confraternities that combined common prayer and sacramental practice with works of mercy And, although with only moderate success, Archbishop Charles Borromeo had promoted confraternities of the Holy Sacrament and charity in Milanese parishes, in order to implant good habits of piety and moral action.  There were plenty of precedents, as a result, for the type of charitable organization that de Paul introduced in his parish.

It was not from these, however, that he drew his immediate inspiration for it. Instead, he relied on another manifestation of the Catholic reform movement, the Brothers of Charity. In the first place, the new confraternity’s name derived from this order, and specifically from the hospital that the Brothers had run in Rome since 1584, in fulfilment of their fourth vow, which obliged them to care for the sick.  De Paul had probably encountered the hospital when he paid a visit to Rome around 1600.

Secondly, however, he had become more conversant with their work when he paid visits to their hospital in Paris a decade later, and he now chose to exploit the rule that they followed there and in their other hospitals. Crucially, he adapted it to fit a parish setting and to suit the needs of a new set of practitioners, that is, lay women who were neither institutionalized nor clericalized. He divided his rule into ten sections, which included directions for the government of the confraternity and the care of its resources, and instructions on the procedures to be followed when rostered ‘servants of the poor’ visited the sick in their houses.

Over time these confraternities became the principal means through which de Paul engaged with devout Catholic women, who were excluded by their sex from expressing their faith through the functions of ordained ministry but aspired to find alternative means of doing so.

Though absent from the foreground of these particular activities, however, women are known to have played a prominent and active part in de Paul’s efforts to promote Catholic piety, particularly through works of charitable welfare. He sensibly realized early in his missionary life that confraternities offered a means to organize female religious expression; after his successful experiment in Châtillon, he established similar confraternities in parishes on the Gondi lands and latterly in other areas, before formally incorporating their foundation into the missions in which the Lazarists specialized.

Chapter 9 examines the long-term impact of his realization that confraternities offered a means to organize and promote female religious expression. Though the promotion of confraternal charity duly became the final constituent of the Lazarist pastorate, scholarship on this aspect of de Paul’s work has concentrated almost entirely on one particular confraternal grouping, the Daughters of Charity.

Little attention has been paid to the wider confraternal membership as a whole, and in particular to the significant personal opportunities that these vehicles of pastoral care offered to de Paul. Most recently, in examining the works and goals of female elite piety in these years, Diefendorf has argued persuasively for a shift from the acts of heroic asceticism associated with League piety towards a more active engagement with works of charity in the 1630s.

Her discussion of this change is designed ‘to bring these women out of Monsieur Vincent’s long shadow’, or, in other words, to counter what might be called the ‘Coste narrative’. Unfortunately, although meritorious for its exposure of female charity, it has the undesirable effect of erasing de Paul from events almost entirely.’

Chapter 9 of this book turns a spotlight back onto de Paul by explaining how, over time, the confraternities became the principal means through which he engaged with lay women. Indeed, it affirms that for a small inner circle of consoeurs (members of the confraternity at the Hôtel-Dieu hospital), the works of charity gave rise to an extremely unusual, privileged, and productive affinity with de Paul that led them to make common cause with him in all three spheres of the Lazarist enterprise.

Chapter 10 then takes analysis further to assess the ways in which de Paul carried his preference for communal performance of Christian acts of piety and morality into associations that he did not found, promote, or run himself, so that he acted uniquely as a point of connection between the Lazarists, the Ladies, and the influential Company of the Holy Sacrament.

Source: Forrestal, Alison (2017-05-11). Vincent de Paul, the Lazarist Mission, and French Catholic Reform (Kindle Locations 371-386). OUP Oxford. Kindle Edition.

1 Comment

  1. MaryAnn

    Sounds like Alison Forestal has researched and written what could be called “Hidden Figures” of the Charism of Charity.

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