Was St. Vincent a Financial Genius?

by | Jul 29, 2017 | Formation, Reflections

Reading Fr. John Rybolt’s extensively documented article, “Saint Vincent de Paul and Money,” leads me to conclude Vincent was a financial genius.

We all know Vincent did amazing things over the course of his lifetime. But, if you look how much money was involved in his ministries it is truly eye-opening and mind-boggling.

Sometimes we forget that ministry costs money. Certainly, not all ministry. But larger and more organized ministries of the scale Vincent was involved in cost money. It is one thing to give a cup of cold water in the name of the Lord. It is quite another thing to make it possible for some to devote their lives full time to ministry. And who covers the costs of buildings and support services that feed, clothe and shelter those in need?

Vincent wrote “Our situation is not like that of the Mendicants (beggars). All they have to do is pitch their tent and they are established. But we, who do not take anything from the poor, need revenue…”

Vincent ruled out that confreres should work at secular jobs, receive pay for spiritual services or beg. So how did he make it possible for himself and his followers to offer their services for free?

John Rybolt provides a detailed insight into what can be described as the financial genius of Vincent.

 

Vincent’s responsibilities

For starters, there is the Priory of St. Lazare. Saint Lazare was one of the largest, if not the very largest ecclesiastical property of Paris. Precisely because it was so large he realized it could easily become the gift that costs more than it was worth.

St. Lazare was the equivalent of good size neighborhood in a modern city. Vincent was becoming the owner of Saint Lazare’s rental property, consisting of entire streets and their buildings in Paris, plus extensive farms and mills in the country. It is no wonder, then, that he had hesitated more than a year before accepting the Priory.

In any case, the income from all these pre-existing sources would allow the Mission to continue.[20] Owning Saint Lazare, however, changed the Congregation of the Mission forever.

Once he moved to Saint Lazare and the Congregation grew, Vincent found himself having to provide for his sick and elderly confreres, as well as for the novices and student swelling their numbers.[22] Besides, he incurred obligations to his missioners outside France, such as in North Africa, Poland, Italy, and most famously, Madagascar. As Superior General, therefore, he was responsible for the food, lodging, clothing, and medical care of his confreres, as well as for supplies for churches and chapels, and for the education of his junior confreres, with their needs for pens, ink, paper and books. Travel expenses for the older missionaries were not insignificant,[23] nor were those involved in the administration of a growing enterprise. On top of all this, Vincent had to provide hospitality at Saint Lazare, as well as in many other houses, for clergy and laity on retreat.[24] And then there were the poor who came to the door in search of help of all sorts.

Where did he find the money for all these ministries if he was not going to charge for them?

 

Vincent’s sources of income

1. Land and its Produce

Vincent remarked, probably as a result of his meditation on the economic facts of his life that the missioners lived “on the patrimony of Jesus Christ, on the sweat of the poor.” Income from the poor farm laborers flowed in not only to Saint Lazare but also to his other foundations.

2. Real estate, whether buildings or farm properties, that he owned, managed and leased to others

3. His public services

This source might surprise many today.  As a result of a gift from the young King Louis XIV he was entitled to the tolls from bridges and mills, and especially from coach lines that carried both passengers and freight. Investments, particularly in the municipal bonds issued by the city of Paris.

4. Income from civil offices he held.

He had considerable income from the state as Chaplain of the galleys. He also held consulates in North Africa which entitled him “benefits, revenues, and emoluments that come within its scope.” A smaller source was a portion of the taxes paid from merchandise, salt, food, and wine from certain areas,[36] as well as percentage of the income of notarial offices, such as those near the house of Richelieu.

5. Ecclesiastical offices or benefices

This included legacies and other gifts and grants, including mass stipends.

Father Vincent “How did you manage all this?”

Managing all these resources obviously called for astute management. And that is perhaps where we can learn for Vincent’s theory of money management.

1. In managing money, his overarching principle was that his resources existed to serve the poor, and that money was not a thing in itself to be hoarded.

His sense of the vow of poverty for the Congregation of the Mission reflected the same ideas. A member’s personal income was destined to support the needy; it was the patrimony of Jesus Christ for His poor members.This is still the sense of the Vincentian vow.

2.To help maintain his ideals in practice, Father Vincent relied on managers and financial advisors, both members of the Congregation  and others, although we know little about the details.

“Far from being a bad thing to seek advice, you must, on the contrary, do so when the matter is of any importance, or when we cannot come to a clear decision on our own. For temporal affairs, we consult a lawyer or some lay persons who are knowledgeable about them; for internal affairs, we discuss matters with the consultors and other members of the Company when we think it appropriate. I often consult even the Brothers and ask their advice on questions involving their duties.”

In addition, he had administrators to track and collect the income due him, often a complex and delicate undertaking.[He approved hiring a “salaried servant to look after temporal affairs…”  For example, some of his renters would sublease their building, and then his rent collectors would find themselves blocked in trying to get what was due them.

Managing the income from the coach lines must have been a nightmare since he had to control its flow, care for the horses and equipment, guarantee the honesty of the agents, and the like. Storing the goods paid in kind must have posed enormous problems at all points along the line of collection and distribution.

3, Further, he needed help in managing his other employees, such as the servants in various houses, the farm hands, and the stable keepers, to say nothing of supervising the construction contracts that he constantly entered into.

He seems to have been somewhat embarrassed by the need for servants, as the following suggests:

“We cannot send you right now the Brother you are requesting; I repeat my request that you hire a servant. We have some here in the kitchen and many in other duties. The Carthusians have several, and a Barnabite Father was telling me yesterday that they have the humanities in their colleges taught by outside professors whom they hire. It is very expensive to send Brothers so far away, in addition to the fact that we have none who would suit your purpose.”

To add to his problems, many of his debtors resorted to legal chicanery to keep from paying. The mild-mannered Vincent preferred to avoid litigation, settling “out of court” as we say. His maxim was that “peace is worth more than all worldly possessions.”

But he also realized that to enforce contracts he would have to go to court when all else failed. In this, he relied on advice from attorneys and regularly employed firm notaries.[75] He reasoned that the income, after all, belonged to the poor, and his obligation was to defend not only his rights as superior general but also the rights of the poor.

4. Interestingly, Vincent resorted, at least once, to using fluctuations in the value of coinage to increase his charitable funds.

“The saving will not be small for your poor if we can change the silver money given to us into gold.”

5. Because of this difficult and unstable system, deficits easily arose, and Vincent often borrowed money. The philanthropy of his rich benefactors dried up, too, in times of poor harvest or other natural occurrences such as fires, storms, and floods. The cold winters and wet summers typical of what has been called the “Little Ice Age” in his period further affected his ability to stay solvent, without even considering such man-made causes as war, vandalism, theft and looting, all of which he endured.

6. In all this, Vincent was acutely aware of his obligations in social justice. Although a strict employer and manager, his spiritual instincts led him to just wages, and even to charity above what was due in justice. For example, he looked to the medical care of his workers and provided for them if accidentally injured on the job. He was prompt and faithful in paying his obligations.[83] He practiced frugality and urged it on others[84] and, to maintain control, he insisted that the superiors of houses make no major financial decisions with¬out the approval of the visitors (provincial superiors) and that these, in turn, obtain his permission.[85] He took care to urge budgets, good bookkeeping, and regular financial reporting.[86] These are simple matters evidently, but they show the mind of a good manager at work.

Conclusion

Fr. Rybolt writes:

For Vincent de Paul, then, money was not dirty, something to be shunned. Rather, it was a God-given resource to promote charity. With his good sense wedded to an instinctive goodness of character, he was able to capitalize on his peasant upbringing by realism, practicality, and simplicity, foregoing extravagant promises that he could not keep, tempering charity with justice.[87] Although conscientious and forgiving, he could be exacting and careful in the direction of his efforts for the evangelization of the poor. In negotiations, he worked to get a good bargain but was also discreet, and often called his confreres to maintain secrecy about cases in progress.[88]

Unlike many of the clergy of his time, he was generous, overly generous in the opinion of some of his confreres, “always the first to give,” as Abelly reports.[89] The first Vincentians feared that his charity would eventually bankrupt the Congregation, bringing everything down.[90] Vincent, however, had a deep-rooted trust in God’s Providence,[91] but was careful not to tempt providence by inaction. “I admit that we can expect something from Providence, but we should not tempt God who, having provided you with reasonable means to begin and carry on an establishment while observing the Rule of religious poverty, does not want you to make a superfluous expenditure and then to trust yourselves to His Providence.”[92]

Vincent de Paul was a saint. That did not mean, however, that he lived outside the constraints of his time or remained oblivious of the social and economic factors that kept people poor. Those things he could not change. Instead, he applied his saintly character to managing well what Divine Providence gave him, and always looked at the abundant sums that passed through his large peasant hands as destined for the poor, those for whom Jesus had a special love.

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