Vincent showed us how to change systems
St. Vincent showed us how to do systemic change… but he did not leave a formal manual or even call it “systemic change.”
Vincent was not what would today be called a “systems thinker.” Vincent was what I call a “systems doer.”
There are many definitions of systemic change. Perhaps the most broadly valid definition is “change that pervades all parts of a system, taking into account the interrelationships and interdependencies among those parts.” That puts perspective on this comment at his funeral Mass. He “changed the face of France.”
How? He was not a legislator. Nor was he a king. Yet he changed the way people thought about things. He showed people a different way of thinking.
Women helped Vincent see differently
It is fitting that we reflect on this in the season of Lent. Lent calls us to repent. Repent is rooted the Greek word for “change your way of thinking.”
Vincent did not set out change people’s thinking. Vincent set out to address a specific problem.
He had the gift of viewing problems with wide-angle vision… and was open to view things differently when someone challenged him to think differently.
In both Folleville and Chatilon, he saw problems. Spiritual poverty and material poverty. Sr. Louise Sullivan helps us understand the role women and his openness to thinking differently. She says to understand these events and their far-reaching effects, it is essential to recall the context in which they occurred.
The woman who moved Vincent at Folleville
At Folleville, he experienced the spiritual abandonment of those who were poor by the Church and especially the clergy.
An incident took place when Vincent accompanied the Gondi family to their estates in Folleville. At first glance, it was quite ordinary, even banal in the life of a parish priest: he was called to the bedside of a dying man to hear his confession. Vincent had little experience as a parish priest—sixteenth months in sixteen years—so it is quite possible that it would never have led to the first “sermon of the mission” (Vincent de Paul, n.d., 11:4).
What followed might never have happened were it not for Madame de Gondi.
It was she who first reacted after the old man’s confession; she who pushed Vincent to preach the following day; she who chose the subject of the sermon; and she who asked Vincent to continue the work begun at Gannes in the other villages on her lands. Vincent tells of the providential role she played. Scrupulous by nature, with a tendency to dramatize, Madame de Gondi drew a generalization from the old man’s revelation and feared that the peasants on her estates were in danger of damnation. Thus she challenged her spiritual director saying:
Ah, Sir, what is he saying. What is it that we have just heard. The same no doubt holds true of those poor people. Ah, if this man who was looked upon as a good man was in a state of damnation, what is the state of others who live badly. Ah, Monsieur Vincent, how many souls are perishing. What is the remedy for that? (Vincent de Paul, n.d., 11:5)
Thanks to Madame de Gondi, Vincent responded to the challenge and preached at Folleville, and according to his own testimony: God had such regard for the confidence and good faith of this lady…that He blessed my discourse and all those good people were so touched by God that all came to make a General Confession… We then went to the other villages belonging to Madame…and God bestowed His blessing everywhere. (Vincent de Paul, n.d.,11:4).
The women who helped Vincent change people’s mind after Chatillon
Then, at Châtillon, Vincent faced the social problem – material poverty.
At Châtillon, he is confronted by society’s abandonment of poor persons. The women of the parish rushed to the aid of the family. The happy pastor tells us, “I spoke… so strongly that all the ladies were greatly moved. More than fifty of them went from the city and I acted like the rest” (Vincent de Paul, 1645, January 22, 9:206).
Vincent’s first biographer, Louis Abelly, tells us of Vincent’s initial reflections on the experience. Shortly after returning home, he had concluded:
Here is an example of great charity but it is not well organized. The sick poor will have too many provisions all at once, some of which will spoil and be lost and then, afterwards, they will fall back into their misery. (Abelly, 1664, p. 46)
That very evening, the notoriously slow to act Vincent had laid the foundation for the confraternity. He says, “I proposed to all these good ladies, who had been animated by charity to visit these people, to group together to make soup, each on her own day, and not only for them but for all those who might come afterwards” (Vincent de Paul, 1645, January 22, 9:209).
Thus, in two small villages, in two seemingly ordinary events, the Vincentian charism was born. Women played an essential role in both its birth and its development.
There were, indeed, many women in Vincent de Paul’s life and his works would become what they were and what they continue to be because they put their hands to them. The women of the Vincentian Family continue to bring the giftedness that Vincent discerned in them early on to the “suffering members of Jesus Christ” throughout the world. As a result, now as then, persons who are poor are better served.
Do I look with wide-angle lenses at problems?
Do I listen to others who suggest the wider angles of problems?
Do I empower others to step forward?