There was a day when St. Vincent recognized the need to move beyond retail to wholesale. August 20, 1617 marks the Foundation Day of the Confraternity of Charity at Châtillon-les-Dombes – 1617. It marks his instinctive awareness of the importance of systemic change.

The story of the impact of one of Vincent’s early sermons is well known in Vincentian circles, especially among the Ladies of Charity. Indeed, it is their “foundation story.” Four hundred years later that story is still being told. But it is a story with even wider implications. The story of that sermon at Châtillon is the foundation story for what we call today systemic change.

In his own words…

One Sunday, when I was vesting to say holy Mass, I was told that, in an isolated house, everybody was ill; there was not even one of them who could render any assistance to the others. This news touched me to the heart. I did not fail to commend them affectionately to the charity of the congregation. God, touching the hearts of those who heard me, moved them with compassion for those poor afflicted people.

After Vespers, I went to visit those people and overtook on the road some ladies who had set out before us and, a little farther on, met some others who were returning home. There were so many of them, you would have said it was a regular procession.

The thing to do was to see how to provide for their needs. I proposed to all those good ladies who had been animated by charity to visit those people that they should club together to make soup, each on her own day, and not only for them but for all who might afterwards come, and that is the first place where the Confraternity of Charity was established. Now, just ask yourselves is that the work of [humans]… or is it not quite manifestly the work of God? (Conference to the Daughters of Charity, February 13, 1646, On the love of our vocation and on helping the poor).

What Vincent Learned That Day

He observes that the family members, who were in great need, are suddenly provided with more than what they can eat. He realizes that part of the food will go to waste, which will return them to the earlier situation of need. In this case, organization was the solution! “The poor suffer less from a lack of generosity than from a lack of organization.”

Vincent himself wrote

“Since charity toward the neighbor is an infallible sign of the true children of God, and since one of its principal acts is to visit and bring food to the sick poor, some devout young women and virtuous inhabitants of the town of Châtillon-les-Dombes, in the Lyons diocese, wishing to obtain from God the mercy of being His true daughters, have decided among themselves to assist spiritually and corporally the people of their town who have sometimes suffered a great deal, more through a lack of organized assistance than from lack of charitable persons.”[xvii]

With that insight, he gave birth not only to a branch of the Vincentian Family but to an approach that we are newly rediscovering.

Former Superior General Robert Maloney writes

When he gathered the initial group of women to form a “Confraternity of Charity” at Chatillon-les-Dombes in November 1617, Vincent stated, in the Rule he composed for them, that the poor sometimes suffer more from a lack of “order” in the help offered them than from a lack of charitable persons who want to help.

So, he organized them. He believed that well-intentioned charity must also be well-organized, that it must be planned and executed with precision and care. Vincent was a precise planner and organizer. This was one of his greatest gifts. It helped make his works effective.

Vincent wanted quality, competence, gentleness, and respect to characterize the service provided in a project. He insisted that not only should we do good, but that we should do it well, with adequate resources and at the same time with warmth and concern.

What We Can Learn Today

Over the years he unpacked the experience. He taught us the importance of consistent strategies, starting on a small scale, delegating tasks and responsibilities and providing quality services, which respect people’s dignity. Vincent thought about a plan, he called a meeting, formed an association and delegated tasks and responsibilities to parish people, whom he included in the process. It is from this small beginning that the whole movement started. (Cf. Roman, Biography of St Vincent de Paul)

Vincent and Louise, and later Frederic Ozanam and Elizabeth Ann Seton, insisted on the fact that services had to be rendered with competence and benefit from adequate resources. Louise, who had great practical sense, worried about anything that was not right, and checked the minutest details so that instructions regarding the execution of tasks were respected. St Vincent de Paul excelled in the art of making people responsible. He listened to the ideas of others, asked for their opinions and provided the materials that his collaborators needed for the Vincentian mission. He delegated and gave responsibilities to his disciples by pointing to essential values,rules and virtues such as respect and mutual support. He stimulated cooperation as a means to serving the poor.

Reflection Questions

  • What elements of the Châtillon story do you see being repeated in your ministry?
  • Do you try to look beyond the obvious facts to see what might be a better way of approaching your ministry?
  • How might it be possible to enlist others to do collectively what might be beyond the capabilities of an individual?

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