The Poor Jesus: The Christology Of St. Vincent De Paul

by | Aug 1, 2019 | Formation, Reflections | 2 comments


Who is Jesus? That is the fundamental question that all believers have to ask in every generation. Christian life and the Church’s theology (liturgy, sacraments, ecclesiology, spirituality, moral theology, etc.) are born out of the response to that question. How we understand Jesus creates the environment for the life of faith.

No one can invent a Christology out of nothing. We all receive the traditions from earlier generations. We meditate on the responses from the past about Jesus because some of those answers are definitive. Nevertheless, every time the Christian community answers some questions about Jesus, new questions come up.

The four evangelists, St. Paul and the other authors of the New Testament offered different answers to the Christological question. Their memories and theological reflections about the person of the Lord in the first century are essential. The Christian community has to struggle with the meaning of those sacred texts. But not everything is found in the Bible. They left questions that the Church had to answer little by little.

The first councils (Nicea, Ephesus, Chalcedon) tried to understand better the meaning of the Christ. Questions arose out of the biblical texts: If Jesus is God, what does that mean? Is he equal to God? Less than God? How can he be man? If he is a man, how can he be God? The bishops in the first councils sought greater clarity and taught new doctrines, which centuries later we still accept (The Trinity, Jesus is God and Man. etc).

Despite the doctrinal clarity of the councils, questions and concerns about the person of Jesus and his gospel arise because each epoch struggles with new experiences and different problems. Theologians and the Christian community have meditated for centuries on the inheritance from scripture and the tradition. It’s always important to relate these lights from the past with the present reality. We go back to the Christian past, not because the reflections and doctrines of the past have the last or only word, but because those teachings have value and can illuminate our faith journey in the present.

I begin with this summary of history to situate St. Vincent and his Christology. To look at the saint’s teachings is to go back to the past. Vincent de Paul was a man of the Seventeenth Century. His way of doing theology is according to the classic style of his time. He was influenced by the concepts and terminology of his contemporary theologians. His theological method is exactly the opposite of modern systematics. We begin with experience and let doctrine illumine experience. In the Seventeenth Century they began with the eternal truths and then moved to reality. Vincent knew well the theological currents of his time: the Augustinian negativity, the humanism of Francis de Sales, etc. He expressed himself in the language of his time. We cannot expect that St. Vincent can answer all of our questions nor that we can assume all of his understanding of Christ.

Nevertheless, St, Vincent, faithful to the teachings of the Church, was never a slave to what he received from the tradition. He combined the traditional teachings with his own experience among the poor and in the mission. We might say that the theologies which he had studied and the theologians he had known gave him theological structures to understand his own experiences and a language with which to express them. His Christology was marked by his contacts with the poor Jesus amongst the poor.

Obviously in the Twenty-first Century new questions have arisen about Christ, the service of the poor, etc. There are new poverties and new ways of analyzing and understanding reality. We return to the Vincentian past, to St. Vincent and his Christology, because it can illuminate our present day process, Not everything that St. Vincent said is useful today. Nonetheless there are many teachings of the saint which can still orient our lives and ministry as Vincentians. Let me point out a few elements for understanding the Christ of St. Vincent.

  1. A knowledge of Christ that is born from the charism

Frequently we speak about the Vincentian charism as if it was a brilliant idea of St. Vincent The charism is not an idea. Rather it is an experience of the Spirit. It is the gift of the Holy Spirit calling us to follow Jesus in a particular way. The Spirit invites us to walk with Jesus and he lights up the Gospel path, the way of the Kingdom of God. The Spirit creates the capacity to receive and live the gift. He never imposes. It has to be accepted in freedom.

Vincent spent a good part of his life fleeing from the charism. He did not want to accept the gift and closed his life to the movement of the Spirit. He made himself deaf and blind. His experiences with the poor opened his eyes in certain moments to their reality and to the presence of Jesus. But, in other moments, these experiences provoked fear, insecurity and doubts. Go with the poor? Abandon my plans? Is that what God wants? Is that what I want? How can I live this call?

In the measure that he comes to open his life to the poor and discovers the charism, he begins to have a new experience of Jesus. It is no longer Jesus imposing a vocation from outside. It is the poor Jesus who he discovers amidst the marginalized. He comes to see that following Christ amongst the poor is the road to liberation. God has save him from a closed life of selfishness.

St. Vincent returns to the Gospels in order to understand his experience of Jesus. His favorite texts are Luke 4 and Matthew 25. For the next thirty years he is going to highlight passages which speak about the love of God who saves the weak and the suffering. The following of Jesus teaches him certain aspects of the Lord which will shape his Christology.

  1. Jesus is found amidst the poor

When Christ invites us to follow him, he does it from the poor. And from that place among the poor we have to answer: Who is Jesus? Who are the poor? How do we relate with them? This is the backbone of Vincentian Christology. Let me offer three clarifications:

  • The poor have value in themselves

We do not go to the poor because Jesus is present there, We go to the poor because they are our suffering brothers and sisters. They are the priority in the Kingdom of God. I tend to the poor because of their personal dignity. They are the subjects of their own lives, not the recipients of pity and handouts.

  • Christ calls us to serve the poor, not just the good poor

We sometimes speak about being evangelized by the poor. I think we misunderstand the phrase. We are talking about the good poor, those that go to church, live a moral life, share from their meager means. We cannot limit our service by asking if people are worthy or not. Even evildoers evangelize us. They call us to love the unloveable. They put us in contact with our own sinfulness and weakness and call us to compassion.

  • The presence of Christ is sacramental

St. Vincent speaks about encountering Christ in the poor. Rarely does he talk about seeing Christ in the poor. This is because the presence of Christ is sacramental, not physical. Speaking about seeing Christ in the poor causes confusion because it is a poetic form of speaking, but it does not correspond to experience. If you literally see Christ in the poor you are either a great mystic (and there are not many of those) or you need professional help. Speaking about Christ in the poor creates false expectations and fantasy. Some expect to meet a person with a beard and a white tunic. It also has become a way to avoid the poor who offend our sensibilities. By supposedly seeing Christ we escape the need to see the poor.

The experience of Christ in the poor is sacramental. It is an experience of faith which tells me that in the encounter with the poor something more is happening. This is not a self-evident truth. It is a faith reflection about the encounter with the poor. Frequently we only become aware of the presence of Christ after the encounter with the poor. The question of both the just and the unjust in Matthew 25 should gives us pause: Lord, when did we see you with hunger, with thirst, without clothes or in jail, etc? It’s not a question of seeing Christ, but rather finding his presence.

  1. The human face of God

Vincent de Paul said that Jesus is nothing more than reverence and adoration towards the Father. With that he wanted to express the unique and special relationship between Jesus and the Father. The evangelists offer the same idea when Jesus calls God Abba. Through this relationship Jesus reveals who God is.

Vincent understands that God is not far away. He is not up in heaven making harsh judgments, ready to punish every offense and sin. He is a fountain of mercy, says the saint. He is pure charity. His spirit is the spirit of compassion. He sends his Son to save us.

Another way of expressing this concept in Vincentian terminology is Providence. St. Vincent speaks often of a provident God. Providence is not christian good luck, It does not mean that everything will turn out as we wish if we have faith. It does not mean that everything always has a good result. Providence is God’s salvific will. It is his desire for the well-being of all of his children. Everything is in the hands of God our Father, Even when things turn out badly, God accompanies us. When things do not turn out well, God is still present. In everything God is mercy.

In the life and ministry of Jesus, God bends down toward humanity. He reveals himself as a loving and merciful Father. He invites us to participate in his life, the community of love which is the Trinity. By his actions to heal the sick, feed the multitudes, forgive sins, give life to the dead Jesus communicates what the love of God means. He shows us who God is.

  1. The suffering face of the poor

St. Vincent once said a revealing phrase: Are the poor not the suffering members of Our Lord? Are they not our brothers? The saint believed that Jesus identifies himself with the poor. For St. Vincent, in Christ, God did not only become man, he became a poor man. He took on the reality of the poor. He became identified with them. He understood their sufferings because he experienced their sufferings. His compassion was born out of his solidarity with the poor. For St. Christ is the poor Christ..

Christ’s compassion is not pity. He does not remain outside the world of the poor, giving them things from afar. He is not a tourist who quickly passes through the margins of society. He joins with the poor and becomes one with them, sharing their lives and assuming their sufferings. A man like us in all things except sin, says St. Paul.

We find this theme of solidarity with the poor when St. Vincent speaks about the cross. His reflections are short, but profound. He recognizes the centrality of the cross in the mystery of Christ. Through the cross we come to salvation. Not through suffering in itself. Rather, in the cross God manifests his love. He is faithful even to the final consequences. In the cross we learn how God is because his Son suffers like the poor.

If there is a flaw in Vincent’s Christology, at least by modern standards, it is the lack of reflection about the Resurrection of Jesus. It is a weakness of the classical theology. They saw the Resurrection as a miracle at the end of Jesus’ life. But we cannot see the Resurrection as a happy ending disconnected from the life and the passion of Jesus. Nor can we forget the presence of evil and suffering. In the Resurrection we do not negate the reality of evil. It is the experience of God’s power creating the force to overcome the power of death. It is God leading us by the power of love towards new life.

  1. The Evangelizer of the poor

There were Christological ideas that Vincent did not take from theology books, but rather from his own missionary experience. For the saint, Jesus was the evangelizer of the poor. He told the missionaries of his Congregation:

If we asked Our Lord, What have you come to do on earth?

 -Take care of the poor

Anything else?

-Take care of the poor

Vincent understood that Jesus was the missionary of the Father who has come to announce the Good News of the Kingdom of God. To announce that the Kingdom of God is at hand and that this Kingdom is for the poor. The salvation which Christ announced is not only redemption from sin. It is liberation from sin and all that oppresses humanity. So the ministry of the Lord is understood as the proclamation of the Kingdom by word and deed. Evangelization is not only teaching doctrines and preaching sermons. It a response to the bad news that the poor suffer every day. Jesus seeks the way to overcome evil in the experience of the people. When he meets the sick, he heals them; when he encounters the hungry, he gives them food; with sinners, he pardons them

Something fundamental in Jesus’ evangelization is the encounter with the other. He approaches as a brother in order to understand the person’s pain. His response is always a charitable action/ This love is not expressed by giving things. His love is manifested by his closeness. He can touch the sick, the sinners and the weak because he is capable of entering their lives with all that that implies: listening, compassion, going out of himself to meet the other. That is why his presence is always good news. It is always the realization of the Kingdom coming to be.

  1. A practical Christology

It is interesting that St. Vincent begins the chapters of the Common Rules of the Congregation of the Mission with examples from the life of Jesus. Jesus did this, we will do the same, he explains time and time again. He points out the characteristics of the missionary Christ: simplicity, humility, meekness, mortification, apostolic zeal. These are the virtues of Jesus, the evangelizer of the poor.

He does something similar with the other Vincentian foundations: the Daughters of Charity and the Confraternities of Charity. He always brings his Christological reflection to practice. Vincent was not a theology professor. His reflections came from the service of the poor and they led him back to the poor. I believe he offered a way of looking at Jesus to help others in the service of the poor. I think he does the same for us.

Questions for Dialogue:

  1. What gets your attention in the Christology of St. Vincent?
  2. Are there elements in St. Vincent’s teaching that might be helpful in your own ministry?
  3. Can the Christology of St. Vincent say something today?



  1. Jim Claffey

    Thank you, John, for an excellent and practical reflection as we try to follow Christ in the way of Vincent today.

  2. Tom McK

    Very succinct and on target. Thanks, John

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