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The Vincentian Family: A Fruitful and Flourishing Tree

by | Feb 17, 2020 | Formation, Reflections

The Vincentian Family could be compared with a lush and youthful tree laden with fruit and adorned with flowers [1]. Its roots, extensive and firm, refer to the spiritual experience of Saint Vincent de Paul (1660) [2] whose missionary charism, brought to light some 400 years ago, continues today to be fruitful and inspiring, thus, perpetuating the luminous witness of the great mystic of charity … Saint John Paul II referred to Vincent as the herald of God’s tenderness and mercy [3]. The sap which nourishes and invigorates this large spiritual and apostolic family comes from an encounter with Jesus Christ, evangelizing the poor (Luke 4:18), Jesus whom the members of this family attempt to follow, to love and to serve in the least of their brothers and sisters (Matthew 25:40). In the shade of this robust plant with its green leaves, innumerable impoverished people are sheltered with care, evangelized with ardor, diligently assisted and promoted with respect. The branches and shoots of the Vincentian tree are different in terms of color and shape: these numerous groups include Lay Associations, Societies of Apostolic Life, Institutes of Consecrated Life as well as communities that belong to other Christian denominations [4]. Scattered on the five continents of the world and established in different eras and contexts [5], the members of these groups number more than two million men and women of all ages, lay and consecrated, deacons, priests, and bishops … all gathered together under the same dynamic impulse of the Spirit that inspired Saint Vincent. The Vincentian charism reveals its power in the different evangelization initiatives and service on behalf of the poor that is taking place in more than one hundred fifty countries where the Family is present. It can be said that the vocation of Vincent de Paul, this brilliant initiator of charitable and social action, continues to enlighten today the path of his daughters and sons, of laymen and women who live in accord with his spirit … continues to lighten the path of young men and women who seek a useful life that is radically consummated in the gift of self [6].

Grafted onto the same charismatic tree, the more than two hundred sixty branches that compose the Vincentian Family are in harmony with regard to their point of reference, namely Saint Vincent de Paul. They identify Vincent as their founder, their inspiration or their patron. It was for this reason that Pope Francis wanted to include Vincent among great saints who have written the history of Christianity and viewed him as a concrete sign without which there would be a danger that the charity which animates the entire Church would grow cold, that the salvific paradox of the Gospel would be blunted, and that the “salt” of faith would lose its savor in a world undergoing secularization [7]

On the journey, opened by the great saint of the great century [8], the historical trajectory of the Vincentian Family has its beginning in 1617, the time of the establishment of the first Confraternity of Charity (today, known as the International Association of the Charity [AIC]). This group is composed of 250,000 lay volunteers, struggling together against poverty and its causes. In 1625 the Congregation of the Mission (CM) was established, a group composed of brothers and priests and called Lazarists, Vincentians, Paúles … today there are approximately 3,200 members, present in 85 countries who are committed to the evangelization of the poor and the formation of the clergy and the laity. Then in 1633, with the active participation of Louise de Marillac (+1660), the Company of the Daughters of Charity was established (DC) and this group is the largest community of women religious in the Church, numbering about 16,000 members  who are serving Christ in the poor in more than 90 countries. In his own lifetime, Vincent was convinced of the need for the members of these three groups to collaborate with one another … these groups came into existence as a result of the plan of Divine Providence. That fact is made very clear in a letter that Vincent wrote to one of the members of the Congregation: Our little Company has given itself to God from the beginning to serve the poor corporally and spiritually; consequently, at the same time it has worked for the salvation of the poor through missions, it has also established a means of solacing the sick through the Confraternities of Charity … The Ladies of Charity of Paris are also so many witnesses to the grace of our vocation through our collaboration with them in the many good works they do both inside and outside the city.  … Mindful that the Daughters of Charity have become, in the order of Providence, a means God has given us to do by their hands what we cannot do by our own in the corporal assistance of the sick poor, and to say by their lips a few words of instruction and encouragement for their salvation. Since this is the case, we are also bound to help them in their own advancement in virtue so that they can carry out well their charitable works (9).

Today, the bonds that ensure affiliation with the Vincentian Family vary according to the origins of each branch. Thus, it is possible to establish different levels of belonging and distinct manners of assimilating and expressing the original charism … there are foundations established by Vincent, foundations that have adopted the Common Rules of the Congregation of the Mission or the Company of the Daughters of Charity, foundations that are guided by the Common Rules, foundations that have had Vincent as their mentor/guide, foundations established by members of Congregation of the Mission or the Company of the Daughters of Charity, foundations established by members of the Vincentian Family, foundations that have Saint Vincent as their patron or that have made Vincent’s spirit the point of reference for their life and mission … then there are individuals and groups associated with the above cited foundations, etc. [10]. In this great network of charity [11] woven with many threads, the Vincentian charism reveals its perennial relevance and its extraordinary ability to respond to unforeseen events and new challenges. The Family does so with great prophetic vitality, beginning with a concrete and practical approach to the world of the poor, promoting transformative activities from the gospel perspective, inserting itself into the mission of the Church and participating in international organizations, for example, in the United Nations where the representatives of the Vincentian Family seek to give echo to the cries of those persons living on the peripheries of our world.

When viewing its mission in the world, the Vincentian Family has become more convinced than ever of the need for a solid formation that provides the members with an integral spirituality based on the word of God and the heritage that it has received from its founder. The members of the Vincentian Family are also aware of the need for a commitment to qualitative, long-term charitable-missionary service. The cultivation of this spirituality and apostolic commitment find their fertile ground in the experiences of daily life, in the faith community, in direct contact with those men and women who are poor, in the daily giving of self, in the meetings of the various local groups … it is there that the seeds grow and produce fruit. Such a perspective is seen in the life of Blessed Frederic Ozanam (+1853) who knew how to translate for the people of his era the need for a humble approach to the poor, an approach of solidarity … without which nothing could be done in an effective manner and nothing, in terms of charity, could be said to be beneficial. This concept was expressed by Frederic when he addressed the General Assembly of the Society on December 14, 1848:  Knowledge of the poor and needy is not gained by pouring over books or in discussions with politicians, but by visiting the slums where they live, sitting by the bedside of the dying, feeling the cold they feel and learning from their lips the causes of their woes. When people dedicate themselves to this ministry not for a few months but for day after day and year after year, when people “study” the poor in their homes and schools and hospitals and not in just one city but in many places, not just in one situation but in all the situations where God has placed them, only then can people begin to know the fundamental elements of this problem that is called “misery”. Then one has the right to proposed solutions which rather than frighten society, will console and provide hope to people.

 Among the descendants of Saint Vincent, direct or indirect, admirable shoots of holiness have arisen, men and women clothed with the spirit of Christ and inspired by the Vincentian heritage, filled with missionary charity and making mercy their vital mission [13] … ministering for the glory of God and on behalf of poor men and women. Among the saints, officially recognized by the Church, we mentioned here: Saint Francis Regis Clet, French, missionary and martyr in China (+1820); Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton, North American, foundress, (+1821); Saint Jeanne Antida Thouret, French, foundress (+1826); Saint Jean Gabriel Perboyre, French, missionary and martyr in China (+1840); Saint Justin de Jacobis, Italian, missionary and bishop in former Abyssinia (+1860); Saint Catherine Laboure, French, messenger of the Miraculous Medal (+1876); Saint Agostina Pietrantoni, Italian, martyr (+1894). We mention here some of those who have been beatified: the martyrs of the French Revolution which includes five members of the Congregation of the Mission (+1792, 1796) and the seven Daughters of Charity (+1794); Blessed Frederic Ozanam, a French layman, father and founder (+1853); Blessed Ghebra Michael, Abyssinian, martyr (+1855); Blessed Rosalie Rendu, French (+1856); Blessed Marcantonio Durando, Italian, founder (+1880); Blessed Marta Wiecka, Polish (+1904); the 102 members of the Vincentian Family, martyrs at the time of the Spanish persecution (+1934-1936); Blessed Lindalva Justo de Oliveira, Brazilian, martyr for the cause of charity (+1993) [14]. The life and the witness of these men and women and many others are the flowers that beautify the Vincentian Family tree and that give an odor of sanctity to its history [15].

In this admirable flowering of the members of the Vincentian Family — laymen and women (including married men and women), consecrated persons, ordained ministers — one will find the most diverse models, capable of provoking and corroborating attitudes and commitments solidly based on our common vocation to holiness: followers Jesus Christ evangelizer of the poor, dedicated to charity and mission, contemplatives in prayer and action, artisans of communion and fraternity, capable of giving their lives for the Kingdom [16]. From Heaven, by the example they have left us and by the intercession that they give us, these brothers and sisters of ours continue to inspire and encourage us to run as victors in the race before us and win with them the imperishable crown of glory [17]. At the conclusion of his Encyclical, Deus caritas est, Pope Benedict XVI placed Saint Vincent and Saint Louise among the saints who had exercised exemplary charity, adding that they are still outstanding models of social charity for all men and women of good will. Like them, we are called to be models of holiness that rejuvenate the ancient Vincentian Family tree and give witness with regard to the experience of our missionary charism. Yes, we are called to be the true bearers of light within history, because we are men and women of faith, hope and love [18]. Indeed, in the saints one thing becomes clear, those who draw near to God do not withdraw from humankind, but rather become truly close to them [19].

In the heritage of Vincent de Paul, a vigorous spiritual teacher and tireless missionary of the poor, the members of the Vincentian Family rediscover a spark that is capable of revitalizing their passion for the gospel and their compassion for those who are on the existential peripheries … men and women who are tired and dejected, like sheep that have no shepherd (Matthew 9:36), wounded and forgotten and marginalized by society (cf. Luke 10:30). The members of Vincent’s family, clothed in the spirit of Jesus Christ, pour forth upon those men and women the balm of mercy, making that mercy visible in gestures of solidarity, words of comfort and activities that are social-transformative. In that way the members strive to change the structures that create poverty … they begin with a new understanding of the poor and interpret the situations that encompass their lives, act in communion with them and with other institutions that are aligned with their cause [20]. For them, the Vincentian Family must move out to meet the poor where they live … there, they listen to the poor and encourage them to become protagonists in the Church and in society. The members of the Vincentian Family adapt their projects to the needs, desires, and possibilities of the people whom they serve. At the same time, they form people who will multiply these activities.  They also cultivate a spirituality which will enlighten and impel their activity and develop a coherent praxis. Their point of reference is their specific charism and the Social Doctrine of the Church. Only in this manner will the Vincentian Family respond in the manner that Vincent recommended to the Daughters of Charity when he stated: affective love must pass to effective love , which is to be engaged in the works of the Charity and the service of poor persons, undertaken with joy, courage, fidelity, and love (CCD:IX:466).

Footnotes:

[1] The detailed study about the origin, development and composition of the Vincentian Family is the result of a bold research project that was undertaken by a group of Daughters of Charity and members of the Congregation of the Mission in North America. This project was coordinated by Sister Betty McNeil: The Vincentian Family Tree: A Genealogical Study, Chicago, Vincentian Studies Institute, 1996 (an English copy of this work can be downloaded at: https://via.library.depaul.edu/vincentian_ebooks/6/ ).

Of course, after more than twenty years, much of the data and information contained in this study needs to be complemented and clarified. Further information can also be found in the official publication of the Congregation of the Mission, Vincentian, Year 50, #4-July- August 2006. This issue is available in French, Spanish and English and the English edition can be downloaded at:  https://via.library.depaul.edu/vincentiana/vol50/iss4/1/

[2] With regard to Saint Vincent and his spiritual experience I draw your attention to a collection of articles contained in La experience spiritual de San Vicente de Paúl, XXXV Semana de Estudios Vicencianos (The Spiritual Experience of Saint Vincent de Paul, XXXV Week of Vincentian Studies, Editorial CEME, Santa Marta de Tormes, Salamanca, 2011.

The following chapters of the above referenced work are available in English:

    1. José María López Maside, Saint Vincent de Paul, a man who centered his life on Christ: https://famvin.org/wiki/Saint_Vincent_de_Paul:_a_man_who_focused_his_whole_life_on_Christ
    2. José Manuel Villar Suarez, This is my belief, this is my experience: https://famvin.org/wiki/%22This_is_my_belief,_this_is_my_experience%22_-_Faith_as_an_experience_of_Saint_Vincent
    3. Sister María Ángeles Infante, DC, Saint Vincent de Paul, a man of the gospel: https://famvin.org/wiki/Saint_Vincent_de_Paul:_a_man_of_the_gospel
    4. Juan Corpus Delgado, Saint Vincent de Paul, a humble man: https://famvin.org/wiki/Saint_Vincent:_a_humble_man
    5. Cristina Calero, DC, Reflection on a Vincentian text: https://famvin.org/wiki/Reflection_on_a_Vincentian_Text

[3] Letter to the Superior General of the Congregation of the Mission on the occasion of the 400th anniversary of the birth of Saint Vincent de Paul, May 12, 1981.

[4] In the study cited in footnote #1, the Societies of Apostolic life and the Institutes of Consecrated Life encompass 89.17% of the branches of the Family; Lay Associations of the Faithful encompass approximately 8% and communities related to the Anglican Church, approximately 3% (cf. Betty McNeil, the Vincentian Family Tree, p. 184)

[5] According to the data presented in the study cited in footnote #1, in the XVII century, 19 foundations were established (7.14%); in the XVIII century, 18 foundations were established (6.75%); in the XIX century, 172 foundations were established (64.17%); in the XX century, 58 foundations were established (22.18) (cf. Betty McNeil, The Vincentian Family Tree, pp.22-23).

[6] Letter to the Superior General of the Congregation of the Mission on the occasion of the 400th anniversary of the birth of Saint Vincent de Paul, May 12, 1981.

[7] Pope Francis, Apostolic Letter on the Occasion of the Year of Consecrated Life, November 21, 2014, chapter III, #2; Pope Paul VI, Evangelica Testificatio, #3.

[8] This is the title of one of the most extensive and complete biographies of Saint Vincent: Pierre Coste, CM, The Life and Works of Saint Vincent de Paul (Monsieur Vincent: Le grand saint du grand siècle), translated: Joseph Leonard, CM, The Newman Press, Westminister, Maryland, 1952, three volumes.

[9] Vincent de Paul, Correspondence, Conference, Documents, translators: Helen Marie Law, DC (Vol. 1), Marie Poole, DC (Vol. 1-14), James King, CM (Vol. 1-2), Francis Germovnik, CM (Vol. 1-8, 13a-13b [Latin]), Esther Cavanagh, DC (Vol. 2), Ann Mary Dougherty, DC (Vol. 12); Evelyne Franc, DC (Vol. 13a-13b), Thomas Davitt, CM (Vol. 13a-13b [Latin]), Glennon E. Figge, CM (Vol. 13a-13b [Latin]), John G. Nugent, CM (Vol. 13a-13b [Latin]), Andrew Spellman, CM (Vol. 13a-13b [Latin]); edited: Jacqueline Kilar, DC (Vol. 1-2), Marie Poole, DC (Vol. 2-13b), Julia Denton, DC [editor-in-chief] (Vol. 3-10, 13a-13b), Paule Freeburg, DC (Vol. 3), Mirian Hamway, DC (Vol. 3), Elinor Hartman, DC (Vol. 4-10, 13a-13b), Ellen Van Zandt, DC (Vol. 9-13b), Ann Mary Dougherty (Vol. 11-12 and 14); annotated: John W. Carven, CM (Vol. 1-13b); New City Press, Brooklyn and Hyde Park, 1985-2014, volume VIII, p. 277-278.  Future references to this work will be inserted into the text using the initials [CCD] followed by the volume number, followed by the page number, for example, CCD:VIII:277-278.

[10] A rather complete list of criteria for membership in the Vincentian Family, with respective examples, can be found in Betty McNeil, The Vincentian Family Tree, p. 35-182.

[11] This expression is attributed to the founder of the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul, Blessed Frederic Ozanam: I would like to gather the world together in a network of charity.

[12] With regard to the prophetic dimension of the Vincentian charism, we reference the second part of the following article: Lauro Palú, “Desafios o retos de la Familia Vicenciana a nivel mundial: caminos de futuro del laicado vicenciano [Worldwide challenges for the Vincentian Family: future paths for lay Vincentians] in La Familia Vicenciana ante el Tercer Milenio, Salamanca, CEME, 1999, p. 193-238.

[13] Pope Francis. Misericordiae vultus, Bull of Indiction of the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy, 2015, #24.

[14] Giuseppe Guerra, I Santi della Famiglia Vicenziana, Roma: Vincenziane, 2007. In this volume edited by the Postulator General of the Congregation of the Mission, one also finds biographical outlines of some of the Venerable of the Vincentian Family: Jean-Léon Le Prevost, French, founder (+1874); Bishop Antônio Ferreira Viçoso, Portuguese, missionary and bishop in Brazil (+1875); Father Salvatore Micalizzi, Italian, missionary of the Congregation (+1937). In the same work there is mention of the members of the Vincentian Family who are Servants of God: Bishop Giovanni Battista Manzella, Italian (+1937); Bishop Janez Frančišek Gnidovec, Slovenian, missionary bishop (+1939); the eleven Polish martyrs under Nazism (+1945); Sister Gabriella Borgarino, Italian (+1949); Sister Barbara Samulowska, Polish, missionary in Guatemala (+1950); Sister Justa Domínguez de Vidaurreta e Idoy, Spanish (+1961); Bishop Emilio Lissón Chávez, Peruvian, missionary bishop in Peru and Spain (+1961); Sister Clemencia Oliveira, Brazilian, (+1966); Sister Cecilia Charrín, French, missionary in Guatemala (+1973); Sister Anna Cantalupo, Italian (+1983). In this same book we find biographical information about six individuals who are models of holiness and who are inspirational persons connected to the Vincentian Family in Mexico. Their names appear on our liturgical calendars and they are founders of religious communities inspired by the Vincentian spirit of evangelization and service on behalf of poor men and women: Saint José María Yermo, former member of the Congregation of the Mission (+1904); Saint José María Robles, devotee of Saint Vincent (+1927); Saint María de Jesús Sacramentado, a member of the Daughters of Mary (+1959); Blessed María Vicenta de Santa Doroteia, collaborator with the Confraternities of Charity (+1949); Madre Cesárea Ruiz de Esperanza y Dávalos, child of Mary (+1884) and Father José María Vilaseca, former member of the Congregation (+1910).

[15] The compendium, Rezar com a Família Vicentina, published in Brazil (2013), gathers together prayers for the Eucharistic celebration and the Liturgy of Hours of the primary models of holiness in the Vincentian Family. These prayers are divided into solemnities, feasts and memorials. Here we find the name of Saint Richard Pampuri, Italian, member of the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul, religious (+1930); Saint Gianna Baretta Molla, Italian, laywoman, member of the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul (+1969); Blessed María Poussepin, member of the Confraternity of Charity, religious, foundress (+1744); Blessed Giacomo Cusmano, Italian, priest, founder (+1888); Blessed Contardo Ferrini, Italian, layman, members of the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul (+1925); Blessed Zeferino Gíménez, Spanish, laymen, member of the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul, martyr (1936). We have a rather long list of members of the Vincentian Family who provide us with various models of holiness. Some became founders of other religious congregations and associations of the faithful (and made no clear reference to the Vincentian charism) and therefore, not everyone of these persons would be viewed as a model for us (cf. Betty McNeill, The Vincentian Family Tree, p. 38-182).

[16] Robert Maloney, Faces of Holiness: Portraits of Some Saints in the Vincentian Family, Published in the United States by: The National Council of the United States Society of Saint Vincent de Paul, St. Louis, Missouri, 2008; in the Prologue, the author (the former Superior General of the Congregation of the Missions and the Company of the Daughters of Charity) proposed some essential and complimentary elements of holiness (p.1-10) and then highlights those elements in some of the individuals who are presented as models of holiness in the Vincentian Family.

[17] Preface for the Saints – I

[18] Benedict XVI, Deus caritas est, #40

[19] Benedict XVI, Deus caritas est, #42; in his message on the occasion of the XXII World Youth Day celebration (2007), Pope Benedict stated: Love is the only force capable of changing the heart of the human person and of all humanity, by making fruitful the relations between men and women, between rich and poor, between cultures and civilisations. This is shown to us in the lives of the saints. They are true friends of God who channel and reflect this very first love. Try to know them better, entrust yourselves to their intercession, and strive to live as they did.

[20] Since 2006, the Vincentian Family has taken upon itself the Systemic Change approach, a new method of ministering with and for those men and women who are poor. This method is rooted in a spirituality, anthropology and sociology which is most appropriate for the Family and is utilized in order to develop new paradigms for the construction of a more just and human world. The protagonism of the poor is encouraged and necessary in the process of transforming reality … collaboration between people and aligned institutions is also an essential element in this approach. This methodology, enlightened by the Social Doctrine of the Church and the Vincentian charism was explained in detail in the publication: Seeds of Hope: Stories of Systemic Change, Published by: the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul, Saint Louis, Missouri (2008). Almost ten years later (2016), the International Commission of the Vincentian Family for the Promotion of Systemic Change published the Manual for Systemic Change, translating this work into various languages in order to facilitate the assimilation of its contents and the development of strategies to confront the present day reality.

Written by: Vinícus Augusto Teixeira, CM


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