The Way of Vincent

by | May 3, 2021 | Formation, Reflections | 3 comments

Thank you for the invitation to share a reflection on the Way of Vincent.  It brings back to my mind happy memories of being with you for your international meeting in Salamanca in February 2018.  It was my most immediate experience of MISEVI and left a deep impression on me.  I saw how the dream of Vincentian Lay Missionaries is taking root and expanding.  Your energy, love, and missionary spirit was contagious.  The theme of Radical Discipleship was a challenge and inspiration to me.  Since then, I have been realizing how much you are living Pope Francis’ call to the whole church to be missionary disciples.

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In this brief reflection I want to share with you one of the great graces I received in my search to know Vincent better.  I was provincial of the CM Midwest Province 1978-1987 and took a sabbatical after that.  I first spent some time with people with disabilities living together in the wonderful world of L’Arche in France.  They are people of the heart and that’s what I needed.  It was a joy and revelation to experience what God does in the midst of our limitations.  They were a gift to me, and I saw how central they (those whom we call the poor) are to our future, when we follow God’s lead.

Then, I went to our motherhouse in Paris to learn about Saint Vincent.  I really didn’t know that much about Vincent but I wasn’t seeking to become an expert, which I am not, but only to know enough to sort through the different opinions I was hearing.  One day I noticed the name of Father André Dodin on a door and asked if I could talk with him.  He had a reputation for being among the best scholars on Vincent.  Though he lived in the house more or less like a hermit, he welcomed me warmly.  Over time I had four two-hour sessions with him during which I could ask any questions I had on my mind.  His answers were original in the sense they were the fruit of years of reflection, also very insightful and inspiring.  Above all, he taught me about the Way of Vincent.

One day he said, “Vincent didn’t have a spirituality, he had a way.”  I was a little shocked at first: what do you mean he didn’t have a spirituality?  He was very spiritual!  Yes, of course, it meant Vincent didn’t start from doctrines, ideas, or theories.  He started from the presence of God.  God is here!  God is here, now!  God is here in events, God is here in persons, God is here in circumstances.  God is here in life, in time, in history.  God is here!  This makes all the difference.  We’ve always known this by the name of Providence.  Providence is God revealing God’s love to us and leading us in time, the present time, through events, people, and circumstances.

He went on to say that Vincent’s Way has three steps.  The first step is attention to experience.  How is God speaking to us in our lives?  How is God present to us now through events, people and circumstances?  I at least was and often still am accustomed to starting with ideas, theories, etc., but Vincent’s way was to start with present experience.  God is here.  He said, “Do the good that presents itself today.”

What were the events in Vincent’s life?  He was falsely accused as a thief, to which he responded in silence like Jesus in his passion.   His parishioners in Clichy were very good, which made him very happy.  Then Bérulle recommended him as tutor for the children in the de Gondi family, which led to the founding of the Congregation of the Mission.  Hearing the confession of the man dying in fear of damnation in Gannes in 1616 led to preaching the first sermon of the missions.  The impoverished and sick family of eight in Chatillon-les-Dombes led to the first Confraternity of Charity. The unexpected arrival of Louise for guidance in 1625 eventually led to their 35-year partnership of Charity among the poor through the Daughters of Charity

The second step in the process is reflection on these experiences in the light of the Gospel, especially the Beatitudes, the Sermon on the Mount, the Death and Resurrection, and in a special way the earthly events of the life of Jesus.  Vincent focused his prayer on the events of the gospels, because they revealed how Jesus responded to the events and people in his life.  This flowed from their profound attachment to the Mystery of the Incarnation.

The third step is very characteristic of Vincent: he understood God was leading him to action. But not any action.  Vincent’s action had three characteristics.  First of all, he waited until he was sure that God wanted a certain path or action.  For example, in early 1633 when Louise wanted to gather some country girls in her home to guide and educate them for service of the poor, Vincent hesitated, because he said it wasn’t clear to him whether God wanted it, or it was only Louise’s desire.   Eventually in September 1633, Vincent told Louise that he would pray about it during his retreat.  At the end of his retreat, he felt assured that it was God’s will and told her so, which led to the founding of the Daughters of Charity on November 29, 1633.  So, the first condition for action was to be sure God wanted it.

A second rule of thumb for Vincent was firm in regard to the goal and flexible in regard to the means.  Once he knew God wanted it, he pursued the goal firmly and perseveringly.  In the process of implementing it, unforeseen events and circumstances often called for patience and flexibility.  The wisdom of this rule is seen if we reverse this principle: flexible in regard to the goal and firm in regard to the means.  No, wisdom is on the side of firmness in regard to the goal and flexibility in regard to the means.

A third rule of thumb which is not so easy but also full of wisdom is holding opposites together.  Vincent follows the way of Jesus, who urged us to be wise as serpents and simple as doves.  Did Jesus call us to be simply wise as serpents?  No.  Or only simple as doves? No.  It is life-giving when we hold the two together and know when to be wise as serpents and when to be simple as doves.  For Vincent there was great energy when affective love and effective love were joined together.  The clearest example of holding opposites together in Vincent’s life was the way he brought the rich and the poor together.   The noble women of Paris with the young Daughters of Charity from the countryside worked together in the service of the sick and dying and those in need.  I like to say the great Catholic word is “and.”  It is the word of communion and collaboration. God is here and we are all sisters and brothers.

This is the Way of Vincent.


  1. tom mckenna

    Full of insight, typical of Fr. O’Donnell.

  2. Kate I’Kula

    Reminds me of the story of Vincent bringing an abandoned infant to a meeting of the Ladies of Charity, asking them “What shall we do with THIS child NOW? Also reminds me of the eastern concept of Now being the only moment. The sacredness of the present moment. Action/Contemplation.

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