How an interest is awakened is not always easy to discern, but certainly the artwork with the characteristic face of Vincent de Paul on an exterior wall in Paris near Gare du Nord contributed to my interest in this seventeenth century man. The house-high portrait, created in 1987 by Jean-Pierre Yvaral, surprised me. An impressive gesture of appreciation and friendship from this metropolis for its former resident. Who is Vincent de Paul and in what way did this man start a movement that continues up till this day?
In this contribution I will outline what has emerged from Vincent de Paul’s initiative today. Then I will briefly go into the historical context of the seventeenth century and describe in a few steps his biography. Finally, I will try to trace how Vincent de Paul’s initiative gained a foundation and strength up to the present day. Here follows in a bird’s eye view four centuries of the Vincentian movement.
The Vincentian Movement Today
Today the Vincentian movement consists of an international network of 156 different organizations in 150 countries with approximately two million members. There are men’s, women’s and mixed organizations, religious and lay organizations, youth organizations, self-organizations of poor people in slums and circles of well-to-do ladies with a social heart.
Poverty alleviation and education are central to the movement. There is a wide range of social projects. Akamasoa in Madagascar, for example, a new city of and for poor people. In Graz, Austria, there is the VinziBus that has been distributing bread and tea daily at three locations in the city since 1991. Or the Homeless Alliance, a worldwide organization that supports local initiatives for the homeless.
In addition to aid projects, there is also a wide variety of educational projects. After all, formation and education are important tools for well-being and emancipation. The Vincentian movement has schools, seminaries and universities, such as DePaul University in Chicago and Adamson University in Manila.
Four centuries ago, Vincent de Paul planted a tree called ‘Every Person Counts’. This tree has grown on almost every continent and has branched out over a wide area and in many places.
Vincent in Context
Where is the beginning of this movement? In a few words I will sketch the historical context. Then, in three steps follows the biography of Vincent de Paul and finally I will describe his leadership style.
Seventeenth century France. From a political point of view, the country is developing rapidly, which results in many wars and conflicts. An emancipating bourgeoisie is fighting for a new social order. Churches and monasteries are mostly inward-looking. The nobility and higher clergy have their wealth; the lower clergy is relatively poor and poorly educated. Poverty and illiteracy prevail, especially in the countryside. Partly due to high infant mortality, malnutrition and epidemics, including the dreaded plague, life expectancy in the first half of the seventeenth century is only 25 years. Help and support are almost non-existent.
The seventeenth century is also a time of development. It is the time of Descartes, of Pascal’s calculator, the theatre-plays of Molière, the creation of the Académie Française. The Reformation, in its wake the Council of Trent, sets the Catholic Church in motion. New spiritual movements emerge such as those of Teresa of Avila and François de Sales. Progressive theologians at the Sorbonne make themselves heard and new voices slowly but surely emerge in Church circles. Ideas, visions and scenarios are discussed weekly in the ‘Paris Circle’, a spiritual salon with a spirit of renewal. Vincent de Paul is a regular visitor of this salon.
Initial period 1581 – 1617
In the spring of 1581 Vincent de Paul is born in a simple peasant family in the hamlet of Pouy in the southwestern part of France. He is the third in a family of six children. At the age of 15 his father sends him to school in the neighboring town of Dax, because perhaps this bright boy can improve the socio-economic position of the young family through a career in the church. In 1600 he is ordained a priest.
The next 10 years Vincent studies theology in Toulouse, is at the same time a teacher in the neighboring Buzet, makes many contacts in Church circles, travels through France and Italy and is lost in Tunisia between 1605 – 1607. For the wellbeing of his family, no effort seems too much for him. Nevertheless, in 1610 he has to write his mother how sorry he is that he still has not been able to secure sufficient income for his family. His efforts seem unsuccessful.
The Parisian renewal movement brings Vincent in contact with new ideas, new experiences, new networks. Sources also report a deep personal crisis with anxieties and compulsions. Nothing can bring relief except when he visits the sick in the hospital across the street from where he lives. The sick have set him free; ‘the poor are our masters’ will become an adage.
Decisive year – 1617
For Vincent de Paul, 1617 is a decisive year. Two impressive experiences mark a turning point. A religious experience in the winter in Gannes, a hamlet north of Paris, and a social experience in the summer of the same year in Châtillon, a town near Lyon.
A decisive religious experience occurs to Vincent in a conversation with a dying peasant. Tradition has it that this was a confession from a simple, good man who was frightened of death. What happened in the conversation we do not know – secret of the confessional – but afterwards the man was freed from his fears. ‘You are a child of God’; it must have sounded so convincing. Many who heard the story also wanted such a confession because it promises freedom, an end to oppression and distress. Vincent organizes the large influx of people in a general confession: a confession about one’s entire life in which a total clean sweep is made. Priests had to be hired from elsewhere to cope with the arrival of so many people who wanted to receive this sacrament of confession.
The social change takes place a few months later. The little town of Châtillon is ravaged by the plague and spiritually neglected by incompetent priests. When Vincent receives the message that a family on the outskirts of the town is in dire poverty, he calls from the pulpit for people to help. The effect is stunning. Many townspeople bring food, drink and other donations. From that moment on, Vincent is convinced; there is love enough, but it needs organization. Five pots of soup on one day and nothing the next week is not a good idea. He presents the problem to some of the well-to-do women of the city and in no time there are forty of them who organize the assistance together. Money is collected, food is bought and delivery schedules are drawn up. A legal statute is drafted – in the meantime, in Paris, Vincent obtains a Licentiate in Canon Law – which regulates functions, tasks, respectful home visits and the proper spending of funds.
At the end of this decisive year Vincent returns to Paris. His mission is clear. It has two pillars: help for those who need assistance and formation and training to promote the quality of that assistance.
Later years 1617 – 1660
Vincent sees the material, social and spiritual poverty of the simple population and has found an adequate answer in Châtillon: organizing the love of people.
Helping – serving
With various projects Vincent wants to make the lives of the poor, sick, beggars, foundlings, homeless, prisoners and refugees more bearable. For example, he secures better housing for the prisoners in the Conciergerie. Volunteers care for the sick for whom there is no room in the overcrowded hospital. In 1652 Vincent writes in a letter that ‘soup is distributed daily to 14 – 15 thousand refugees’. All this work requires a lot of money. Vincent is a persuasive and reliable fundraiser. It is estimated that during the Thirty Years’ War, through his mediation, the enormous sum of £1,600,000 was brought to Lorraine for aid to the people.
Educating – inspiring
For quality and effectiveness of work, Vincent recognizes the importance of formation and training. He himself is a gifted teacher, mentor and advisor; for 10 years, for example, he is an advisor to the government on Church matters. For the illiterate population, there are programs for learning cultural skills such as reading and writing. For volunteers and employees, there are retreats and conferences. Interest is high; in Paris more than 20 thousand people participate in retreats and 13 thousands priests and seminarians attend training programs.
After 1617, Vincent develops his own response to the great issues of his time: he launches a revolution of religious renewal and social action. He does so tirelessly, invitingly and persuasively.
What characterizes Vincent de Paul’s leadership in all these initiatives and projects? At the beginning of this millennium, DePaul University in Chicago summarized this Vincentian leadership in four items.
* Make no small plans – know your mission
An enterprise first requires an adequate view of the world. Sufficient distance from the world to register and sufficient proximity in the world to solidarize. Vincent finds his mission in the Gospel; he is in solidarity with the least privileged.
* People and process first – giving people space
People for whom and with whom he works come first for Vincent. Trust is the basis of the relationship; people are at their best when they are given space and responsibility.
* Sustainable institutions – creating organizational strength
For the work to be effective and sustainable, social service agencies and supportive structures are needed. Structures that do not hinder but those that promote cooperation and facilitate organizational strength.
* Concern for the poor – learning to serve
For Vincent the previous items are conditions for the actual mission: to serve the poor. And this in such a way that ‘those being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, and more likely to become servants themselves’ (Servant Leadership, Robert Greenleaf).
Working between Word and World
Back to the question we started out with: how did Vincent de Paul initiate a movement that continues up till this day? What factors play a role?
From the context and the biography, we did mention some factors. The seventeenth century population of France suffered from war, poverty and ignorance; much and especially good help was needed. Social, political and ecclesiastical relations were rigid; renewal and development were needed. In addition to these factors that are related to time and context, there are also personal factors: Vincent is intelligent, enterprising and committed.
Are the above factors decisive for the movement Vincent de Paul started? I dare to doubt it. After all, to this day almost every era has major issues requiring leadership and commitment. But not every initiative triggers a movement. Wherein lies the power of Vincent’s initiative? I look for an answer in Vincent’s source of inspiration, the Gospel: what is the significance of the Gospel for the quality and strength of the Vincentian movement?
Perhaps the core of the Gospel is the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5). This is about the inside. About our will, heart and spirit. What is the heart focused on? What goes on in the mind? In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus presents benchmarks for the inside: cleanliness of heart (for they will see God), meekness (for they will inherit the land), being peacemakers (for they will be called children of God).
In his social speech (Matthew 25), Jesus points out the direction for social action: care for the poor, the strangers, the sick.
Words about the inside, about what lives in people, and words about the outside, about people’s actions in the world. Inside and outside are intertwined, whereby the inside is leading the way: a healthy tree produces good fruit.
Drawing from the sources of the Gospel, Vincent’s response is: let formation and education enrich your mind, let the poor and the vulnerable touch your heart, and let the will be the engine of a tireless effort for a better world. Inside and outside, moving between word and world. Together, the words of Matthew 5 and Matthew 25 form the foundation and the vitality of an innovative social-religious paradigm for the world.
Vincent’s initial mission to provide a better life for his family is transformed into concern for a much larger human family; that of Paris, France and later also beyond. From the Gospel, Vincent launches a movement that resonates with people because it awakens the best forces in them. Many people want to belong to it. That was true then, it is still true today.
Marieke van de Ven
Vincent de Paul Center Nederland
With thanks to Nelleke Wijngaards-Serrarens en br. Edward Gresnigt CMM for their translation help.