Vincent de Paul found himself in a pressing situation which forced him to confront the poverty and the urgent needs of his parishioners. At the same time he became aware of the overflowing generosity of the people in that area. Their generosity, however, had to be channeled in the right direction … it had to be organized or it would be ineffective.

José Manuel Sánchez Mallo, CM  provides the context and the insights from the beginning of Vincent’s first foundation in “The Rule of the Confraternity of Charity: Everything began in Chattilon

The fundamental elements of any group that provides assistance to people in need are: charity, organization and effectiveness. Thus Vincent de Paul, a creative man, established a new confraternity that had a twofold objective: charity, that is, aiding the poor, and the sanctification of its members. He liked to call the confraternity “the charity” and indeed Vincent established a charitable and devotional confraternity. …

The first confraternity was established in August 1617 in Châtillon-les-Domes as a response to the urgent needs that he found in this village where he served as pastor. Later in 1618 when he began to preach missions on the de Gondi estate he would establish a confraternity in each area where he preached. This association was seen as a compliment to the evangelization process.

He continues with Interpreting the Châtillon event

“The response of the people to the family in need planted an idea in Vincent’s mind: the organization of charitable activity. This family and other families in a similar situation demanded that the generosity of people be better organized in order to be more effective. True, the generosity of people provided this family with many resources but since much of the food could not be consumed immediately, it spoiled. Therefore it was necessary to organize people’s generosity.

“Saint Vincent had direct contact with the poor as well as the infirm. He realized that serving the poor becomes a sign, a sign to the reality that those who believe in God are defenders of the cause of the poor and that charity is the visible and credible expression of the Church of Christ [10]. Thus the poor became Vincent’s lords and masters.

“Vincent saw that the laity, especially women, could be encouraged to collaborate in this project. Therefore he entrusted the women with this ministry of charity toward the poor. Vincent mobilized and organized believers who were blessed by God because they were able to see in the sufferings of poor people the living image of Jesus Christ [11].

“Vincent realized that charity was a necessary compliment to evangelization. From that time, then, wherever he preached the mission, he established the confraternity of the charity. To serve the poor materially and spiritually are the two most repeated adverbs that Vincent spoke throughout his life. The poor are dying of hunger and are condemned … a phrase that is not found in Vincent’s writings but is deduced from his activities and as a result, all the authors place these words in Vincent’s mouth.

“Vincent began to see himself as an organizer of charitable activity and a mobilizer of persons who would serve the poor. In this regard this was the beginning of a maturing process that would enable Vincent to become the genius of organized charity. There in Châtillon the seed was planted, the seed that would grow and become a fruitful tree.

“Later Vincent would realize that the origin of the Daughters of Charity was also contained in the seed that was planted in Châtillon-les-Dombes. There was the seed that generated a tremendous network of charity that would flourish throughout France and the whole world. There the great saint of charity had his beginning.

“The experience in Châtillon-les-Dombes revealed the importance of charity to Vincent. It could be said that the very heart of charity and the church was discovered by Vincent as a result of his experience in Châtillon[12]. In light of the situation of misery, charity is the only response, but charity has to be well-organized. Today we would say that justice is a demand of charity. However, in that former era the mental concepts prevented people from grasping the profound significance of justice as we understand it today. The poor are the suffering and humiliated members of Christ’s body … they are the disfigured incarnation of the Son of God. Vincent was driven by the conviction that no one could remain indifferent when confronted by misery. He was passionate about charity and became the saint of charity. In the whole history of Christianity Saint Vincent is certainly one of those persons who best revealed and put into practice the marvelous dynamic of evangelical charity [13].

“On December 23, 1617 Vincent once again returned to Paris, to the de Gondi estate, but he returned as a new man. As a result of his experience in Châtillon, certain dynamics were set in motion that would continue to be developed by Vincent throughout his life. The option had been made. Vincent had found his vocation: the poor are dying of hunger and are condemned.

The article in outline…

(This article first appeared in San Vicente de Paúl, Ayer y Hoy, XXXIII Semana de Estudios Vicencianos, [Saint Vincent de Paul, Yesterday and Today, XXXIII Vincentian Studies Week], Editorial CEME, Santa Marta de Tormes, Salamanca, 2008) and has been recently translated from the Spanish by Charles Plock CM.

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