An approach to a Critical Reading of the Founders' Writings

From Vincentian Encyclopedia

by: Jaime Corera, C.M.

This article was first published in June 2006 and on October 1, 2011 was placed on the somos web site by Javier Chento:

1. Knowing the Founders through their writings

The first step to a critical reading of the Founders is knowing the Founders. As a help to knowing the Founders, luckily (or rather providentially), we have today in all major languages abundant written means, more than at any previous time in the history of their institutions; except, of course, during the time of their earthly lives, when the missionaries and the Daughters of Charity had the opportunity of knowing the Founders not only indirectly through their writings, but directly through a personal face to face relation. After their earthly demise, knowledge of the Founders is possible only through their writings, the written testimonies of other persons (especially those who knew them personally), and through community traditions.

We must, then, read the Founders’ writings if we want to know them today. We all can read. This was not the case with all the Daughters or the Vincentians at the time of the Founders. Furthermore, today we have at hand a great deal or all of the Founders’ writings in languages that can be understood by most of the members of their institutions.

We have to read the Founders so as to understand (interpret) them faithfully; a task rendered the easier by the Founders themselves, for their writing style is always clear and direct, totally within the power of comprehension by any modern Daughter or Vincentian. Those who are well versed in the knowledge of what is known as “Vincentian spirit” can certainly help the non-specialized common reader to a better understanding of the Founders writings. But, leaving aside certain secondary aspects (such as historical facts, geographic details or out¬dated ideas of the Founders) which may occasionally demand the help of an expert, there is not a single page in the Founders’ writings that is above the interpretative and cognitive capacity of the modern reader. Which means that, although a deeper knowledge of the Founders’ thinking will normally be the fruit of a systematic study, a sufficient and quite adequate knowledge of their ‘spirit’ can be achieved through simple reading.

There is certainly a distance between the Founders’ writings and today’s reader, a distance which has to be bridged through a proper hermeneutical (interpretative) process (see next point). But the distance is not by any means insurmountable. In fact, despite the chronological, the cultural, and the geographic distance, a 21st century Asian Daughter or Vincentian can understand without major difficulties what Vincent and Louise wrote in France in the 17th century. Being a catholic and a member of their institutions will no doubt facilitate greatly a proper interpretation of their texts, and will give the reader an easy access to the Founders’ thinking and intentions, which is the purpose of any approach to a critical reading of the Founders.

2. Reading a text

Although the process is most of the time unconscious, a reader is always asking himself/herself while reading a text: “What is the meaning of this text? What does it try to say?” This means that the reader has to interpret what he/she is reading, if he/she wants to understand the written text.

Hermeneutics (from the Greek ‘hermeneuin’= to interpret) is the science or technique which helps to interpret (to understand) written texts. The hermeneutical (interpretative) effort is necessary to bridge the distance or separation between writer and reader, so that the meaning intended by the author of the text comes into the possession of the reader through his/her (the reader’s) hermeneutical or interpretative activity.

Hermeneutics was born as a tool in the interpretation of the Bible. Interpretation of the biblical writings has always been necessary for two main reasons:

1. There is a great ‘distance’ between God who speaks, even if He does so through human instruments and the human person who listens to or reads God’s spoken and written words. The reader tries to ‘shorten the distance, so that God’s word be¬comes intelligible to him/her, through the work of interpretation. The hermeneutical effort tries to answer the question: “What is God saying in this passage?”

2. The texts of Scripture were redacted through the centuries un¬der very varied cultural conditions, so that even very commonly used words, such as ‘God,’ suggest different connotations whether used by the prophet Isaiah or by Jesus. The reader will have to keep in mind the different cultural circumstances under which several texts were written if he/she wants to understand them properly.

This principle applies as well, of course, to our Founders’ writings.

3. The conditions for a critical reading

As it was remarked above, when facing a written text any reader is constantly asking himself/herself: “What is the author saying, what is he trying to convey through his words?” This means that the reader has to interpret the meaning of the author (in our case, Vincent or Louise) which is expressed through his or her words.

The text

The reader will first need to know the language in which the given text was originally written, or at least a good translation of it. As regards our Founders, we have both the original texts in French and good translations into the major languages.

The context: circumstances surrounding the text

The author

Any written text has always a context. A good knowledge of the context will be of great help to a better understanding of the mind of the author. The context deals with the circumstances surrounding the text, the first of which is: who says that, who is the author?

Here is an example that may not be of great importance but which could be helpful to illustrate this point. In his first conference to the Sisters on July 31st 1634, Saint Vincent, speaking of Pope Clement VIII, whom he saw in person in his first trip to Rome in 1600, calls him “Saint Clement,” although this Pope was never canonized. The manuscript of the conference is from the hand of Saint Louise, who most likely misinterpreted Saint Vincent’s expression and added on her own the qualification of “saint” to a Pope who—undoubtedly Vincent knew very well—had not been officially declared a saint.

The time

Another important element in the context is time: when the author said or wrote what the text says. If this aspect is not kept in mind we might attribute to the Founders ideas that certainly were theirs during their earlier years, but which they themselves may have changed or even discarded later.

An example referring to the vows. The ideas of Saint Vincent in 1634 about the (future) vows of the Daughters of Charity, as they appear in his first conference cited above, underwent some very fun¬damental changes with the passing of the years. The careful reader will have to take note of the dates in which the Founders said what they said, so as not to misunderstand them by attributing to them ideas which were certainly theirs at an earlier stage of their lives, but which they themselves might have later modified or discarded.

The audience/the reader

Another point to be kept in mind for a proper understanding of the context lies in the answer to the question: to whom were the Founders speaking or writing? We all, as speakers or writers, take into account more or less consciously this aspect in communicating with others, so that our ways of expressing ourselves, and even the content of what we say, vary significantly; for example when they are directed to a child or an adult, to a stranger or to a friend.

Any Sister today will do well to keep in mind this principle when reading, for instance, Saint Vincent’s conferences. The present writer has heard in the past more than one Sister express their dis¬comfort about what they thought to be at times the Founder’s somewhat “childish” tone when speaking to the Sisters. Any modern Sister, if she tries to interpret and understand Saint Vincent or Saint Louise properly, should keep in mind this hermeneutical principle: the educational level of the Sisters of 17th century France was well below today’s normal level in any country. Most of the Sisters at the time of the Founders were in need of detailed explanations in many fields (religious, social, medical, cultural), explanations which today are taken for granted as common knowledge.

4. The double purpose of a critical reading of the Founders

The word “critical” is taken here in its etymological meaning which points at an act of judgement, of discernment (from the Greek “critein”= to judge, to discern). The word is not used with any dispara¬ging connotation. We do not “criticize” the Founders or dismiss what they tried to tell us. On the contrary, we “criticize” them in order

• to know more exactly the intentions behind what they said, so we can be faithful to them; •to discern what is still valid in what they said, and adapt it to present historical circumstances. This implies the wisdom to set aside whatever is obviously outdated.

5. The method of study

With regard to any critical reading of the Founders there are questions of a general theoretical type, e.g. what is the validity of the Founders’ teaching for today? Would the Founders maintain today the literal meaning of everything they said and wrote? How would they formulate their teaching today?

But here we are going to follow an empirical concrete method of analysis. We will take up several key concepts and themes of the Founders and submit them to a critical analysis in order to arrive at their true intentions; or, if the case arises, we will examine how to adapt their words to our present historical situation.

6. A critical analysis of some key concepts and themes of the Founders

The poor

The question

What kind of people did the Founders have in mind when they spoke of ‘the poor’ as the object of the pastoral care of the members of their institutions (Confraternity of Charity/Ladies of Charity, Congregation of the Mission, Daughters of Charity, Tuesday Conferences for the diocesan priests)?

The hermeneutical problem

As could be expected, the word “poor” in singular or plural (in French: pauvre, pauvres), shows up very many times in the writings of both Founders: around 3000 times in Saint Vincent’s works (letters, conferences, documents) and around 750 times in those of Saint Louise (letters, documents, personal writings).

Given such an abundance of quotes, one could expect that the Founders’ use of the word “poor” throughout their writings would cover practically all the connotations that the word had in its different uses as defined in the dictionaries of their time. Such was, in effect, the case. The word “poor” by itself alone will tell us nothing about the mind of the Founders unless attention is placed on the context in which it was used. This is an elementary hermeneutical principle which should never be neglected under risk of misunderstanding grossly the intention of the writer. We will now see an example.

A case of (mis)interpretation

“In all these documents (relative to the Congregation of the Mission) pauvre is used as an adjective…, usually in the sense of piti(ful).” In his conferences Saint Vincent “could refer to cette pauvre Compagnie (this wretched Company) which was ‘made up of poor folk’…. He called Father Portail ‘poor’ (le pauvre M. Portail). He considers himself ‘a sorry ignoramus’ (un pauvre ignorant) and ‘a wretched swineherd’ (un pauvre porcher) ” (John W Carven, C.M., The Poor:• An attempt to fathom the mind of Saint Vincent. [Vincentiana, 1979], 1, pp. 48, 51).

It can easily be seen that in the aforementioned quotations the word ‘poor’ is used with several different meanings. That is why knowledge of the context is needed to find out the precise meaning of the word in any given case. For instance, speaking of the Congregation of the Mission, in the expression “this poor Company” (cette pauvre Compagnie), ‘poor’ cannot mean ‘deprived of material goods’ (as the author himself remarks), but something like ‘this insignificant Company,’ as compared, for example, to other important Congregations of the Church (a meaning which Vincent expressly intended on several occasions speaking to the men of his Congregation).

But the author has forgotten the hermeneutical principle of ‘keeping always the context in mind,’ and so he has arrived at the conclusion that, because the word ‘poor’ is used by Saint Vincent with so many different meanings, his institutions may legitimately undertake any kind of pastoral work as long as it is directed to people who can be characterized as “poor” in any sense (even in a figurative one, as when someone says speaking of a king with terminal cancer: “Poor king!”).

An attempt to interpret the mind of the Founders when they speak of ‘the poor’

But leaving aside all the other possible manifold meanings of the word ‘poor’ in the writings of the Founders, what is the meaning of the word “poor” when they spoke of the kind of people for whose evangelization/service they founded their institutions? What did they mean when they spoke of “the poor”?

For details of this understanding, we refer you to another arti¬cle in Vincentiana (J. Corera, CM, El pobre, según san Vicente [Vincentiana, 1984], Vol. 4-6, p. 578-587), in which mention is made of how the word ‘poor’ is defined in a famous dictionary nearly contemporaneous with the Founders. The contention of the writer of this article is that the Founders, when speaking of ‘the poor,’ have in mind the direct meaning of the word which appears in the dictionary in the first place (there are in the dictionary seven other different connotations of the word) and which is worded thus:

POOR. adj. m. & f. & subst. He who does not own means, who does not have the necessaries to sustain his life. There is in Paris a bureau for the poor, a tax imposed on the bourgeoisie in favour of the poor. Collections are taken in the parishes in favour of the poor. A General Hospital has been set up to confine all the poor; in former times there were people murdered by some poor who demanded alms. The beggars, the poor, are known as the members of Jesus Christ (Antoine Furetiere, Le Dictionnaire Universal [La Haye-Rotterdam, 1790], Vol. III)

Today’s official interpretations of the Founders’ mind

However any individual reader may interpret the Founders’ mind on this subject, there are two interpretations of it in the Constitutions of the Daughters of Charity and of the Congregation of the Mission officially sanctioned by the General Assemblies of both congregations and by the authority of the Church. A simple reading of what the constitutional texts determine is sufficient to get a clear picture of what the word “poor” means for both.

“The poor” in the Constitutions of the Congregation of the Mission:

• to evangelize the poor, especially the more abandoned (Constitutions, #1) • compassionate and effective love for the poor (Constitutions, #6) • attention to the causes of the unequal distribution of the world’s goods (Constitutions, #12.2) • sharing in the (living) conditions of the poor (Constitutions, #12.3) • to give effective help to the abandoned, to those rejected by society and those who are victims of disasters and injustices of every kind (Constitutions, #18) • the parishes of the Congregation should consist, for the most part, of the really poor (Statute, #10.2) • schools, colleges and universities should admit and promote the development of the poor. All the students should be imbued with a sensitivity for the poor, according to the spirit of the Founder (Statute, #11)

“The poor” in the Constitutions of the Daughters of Charity:

• They see Christ in those who are poor, and they see those who are poor in Christ. They serve him in his suffering members (Constitutions, #10b) • Priority will always be given to the “truly poor,” “the poorest and most abandoned,” “those who are destitute” (Constitutions, #11b) • To respond to the urgent needs of the poor (Constitutions, #12b) • They get close to the most deprived, and make them a part of their lives (Constitutions, #13) • Those deprived of human rights and dignity (Constitutions, #16c) • A specific vow to serve those who are poor corporally and spiritually (Constitutions, #24a) • They plead the cause of the underprivileged, who do not have the possibility of making their legitimate demands and aspirations heard (Constitutions, #24e)

“Filles de la Charité” (What is in a name?)

The French word file means either ‘young-unmarried-woman’ or ‘daughter’ depending on the context.

When for the first time in Saint Vincent’s letters mention is made of a small number of young women, who in time would become the Company of the Daughters of Charity, these young women are referred to as ces pauvres filles (P. Coste, Vincent de Paul: Correspondence, Conferences, Documents, [ New York:New City Press, 1984-2010] Vol. I, p.111[All future references to this work will use the initials CCD, followed by the volume number and then the page number, for example, this reference would read CCD:I:111]) (something like “those simple — i.e. of humble birth—girls” or “young women”).

As is well known, the Company was initially founded with the purpose of helping the women of the Confraternities of Charity attend to the sick poor in their own homes. The first members of the Company were very young (may we venture an average age of around twenty-two?), with the exception of Saint Louise, who was forty-two on the date of the foundation in 1633.

It was only natural then that they were known as the ‘young women of the Confraternity of Charity’ (files de la Confrerie de la Charity) to distinguish them from the ‘regular’ members of the Confraternity, who were women of different age levels.

Although with the passing of the years many members of the Company were naturally no longer young, the Founders never ceased referring to them occasionally as les filles in the sense of ‘ (young) unmarried women.’ Only seven months before his death at the age of eighty, Saint Vincent wrote, .referring to (all) the members of the Company: Ces files sont appliquees comme nous at salut du prochain (CCD:VIII:278) (“those young unmarried women dedicate their lives, as we do —Saint Vincent’s own missionaries—to the salvation of our neighbor”).

On the other hand, very soon in the early history of the Company (CCD:IX:1) the word Piles as applied to its members began to be used also with the other meaning, i.e. “daughters.” Only eight months after the date of their foundation in November 1633, we find mes filles repeatedly used by Saint Vincent, which, without doubt, is to be translated in that context by “my daughters.” But when towards the end of the conference, Louise writes that toutes les filles ont alors declare vouloir se soumettre aux avis entendus, the phrase has to be no doubt translated as “all the young women declared then that they were willing to follow the counsels given to them” (CCD:IX:13).

But again, when Saint Vincent expresses his desire at the very end of the conference that by following his counsels vows soyez vraiment filles de la Charite, he cannot be understood but as meaning that “you will be true Daughters of Charity.” This second usage of the word has prevailed until today to become the official denomination applied to the members of the Company.

Through the years, Saint Vincent spoke many times to the Sisters about the great theological value of their official name, because “to be daughters of Charity means to be daughters of God” (CCD:IX:13), for God is Charity. Being a worthy Daughter of Charity means the same as being a worthy daughter of God. The purpose of the foundation of the Company What was the Company founded for? It does not seem necessary to add anything to what both the Founders and the Constitutions express so clearly. We present only some pertinent texts.

The thinking of the Founders

July 1634 (seven months after the Company was founded)

“Providence has assembled the twelve of you with the design that you honour Jesus Christ’s life on earth” (CCD:IX:2).

July 1640

“In order to be true Daughters of Charity you must do what Jesus Christ did while on earth…, visiting and curing the sick, instructing the ignorant for their salvation” (CCD:IX”14).

March 1642

“The poor have the honour of representing the members of Jesus Christ, who looks upon the services rendered to them as rendered to himself” (CCD:IX:51).

October 1655 (Common Rules 1)

“The main purpose (end) for which God has called and assembled the Daughters of Charity is to honour Our Lord Jesus Christ as the source and model of all charity by serving him in the person of the poor corporally and spiritually” (CCD:XIIIb:147).

January 1660

“This manner of life (that of the Daughters of Charity) is totally spiritual, even if outwardly it shows itself through actions which look lowly and humble to the eyes of men, but are of great value to the eyes of God and his angels” (Spiritual Writing of Louise de Marillac, Correspondence and Thoughts. Edited and translated from the French by Sister Louise Sullivan, DC [New York:New City Press, 1991] Letter 651, p. 674).

The 2004 Constitutions

“The Daughters of Charity… give themselves entirely and in community to the service of Christ in the poor.” (Constitutions, #7a)

“Christ is the Rule of the Daughters of Charity. They endeavour to follow him as… Evangelizer of those who are poor.” (Constitutions, #8a)

“The Sisters find Christ in the heart and life of those who are poor” (Constitutions, #10a). “They see Christ in those who are poor, and they see those who are poor in Christ” (Constitutions, #10b).

“Multiple are the forms of poverty and multiple the forms of service.” (Constitutions, #11a)

“The Company does not separate corporal service from spiritual service, nor the work of humanization from that of evangelization.” (Constitutions, #14)

The beginnings of the Company (Whose idea?)

The theological perspective

From the point of view of faith there is no doubt that God is the origin of all that is good. Now both Founders were firmly inspired by faith in their vision of the world, of the history of the world, of the Church and of everything that happened in their own lives. It was not a question of a facile piety, but a deep conviction rooted on faith that moved Vincent to affirm so many times that the foundation of the Company was God’s own work. Here are only two expressions of this conviction.

“No one had before thought of it (the Company). That is how God’s works are done; they are done with no one thinking of them. Mademoiselle Le Gras did not think of it; neither Fr. Portail nor I had the least idea about it…. Following Saint Augustine’s rule, we must admit that when the author of an enterprise is unknown it must be attributed to God Himself. Who gave their spirit to the Daughters of Charity? God Himself…. God began this work; therefore it is God’s work” (CCD:IX:473).

“If Mademoiselle Le Gras has done something for it, if Fr. Portail or myself have done something in its favour, we have rather been a hindrance” (CCD:IX:472).

The historical perspective

Granting that from a point of view inspired by faith God is to be considered the author of the Company, there remains still a historical problem: who was the instrument through whom God brought into existence the Company in November 1633, neither before nor after that date, and in Paris, and not somewhere else?

The answer to this historical problem is well known: the Company of the Daughters of Charity was brought into existence by the conjunct action of Vincent de Paul and Louise de Marillac in Paris, where both were residents — Vincent since his coming to the city for the first time from Rome around 1610, and Louise since the date of her birth in 1591.

Still there remains a small historical problem which, although not greatly important, has some significance: who had first the idea of the foundation, Vincent or Louise? Most biographers of Saint Vincent take it for granted that it was Vincent’s idea, including some who have studied the question in detail. Others think that the first idea of the foundation was Louise’s, an opinion that for Fr. Dirvin seems historically sure (see below), and which to us seems the more convincing. Here follow some of the texts that refer to this problem.

The Testimony of Saint Vincent

“That poor girl (Marguerite Naseau) came to see Mademoiselle Le Gras, who asked her if she was willing to serve the poor. She accepted most willingly…. Then she died. The experience with her was so good that other girls who offered themselves were also accepted, and worked in the same occupation” (CCD:IX:472-473)

“You are thinking of being the servant of those young women…” (CCD:I:111).

“There is a difficulty which impedes me to see if it (the foundation) is God’s will” (CCD:I:200).

“Your good angel has spoken with mine about the Charity of your girls” (CCD:I:215).

The Biographers

In favor of Vincent de Paul

(Saint Vincent) “chose among them three or four that he thought were adequate, and entrusted them to Mademoiselle Le Gras” (L. Abelly, The Life of the Venerable Servant of God: Vincent de Paul, Vol. I, chapter 24, p.133-137).

“On the 29th of November 1633, Saint Vincent thought that the hour had arrived to crown his own work. He chose three or four of the young women and put them under the direction of Mademoiselle Le Gras” (P. Coste, The Life and Works of Saint Vincent de Paul, [The Newman Press:Westminister, Maryland] Volume I, chapter 11, p. 177-231).

In favor of Louise de Marillac

“… the great project which she would start later through the institution of a Congregation of young women; of which she had had some plan during her married years, according to a written testimony which she has left” (M. Gobillon, Le vie de Mlle. Le Gras [Paris, 1676] p. 11).

“On the strength of them (the letters between Vincent and Louise) it is entirely legitimate to question crediting Vincent with the idea and the execution of the foundation…. There is ample evidence for crediting Louise with seeing the solution first and for pushing gently until it was adopted. In this sense, she is truly not just the first superior but the Foundress of the Daughters of Charity” (M. Gobillon, Le vie de Mlle. Le Gras [Paris, 1676] p. 11).

To announce the good news to the poor

The Founder

There are a great many studies, in the form of articles of different lengths and of books of various sizes, which deal with the subject of how Vincent de Paul understood the announcing of the Gospel to the world, and in particular to those who are poor. We will not attempt here a new study of that subject. Pertinent studies are to be found in all major languages, and most of those studies are quite competent and faithful to Vincent’s view.

Here we are only going to present the following texts. Many more could be quoted, but the following will be sufficient to show the richness and depth of Vincent’s thinking.

“Helping the poor to know God, announcing Jesus Christ to them, telling them that the Kingdom of God is near and that it is for the poor…; evangelizing the poor is so an exalted work that it is the proper mission of the Son of God. We are destined to it to be instruments through which the Son of God continues to do from heaven what he did while on earth” (CCD:XII:71)

“Coming to the world to evangelize the poor does not imply only the teaching of truths necessary for salvation, but also the fulfilling of the works predicted by the prophets, the carrying out of the demands of the gospel” (CCD:XII:75).

“If there is anyone among you who thinks that he is in the Congregation of the Mission to preach the Gospel to the poor but not to help them, to remedy their spiritual but not their temporal needs, I will tell him that we must help them in all possible manners through ourselves and through others…. To do that is to evangelize by word and by work, and that is what Our Lord himself did” (CCD:XII:77).

“You are not there simply to care for their bodies, but to help them to be saved” (CCD:IX:5).

“Whoever sees the life of Jesus Christ would see far and away the similarity in the life of a Daughters of Charity. And what did he come to do? He came to teach and to enlighten. That’s what you are doing. You’re continuing what he began….” (CCD:IX:466).

The Constitutions

The Constitutions of the Company of the Daughters of Charity offer a quite complete and up-to-date vision of what it means to announce the Gospel to the poor in the modem world. That vision is first totally faithful to the Founders’ own vision, and then entirely faithful as well to modem theological thinking on the subject, a vision which includes the fundamental elements of what is known as Social Doctrine of the Church.

Here are some texts:

“Attentive to following Divine Providence and responsive to the working of the Spirit, Vincent de Paul became conscious of the material and spiritual misery of his time, and devoted his life to the service and evangelization of poor persons…. To carry out this work, he founded the Confraternities of Charity and the Congregation of the Mission…. He met Louise de Marillac, who collaborated closely with him in his charitable works,” and toge¬ther with her he founded the Company. (Constitutions, pp. 17, 19)

“Their primary concern is to make God known to them, to proclaim the Gospel, and to make the Kingdom present.” (Constitutions, #10a)

“Promotion of the whole person, corporal and spiritual service, humanization/ evangelization.” (Constitutions, #14)

“Solidarity with those stripped of human rights and dignity.” (Constitutions, #16c)

“To seek and love the truth and to defend it in situations of in¬justice.” (Constitutions, #18b)

“Humanizing technology to make it the instrument of the tenderness of Christ.” (Constitutions, #24a)

“They proclaim the Gospel to them, explicitly wherever possible, but always through the witness of their lives.” (Constitutions, #24b)

“Saint Vincent reminds the Sisters that love embraces justice…, the development of every person in all the aspects of their being…; they help their brothers and sisters to become conscious of their own dignity and agents of their own promotion. They plead the cause of the underprivileged, who do not have the possibility of making their legitimate demands and aspirations heard…. They take up the cause of those who are poor and collaborate, accord¬ing to the directives of the Church, with those who are working to defend their rights. They commit themselves to change the unjust structures that cause poverty.” (Constitutions, #24e)

“Technical and professional competence, familiarity with current legislation, concern for social justice inspired by charity.” (Statutes, #8b)

“They openly affirm respect for and the defense of human life in all its stages, and the right to peace for all peoples and nations. They denounce situations that exploit and exclude people.” (Statutes, #8c)

“Use of the means of social communication as instruments of evangelization in the service of those who are poor.” (Statutes, #12)

The originality of the Company in the history of the Church

“Since the time of the women who served the Son of God and the apostles, no community has been established in God’s Church for this purpose” (CCD:IX:14).

Saint Vincent is right; he knows very well the history of the Church. He does not mean to say that there had not been in previous times orders, congregations or institutions that worked for the poor. He means rather that there has never been any feminine institution founded with the end or purpose of finding a way to personal sanctity in the service of the poor. In that fundamental aspect there are no forerunners to the Daughters of Charity in the previous sixteen centuries of the history of the Church (there have been many imitators thereafter).

“… it has been thought advisable that the title of Society or Con¬fraternity should remain, and His grace the Archbishop has so commanded, lest if the title of Congregation were given to you, there might be some persons in the future who would wish to have the house enclosed and you to become religious, as happened in the case of the Daughters of Saint Mary. God has allowed poor girls to take the place of those ladies” (CCD:X:83).

He is again right. The Order of the Daughters of the Visitation of Saint Mary was originally founded with a contemplative purpose but with a cloistered life of diminished severity (as compared to that of other existing feminine contemplative orders), in order to allow for some limited time to attend to sick persons in their own homes. But only five years after being founded, the ecclesiastical authorities imposed on them the exigencies of the cloistered life in all its force (until today). Saint Vincent did not want his own Daughters of Charity to go through a similar experience. Rather, he hoped that, with God’s help, they would succeed in consecrating totally their lives to doing what the Daughters of Saint Mary (Visitandines or Salesians) were not allowed to do even in a limited manner. In this aspect, Saint Vincent can say that the Daughters of Charity are successors to the nuns of the Visitation.

Some biographers of Saint Vincent and other experts have been misled (by what Saint Vincent says in the paragraph quoted above, and in other similar passages) to suggest that the Order of the Visitation of Saint Mary was founded originally with the purpose of visiting the sick, being thereby a feminine order which anticipated the Daughters of Charity by twenty-three years. The order of the Visitation was founded by Saint Francis de Sales and Saint Jeanne-Francoise Fremiot de Chantal in 1610.

The true forerunners to the Daughters of Charity are not to be found in the cloister, but in the feminine lay life. Their proper models of life and of spirit are the (virtuous) rural young women such as many of them were before joining the Company (CCD:IX:66-67), or such as Marguerite Naseau, who, although baptized by Saint Vincent himself as “the first Daughter of Charity” (CCD:IX:64-66), never left her lay status (in fact she died before the founding of the Company); or also the patroness of the city of Paris, Saint Genevieve. The last named consecrated herself to God at the age of fifteen for a lay life in the world. During the siege of the city of Paris by Attila’s army, she organized the distribution of food among a hungry population and the resistance against the barbarian hordes in 451.

Critical reading for radical change: two cases

First case: uniformity vs. unity

The idea of uniformity shows up very many times in the writings of the Founders, especially in Saint Vincent’s. It is a rather easy task to find reasons to explain that fact, the first and main ones being the style of the monastic and religious traditional language, and the way of thinking prevalent in the Church and in the society of the Founders’ time.

But there were also internal reasons to justify the insistence of the Founders on uniformity: the novelty of the lifestyle of the Company which required a clearly designed lifestyle of its own (to avoid confusion with other lifestyles), the extreme youth and low cultural level of the first candidates, and similar reasons related all to the need for creating a solid lifestyle with practically no previous models in the history of the Church.

Here are some texts that reveal quite clearly the need for uniformity which Vincent thought was needed in those first years of the history of the Company.

The Founders

“As much as it be possible, they will keep uniformity in all things, for through it union and good order are safeguarded in communities” (CCD:X:280; 293).

“That is what uniformity does; it promotes union. And as long as you preserve uniformity, my dear Sisters, so long will charity exist among you” (CCD:X:282).

“The case of the Sisters of Arras: uniformity in the manner of dressing” (CCD:X:283-284).

“You should, therefore, preserve equality in all that concerns food; equality in the sort of bread, in the amount of meat, in fact, in everything” (CCD:X:290).

“To be uniform, my dear Sisters, is to be alike, for instance, to wear the same headdress, the same collars, the same habits, the same shoes and, if it were possible, to speak in the same way, that is to say, it would be desirable if you all spoke in the same fashion, graciously, cordially and humbly, had the same method for serving the poor, the same opinions when you meet together, the same line of conduct in parishes….” (CCD:X:290).

The Constitutions

In the Constitutions no mention is made of the idea of uniformity. In its place there is a repeated emphasis on the idea of unity, as well as many provisions for personal, communitarian and provincial diversity.

The idea of unity is of course the main subjacent theme throughout the texts of the Constitutions and Statutes. They have been written precisely with the purpose of defining what is common to all the Daughters of Charity in all corners of the world.

But the idea of variety and diversity is also quite present, a variety and diversity which are of course to be lived inside the limits defined by the fundamental unity. See some texts in the following numbers: Constitutions #6, 11a, 12b, 19a, 25d, 28c, 35a; Statute, #3a, 5, 6a, 8a, 13a, 15a, 20….

Second case: From frequent to daily communion

The Founders

In this subject also the Founders do no other thing than reflect the custom of the time. Daily communion was unheard of, even prohibited to non-priests. The following quote reflects very well the mind of the time on this subject.

“Go to communion on Sundays, holydays, and certain other feast days, but always with your confessor’s permission” (CCD:IX:7).

The Constitutions

“An indispensable meeting each day with Christ and with their brothers and sisters.” (Constitutions, #19b; emphasis added)

Translated: Charles T. Plock, CM