By: Juan José González González
[This is one of the 100 articles found in the publication, Diccionario de Expiritualidad Vicenciana, published by Editorial CEME in 1995. This article has been translated and made available in the on-line Vincentian Encyclopedia with the permission of Editorial CEME].
- 1 Introduction
- 2 Characteristics of Vincentian “Ecclesiology”
- 3 Vincent de Paul in the ecclesiological context of the seventeenth century
- 4 The Church from the perspective of the mystery of God.
- 5 Images of the Church
- 6 The Church, a hierarchical and ministerial community
- 7 The Church, an evangelizing and merciful community
- 8 The Church of the poor, a people a mercy
- 9 Vincentian contributions to subsequent ecclesiology
Ecclesial awareness is an important element in Vincentian spirituality. Vincent was deeply attuned to and concerned about the Church. All of his activity was ecclesial and was based on a specific vision of Church.
Nevertheless, it is not easy to study the Vincentian vision of the Church because we do not find in Vincent some systematic and complete ecclesiology. Vincent was a man of experience and action rather than a systematic theologian and so he did not expound some orderly reflection on the nature of the Church, that is, he did not develop in a systematic way an ecclesiology. Yet, throughout his writings, we find references to the ecclesial community. In light of those words that reflect his spirit and his vision of Church and also in light of Vincent’s attitudes and activities, we can begin to visualize his understanding of the Church. His ecclesial doctrine, which was lived rather than formulated in writing, is implicit in his words and his life, in his writings and in his activities. That doctrine gave meaning to his activity.
Characteristics of Vincentian “Ecclesiology”
Before developing the “implicit” image of the Church that is revealed in the ministry of Vincent de Paul, it would be good to highlight some of the characteristics of his vision of the Church.
An “incarnate” and “situational” vision
Vincent de Paul’s method of reflection was not purely speculative but rather began with an analysis of the reality and with his own ecclesial experience. Sensitive to empirical knowledge and placing a great value on his own experience, Vincent was very knowledgeable about the reality of the Church of his era. This knowledge led Vincent to reflect on the Church but not in some mere speculative manner but rather he attempted to respond to the needs to reform this concrete church.
The Church that Vincent contemplated was a community incarnated in history, a pilgrim community, sinful, visible, independent of the state, a community with some pastors who were incompetent and unworthy, with faithful men and women in need of evangelization. That was the Church that Vincent experienced and despite its defects, it was also the Church that Vincent loved. Without distancing himself from that reality, Vincent attempted to respond to the ecclesial needs by living and giving life to a new and more evangelical image of the Church.
Vincent’s ministry cannot be understood apart from the perspective of the situation of the French Church of the seventeenth century or apart from the perspective of his ecclesial experience and the reform movement that he promoted. Vincent was not some solitary genius but was part of the Counter Reformation, a great renewal movement that the Church experienced after the Council of Trent. It is from this perspective that his vision of the Church must be viewed and this same perspective explains his ministry.
A living and dynamic vision
The ecclesial vision of Vincent de Paul is inseparable from his spiritual and pastoral experience. His understanding of the ecclesial community was purified, refined and deepened at the same time that he matured in his religious experience. At the time of his ordination he had an image of Church that was quite different from the image that he had in his later life. This dynamic and evolving understanding was marked by his experiences and, at the same time, the purification of the true meaning of the Church illuminated his process of conversion and the process that led him to the discovery of his vocation and mission.
The Church, in which the young Vincent de Paul found himself and in which he sought a career, was a hierarchical society, with a clerical character. The experience in Clichy (1612-1613) purified and enriched his concept of Church because there he ministered to people and his priesthood recovered meaning as service on behalf of the people of God.
Another milestone in his spiritual journey was the experience in Gannes-Folleville, where he discovered that the Church continued the mission of Jesus Christ as it evangelized the poor in a preferential manner. In Châtillon (1617) he discovered a second element in his evangelizing mission: charity and the commitment of the laity in this ecclesial ministry. Other experiences would also influence his life and his vision of Church. Montmirail (1620-1621) signified the discovery of the reality that the evangelization of the poor has to be a “mark” of the Church and a criterion that verifies the fact that the Church is guided by the Spirit; in Beauvais Vincent discovered the importance of forming the clergy and the meaning of the various ministries in the Church; the mission in Madagascar (1648) helped Vincent understand the universality of the people of God and his own missionary vocation.
In those events that influenced Vincent’s understanding, we discover that his doctrine of Church was rooted in his lived experiences and therefore, was the formulation of his own experiences.
A lived and charistmatic vision
If Vincent’s ecclesial vision was primarily the fruit of his lived experience, then it was also closely related to his proper charism or spirit. His understanding of God as the Father of mercy and the Father of Jesus Christ, the evangelizer of the poor, his vision of the poor being in God and in Christ … these characterize, in a certain manner, his “ecclesiology” which was influenced by the key elements of his charism: the preferential option for the poor, the centrality of charity and evangelization, etc.
Vincent de Paul in the ecclesiological context of the seventeenth century
In order to understand Vincent’s vision of Church we have to situate it and evaluate it within the context in which Vincent moved. As a man of the post-concilior Tridentine era, he was influenced by the image of the Church that arose from the Council. Even though the Council did not consider that theme in some global manner, the program of reform that it outlined was based on a specific ecclesiology which had certain characteristics: unilateral, apologetical, anti-Protestant; it highlighted the societal dimension and the hierarchical structure, the Roman centrality, the juridical dimension, and was hostile toward the world.
The Catholic Reform would be characterized by that understanding of the Church. The Church was seen as a “perfect society”, thus highlighting its visible and juridical dimension as compared to the “invisible Protestant Church”. Robert Bellamine defined the Church as a community of men and women who are united by the same faith and by participation in the same sacraments, united under the leadership of legitimate pastors but especially under the leadership of the only vicar of Christ on earth, the Roman Pontiff. The internal mystical reality of the Church remained in the shadows and there was a tendency to identify the Church with the hierarchy and as a result, ecclesiology was often reduced to “hierarchiology”.
That is the vision of Church that surrounded Vincent, the vision in which he was formed, the vision that, in certain ways, he accepted and in other ways, he reacted against in order to enrich that vision. Even though he was original and personal in some of his insights, nevertheless, the influence of his teachers is reflected in his ecclesial doctrine: the ideal of the reform of the Church and the clergy (Berulle), holiness available to people of every state in life (Francis de Sales), faithfulness to the person of the Pope (A. Duval). In some aspects Vincent coincided with the teachings of Abbé Saint-Cyran (the dignity of the priesthood and the critical contemplation of the ecclesial reality) and his friend Louis Abelly (the defense of the authority of the Pope in the Jansenist controversy). In ecclesial matters Vincent could also be viewed as both eclectic (he was able to bring together different opinions and synthesize them) and original in some of his insights.
The Church from the perspective of the mystery of God.
If the ecclesiology of the Counter Reformation highlighted the visible and social dimension of the ecclesial community leaving aside the internal and spiritual dimension, then, Vincent was mindful of the mysterious character of that divine work and its Trinitarian origin, even though this dimension was not emphasized in his ecclesiological vision.
The Church, the work of the Father
Occasionally, but in a catechetical and spiritual context and for a practical purpose, Vincent alluded to the divine origins of the Church and to the action of God within the Church, emphasizing the mysterious, awe inspiring and incomprehensibility of this relationship of God and the Church. Vincent spoke to the Missionaries and stated: Consider that conduct of God who established and strengthened his Church by the destruction, so to speak, and the ruin of those who sustained it and were its principal supports (CCD:XI:368; cf., VIII:).
As a result of this activity of God, Vincent concluded that the Church is more a divine work than a human work, therefore, the Church will survive despite all calamities and despite the lack of human support (CCD:XI:338). He applied this principle to the difficult situation that the French Church was experiencing and also to his establishments in which God was treating the Company as he treated the Church in the beginning (CCD:XI:367).
The Church continues the mission of Jesus Christ
The Vincentian concept of Church is related to its vision of Jesus Christ as the Rule of the Mission and as viewed from a missionary and a charitable perspective. The Christ of Vincent de Paul is the historical Christ, simple, a diligent worker, missionary, evangelizer of the poor, filled with compassionate and effective love for “the little ones”, worshipper of the Father, obedient to the Father’s will and submissive to the Father’s providence. With that understanding of Christ and his mission, Vincent discovered the mission of the Church which is to continue Jesus’ mission, to do what he did on earth and to cooperate with him in the salvation of humankind. In order to be faithful to that mission, the Church has to clothe herself in the spirit of Jesus Christ and adopt Jesus’ attitudes and criteria. This intimate relationship between Christ and the Church is expressed especially through the use of images such as, “the Spouse of the Savior”, “the mystical body”, “the Lord’s vineyard”, etc.
The Church, guided by the Spirit
Since the ecclesiology of the Counter-Reformation did not emphasize the Spirit, we will not find in the Vincentian writings many references to the person and the action of the Spirit. When Vincent did refer to the Spirit he used such concepts as “the Spirit of God”, “the Spirit of Jesus Christ”, “the Spirit of the gospel”, etc, thus giving the action of the Spirit a Christological and vital character: the Spirit leads people to clothe themselves in Christ, to live the gospel of Jesus Christ, to adopt Jesus’ attitudes and do his works (CCD:IX:383-384; X:308-309, 366-367; XI:36; XII:93-94).
Vincent discovered the presence of the Spirit above all in the life of the Church, in the life of his communities and their members: When we say that the Church is guided by the Holy Spirit, that means generally speaking, when it meets in the Councils, and also privately, when the faithful follow the inspirations of faith and the rule of Christian justice (CCD:XI:28). One of the clear signs of that active presence of the Spirit is the fact that the Church is dedicated to the evangelization and the service of the poor. The evangelization of the poor has to be a criterion and a sign that the Spirit is guiding the Church (CCD:XI:30)
Within the Church, the Spirit is revealed in the life of Vincent’s various institutions, each of which has its “particular spirit” in that it participates in a distinct manner in the spirit of God (CCD:IX:457-460, 473-474). The Holy Spirit, the Sanctifier, is poured forth upon the just and personally dwells with them, and in turn those individuals reveal this presence in the attitudes of their life, since the indwelling gives them the same inclinations and dispositions Jesus Christ had on earth (CCD:XII:93).
Images of the Church
One of the ways to approach a Vincentian understanding of the Church is to analyze the names or the images that are used to describe the Church. Vincent often used the phrase “the Church of God” and seldom used the expression “the People of God” (CCD:V:181; X:190). The intimate relationship between the Church and Jesus is expressed with the Pauline image of “the spouse of Jesus Christ” (CCD:I:561; III:188, 204; XII:132, etc.). In the context of mission and with an evangelizing and vocational significance Vincent used the biblical image of “the Lord’s vineyard” (CCD:V:115, 180, 468; VII:304, 559; VIII:147, etc.). With a similar significance Vincent used the image of the “harvest” to highlight the extension of the Church and the need for apostolic ministers (CCD:VII:559; VIII:147; XI:33).
Vincent used other images, but used them less frequently: “the fold of the Church” [the sheepfold] (CCD:V:156; XI:29); “the building” (CCD:VI:623; VII:83; VIII:106); “the ship” (CCD:X:342). Other images have an anthropological character, for example, when he compares the stages of the spiritual life with the mission of the apostle to purge, enlighten, and unite her to her Divine Spouse (CCD:III:204) or when he highlights the tragic situation of the Church with the expression the poor suffering Church (CCD:V:130; VI:10).
The Church, “the mystical body of Christ”
The image that was most utilized and which best reflected for Vincent de Paul the meaning of the ecclesial community was “the body of Christ”. That image highlights the “vertical dimension” of the Church, her spiritual union with the Head and the Lord, as well as the “horizontal dimension” of communion and solidarity among the members of the body.
The Church is the mystical body of Christ that continues Jesus’ mission and becomes present in history. The members of the Church are united by participation in the same spirit of Jesus Christ. The head pours out his spirit and life into the members and this God-like union with Christ is derived from the communion of all the members among themselves (CCD:X:293; XII:222-223). Being part of the mystical body is the ecclesial foundation of Christian compassion and charity. And how can I commiserate with their illness, if not by participating in it together in Our Lord, who is our head? All of us make up a mystical body, but we’re all members of one another. It has never been heard that a member, not even among animals, was insensitive to the suffering of another member … That’s impossible. Every part of us is in such sympathy with one another and so interconnected that the pain of one is the pain of the other. Since Christians are members of the same body and members of one another, with even greater reason should they sympathize. Quoi! To be a Christian and to see our brother or sister suffering without weeping with them, without being sick with them! That’s to be lacking in charity; it’s being a caricature of a Christian; its inhuman; it’s to be worse than the animals (CCD:XII:221-222; cf., XI:308-309).
Within the ecclesial community Vincent was especially attentive to the poor whom he viewed as the suffering members of Our Lord (CCD:I:92; V:614; VI:514; VIII:278). Those living members have to occupy a privileged place within the Church. The Vincentian interpretation of that ecclesial image is fundamental to the understanding of Vincent’s apostolic and charitable ministry, as well as to the understanding of the charism of his various establishments: to serve the Lord in his poor members was one of the themes of his life and is the fundamental charism of his establishments.
In light of that image Vincent insisted on the importance of union and communion within each community and within the whole Church. Understanding the diversity of functions, he was also insistent on collaboration and co-responsibility as well as compassion and solidarity among all the members (CCD:IX:1; X:452; XI:99-100, 109, 308; XII:85-86). The image of the Church as communion or “body of Christ” expressed his vision of the ecclesial community as a church of mercy and solidarity with the poor.
The Church and the Kingdom of God
Vincent closely related the Church with the image of the Kingdom of God, identifying (and at times confusing) one image with the other. Even though he was aware of the significance of “the reign of God”, “God’s reign over all creatures”, “God’s governance of the Church”, “God reigns over the righteous”, (CCD:XII:112-113), he nonetheless highlighted the personal, active, ecclesial, missionary character of the kingdom as well as the present, eschatological and incomplete nature of the kingdom in which the poor have a special place.
For Vincent de Paul the Kingdom is, above all, built up in the interior of the person (CCD:XII:112-115), but men and women are called to reveal the Kingdom through their action and through spreading the Kingdom. Vincent reminded the Missionaries that it doesn’t suffice to act in such a way that God may reign in us, seeking his kingdom and his justice in this way, but, in addition, we should desire and see that the kingdom of God is brought and extended everywhere, that God reigns in all souls (CCD:XII:116). Thus this concept expresses the missionary dimension of the Church which has as its mission the establishment of the Kingdom and making the Kingdom present throughout the world. The establishment or the disappearance of the Church in a particular place is no different than the expansion or the destruction of the Kingdom in that place (CCD:VII:61; XI:318-319).
One of Vincent’s great insights was that in the Kingdom the poor have a privileged position. He was convinced of God’s preference for “the little ones” and had no doubt that the kingdom belongs to the poor (CCSD:IV:15). That statement led Vincent to formulate the mission of his community, a mission which is that of the whole Church: to make God known to poor persons; to announce Jesus Christ to them; to tell them that the kingdom of heaven is at hand and that it is for persons who are poor (CCD:XII:71).
The kingdom of God has to be sought and built up in this world --- even though Vincent emphasized the interior and personal dimension rather than the external and collective dimension --- and yet kingdom in its fullness has an eschatological dimension and there is a close relationship and continuity between the present and future dimension of the Kingdom (VIII:392; XII:116-117).
The Church, a hierarchical and ministerial community
At the time when the Church was viewed as a “perfect society”, as a visible and hierarchical community, Vincent, a man of his time, echoed that ecclesiology which, with some refinement, is reflected in his thought. In his writings Vincent explained his understanding of the different ways in which people belong to the people of God and also explained the place of the ministries and the various states of life.
In an era when ecclesiology was, for all practical purposes, reduced to “hierarchiology” and the exaltation of authority, Vincent de Paul also shared that mentality and maintained a hierarchical and ordered vision of the Church that was sustained by strong bonds of authority-obedience (CCD:X:308-309). Nevertheless, his vision of the role of authority in the Church is profoundly evangelical: it is not domination or a reality that is imposed through obligation; rather it is gift, service, humility, concern … all of this is reflected in his instructions with regard to the exercise of authority (CCD:I:525-526; II:335-336; IV:181-182; V:59; VI:77-78; XI:312-313).
The person of the Pope is contemplated from a vision of faith in that Our Lord is seen in the person of the Pope. Vincent described the Pope as the common father of all Christians, the visible head of the Church, the vicar of Jesus Christ, the successor of Saint Peter… (CCD:XII:350) and thus he is the Servant of the Servants of God (CCD:IX:256).
At a time when Papal authority was challenged, especially because of the many Gallicanists, Vincent was a faithful defender of the role and of the authority of the pastor of the universal church, including his infallibility (CCD:II:256; XII:306). This led Vincent to insist on faithful obedience and openness to the Pope, aware of the fact that through the person of the Pope we come to know the will of God (CCD:III:48-49; IV:71-72, 105). Among the various functions of the head of the Church, Vincent highlighted the fact that only the Pope, in light of his ultimate responsibility for the missionary work of the Church, can send missionaries ad gentes (CCD:II:64, 288; III:169, 187)
As a result of his relationships with the bishops and his role in renewing the French Episcopacy, Vincent knew and valued that ministry and its importance for the life of the Church. His own experience provided him with a clear idea about the significance and the mission of the bishop in the Church and he expressed those ideas in his writings. According to the categories of that era Vincent affirmed that the bishop was in a state of perfection (CCD:XII:300). Vincent was most insistent on the pastoral vocation of bishops as apostolic men, chosen to instruct the people, to maintain the flock in doing good and preserve the Church from every stain and wrinkle (CCD:III:377). Thus Vincent stressed the care that should be given to their appointment and to their ministry: pastoral zeal combined with personal witness, self-denial for the sake of the flock, a spirit of humility, poverty, gentleness and a special concern for those most poor … modeling the image of Jesus Christ, the Bishop of Bishops and their perfect model (CCD:VIII:308).
In an environment of ecclesial reform that demanded a concern for the formation of priests and for a deeper understanding of the theology and the spirituality of the priest, Vincent de Paul, like the French priestly school, would cooperate in the reform of the clergy not only through his ministry in seminaries and the Tuesday Conferences, but also through his reflections on priesthood and the role of the priest in the Church.
Aware of the fact that unworthy priests were the origin of the scandalous havoc we see in the Church and were the Church’s worse enemies (CCD:VII:479; XII:76), Vincent pointed out that ministry had to be the fruit of a true calling from God and a pure intention because God gives the graces needed to fulfill the obligations of this sacred state only to those whom his goodness has called to it (CCD:VII:479). Despite the criticisms that he leveled against the lifestyle of many priests, Vincent insisted on the dignity of the priesthood as the most lofty ministry, a holy and lofty state, and priests are the mediators who are to reconcile people with God and participate in the eternal priesthood of the Son of God (CCD:VI:413; XI:117-118, 278-279; XII:70, 86, 89-90).
From a Christological and missionary point of view, Vincent saw the priests as instruments by which the Son of God continues to do from heaven what he did on earth (CCD:XII:72), instruments of God for the salvation of many and those who continue the mission of Christ (CCD:V:567; VI:68-69). The mission of the priest is summarized in doing what Jesus did and in the manner that he did things, thus balancing his vision of the priest as “a man of sacred realities” with that of the priest as “a man for the mission”. As persons who continue to be animated by the spirit of Jesus Christ, priests have to be mindful that they have an obligation toward people, especially the poor. The option on behalf of the poor, which is proper to the whole Church, has to be embraced in a special manner by its ministers (CCD:XI:69-70; XII:77).
A community called to holiness
The “holy spouse of the Savior”, the community of believers, is called to holiness, to the perfection of the Christian life which in Vincent’s understanding, was found in the practice of charity and in fulfilling the will of God. All Christians, regardless of their situation or vocation, are obliged to be perfect … and Christians can develop that holiness. Even though Vincent recognized “more perfect” states in life, he gave greater value to the perfection in one’s state in life than to any particular state in life.
Vincent accepted the traditional doctrine that “religious are in a state of acquired perfection” in that everything they do leads them in that direction. But even though the religious state offers its members all the means to attain that perfection, it does not automatically confer them with holiness. Through experience Vincent was very aware of the state of religious life and knew that it was not the religious Order that makes saints (CCD:X:117; VII:171-172)
The laity in the ecclesial community
Vincent de Paul was enthusiastic about the idea of his teacher, Francis de Sales, namely, wherever we find ourselves we can and ought to aspire to perfection. Therefore, he helped the laity with whom he ministered to make that ideal a reality. He was convinced that the laity, in their state and profession, could attain the same degree of virtue as religious. He saw no differences in the aims of both of those vocations, only a difference in the means (CCD:IV:305-306; XII:87; XIIIa:190-191)
Vincent was also aware of the fact that the laity had also received a vocation to participate in the ministry of the Church. They are not passive agents but have an obligation to commit themselves to the evangelizing and charitable tasks of the Church. From a missionary perspective of the Church, Vincent discovered that evangelization is the mission of the whole Church, therefore, he had no hesitation in asking the laity to commit themselves to the apostolic life of the Church. The lay associations that he established reflected Vincent’s vision of the laity and their role in the Church: lay ministry arises from a divine vocation and supposes a Christian life, a life of faith which naturally implies a deep spiritual life. Lay ministry, then, is a participation in the mission of Christ and a participation in Christ’s preference for the poor … and in serving the poor, Jesus is served. That service has to be integral and has to include “spiritual and material assistance”. Lay ministry has to be exercised as Church and within the Church, in community, organized, with an openness to the world and its needs, with realism and an ability for discernment.
As part of his understanding of lay ministry, Vincent highlighted the role of women in the Church. At a time when the role of women was viewed from the perspective of their social role and thus, essentially marginalized, Vincent, without being a feminist, discovered the qualities and the values of women and utilized those in his pastoral/charitable ministry. As Vincent reflected on the history of the people of Israel and the first centuries of Christianity, he discovered inspirational models (Judith, Ester, the women who served Jesus and the apostles, the Deaconesses …) and placed those models before the members of the Confraternities of Charity and the Ladies of Charity (CCD:IX:14-15, 18-19; X:551-552; XII:77; XIIIb:419-420, 432, 436). Vincent promoted women in the Church through their ministry of the proclamation of charity.
Through his organization and practical sense that was revealed in his option for the poor and for women, Vincent made it possible for women to go out into the streets in order to serve the infirm. Vincent did this not only through the establishment of lay associations but also through the establishment of a society of apostolic life, the Daughters of Charity. With the establishment of the Daughters Vincent introduced a new juridical structure into the consecrated life of women, one that demonstrated that those who isolated themselves from the world had no monopoly on perfection … thus giving a tremendous impetus to the role of women in the Church.
The Church, an evangelizing and merciful community
Vincent de Paul highlighted the evangelizing mission of the Church as a continuation of the mission of Christ, evangelizer of the poor. The church is a vast “harvest” that needs to be evangelized and at the same times needs to evangelize.
Vincent viewed the concepts of salvation, Church and evangelization as closely related to one another. The Church becomes an instrument of salvation when it instructs people with regard to the truths of the faith because according to the mentality of that era a person can’t be saved without a knowledge of the principal mysteries of the faith (CCD:X:271, 403-404; XI:71-72; XII:344-345). Furthermore, the situation in France demanded a Church that was in a state of mission and that recognized the urgency to engage in ministry for the purification and the revitalization of the Church through a “new evangelization” (CCD:II:469; XIIIa:35-36).
Evangelization, which was par excellence, the work of the Son of God (CCD:XII:71), is the proper mission of the Church. Vincent’s understanding of the significance of evangelization is revealed when he affirmed that we can say that coming to evangelize the poor doesn’t simply mean to teach them the mysteries necessary for their salvation, but also to do what was foretold and prefigured by the prophets to make the gospel effective (CCD:XII:75)
As instruments for the proclamation of the truths of the faith, Vincent insisted on a systematic catechesis and a popular style of preaching ---- the little method. Evangelization, however, was not reduced to verbal proclamation … action, gestures, a specific lifestyle … all of those had to accompany and precede any teaching: to evangelize by word and deed. In this sense evangelization is very closely related to charitable service since charity completes and verifies the proclamation and becomes a central element in the process of evangelization.
Vincent utilized the popular mission as an evangelizing method: a form of extraordinary, systematic preaching that was intended to instruct the evangelized community, to lead people to conversion, and to revitalize the sacramental and charitable life of the community.
Little by little Vincent discovered the universality of the evangelizing mission and the consequent missionary urgency. Vincent deepened his understanding of the universality of the Church and its missionary dimension as it fulfilled the command of Jesus Christ as a result of the following: his fear of the possible disappearance of the Church in Europe and his desire to extend the church to other countries (CCD:III:39-41, 163-165, 187-198; V:425-425; XI:279, 317-320); the ecclesiology that made him understand that only the Pope could send forth missionaries ad gentes and therefore, it was necessary to obey him (CCD:II:63-65, 287-288; III:168-169, 187-189); the contemplation of the missionary dimension of charity as he discovered that the poor have no frontiers and as he also discovered the missionary vocation of his community (CCD:II:63-65; III:260, 284).
The Church of the poor, a people a mercy
It was not theological studies, but rather contact with the poor that led Vincent to form an image of the Church and to commit himself to the task of giving a new face to the Church. As he discovered the meaning of the poor, he also refined and purified his model of Church and the relationship between the Church and the world of the poor.
Vincent’s special vision of the poor influenced his understanding of the Church and the place of the humble and the broken in that Church. Vincent did not idealize the poor; the poor are concrete individuals who live in a situation of misery, exploitation, marginalization and/or injustice. Mindful of that concrete reality and in the light of his faith, Vincent discovered in those persons in need a profound evangelical significance: those humiliated individuals, when viewed from a different perspective, when the medal is turned over, appear as inspiring and revelatory persons, as images of God, as living mediators of Christ and as the most precious members of the body of Christ (CCD:IX:5, 14-15; XI:26).
Vincent’s ecclesiological vision is characterized by the centrality of the poor. Vincent rediscovered for the Church its option for the poor: they are “God’s beloved”, the ones who preserve “the true religion”, “the great lords of heaven”, “our intercessors before God”, “our lords and masters” (CCD:IX:74, 97, 200, 315-316; X:546; XI:196, 349; XII:4, 142; XIIIb:114, 429).In Saint Vincent the preference for the poor has both an anthropological and a Christological foundation: as the Church continues the ministry of Christ it ought to prolong Christ’s poverty, his preference of and his identification with “the little ones” (CCD:XI:26, 98-99; XII:71-72; XIIIb:435-435)
To justify this relationship Church-poor, Vincent looked at the origins of the Church: God began the Church with poor people (CCD:IX:9; X:408-409; XI:120; XII:16). That choice continues to be valid for the Church. God chose “the little ones” and the poor in order to continue the ministry of Jesus Christ because those individuals preserve “the living faith” and “true religion”.
In order to speak about the Church of the poor, Vincent had to establish its anthropological, Christological and ecclesiological foundation. Vincent, however, did not synthesize his doctrine or outline all the consequences of that vision (at least not theoretically, even though he lived those consequences). It would be his disciple, Jacques Bénigne Bossuet, who in his sermon On the eminent dignity of the poor in the church, would formulate in a systematic manner Vincent’s doctrine: The city of the poor is the holy Church; the rich being of the world are marked as belonging to the world, and therefore their presence is only tolerated in the church.
While Vincent emphasized his vision of “a Church of the poor”, he was also concerned about making that vision a reality. The poor have to be the point of reference for the Church’s life … if the Church should become unconcerned about “the little ones”, it would lose is purpose and meaning. Therefore its task, which is a demand of faith and not just a philanthropic demand, is to involve the priests and the laity in direct service of the poor.
For Vincent this closeness to “the little ones” is a sign of belonging to the true Church and a criterion that reveals its fidelity to its mission. The Church that ignores the poor is nothing more than a caricature of the Church of Jesus Christ. The ministry of Vincent de Paul is an attempt to reveal the true face of the Church, a community that, without rejecting anyone, has a preference for “the little ones”. Its mission can be summarized in its efforts to return the poor to the Church and to return the Church to the poor.
Vincent, who considered the poor as occupying the first places in the Church, felt obliged to serve them. The Church of the poor has to be a community in which mercy is made real. In Vincent’s opinion, mercy has to be one of the “marks” of the true Church of Jesus Christ. That has to translate the great mystery of God’s mercy and the human person’s gratitude. Vincent affirmed that mercy is proper to God and the attribute that most distinguishes God is God’s gentleness and closeness to men and women, thus giving a maternal face to God (CCD:IX:107-108, 271-272; X:410-411; XI:308-309; XIIIa:278-279; XIIIb:433). The attitude of the Father is revealed especially in the person of Jesus. Jesus’ whole life, his words, sentiments, and actions converge in the outpouring of mercy on humankind (CCD:XII:240; XIIIb:433, 437). Vincent derived his ecclesial praxis from that Christological vision which is the center of Vincentian faith: the Church, the presence of Christ in history, has to be the sign of Jesus’ mercy among the poor, the people of mercy.
This attitude is also rooted in the ecclesial image of “the body of Christ” animated by the Spirit. As members of the same body and as participants in the spirit of Jesus Christ, believers have to live with a spirit of compassion and mercy: To be a Christian and to see our brother or sister suffering without weeping with them, without being sick with them! That’s to be lacking in charity; it’s being a caricature of a Christian; its inhuman; it’s to be worse than the animals (CCD:XII:221-222). Christian mercy has to give rise to those attitudes and has to become a lifestyle for believers, a characteristic of their whole life (CCD:XI:308-309, 328-329).
In order for mercy to be authentic, it must be both an affective and an effective attitude (CCD:IX:466; XI:69-70); it must have as its object the good of the whole person (CCD:IX:50, 467-468; XIIIb:3, 380); it must be accompanied with and preceded by justice since there is no act of charity that is not accompanied by justice (CCD:II:68; VII:633); it has to arise from a pure motivation, in the name of Jesus and in the manner of Jesus (CCD:VII:114-115). Understood in this way mercy became for Vincent a “mark” of the Church of God and a “mark” of each one of its members. When the Church is concerned about those who suffer and is moved by this spirit, it begins to build up and construct and becomes more authentic and credible.
Vincentian contributions to subsequent ecclesiology
In the funeral oration at the time of Vincent’s death, his friend, Henri Maupas de Tours affirmed that Vincent almost totally changed the face of the Church. From the perspective of his personal and ecclesial experience, as well as from the perspective of his faith, Vincent made every effort to change the image of the Church that was in need of reform. A man of experience and action, his ministry is reflected more in his dynamic attitudes and in his ecclesial praxis than in his theoretical theological reflections. In those reflections, however, Vincent does reveal his vision of what the Church of Jesus Christ ought to be, the “face” that he would like to see the People of God reflect.
Even though Vincent was a man of his time and was influenced by the ecclesiology of his era, he contributed some elements to the ecclesial vision of that time that would be incorporated into later ecclesiology. In his ecclesial doctrine he would highlight some insights that even though they were present in the Church from the time of its origins, nevertheless, in certain situations and at different times they were forgotten and not properly valued. Those insights, not developed or synthesized, but lived out in his ministry, were the most original and valuable dimensions of his vision of Church. Among the various Vincentian contributions, we can highlight the following:
- Centrality of the concept “people” and awareness of the fact that ecclesial life has to be in function of “the poor people”.
- Insistence on evangelization as a fundamental constitutive element of the Church.
- The poor have a central place in “the body of Christ” and this concept led to reflections on “the Church of the poor” which has to be built up through charity and mercy.
- The creation of new perspectives for religious life as the result of highlighting the consecration to God while being in the world and emphasizing the option for the poor … Vincent also made contributions to the theology of the priesthood.
- There was a rediscovery of the place of the laity in the life of the Church as a result of the reflections on baptismal spirituality as a universal call to holiness and as a participation in the apostolate, especially in organized works of charity and evangelization. Reincorporation of women into the life of the Church and its apostolic ministry.
These and other insights justify us in referring to Vincent as one of “the architects of the modern Church”. His ecclesial vision remains relevant at the present time and elements proper to “the Vincentian spirit” have been affirmed and enriched in later reflections and ecclesial praxis. Elements of present day ecclesiology that are reflected in the dogmatic constitution, Lumen Gentium and in other theological currents, such as liberation theology, are echoed in the ecclesial doctrine and practice of Vincent de Paul. Therefore Vincent can be viewed as an authentic “prophet” of present day ecclesiology.
Bibliography and References:
All references to the writings of Vincent de Paul are taken from: VINCENT DE PAUL, Correspondence, Conferences, 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. 2-14), 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).
L. MEZZADRI, L'Eglise en France au temps de Saint Vincent. in Vincetiana, 28(1984)356- 392.- id., La Chiesa di Francia ne/ XVII seco /o, en Vincentiana 31 (1987) 438-456.-
SAN VI CENTE DE PAÚL Y LA IGLESIA , EN ANALES 82 (1974)75-84 .-
J. DELARUE, Vicente de Paúl, la fe que dio sentido a su vida, CEME, Salaman ca, 1977,153-194.-
A. SILVESTRE, Saint Vincent et l'Eg/ise, en Monsieur Vincent. témoin de /'Evangile , Toulouse 1990, 121-131.- J. SE GUY, San Vicente apocalíptico, en Anales 92 (1984) 205-216.
Translated: Charles Plock, CM