Pursuit of Justice - A Vincentian Vocation

From Vincentian Encyclopedia

The Pursuit of Justice: A Vincentian Vocation.

St. John's University describes itself as a Vincentian University. The term derives from the Vincentian Fathers and Brothers who founded St. John's 125 years ago. This religious community traces its birth to St. Vincent de Paul who established it in France in 1617. St. Vincent dedicated himself and the two communities he created, the Vincentians and the Daughters of Charity, to serve the needs of the poor wherever they met them.

St. Vincent, however, involved in this task many others beyond his religious families. He allied himself with people and organizations with goals similar to his and he invited them to join in projects he initiated. All who know him admire his imaginative sensitivity in discovering the poor and his organizational creativity in meeting their needs. This "Apostle of Charity," as he is called, reached into areas of poverty and injustice which frequently escape the notice of the more casual observer.

Students of the law will admire the energy and zeal which St. Vincent manifested in bettering the lot of prisoners in seventeenth century France. In the wake of the wars of religion the Bourbons were gradually organizing the administration which gave birth to the "Grand Siecle." One of the institutions which clamored for attention was the prisons. In derelict hovels desperate prisoners languished, frequently the victims of negligent and rapacious wardens and guards who extorted money for the services they were paid to render.

At this time a semi-secret society of influential laymen arose, the Company of the Blessed Sacrament. Its members sought to reform various social abuses. As a member of the group St. Vincent frequently served as the "point man" who implemented its projects. Because of the secretiveness of the society one cannot always discern where the initiative of the society ends and that of the saint begins.

One must bear in mind that their Catholic faith inspired the Society and therefore they placed high priority on the moral and religious betterment of those they sought to help. They did not, however, ignore their many other needs.

The members of the Society personally visited prisons and experienced the squalor and filth in which prisoners lived. The Annales of the group preserve their reports. They demanded the separation of male and female prisoners and recruited women to visit the later. They provided chaplains for the prisons.

In these days of imprisonment for debt the Company secured the separation of debtors from other prisoners. The society formed committees to review the cases and attempted to reach settlements with creditors. Since the Company's members came from the aristocracy, their social prestige lent force to their intervention. They also took up collections to provide funds for some of these settlements.

Seventeenth century prison reform had wide scope. It aimed at awakening the government's consciousness of its obligation to the prisoners. It hoped to assure for the incarcerated the necessities of life, decent food, health care, humane living conditions. While awaiting for the formation of the Prison Boards to implement and oversee this reform private charity moved to fill the void.

In this regard St. Vincent took the lead. In Paris he formed Confraternities of Charity, regional lay organizations to meet the needs of the poor in their districts. In the rules he gave some of these groups St. Vincent directed them to visit the prisons in their neighborhood. The Ladies of Charity, an organization of women recruited from the aristocracy, took charge of the care of the prison for the galley slaves who were of special interest to St. Vincent.

These groups provided regular religious services on Sundays and holydays. They supplied wholesome food to eat, clean straw to sleep on and firewood to fight the cold and damp. Elementary medical care and hygiene were assured. Although the members normally did not interfere in prisoners' cases, if a verdict seemed manifestly unjust, they had a person of rank approach the magistrate for a review the case.

The Vincentian center in Paris was the Priory of Saint Lazare, a defunct leprosarium which St. Vincent had acquired in 1632. With the property came responsibility for a prison housed on it. This prison was a house of correction for incorrigible youths, libertines, spendthrifts, and "black sheep" of various kinds consigned there by families and the courts. The confinement was close and discipline stringent. Nevertheless the saint demanded that his community treat these "boarders," as he called them, with respect and justice, "exactly like ourselves."

St. Vincent showed a particular concern for the galley slaves. For years he served as chaplain to the family of Philippe Emmanuel de Gondi, General of the Galleys. Through this nobleman he gained access to the Conciergerie and other prisons which held those condemned to the galleys before they departed in chain gangs for Marseilles, the home port of the galleys. He was horrified by the squalor in which, in the words of a contemporary, the prisoners "rotted alive." Vincent threw himself into the task of changing the lot of these men. He had them moved to a different prisons, first Saint Roch and later La Tournelle, where they had some amenities and fresh air. He induced Henry de Gondi, Bishop of Paris and brother of the General of the Galleys, to appeal to the faithful of Paris for funds to purchase better food for the prisoners.

His zeal caught the attention of the court and in 1619 Vincent was appointed Chaplain General of the Galleys by Louis XIII. With this title his vision went farther afield to the lot of the rowers in Marseilles. A trip to the port convinced him of the need of changes in the treatment of the prisoners. Many abuses flourished. The jailers robbed their victims of their few possessions, provided poor food, and treated all alike, the sick as well as the healthy. Perhaps worst of all was the fact that the clerk who registered the prisoners did not bother to enter the length of sentences in order to insure a ready supply of oarsmen.

The saint with the support of the General and the Bishop of Marseilles launched a project to build a hospital for the sick rowers. Many obstacles delayed the completion of the building. But Vincent never abandoned his goal. He used all the influence he had with wealthy friends to see his dream realized. When the hospital finally opened its doors he reported exultantly: "I cannot express the joy experienced by the poor convicts when they were transferred to what they call a paradise. The mere arrival in hospital cures them of half their sickness because they are relieved of the vermin with which they are covered."

The saint established a house of Vincentians in Marseilles in order to serve as chaplains to the fleet. During the winter months with the galleys in port the four or five Vincentians conducted missions on the galleys. Other priests joined them in these exercises. The saintly Bishop of Marseilles, John Baptist Gault, devoted himself to the care of the oarsmen in every way. He died in 1643 of an illness contracted while ministering to the galley slaves.

As Chaplain General of the Galleys Vincent de Paul had extensive obligations. A royal decree delegated the powers of the Chaplain General to the superior of the Vincentian House in Marseilles when the saint was not present. He had the general oversight of the religious and moral welfare of the galleys. All chaplains in the fleets were subject to him. Twice a year commissaries visited each galley to hold a court of enquiry. The disabled were freed. Those held beyond their sentence had the opportunity to protest. The Chaplain General never failed to be present on these occasions to support the protests of those wrongfully treated. Vincent and his confreres assumed another role for the galley slaves. They served as the intermediaries between these men and their families. Many could not write and the Vincentians wrote in their stead. Their families came to rely on the Chaplain General and his community in order to send to their men in chains the letters and small gifts which kept hope alive in a oarsmen longing for release. Vincent de Paul's correspondence to the house in Marseilles abounds with references to the gifts of a few coppers, a book, or a parcel meant for someone chained in a galley.

St. Vincent's work on behalf of prisoners would never have been sustained without the generosity the Daughters of Charity. This religious community was founded by St. Vincent de Paul and St. Louise de Marillac to serve the poor in all their needs. These dedicated women frequently sustained the daily service that the prisoners required. Others visited the prisons periodically but the Daughters descended into the prisons day after day, morning and night. They carried to them the food and medicine The prisoners required.

In his letters to Louise de Marillac, the superior of the community, one glimpses the unglamorous and dangerous task that these young women undertook. The precautions for their safety which he urged reveal that he did not romanticize the prisoners. And the treatment which the Daughters sometimes reported, verbal abuse, flying pots of soup and physical attack never allowed him to forget their heroism. Yet his advice to them was a page from the gospel. He urged them to take the vengeance of the Christian; "Pray for the convicts who insult you as did St. Stephen for those who stoned him."

No one will claim that St. Vincent advocated systematic prison reform. He did not see himself as responsible for the structure of the system. Moreover he had not the power to change it. But his sense of love and justice drove him to use the resources at his disposal to assure that the system in place served justice.

Students and faculty of St. John's University School of Law can see that the term "Vincentian" is especially appropriate for their school. Like St. Vincent in his care for prisoners in seventeenth century France they dedicate their talents and resources to the cause of justice in our times.