Rural Roots of Vincentian Spirituality

From Vincentian Encyclopedia

by: Antonino Orcajo, CM


[This work was first published in San Vincente de Paúl, ayer y hoy, (XXXIII Semana de Estudios Vicencianos), Editorial CEME, Santa Marta de Tormes, Salamanca, 2008, p. 387-426].


Introduction

For the first time the theme of Vincentian spirituality, viewed from the perspective of the rural roots of the Founder of the Congregation of the Mission, is dealt with, ex professo, during a Vincentian Studies Week in Salamanca and … thus we are not reflecting here on Vincentian spirituality from the perspective of the social environment in which it was developed and with which it is intimately united [1]. It is not that this theme did not deserve to be treated previously but rather it was supposed that this was understood and known. It was only in passing or by way of digression that other presenters took note of this reality in previous years. From the time of Louis Abelly, the first biographer of Vincent de Paul [2], until the present time, various authors have contributed interesting details with regard to the relationship between Vincent’s knowledge and experience of life in the countryside and his various teachings. Vincent, in the presence of various individuals and members of his own community (as well as in the presence of the Daughters of Charity and the members of the Confraternities and the Ladies of Charity) referred to his roots in the midst of the world of people who lived in the rural areas. He also spoke about this reality when addressing people who lived in small villages, people who were poor and abandoned (or people who were in the care of inadequately formed pastors and/or in the care of pastors who were less than zealous with regard to their priestly mission).

People became interested in this theme during the last third of the nineteenth century when the study of comparative spirituality and the exploration of the similarities and differences between the various masters of the spiritual life created a desire to further investigate their originality. Later, during the 1930’s, historians and ethnologists spent much time researching “the religious phenomenon” which began, properly speaking, in Europe during the middle of the fifteenth century.

Different from other questions regarding the life of Vincent de Paul which are often debated and discussed, for example, the date of Vincent’s birth, the events surrounding his captivity, the time of his conversion, etc. … different from those questions that André Dodin pointed out in his work, Vincent de Paul and Charity [3], the matter of his spirituality being interwoven with rural connotations has never been doubted. A distinct matter, however, is the different ways in which Vincent’s spiritual doctrine is presented by these different authors.

The theme that we propose to develop has its starting point in the world “of the rural poor”. This does not mean that we exclude others groups of poor and/or infirm persons who were the objects of Vincent’s apostolic commitment as well as a source of inspiration for his charitable-social action. At the outset we admit that with regard to the method that we have chosen for this presentation there is a risk, namely, in limiting this presentation to Vincent’s relationship with the poor country people we can fall into the danger of blurring the greatness of the person who participated in the primary reform movement of the church during the seventeenth century … we run the risk of isolating Vincent from the many distinguished persons with whom he interacted: Marie de Medicis (mother of Louis XIII), Cardinal Richelieu, Anne of Austria, Cardinal Jules Mazarin, Pierre Séguier, Pierre de Bérulle, Jean-Jacques Olier, Jean Eudes, Saint-Cyran and the Solitaires of Port Royal, Francis de Sales who together with Jeanne-Françoise Frémiot Chantal established the Visitation Sisters, Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet, the Marillac family, the Gautier family … and so many others who helped raise France to historical heights. Vincent’s position as a member of the Council of Conscience (1643-1653) enabled him to relate with those persons who were responsible for governing the church and the country. We also mention here Vincent’s relationship with the Confraternity of the Most Blessed Sacrament and other such groups and associations that confronted and mitigated the poverty that people experienced.

Throughout this presentation we will mention different authors who have made significant contributions to the field of Vincentian spirituality. We will also comment on the current state of this research and the impact of Vincent’s teaching on the larger Christian community as well as the Congregation of the Mission and the Daughters of Charity.

We divide our presentation into four parts: (1) the rural roots of Vincent de Paul, (2) the journey of Vincent until the time of enlightenment with regard to his mission and vocation, (3) implications of Vincent’s rural roots for Vincentian spirituality, (4) the relevance of Vincent’s spiritual doctrine.


The rural roots of Vincent de Paul

The rural origins of Vincent de Paul are addressed here but only to the degree to which that helps us to understand Vincent’s mission and spiritual and apostolic place in the church and in society. The conferences and letters, which Vincent addressed to the Missionaries and the Daughters of Charity and to some influential members of society, put us in contact with Vincent de Paul, the son of a family that was involved in agricultural work. No one better than he was aware of his origins and the direction of his life. Therefore, we allow Vincent to speak to us and to explain to us the origins of his activity and the subsequent development of such activity. The following three references, taken from different eras of Vincent’s life, provide us with his own testimony with regard to his rural roots.


Son of a plowman who tended sheep and pigs

The first reference that confirms Vincent’s rural origins and his work in caring for animals is found in the letter that he wrote in 1640 to Louis Abelly, then the vicar of Bayonne (later, he would become Vincent’s first biographer): Monsieur, how you embarrass the son of a poor plowman, who tended sheep and pigs [4].

The second reference is taken from his conference on Imitating the Virtues of Village Girls, a conference that was addressed to the Daughters of Charity (January 25, 1643): It will be very easy for me to speak to you about the virtues of good village girls because I know them by experience and by nature, since I'm the son of a humble tiller of the soil, and lived in the country until I was fifteen (CCD:IX:67).

On June 21, 1651 Vincent wrote to François de Saint-Remy. This letter was written at a time when Vincent had been converted and had put aside the vanities and the lies of the world: To speak truly of me, you would have to say that I am a farmer’s son, who tended swine and cows, and add that this is nothing compared to my ignorance and malice (CCD:IV:219).

If the young Vincent was embarrassed by the humble situation of his family and by his father who walked with a limp (thus the name Ranquines that perhaps comes from the Gascon term ranqueja, to limp), nevertheless as an adult he never denied or tried to hide his origins. In fact he referred to his origins in order to humble himself and also because he did not want people to think he was someone who he was not.

There is no doubt that Vincent was a member of a family with humble and modest financial resources … no one disagrees with that fact. The first portrait that Simon de Tours painted depicts Vincent as the son of a plowman. He was the third oldest of six children (four boys and two girls), all of whom were involved in some form of work on the farm. As soon as Vincent reached the age of reason he was entrusted with the task of caring for the animals. It was then that he began to have more direct contact with nature: with the soil and the stars in the sky, the birds, the fish and other animals … with animate and inanimate life. He learned to endure the different changes in the weather: the heat and the cold, the rain and the hail and the burning sun. He would sleep outdoor on those nights when he was unable to return home with the animals that he was caring for. As a good observer he took note of the changes as one season moved into another: spring, summer, fall, winter.

When Vincent arrived home his situation was not that of a life of ease. Each day he was awakened by the sound of the animals. Ordinarily his food consisted of one plate (a reality very characteristic of people who lived in the country) and Vincent commented on this reality: In that part of the country where I come from, dear Sisters, the people are fed on a little grain called millet, which is set to cook in a pot; at mealtime it's poured into a dish, and the family gathers around it to take some for their meal and then go back to work (CCD:IX:70).

John Rybolt goes into detail on this subject and states: The De Paul diet differed markedly from that followed today. There were no potatoes, tomatoes, corn, even beans, since these originated in the New World and were only then being gradually brought into Spain. Instead, his family ate the local produce: carrots, turnips, broad beans, lentils, and even millet, at the time an important grain [5]. We would not refer to these details concerning Vincent’s childhood if he himself, in a very colloquial manner, had not spoken about these matters in his conferences … matters which he then applied to the development of one’s spiritual life. This manner of teaching reveals Vincent’s renaissance humanism which was very much in vogue at that time and yet is not the most important aspect of the manner in which he formed others. Nevertheless it is impressive to note the many comparisons and images taken from nature … comparisons and images that Vincent utilized in his teaching [6].

As a gascon he spoke with emotion and at times had a tendency to exaggerate matters. He could be temperamental and this has to be taken into consideration when reading or listening to his conferences and letters. Vincent had a wonderful sense of humor, something very characteristic of country people who were able to laugh at their own shadow and who had little patience for lofty ideas and false promises. At unexpected times Vincent’s genius was revealed in the words that he spoke (words that seemed to be quite different from his gascon origins).

Vincent thus spent the first fifteen years of his life in daily contact with those persons who surrounded him. Then when Vincent was fifteen years old his father made a decision to enroll him in a school in Dax that was administered by the Franciscans. Later his family sold a pair of oxen in order to cover the costs of his studies and this most certainly represented a great expenditure. The young man, Vincent de Paul, showed that he was a very capable student and also revealed his gift of organization as well as perseverance in his work.

The letter that he wrote to his mother (February 17, 1610) reveals his love as a son, a love that he professed throughout his life, a love that was also expressed in words of gratitude to his brothers and sisters, family members and friends (CCD:I:15-17). In the May 2, 1659 conference to the Missionaries he spoke about the visit that he made to his family in 1624 and stated: The day I departed, it was so painful for me to leave my poor relatives that I did nothing but weep all the way back, and wept almost constantly. Those tears were followed by the thought of doing something to assist them and to better their situation, to give this to one, that to another. My mind was deeply moved and I was sharing in this way what I had and what I did not have (CCD:XII:180).

Here we have a true image of Vincent de Paul, a man with a very human and compassionate heart, a man who allowed himself to be touched by the sufferings and deprivations of his family as they worked the land. On September 4, 1626 he donated his patrimonial goods (moveable and immoveable) to his family (CCD:XIIIa:75-77). This is far removed from the image that some biographers have presented to us when speaking about the young Vincent de Paul. Even though, at one point, Vincent was considering the possibility of “an honorable retirement”, he did not separate himself from the mission that the Holy Spirit was slowly leading him to discover.


Vincent’s family were members of the third class in society

For better knowledge about the painful situation of the country people during seventeen century France, it is important to present an outline of those elements there were most characteristic of this Ancient Regime. Each historian, in accord with his/her purpose, will present different images and come to conclusions that confirm Vincent’s words, especially if that word was not utilized as a primary and/or definitive source by the same historian.

The family of Jean de Paul and Bertrande de Moras lived in one of the farmsteads called Ranquines and were, therefore, subject to the economic effects of the stratified society that existed at that time. This meant that they were submissive to the will of those individuals who established (according to their whim) the prices for the buying and selling of agricultural tools and products. It is difficult to know, however, the taxes that the family had to pay … taxes that never allowed the family to move beyond their honorable poverty (never a situation of misery) despite their many years of hard work. Román states: Yes, they were peasants and as such belonged to the lowest echelons of a society which, in the Old Regime, was strictly hierarchical. But these peasants were their own masters. They were not simply hired hands or even tenants or tenant farmers. They owned small plots of land which might include woodland and arable fields, as well as a house and a farm with a variety of domestic animals such as sheep, oxen, cows and pigs. They belonged to that social class which writers have said reflected the true history of France at that period, a France where the basic social unit was the rural village [7].

According to the established order in society the nobles and the clergy were members of privileged classes but that was not the situation of those persons who lived in the rural area and who formed the Third Order or the Third Estate, persons who were subject to the laws with regard to the payment of taxes and tithes [8]. Outside of this context everything that is said about the de Paul family is speculation that might or might not have some relationship to the truth, that is, our doubts with regard to the taxes that the family had to pay are not in any way relieved. The situation of each family was distinct and could involve some particular treatment. We not only do not know the amount of taxes that the De Paul family had to pay but we are also unaware of the extent of the land that they possessed or the number of animals they owned or the tithes that they contributed in order to alleviate public needs (all of this data was taken into consideration when determining the amount of taxes that one owed).

There is no doubt, however, that these rural dwellers, overwhelmed as they were, struggled on a daily basis in order to survive. Some of these people were dependent on income from lands that were leased to others, but most people subsisted on their own labor. At the same time it must be remembered that the situation of these men and women was constantly imperiled by war and epidemics and destructive weather conditions. As a result of these catastrophes, which created hunger and greater need, people often felt obliged to abandon their land and homes … thus uprooting and unsettling their lives.

Vincent was very aware of this social reality which was even more extreme at the time of the Fronde (1648-1652) and during the religious wars (1562-1598) which affected the Gascon area. In his conference of July 24, 1598 it is clear that Vincent was deeply moved by the devastation that afflicted France and told his confreres: There is war everywhere, misery everywhere. In France, so many people are suffering! O Sauveur! O Sauveur! If, for the four months we have had war here, we have had so much misery in the heart of France, where food supplies are ample everywhere, what can those poor people in the border areas do, who have been in this sort of misery for twenty years? Yes, it’s been a good twenty years that there has always been war there; if they sow their crops, they are not sure they can gather them in; the armies arrive and pillage and carry everything off; and what the solider has not taken, the sergeants take and carry off. After that, what can be done? What will become of them? They must die (CCD:XI:190).

Vincent’s affirmations were corroborated by Dr. Jeanne Ferté who did much research concerning the economic and religious situation of seventeenth century France [9] and by Louis Châtlier in his lengthy presentation on European society and its social, cultural and religious evolution [10]. Vincent de Paul was known as a preacher of popular missions and an advocate for the social and spiritual well-being of the people. All of this was confirmed by René Taveneaux who, after examining the work of this charitable saint, stated: He organized seminaries and was a member of the Council of Conscience; he participated in the selection of bishops; he preached and wrote and opened new approaches to spirituality; he engaged in all forms of pastoral ministry and was involved in every doctrinal dispute as well as in political matters. All of this makes Vincent de Paul more than an apostle of Christian charity … he was indeed one of the most influential persons who formed and shaped western civilization during the first half of the seventeenth century [11].

The affirmation of Taveneaux who stated that Vincent opened new approaches to spirituality, echoes the words of Vincent’s first panegyrist, Henri Maupas du Tour who when speaking about Vincent de Paul stated: he changed almost the entire face of the Church [12]. Thus we now enter into a reflection on the spirituality that Vincent lived and that the founder of the Congregation of the Mission and the Company of the Daughters of Charity has bequeathed to later generations.


Vincent’s journey until the time when his missionary vocation was illuminated

Every effort to follow Vincent’s path leads us to conclude that his spiritual and apostolic evolution can only be outlined in broad stokes and cannot be specified with certainty. In light of Taveneaux’s words certain questions arise: 1] What were the new approaches to spirituality that Vincent opened as he gave value to the faith and the religious experience of the poor country people? 2] Which apostolic experiences confirm the reality that Vincent created these new approaches? 3] What means did Vincent use in order to concretize his thinking? These questions oblige us to retrace Vincent’s steps by beginning with the year 1608 when he established his residence in Paris and began to form relationships with the primary advocates of the French school of spirituality. From 1608-1633 we see that Vincent’s spiritual and apostolic plans evolved slowly. During those twenty-five years Vincent matured in his plan and the experiences of 1617 were pivotal in his process of conversion and in his decision to embrace the gospel of charity and mercy and follow Jesus Christ, the evangelizer of the poor.


The journey toward a new spirituality

In 1608 Vincent de Paul took up residence in Paris and at the same time was assaulted by a crisis of faith, a crisis that was perhaps caused by his own idleness. It was at this time that Vincent approached the distinguished Pierre de Bérulle who became aware of “the dark night” that Vincent was experiencing. Bérulle oriented and guided Vincent to the parish in Clichy where he substituted for François Bourgoing who had decided to enter the newly formed community of the Oratorians. In 1612 Vincent took possession of the parish there and found great happiness among those men and women who were very similar to the people of his home town. Clichy impacted Vincent in unforgettable ways, an impact that later enabled him to speak with obvious emotion: I was once a country Pastor (a pretty miserable Pastor!). I had such good people, who were so obedient in doing what I asked of them that, when I told them they should come to confession on the first Sunday of the month, they didn't fail to do it. They came to confession, and I saw from day to day the progress these souls were making. That gave me so much consolation, and I was so pleased with it, that I used to say to myself, "Mon Dieu! how happy you are to have such good people!" (CCD:IX:507).

The rural parish in Clichy enflamed Vincent with a desire to dedicate his life to the service of the poor country people. From that moment on he felt that God was calling him to minister among the good people of the countryside whose expression of faith needed formation in order to become solid convictions. Nevertheless this initial spark with regard to his future mission needed to become an enduring beacon of light that could then illuminate and confirm his missionary vocation.


Three significant experiences: Gannes-Felleville, Châtillon-les-Dombes, and Montmirail-Marahais

Five of the villages where Vincent preached a popular mission became five milestones in the journey that led him to a stronger commitment with regard to his mission as an apostle among the country people. The first two villages (Gannes-Folleville) and the last two (Montmirail-Marchais) are different parts of one single experience. Here we see that Vincent obeyed the instructions of Bérulle (he had placed himself under his direction) and took up residence with the de Gondi family: Philippe-Emmanuel and Marguerite de Silly --- both of whom were concerned about the spiritual welfare of the people who lived on their extensive estate. When he was in Paris Vincent lived in the de Gondi mansion and functioned as the spiritual director of Madame de Gondi and the tutor of the de Gondi children. The truth is Vincent was not satisfied with this situation even though the de Gondi’s were very attentive to his needs (at times Madame de Gondi could be overbearing with regard to her concerns about her spiritual well-being).

On January 25th, 1617 Vincent accompanied the de Gondi’s on one of their journeys to Picardy where, as a result of what happened to the dying man in Gannes a few days before, he preached a sermon to the people on the subject of general confession. God blessed his words and those good village people all came to confess their faults. This event impressed Vincent who spoke about its significance to his confreres: That was the first sermon of the Mission and the success God gave it on the feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul, and he certainly had a plan in mind on that day (CCD:XI:4).

José María Román commented on this event and stated: It was a revelation. Vincent decided this must be his mission; this was what God was calling him to, he was to take the gospel to these poor country people. He did not found any congregation that day. Perhaps the idea of forming one never entered his head [13]. It would still be some years, however, before Vincent’s charism as founder of the Congregation of the Mission would be made manifest and flourish as a result of the seed that the Spirit had planted in him. Nevertheless the sermon in Folleville marks the birth of the Mission, which in 1625 would be called the Congregation of the Mission and in 1633 would be approved by Urban VIII when the bull, Salvatoris Nostri, was published.

The experience in Folleville would be repeated in other neighboring villages where the mission was also preached: Villepreux, Joigny … Vincent’s preaching was catechetical in style, that is, questions and answers, a style adapted to the simple people whom he desired to instruct and thus move their hearts to conversion. We see this style in the outline of the two oldest sermon that have been passed on to us, sermons on the catechism and communion (CCD:XIIIa:31-42).

In August of the same year and on the advice of Bérulle, Vincent took possession of the rural parish in Châtillon. It was there that the first Confraternity of Charity was established and the first Rule drawn up … a rule that clearly reveals Vincent’s organizing genius as well as his charitable spirit in caring for infirm men and women who lived in the rural areas. That Rule, which was a model of foresight and sensitivity, would serve as a basic document for the many other Rules that would be formulated to guide those groups of men and women who were attracted to the confraternities that were established in various places. Vincent spoke about this to the Daughters of Charity: While I was living in a small town near Lyons, where Providence had called me to be the pastor, I was vesting to celebrate Holy Mass one Sunday when I was told that in an isolated house a quarter of a league away everyone was ill. None of them was able to help the others, and they were all in indescribable need. That touched me to the heart. During the sermon, I made sure to commend them zealously to the congregation, and God, touching the hearts of those who heard me, moved them with compassion for those poor afflicted people … that’s the first place where the Confraternity of Charity was established (CCD:IX:192, 193).

Vincent’s brief stay in Châtillon confirmed his “charism as founder” … this time founder of the Confraternity of Charity. Mission and charity would move forward together. The Mission could not be contemplated apart from the Confraternity of Charity. They are both part of one and the same charism with two complimentary dimensions which cannot be understood if they are separated from “the charim of the Founder”.

Three years after his stay in Châtillon Vincent, in 1620, is found in Montmirail. There he met three Huguenots, two of whom returned to the Catholic faith. The third individual, however, was more reluctant and asserted that he did not believe that the Holy Spirit guided the church. To support his position the man referred to the fact that the spiritual pastors had abandoned the people living in the rural areas and at the same time these same priests disfigured the face of the Church with their vices and ignorance. There was no doubt about the truth of this man’s words and Vincent was led to the conclusion: The Church has no worse enemies than priests (CCD:XII:76).

Before finishing the mission in Montmirail Vincent also preached in Marchais. It was there that the same individual encountered Vincent again and spoke of his decision to enter the Church: Now I see that the Holy Spirit is guiding the Roman Church since such care is taken in the instruction and salvation of poor village people (CCD:XI:29). Did Vincent need any more signs to confirm his mission of evangelization in the rural areas of the country?

Before going any further let us pause and remember that it was in 1617 that Vincent experienced a spiritual and apostolic conversion: a return to the gospel. The year 1617 was a year of illumination that enabled Vincent to embrace his true mission as an apostle among the poor country people. The year 1617 revealed Vincent’s charism as a founder. Vincent’s return to the gospel was not sudden or the result of some extraordinary revelation that was obtained in prayer. Rather this was a progressive process that was confirmed through the various mission experiences. That experience was the irrefutable sign of Vincent’s prudence, that is, we come to understand that Vincent would take no risk unless there was proof to the contrary. It was Vincent’s encounter with the people in the rural areas that enabled him to discover God’s will for his life. Therefore, in accord with that discovery Vincent reoriented his ministry and his behavior so that these were in accord with the gospel. This also led him to renounce his personal ambition for social prestige and social well-being.

We cannot separate the year 1617 from 1633, another important year in the life of Vincent de Paul. Not only did Vincent obtain pontifical approval for the Congregation of the Mission but he also initiated the Tuesday Conferences and, with Louise de Marillac, established the Company of the Daughters of Charity. All of these foundations had rural roots and were the mature fruit of the first Confraternity of Charity that had been established in Châtillon.

If we take Vincent literally when he spoke about his relationship to the foundation of the Mission and the Charities, we would conclude that he had no part in the birth of these institutions. Rather, in Vincent’s view, it was God who inspired this work and gave rise to those congregations. He continually repeated that understanding of events when explaining the birth of his various institutions. He expressed his own surprise and stated: I confess that I do not know where I am, and everything I see seems to be a dream (CCD:XII:6).

Day after day Vincent’s activity became more expansive but he continued to care for and to preach the gospel to the people who lived in the rural area because, as he himself stated, the poor are being damned for want of knowing the things necessary for salvation (CCD:I:112). This was so much a part of his life that in October, 1654, six years before Vincent’s death, he wrote to one of his confreres who had shared with him the good results of the popular mission: Indeed, Monsieur, I cannot restrain myself and must tell you quite simply that this gives me renewed, greater desires to be able, in the midst of my petty infirmities, to go and finish my life near a bush, working in some village. I think I would be very happy to do so, if God were pleased to grant me this grace (CCD:V:204).

Vincent’s frequent contact with the poor country people enabled him to strengthen his expressions of solidarity. He was committed to serve those individuals spiritually and materially because he was aware of their real needs. In 1643 he had no hesitation in stating: In addition, for many years now the priests of the Mission have ministered among country folk, so no one knows them better than we do (CCD:IX:67).

Encounters with other spiritual writers and their works

During this period it was clear that Vincent, the founder of the Mission and the Charity, was experiencing a great unrest on the spiritual level. At the same time that Vincent discovered the charity of Jesus Christ, the evangelizer, he also became aware of the sufferings of the poor, sufferings that these men and women encountered in their daily life. In order to discern his mission Vincent spoke with wise and experienced masters. On the one hand Bérulle was seen as the leader of the school of mysticism in France (a representation of the Flemish mysticism of the Rhineland, a school of abstraction that Benoit de Canfield highlighted in his book on the will of God, The Rule of Perfection). Vincent was very attentive to this work and was very mindful of its ideas when writing the Common Rules or the Constitutions of his Congregation (even though he did not incorporate the ideas contained in the last part of Canfield’s work).

Despite Bérulle’s intellectual and moral prestige, Vincent was not in accord with the lofty ideas of the cardinal who was able to give clear explanations on the theme of the distinct states of the Son of God. Vincent’s destiny was not that of the Oratory … rather he tended toward a spirituality that was more practical and less abstract. It was this, among other things, that led Vincent to break with Bérulle and establish a relationship with André Duval.

Bérulle was a mentor to the spiritual aristocracy and was himself a noble and therefore was not overly concerned about the situation of the poor village people. Furthermore, he was absorbed with his desire to impose a fourth vow (the vow of slavery/servitude) on Madame Acarie and on the Carmelites who had come to France from Spain. He also opposed the approval of the Congregation of the Mission. Vincent, however, was grateful to Bérulle but still felt that it was necessary to separate himself from Bérulle … a decision which led him to choose André Duval as his spiritual director and confessor.

Duval, no less wise than Bérule and one of the directors of Carmel, was more sympathetic toward Vincent’s concern to embrace a spirituality of action. Even though he was the son of a lawyer to the Estates General, Duval was very simple in his approach and also very aware of the urgent needs of the poor country people. Therefore, from the beginning he supported the establishment of the Congregation of the Mission and Vincent’s apostolic commitment [15]. This fact is pointed out by Calvet in an article on Vincent’s confessor where he stated that with the support of André Duval (“whose advise was viewed as an order”), Vincent was able to make great advances in the spiritual life.

Vincent’s esteem for Duval was known to everyone. He respected Duval’s wisdom and experience in Church matters and had his portrait hung in the reception area of Saint-Lazare. All of this was confirmed in a letter that Vincent wrote to François du Coudray, who was in Rome attempting to obtain pontifical approval of the Congregation of the Mission. Vincent was impressed with the words that Duval spoke concerning God’s love for poor country people: One day, good M. Duval said to me, “Monsieur, some day the poor people will vie with us for paradise and will carry it off because there’s a great difference between their manner of loving God and ours.” Their love, like that of Our Lord, is practiced in suffering, humiliations, work, and conformity to God’s good pleasure. And how is ours shown --- if we have any? What do we do that’s anywhere near those signs of true love? (CCD:XII:87-88).

At the same time there was a movement known as “the modern devotion” which was a reaction against the abstract school. One of the representatives of this new movement was Thomas a Kempis, the author of the Imitation of Christ. This movement involved many individuals of distinct nationalities, one of whom was the Spanish Jesuit, Alonso Rodríguez, whose work, The Practice of Christian and Religious Perfection, was well known by Vincent (the same could also be said for M. Granada’s work, The Guide for Sinners).

A third current, sustained by Francis de Sales and known as “devout humanism” seemed to be situated in the middle of the other two movements, thus providing a balance to the extremes. His writings, The Introduction to the Devout Life and Treatise on the Love of God were widely distributed and read. Vincent de Paul was enthusiastic about reading those books and the very person of the holy bishop created within him a desire to aspire to holiness. When speaking about the Treatise on the Love of God, Vincent stated: I took great care to see to it that this book was read in its entirety in our Community as a universal remedy for all who are dispirited, a goad for the sluggish, an incentive to love, and a ladder for those striving for perfection. Would that it might be studied by all, since it is so worthy! There would be no one who could escape its ardor (CCD:XIIIa:84).

Vincent did not hesitate “to borrow” the words and thoughts of his excellent teachers, adapting these, however, to the aims and objectives of the Mission and the Charity. Vincent was an eclectic with regard to doctrinal material and so felt free to carry out his plan as an expression of an authentic spiritual life. Vincent, however, appears in the written history of spirituality as one who was dependent on Bérulle and/or Francis de Sales. This is due to the fact that he did not write any structured treatise on the spiritual life but limited himself (through word and example) to encouraging his followers to commit themselves to the continuation of the mission of Jesus Christ, the evangelizer … Jesus whom Vincent saw intervening in the history of the poor country people.

It is a well-known fact that the Vincentian spiritual doctrine is centered on and developed from the perspective of the following of Jesus Christ, incarnated and crucified as a result of his love of the Father and his love of those who are poor. For Vincent, Jesus is above all else the evangelizer of the poor village people, the one sent by the Father, the missionary of the Father who overflows with merciful and compassionate love for all those who are afflicted in any way. Besides the influence of the various spiritual masters, Vincent also found inspiration in the gospel and in life itself and he spoke of Christ’s love for humankind in the following manner: Only Our Lord, who was so enamored with the love of creatures as to leave the throne of his Father to come to take a body subject to weaknesses. And why? To establish among us, by his word and example, love of the neighbor. This is the love that crucified him and brought about that admirable work of our redemption. O Messieurs, if we had only a little of that love, would we stand around with our arms folded? Would we let those we could assist perish? Oh, no! Charity can’t remain idle (CCD:XII:216).

The fact that Vincent was influenced by other spiritual masters does not, as we shall see, deprive him of his originality. Jean Batiste Boudignon in his book, Saint Vincent de Paul, mod?le des hommes d’action et d’ouvres, describes Vincent as an independent disciple who developed a spirituality focused on the practice “of evangelical charity” [18]. Vincent, who by nature began his life as a man of action ended his life as the saint of charitable-social action, as a mystic of love that was extended to the poor.

In 1903 Jean Calvet, the first to understand the essence of Vincentian originality, criticized the view of his teachers: Despite his many years, despite all his friends, despite Saint Francis de Sales whose doctrine he found to be very attractive, despite Bérulle who made his Oratory a school of aristocratic asceticism, despite the currents that would lead him to Port Royal, despite his confessor Duval who saw Christian Perfection in Madame Acarie and the Carmelites … nonetheless Vincent formulated his ideas as a result of his unfailing good sense and his acute awareness of the reality. In fact, at the beginning of the seventeenth century no one better than Vincent understood the religious needs of France … Vincent, the son of a poor farmer, lived the harsh life of those who inhabited the rural villages and experienced (in a confusing manner) in himself and in his surroundings an aspiration for something better … Saint Vincent, long before the nineteenth century, understood and developed the social aspect of the Christian religion … From the perspective of religious experience, an imminent critic (Fortunat Strowski) stated that Saint Vincent filled out and completed the doctrine of Saint Francis de Sales … Vincent brought into relief the practice of humble and solid virtue. If Vincent (despite the presence of Francis de Sales) had not appeared in history when he did, we can never imagine what the church would have been lacking [19].

This being so we should not be surprised that Henri Bremond affirmed in 1923 (twenty years after Calvet’s publication) that it was not Vincent’s love for humankind that led him to holiness, but rather it was Vincent’s holiness that changed him into a true and effective man of charity; it was not the poor who led Vincent to God but rather God who returned Vincent to the poor. Those who view Vincent as a philanthropist rather than a mystic have an image of a Vincent de Paul who never existed … the development of Vincent’s interior life was due, first of all, to God and then to the example and the lessons of his “first teacher”, Pierre de Bérulle. Vincent de Paul, this great man of action, has given us mysticism [20].

Aware of these different perspectives we find that Bremond’s judgment cannot be sustained even though it contains much truth. The poor country people helped Vincent discover his modest roots and also helped him discover Jesus Christ, evangelizer of the rural poor. Bremond’s error is that his own particular vision with regard to “religious sentiment” led him to a restricted concept of “mysticism” and this led him to the conclusion that Vincent, the Founder of the Mission and the Charity, was very dependent on the thinking of Bérulle.

Soon after the publication of Bremond’s work in 1923, the Jesuit, Pierre Defrennes, made an important observation that we must be aware of and that, in fact, has provided us with a perspective for future research in the area of Vincentian spirituality: we see that M. Vincent was more faithful to the inspirations of grace than Bremond wants us to believe; Vincent was not only more free but was one of the most independent individuals of his era [21].

Bremond, for example, did not tell us about something that characterized Vincent’s mission, namely, that in the ordinary course of events God tries to save men through men, and Our Lord became man himself to save all of them (CCD:VII:356). To a certain degree Saint Irenaeus’ words, Gloria Dei, vivens homo, (the glory of God consists of the human person living and achieving wholeness) finds its most adequate expression in the mission of Vincent who, in his practice of love, knew how to open new paths for theological anthropology and, as a consequence, new paths for Christian spirituality.

The independence and the freedom of Vincent de Paul and therefore, his originality in spiritual matters, begins with the understanding that we give to the word “mystic”, a word which until the time of Vincent was used to explain extraordinary states of prayer. According to the authentic meaning of the word, mysticism should be seen as an intimate participation in the divine mystery … mystery and mystic have same etymological root. From a Christian perspective, mysticism implies an experience of the divinity and the humanity of the Son of God, incarnated in human nature. From this perspective, then, we see that the restricted meaning, which Bremond gives to mysticism and which he then attributes to Vincent de Paul, offers no explanation of his faith and experience. We know that a mystic could be a monk enraptured in ecstasy and could also be an individual ministering in the rural area … Saint Vincent is a mystic who participates in the saving cross of Christ, Christ who is discovered in the sufferings and the afflictions of the poor country people.


Rural insights in Vincent’s spirituality

Various political, social, religious and cultural factors were at play in the life of Vincent de Paul, just as in the life of any influential person in society and the church. The human circumstances, from which we cannot separate the response that one gives to grace, led Vincent to reach out to men and women who were poor, especially poor country people (men and women who had material and spiritual needs), in whom Vincent discovered “true religion”. Vincent also realized that in society these poor men and women were often treated inhumanly and their lot was that of hard work and death by the sword (war) and by hunger (poverty).

Jesus’ love for the poor is at the center of Vincent’s spiritual doctrine … a doctrine that was also influenced by the salvific mystery as understood by Bérulle, Duval and Francis de Sales. Charity-love (words that were used interchangeably by Vincent) was of primary importance to Vincent and the word “love” was not reserved for God nor was the word “charity” reserved for the neighbor. In fact, at various times when Vincent encouraged his followers to live “a mystical life”, he incorporated the example of the poor country people into his teachings: If there’s a true religion . . . what did I say, wretched man that I am. . .! God forgive me! I’m speaking materially. It’s among them, among those poor people that true religion and a living faith are preserved; they believe simply, without dissecting everything; they submit to orders and are patient amid the abject poverty they have to suffer as long as it pleases God, some from the wars, others from working all day long in the great heat of the sun; poor vine dressers, who give us their labor, who expect us to pray for them while they wear themselves out to feed us! (CCD:XI:190)

The word “religion” should be understood as meaning the relationship between the human person and God the Creator who gifts men and women with the land and its produce. The fact that Vincent was pained when people lost their harvest inspired the vineyard workers of eighteenth century France to name him as the protector of their crops and furthermore, they invoked his name during the processions that were held on the Rogation Days. This was due to the fact that in rural societies, animals and the harvest constituted essential goods, goods of vital importance … the disappearance of these goods often meant the deprivation of things that were needed to survive, in other words, the loss of these goods often implied hunger and death [22].

We note here that all the spiritual authors of that era gave lengthy explanations about the manner in which people should live the religion that was revealed by Jesus Christ. These explanations included essays on the interior life, the will of God, prayer, the practice of virtue and the love of God and neighbor. Vincent utilized these means in order to achieve holiness but the focus of his teachings was different from that of the other spiritual masters, especially when dealing with the objective that should be pursued. Vincent’s objective: to facilitate and assure spiritual and material assistance to those in need (this being the proof of an authentic discovery of the gospel which is not observed, however, in any of his teachers who were more ideological in explaining the theories behind the virtues but less committed than Vincent in assisting those afflicted by personal, family, and/or community tragedies).

Vincent de Paul was different than his teachers with regard to his use of familiar language and also with regard to the way in which he explained the development of the spiritual life as a process that was oriented toward the service of humankind. While we will not find the poor referred to in many treatises on the spiritual life, nevertheless, in Vincent de Paul’s thinking the poor are present in every step of this process that involves the development of an interior life. Vincent found it impossible to explain this process without referring to the establishment of a relationship with Jesus, the evangelizer and the establishment of a relationship with those men and women who are marginalized in society. Throughout his discourse Vincent referred to the gospel as well as those men and women who were the primary beneficiaries of this message, namely, the poor and the humble whom Vincent knew directly because he had seen them and met them and dealt with them face to face as he reached out to assist them.

If, as Vincent stated on numerous occasions, the poor are our lords and masters (CCD:X:268; XI:349) (this was a phrase that was used by various ancient groups of people who ministered in hospitals), then it was the poor who inspired Vincent with sublime thoughts … just as Vincent was inspired by Jesus who wanted to be poor and also wanted to identify himself with those who were poor: whatever you did for one of these least brothers or sisters of mine, you did for me (Matthew 25:40). This revelation touched Vincent in a profound way and he internalized this concept in such a way that nothing was able to deter him from the exercise of charity. Just as Jesus’ ministry was significantly influenced by the poor so too the poor became a substantial part of Vincent’s doctrine … a substantial part of the doctrine that has been passed on to us as Vincentians. At the time when Vincent had only one more year to live he stated: What I retain from my experience of this is the discernment I have always made that true religion --- true religion, Messieurs, true religion --- is found among the poor. God enriches them with a lively faith; they believe, they touch, they taste the words of life (CCD:XII:142).

Besides his faith, which did not allow Vincent to question the mystery of the Christian religion but which led him to embrace it as revealed truth, what other lessons, based on his rural origins, did he incorporate into his spirituality; what other elements did he adapt that allow us to state that Vincent opened new paths in the in the Church and therefore attracted and continues to attract men and women who commit themselves to the service of the kingdom? Above all else we mention here the virtue of simplicity which implies a dynamic process that places Christians in a relationship with God and with their brothers and sisters who lack everything but that interior wisdom that allows them to savor the words of life and thus confound the wise and the learned of this world. When Vincent spoke about this simplicity he stated: As for myself, I don't know, but God has given me such a high esteem of simplicity that I call it my Gospel. I have special devotion and consolation in saying things as they are (CCD:IX:476).

Vincent was able to distinguish between the spirit of the good country people and the spirit of those who were less willing to sacrifice themselves. The playwright, Moli?re, in his work, Les Precieuses Ridicules, provides us with an amusing description of the customs and the various manners in which vain women (slaves to the latest fashion) conducted themselves and contrasts these women with the example that is given by good women living in the rural areas. Vincent also present such models of simplicity, for example, Marguerite Naseau from the village of Surennes.

Vincentian simplicity, like that of the people who live in the rural areas, does not presume upon the gifts that are freely given and that proceed from grace … rather, all such gifts are placed at the service of the larger community with no ostentation or fuss. Those who are simple behave in an authentic manner, live transparent lives and others find it enjoyable to be in their presence.

Together with simplicity we also mention here an austere lifestyle and confidence in the Providence of God who knows what is best for us. Those who trust in Providence wait patiently in the midst of life’s contradictions … they wait and do not complain or murmur but are resigned to God’s will. Thus Vincent exhorted his followers to respect the plan of God: Following the adorable providence of God step by step (CCD:II:237). Guided by faith Vincent was able to rejoice in the fact that the treasures of God’s providence are inexhaustible and our lack of trust does him no honor (CCD:XII:388). Having experienced the reality that Divine Providence is the origin of all good things Vincent spoke to the Daughters of Charity and stated: Sisters, you should have such deep devotion to Divine Providence and such great love for and confidence in it that if Providence itself had not given you the beautiful name of Daughters of Charity --- which you must never change --- you should be called Daughters of Providence, for it is Providence that has brought you into being (CCD:IX:62) [23].

With the practice of all these virtues one must also cultivate an attitude of affective and effective love in ministry: our activity and our ministry on behalf of those people who are suffering is a revelation of our love. Indeed, ministry on behalf of those who are in need is a guarantee of true prayer. According to Vincent, love and ministry are, in the practical order, inseparable realities (just as the love of God and the love of neighbor are inseparable, just as spiritual and material assistance are inseparable). Enflamed by evangelical zeal, Vincent exhorted his followers: Let us love God, brothers, let us love God, but let it be with the strength of our arms and the sweat of our brows; for very often many acts of love of God, of devotion, and of other similar affections and interior practices of a tender heart, although very good and desirable, are, nevertheless, very suspect if they do not translate into the practice of effective love. “By this,” says Our Lord, “is my Father glorified, that you may bear much fruit.” We have to be very careful about that; for there are many who, recollected exteriorly, and filled with lofty sentiments of God interiorly, stop at that, and when it comes to the point of doing something, and they have the opportunity to act, they come up short. They flatter themselves with their ardent imagination; they’re satisfied with the sweet conversations they have with God in meditation and even speak of them like angels; but when they leave there, if there’s a question of working for God, of suffering, of mortifying themselves, of instructing poor persons, of going in search of the lost sheep, of being happy when they lack something, or of accepting sickness or some other misfortune, alas! they are no longer around; their courage fails them. No, no, let’s not fool ourselves: Tatum opus nostrum in operatione consistit [all our work consists in action] (CCD:XI:32-33).

This is the Vincent de Paul who learned from people in the rural areas the meaning of self-sacrifice and therefore wanted to die while still ministering in some way to those who were in need. Vincent wanted to imitate Jesus who labored as a carpenter in Nazareth and who went from village to village evangelizing people. Love led Vincent to reach out to others and this active ministry, in turn, led Vincent to prayer. Indeed, Vincent’s work of charity reveals the faith and love that motivated him in his work on behalf of the integral promotion of the poor, motivated him to engage in the struggle for the temporal and eternal salvation of the poor. Therefore, spiritual assistance alone or material assistance alone is not enough … rather both forms of assistance are necessary and Vincent spoke about this to the Missionaries when he stated: So then, if there are any among us who think they are in the Mission to evangelize poor people but not to alleviate their sufferings, to take care of their spiritual needs but not their temporal ones, I reply that we have to help them and have them assisted in every way, by us and by others (CCD:XII:77).

Aware of the social implications of Vincent’s charity we should not be surprised by the fact that Pope Leo XIII (1885) declared Vincent the universal patron of charitable work and Pope John XXIII (1960) proclaimed Louise de Marillac the patroness of social workers. Those declarations underline a pragmatic form of spirituality that moves beyond many of the doctrinal currents of the Great Century of seventeenth century France.

Relevance of the spiritual doctrine of Vincent de Paul

Aware of the fact that Vincent has left his followers an incredible heritage of ministry and charity, a heritage that has religious and social dimensions in which justice occupies a primary position (justice which also needs charity) … indeed with this awareness let us deepen our understanding of Vincent’s message. On September 27, 1987, in his homily on the occasion of the 250th anniversary of the canonization of Saint Vincent, Pope John Paul II stated: Throughout the ages Vincent de Paul not only spoke to people of his era but also addresses people who live in this present modern era and therefore with all the radicalness of the gospel transmits once again the words of the sermon on the mount: blessed are the merciful for they will be shown mercy [24].

Even though today the situation of people in the rural areas is much different from that of our founder, even though the present day situation of these people can seem to be similar to or even better than that of people living in large cities, nevertheless, Vincent’s teachings remain intact … teachings based on his understanding of the gospel and on his relationship with people in the small rural towns and villages. Authors seldom pause to examine the influence of Vincent’s rural roots on Vincentian spirituality but rather prefer to focus on the poor in general. Knowing that it is impossible to list all the various authors who have dealt with this theme, here we mention some of the specialists who placed Vincent in his rightful historical place, that is, placed him within the context of the history of Christian spirituality.

We are pleased to point out, first of all, the person of André Dodin who insisted on the uniqueness of Vincent’s charism of charity (even though he recognizes some influence of Vincent’s contemporaries, especially Francis de Sales) [25]. Today Dodin’s articles and books are consulted with special interest because of their concise, documented and magnificent composition [26]. During the International Colloquy of Paris (1981) Dodin explained the present state of Vincentian Studies and also congratulated those who were moving beyond traditional boundaries in order to explore new ways of presenting the doctrine of the great saint of the Catholic reform in France [27].

Together with Dodin, we must also mention other French writers from the Congregation of the Mission: Raymond Chalumeau, Bernard Koch, André Sylvestre, Jean Morin, Jean Pierre Renouard … all of whom have made important contributions to Vincentian spirituality. In fact, it can be stated that no one knows the saint better than his own sons and daughters.

The Vincentian Study Week in Salamanca has also contributed to a deeper understanding of Vincentian spirituality. This has been accomplished through the publication of the presentations and the apostolic experiences that are shared during these weeks of formation. Luigi Mezzadi publically recognized this fact when he stated: 1972 is an important date. That year the first Vincentian Study Week was held in Salamanca … during these years some of the most interesting work in the area of Vincentian Studies has come from Spain Italic text[28]. Dodin, together with Mazzadi (among many others, living and deceased whom we all know) have participated in the Vincentian Study Week and have contributed to these studies with their research and publications which in turn have created a greater interest in knowing and understanding Saint Vincent and his spiritual legacy.

Among the Spanish authors we want to mention, first of all, three deceased confreres: José María Román, Miguel Pérez Flores and José María Ibáñez. These three Missionaries, each with his own unique style and from the perspective of his area of specialization, have left us important works that continue to encourage us to further research in the field of Vincentian spirituality. There is no doubt about the fact that the works of these authors are utilized by many young researchers.

Román entered the publishing world with his biography on Vincent de Paul, a work that has been translated and published in French, English, Polish and Italian. The same work was published in a summary version in Portuguese, Indonesian and various other languages. Román was able to combine historical elements with spiritual elements and did not separate these elements when describing the life and the ministry of the great saint, Vincent de Paul. Even though Román did not engage in an in-depth discussion on the spirituality of “the father of the poor”, he did provide us with an outline that can lead to further research in the area of Vincentian ministry.

Flores, a mentor at the Vincentian Study Week in Salamanca and a specialist in the law proper to the Congregation of the Mission, utilized that which is “old” and “new” in order to provide us with a clear and simple vision of Vincentian spirituality in his book, Revesirse del espíritu de Cristo: expresión de la identidad vicenciana (Clothe yourself in the spirit of Christ: an expression of Vincentian identity). Flores wanted to assist the members of the Congregation of the Mission deepen their understanding of the five virtues that constitute the Vincentian spirit, as well as the four vows that are professed by the Missionaries. Another of his works was published posthumously, El superior local de la Congregación de la Misión (The local superior in the Congregation of the Mission) and this book affirms the fact that he had a great knowledge of and love for Saint Vincent de Paul and his various establishments. According to Flores the legal dimension, necessary for every human community, guarantees the institutional charism without suffocating it.

Ibáñez has given us two works that reveal his keen understanding of the doctrine and the life of Vincent de Paul. These works are not always easy to understand because of his style and his desire to verify the sources from which he draws forth an abundance of theological, pastoral and social material in order to present us with the much discussed theme of Vincentian voluntarism. His two works that were published by Ediciones Sígueme are: Vicente de Paúl y los pobres de su tiempo (Vincent de Paul and the poor of his era) and Vicente de Paúl, realismo y encarnación (Vincent de Paul, realism and incarnation).

Among the many other meritorious works of other authors, I will mention here three very respected authors who, directly or indirectly, have encouraged us to further study while at the same time they have instilled in us a greater esteem for the founder of the Mission of the Charity. Even though they have not provided us with a written treatise, nevertheless their words provide us with deeper insights into Vincent’s doctrine and encourage us to follow his example of practical charity.

The first authority that I refer to is that of Paul VI who validated the spirituality of Vincent when he spoke about the need to clothe ourselves in the spirit of Jesus, the evangelizer of the poor: The world calls for and expects from us simplicity of life, the spirit of prayer, charity towards all, especially towards the lowly and the poor, obedience and humility, detachment and self-sacrifice. Without this mark of holiness, our word will have difficulty in touching the heart of modern man. It risks being vain and sterile (Paul VI, Evangelii Nuntiandi, #76).

Even though Pope Paul VI did not expressly refer to Saint Vincent in that document which made a deep impression on those involved in the process of evangelization, nevertheless we all know that this was the same argument that our Founder utilized in order to give credibility to the gospel of Jesus Christ. The gospel becomes credible through the compassionate and merciful love of the evangelizer: We do not believe a man because he is very learned but because we consider him good and love him … Our Lord had to predispose with his love those whom he wished to have believe in him. Do what we will, people will never believe in us if we do not show love and compassion to those whom we wish to believe in us (CCD:I:276-277).

John Paul II presented Saint Vincent as a compassionate and merciful man, one whose hearts overflowed with charity toward those in need, especially the inhabitants of the towns and villages whom he led back onto the path of the Lord [29]. It was Vincent’s compassion and mercy that led him to state: Since Christians are members of the same body and members of one another, with even greater reason should they sympathize with one another. Quoi! To be a Christian and to see our brothers suffering without weeping with him, without being sick with him! That’s to be lacking in charity; it’s being a caricature of a Christian; it’s inhuman; it’s to be worse than animals (CCD:XII:221-222).

In his encyclical, Deus caritas est, Pope Benedict XVI invites us to reflect on the concept of formation of the heart (Deus caritas est, #31), a formation that our Founder embraced. The Holy Father placed Saint Vincent de Paul and Saint Louise de Marillac before us as lasting models of social charity for all people of good will (Deus caritas est, #40), which thus allows us to understand and actualize his teaching from the perspective of the gospel ideal of charity: May God in his goodness be pleased to give us … a big heart, vast and ample (CCD:XI:192-193).

Today the concern for the formation of the heart of those willing to serve in a loving manner opens vast horizons for Vincentian spirituality. In reality, “the Father of the poor” has much to say to a technical society that steadily advances toward more and more professional preparation yet lacks charity and is also subject to the tyranny of selfishness. The formation of the heart is the other side of the coin and the holy saint named Vincent de Paul is the other side of this disciplined organizer and tireless minister. As a result of the gift of charity our Founder has given us countless lessons with regard to our relationship with our brothers and sisters whom we must love and serve in the same way that God loves and serves them … whom we must love and serve because they are created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27).

Again with regard to the relationship with our neighbor, Vincent offers us his irrefutable experience. Therefore we should not be surprised by the fact that in his discourses we find countless references to the human and gospel virtues that flow from the heart. Here we are not only speaking about philological concepts but also anthropological-theological concepts that even transcend “the devout humanism” of Francis de Sales and thus become charitable-social humanism.

It is clear that here we are not simply concerned about emphasizing the philological connection but rather we want to highlight the doctrine of the virtues that according to Vincent flow from the heart. If physically the heart pumps the blood so that it circulates throughout the body, then on the spiritual level love (which is symbolized by the heart) sets in motion and maintains our activity. Indeed, the graphic representation that is found on the seal of the Daughters of Charity, that is, a heart surrounded by flames which highlight the crucified Jesus … this seal is a vivid explanation of the breadth and depth of the love that was rooted in the heart of our holy founders.

Do a test and see for yourself how the virtues that are so essential for the humanization of the world and so necessary for the realization of the civilization of love and the culture of charity are the very virtues that Vincent and Louise chose and now exhort us to practice if we are to continue to minister effectively on behalf of the poor. Therefore here we must mention the virtues of mindfulness, courage, cordiality, mercy and conformity … all of these virtues are rooted in the human heart, the seat of charity-love and/or evangelical zeal. In summary, God asks primarily for our heart --- our heart (CCD:XI:228) in order to love and be loved just as God loves and expects to be loved. These characteristics of charity constitute an important dimension of the practical spirituality of Vincent de Paul.

Theological anthropology reaches its high point in the practice of the virtues that serve as a guide for the Missionaries and the Daughters of Charity. If we reflect, even casually, on these virtues we find ourselves “recalling” the graces that we have received from God. This reflection or mindfulness of the heart brings to our consciousness the ways in which God has intervened throughout the history of salvation as well as in our own personal life, for example, our vocation to serve the poor is the same service to which the incarnate Son of God dedicated his life. This mindfulness of the wonderful deeds of God breaks forth into a discovery of the dignity of the person (man or woman, learned or uneducated, rich or poor, people with exalted titles or people with no titles at all) … as we discover the dignity of the person we also become aware of the fact that the human person deserves the greatest respect.

With regard to this last point, Vincent referred to the primary meaning of the word “respect” when he spoke about seeing with the eyes of faith, seeing in a way that is sustained by love which flows from the heart and thus enables people to discover the Son of God in the poor. Only disrespectful people and people who are blind and do not want to see would be unaware of the dignity of others. These people only see external appearances; they refuse to turn the medal over … therefore, what they behold can be quite contemptible because all they see is physical and/or moral defects.

This respect leads to a “veneration” of the poor because of their condition as human beings and as children of God. Thus they are worthy of great consideration, the same consideration that we would give to the saints and our loved ones. This veneration implies that we appreciate and respect the dignity of those who are poor and that we also understand that the poor represent the incarnate Son of God.

Courage, another human virtue that flows from the heart, strengthens people who have made a decision to follow Christ … strengthens them in their struggle to live a life of faith and charity in the midst of a seductive society that so often lacks moral values. In this sense the experience of our founders, that is, their experience of intimacy with Christ in sacramental communion and daily prayer … these experiences sustained Vincent and Louise in their energy and enthusiasm and prevented them from becoming discouraged in their ministry. Love is the primary “motor” that produces energy and consistency in our daily ministry.

It is easier to understand the rootedness of the other virtues (cordiality, conformity and mercy) in the heart of Vincent de Paul. They are in fact grounded in Jesus who presented himself as meek and humble of heart (Matthew 11:25) and who also called the merciful blessed for they will be shown mercy (Matthew 5:7). The cultivation of mercy is a powerful way to experience and practice the love of God as one reaches out to those on the fringes of society. Indeed it was this cultivation of mercy that inspired our founders with the desire to identify themselves with Jesus and with this lofty thought: We have to try to stir our hearts to pity, make them sensitive to the sufferings and miseries of our neighbor, and ask God to give us the true spirit of mercy, which is the characteristic spirit of God; for, as the Church states, it’s the distinctive feature of God to be merciful and to impart his Spirit. So let’s ask God, my dear confreres, to give us this spirit of compassion and mercy, to fill us with it, and to preserve it in us so that whoever sees a Missioner can say, “There’s a man full of mercy” (CCD:XI:308).

In conclusion, in Vincent de Paul’s activity and charism we find a human and a divine element. In light of the humanistic and gospel ideals that are placed before humankind we are exhorted to serve people in such a way that makes it possible for all men and women to rejoice in a mens sana in corpora sano (a sound mind in a sound body). As a result of this service it is hope that these same men and women will be able to rejoice with God for all eternity “in the heavenly mission”.

In addition to the discussions concerning the impact of the distinct spiritual and apostolic currents on the church throughout the years, I would like to pose the following question: is there any spirituality that is more human and divine, that is also more urgent and necessary … any spirituality like that which was developed and expressed by Vincent de Paul through his witness of love and communion as he reached out to those who were in need (both physically and spiritually)? The lack of faith and self-sacrifice that are so visible in modern day society, including small religious communities, could be remedied by simply applying the suggestions offered by the Founder of the Mission and the Charity.

Footnotes:

[1] The theme of the social context in which Vincent de Paul developed his spirituality was addressed by Benito Martínez Betanzos in the First Vincentian Studies Week (April 1972); see, Motivaciones sociales en la fundación de la Congregación de la Misión in “Vicente de Paúl, pervivencia de un fundador”, CEME, Salamanca, 1972, pp. 19-29.

[2] Louis Abelly, The life of the Venerable Servant of God, Vincent de Paul, translated by William Quinn; edited by John E. Rybolt, CM, notes by Edward R. Udovic, CM and John E. Rybolt, CM, introduction by Stafford Poole, CM, New City Press, New Rochelle, 1993, volume 1, p. 35-37. If a work that is referred to has been translated into English we will provide the reader with the information to the English edition in order to facilitate the consultation and research of the English speaking audience.

[3] André Dodin, Vincent de Paul and Charity, translated by Jean Marie Smith and Dennis Saunders, edited by Hugh O’Donnell, CM and Majorie Gale Hornstein, New City Press, Hyde Park, New York, 1993.

[4] Vincent de Paul, Correspondence, Conferences, Documents, New City Press, Brooklyn, New York, 1985-2010, volume II, page 5. All future reference to this work will appear in the text and will be cited with the initials CCD, followed by the volume number and then the page number, for example this reference would be seen as CCD:II:5.

[5] John E. Rybolt, CM., In the Footsteps of Vincent de Paul: a Guide to Vincentian France, De Paul University Vincentian Studies Institute, Chicago, Illinois, 2007, p. 288.

[6] André Dodin is more precise: M. Vincent observed and utilized comparisons and symbols not only from nature (the rocks, the mountains, water, fire, the sea and storms), but also referred to vegetables (22 times) and animals. In fact, there are ninety references to animals and it is clear that Vincent carefully observed their behavior … cf., L’esprit vincentien. Le secret de saint Vicent de Paul, Desclée de Brouwer, Paris, 1981, note 60, p. 107. Luigi Chierotti made an anthology of the primary images and poetic phrases that were inspired by nature and that he found in the oral and written works of Vincent; cf., Antologia poetica vincenziana, Editrice “Vita Vincenziana”, Chieri, 1965.

[7] José María Román, St. Vincent de Paul: a Biography, translated by Sister Joyce Howard, D.C., Melisende, London, 1999, p. 30.

[8] Cf., Marion, M., Diccionnaire des Institutions de la France au XVII et XVIII si?cles, Paris, Éditions A. & J. Picard, 1976, sub v. États Généraux-États Provinciaux.

[9] Ferté, J., La vie religieuse dans les campagnes parisiennes (1622-1695), Paris, Librairie Philosophique J. Vrin, 1962.

[10] Châtelier, L., La religión de los pobres. Europa en los siglos XVI-XIX y la formación del catolicismo moderno, Desclée de Brouwer, Bilbao, 2002.

[11] Taveneaux, R., Le catholicisme dans la France classique, 1610-1715, S.E.D.E.S., Paris, 1980, Tome I, p. 225.

[12] Maupas du Tour, H., Oraison funébre à la mémoire de feu Messire Vincent de Paul … prononcée le 23 novembre 1600 dans l’église de S. Germain l’Auxerrois, Paris 1663, p. 9.

[13] Román, op.cit., p. 115.

[14] Common Rules, II:3

[15] Calvet, J., Un confesseur de Saint Vincent de Paul, André Duval, docteur de la Sorbonne, Petites Annales de Saint Vincent de Paul, (juin 1903), p. 172.

[16] Calvet, J., San Vicente de Paúl, CEME, Salamanca, 1979, p. 70.

[17] Among the many articles and books that have been written on the history of spirituality we cite the following four works: Pourrat, P., La spiritualité chrétienne, T. III, Paris, Gabalda et Cia, 1918, pp. 575-586 (in the 1947 edition Pourrat corrects some of the statements that were made concerning Vincentian spirituality in the 1918 and 1925 editions of this work); L. Brun, J., Le Grand Si?cle de spiritualité française et ses lendemains, in Histoire spirituelle de la France, Paris, Beauchesme, 1964, pp. 227-285; Cognet, L., Histoire de la spiritualité chr?tienne, T. III Paris, Aubier, 1966, pp. 395-399; Bremond, H., Histoire littéraire su sentiment religieux en France, Paris, Libraire Armand Colin, 1967, T. III, pp. 219, 228.

[18] Cf. Boudignon, J.B., Saint Vincent de Paul, modele des hommes d’action et d’ouvres, published in Paris, 1886.

[19] Calvet, J., op.cit., Un confesseur …. P. 174-175.

[20] Bremond, H., op.cit., T. III, pp. 219, 228.

[21] Defrennes, P., La vocation de Saint Vincent de Paul. Étude de psychologie surnaturelle, Revue d’Ascétique et de Mystique, T. XIII, 1932, p. 61.

[22] Taveneaux, R., op.cit., Tome II, p. 364.

[23] It was the people who gave the Sisters their name, Daughters of Charity, just as it was the people who gave the members of the Congregation of the Mission their name, Missionaries. See, CCD:IX:44; X:379.

[24] John Paul II, San Vicente de Paúl, hombre misericordioso, padre de los pobres, L’Osservatore Romano, 4 de octubre de 1987, p. 2.

[25] Cf., Dodin, A., François de Sales – Vincent de Paul, les deux amis, Paris, OEIL, 1984.

[26] Among his many other works we give consideration here to the following: Saint Vincent de Paúl et la charité, Maîtres spirituels, Aux editions du Senil, Paris 1960 (see note #3 for English reference to this same work). Translated into Spanish by CEME, Salmanca 1977, L’esprit vincentient. Le secret de Saint Vincent de Paul, Paris, DDB, 1981. En pri?re avec Monsieur Vincent, Paris, DDB, 1982.

[27] Dodin, A., État des etudes vincentiennes au momento du quadricentenaire de la naissance de M. Vincent Depaul, in Actes du Colloque Internacional d’études vincentiennes, Paris, 25-26 septembre 1981, Edizioni Vincenziane, Roma, C:L:V., pp. 115-128.

[28] Mezzadri, L., Historique des études sur la spiritualité de Saint Vincent in La mystique des pauvres. Le charisme de la charité, de Giuseppe Toscani, Éditions Saint-Paul, Paris 1998, p. 15.

[29] see footnote #24.


Translated: Charles T. Plock CM