Saint Vincent de Paul: the Martyrdom of Charity

From Vincentian Encyclopedia

by: Corpus Juan Delgado Rubio, CM Salamanca, August 21, 2013

[This presentation was given during the XXXVIII Vincentian Studies Week that was held in Salamanca (Spain) from August 19-23, 2013 and is produced here with the permission of the author. The text in Spanish will not be available until it is published by Editorial CEME later this year (2014)]


At the beginning of the year Father José Manuel Sánchez Mallo invited me to participate in the Vincentian Study Week and to present a reflection on the meaning of martyrdom according to Vincent de Paul. Some months later, in the official program of the Vincentian Study Week, my intervention was given the title, Saint Vincent de Paul: the martyrdom of charity. Obviously the expression a martyr to charity which was used by Vincent [1] is the best way to approach the meaning of martyrdom as understood by our Founder.


The martyr, testimony to the truth

Our reflection should be placed in the context of the approaching celebration of the Beatification during the Year of Faith of the martyrs of the XX Century in Spain … a celebration which will have as its motto: firm and courageous witnesses to the faith [2].

In his letter introducing the Year of Faith, Pope Benedict XVI wrote: By faith, the martyrs gave their lives, bearing witness to the truth of the Gospel that had transformed them and made them capable of attaining to the greatest gift of love: the forgiveness of their persecutors (Benedict XVI, Porta Fidei, #13).

When we think about martyrdom, we immediately imagine the cruel scenes that are described in the Acts of the Martyrs … the tortures that were inflicted on so many men and women during the first centuries of the Christian era. We might also begin to recall the finer details that were involved in the sufferings that were endured by Christians of every era [3].

The word martyr, which etymologically means witness, (witness to the truth), points to Jesus’ invitation when he sent forth the disciples. We read in the gospel of Matthew: whoever denies me before others I will deny before my heavenly Father (10:32).

To declare oneself for Jesus Christ and to be his witness is the mission of every disciple. According to the Book of Revelation we are dealing with being a witness to the Truth, to the Faithful Witness, to the Alpha and the Omega, to the first and the last (Revelation 1, 5, 8, 17).

Jesus presents himself as the One who is sent by the Father to give witness before the world to the truth. Furthermore, Jesus not only gives witness to the truth but, as we read in the gospel of John, Jesus is the truth (14:6).

Prior to John’s writing, the Apostle Paul presented Jesus as not “yes” and “no” but as always “yes”. In Jesus all of God’s promises receive a “yes” from the One who raises our “amen” to God (2 Corinthians 1:19ff). Jesus’ “amen” has to be reflected in the “amen” of those who follow him, of those who are called to be in their very person an “amen” and called to risk their life for the sake of the truth [4].

Therefore, Jesus assures the disciples that when the Advocate comes whom I will send you from the Father, the Spirit of truth that proceeds from the Father, he will testify to me (John 15:26ff).

After the resurrection event the first preaching of the disciples begins with the recognition that we are witness of these things, as is the holy Spirit that God has given to those who obey him (Acts 5:32). When the first difficulties arose and the apostles were called before the Sanhedrin and then beaten they rejoiced that they had been found worthy to suffer dishonor for the sake of the name. And all day long, both at the temple and in their homes, they did not stop teaching and proclaiming the Messiah, Jesus (Acts 5:41-42).

In April 1655, as Vincent reflected with the Missionaries on the meaning of martyrdom and reflected on this reality in light of the witness of some of the confreres who were sent on mission outside of France, he highlighted this idea of martyrdom as a witness to the truth: A Missioner ... who carries out his office perfectly and lives according to the Rules of his state ... shows .... that God is well worth being served above all else and must be incomparably preferred to all earthly advantages and pleasures. To act in that way is to make known the truths and maxims of the Gospel --- not in words but by conforming one’s life to that of Jesus Christ and witnessing his truth and sanctity to the faithful and to unbelievers; consequently, to live and die like that is to be a martyr (CCD:XI:167-168).

Let us reflect on this affirmation of Vincent de Paul, to live and die like that is to be a martyr. Christ is not a truth that is spoken or uttered but Christ is a truth that transforms with new light, a truth that is life-giving. As Saint John states: God is light, and in him there is no darkness at all. If we say, "We have fellowship with him," while we continue to walk in darkness, we lie and do not act in truth … The way we may be sure that we know him is to keep his commandments. Whoever says, "I know him," but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him. But whoever keeps his word, the love of God is truly perfected in him. This is the way we may know that we are in union with him: whoever claims to abide in him ought to live (just) as he lived (1 John 1:5-6; 2:3-6).

Pope Francis has reminded us that the encounter with the Truth, with the light of faith brought [the martyrs] to the light and gave birth within them to divine life, a new experience and a luminous vision of existence for which they were prepared to bear public witness to the end [5].

The encounter with the Truth and the Light makes the witnesses free, so free that they are able to hand over their life for the cause of the Truth. Jesus said: you will know the truth and the truth will set you free (John 8:32). John Paul II explained in his encyclical: This is the truth which sets one free in the face of worldly power and which gives the strength to endure martyrdom. So it was with Jesus before Pilate: "For this I was born, and for this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth" (John 18:37). The true worshippers of God must thus worship him "in spirit and truth" (John 4:23): in this worship they become free. Worship of God and a relationship with truth are revealed in Jesus Christ as the deepest foundation of freedom (John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor, #87).

According to Vincent and also according to the view of the Church, to be a martyr implies conformity with the life of Jesus Christ and giving witness to the truth. This testimony is convincing and evangelizes and is a proclamation of Jesus Christ who is the Truth: What still affects humans of our time is the encounter with a certain type of human presence, full of message and meaning: a person who has become fully “human” thanks to the mysterious reality of the Lord in his conscience. These are the people “clothed in Christ,” the true source of evangelization [6].


The following of Jesus Christ and martyrdom

Incorporated into Christ through Baptism (Romans 6:5), Christians are called to deepen their identification with the One in whom they have been baptized. God has called us in Christ to conform our life to his and to live in his image as children of God (Ephesians 1:3-10). From the time of our Baptism, the time of our new birth through water and the Spirit, we are invited into a new life and called to grow to the extent of the full stature of Christ (Ephesians 4:13).

Vincent de Paul affirmed: Our Lord Jesus Christ is the true model and that great invisible portrait on whom we must fashion all our actions (CCD:XI:201). Therefore he exhorted those who share his spiritual experience to make Jesus Christ the Rule of their life since we cannot better assure our eternal happiness than by living and dying in the service of the poor, in the arms of Providence, and with genuine renouncement of ourselves in order to follow Jesus Christ (CCD:III:384). More specifically he stated: May we enter into his workings. Doing good isn’t enough; we have to do it well, after the example of Our Lord (CCD:X II:148).

On various occasions Benedict XVI has referred to the need for Christians to cultivate “a contemporaneity” with Christ which places us in a position of “simultaneousness” with him … an expression that we find in one of his earlier theological reflections: The Church is a Mystical Body, that is, that Christ himself found her anew again and again; that he is never merely her past, but he is always and above all her present and future. Church is the presence of Christ, our contemporateity with him and his simultaneousness with us. She lives by the fact that Christ is present in the hearts of the faithful; from there he forms the Church for himself [7].

In a letter that he wrote to Antoine Portail (May 1, 1635) Vincent referred to this idea of contemporaneity with Jesus and views it as a progressive and continually renewed identification with Christ: Must not a priest die of shame for claiming a reputation in the service he gives to God and for dying in his bed, when he sees Jesus Christ rewarded for his work by disgrace and the gibbet. Remember, Monsieur. we live in Jesus Christ through the death of Jesus Christ, and we must die in Jesus Christ through the life of Jesus Christ, and our life must be hidden in Jesus Christ and filled with Jesus Christ, and in order to die as Jesus Christ, we must live as Jesus Christ. Now, once these foundations have been laid, let us give ourselves up to contempt, to shame, to ignominy, and let us disclaim the honors people pay us, the good reputation and the applause they give us, and let us do nothing which has not that end in view (CCD:I:276).

The letter to M. Portail presents us with a dimension of identification with Jesus Christ that is important for our understanding of martyrdom: it is impossible to identify ourselves with Christ without participating in his works and his sufferings. The men and women/disciples who participate in the mission of Christ consider those works and suffering as part of their ministry and the source of their happiness.

On October 17, 1654 Vincent de Paul responded to a Missionary and stated: I am writing you a short note to express to you the joy of my heart at the extraordinary blessings God has just bestowed on your work, and for the miracles you have performed in your 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)

To set out on the path to follow Christ, to enter into his spirit and activity and to participate in his mission means that we are willing to participate in his death and resurrection: those who wish to come after me must deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me. Those who wish to save their life will lose it, but those who lose their life for my sake and that of the gospel, will save it (Mark 8:34-35)

Sending forth the disciples on the mission included the possibility of persecution: you will be led before governors and kings for my sake as a witness before them and the pagans (Matthew 10:18). Therefore Jesus was able to proclaim the following words during the Sermon on the Mount: Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven … Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you because of me … (Matthew 5:10-11). Those words are restated in the first letter of Peter: if you should suffer because of righteousness, blessed are you (3:14); if you are insulted for the name of Christ, blessed are you (4:14).

The reasoning behind the following Christ [8] and the offering of oneself up to death, even death on the cross is founded on the desire that all people might have life and come to know Love: The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Amen, amen, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit. Whoever loves their life loses it, and whoever hates their life in this world will preserve it for eternal life (John 12:23-25).

Louise de Marillac was convinced that we are called to follow Jesus by the royal road of the cross [9]. From this perspective and as a result of her experience as the spouse of Jesus Christ crucified (SWLM:781-782 [A.68]) we can understand the words of the seal of the Company of the Daughters of the Charity: The charity of Jesus Crucified urges us.

For Vincent de Paul, the difficulties, sufferings and hardships that one might encounter on the mission are signs of fidelity in following Jesus Christ: we have good reason to believe that suffering is an effect of the divine goodness in our regard, a consequence of the willingness he has had from all eternity to save us and a sign that God is with the Company, that he is pleased with it, and that he is served faithfully in it. Yes, Messieurs, when a Company is persecuted and calumniated it is a sign of its fidelity; and if we do not have this sign, if everything smiles on us, if the world applauds us, let us be afraid, Messieurs, let us be afraid ... calumnies and persecutions are graces with which God favors those who serve him faithfully (CCD:XII:226-227) [10].

Martyrdom, the cross and suffering guarantee the quality of the mission of those who follow Jesus Christ: O my dear confreres, there must be something great that the understanding cannot comprehend in crosses and sufferings, since God usually follows the service rendered to him with afflictions, persecutions, prison, and martyrdom in order to raise to a high degree of perfection and glory those who give themselves perfectly to his service. Anyone who wishes to be a disciple of Jesus Christ must expect that; but he must also hope that if the occasions present themselves, God will give him the strength to bear the sufferings and overcome the torments (CCD:XI:167).

Vincent commented on the affirmation that is found in the second letter of Timothy, namely, all who want to live religiously in Christ Jesus will be persecuted (3:12), and exclaimed: we have to lay down as a foundation the fact that, if we are faithful to God, the Company in general will never lack calumnies and persecutions, nor will the houses, nor individuals --- all, without exception (CCD:XII:226).

Those who have decided to follow Jesus Christ and to continue his mission cannot turn back, not even when they encounter difficulties. In the repetition of prayer of August 30, 1657, after sharing with the community the news about the death of M. Mathurin de Belleville during the journey to Madagascar and the death of M. Claude Dufour and M. Nicolas Prévost soon after arriving at that mission, Vincent encouraged his confreres as he reflected on the possible objections that might be raised when considering the future of the mission in Madagascar: My dear confreres! After knowing that, could we possibly be so base and unmanly as to abandon this vineyard of the Lord to which his divine majesty has called us merely because four, five, or six men have died? And tell me what a fine army it would be if, because it lost two or three, four, or five thousand men --- as they say happened at the latest siege of Normandy --- it would abandon everything! What a nice sight an army of runaways and poltroons like that would be! Let us say the same of the Mission; it would be a fine Company of the Mission if, because five or six had died, it were to abandon the Lord’s work! What a cowardly Company, attached to flesh and blood! Oh, no! I do not think there is a single member of the Company who has such little courage, or who is not ready to go to take the place of those who have died. I do not doubt that nature may tremble a little at first, but the spirit, which has the upper hand, says, “I am willing; God has given me the desire to go; no, this loss cannot make me abandon my resolution” (CCD:XI:373-374).

The following of Jesus Christ and the identification with Jesus Christ are the source of happiness even when difficulties and/or persecution and/or death become real possibilities. Paul VI affirmed: After Mary, we find the expression of the purest and most burning joy -- where the cross of Jesus is embraced with the most faithful love -- among the martyrs, in whom, in the very midst of their torment, the Holy Spirit inspires an impassioned longing for the coming of the Spouse. Dying and seeing heaven open, Saint Stephen is but the first of the innumerable witnesses of Christ. How many there are, in our day still and in many countries, who, risking everything for Christ, could declare with the martyr Ignatius of Antioch: "It is in the fullness of life that I write to you, desiring to die (Paul VI, Gaudete in Domino, #35)

Vincent de Paul encouraged similar dispositions in order that the Missionaries might accept persecution and even death with joy and view those harsh realities as blessings from God. Offering one’s life to Christ in the manner that Jesus offered his life gives meaning to our life: Courage, my dear confreres! Let us hope that Our Lord will strengthen us in the crosses that come to us, no matter how great they may be, if he sees that we love them and have confidence in him. If illness presents itself, and if persecution, exterior and interior trials, temptation, and even death itself present themselves to us, let us say to them, “Welcome, celestial favors, graces from God, holy trials coming from a paternal and all-loving hand for my benefit; I receive you with a heart filled with respect, submission, and confidence toward the one who sends you; I abandon myself to you in order to give myself to him” (CCD:XI:290).


Recognition of the martyrs in the writings of Vincent de Paul

From the time of the martyrdom of the deacon Stephen, who even today is recognized as the proto-martyr, up until the present day, the Church has presented her strength and vigor, her certainty of victory and even her happiness to celebrate the combat of the martyrs … the Church presents all of these to those persons contemplating the glorious fruitfulness of the cross. This is the reason why our predecessor Saint Leo the Great, extolling from this Roman See the martyrdom of the holy Apostles Peter and Paul, exclaims: "Precious in the eyes of God is the death of his saints, and no form of cruelty can destroy a religion founded on the mystery of the cross of Christ. The Church is not diminished but increased by persecutions. And the Lord's field is unceasingly clothed with a richer harvest, when the grains which fell alone are multiplied in their rebirth” (Paul VI, Gaudete in Dominio, #36).

John Paul II reminded us that the Church of the first millennium was born of the blood of the martyrs: "Sanguis martyrum - semen christianorum" (John Paul II, Tertio Millennio Adveniente, #37). He further stated that at the end of the second millennium, the Church has once again become a Church of martyrs … In our own century the martyrs have returned, many of them nameless, "unknown soldiers" as it were of God's great cause. As far as possible, their witness should not be lost to the Church. Because we are dealing with a witness that should not be forgotten the Pope proposed the celebration of the great Jubilee of 2000 and also proposed the up-dating of the martyrologies for the universal Church, paying careful attention to the holiness of those who in our own time lived fully by the truth of Christ [11].

Sharing in the living experience of the church, Vincent de Paul referred to the blood of the martyrs as the seed of Christians and addressed the missionaries: The blood of so many martyrs who were killed were so many seeds to serve to strengthen the Church (CCD:XI:339). He then spoke to the Daughters: For one who will suffer martyrdom, many more will come; his/her blood will be like the seed that brings forth fruit, and fruit in abundance. The blood of our Sisters will bring others to the Company and will merit for those who remain the grace of God to sanctify themselves (CCD:X:443).

In the writings of Saint Vincent de Paul that have been passed on to us we are able to find a recognition of some witnesses whom he did not hesitate to call martyrs. The manner in which these persons handed over their life, even to death, in order to profess their faith in Jesus Christ is presented to the Missionaries and the Daughters of Charity as a motive to live out their vocation and accept all the consequences that follow from such a commitment.

In calling these persons martyrs Saint Vincent is opening to us his heart as a follower of Jesus Christ and also reveals to us the fire of love that he wants to burn in all of his followers and the institutions that he founded. There is no doubt that the news that he received about the witness of those “martyrs” had a profound effect on Vincent who had made a decision to live and die like Jesus Christ [12].

William Webster, martyred in London

On September 9, 1641 Vincent wrote to M. Etienne Blatiron. He exhorted the Missionary to take care of his life in order to be able to offer it up on a daily basis in the mission that had been entrusted to him … and to act in this way until the time when God would demand an accounting of his life. He reminded him of the testimony of M. William Webster who had died a few weeks before in London. Vincent had no hesitation in recognizing him as a martyr: like [the] good priest, eighty years of age, who was just martyred in England after cruel torture. When he was half strangled, his heart was torn out; and when they told him, before executing him, that, if he were willing to renounce his religion, they would save his life, he replied that if he had a thousand lives, he would most willingly give them all for the love of Jesus Christ, for whom he was dying. I am telling you this with tears in my eyes at the thought of that holy priest's happiness and the attachment I still have for my miserable carcass (CCD:II:211-212).

Brother Tadeo Lee, proto-martyr of the Congregation of the Mission

At the beginning of 1647 the first six Missionaries, who were sent forth by Vincent de Paul, arrived in Ireland where they supported the apostolic ministry of the bishops of Cashel and Limerick. Four of the six confreres had been born in Ireland and, having been exiled to France, they entered the Congregation of the Mission. The youngest member of this group was Brother Thady Lee (Thaddée Lye in the correspondence of Vincent) who was twenty-three years old.

The missionary work produced good fruit, but the persecution of the English troops obliged most of the Missionaries (after only a few years of ministry in Ireland) to seek refuge or return to France. In 1652 the confrere who is known as the first martyr of the Congregation of the Mission was martyred in his hometown in the Diocese of Limerick where he had sought refuge. With deep emotion Vincent wrote: Poor Brother Lye, who was in his native place, fell into enemy hands. They crushed his skull and cut off his feet and hands in the presence of his mother (CCD:IV:342; see also CCD:IV:466-469).

M. Francis White and his suffering in Scotland

In 1650 two Irish missionaries (disguised as merchants), with faculties from the Congregation of the Propagation of the Faith, were sent by Vincent to evangelize the people living in the highlands of Scotland, a place where preaching the Catholic faith was prohibited. One of those Missionaries, who some years later was joined by others, was Francis White (M. LeBlanc in the conferences and the correspondence of Vincent).

In the conference of April 1655 Vincent referred to the sufferings of M. Francis White who was ministering in Scotland: We recommend to God good M. Le Blanc, who was working in the Scottish Highlands. He was taken prisoner, along with a Jesuit priest, by the English heretics. They were taken to the city of Aberdeen, where M. Lumsden is; the latter will not fail to go to visit and to help him. There are many Catholics in that country, who visit and comfort suffering priests. So then, that good Missioner is on the road to martyrdom. I don't know if we should rejoice over this or be saddened by it; for, on the one hand, God is honored by the state in which he is being held, since it is for love of him. The Company would be blessed if God found it worthy of giving it a martyr, and he himself would be blessed to suffer for his name and to offer himself. as he is doing, for all it will please God to ordain for him regarding his person and his life. What acts of virtue is he not now practicing --- of faith, hope, love of God, resignation, and oblation --- by which he is preparing himself more and more to merit such a crown! All that stirs us up to great joy and gratitude to God. On the other hand, however, it is our confrere who is suffering; so should not we be suffering with him? On my part, I confess that, naturally speaking, I am very distressed by this, and 1 experience a tangible suffering from it; but, spiritually speaking, 1 think we should bless God for this very special grace. Look at what God does after someone has rendered him outstanding services: he burdens him with the cross, afflictions, and insults (CCD:XI:166-167).

At the end of the above cited conference Vincent revealed his feelings when he was informed about M. White’s suffering, namely, Vincent wanted to see him relieved of such suffering but at the same time he gave thanks for the crown of martyrdom that his confrere was about to receive: But let's go back to our good M. Le Blanc and consider how God is treating him, after all the good deeds he’s done in his mission. Here’s a marvelous one, which some people would like to call a miracle: a little while ago, some bad weather arose, making fishing very poor and leaving the people in great need. They asked him to say some prayers and to sprinkle holy water on the sea because they thought that this bad weather was caused by some evil spells. So, he did it, and God willed that calm was immediately restored and the catch was plentiful. He wrote this to me himself. Others have also told me of the great difficulties he endured in the Highlands to strengthen the Catholics and convert heretics, the constant dangers to which he was exposed, and how he suffered from a shortage of food, eating only oat bread. If, then, it’s up to a worker who really loves God to do and suffer those things for his service, and God allows other, even heavier, crosses to befall him after that, and he’s made a prisoner of Jesus Christ and even a martyr, shouldn't we adore this conduct of God and, by submitting ourselves lovingly to it, offer ourselves to him, so that he may accomplish his most holy will in us? Or sus, we’ll ask God. then, for this grace; we will thank him for the latest trial he wills to use to test the fidelity of that servant of his; and we will pray that, if he doesn't want to leave him with us any longer, at least he’ll strengthen him amid the bad treatment he’s undergoing, or may have to undergo hereafter (CCD:XI:168).

On May 27, 1655 similar sentiments are revealed as the Founder once again informed the community about the situation of M. White: We’ve had some news of M. Le Blanc. Last evening I received a letter from good M. Lumsden, telling me that there’s a great persecution going on in that country; also, M. Le Blanc has been moved from the city of Aberdeen, where he was, to a village, together with a Jesuit and another secular priest, with the result that we don’t yet know what’s going to happen. We had thought about sending someone to rescue him, but are finding this very difficult. What’s to be done? Two reasons are preventing us: (1) if we ask for his release, we’ll have to declare that he’s a priest; and that would be to expose him because that’s why he was taken prisoner. The second thing that also prevents us is that we don't yet know how matters stand --- between France and England, that is --- because affairs are embroiled. Scotland was beginning to breathe a little more easily these past few years, and there were several conversions; but, since about ten to twelve days ago, very severe orders have been issued again against the poor Catholics, with the result that poor M. Lumsden isn't at all safe. He tells me that there has been no news of M. Duiguin (CCD:XI:176-177).

We find recognition of M. White’s witness as a martyr in the words that Vincent spoke on August 22:1655: I also ask your prayers for our priests in foreign lands. A few days ago, I learned that M. Le Blanc had been released; it was the Principal of the Scots College who told me. I’m not sure if that’s the case; I’ve received no letters about it. We’ll thank God for everything about this, for we will keep asking his Divine Goodness to give him the strength to bear whatever Divine Providence will be pleased to allow to happen to him, to endure the sufferings to be encountered if he has been released --- and even death, if God wishes that of him --- and always to be totally resigned to his good pleasure. All he’d have to say to be freed entirely is “I’m not a priest”; but he prefers to die rather than to say “I’m not a priest.” If he did, they’d let him go immediately, and the door of the prison would be opened to him (CCD:XI:260-261).

Freed from prison M. Francis White was able to continue evangelizing the people of Scotland until the time of his death in 1679.

Pedro Borgyñy

Vincent had no hesitation in recognizing young Pedro Borguñy (+August 30, 1654) as a martyr. He knew of Pedro through the news that M. LeVacher had communicated to him from Argel.

The witness of this young man had a strong impact on Vincent and he wrote about this in a letter that he addressed to M. Charles Ozenne (March 19, 1655). Vincent also spoke to the community and presented this young man as a model and an intercessor: Monsieur Le Vacher has written me from Algiers about a young Christian twenty-one or twenty-two years old, a native of Majorca. He had become a Turk but had such great remorse afterward that he went to the Pasha and trampled his turban underfoot to show his detestation of Mohammed and his religion and to protest that he was a Christian and that there was no true religion except that of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Three days later, he was burned alive for this, showing marvelous constancy and protesting continually that Christianity was the true religion, Jesus Christ Our Lord was the true Son of the living God, and Mohammed was an impostor. What is admirable and worthy of consolation for souls who fear death is that, a few days earlier, when speaking to his companions of his decision, he said that he feared --- and had always feared --- death, but that he had absolute confidence, leading him to hope for the strength for martyrdom. He told them also that Our Lord had feared death but when he had to undergo it he did so in a divine manner. May God grant us the grace, Monsieur, of increasing our faith and hope in God, should the occasion arise of dying in his service (CCD:V:339-340) [13].

Vincent de Paul did not hesitate to canonize Pierre Borguñy [14] when he spoke to the Missionaries: That, Messieurs, is what a Christian is made of, and that’s the courage we must have in order to suffer and to die, when necessary, for Jesus Christ. Let’s ask him for this grace and beg that holy young man to request it for us, he who was such a worthy student of such a courageous Master, and who, in the space of three hours, became his true disciple and perfect imitator by dying for him (CCD:XI:290).

Faithful Daughters and Missionaries

Vincent, in general terms, applied the word “martyr” to the Daughters of Charity and the Missionaries who lived and died in a spirit of fidelity to the vocation to which they had been called.

In the August 19, 1646 conference to the Daughters of Charity Vincent spoke about mutual respect. The vocation of service on behalf of the poor, lived out in a spirit of fidelity, allows each Sister to be recognized as a martyr and is therefore worthy of respect and recognition and esteem: A young woman will come from one hundred or one hundred twenty leagues, from Flanders, or from Holland, to consecrate herself to God in the service of the most abandoned persons on earth; isn't that going to martyrdom? Yes, without a doubt. A holy Father has said that anyone who gives himself to God to serve his neighbor and endures willingly all the difficulties he may encounter in this is a martyr. Did the martyrs suffer more than these Sisters? No indeed, they certainly didn't, because having one's head cut off is soon over and done with. If they suffered greater torments, these still didn't last very long; they were quickly terminated by death. But those women who give themselves to God in your Company are sometimes with sick persons full of infection and sores and often noxious body fluids; sometimes with poor children for whom everything must be done; or with poor convicts loaded down with chains and afflictions; and they come under the authority of persons they don't even know but are bound to obey in every type of ministry. And you wouldn't consider such persons worthy of respect! They're far more worthy of it than anything I could say to you, and I see nothing like it. If we saw the spot where a martyr had been, we'd approach it only with respect and kiss it with great reverence; yet, we're capable of despising our Sisters, who are persons God preserves and enables to exist in a state of martyrdom. Hold them in great esteem, dear Sisters; keep that high opinion of them, no matter what may happen, and look upon them as martyrs of Jesus Christ, since they serve their neighbor for love of him (CCD:IX:213-214).

In the circular letter that Vincent wrote to notify the community about the death of M. Jean Pillé [+October 7, 1642] (CCD:I:270) he highlighted the faithfulness of the Missionary to his vocation and presented him as a participant in the cross of Jesus Christ and as an intercessor: This great charity gave rise to such a great desire for the salvation of souls that he was prepared to tear his soul to pieces to save just one person. And, in fact, when there was question of going on a mission and his infirmity would permit him to go, only God knows whether he spared himself in any way. And although he was more in need of rest than of work, he would still labor beyond his strength ... He was a second Saint Andrew for, just as that great apostle died on a cross but remained attached to it for two days without dying, during which he preached to the people and prayed to God for the conversion of their souls, so M. Pille died on a cross. I mean, that in the acute pains of his illness and in the midst of his sufferings, he edified all the Missionaries by his virtuous conversations with them and by the extraordinary examples of patience and other virtues which he gave them ... he did more by himself in suffering than all of us by our activity. What we have to do is to imitate him in these virtues and to pray for him or rather pray to him, at least in private, since the Church does not yet allow us to act otherwise (CCD:II: 370, 385-386, 388-389).

Vincent called M. Luis Robiche [+January 27, 1645], a Missionary who died in Marseilles from a contagious disease, a martyr because he dedicated himself to the mission that had been entrusted to him: the voice of the people (which is the voice of God) is beatifying him. In a way, he died a martyr, in that he exposed his life and lost it laboring for the love of Jesus Christ, at the corporal and spiritual salvation of the sick poor, of a malady which leads to death and which he well knew was contagious (CCD:II:570).

Indeed, Vincent affirmed that all those who made a decision to live and die in fidelity to their vocation … Vincent affirmed them as martyrs: risking one’s life to cross the seas for the sole love of God and the salvation of our neighbor is a kind of martyrdom because, even if a person is not actually martyred, at least he has the will to be so, since he leaves everything and exposes himself to I know not how many perils. And as a matter of fact, saints who have died in exile, where they were sent for the sake of Our Lord Jesus Christ, are regarded by the Church as martyrs (CCD:XI:374).


The openness to martyrdom in the Vincentian spiritual experience

As we have pointed out, the possibility of martyrdom is part of the following of Jesus Christ. Therefore, those who decide to commit their life to Jesus Christ in order to prolong his mission on earth must be willing to dedicate all their energy to coming and going and spending oneself for the sake of the gospel and if the occasion presents itself, they must be willing to suffer and died for the same cause. On several occasions Vincent spoke about this openness to martyrdom to both the Missionaries and the Daughters of Charity.

During the repetition of prayer (April 1655) Vincent recalled the testimony that M. LeVacher had shared with him: a priest from Calabria had traveled by ocean and arrived at Barbary; there he died professing the name of Jesus Christ. Vincent wanted all the Missionaries to live with the same openness: Oh if God were only pleased to inspire us with this same desire to die for Jesus Christ in some fashion or other, what blessing we would draw down upon ourselves (CCD:XI:167).

In the repetition of prayer (November 11, 1656) we find perhaps the most enthusiastic invitation to live with an openness to martyrdom: God grant, my dear confreres, that all those who present themselves to join the Company will come with the thought of martyrdom, desiring to suffer martyrdom in it and to devote themselves entirely to the service of God, whether in far off lands or here, wherever it may please God to make use of the poor Little Company! Yes, with the thought of martyrdom. How often we should ask Our Lord for that grace and the disposition to be ready to risk our lives for his glory and the salvation of the neighbor, each and every one of us --- Brothers, seminarians, priests --- in a word, the entire Company! Alas, Messieurs, is there anything more reasonable than to give our lives for him who has given his life so generously for each and every one of us? And if Our Lord loves us to the point of dying for us, why should we not desire to have this same disposition with regard to him and to put it into effect, if the occasion were to present itself? We see that so many Popes were martyred, one after the other; we count thirty-five of them in a row. Isn’t it strange to see merchants, who, for a little profit, cross the seas and expose themselves to I don’t know how many dangers? Last Sunday I was with one of them, who came to see me and told me someone had suggested that he go to the Indies, and he had made up his mind to go, in the hope of making some profit there. I asked him if there were any great dangers in this; he said yes, there were, but he knew a certain person who had returned from there, and another had, in fact, remained there. So I asked myself, “If that person, for a little profit, to bring back a certain stone, risks so many dangers to do this, with what greater reason should we do it to bring the precious stone of the Gospel to that place!” (CCD:XI:334-335).

In the conference of August 30, 1658 Vincent once again spoke to the Missionaries about the openness to martyrdom. He began by speaking about the willingness of the Missionaries to accept, at every moment, the tasks that are entrusted to them. In the repetition of prayer that we previously cited, Vincent made use of the example of merchants while here he refers to the example of the combatants on a battlefield: O Messieurs, how happy are those who feel this disposition in themselves and to whom God has given the grace of being ready and willing to go to far-off countries to spend their lives there for Jesus Christ! History tells us of the many martyrs who have sacrificed themselves for God. And if we see that so many men in the army risk their lives for a little honor, or perhaps in the hopes of a little earthly recompense, with what far greater reason shouldn't we risk our lives to carry the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the most distant lands to which his Divine Providence may call us! Just think, of the approximately 30,000 men or so at the siege of Montmédy, people are insisting that there were only about 22,000 survivors. Now, if those men had the courage to risk their lives in this way for the capture of a town, why shouldn’t we risk ours for the glory of God and to win souls for Jesus Christ? (CCD:XII:46).

In a letter dated November 2, 1658, Vincent spoke to M. Philip Dalton about the willingness to go anywhere in the world in order to minister and about the willingness to even die for the cause of proclaiming the Good News of Jesus Christ: I cannot express my joy at the inclination God is giving you to make the unreserved gift of yourself to him in the Company, with indifference to whatever country in the world, and with total submission to holy obedience and the will of God, which will be indicated to you by your superiors. That is how truly apostolic souls speak and act. Entirely consecrated to God, they desire that his Son Our Lord be known and served likewise by all the nations on earth, for whom he himself came into the world; like him, they wish also to work and die for them. That is how far the zeal of Missionaries should extend; for, even though they cannot go everywhere, nor do the good they desire, they still do well to desire this and to offer themselves to God to serve him as instruments for the conversion of souls in the times, places, and manner he pleases. Perhaps he will be satisfied with their good will; perhaps also, if this will is strong and well regulated, he will use them, poor workers though they be, to accomplish great things. I see nothing that makes them more like him than this, nor more worthy of his blessings (CCD:VII:347-348).

Sending four Daughters of Charity to Calais provided Vincent with an opportunity to speak to the Daughters about their openness to martyrdom (August 4, 1658). The four Daughters were going to join some other Daughters who had traveled there a few weeks before in order to care for the soldiers, most of whom were wounded. At the time, however, an epidemic was spreading among the soldiers.

The Founder began by speaking about the reflections that the Missionaries had shared during the morning repetition of prayer, reflection on Providence raising up in the Church a Company of women dedicated to the service of their neighbor. Vincent now presented a challenge to the Daughters to serve poor sick soldiers … to make amends for the evils caused by war … Have you ever heard that there were Sisters who devoted themselves in that way to the service of the neighbor, to be seen now in one house to assist this patient, and then in another, ready to come and go wherever God will call them? Have you ever seen that? No, Sisters, people have never seen anyone do what you're doing at present, by the grace of God; it's unheard of. Sisters, you're doing something that has never been seen (CCD:X:442).

The Daughters of Charity who were going to Calais were confronted with another challenge: one of the first Sisters who had been sent to minister to the wounded soldiers had died as the result of an epidemic and the other Sisters was ill. Vincent was profoundly moved because the Sisters came forward to replace them and said, “Here I am, Monsieur; I'm ready” ... This is continuing the work of the saints, Sisters. In former times, a Pope was no sooner elected than he was slaughtered; immediately another was found to take his place, although he was well aware that it would cost him nothing less than his life. Thus, we can count thirty-five Popes who have suffered martyrdom. What are you going to do, Sisters? You're going to take the place of the Sister who died; you're going to martyrdom, if God is pleased to dispose of you. As for our very dear Sister, I believe she's now receiving the reward of the martyrs, and you'll have the same reward if you're happy enough to die, arms in hand, as she did. O Sisters, what happiness for you! (CCD:X:442-443)

Vincent echoed the objections that were being raised by many respectable persons: all the Sisters will die there and the Company will have lost some very valuable people. The Sisters who was copying this conference concluded with the following words: At these words Most Honored Father was obliged to stop on account of the abundance of his tears; then, in a voice choked with sobs, His Charity said, "So then, Sisters, you're about to make the highest act of the love of God that can be made and that you've ever made, for there's no greater act of love than martyrdom” [15].

The Daughters of Charity with their openness to martyrdom offered to go to Madagascar. In one of his conferences to the Daughters (September 29, 1655) Vincent referred to the request of the Missionaries: In Madagascar, our men are asking us to send them Daughters of Charity to help them to win souls … [they] tell me that they think this will be the best means of getting the people of that country to accept the Faith and that they could open a hospital for the sick and a school to educate the girls. Vincent then invited the Sisters to be willing to minister in any place throughout the world: It's 4500 leagues away and it takes six months to get there. I'm telling you this, Sisters, so you can see God's plans for you. So get ready, Sisters, and give yourselves to Our Lord to go wherever it may please him. "Are you determined to go everywhere without exception?" "Yes, Father," they said. "But do all of you really feel disposed to do so? If you do, tell me." All the Sisters stood up and, for the second time, replied that they did (CCD:X:96).

Louise shared this same enthusiasm. She felt that the possibility of sending the Daughters to Madagascar should be a matter for community dialogue. In a note (January 1658) that was addressed to Brother Ducorneau, the secretary of Vincent de Paul, Louise reminded him of the Sisters’ desire: Most of our Sisters do not want to see the ship leave for Madagascar without them (SWLM:584 [L.561]; CCD:VII:73-74, 101-103). A few days later Louise wrote to Vincent: Please be so charitable as to grant me your holy blessing, to offer to God the desire of our Sisters to go to Madagascar (SWLM:585 [L.563]; CCD:VII:88).


Martyrdom, the greatest expression of charity

The Second Vatican Council, in its dogmatic Constitution, Lumen Gentium, states: By martyrdom a disciple is transformed into an image of his Master by freely accepting death for the salvation of the world—as well as his conformity to Christ in the shedding of his blood. Though few are presented such an opportunity, nevertheless all must be prepared to confess Christ before men. They must be prepared to make this profession of faith even in the midst of persecutions, which will never be lacking to the Church, in following the way of the cross (Lumen Gentium, #42)

Pope Benedict XVI wrote about charity in his first encyclical, Deus caritas est. Beginning with the affirmation of John that is found in his first letter, namely, we have come to know and to believe in the love God has for us (1 John 4:16), the Pope explained that: being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction. Saint John's Gospel describes that event in these words: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should ... have eternal life” (John 3:16). In acknowledging the centrality of love, Christian faith has retained the core of Israel's faith, while at the same time giving it new depth and breadth … Since God has first loved us (cf. 1 John 4:10), love is now no longer a mere “command”; it is the response to the gift of love with which God draws near to us (Benedict XVI, Deus caritas est, #1).

In the same encyclical the death of Jesus Christ on the cross is presented as a radical consequence and therefore the greatest expression of charity: His death on the Cross is the culmination of that turning of God against himself in which he gives himself in order to raise man up and save him. This is love in its most radical form. By contemplating the pierced side of Christ (cf. John 19:37) … It is there that this truth can be contemplated. It is from there that our definition of love must begin. In this contemplation the Christian discovers the path along which his life and love must move (Benedict XVI, Deus caritas est, #12).

In her reflections on the gospel of Saint John, Louise presented the radical nature of surrendering one’s life as men and women make a decision to follow Jesus Christ. Indeed the act of offering one’s life in that manner is a response to the love of the One who first loved us. It is this recognition of God’s love which achieved its fullness in Christ Crucified that motivates our love: The intrinsic love of God … the love of God for humankind willed that the Son should take human flesh because his delight is to be among his creatures. By becoming like them, he could bear witness to the fact that God has loved them from all eternity … let us love this Love (SWLM:828-829 [A.27]).

John Paul II explained the relationship between charity and martyrdom and did so from the perspective of the experience of God’s total gift on the Cross. [Christ] loved the Church and gave himself up for her" (Ephesians 5:25) … Charity, in conformity with the radical demands of the Gospel, can lead the believer to the supreme witness of martyrdom. Once again this means imitating Jesus who died on the Cross: "Be imitators of God, as beloved children", Paul writes to the Christians of Ephesus, "and walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God" (Ephesians 5:1-2) (John Paul II, Verttatis Splendor, #89).

In the conferences of Vincent de Paul we find various references to martyrdom as the greatest expression of charity. During the August 6, 1641 conference with the Daughters, Vincent compared the offering of the Sisters who serve those afflicted with the plague in Angers with the life of Saint Roch. Vincent did this in order to highlight the greatness of charity and its supreme expression: Oh, Blessed be God! Blessed be God! Blessed be God, dear Sisters! That is indeed the charity the Holy Spirit teaches us when the Spirit says that there's no greater love than to lose one's soul --- that is, one's life --- for love of the neighbor. How holy is our state of life, dear Sisters! For isn't it true that our greatest happiness is to be loved by God? Nothing can give you greater assurance of this than the practice of what is required by your state of life, and that's what you're doing, dear Sisters, for there can be no greater charity than to risk one's life for the neighbor. And isn't that what you do every day by your ministry? How fortunate you are! (CCD:IX:34).

At the beginning of November, 1656, Vincent shared with his confreres some news about the ministry of the Daughters in Nantes and the Missionaries in Poland. These women were living the virtue of mercy which is proper to God and because of their desire to give witness to mercy they exposed themselves to many dangers: In short, they practice mercy, that beautiful virtue of which it’s said, “Mercy is the distinctive feature of God” ... Take Messrs. Desdames and Duperroy in Warsaw, for example; what have they done? Neither cannons, nor fire, nor pillage, nor plague, nor all the other troubles and dangers in which they live caused them to leave there or to abandon their post and the place where Divine Providence had placed them, preferring to risk their lives in that way rather than fail to practice that beautiful virtue of mercy (CCD:XI:328-329).

During the repetition of prayer (June 17, 1657), Vincent shared news about the ministry and the fatigue that was being endured by the Missionaries in Genoa and Warsaw. Those sufferings were expressions of their love for God and their love for their neighbor: They have a great deal to suffer now because they’ve had to leave their own house and rent another one in order to give over their home to the plague-stricken. The wear and tear of moving was all the greater because they had only one week to do it. Yet, by the grace of God they’re enduring this in the right spirit, and happy are they to suffer for the people --- for God, in the first place, and then for the people. You see, my dear confreres, we should all be so disposed and have this desire to suffer for God and our neighbor and to wear ourselves out for that purpose. How happy are they to whom God gives such dispositions and desires! Yes, Messieurs, we must be all for God and the service of the people; we have to give ourselves to God for that, wear ourselves out for that, and give our lives for that, strip ourselves naked, so to speak, in order to be clothed with him --- at least, we should desire to be so disposed, if we aren’t already --- we should be ready and willing to come and go wherever God pleases, whether to the Indies or elsewhere; lastly, to devote ourselves willingly to the service of our neighbor and to extend the empire of Jesus Christ in souls; and I myself, old and infirm as I am, must, nonetheless, have this disposition, even to go to the Indies to win souls to God there, although I were to die on the way or on board ship; for, what do you think God asks of us? Our body? Oh, not at all! What then? God asks for our good will, a firm, genuine disposition to seize every opportunity of serving him, even at the risk of our lives, to have and to foster within ourselves this desire for martyrdom, which God sometimes accepts as willingly as if we had actually suffered it (CCD:XI:357).

Vincent concluded by giving thanks to God who had given the Company individuals so constant and faithful in suffering for the love of God and for the people. May his goodness and infinite mercy preserve for the Company these faithful servants of his! (CCD:XI:358).


The martyrdom of charity

The experience of Vincent de Paul and his words, which have been gathered together in this presentation, open to us the richness of the meaning of martyrdom and enable us to understand the significance of the martyrdom of charity [16].

Vincent de Paul applied the word, martyr, to the Daughters of Charity who had left behind their family and who gave their life to God in order to serve the poor in the different places where they were sent. In a conference on the love of their vocation (Christmas Day, 1648) Vincent, after listening to the reflections of the Sisters, stated: I'm well aware, dear Sisters, that some among you, by the grace of God, love their vocation so strongly that they'd prefer to be crucified, torn apart, and hacked into a thousand pieces rather than tolerate anything contrary to it --- and there are a good number of you, by the mercy of God (CCD:IX:359).

Vincent reviewed and commented on the motives that should encourage the Daughters to love their vocation. He highlighted the fact that their vocation can only be understood from the perspective of God who call calls them and strengthens them: What could have made you leave your home, your father and mother, your possessions --- in the case of some --- and your dreams of the joys and pleasures of this world? It took a divine power, Sisters. Human beings couldn't have done it; nature is loath to do it, and everything is opposed to it. It must, therefore, be God. So, Sisters, this is a very powerful motive, and keeping it in mind [you] can and should overcome all the obstacles that try to stand in the way of the love of your vocation (CCD:IX:360).

Vincent stated that the vocation of the Daughters of Charity is the most excellent vocation in the Church because it consists of offering one’s life in order to serve the neighbor, and to do this for the love of God: You declare that you're devoting your life to the service of your neighbor for the love of God. Is there any act of love to surpass that? No, for it's an acknowledged fact that the greatest proof of love is to give one's life for what is loved. You are giving your entire life to the practice of charity and, therefore, you're giving it for God. It follows that there's no ministry on earth concerned with the service of God that's greater than yours. I make exception of the nuns at the Hotel-Dieu, who profess to do the same, and who work day and night for the service of God in the person of the poor. So, Sisters, I don't see anyone to equal you, except those who do what you do (CCD:IX:360-361).

Vincent concluded his argument by affirming that the Daughters of Charity are martyrs: Your vocation is the greatest in the Church of God, for you are martyrs; whoever gives his or her life for God is regarded as a martyr, and it's certain that your lives are shortened by your labors; consequently, you are martyrs (CCD:IX:361-362).

Almost ten years later, during the conference of June 9, 1658, a conference on Divine Providence, Vincent once again referred to the Daughters as martyrs and he paused to explain the meaning of the words, martyrs for charity: A while ago someone was telling me about a Sister who was dying; seeing a poor woman who needed to be bled, she got out of bed, bled her, and, collapsing once she had done it, died immediately afterward. I don't remember her name. Since some of the Sisters were whispering her name, Most Honored Father then asked who she was; they told him he was talking about Sister Marie-Joseph, who had died in Etampes. He remembered her quite well and, continuing, said, "That dear Sister can be called a martyr to charity. Do you think that only those who shed their blood for the faith are martyrs? Take, for example, those Sisters who are going to be with the Queen; that's martyrdom because, although they may not die, they're running the risk of dying, and are doing it for the love of God. Like so many other fine Sisters who have spent their lives serving the poor, that's a martyrdom. I think that, if they had lived in the time of Saint Jerome, he would have ranked them among the martyrs” (CCD:X:409).

In order to live this martyrdom of charity the Daughters of Charity should trust in Providence, should persevere in their vocation, should live in accord with the Rule and should dedicate themselves to serving the poor wherever they are sent and with whomever they are sent: Sisters, give yourselves to God from this very moment to go wherever he wants to use you, and say to him, “O Lord, will I not be the one to be sent to Metz or Cabors? If so, I'm all set, Lord. Who would have thought that you would want to be served by wretched creatures like us! As for me, I never would have believed it, if I hadn't seen it. Quoi! To be chosen to help those poor men save themselves! Alas! who am I to be a part of this!” And say to him, “I abandon myself to you and throw myself into your arms, as a child in the arms of her father, always to do your holy will. I'm from Le Havre de Grace, or I'm from Metz or Cabors, or from here or there --- from wherever you like --- but I'm unworthy that you have cast your eyes on me. Nevertheless, Lord, I abandon myself to you for everything” (CCD:X:411).

The Vincentian understanding of the martyrdom of charity is rooted in the contemplation of Jesus as the fire of love. In the Mary 30, 1659 conference to the Missionaries that dealt with the theme of charity, Vincent burst forth in exclamations of admiration in light of the love of the Son of God and concluded with a call to live this spirit of charity as one engaged in service on behalf of others: Let’s look at the Son of God; what a heart of charity he had; what a fire of love! Please tell us, Jesus, who pulled you away from heaven to come to endure the curse of earth and the many persecutions and torments you suffered? O Savior! Source of love humbled even to our level and to a vile agony, who showed, in that, greater love for the neighbor than you yourself did? You came to lay yourself open to all our misfortunes, to take the form of a sinner, to lead a life of suffering and to undergo a shameful death for us; is there any love like that? But who else could love in such an outstanding way? 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; it impels us to work for the salvation and consolation of others (CCD:XII:216). We’ve been chosen by God as instruments of his immense, paternal charity, which is intended to be established and to expand in souls. Ah, if we only realized what this holy zeal is! ... So, our vocation is to go, not just to one parish, not just to one diocese, but all over the world; and to do what? To set people’s hearts on fire, to do what the Son of God did. He came to set the world on fire in order to inflame it with his love. What do we have to desire but that it may burn and consume everything ... It’s true then, that I’m sent not only to love God but to make him loved. It’s not enough for me to love God, if my neighbor doesn’t love him. I have to love my neighbor as the image of God and the object of his love, and to act in such a way that people, in their turn, love their Creator, who knows them and acknowledges them as his brothers, whom he has saved, and that by mutual charity they love one another for love of God, who has loved them so much as to hand over his own Son to death for them (CCD:XII:214-215) .

Vincent wanted the heart of Jesus Christ, the fire of love, to animate the life of all those persons who share in his spiritual experience. During the August 22, 1655 repetition of prayer he referred to the relationship between martyrdom and charity: Or sus, let’s ask God to give the Company this spirit, this heart, this heart that causes us to go everywhere, this heart of the Son of God, the heart of Our Lord, that disposes us to go as he went and as he would have gone, if his Eternal Wisdom had deemed it advisable to work for the conversion of poor nations. He sent the Apostles to do that; he sends us, like them, to bring fire everywhere. Ignem veni mittere in terram, et quid volo nisi ut accendatur [I have come to light a fire on the earth. How I wish the blaze were ignited (Luke 12:49)]; to bring this divine fire, this fire of love and of fear of God everywhere, throughout the world: to Barbary, to the Indies, to Japan. That's what’s meant by Sanguis martyrum, semen christianorum. They tormented the Christians there, they pursued them everywhere; with what rage they put them to death in a cruel manner! But, in the end, by the mercy of God, things turned around, the cruel King died, and the one who succeeded him put no one to death; on the contrary, he allowed the Portuguese to trade, and priests to go there, and people felt completely safe living in that place without any danger, by the grace of God. Ah, Messieurs! Let’s all ask God fervently for this spirit for the whole Company … (CCD:XI:264)

For those who follow Jesus Christ in the manner of Vincent de Paul, any ministry, no matter how difficult and any calamity (and this even includes death) that might befall them as they engage in charitable activity … these become motives that should lead them to walk along the path of charity, the path of the martyrdom of charity: If, nevertheless, God allowed them to be reduced to the necessity of going to serve as priests in the villages to earn their living, or even if some of them were obliged to go to beg for their bread or to sleep under some bush, in ragged clothing and chilled to the bone, and someone should ask one of them, “Poor priest of the Mission, what has reduced you to these straits?” what a happiness, Messieurs, to be able to reply, “it’s charity!” How that poor priest would be esteemed before God and the angels! (CCD:XI:66-67). The salvation of nations and our own is so great a good as to deserve to be won at any cost; it doesn’t matter whether we die sooner or later, provided we die arms in hand; we’ll be all the happier for it and the Company will be no poorer, for sanguis martyrum semen est Christianorum. For one Missioner who has given his life for the love of God, the goodness of God will raise up many others to do the good he will have left undone (CCD:XI:366).


Conclusions

From the time of their Baptism all the faithful of Christ of whatever rank or status, are called to the fullness of the Christian life and to the perfection of charity; by this holiness as such a more human manner of living is promoted in this earthly society (Lumen Gentium, #40). Every person must walk unhesitatingly according to his own personal gifts and duties in the path of living faith, which arouses hope and works through charity (Lumen Gentium, #41). These convictions formulated in the Constitution, Lumen Gentium, allow us to situate martyrdom in the experience of the Church and, therefore, in the experience of Vincent de Paul. The task of Christians, as they respond to the gifts that they have received, is to deepen their identification with Christ, a process that was begun in Baptism … they also have the task of seeking the fullness of the Christian life and the perfection of charity. Men and women can never cease to engage in this task and in fact, at various times this task will demand courage and even heroism.

Vincent de Paul reminds us that the path of holiness and the imitation of Jesus Christ implies that we journey along the path of martyrdom (CCD:XI:166-168).

The followers of Jesus Christ who remain faithful to the gospel do not lose their humanness, but rather become fully human. This idea was expressed by Saint Ignatius of Antioch when he asked the Christians in Rome to be open to giving witness to Jesus Christ, even in extreme situation: Suffer me to obtain pure light: when I have gone thither, I shall indeed be a man of God. Permit me to be an imitator of the passion of my God [18].

Vincent de Paul encouraged those who share in his spiritual and apostolic experience to cultivate an openness to martyrdom which bring people happiness.

In light of the loss of values and the predominance of a relativism that does not take into consideration the distinction between good and evil (cf., Veritatis Spendor, #93), the martyrs are able to give life through their witness to the faith and the gospel and to all that is good. Their integral witness calls into question our own indifference in the same way that this reality questioned the prophet: Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil, who change darkness into light, and light into darkness, who change bitter into sweet, and sweet into bitter! (Isaiah 5:20).

Vincent knew how to recognize the “martyrs” of his own time and he continues to invite us to recognize them among the many courageous witnesses to the truth and goodness.

In the Vincentian spiritual experience the greatest witness to goodness and the truth is the witness to charity: Love and truth are inseparable. Without love, truth becomes cold, impersonal and oppressive for people’s day-to-day lives. The truth we seek, the truth that gives meaning to our journey through life, enlightens us whenever we are touched by love. One who loves realizes that love is an experience of truth, that it opens our eyes to see reality in a new way, in union with the beloved (Francis, Lumen Fidei, #27).

For Vincent de Paul martyrdom is the greatest expression of charity. Furthermore those who offer up their life in order to serve the poor are martyrs for charity because genuine love, after the fashion of God’s love, ultimately requires truth, and the shared contemplation of the truth which is Jesus Christ enables love to become deep and enduring (Francis, Lumen Fidei, #47).


Footnotes

[1] CCD:X:409; we cite here the texts from Saint Vincent de Paul according to the English edition, indicating the volume and the page number: VINCENT DE PAUL, Correspondence, Conference, Documents, translators: Helen Marie Law, DC (Vol. 1), Marie Poole, DC (Vol. 1-13b), James King, CM (Vol. 1-2), Francis Germounik, CM (Vol. 1-8 [Latin]), Esther Cavanagh, DC (Vol. 2), Ann Mary Dougherty (Vol. 12); Evelyn Franc, DC (Vol. 13a-13b), Thomas Devitt, 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 (2-13b), Julia Denton, DC (Vol. 3-10, 13a-13b), Paule Freeburg, DC (Vol.3), Paule Hamwey, DC (Vol. 3), Elinor Hartman, DC (Vol. 4-10, 13a), Ellen Van Zandt, DC (Vol. 9-13a), Ann Mary Dougherty (Vol. 11-12); anotated: John W. Carven, CM (Vol. 1-13b); New City Press, Brooklyn and Hyde Park, 1985-2009. Future reference to this work will be inserted into the text using the initials [CCD] followed by the volume number, followed by the page number. There are some studies about the significance of martyrdom according to Vincent de Paul: R. MALONEY, The Cross in Vincentian Spirituality in He hears the Cry of the Poor, New City Press, New York, 1995, p. 30-51; C. URRIZBURU, Martirio [Martyrdom], AA.VV., Diccionario de Espiritualidad Vicenciana [Dictionary of Vincentian Spirituality], Salamanca, Ceme, 1995, pp. 357-359; M. MURGIA, Martyrdom for Charity, VINCENTIANA (2009), #5 (Sept.-Oct.), pp. 409-434; V. R. TEIXEIRA, Una reflexión vicenciana sobre el Martirio [A Vincentian Reflection on Martyrdom], ANALES (2010), pp. 19-41; G-B. BERGESIO, La croce in S. Vincenzo [The Cross in Saint Vincent], ANNALI DELLA MISSIONE (1988), pp. 19-37.

[2] Cf. Mª E. GONZÁLEZ RODRÍGUEZ, El siglo de los mártires. Aproximación al contexto histórico de los años treinta del siglo XX en España [The Century of the Martyrs, the Historical Context of the 1930’s in Twentieth Centruy Spain], Madrid, EDICE, 2013; C. OSORO, La pastoral de la santidad [The Ministry of Holiness], Madrid, CEE, 2006; Mª E. GONZÁLEZ RODRÍGUEZ (ed.), La confesión de la fe [the Profession of Faith], Madrid, EDICE, 2013; V. CÁRCEL ORTÍ, Mártires españoles del siglo XX [Spanish Martyrs of the Twentieth Century, Madrid, Editorial Católica, 1995 (BAC 555); A. RICCARDI, Il secolo del martirio [The Century of Martyrs], Milán, Mondadori, 2000; A. MONTERO MORENO, Historia de la persecución religiosa en España (1936-1939) [History of the Religious Persecution in Spain (1936-1939)], Madrid, Editorial Católica, 1998 (BAC 204); V. CÁRCEL ORTÍ, La persecución religiosa en España durante la segunda República (1931-1939) [Religious Persecution in Spain during the Second Republic (1931-1939)], Madrid, Rialp, 1990; A.INFANTE – L. DÍEZ, L., Un diamante de treinta caras. Hijas de la Caridad mártires de la Fe [A Diamond of Thirty Faces: Daughters of Charity, Martyrs for the Faith], Madrid, La Milagrosa, 2012; A. ORCAJO, Misioneros Paúles, Mártires de la Fe [Vincentian Missionaries, Martyrs for the Faith], Madrid, La Milagrosa, 2013; G. GUERRA, Santi della Famiglia Vincenziana [Saints of the Vincentian Family], Roma, CLV, 2007; AA.VV., Santoral de la Familia Vicentina [Lives of the Saints of the Vincentian Family], México, Ediciones Familia Vicentina, 2000; AA.VV., Santos y Beatos de la C.M. [Saints and Blesseds of the Congregation of the Mision], CLAPVI 58 (1988).

[3] D. RUIZ BUENO, Actas de los Mártires [Acts of the Martyrs], Madrid, Editorial Católica, 1974; A. BANDURA, “ATHLETA CHRISTI” nella patristica latina dei primi quattro secoli [Athletes for Christ during the Latin Patristic Era of the First Four Centuries], Dissertazione Dottorato Pontificia Università Lateranense Istituto Patristico Agostiniano, Roma 1994; L. MEZZADRI, Le due corone: Martirio e Verginita nella Chiesa antica [The dual Crown, Martyrdom and Virginity in Ancient Christianity], Piacenza, 1993; L. MEZZADRI, El martirio en la Historia de la Iglesia, VINCENTIANA (1996), pp. 112-119; L. BOUYER (dir.), Histoire de la spiritualité chrétienne [History of Christian Spirituality], París, Aubier, 1960-1966; B. PEYROUS, Histoire de la spiritualité chrétienne [History of Christian Spirituality], Paris, Editions de l'Emmanuel, 2010; Ph. de LIGNEROLLES - J-P. MEYNARD, Historia de la Espiritualidad Cristiana: 700 Autores Espirituales [History of Christian Spirituality: 700 Spiritual Authors], Burgos, Monte Carmelo, 2007; J. SESÉ, Historia de la espiritualidad [History of Spirituality], Pamplona, Eunsa, 2008; S. SPINSANTI, Mártir [Martyr], AA.VV., Nuevo diccionario de Espiritualidad [New Dictionary of Spirituality], Madrid, Paulinas 1983, pp. 869-880; E. ANCILLI (dir.), Mártir [Martyr] in “Diccionario de espiritualidad” [Dictionary of Spirituality], Barcelona, Herder, 1987, II, 554-562; C. BROVETTO, Croce e martirio [The Cross and Martyrdom], ANNALI DELLA MISSIONE (1988), pp. 7-18; A. HAMMAN, El martirio en la antigüedad cristiana [The Martyr in Ancient Christendom], Bilbao, DDB, 1998; AA.VV., El martirio hoy, CONCILIUM (1983), número 183.

[4] Cf., C. Brovetto, Croce e martirio [The Cross and Martyrdom], Annali Della Missione (1988), pp.7-18.

[5] Pope Francis, Lumen Fidei, #5. In the Acts of the Martyrs we read the following dialogue between the Roman Prefect, Rustico and the Christian, Hierax: The judge asks the martyr, “Where are your parents?” and the martyr responds, “Our true father is Christ and our mother is faith in Christ.” For the Christians of that era faith was viewed as an encounter with the living God who is revealed in Jesus Christ … that faith was seen as a mother because it was life-giving and generated divine life, a new experience, a wonderful vision of life and as a result of this, people were willing to give public witness, even if that meant the sacrifice of their own life.

[6] Erminio Antoneloo, CM, Put on the Spirit of Jesus Christ in the thought of Saint Vincent in Vincentiana, Vol. 52 (2008), #3 (May-June), p. 171-172.

[7] Joseph Ratzinger, Church, Ecumenism and Politics, Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 2008, p. 14-15.

[8] Cf. E. ANTONELLO, Putting on the Spirit of Jesus Christ in the thought of St. Vincent in VINCENTIANA (2008), #3 (May June), p. 162-177; AA.VV, San Vicente de Paúl y Jesucristo. El Cristo de San Vicente [Saint Vincent de Paul and Jesus Christ. The Christ of Saint Vincent … translated into English: amvin.org/wiki/Vincent_de_Paul_and_Jesus_Christ:_the_Christ_of_Vincent] in “En tiempos de San Vicente de Paúl... y hoy” (In the time of Saint Vincent de Paul … and today], Salamanca, Ceme, 1997, pp. 211-221; I. FERNÁNDEZ H. DE MENDOZA, La Cristología en la vida y pensamiento de San Vicente de Paúl [Christology in the life and thought of Vincent de Paul], ANALES (1985), pp. 598-612; J. DELARUE, Vicente de Paúl, la fe que dio sentido a su vida [Vincent de Paul, the faith that gave meaning to his life], Salamanca, Ceme 1977, pp. 81-98; A. DODIN, La inspiración evangélica de la doctrina vicenciana [The Gospel Inspiration in Vincentian Doctrine] in AA.VV., Vicente de Paúl, pervivencia de un Fundador [Vincent de Paul: Perseverance of a Founder], Salamanca, Ceme, 1972, pp. 31-40; J.M LOPEZ MASIDE, San Vicente de Paúl, el hombre que centró toda su vida en Cristo [Vincent de Paul, the man who centered his life on Christ] in AA.VV., La experiencia espiritual de San Vicente de Paúl [The Spiritual Experience of Saint Vincent de Paul], Salamanca, Ceme, 2011, pp.295-331; R. MALONEY, The Christ of Vincent de Paul in The Way of Vincent de Paul, New City Press, Brooklyn, 1992, p. 19-36; L. MEZZADRI, Jésus, Flamme d’Amour [Jesus the Fire of Love] in Monsieur Vincent, temoin de l’Evangile, Animation Vincentienne, 50 (1990), pp. 73-85; A. ORCAJO, San Vicente de Paúl, un cristiano revestido del Espíritu de Cristo [Saint Vincent de Paul, a Christian clothed in the Spirit of Christ], in AA.VV., La experiencia espiritual de San Vicente de Paúl [The Spiritual Experience of Saint Vincent de Paul], Salamanca, Ceme, 2011, pp.47-73; M. PÉREZ FLORES, Revestirse del espíritu de Cristo. Expresión de la identidad vicenciana [Clothed in the Spirit of Christ: An expression of Vincentian Identity], Salamanca, Ceme, 1996, pp. 21-31; J-P. RENOUARD, Le Christ de Monsieur Vincent [The Christ of M.. Vincent], VINCENTIANA (1984), pp. 565-577 ; J-P. RENOUARD, Saint Vincent de Paul, Maître de sagesse, Paris, Nouvelle Cité, pp. 79-107; M. SAGASTAGOITIA, Cristo Misionero del Padre [Christ, the Missionary of the Father in Vicente de Paúl y la Misión [Vincent de Paul and the Mission], Salamanca, Ceme, 2006, pp. 143-182; G. TOSCANI, Il Cristo di S. Vincenzo [The Christ of Saint Vincent], VINCENTIANA (1986), pp. 357-405.

[9] SWLM:781 [A.68]); LOUISE DE MARILLAC, Spiritual Writing of Louise de Marillac, Edited and Translated from the French by Sister Louise Sullivan, DC, New City Press, Brooklyn, New York, 1991. Future references to this work will be inserted into the text using the initials [SWLM] followed by the page number, following by number of the letter or the number of the writing and/or manuscript.

[10] This same idea appears in the correspondence of Louise de Marillac: I expect much from the establishment at Nantes since persecutions are one of the signs of the value of a work (SWLM:288 [L.433]).

[11] John Paul II, Tertio Millennio Adveniente, #37; Accepting this invitation of John Paul II, the Postulator General of the Congregation of the Mission published, The Martyrs of the Vincentian Family in the 20th Century in Vincentiana, Vol. 43 (1999), #1 (January-February), p. 1-80.

[12] L. ABELLY, The Life of the Venerable Servant of God Vincent de Paul: Founder and First Superior General of the Congregation of the Mission, 3 vol., edited by John E. Rybolt, CM, translated by William Quinn, FSC, notes by Edward R. Udovic, CM and John E. Rybolt, CM, introduction by Stafford Poole, CM, New City Press, New Rochelle, New York, 1993; P. COLLET, The Life of Saint Vincent de Paul, Founder of the Congregation of the Mission and the Sisters of Charity, translated from the French by a Catholic clergyman, John Murphy and Co., Baltimore, 1845 ; P. COSTE, The Life and Works of St. Vincent de Paul, 3 vol., translated from the French by Joseph Leonard, CM, The Newman Press, Westminister, Maryland, 1952; J. M. ROMÁN, St. Vincent de Paul: A Biography, translated by Sr. Joyce Howard, DC, Melisende, London, 1999; L. MEZZADRI, San Vicente de Paúl, el santo de la caridad, [Saint Vincent de Paul, the Saint of Charity], Salamanca, Ceme, 2012.

[13] In dealing with biographical data I prefer the text of the letter that was sent to Charles Ozenne rather than the extract from the conference to the Missionaries which has been transcribed from Abelly; cf. CCD:XI:288-290.

[14] In 1657 the remains of Pedro Borguñy, together with the painting that depicts his martyrdom, were transferred by M. Le Vacher to San Lazare. In 1747 these were transferred to the Casa de Palma in Majorca; cf. CCD:V:339-340.

[15] CCD:IX:441-444; the Daughters provided an important service on the battlefield. Two of the first Sisters who were sent to Calais died while assisting the infirm soldiers … the Queen built a monument to honor these two Sisters; cf., CCD:VII:200.

[16] Those who die and give witness to their faith are called martyrs and yet the Church has used this word not only to identify those who had died in odium fidei and forgiven their enemies but has also used this word to identify those who have suffered unjustly for the cause of justice and the truth and also for the cause of virtue, especially charity. The Church recalls Saint Martin of Tours as a martyr for the cause of charity: The blessed bishop loved Christ with alkl his strength and had no fear of earthly rulers; though he did not die a martyr’s death, this holy confessor won the martyr’s palm (Antiphon before the Magnificat, November 11).

[17] On November 11, 1656, Vincent spoke similar words during the repetition of prayer: O brothers, how fortunate we are to be in a Company that professes to run to the relief of the neighbor! Charity at home, charity in the country by means of missions, charity toward poor persons; and I might add that, by the grace of God, the Company hasn’t failed to seize any opportunity that has presented itself to help poor persons in need. What a consolation for this Little Company, Messieurs, to see that, despite its insignificance, God still wills to make use of it in that way! (CCD:XI:331).

[18] Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Romans, VI:2-3.


Translated: Charles T. Plock, CM