St. Vincent and the Challenge of Poverty

St. Vincent and the Challenge of Poverty

The social costs of poverty capture much attention as our society questions expenditures for welfare. Frequently the relatively small outlays for the needs of the indigent, sensationalized by citing a notorious "welfare cheat," distract us from the fundamental question of the right of all to the basic needs for a dignified human life whether or not they can supply these themselves. Most people carry in their subconscious a conviction, seeded when communities were more homogeneous, that the community should provide the basic necessities of its dependent members. Cyclically, however, prophets have to awaken that subliminal conviction when people forget it.

In seventeenth century France St. Vincent de Paul carried out just such a function. First his own conscience had to be stirred. The young Vincent de Paul had taken orders with the goal of providing for his future by means of a lucrative benefice. He began his climb up the ladder of ecclesiastical preferment with his appointment as one of the chaplains in the household of Queen Marguerite de Valois, the witty and light hearted first wife of King Henry IV who in her old age had added a fondness for piety to her many other interests. Vincent was entrusted with the distribution of the queen's generous alms which included the support of a hundred poor people and forty exiled English priests, dowries for poor girls and periodic distributions of money and food in Paris.

At this time the saint experienced a conversion which transformed his compassion for the poor into the conviction that he had to devote himself to alleviate their burdens wherever he met them. One sees this when he served as pastor of the parish of Chatillon-les-Dombes, near Lyons in 1617. In the parish he discovered a family, poor, ill and unable to care for its needs. From the pulpit he appealed to the charity of his parishioners who responded generously. But he realized that the needs of the poor are ongoing. Therefore he organized the first Confraternity of Charity, a parochial organization with personnel and resources in place to step into action whenever a need for assistance arose in the locale. Wherever Vincent sent his priests to preach a parish mission, they founded a Confraternity of Charity. The preaching and instruction aimed at rekindling the faith and moral life of the community. But the saint was convinced that the systematic outreach to the needy neighbor constituted an essential dimension of mature faith. Vincent de Paul's unique contribution to the service of the poor was his organizational skills. Copies of the regulations of these Confraternities of Charity have survived. Women constituted the backbone of these groups. The saint's regulations prescribed the conduct of the meetings, the structure of the organization, the conditions for admission, the system to be followed in bringing food and medicines to the poor, and the revenues to be tapped for these works. Besides the alms boxes placed in churches and taverns, some confraternities maintained flocks of sheep and herds of cattle whose wool and milk products brought funds to its coffers.

This essentially local form of public assistance was limited to meeting the needs of specific segments of the population. When the movement took root in Paris and other cities confraternities were founded not only in the parishes but in the hospitals and the jails where the poor were concentrated. For these organizations he recruited the support and involvement of the aristocratic ladies of Paris. The lot of the patients of the Hotel-Dieu, the Foundling Hospital, and the prisons improved significantly as a result of the generosity and regular visits of these women.

Although Vincent de Paul structured the confraternities as self governing, entities, he retained a concern for their vibrancy. To guarantee this he found in the zeal and intelligence of Saint Louis de Marillac a perfect collaborator. She visited systematically the confraternities of Paris in order to reanimate their zeal and correct irregularities which crept into their operations. Louise ventured beyond the capital to oversee confraternities in other cities and towns.

As the responsibilities of the confraternities multiplied the periodic and volunteer services of their members could not sustain services which demanded the continuity of daily attention. Young women came forward to volunteer to provide this service. The first was Margaret Naseau. She joined with Louise de Marillac as the first Daughter of Charity. These volunteers grew and they formed a new brand of religious life, unconfined to convents, whose cloister was the city streets and whose chapel was the local parish church.

Poverty in seventeenth century France, however, was more than a local concern. The French wars of religion had convulsed many provinces and driven the peasants to seek refuge behind the walls of cities. There they turned to begging as their only means of support. The civil authorities sought to eliminate or at least to regulate these beggars who harassed the citizens and strained the resources of the city. But some beggars resisted all efforts at control.

In 1621 when passing through the city of Macon Vincent de Paul met this problem firsthand. The streets were filled with beggars who hounded passersby, were ignorant of basic religious truths and indifferent to religious practice. He interrupted his journey in order to remedy the situation. He proposed a plan to the city fathers dear to the heart of any bureaucrat. It promised to "do away with importunate beggars" without incurring any further expense. They called it an inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

He established a confraternity of men and women with exclusive responsibility for the poor. Churches and wealthy citizens agreed to supply funds and goods to the association. The city funneled some fines to the group. A survey turned up a list of three hundred poor persons. The distribution of food, clothing and fuel was centralized at one church and the quantities were adapted to the size of the families. The group served not only the indigent but it supplemented the income of the working poor who could not meet all of their needs by their own labor. Anyone who had begged during the week or missed the instruction which preceded the weekly distribution or troubled the members of the Confraternity received nothing. Fifteen years later the system still flourished.

The problem of mendicancy which afflicted provincial cities assumed greater proportions in Paris. The capital served as a magnet for talent, wealth and power, and also for beggars. Periodic efforts were made to clear the streets of them. Young male beggars were at times drafted into the army. This provided only temporary relief. In 1611 a new law aimed at providing a permanent solution It required all able bodied men to find employment or report to centers in the city where they were to be given work. Hospices were established for the sick, women and children. All beggars born in the provinces had eight days to leave the city.

The measure proved a startling success, Overnight Paris was transformed. Not one of the almost ten thousand beggars remained on the streets. Yet only ninety-one presented themselves for confinement in the workhouses. In six weeks the number of inmates rose to eight hundred. But the remainder disappeared preferring to live by their wits than confined to the hostels.

The measure was renewed the following year. Citizens were forbidden to give alms on the streets. Men caught begging faced the lash and a sentence in the galleys. Delinquent women were also whipped and had their heads shaved. For a few years the law worked but by 1616 a citizen complained that "the churches and streets are packed with soldiers, blackguards, lackeys, men and women, all begging, and to such an extent that a man cannot find a corner to transact business or say a "Pater Noster" without three or four interruptions, ceaseless importunities, . . ."

By 1640 an estimated forty thousand beggars roamed the streets of Paris swollen by the ravages of the Thirty Years War. The city could not support this influx. The authorities favored forcible enclosure of beggars in workhouses, i.e.,the General Hospital and its satellites throughout the city. Some citizens favored a milder policy of moderated forced confinement. St. Vincent advocated a system which would leave the beggars free to enter the General Hospital and its dependencies. A controversy over these competing plans lasted more than a decade. Vincent de Paul with the support of a wealthy citizen established the small Hospice of the Holy Name for forty residents. It proved successful. The inmates received spiritual and professional formation. The evident success of the project attracted the attention of the Ladies of Charity who suggested that it become the model for a general hospital on a larger scale.

The saint had to face the opposition of those who favored a policy of forcible enclosure. Vincent argued: "Let us accept only those who come of their own accord; let us not force anybody; such persons, being well treated and quite content, will attract other, and so little by little the numbers will increase with the resources Providence will send." But the royal administrators won out and Vincent with the Ladies of Charity abandoned their project. The new General Hospital accepted only the poor of Paris and forcibly excluded those from outside the city. The saint protested; "To establish a General Hospital, shut up in it only the poor of Paris and do nothing for those in the country is certainly not to my liking. Paris is the sponge of the whole of France; It attracts most of the gold and silver of the country. If they [the refugees] cannot enter Paris, what is to become of them, especially those poor people of Champagne, Picardy and the other provinces ruined by the wars?"

Without his knowledge he became involved in a project which he opposed when he discovered that the priests of his community were to serve as chaplains in the new General Hospital. He protested that the Vincentians had other works to attend to and refused the offer. But he did find other priests to fill the posts. He also sent some Daughters of Charity to care for the female inmates. The Ladies of Charity too, with Vincent's approval, assumed administrative functions in this institution.

Many of the activities Vincent initiated in the seventeenth century fall on the shoulders of the public interest lawyer in these times. The latter can find in the actions of this saint more than three hundred years ago a model for their efforts to serve the needs of the poor who are always with us.