by: Sister María Ángeles Infante, DC
(This article was published in Anales Volume 118, No. 3, May-June 2010 and has been translated and published here with the permission of the authors and publishers)
We are going to conclude this Congress with a reflection on Saint Louise de Marillac as a woman of the church. Her contemplation of the mystery of the church and the ecclesial reality of that era led her to become a woman who was guided by the Spirit and who had a deep ecclesial understanding. She did not remain in this state of reflection and contemplation … she immediately descended Tabor in order to commit herself and continue the mission of Jesus Christ. This was the manner in which she expressed herself in her wide reaching charitable experiences. She was a theologian, a woman who read the Scriptures and knew the teachings of the Council of Trent. She knew that the church was inseparable from the Holy Spirit who enlightened, strengthened and filled her. In light of her devotion to the mystery of Pentecost Louise meditated on the Church and was convinced that the Holy Spirit, who guided and perfected the church throughout history, could never be separated from the church. This theme of Louise’s ecclesial understanding was studied in depth by Rev. Corpus Juan Delgado, CM in his 1981 thesis (1).
Today, as we once again reflect on this theme, I am going to present three perspectives which, in my opinion, appear to be most relevant for the present era. The reasons that have led me to focus on these three perspectives are found in the following:
1] The fact that we call into question the Church as the mother and teacher of all those who believe in Jesus Christ. On the one hand there are some baptized men and women who say “yes” to the Christ, but “no” to the Church; on the other hand there are many people in our society who want to silence the voice of the church and her teaching. I believe that in this context we have to deepen our understanding of the vision of the church that was shared by our Founders, especially, Saint Louise.
2] We are aware of the fact that we live in a very individualistic society where we see selfishness, competition, violence and the fragmentation of family and social relationships. All of this affects the life of the Church and the different branches of the Vincentian Family. These realities impede unity and work against the communion of the mystical body of Christ, which is the church. Thus John Paul II in his pastoral program for the new millennium proposed a spirituality of communion: to make the Church the home and the school of communion: that is the great challenge facing us in the millennium which is now beginning, if we wish to be faithful to God's plan and respond to the world's deepest yearnings (Novo Millennio Ineunte, #43). This call is related to that which Saint Louise experienced, lived and taught about the church as the mystical body of Christ.
3] The economic globalization of the society in which we live and frequent natural disasters, such as the recent earthquake in Haiti, are creating situations of extreme poverty in the world. All of this demands our attention since we proclaim ourselves to be members of a church that is servant of the poor (a vision that was also shared by Vincent and Louise).
My presentation will focus on three aspects: the ecclesial understanding of the faithful of the seventeenth century, Saint Louise’s understanding of the church, and the challenges for the Vincentian Family today.
1] The ecclesial understanding of the faithful of the seventeenth century
Before developing this point I want to address the meaning of the phrase “ecclesial understanding”. In my opinion this phrase refers to the understanding that a baptized person has with regard to the mystery of the church. In other words, this phrase refers to the value and the significance that the church has in life of the Christian community and also refers to the commitments that result from membership in the church. Ecclesial understanding precedes and sustains our experience of faith with regard to the church. Saint Louise frequently reflected on this reality and spoke about this with the members of the Confraternities of Charity and the Daughters of Charity. Her writings express the ecclesial understanding of her faith:
---Louise believed and experienced that she had received the gift of faith through the church, the mother of believers. ---She experienced the reality that her faith was nourished, grew and matured through the celebration of the sacraments and the liturgical prayer of the church and the Word of God. She was convinced that faith, hope and love maintained the unity of the mystical body. ---She also knew that faith without works was death and therefore she attempted to make her dedication to charity a paradise for the poor (as presented by Rev. Benito Martínez) (2), mindful of the fact that the church is the servant of the poor and as a result she was also called to be a servant of the poor.
Having said this we affirm the fact that the ecclesial understanding of the faithful of seventeenth century France was, in general, weak. It is true that people lived in a society that was religious (different from our own society which is secular), but many people were ignorant about the truths of religion and therefore had no understanding of the meaning of the Church. Louise acquired and lived an ecclesial understanding that was not common at that time.
1.1.] The Church of the Catholic Counter-Reformation
As we know, the Catholic Counter-Reformation was the response of the Catholic Church to the Protestant Reformation that was begun by Martin Luther and that spread throughout Europe and resulted in the famous wars of religion that continued for thirty years. This situation had greatly weakened the church. The Council of Trent had created an environment for Catholic resurgence that was initiated during the reign of Pius IV (1560) and continued to the end of the thirty years war (1648). Its objectives were to renew the church and thus halt the advance of Protestant doctrine (3). During the Post-Tridentine period Saint Vincent and Saint Louise developed their apostolate of charity and their teaching and experiences with regard to the church.
We must remember that the decrees approved at Trent (1545-1563) referred to dogmatic and disciplinary aspects of the church. Its teachings remained in effect until the First Vatican Council. The themes that Trent considered revolved around four central dimensions of the life of the church: doctrine on faith, ecclesiastical restructuring, renewal of the celebration of the sacraments and the renewal of the clergy. The teaching of the Council in these areas tended to be more dogmatic and disciplinary rather than ecclesial. The spiritual renewal movement that began after the Council of Trent included the Spanish mystics of the sixteenth century and the French school of spirituality that flourished during the seventeenth century and in which we situation the faith and the spiritual experience of Louise de Marillac.
Given the fact that the Council of Trent proposed to refute the errors of the Protestant reform, the theme of ecclesiology was of secondary importance (4). René Taveneaux stated that never before in the life of the church had a Council produced as many doctrinal definitions and so many pastoral and disciplinary rules (5). Trent was very clear in stating that the church was an organized and hierarchical society. This idea was well formulated in the petition that was addressed to the Pope requesting him to approve and confirm the decrees of the Council. This petition was drawn up during the last session of the Council and presented to the Pope for the purpose of giving validity to the canons that had been approved (6).
The Council of Trent reaffirmed the traditional doctrine regarding the church and focused on the content of the Catholic faith (7). The more important conclusions of the Council that affected the experience and the ecclesial understanding of Saint Louise were the following:
• The sources of faith are Sacred Scripture and the tradition of the Church. Louise read and meditated daily on the Scriptures, first with her family and later with the Ladies of the Confraternities and then the Daughters of Charity.
• The Scriptures ought to be interpreted by the church and not as Luther said, by free interpretation thus denying the ecclesial magisterium. Louise consulted Vincent about the books to be used during meditation, careful that these were approved by the Church. She acted this way with Busée and others.
• The catechism is important and necessary in the family, in parishes and schools because this is a means to form the faith of believers. Louise engaged in the task of catechetical renewal and wrote a simple catechism on the truths of the faith, adapted for boys and girls in the schools of the Daughters.
• The value of the sacrament of Baptism as entrance into the church and as a sign of divine affiliation. Louise frequently mediated on the greatness of Baptism and wrote out her meditations as a ways of instructing the Daughters of Charity.
• The consecrated bread and wine are the body and blood of Christ and not, as Luther stated, representations of Christ’s body and blood. Her meditations and teachings on the Eucharist express the depths of her faith with regard to this sacrament.
• One should honor the Blessed Virgin and the saints because they are witnesses and models of the Christian faith. Louise lived in this way and when she died she stated in her spiritual testament that the virgin should be our only mother. Louise’s writings and teachings on the saints contain numerous invitations to view them as models and witnesses (8).
We can certainly affirm that Louise is a saint with a profound understanding of the church. She is a Christian who embraced the spiritual and ecclesial renewal that the Council of Trent brought about in the church.
1.2.] The ecclesial understanding in the order of Saint Dominic
We have to admit that there are no studies that refer to the ecclesial understanding of the Dominicans at Poissy but we do know that Saint Dominic of Guzmán was a saint with a profound ecclesial understanding (9). He founded the Order of Preachers and was a shining light in the church. The historian, Juan Álvarez Gómez stated that before founding the Order of Preachers and the Dominican Sisters Saint Dominic made two great discoveries: the discovery of the universal church that was affected by Albigensian and Catharian heresies and the discovery of the apostolic life that led him to accept as his own the great concerns of the Holy Sea with regard to the holiness and the apostolicity of the church. With courage and prudence he helped the papal legates understand that instead of preaching conversion to the heretics they ought to put aside their words and present themselves as simple and poor individuals, thus renouncing every form of pomp (10). Dominic attempted to form his followers with a profound ecclesial understanding based on the faith, the sacraments and the sound doctrine contained in the catechism of the church. Only in this way would they be able to confront the heretics and their insidious preaching against the hierarchy of the church and the sacraments. This was the Dominican legacy that Louise lived at the monastery in Poissy and that she accepted during her education.
We know that Louise was with the Dominican Sisters until she was thirteen, but those years profoundly influenced her life as a Christians and I believe that in some way her ecclesial understanding had it starting point there in Poissy … this is described by Father Corpus Delgado in his Book, Luisa de Marillac y la Iglesia (Louise de Marillac and the Church) (11).
1.3.] The ecclesial understanding in the spiritual movements of seventeenth century France
The seventeenth century in France has been called “the great century of souls”. This represented for France what the sixteenth century was for Spain. During that we saw the likes of Ignatius of Loyola, Saint Teresa of the child Jesus, Saint John of the Cross, just to mention three shining lights of Spanish spirituality. The seventeenth in France was the century of Pierre de Berulle, Francis de Sales, Vincent de Paul, Blessed Olier, Saint Jean Eudes, Louise de Marillac, Saint Jane Francis Chantal. The seventeenth century was a time of surprising renewal in France. At the same time the church in Italy, which has promoted the reform of the Church, was now weary; Germany has not been able to move beyond the violent confrontations between Catholics and Protestants; in England the “Papist” church was so concerned about its struggles against heresy and schism that it had little energy for anything else and in Spain, according to Daniel Rops, the pompous and indolent kings were not concerned about defending the faith but about strengthening their position on the throne because they no longer had an Ignatius or Teresa or a John of the Cross, but only had theologians (12).
Nevertheless the spiritual splendor of France was influenced by the spiritual movements that occurred in Italy and Spain. Italy provided the societies of apostolic life that were able to establish deep roots in France and Spain provided an ascetical movement represented by the spiritual exercises of Saint Ignatius and a mystical movement represented by the Moradas of Saint Teresa of Jesus. Bremond has viewed this presence of Spanish spirituality in France as a “mystical invasion”. Lanson wrote: “Spain inundated us with their devotion. This, however, was a mystical invasion that colonized French spirituality and in a certain sense modified the spiritual forces, that is, the exterior spiritual currents (13). All of this implies that the spirituality of the great century in France offers us its own proper characteristics:
--- Variety and originality, fruit of the influence that the French spirituality exercised on the spirituality that came from other countries. These forces, among which we find Vincent and Louise, were able to change the face of the Church in France. --- The devout humanism of Saint Francis de Sales which surpassed the renascent anthropocentrism and became a true Christian movement whose center was Jesus Christ, the founder and head of the Church (14). --- Asceticism proposed by the Council of Trent to overcome the inclination to evil, an inclination shared by all people … this asceticism, however, highlighted the people’s ability to do good and under the guidance of the Holy Spirit [the only source of mystical experience as shown by the life of Saint Louise (15)] to make the holiness of the Church shine forth.
Jean Calvet, in his book Luisa de Marillac (Louise de Marillac), states: I would be satisfied if we were able to highlight the originality of Louise and thus reveal her true greatness. She is one of the greatest women among all French women (16). In this context of renewal Louise is one of the shining stars of the church.
1.4.] The ecclesial understanding that Vincent de Paul lived and communicated to Louise de Marillac
When Louise placed herself under the spiritual direction of Saint Vincent de Paul, he was at that time a man of the church, an apostolic man. He was fully involved in the mission and charity. From 1617 on he established more than twenty Confraternities of Charity in the villages that were part of the de Gondi estate and was about to establish the Congregation of the Mission. Louise was a widow, thirty-four years old and had experienced great suffering. Beginning in 1625 Louise was guided by Vincent. With respect and affection he accepted Louise and guided her so that she could discover the will of God. Both Vincent and Louise walked the path of Divine Providence. Without Vincent de Paul, Louise would never have become the woman in the church that she was able to become.
Vincent was able to focus Louise on the apostolic mission of the church. Vincent’s commitment to the poor came from within him and overflowed into his heart while Louise was drawn to this commitment by a desire for her own personal satisfaction. Vincent helped Louise discover and recognize the Church as the servant of the poor.
Vincent was able to convince Louise of the fact that the church and every Christian continue the mission of Christ, servant and evangelizer of the poor. To do what the Son of God did while on earth was the only objective of the Missionaries and the Daughters of Charity. Vincent, with his meekness and prudence (virtues learned from Jesus Christ and Francis de Sales) helped Louise understand that God is love and wants us to go to him through love (CCD:I:81) (18).
This is their first rule. As the years passed Louise took on the thinking and the ecclesial understanding of her spiritual director. Slowly Louise began to see the poor as flesh of her flesh, the presence of the humiliated Christ whom she was called to serve with passion and dedication. Her interior life and the strength of the Spirit that sustained her enabled her to give life to the mission of charity in the church (19).
2.] The ecclesial understanding of Louise de Marillac
Louise’s concept of Church was formed during her infancy and youth and left a deep impression on her. This concept is reflected in her Rule of life in the world which was written when she was a widow and when Vincent de Paul was her spiritual director. In this Rule she presented herself as a pious woman who proposed to cultivate her interior life and at the same time she desired to participate in the apostolic mission of the Church: I shall try never to be idle … I shall work cheerfully either for the Church or for the poor or for my household (SWLM:689-690 [A.1]) (20). This commitment reflects how the church occupied an important place in her life and therefore she had to give the church her time and effort. She was convinced that she had received the gift of faith and equally convinced that faith without works was meaningless. Work with and for the poor was on the same level as work for the church and surely this idea was inspired and strengthened by Vincent de Paul. Her ecclesial understanding took on a very concrete expression: a commitment to the poor and beginning in 1625 she would grown in her ecclesial understanding.
At the end of her rule we find another important reference to the Church: I shall fast on all Fridays of the year; during Advent and Lent; on the vigils of the feasts of Our Lord, the Blessed Virgin and the Apostles, and on all days of fast prescribed by the Church. On days on which there is no fast, I shall take only two meals unless necessity or condescension obliges me to do otherwise. I would like to spend eight or ten days in retreat twice a year. One would be during the period between the Feast of the Ascension and Pentecost in order to honor the grace which God bestowed on his Church by giving it his Holy Spirit to guide it and by commissioning his apostles to preach the gospel to all nations. At this time, I would strive to be particularly attentive to the Word of God and to his law expressed in his commandments. The others day of retreat would be during Advent (SWLM:691 [A.1]).
Louise de Marillac never wrote a treatise on the Church but her spiritual experience, her faith, her teaching and her ministry are deeply impregnated with an ecclesial understanding, always united to the action of the Holy Spirit in the Church on Pentecost. In her prayer she frequently turns her attention to the church and reflects on its nature and mission.
2.1.] The Church is the mother of believers
This was Louise’s contemplative insight that she received during her retreat in the year 1657. Louise recalled the coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost: the Father gives the Holy Spirit the whole Church, in general and in particular, gives the Holy Spirit all souls. The Holy Spirit makes the Church the mother of believers by instructing and strengthening her in the truths which the Incarnate Word had taught her (SWLM:820 [A.26]) during his life on earth. The Spirit will enable the Apostles and all Christians to deepen and better understand the truths revealed by Jesus Christ. Little by little the Spirit will transform each believer by operating in them holiness of life by the merits of the Word Incarnate (SWLM:820 [A.26]) because the spirit illuminates and guides the Church.
Louise, a reflective woman with a profound interior life and a sharp mind, meditated on the Church as the mother of believers. She also reflected on the specific commitments that resulted from the experience of continuing the mission of Jesus Christ in his Church: I believe that this is what Our Lord wished to convey to his apostles when he told them that, after the coming of the Holy Spirit, they would also bear witness to him. This is what all Christians must do, not by bearing witness to the doctrine of Christ, which is the prerogative of apostolic men, but by the perfect actions of true Christians. Blessed are those persons who, under the guidance of divine Providence, are called upon to continue the ordinary practices of the life of the Son of God through the exercise of charity (SWLM:821 [A.26]).
To give witness to Jesus Christ, to continue the mission of Jesus Christ through the exercise of charity, to life and die in the faith of Jesus Christ and to live and minister as sons and daughters of the Church, these are the commitments that express Louise’s position as a daughter of the Church. Louise did not write down her commitments as the fruit of some sentimental devotion, but rather she was fully aware of the fact that she had pledged her life to the poor. Guided by the Holy Spirit she wanted her commitments to become a real and visible experience. Luke Vincent de Paul, her spiritual director, she was able to affirm: Such is my belief and such is my experience (CCD:II:316).
Louise’s experience of being a faithful daughter of the church was expressed in the way she read and meditated on the Scriptures, in the way she celebrated the liturgy, especially the holy sacrifice of the Mass, in the way she prayed and in her fidelity to the Church’s magisterium: respectful, attentive and devout. Her ecclesial understanding was not limited to the personal level. When she visited the Confraternities of Charity she took on the role of catechist, teacher and formator of teachers for the parish schools. She formed women’s groups and instructed them in the faith and the interior life, accompanying them and guiding them, counseling and orienting them in their practice of charity with the poor. She created groups of laywomen catechists who gave witness to the Church as the mother of believers.
As founder, counselor and spiritual advisor of laywomen and Sisters, Louise expressed her ecclesial understanding (21). She directed retreats and gave constant witness to her faith in her teachings and in her visits to the communities, in her meetings with the Ladies of Charity, in her conferences and correspondence. She told the Daughters of Charity that they were to be daughters of the Church in two different ways: first, as Christians and then, as Daughters of Charity. She was convinced that the company was a new entity in the life of the Church, an entity that was united with the Church’s charitable mission. The Holy Spirit had raised up this society of apostolic life in the Church in order that its members might reveal God’s love for the poor and thus highlight the charity of the Church, our mother. Therefore she affirmed: we have the double happiness of being Daughters of the holy Church and, being admitted in this manner, will this not be a new obligation for us to live and to act as children of such a Mother, something that requires great perfection (SWLM:203 [L.179).
This ecclesial understanding led Louise to write a catechism to be used by the Daughters and lay teachers in the parish schools. Louise taught the Sisters that to live and act as daughters of the Church they had to accept the authority of its representatives: the Pope, the bishops and the pastor of each parish. The pastors must be made to understand the specific vocation of the Company, its identity and its objectives in the Church. When conflicts and misunderstandings arise that are not in accord with the gospel message, the Sisters will present their objections but then submit themselves in blind obedience to the pastor. This occurred with the pastor in Chors and the bishop of Nantes (22)
2.2.] The Church is the mystical body of Christ
In the first edition of his book, The Church, a community always on the road (23), published in 1991, Cardinal Ratzinger developed at length the origin of this concept of the Church as the mystical body of God. The cardinal began with Paul’s affirmation in his letter to the Romans (Romans 12:3-6). Saint Louise used this same text to formulate her image of the Church’s cooperation. Cardinal Ratziner affirmed that Paul was not introducing something new when he called the Church the body of Christ. Rather he was offering a concise formula to indicate that which from the beginning was characteristic of our knowledge about the Church (24), a knowledge that was obtained through the action of the Holy Spirit. It is a way of expressing the experience of the unity and the communion of the primitive Church: see how they love one another. Paul was concerned about the union and communion in the new church at Corinth. There were rivalries, conflicts and divisions. Some were followers of Paul; others followed Apollos. As a result of the different charisms that had been received people were in competition with one another … thus the apostle reminded the people about the image of the body of Christ and he applied this image to the community at Corinth: If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But as it is, God placed the parts, each one of them, in the body as he intended … There are many parts, yet one body (1 Corinthians 12:17-19).
Saint Louise directed her attention to the church as the body of Christ and had the same concern as the apostle, Paul. The new Company of the Daughters of Charity experienced trials and moments of crisis, rivalries and conflicts which threatened to destroy the unity of the community. Louise reflected on these matters, asked for the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and wrote: When our Lord told the apostles of the consolation that the coming of the Holy Spirit would afford them … the Spirit infused into this mystical body the union of works, giving them the power to perform miracles … and operated in them holiness of life by the merits of the Word Incarnate (SWLM:820 [A.26]). Louise made it very clear that the Company of the Daughters of Charity is part of the mystical body of Christ, which is the Church inspired by the Holy Spirit who creates union among its members, who leads the members to holiness and who gives them strength to give courageous witness to Jesus Christ and to work wonders among the poor. These wonders are gracious and disinterested service to the poor --- service that makes no distinction between color, race, country of origin or situation, a service that views the poor as the preferred members of the body of Christ.
All of Louise’s work reveals the function of the poor in the Church. The poor cannot be ignored, despised, or manipulated: to do so would be to ignore, despise, or manipulate the mystical body of Christ. This was Louise’s firm conviction. Therefore, guided by Vincent de Paul, Louise worked tirelessly in the formation of the women who were members of the confraternities of Charity that were established by Vincent. This conviction and this faith position had to be continually reaffirmed. In her letters Louise stated: We must respect and honor everyone: the poor because they are members of Jesus Christ and our masters (SWLM:468 [L.424]). A reason to respect the rich is the following: they will provide us with the means to do good for the poor (SWLM:468 [L.424]).
This conviction brings with it a definite commitment: to allow oneself to be led and guided by the Spirit in order to give witness to Jesus Christ, to give witness not so much to the doctrine of Jesus Christ but to give witness by works of charity (cf. SWLM:821 [A.26]). The power of this commitment led Louise to refer to the function of women within the mystical body of Christ which is the Church. She was not some modern radical feminist but yes, she highlighted the role of women in the Church: It is very evident, in this century, that Divine Providence willed to make use of women to show that it was his goodness alone which desired to aid afflicted persons and to bring them powerful aids for their salvation (SWLM:789 [A.56]).
These words refer to the Ladies of Charity, whose works and concerns were shared by Louise throughout her life. These words could also be applied to the Daughters of Charity, the servants of the poor, who on a daily basis assisted the most abandoned members of society, providing them with humble services. The life of the members of the Confraternities and the Daughters of Charity demonstrate that Louise de Marillac had confidence in these women and their ability to overcome the difficulties and the temptations of a life of total dedication to the poor in the midst of the world and its trials and tribulations. Louise and Vincent gathered together men and women, priests and sisters, to serve and evangelize the poor, the preferred members of Jesus Christ. The vastness of the task that had to be accomplished pointed out the need for real collaboration in order to be effective in their ministry. At difficult moments, when Louise felt the Sisters were tired or had lost their enthusiasm, she reminded them that such behavior/attitudes weakened the mystical body of Christ and harmed the poor, the weakest and most preferred members of the body: Where are the gentleness and charity that you must preserve so carefully when dealing with our dear masters, the sick poor? If we deviate in the slightest from the conviction that they are the members of Jesus Christ, it will infallibly lead to the weakening of these beautiful virtues in us (SWLM:113 [L.104b]).
Louise’s convictions with regard to the Church as the mystical body of Christ were reflected throughout her life and her countless experiences. She was most aware of this reality and lived with the conviction that the Church was inseparable from the Holy Spirit. Encouraged by this fact, Louise was a woman of the Church and wanted every Daughter of Charity and every member of the Confraternities of Charity to live as daughters of the Church. Therefore she asked them to adhere to and obey the magisterium of the Church and to respect the pastors and bishops. She herself lived this way. Nonetheless, when some pastor or bishop interfered in the mission, suggesting or demanding things that were not in accord with the gospel and its imperative to serve the poor, she courageously expressed her objections and disagreement. We see this in her relationship with the pastor in Chars, a follower of Jansenism (25). Because the poor are the preferred members of Jesus Christ, Louise was tireless and dedicated herself to charitable action: beginning in 1629 she traveled from town to town visiting the Confraternities of Charity and in 1633, together with Vincent de Paul, established the Daughters of Charity to serve the poor in their spiritual and material need.
Louise’s unconditional adherence to the Church, the hierarchical body of Christ, is revealed and expressed in her respect and veneration of the Pope, the representative of Christ and the head of the Church. This attitude was also expressed in a letter that she wrote to M. Antoine Portail when he was in Rome: You are at the source of the holy Church and near its head, the Holy Father of all Christians. I have so often wished to be there in order to receive, as a child --- though an unworthy one --- his holy blessing (SWLM:202 [L.179]). She had hoped that before her death the Company of the Daughters of Charity would receive Pontifical approval. This, however, would not come about until eight years after her death (26). On February 10, 1960, Pope John XXIII, on the occasion of the 300th anniversary of Louise’s death, recognized her unconditional adherence to the church and declared her the patroness of all charitable associations and the social work of the Church of God (27).
2.3.] The Church, servant of the poor
From the beginning of Christianity, the church is and has revealed herself as the servant of the poor. This ecclesial characteristic was highlighted in a very outstanding manner during the first four centuries. The doctrine of the Church Fathers, especially as found in the text of Saint Basil of Caesarea in times of hunger, expresses this idea in a very profound way. After the fourth century this perspective appears to have gradually been lost sight of and this continued into the present era. Saint Vincent de Paul is one of the individuals who, through his faith and experience, brought this ecclesial perspective to the forefront. Pope Benedict xvi expressed this perspective in the #28 of his encyclical, Deus caritas est. He affirmed the church as servant and stated the church is not some power that is parallel to civil power nor is it in competition with civil entities in the area of authority.
Saint Louise’s understanding of the Church resulted from the influence of her spiritual director and counselor, Vincent de Paul. At the center of his faith was the conviction that the Church and every Christian continues the mission of Jesus Christ, evangelizer of the poor. To do what the Son of God did, to be the servant and evangelizer of the poor, is the only objective of the priests of the Mission and the Daughters of Charity (28).
In her prayer Louise contemplated the events of Pentecost: after the coming of the Holy Spirit the apostles became witnesses of Christ crucified and raised to new life. She was convinced that ministering to the poor and tending to their human and spiritual promotion was a gospel demand and consequently a way to give witness to the risen Lord. The many commitments of the Daughters of Charity on behalf of the poor sick and abandoned children and the galley slaves reveal Louise’s concern for those people living on the margins of society and thus excluded from full participation in society. All of this was doee from the perspective of conviction which is more powerful than ideology. Thus Louise experienced the church as servant of the poor. For this reason Louise insisted that the Daughters of Charity were to be servants: The Daughters of Charity must recall and possess the qualities of servants of the poor in order to remain faithful to their duty (SWLM:456-456 [L.419].
Louise’s works make visible her experience: schools of charity, ministry to the sick poor in their homes, serving the infirm in hospitals, organizing a ministry to care for the abandoned children, serving the galley salves, caring for the mentally challenged, serving the elderly in Nom-de- Jesús, the formation of the Ladies of the Charity and the Daughters of Charity, etc.
Imbued with the mystery of the church, Louise lived and acted as a Daughter of the church. She opened herself to the church. Jean Calvet has called her the saint of the Holy Spirit and stated that she allowed herself to be guided by the Spirit in the same as the early Christians who facilitated the growth and the expansion of the Church, the servant of the poor. In my opinion, the biography written by Rev. Benito Martínez Metanzos, Empeñada en un paraíso para los pobres (Creating a Paradise for the poor) contains the best account of her ecclesial experience from the perspective of being and understanding herself as a member of the church that is servant of the poor. At the end of her life Louise reflected on her ministry in the church and wrote: It could be objected that one of the main functions of the establishment of the Confraternity and the Company of the Daughters of Charity is the spiritual service of the sick poor. We are all convinced of the truth of this. May God be glorified for it! She then continued with a succinct account of the ministry and the good that the Sisters were able to accomplish and added: Would to God that it had not been necessary to mention it, since this manner of acting is in keeping with the first commandments of the Founder of the Company, Jesus Christ, speaking through His servant (SWLM:833 [A.100]). The church, founded by Jesus Christ, is the servant of the poor and the members of the Confraternities of Charity are also servants of the poor. This was what Louise thought and experienced.
3] Challenges for the Vincentian Family today
We have reflected on Louise’s ecclesial understanding and experience in order to learn from her how to respond to the challenges that today’s society presents to her threefold perspective on the Church. It is interesting to note that her profound reflections on the church occurred during her retreat in 1657, just three years before her death. They were the fruit of her theological journey and her faith journey. They were not just beautiful ideas and notes for a conference or some instruction. Rather they express what she thought and experienced with regard to the Church. What can we learn from this great saint and woman?
The challenges that stem from the dominant and growing secularization of our society: Louise teaches us that we, as a Vincentian Family, have to commit ourselves in order to be faithful to our baptismal promises and we also have to form ourselves in order to give courageous and committed witness. In her time there was much religious ignorance; in our time that ignorance is more noteworthy and obvious. The moral relativism that we see everywhere affects the faith and the lifestyle of many believers. Saint Vincent and Saint Louise knew people who were baptized and who had renounced their faith … and we do also. Louise teaches us to form ourselves as catechists and to form other catechists. This is a challenge that we have before us, one that Louise confronted courageously and creatively. As members of the Vincentian Family we have an urgent task to accomplish in the church: to catechize and to minister in such a way that the church, the mother of believers, continues to be mother and teacher. All of us can form ourselves and in doing so we deepen our life of faith and in turn strengthen the faith of other believers, especially the faith of children and young men and women (this does not mean that we forget adults and the elderly). As Vincentian we are called to defend the church in the same way that Louise did when confronting the pastor of Chars or the Duchess Liancourt, who followed Jansenist doctrine. The challenge of rampant individualism in our society: As members of the same family in the church we have an obligation to foster communion among us. Louise de Marillac, when she reflected on the church as the mystical body of Christ, meditated on the union among the members, the union that gave vitality to the body and thus enabled the body to fulfill its mission of salvation. This Congress is an initial step in a journey that must be continued. After the Second Vatican Council the Ladies of Charity changed their name to the International Association of Charity and took as their motto: against poverty acting together. This is a call that needs an on-going response. The pastoral program of the church that John Paul II has offered at the beginning of the third millennium has as one of its lines of action: to work in order to create, accept and live a spirituality of communion. We are encouraged to give witness of union and mutual charity to our world so that people might believe the words of Jesus: That all may be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you (John 17:21).
Together we are called to become aware of and confront the causes of poverty; together we are called to act on behalf of life; together we are called to engage in projects of formation in our charism; together we are called to plan and promote programs on behalf of the poor. Philanthropy is not enough. Rather it is necessary that our spirituality of communion (a spirituality that we have received from the gospel and from Saint Louise and Saint Vincent) becomes more solid and stronger so that today we can be credible witnesses. I hope and pray that this Congress will produce ecclesial fruits of mutual communion among the different groups and communities of the Vincentian Family so that we can serve and evangelize the poor of our world. In this way we give life to the motto of this gathering: mission and charity.
The challenge of the economic crisis and the drama of Chile, Haiti and other countries: We remember that Louise de Marillac invites us and calls us to follow her example. She acted on behalf of the poor. She was not some pious woman concerned only about her own personal salvation. She knew that the church of Jesus Christ is a church that is servant of the poor. She established networks of evangelical charity that continue to be vital even today. At the end of her life she experienced a certain satisfaction in knowing that much help and many services had been provided to the poor. But she was especially happy in knowing that many people had come to know God and had come to experience themselves as saved by God as a result of the missions that were given by the members of the Congregation of the Mission and the charity of the Ladies of the Confraternities and the services provided by the Daughters of Charity.
Our world continues to generate new forms of poverty. There are people who seldom read the Scriptures and do not attend church services, but they believe in God who inspires people to serve the poor. We have seen multiple gestures in this regard as people have reached out to assist the people of Haiti after the earthquake there. With Louise de Marillac we ask God that this Congress might serve as a platform which enables us to better organize ourselves as the Vincentian Family in Spain so we can join together as true servants of the poor. The church is and will always be the servant of the poor or else it runs the risk of not being the church of Jesus Christ. As Vincentians we are invited to respond with greater solidarity, with a greater commitment. We are invited:
--- to cultivate the power of our charim through prayer and thus achieve a greater identification with Jesus Christ, the servant and the evangelizer of the poor … in this way we continue the mission of Jesus. --- to act together in order to attend to the needs of the poor. --- as a result of networking, to provide effective assistance and therefore make real the principles of systemic change. --- to become convinced of the need for on-going formation in order to be faithful to the charism and in order to acquire the necessary competencies to be good servants of the poor. --- to guard the relationship of communion among the members of our branches and communities, making each group and community a home and a school of communion.
(1) Delgado Rubio, Corpus Juan, Luisa de Marillac y la Iglesia (Louise de Marillac and the Church), CEME, Salamanca, 1981.
(2) Martínez Betanzos, Benito, La Señorita La Gras and Santa Luisa de Marilla (Madame La Gras and Saint Louise de Marillac), CEME, Salamanca, 1991.
(3) Cf., Rops, Daniel, “La reforma católica” (“The Catholic Reform”), Historia de la Iglesia (History of the Church), Volume VII, Editorial Circulos de Amigos de la Historia, Madrid, 1970.
(4) Alberigo, G., L’Ecclesiologia del Concilio di Trento (The Ecclesiology of the Council of Trent), pp. 232-233.
(5) Cf., Taveneaux, René, El Catolicismo en la Francia clásica del siglo XVII (Catholicism in Classical France of the seventeenth century), Prologue, Editorial Universidad de Deusto, Bilbao, 2001.
(7) Cf., Álvarez Gómez, Jesús, Manual de Historia de la Iglesia (Manual on the Hisotry of the Church), chapter XLII and XLIII on the Reformation of the Post-Tridentine Church, Edirotial Claretiana, Buenos Aires, 1979.
(8) Cf., Jedin, H. Historia del Concilio de Trento (History of the Council of Trent), Vol. IV, Editorial Pamplona, 1972.
(9)Cf., Carro, V.D., Domingo de Guzmán, Historia Documentada (Dominic of Guzmán, a Documented History) Madrid, 1973; Galmes, L. and Gómez, V.T., Santo Domingo de Guzman, Fuentes para su conocimiento (Saint Dominic of Guzman, sources for knowledge about him), BAC, Madrid, 1987.
(10) Álvarez Gómez, Jesús, Historia de la vida religiosa (History of Religious Life), Three volumes, Vol. II, Editorial Claretiana, Madrid, 1998, pp. 338-339.
(11) Delgado Rubio, Corpus Juan, Luisa de Marillac y la Iglesia (Louise de Marillac and the Church), CEME, Salamanca, 1981, p. 55.
(12)Rops, D., La Iglesia de los tiempos clásicos (The Church of the classical era), p. 64.
(13) Álvarez Gómez, Jesús, Historia de la vida religiosa (History of religious life), 3 vols., Editorial Claretiana, Madrid, 1998, Vol, II, p. 358-359.
(14) Cf., Eymard Dángers, J., El humanism cristiano en el S. XVII (Christian Humanism in the Seventeenth Century), La Haya, 1970; Bremond H., Historia literaria del sentimiento religioso (Literary history of religious sentiments), III, “La conquista mistica: La escuela francesa” (The mystical conquest: the French School), Paris, 1921.
(15) Calvet, Jeano, Luisa de Marillac, (Louise de Marillac), CEME, Salamanca, 1977, pp. 110-146.
(16) Ibid., p. 10.
(17) Martínez Betanzos, Benito, La Señorita Le Gras y Santa Luisa de Marillac (Mlle. Le Gras and Saint Louise de Marillac), CEME, Salamanca, 1991, p. 21.
(18) Correspondence, Conferences, Documents … The newly translated, edited and annotated edition of the 1920 edition of Pierre Coste (14 volumes New City Press, N.Y.) … Future references to this work are noted in the text with the initials CCD, followed by the volume number in roman numerals, followed by the page number. Therefore, CCD:I:81 is Volume I (one), page 81 of Correspondence, Conferences and Documents.
(19) Martínez Betanzos, B., op. cit., p. 22.
(20) Spiritual Writings of Louise de Marillac, Edited and translated from the French by Louise Sullivan, DC, New City Press, 1991. Future references to this work will appear in the text with the initials SWLM, followed by the page number, followed by the letter number or thought number in the English text. Therefore SWLM:689-690 [A.1] is Spiritual Writings of Louise de Marilac, page 689-690, thought number A.1.
(21) Cf. Infante Barrera, Sister María Ángeles, Vincentian Studies Week (2009), “Conference: Louise de Marillac, formator of the laity, CEME, Salamanca, 2009.
(22) Charpy, Sister Elisabeth, Un camino de santidad, Luisa de Marillac (A path of holiness, Louise de Marillac), pp.105-110.
(23) Ratzinger, Joseph, La Iglesia, una comunidad siempre en camino (The Church: a community always on the road) 3rd edition, San Pablo, Madrid, 2005, pp. 30-41.
(24) Ibid., p. 30.
(25) Charpy, Sister Elisabeth, op. cit., pp.105-110.
(26) Genesis de la Compañía de las Hijas de la Caridad (Beginnings of the Company of the Daughters of Charity), pp.25-27.
(27) Poissenet, Dominique, “De la angustia a la santidad” (From anguish to holiness), Biografia de Santa Luisa de Marillac (Biography of Saint Louise de Marillac), Studium, pp. 287-290.
(28) Cf., Delgado Rubio, Corpus Juan, CM, Santa Luisa de Marillac, op. cit., p. 72.
Translated by Charles T. Plock, CM