The Paths of God and the Poor: The Spiritual Journey of Saint Vincent de Paul
by: Vinícius Augusto Ribeiro Teixeira, CM
The many branches that compose the Vincentian Family, groups spread out across the five continents, have received a grace that has joined them together in carrying out a specific mission in the midst of the Church and the world. As we celebrate the 350th anniversary of Saint Vincent de Paul’s death, we remember that it was in his person that the Spirit of God established a new way of following Jesus Christ through accepting the responsibility to evangelize and serve the poor. Here we also refer to a specific way of experiencing God’s love and communicating this love to one’s brothers and sisters. As we travel along the paths that were opened by Vincent we encounter a wonderful, yet challenging, journey to holiness, a journey that can lead us to a deeper understanding of our life and our freedom, a journey that can enable us to clothe ourselves in attitudes of gratitude and self-surrender and ultimately involve us in a process in which we integrate prayer and action. As we engage in this journey we encounter a man of God, who accompanied the poor, who identified himself with the person of Jesus Christ and who, as a result of all of this, was sensitive to and in solidarity with the dramas and the hopes of humanity. In this essay we attempt to accompany Vincent de Paul as He travels through history; we attempt to understand the ways in which he read and interpreted the events of life and as a result we hope to obtain some insight into Vincent’s spiritual journey that will in turn enlighten our own spiritual journey.
1] A life that questions and attracts
I:1] A childhood like others
The majority of Vincent’s biographers agree that he was born on April 24, 1581 in the small village of Pouy in southern France. More recent research, however, based on Vincent’s own testimony has established 1580 as the year of his birth (cf., CCD:XI:365, XIIIa:80, XIIIa:104) He was the third of six children born to peasant parents. At home, in order to help with the expenses, everyone worked, each one according to their ability. Vincent was given the responsibility of caring for the flock: I am the son of a humble tiller of the soil, and lived in the country until I was fifteen (CCD:IX:67). The time spent in the fields profoundly marked his manner of being and influenced the way he viewed the world. It taught him to be honest, to value work, to seek no comfort, and to trust in God. The environment and the circumstances in which an individual enters the world determines, to a certain extent, his/her personality … Vincent was no exception.
I:2] Exploring talents
Jean de Paul recognized Vincent’s ability and began to make plans for his future, foreseeing a profitable career for his son. The family used their limited resources to finance Vincent’s studies in a school that was administered by the Franciscans in the neighboring city of Dax. Aware of his parents’ expectations, he dedicated himself to his studies. His intellectual abilities were noticed by M. De Comet, a lawyer, who was also a judge in Pouy. M. De Comet invited Vincent to live in his house and tutor his two adolescent children. With the money that he earned from this work he was able to pay for his education and thus removed a heavy burden from his parents. Aided by M. De Comet, Vincent began to seek for ways to better his social-economic situation and thus began to consider an ecclesiastical career. Despite some youthful illusions, Vincent felt attracted to the priesthood. Since he did not want to be a superficial or mediocre priest, like so many of the priests in France at that time, he felt encouraged to continue his search for knowledge. Gradually his motivations began to conform to the ultimate objective of his vocation, even though these motivations were still clouded over. Paraphrasing Shakespeare we could say that in the future his definitive affection would occupy the place of his primitive desire.
I:3] Journey within
In this first phase of his life, Vincent was turned in on himself, focused on his ambitions and the interests of his family. In order to create a career for himself as a priest, he began his academic formation and provided for himself through honest work. He showed himself to be quite flexible as he sought his objectives. When he was at the University Toulouse he decided to provide lodging for university students who lived near him. In this way he was able to obtain the resources that he needed to support himself while at the same time guiding other young people in their studies.
On September 23, 1600 Vincent was ordained a priest. After much effort he had arrived at the place where he wanted to be, a place where he hoped to be able to live a comfortable life and provide for his family, especially his mother, who was now a widow. The following year he was named pastor at Tilh, a parish close to his birthplace and this appointment seemed to coincide with his aspirations: a remunerated position in a place that was close to his family. But this first benefice would also be his first great disillusionment. Vincent never took possession of this parish. The Council of Trent (1545-1563) demanded that pastors reside in their parishes but Vincent had studied in Toulouse and besides the Roman Curia had appointed another pastor. Vincent was reluctant to enter into negotiations on this matter and did not want to show his disagreement. He simply abandoned his attempts in this matter. During the same year he traveled for the first time to Rome where he was impressed by the environment of holiness (CCD:I:111-112). In 1604 he finished his studies and received a Licentiate in Theology. He was prepared to obtain an honest benefice that would guarantee him a good life and enable him to support his family. He continued his search. In this period we also place the events that surround the controversy of his captivity. According to Vincent he had been captured during a trip and sold as a slave. All the details of this were written out in two letters (CCD:I:1-11) both of which were addressed to a brother of M. De Comet, his former protector. In 1607 Vincent traveled for a second time to Rome with the hope of obtaining a benefice … this time under the protection of a vice-legate of the Pope whom he knew in Avignon. He remained in the Eternal City until the following year but obtained nothing. In the midst of these failures and disillusionments he gradually became aware of the need to listen to the voice of God.
Up to this time Vincent’s vision was very limited. Therefore he had to continue his journey through life. With the passing of time he rediscovered his vocation as the true path of holiness and not simply as a stepping stone that enabled him to climb the social ladder. In his interior it became clear that the road to evangelical perfection was directly opposed to his own personal plan of seeking a career. But in order to come to this awareness Vincent had to pass through a profound purifying crisis; he had to confront deceptions that resulted from the choices he made and he had to make a break with previous realities in order to embrace a new plan for his life. In fact, the path of life does not run in parallel lines. There are times when it is necessary to begin anew, to take a step back in order to advance with more vigor. As the years passed Vincent’s mature perception of his vocation led him to dissuade his young nephew who sought the priesthood as a way to obtain status: If I had known what it was when I had the temerity to enter it --- as I have come to know since then --- I would have preferred to till the soil then to commit myself to such a formidable state of life (CCD:V:569). When dealing with vocational discernment, Vincent showed himself to be practical and sensible, as in this letter that was addressed to a lawyer who sought sacred orders: This example [of Our Lord, the eternal priest] together with my experience of the disorders produced by priests who have not made the effort to live according to the holiness or their specific character, cause me to advise those who ask my opinion about receiving it, not to do so unless they have a genuine call from God and a pure intention of honoring Our Lord by the practice of His virtues and the other signs of His Divine Goodness is calling them to it (CCD:VII:479-480). Until the end of his life Vincent remained convinced of this reality and communicate this to others: I often say this to such applicants, and I have said it more than a hundred times when preaching to the country folk (CCD:VII:480). As a result of his various frustrated endeavors, Vincent’s horizons appeared confused, as though he was enveloped in a dense cloud. But as the haze dissipated and the illusions were calmed, Vincent was able to expand his vision and saw before him paths that previously were not imagined or recognized.
I:4] Journey to the encounter with God and the poor
After having traveled along torturous and dark paths in search of a profitable social position, young Vincent arrived in Paris. It is now 1608, the beginning of a period of intense discernment and new discoveries. He wrote to his mother and described his situation: The prolonged sojourn which I must necessarily make in this city in order to regain my chances for advancement (which my disasters took from me) grieves me, because I cannot come to render you the services I owe you. But I have such trust in God’s grace, that He will bless my efforts and will soon give me the means of an honorable retirement so that I may spend the rest of my days near you (CCD:I:15-16). The frustrations and the challenges that he mentioned brought about a true transformation in his life. His perspective was change, his faith was purified and he discovered another way to lead his life. Years later, this new vision enabled him to write the following words to one of the Missionaries: Let us be steadfast in this precious trust in God, the strength of the weak and the eye of the blind. And, although things may not go according to our views and way of thinking, let us have no doubt that Providence will bring them to the point necessary for our greater good (CCD:III:159-160).
In 1609 Vincent is unjustly and publically accused of theft by a compatriot who shared lodging with Vincent. The situation could not have been more embarrassing. It affected his personal reputation and also had repercussions on the circle of his friends and their relationship with him. Later everything was clarified and the defamer asked for and obtained Vincent’s forgiveness. This was a painful experience that left profound scars on Vincent’s life. Accused of theft he experienced, like many poor people, abandonment and misunderstanding, and was able to find solace only in God. His search for a better social-economic situation continued but now this search was carried out with a new perspective as a result of recent experiences. Much later he was able to express this new faith perspective: Why are you fearful for the future? Does God not take care to feed the birds, who neither sow nor reap? How much more will he have the goodness to provide for his servants (CCD:VII:171).
In 1610 Vincent slowly progressed in the process of human and spiritual maturity. As the result of a friend’s influence, Vincent became one of the chaplains of Queen Marguerite de Valois. He was entrusted with the distribution of alms to the poor who came on a daily basis to the door of the palace. At the same time he assisted the infirm at Charity Hospital that was administered by the Brothers of Saint John of God. At the age of thirty Vincent began to obtain firsthand knowledge of the world of the forgotten ones of society which stood in stark contrast to the world of opulence that he knew at the palace. His heart was restless in light of the situation of absolute destitution of that multitude of abandoned individuals. In the hospital he confronted the harsh reality of suffering and the lack of care. Slowly his heart was opened and he allowed himself to be challenged by the presence of Christ in the least of these brothers or sisters (Matthew 25:40): Turn the medal and you will see by the light of faith that the Son of God, who willed to be poor, is represented to us by these poor people (CCD:XI:26). Allowing himself to be challenged by the Lord, the young priest first opened his eyes to the reality around him. This enabled him to see the poor in concrete, specific situations and as a result he was able to make himself available to cover the reproach of destitution with the mantle of mercy.
Vincent came into contact with the principal currents of French spirituality under the wise guidance of Father Pierre de Bérulle, the first of his great spiritual masters and one of the holiest men that Vincent met (cf., CCD:XI:51-52). It was Father Bérulle who awakened Vincent from his daydreams and accompanied him during a crisis, a most decisive moment in his life. His second spiritual director was Father André Duval, a great Doctor of the Sorbonne, and even greater because of the holiness of his life (CCD:XI:140). Vincent confided in him and shared with him the great burdens of his conscience and thus revealed a profound identification with the position of Duval, a wise and simple man whose witness had a great impact on Vincent. With the help that he received from these masters Vincent continued his pilgrimage toward God, moving forward through a process of conversion, discovering new truths and clothing himself in new attitudes and practices.
Between 1611-1616, Vincent’s journey took him out into the dessert where he experienced a profound spiritual crisis. A theologian, one of the Queen’s chaplains who lived with Vincent in the same palace, confided in Vincent and shared with him his concerns and anxieties which resulted from his temptations against the faith. Soon this man became seriously ill. Fearful that the temptations aggravated his state of health and that this theologian might suddenly die in this state of spiritual desolation, Vincent decided to accompany the theologian as he attempted to overcome this problem. After some time the theologian saw the clouds of doubt fade away and saw with a new clarity the truths of the faith. This man died in an atmosphere of consoling peace. Then a time of trial began for Vincent. His relationship with the theologian stirred up in him a series of doubts that brought him to the brink of a serious existential conflict. Idle and caught up in his illusions and anxieties, Vincent questioned his faith but never lost sight of that which is essential. He experienced the crumbling of the spiritual edifice that he had built up from the time of his infancy. Nevertheless he never lost hope that God would transform this dessert into fertile land. For this reason he intensified his prayer life and became involved in charitable service, visiting and consoling those who were hospitalized. The temptations continued for three or four years and he was finally freed from this state when, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, he made a firm resolution to consecrate his life to God in service of the poor. During this time of trial Vincent’s spirit was being carefully formed even though his vocation had not acquired a determined form that involved him in some specific activity. He was searching and so the pilgrimage had to continue. He had learned from his teachers that the great secret of the spiritual life is to abandon all that we love to him by abandoning ourselves to all that He wishes, with perfect confidence that everything will turn out for the best (CCD:VIII:298). So he would continue to deepen and communicate this discovery until the time of his death.
In 1612, again through the influence of Father Bérulle, Vincent was appointed pastor in a small village, Clichy, a geographically extensive parish but one whose population was about 600 inhabitants, the majority of whom were poor peasants. Pastoral zeal consumed Vincent. He restored the church and with great solicitude placed himself at the service of the people in the parish: he preached with enthusiasm; he visited the sick; he listened attentively to the people; he comforted the afflicted, assisted the poor and encouraged those who were sad. Another of his initiatives was to gather together a small group of young men (10-12) who were considering the priesthood as a vocation. One of these was Antoine Portail who would become one of his most trusted collaborators and who would spend his life at Vincent’s side. Both died in the same year, 1660. Vincent’s dedication was noticed by neighboring parishes and encouraged the priests in these areas to exert similar effort in the exercise of pastoral charity toward the faithful of their parish. Day by day the parishioners in Clichy grew in their esteem for their pastor whose horizons became broader with the passing of time. Once again Bérulle would serve as the mediator of the divine will when at the end of 1613 he invited Vincent to leave Clichy in order to minister on the estate of one of the most illustrious families in France: the de Gondi’s. With great sadness Vince said farewell to his parishioners whom he had come to love. For some after he continued to hold the title of pastor and occasionally returned to visit the parish. It was also at this time that the spiritual and missionary dimension of Vincent’s life began to take form as he balanced his intimate relationship with God with his service toward the poor. His words became more credible and he was esteemed by all. We can understand how in light of his own experience he was able to affirm in 1635 the following words that he wrote to M. Portail: do what we will, people will never believe in us if we do not show love and compassion to those whom we wish to believe in us (CCD:I:276-277).
On the de Gondi estate Vincent became responsible for the education of the three de Gondi children, a work that he was familiar with from the time he was in Dax. As chaplain he also accompanied the family as they traveled to the towns and villages that were part of this large estate. Slowly Vincent found a focus for his ministry in these rural villages. There he visited the poor and the sick; he listened to them, catechized them, preached to them and exhorted them to become reconciled with God and with their brothers and sisters. He settled disputes and instilled people with hope. In this way Vincent also won over the de Gondi family who saw him as a providential gift from God. Marguerite de Silly, the wife of Philippe-Emmanuel de Gondi, wanted Vincent to become her spiritual director. Vincent encouraged her to become involved in charitable works and he helped her live her life united with God. He also enabled her to overcome her self-centeredness and led her to great interior freedom.
I:5] Two symbolic experiences
The year 1617 was a decisive time in the life of Vincent de Paul. In January he found himself in the village of Gannes, near Folleville where the de Gondi’s had one of their homes. A sick man, also an honest and virtuous man, asked for a priest because he thought he was dying. Vincent listened to this man’s confession, a confession of his whole life. The consolation and joy that resulted from this confession were so intense that the dying man stated that without confession he would have remained in a state of condemnation. Madame de Gondi, surprised by the words of this man asked her director: what can we do? Vincent took up her concern and wrestled with this situation. Then on the feast of the conversion of Saint Paul, Vincent preached in the church of Folleville and exhorted the people to make a general confession. Vincent said later to the members of his Congregation that that was the first sermon of the Mission (CCD:XI:4). His words touched the hearts of many who listened to him and who desired to experience the gift of divine mercy through reception of the sacrament of reconciliation. Confession became a privileged moment for evangelization. In that era even the Mass could easily become a social act but confession involved a personal profession of faith. Therefore this new situation obliged Vincent to take on the responsibility of spiritually assisting these poor people. The priests were concentrated in the cities, as occurs even in our own time, and those who remained in the countryside were often as ignorant as the people. This sentiment was echoed by Vincent in his conference of January 25, 1655 when he spoke to the Missionaries and expressed the lament of Madame de Gondi: when Madame de Gondi went to make her confession to her pastor, she noted that he did not give her absolution; he mumbled something between his teeth and did the same at other times when she went to confession to him (CCD:XI:163). In Folleville Vincent discovered the reality of people who were hungry for God and who had been spiritually abandoned by the Church of that era. This situation was even sadder when one took into consideration the precarious moral and pastoral state of the clergy who were often ignorant of the basic elements of their ministry. The great majority of the ecclesiastics at that time preferred to be related in some way to the nobility, submitting themselves to the whims of the nobles in order to enjoy privileges, titles, pomp and advantages. What at one time had been most attractive to Vincent now became repugnant. His former desire for ambition became clouded in the darkness of vague memories.
The seed that was planted by the spirit in the fertile ground of Vincent’s heart blossomed and gave birth to the Congregation of the Mission whose objective was the evangelization of the poor people in the rural areas (the most abandoned people of that era). Today in order to carry on this missionary endeavor of our holy Founder we must ask ourselves where we find the poor who are most abandoned, those people whose dignity is continually trampled upon, those people whom no one wants to serve. We will soon come to the realization that they are not just living in the rural areas, in fact there is an exodus from the rural areas which has led to an incredible growth in the metropolitan areas and resulted in increased violence, abandonment and exclusion in these areas.
Faithful to his conscience and desiring to draw closer to the world of the poor, Vincent decided, with the support of Father Bérulle, to leave the de Gondi estate. Following the advice of his spiritual director Vincent went to the parish at Châtillon-les-Dombes. The situation of the parish required much work (CCD:XIIIa:50). There Vincent encountered a situation in which all the members of one family were ill and there was no one to take care of them. The situation of this family was simply a reflection of what was happening throughout this area where people were hungry and lacked those resources that were necessary in order to live with dignity. Once again Vincent made a decision to speak about this problem in his sermon and so he exhorted the parishioners to assist this family. The proclamation of the Word, in order to be prophetic, must take into account the joys and hopes, the pains and anguish of the community for it is only in this way that the Word can lead people to become the protagonists of a process of transformation that will change their history. Prophecy does not speak in the void of generalities. Vincent later spoke about this event and stated: That touched me to the heart. During the sermon, I made sure to commend them zealously to the congregation, and God, touching the hearts of those who heard me, moved them with compassion for those poor afflicted people (CCD:IX:192). The whole community went into action in order to assist this family. The house was filled with food. Vincent affirmed the great generosity of the parishioners but also realized the need to organize their charity so that it would be effective and enduring. He gathered together some women from the area and formed the first Confraternity of Charity. A rule was written up and approved on December 8 of the same year (CCD:XIIIb:8ff). The Confraternities spread rapidly throughout the de Gondi estate, in all the places where Vincent preached missions (Villepreux, Joigny, Montmirail, etc.). In the future the Missionaries would establish, visit and encourage the members of the Confraternities to insure the solidification of the fruits of the mission through the practice of charity. As time passed, Vincent realized that it was not enough to simply establish these Confraternities but it was also necessary to encourage these efforts in an on-going way in order to maintain their dynamic movement. Thus Vincent exerted significant effort in order to encourage and inspire the women as he continually invited them to assist the poor in their time of need and to do this in creative and effective ways. In every era it is necessary for someone to take the lead in awakening people’s conscience and thus bring to the surface that which is best in people, thus making them sensitive to the dramas of humankind who lack God and bread and love.
In Folleville and Châtillon Vincent discovered that the evangelization of poor women and men would not be effective unless their material needs were taken into consideration and unless ways were sought to help these people overcome their situation of abandonment and misery. Thus, charity ought to be a visible expression of the content of the mission and service should be a clear expression of the Good News that is proclaimed. In addition, as Vincent reflected on the ministry of evangelization and human promotion he discovered that the laity played a central role. His compassionate and tender vision, like that of Christ, was definitively focused on the poor and their needs. Vincent no longer desired to occupy the places of honor that would guarantee him a comfortable and calm life. Now he took up the cause of the gospel; he became all things to all people; he became weak with those who were weak and did this for the purpose of showing them that the Kingdom is theirs (cf., 1 Corinthians 9:22). He defined the place for the Congregation of the Mission in the following way: One important reason we have for this, then, is the dignity of the matter: to make God known to poor persons; to announce Jesus Christ to them; to tell them that the kingdom of heaven is at hand and that it is for persons who are poor. Oh, what a great thing that is! But it goes beyond our understanding that we should be called to be associates and sharers in the plans of the Son of God (CCD:XII:71).
I:6] Deepening his vocation and expanding the mission
In December 1617, after some resistance, but on the advice of M. Bérulle, Vincent returned to the de Gondi’s, to Marguerite de Silly who had been tormented during his absence. With sadness he left Chatillon-les-Dombes. Nevertheless, a vast horizon was opened for his apostolic activity. He promised to remain with Madame de Gondi until her death but he also placed some conditions on their relationship: he wanted greater freedom in order to dedicate more time to his missionary project which involved evangelizing the poor country people through the preaching of missions and then following up this work with the establishment of the Confraternity of Charity. Between 1618-1625 Vincent preached missions in some thirty distinct places on the de Gondi estate. At different times he was assisted by other priests who joined him in this work which was extended to places such as Villepreux, Joigny, Montmirail, Folleville, Courbon and Montreuil (to name just a few). In each of these places the Confraternity of Charity was established in order to continue the work of human promotion. It should be pointed out that Madame de Gondi constantly worked beside Vincent, encouraging, sustaining and providing incentive to this missionary activity. Together they visited the infirm and those who were poor; they settled disputes and personally intervened in some difficult situations. Vincent’s guidance helped this generous woman, Madame de Gondi, to achieve greater human and spiritual maturity. Since the de Gondi estate was spread out over an area that included several French dioceses, the name Vincent de Paul and his apostolic zeal became well-known in all of these places. He expanded his activity as he grew in his own awareness of having been chosen by God to follow Jesus Christ and to continue Jesus’ mission of evangelizing and serving the poor. As people came in closer contact with Vincent, they were also more profoundly impacted his witness. Many women and men, lay and religious, were attracted by his missionary vigor. When he spoke to the poor, he spoke not as a theorist but as one who knew them by name, as one who understood their situation and as one who shared their pain and their deepest desires. Proof of this is seen in the advice that he gave to a brother who had been sent to an area devastated by war: Now, to discern this correctly, these poor people should be observed in their own homes so you can see for yourself who are the most needy and who are less so (CCD:VI:388). Once again Shakespeare comes to our assistance to translate Vincent’s words: you cannot speak about that which you have not experienced. Vincent knew what he has saying and to whom he was speaking.
After the symbolic experiences of Folleville and Châtillon, Vincent, led by the hand of divine Providence, journeyed along a path that enabled him to deepen the significance and the scope of his missionary vocation. His convictions are clarified; his hopes, nourished; his plan and efforts were put in motion and all of this moved him toward the future energized, however, with a clearer vision. Phillip Emmanuel de Gondi was also the General of the Galley which were large ships that enabled France to explore and dominate other lands. These ships were also one of the most powerful instruments of war that France possessed during the seventeenth century. During that era there were two ways of being punished for serious crimes: the imposition of the death penalty and being forced to work on the ships (this was a slower death that was preceded by incredible suffering). When Vincent visited these condemned individuals he took a significant step forward in his journey through the world of the poor. Here he came face to face with the most forgotten members of society, individuals whom no one cared about and who were out of everyone’s sight. Forty years later he spoke to the Daughters of Charity, some of whom were involved in ministry to these men: I’ve seen those poor men treated like animals [and] that caused God to be moved with compassion. They inspired pity in him; as a result, his goodness did two things on their behalf: first, he had a house bought for them; second, he willed to arrange matters in such a way as to have them served by his own daughters, because to say a Daughter of Charity is to say a daughter of God (CCD:X:103).
The confrontation of his life with the demands of the gospel led Vincent to a more radical option. In addition to visiting these poor men who were treated inhumanly and deprived of their fundamental rights, Vincent intervened on their behalf. He spoke to the General of the Galleys and pointed out the unhealthy and dark cells in which the prisoners were placed and the infected beds on which these men were forced to sleep. Vincent’s compassion was effective: he became a neighbor to these individuals; he filled them with hope, promoted freedom and shared with them the balm of mercy: Even convicts, with whom I have spent some time, are not won over in any other way. Whenever I happened to speak sharply to them, I spoiled everything; on the contrary, when I praised them for their resignation and sympathized with them in their sufferings; when I told them they were fortunate to have their purgatory in this world, when I kissed their chains, showed compassion for their distress, and expressed sorrow for their misfortune, it was then that they listened to me, gave glory to God, and opened themselves to salvation (CCD:IV:58). M. de Gondi quickly took charge of implementing the changes that Vincent had proposed and in 1610 created the position of Chaplain General of the Galleys and appointed Vincent, a man of incredible human sensitivity, to this position. As Vincent continued his journey in the midst of the world of the poor, he experienced a progressive spiritual evolution in the very depths of his being. Through the mediation of different events and individuals Vincent was led by divine providence along the path of holiness: old things had to be left behind and new things had to be embraced. Above all else, however, Vincent was influenced by the poor for in them he discovered Christ (cf. Philippians 3:12). In this way Vincent shows us that every spiritual journey has to be undertaken in a way that enables us to experience the harsh realities as we travel the road on which God leads us. At the same time, however, our heads must be held high as we contemplate, with clarity, optimism and hope, the infinite greatness to which we are called. The inevitable mistakes should not constrain our most authentic desires for holiness.
Encounters with people are often decisive in our journey. Saint Vincent’s journey was characterized by encounters and confrontations. One of those encounters involved Francis de Sales, the bishop of Geneva, who led Vincent to a confrontation with himself and with the demands of his vocation. This encounter occurred between 1618-1619 and left an indelible mark on the life of this restless pilgrim. Vincent had experienced another form of contact with the Bishop of Geneva as a result of his published works: Introduction to the Devout Life (1608) and Treatise on the Love of God (1616). Vincent and Francis formed a relationship of sincere friendship and seemed to be in spiritual harmony with one another. Vincent was impressed with the goodness that seemed to flow from Francis’ heart. During the process of beatification for the Bishop of Geneva, Vincent stated in 1628: I shall recall here that his abundant, gentle goodness overflowed on those who enjoyed his conversation because of the example of his devotion. I myself shared in those delights, and I recall that, when I was sick in bed about six years ago, I often reflected and mused to myself on God’s great goodness! “How good you are, O God, my God, how good you are, since indeed in my Lord Francis de Sales, your creature, there is such great gentleness (CCD:XIIIa:91). At the same time Francis entrusted Vincent with the direction of the Visitation Sisters that had just been established. Vincent accepted this responsibility in 1622 and would continue in this role for the next thirty-eight years, until the time of his death. As a result he also formed a relationship with the co-founder of this Institute, Saint Jane Frances Chantal (cf. CCD:II:25, 41, 43, 47, 72, 83, 147).
Vincent was to enter more fully into this process of discernment and so in 1621 he made a spiritual retreat in Soissons. During this retreat he was enlightened by the meekness of the Bishop of Geneva and at the same time was moved by a sincere desire to come to a deeper understanding of Providence. As a result he asked the Lord to make him more gentle, to change his manner of being and acting and interacting with other people. Vincent’s journey was characterized by a continual search to overcome his own defects. No, he was not some super-man, in fact, he was very aware of his frailty and all the ambiguities that this implied. Yet we never find him accommodating himself to these imperfections and weaknesses. With the passing of time he became very affable and was a model of serenity to all those who approached him. We call attention to the way in which he was able to establish long term relationships of friendship. Like his spiritual director whose gentleness was a reflection of the goodness of the Creator (cf. CCD:XIIIa:80-96), so too Vincent wanted to reflect God’s kindness to everyone: I addressed myself to God to beg him earnestly to change this curt and forbidding disposition of mine for a meek and benign one. By the grace of our Lord and with some effort on my part to repress the outbursts of passion, I was able to get rid of this black disposition (Abelly, vol. III, p. 163). In fact, gentleness would be one of the five virtues that Vincent presented to the members of the Congregation as virtues that should characterize their lives.
Another spiritual legacy of Francis de Sales, one which Vincent adapted as his own, was the recognition of the fact that holiness is a gift and a commitment that is extended to all Christians and not only clerics and religious. In fact, the Christian life is the state of perfection but the Christian life itself is lived out in many different ways. Three hundred years later the Second Vatican Council would reaffirm this idea: It is therefore quite clear that all Christians in any state or walk of life are called to the fullness of Christian life and to the perfection of love, and by this holiness a more human manner of life is fostered also in earthly society (Lumen Gentium, 40). The Salesian doctrine encouraged Vincent and helped him to make a commitment to the task of finding lay men and women who were willing to become involved in charitable action. At the same time he continued with his plan to gather together a group of priests who would become involved in the evangelization of the poor country people. It was for this reason that he encouraged everyone to read the works of the Bishop of Geneva.
Vincent continued to preach missions on the de Gondi estate. In 1620 Marguerite de Silly asked Vincent to assist and guide three heretics who lived within the boundaries of the parish of Montmirail. She hoped that Vincent would be able to convert these individuals and thus lead them once again back to the Church. On a given occasion one of these men, the most reticent of the three, presented the following objection: You told me, Monsieur, that the Church of Rome is led by the Holy Spirit, but I find that hard to believe because, on the one hand, we see the rural Catholics abandoned to pastors who are ignorant and given over to vice, with so little instruction in their duties that most of them hardly know what the Christian religion is. On the other hand, we see towns filled with priests and monks who are doing nothing; there are perhaps ten thousand of them in Paris, yet they leave the poor country people in this appalling state of ignorance in which they are lost. And you want to convince me that all this is being guided by the Holy Spirit! I will never believe it! (CCD:XI:21). These words stirred up in Vincent an even greater zeal in proclaiming the Good News to the poor. In 1621, a year after preaching the mission in Montmirail, Vincent passed through some neighboring towns and villages where he once again met the same heretic who clearly remembered Vincent. He had heard Vincent preach and he was impressed with Vincent’s humility, with the simplicity of his preaching, with his ability to adapt to the situation of the people. He approached Vincent and expressed to him his desire to return to the church: Now I see that the Holy Spirit is guiding the Roman Church since such care is taken in the instruction and salvation of poor village people. I am ready to enter it whenever it will please you to receive me (CCD:XI:22). After dealing with some further hesitations and after further instruction, the heretic, attracted by the authentic witness of Vincent de Paul, expressed his faith in the presence of the community that had gathered together. Later, when Vincent spoke about this event to his confreres, he stated: Oh! What a happiness for our Missioners to verify the guidance of the Holy Spirit on his Church by working, as we do, at the instruction and sanctification of poor persons (CCD:XI:30). Our openness to the gift of the Spirit can be verified by the strength of our commitment to the poor. Vincent saw a clear sign that the Holy Spirit was guiding the Church as he observed the ways in which those abandoned by society were being served. To separate oneself from the lowly ones of society implies that one has closed oneself to the transforming action of the Spirit. Pope Paul VI, in Evangelii Nuntiandi, described Vincent’s manner of acting when he wrote: The first means of evangelization is the witness of an authentically Christian life, given over to God in a communion that nothing should destroy and at the same time given to one’s neighbor with limitless zeal. As we said recently to a group of lay people, “Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses” (Evangelii Nuntiandi, 41). At all times and in all places people are not persuaded or convinced by someone who teaches them the truth in an infallible manner … they want someone who will listen to them and understand them since they themselves do not understand themselves.
I:7] Birth and consolidation of his works
Vincent experienced God in the events of life: he experienced God’s grace as comfort and God’s powers as revitalizing, God’s presence as enchanting and God’s mystery as awesome. From these experiences he formed certain convictions that became clearer with the passing of time. Vincent did not retain in some exclusive way the gifts that were given to him. He shared these gifts through his foundations. We have already seen the importance of the events of Folleville and Châtillon and how the Confraternities of Charity came into existence in 1617 as a result of these experiences. Eight years later, in 1625, the Congregation of the Mission was officially established. There, Divine Providence intervened through the instrumentality of two individuals. The first person was Marguerite de Silly, Madame de Gondi, to whom is attributed the initiative of forming a community of priests to support and expand the apostolic activity of Vincent among the poor country people. The other was M. André Duval who prudently and wisely guided Vincent through the process of discernment, helping him to recognize God’s call as it was revealed in different events and people and in his own interior. Seduced by the God of the poor and God’s poor people, Vincent resolved to accept the challenge. Slowly he endeavored to accomplish these things but he did not want to anticipate Providence. Later he revealed the secret of his prudence in a letter that he wrote to one of his confreres: I have a particular devotion to following the adorable Providence of God step by step (CCD:II:237). On April 17 Vincent and the de Gondi’s signed the contract of establishment. Thus Vincent accepted the commitment to dedicate himself to the salvation of the poor people in the countryside. He undertook this responsibility and at the same time other priests joined him and together they formed a missionary community. The de Gondi family accepted the responsibility of providing financial support to the work of Vincent and those who would collaborate with him in the ministry of evangelizing the poor. For the beginning the aim of this community was very clear: Some priests who commit themselves and come together to devote themselves, by the way of the mission, to catechize, preach, and exhort the poor country people to make a general confession (CCD:XIIIa:222). At the age of forty-five, Vincent de Paul, sure of God’s will for him, felt prepared to accept the challenges and the tasks that awaited him in the world of the poor. This was the time of creative maturity.
An unexpected event: On June 23,1625, two months after the contract was signed, Marguerite de Silly died at the age of forty-two. Vincent kept her memory alive and referred to her as our first foundress (CCD:III:390). Vincent’s mission with the de Gondi’s was now concluded and so with the members of his newly established community he moved to the Coll?ge des Bons-Enfants which was offered to him by Jean-François de Gondi, the Archbishop of Paris and the brother of the General of the Galleys. On April 24, 1626 the Congregation received the approval of the Archbisop of Paris and so on September 4th of the same year, Vincent de Paul, Antoine Portail, François du Coudray and Jean de la Salle signed the Act of Association. On January 12, 1633 Pope Urban VIII signed the Bull, Salvatoris Nostri, which granted pontifical approval to the Congregation of the Missions. The task of clothing oneself in the spirit of Christ is in accord with the Pauline recommendation (Romans 13:14) and would always be a dynamic dimension of the vocation and the mission of the Company: So the Rule states that, in order to do this, as well as to tend to our own perfection, we must be clothed with the Spirit of Jesus Christ. O Sauveur! O Messieurs! What an important matter it is to clothe ourselves with the Spirit of Jesus Christ. This means that to grow in holiness, to be useful in helping people, and to serve the clergy well, we have to work at imitating the perfection of Jesus Christ and to strive to attain it. It also means that, of ourselves we can do nothing in this matter. We must be filled and animated with this spirit of Jesus Christ (CCD:XII:93).
The Company of the Daughters of Charity was founded eight years after the official establishment of the Congregation of the Mission. Once again Providence used women to reveal its plans to Vincent. The first of these was Louise de Marillac. Around 1624 Vincent became the spiritual director of this restless widow who possessed many great qualities that had as yet not been utilized to their fullest. Between the two of them there would always be an exchange of gifts. Vincent wanted to actualize Louise’s virtues and talents, thus he directed her dynamism and creativity toward the service of the poor. At the same time Louise was Vincent’s most indispensable collaborator in various charitable works. With her keen sensitivity she helped Vincent discover new paths and thus they both became involved in new projects. The second instrument of divine Providence was Marguerite Naseau. In 1630 Vincent met this young lively woman who desired to dedicate her life to the service of the poor. Marguerite’s witness provided Vincent with the greatest inspiration that eventually led to the establishment of the Company of the Daughters of Charity. Then there was another sign. Vincent began to notice that the Confraternities of Charity that had been initiated in Chatillon and that in 1629 were begun in Paris … these Confraternities were no longer serving the poor as they had previously done. After a period of initial enthusiasm, the women began to see the service they were providing as too difficult and exhausting. Therefore, they entrusted these tasks to their servants who engaged in this work with impressive skills, zeal and dedication. As Vincent and Louise looked for ways to restructure the Confraternities they broadened their horizons. They began to consider establishing a group of young women who would consecrate themselves to God and engage in disinterested and humble service on behalf of the most forgotten members of society. As always, Vincent waited for some sign from Providence. Soon other young women were attracted by the example of Marguerite Naseau and wanted to join her in this work. When they arrived in Paris they were entrusted to Louise who offered them a solid human, spiritual and apostolic formation. Gradually they became a community of women, consecrated to God; animated by the charity of Jesus Christ they worked on behalf of those persons who were poor (cf., 2 Corinthians 5:14). After this time of preparation, these women collaborated with the Ladies of Charity in the parishes. At the beginning, since they had no autonomous juridical status, they were joined to the Confraternities. At the same time Louise began to choose and guide the young women who would become members of the Company. On November 29, 1633 a small group of women took up residence in Louise’s house to begin a community whose fundamental objective was to commit themselves to God in order to serve the poor: The main purpose for which God has called and brought the Daughters of Charity together is to honor our Lord Jesus Christ as the source and model of all charity, serving him corporally and spiritually in the person of the poor (Constitutions and Statutes of the Daughters of Charity, p. 28). The originality of this fundamental intuition was based on breaking with a model of religious life that was counter-productive and that had run its course. Up to that time women religious were isolated from the world and enclosed in cloisters where austere and often sterile practices had been formalized. At the vanguard of this new understanding of consecrated life, its founder did not hesitate to outline the profile of the Company that highlighted charity as the defining objective of their identity: They shall have for their monastery only the houses of the sick; for their cell, a hired room, for their chapel, the parish church; for their cloister, the streets of the city and the wards of the hospital; for their enclosure, obedience; for their grille, the fear of God; for their veil, holy modesty (CCD:XIIIb:148, n.3). On February 24, 1633, a few months before the foundation of the Company, Marguerite Naseau died. Yet Vincent, with good reason, called her the first Daughter of Charity (CCD:IX:66). The confession of the dying man at Gannes and the sermon at Folleville were pivotal experiences for the Congregation of the Mission. So, too, the witness of Marguerite Naseau and the events at Chatillon were pivotal experiences for the Daughters of Charity. Vincent saw events as situations which revealed the mystery of God: You know that the will of God cannot be made known to us more clearly in events that when they happen without intervention or in a way other than we requested (CCD:V:459). To penetrate the inexhaustible divine mystery that becomes present in history will always be the great adventure of human existence.
Vincent was convinced that the origin of each one of his establishments was due to the movement of the Spirit. He never attributed the initiative of their establishment to himself (cf., CCD:IX:192). He saw these establishments as work of God on behalf of the poor, works that were entrusted to the Missionaries and the Daughters who freely and generously responded to the initiatives of God [who] loves the poor, consequently, he loves those who love the poor (CCD:XI:349). Vincent frequently told the Daughters of Charity: It can be said that God is the one who willed to bring this Company into existence (CCD:IX:166). Vincent wanted to offer the Church men and women who were deeply rooted in God and filled with a great love for the poor. The perspective with regard to his vocation led to this beautiful, heartfelt prayer that was spoken during a repetition of prayer with his confreres: Lord, send your Church good workers, but they should be really good ones; send good Missioners, men such as they should be, to work hard in your vineyard; persons, my God, truly detached from themselves, their own ease, and worldly goods; they can be a smaller number, provided they are good. Grant your Church this grace (CCD:XI:321-322).
I:8] Formator of the clergy
In light of the challenges of an emerging modern era the Council of Trent proposed to redefine the life and the mission of the Church. At that time, several reformers, competent individuals with a profound ecclesial sense, came to the forefront and were convinced of the urgent need to provide more adequate formation to the clergy. Thus, in accord with the spirit of the Council, these individuals sought for ways to offer the Church pastors who were spiritually and apostolically prepared for ministry. Among these individuals we mention here: Pierre de Bérulle, Toussaint Bourdaise, St. John Eudes, Jean-Jacques Olier and Vincent de Paul … all of whom founded communities dedicated to the formation of good priests. For Vincent this was an indispensable task in order that the evangelizing mission might be efficacious and produce fruit, that is, offer life and holiness to those who are poor. Vincent was convinced that evangelization of the poor could only be effective and enduring if there were good pastors who would continue to accompany people and thus continue the work that the Missioners had initiated. On behalf of the poor, Vincent’s first love, he accepted the great challenge of forming zealous, holy and wise priests: Now, to work for the salvation of poor country people is the main purpose of our vocation, and all the rest is only accessory to it; for we would never have worked in ministry for the ordinands and in seminaries for the clergy if we had not judged that this was necessary to maintain the people and preserve the fruits of missions given by good priests (CCD:XI:121).
Another event would provide an indicative sign of God’s will: in 1628 Vincent met with the Bishop of Beauvais who called his attention to the need to prepare those young men who presented themselves for ordination. Vincent began by giving a retreat to those who were about to be ordained. Soon this type of retreat was adopted in many dioceses. In 1631 the Archbishop of Paris entrusted Vincent de Paul with the preparation of his seminarians who were seeking ordination. This was the beginning of the retreat for ordinands, Vincent’s first initiative in the area of reforming the clergy. In Paris, the retreats were eleven days long and usually involved the participation of seventy to ninety candidates. This was the first step in an incredible undertaking whose point of reference was the continual discovery of the excellence of the vocation to the priesthood and its intrinsic demands, for example, an integrated, consistent and practical preparation. In all the places where the Congregation was established the missionaries were charged with the spiritual accompaniment of the ordinands. In the following years the retreats would become a time for a lengthy and careful process of formation. This would continue until 1643 when the first diocesan seminaries were established.
The second great initiative of Vincent with regard to the formation of the clergy was the Tuesday Conferences (1633). These conferences were directed toward priests who had participated in the retreats and who felt the need to deepen the formation that they received through on-going reflection on the nature of their ministry and the moral, spiritual and apostolic implications of their ministry. At Saint-Lazare (a great priory that the Missionaries had received in 1632 as a gift from a community of canons that way dying) the priests prayed, shared their ideas and listened to the instruction of Vincent. Bishops and prominent individuals among the French clergy participated in these meetings. In addition to deepening their spirituality, the participants received apostolic formation: those who gathered together for these conferences were expected to engage in some service on behalf of those who were poor. This might be some form of spiritual assistance to those who were in the General Hospital in Paris, visits to those who were imprisoned and to the family members of those imprisoned. These priests should also be concerned about missions in the city, preparing themselves to confront the pastoral challenges in their own diocese while the Missionaries cared for the people who lived in the countryside. Various groups were established in different areas of Paris and groups were also established in otyher dioceses and this was done for the purpose of promoting among the clergy a process of on-going formation with regard to their vocation and mission as men of God and humble servants of the people.
Besides these two initiatives which we have just mentioned, Vincent supported the creation of seminaries while maintaining some restrictions with regard to the admission of adolescents. Vincent favored candidates who had shown some maturity in their decision to embark upon this path of life: The Council’s ruling is to be respected as coming from the Holy Spirit. Experience shows nevertheless that the manner of carrying it out with regard to the age of seminarians has not been successful either in Italy or in France. Some left before the time, other had no inclination for the clerical life, others went to Communities, and still others fled the places to which they were in obligation bound by their training, preferring to seek their own fortune elsewhere (CCD:II:505-506). Beginning in 1643 Vincent began to choose seminarians between the ages of 20-25. As a result of Vincent’s influence which was appreciated and also needed, several seminaries were established. Thus a significant effort on behalf of authentic formation for the clergy of France during the seventeenth century moved forward under the clear sighted guidance of Vincent de Paul and other reformers. At the same time many communities began to become concerned about the formation of the clergy and as a result there was great interest in the emerging seminaries. Vincent wrote to the missionaries about this: We simply have the consolation of seeing that our modest works have spurred on a number of good workers, who are devoting themselves to doing them --- not only in the missions, but also in seminaries, which are multiplying quickly in France. Even retreats for ordinands are being given in several dioceses. Let us ask God to sanctify His Church more and more (CCD:VIII:366). The fruit of Vincent’s work in the area of formation of the clergy is seen in the ministry that was carried on by the Missionaries in many different countries. Today we are also concerned about priestly formation, concerned about a process to counteract a form of clericalism that is unconcerned about content, authenticity and a critical sense, a clericalism that reveals a great existential void. At the same time that we are concerned about all of this we are also hopeful. We hope to see blossom forth Christian pastors who are steadfast in prayer, courageous as prophets, generous in service, self-sacrificing in their commitment and zealous in building up the kingdom … pastors who give witness to the unconditional love of God in providing for the little ones and for those who are poor.
I:9] Broadening the sphere of his action
Vincent dedicated much time and energy to the development of the communities that he founded. Both establishments prolonged and extended his incredible missionary and charitable activity. In 1638 he advised the Daughters of Charity as they decided to accept the ministry of caring for children who were abandoned. This work was undertaken in collaboration with the Confraternities and with the support of the missionaries. At the same time unsettling news began to arrive at Saint-Lazare, news about the provinces that were devastated by the war and the plague, news about provinces where the misery reached unimaginable proportions. Soon, relief came to these provinces as Vincent sent the Missionaries and the Daughters there (Lorraine, Picardy and Champagne). In addition Vincent denounced these situations to the civil and ecclesiastical authorities while engaging in activities to obtain financial support from institutions and individuals that would enable him to continue the relief work that had been begun. Vincent insisted on the need to unite spiritual and material assistance, giving priority to one or the other depending on the circumstances. During the civil war of the Fronde (1648-1653) Vincent had the opportunity to reveal his charitable zeal, this time officially appointed by the authorities to provide assistance to the victims of this war. Once again he allowed himself to be influenced by the urgent needs of the poor in whom he saw the movement of Providence. Vincent’s activity took on a national dimension and so no one was surprised to see him in the forefront of the events surrounding the death of King Louis XIII. After the death of the King, Queen Anne of Austria formed the Council of Conscience and included Vincent in this group. As a result of this appointment his activity acquired a new dimension but this never prevented him from speaking the truth. He was always committed to the defense of the poor and was outraged by all forms of corruption, thus attracting friends and enemies. During the year 1643-1653 Vincent intervened in matters concerning the distribution of benefits, rising above conflicts and the denunciation of political intrigues which often had prejudicial effects on the poor. Thus Vincent continually tried to balance determination and firmness with sensitivity and tenderness. Providing continuity to his work in the area of formation of the clergy, Vincent was careful to select men of integrity for the position of bishop. This too was in accord with his missionary plan that was focused on the poor and the clergy. Vincent was a prophet inside and outside the Church. He denounced every form of injustice and exploitation that kept many people in a state of misery and ignorance. He proclaimed a God who was in radical solidarity with the hopes and the activity of those who were poor; a God who broke the chains of slavery and who in light of the change in structures demanded by the present poverty, advocated transformative action. Charity that was experienced and accepted as the supreme rule and irreplaceable action guided every hour and every day of Vincent’s life. In fact charity became an illuminated path that led Vincent to the discovery of himself, the poor and God.
Vincent began to broaden his vision. After sending the Daughters to the devastated areas, he accepted other areas where the Congregation could minister. In 1647 he sent Missionaries to North Africa where many Christians were being enslaved. Two year later, at the request of the Pope, he sent Missionaries to Ireland to assist Catholics who were being persecuted. In 1651 Missionaries arrived in Scotland and Poland. Many of these missionaries died in these foreign countries and a number of them died while traveling to these distant lands. Vincent was moved by the premature death of his confreres and quickly replaced them. The poor deserve the best and cannot wait. Vincent sent virtuous, intelligent and self-sacrificing missionaries to these challenging and demanding missions and reminded the confreres that everyone should experience themselves as called by the poor in distant lands. Vincent felt that everyone should live in this state of tension, cultivating a willingness to respond to the urgent needs of the Church and go wherever they were needed. He wanted to be the first to give witness to this reality: 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 (CCD:XI:357). Martyrdom, understood as conforming oneself to the life and mission of Jesus, should also be part of one’s horizon: 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 life for His glory and the salvation of the neighbor, each and every one of us --- Brothers, seminarians, priests --- in a word, the entire Company (CCD:XI:334-335). Vincent wanted his missionaries to be men of integrity, transparent, detached, filled with zeal and the tenderness of the spirit of Christ.
Vincent was seen as a tireless worker. Enflamed by charity he emptied himself for the benefit of other and never lost time by engaging in useless activity. His activity was intimately tied up with the fulfillment of the mission that was entrusted to him as a way of participating in the mission of Christ. His life developed and unfolded as he engaged in a process that led him to greater maturity, a process that led him to a continual search for holiness: Perfection consists in a constant perseverance to acquire the virtues and become proficient in their practice, because, on God’s road, not to advance is to fall back since man never remains in the same condition (CCD:II:146). Thus Vincent discovered that God speak to us in the midst of our seeking, in the midst of our personal and community history, in the midst of the experiences that make us more human.
I:10] His journey to heaven
The year 1660 left profound marks on the Vincentian Family. On February 4th, M. Antoine Portail, a worker from the first hour in the vineyard of the Mission, died. One month later, on March 15th, Louise de Marillac entered into her heavenly home. Finally, as September 27th was drawing to a close, Vincent de Paul, seated in a chair near the fireplace heard the definitive call of the One to whom he had consecrated his life: Well done, my good and faithful servant. Since you were faithful in small matters, I will give you great responsibilities (Matthew 25:21). A life that had been sewn together with the thread of compassionate and effective love, a love that every human persons longs for, a love that is concretized in the total gift of self and that finds eternal rest as it returns to its source: the heart of God whose fidelity transcends the limits of history … this life arrived at its final destiny. On that day the poor rejoiced in heaven and received with open arms the one who had served them. Thus what Vincent had intuitively felt many years before and what he had written about to one of his friends now became a reality: 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).
As we celebrate the 350th anniversary of the death of Saint Vincent de Paul let us allow the words that John Paul II directed to the Congregation in 1986 … let us allows these words to resonate in our hearts: We also turn our spirits and our hearts to Saint Vincent de Paul, a man of action and prayer, of organization and imagination, of love and humility, a man of the past and of the present. That the peasant of the Landes who became, by the grace of God, a genius of Christianity, might help us to put our hands to the plow once again, never looking backwards, for the one task that counts --- proclaiming the Good News to the Poor! (Address of John Paul II to the General Assembly of the Congregation of the Mission, June 30, 1986). In this way we will learn to expand the limits of our heart so that in Vincent we encounter a love that does not count the cost, total surrender, unlimited goodness, true humility, keen sensitivity, disinterested friendship and the joy of gratitude.
II] A spirituality of enthusiasm and availability
In intimate union with Jesus Christ, the Word who became incarnated into the poverty of humanity, clothed in the spirit and the attitudes of Christ, Vincent journeyed along the path of holiness in a tireless search for the will of God, engaged in a daily struggle to overcome his own limitations and to commit himself wholly to the least of the brothers and sisters of Jesus. For Vincent, to be holy was basically to do the will of God in all things (CCD:II:47) something that he had expressed to Louise. To those who would attempt to excuse themselves from this obligation, Vincent stated once again: We can do the will of God at all times, if we are willing. Oh, what a happiness, what a happiness, Messieurs, to do God’s will always and in all things! Is not that doing what the Son of God came on earth to do … The Son of God came to evangelize the poor. And are not we, Messieurs, sent for the same purpose? Yes, Missioners are sent to evangelize the poor. Oh, what a happiness to do on earth the same thing Our Lord did there (CCD:XI:283-284).
The core of Vincent’s spiritual experience was the following of Jesus Christ who was sent to evangelize and serve the poor (cf., Luke 4:18). Thus Vincent attempted to become like Christ imitating his unconditional fidelity to the Father in order to continue the mission of Jesus in the midst of the challenges of the present time. Vincentian spirituality is like a clear and powerful river that flows between two places: dynamic identification with the person of Jesus and a radical option for the most poor. All authentic spirituality leads one to a specific mission. The way of holiness that was proposed by Vincent is intimately united to fulfilling the mission that was entrusted to him: Let us love God, brothers. Let us love God, but let it be with the strength of our arms and the sweat of our brows (CCD:XI:32).
II.1] Clothing oneself in the spirit of Christ
Jesus Christ is the focal point and the source of the dynamism of Christian spirituality. Reflecting on the challenges present in Latin America, the bishops reaffirmed the original and decisive character of the encounter with Christ in the experience of the missionary disciples. Christ is the one who reveals the merciful Love of the Father, and the vocation, dignity, and destiny of the human person (Aparecido Document, 6). Therefore, knowing Jesus Christ by faith is our joy; following him is a grace, and passing on this treasure to others is a task entrusted to us by the Lord, in calling and choosing us (Aparecido Document, 18). In conformity with Christ, the vocation, the freedom and the uniqueness of each person is rediscovered as a gift of God in order to serve the world, to defend the rights of the weakest members of our society and to promote a dignified life for all people (Cf. Aparecido Document, 111-112).
For Vincent Jesus Christ constituted the life of his life and was the only desire of his heart (CCD:VI:189); the love which nourished and strengthened (CCD:VIII:20); the fundamental and first rule of the Mission (CCD:XII:110); he is our father, our mother, our all (CCD:V:537); he is the model of all virtues (CCD:VIII:308); the one to whom we ought to conform our actions (CCD:XI:201). The task of the Missionaries and the Daughters of Charity is to continue the mission of Jesus Christ who was sent by the Father to evangelize and serve the poor According to Vincent de Paul the will of God is revealed in the word and the actions of Jesus and therefore the accomplishment of Jesus’ will consists of conforming ourselves to Christ, clothing ourselves in his values and attitudes in order to continue his saving work. Utilizing Saint John’s image of the vine (cf., John 15:5) Vincent exhorted the members of his Congregation: God has bestowed a great favor on this insignificant, wretched Company in giving us the happiness of imitating Him, for like branches united to the vine we continue the mission of Jesus Christ (CCD:XI:237). One of Vincent’s most eloquent exhortations, one that was directed to M. Portail, (one of his first followers) leaves no doubt about Vincent’s progressive identification with Christ through the on-going dynamic relationship between reflection and action: 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 (CCD:I:276).
Under the guidance of his spiritual masters Vincent was able to maintain his focus on the Lord (cf., Hebrews 3:1), and followed the way of God, clothing himself more and more in the spirit of Christ by taking on two fundamental values*: 1] love and reverence for the Father and contemplation of Jesus who found no greater satisfaction than faithfully following the will of the One who sent him*; 2] compassionate and effective charity toward the poor, without which we become dehumanized* and thus unable to love God concretely*. These two structural principles of Vincentian spirituality join together docility and divine Providence which, in Vincent’s vision, have maternal characteristics: We ought to have the same trust in Divine Providence seeing how Providence provides for everything in the same way that a mother cares for her child*. Throughout his life Vincent allowed himself to be awed by the nearness of the Lord. He knew that the providential glance of God watched over him and his establishments and most of all watched over those people who were most poor. This experience strengthened his faith, confirmed his vocation and renewed his missionary endeavor. He liked to say: Grace has its moments (CCD:II:499). He showed himself to be convinced that God walked with us* and that the truths of God never deceive (CCD:IX:199). Vincent frequently spoke about Providence. On one occasion he said to Louise de Marillac: Follow the order of Providence. Oh! how good it is to let ourselves be guided by it (CCD:I:283-284). Vincent had a concrete and practical understanding of the love of God whose will he sought on a daily basis and embraced in the events of life. He followed the will of God step by step and with great confidence entrusted himself to God as an instrument called to serve the poor.
In imitation of Jesus (cf. Mark 7:24-30) Vincent attempted to maintain himself in a situation of attentive listening to the calls of God in the reality that surrounded him, in the cries of the poor, in events and in the persons with whom he interacted*. In order to affirm the action of the Spirit his discernment led him to ask the same restless question of the apostle Paul on the road to Damascus: What shall I do Lord? (Acts 22:10). Based on the gradual unfolding of the mystery of Christ, Vincent suggested to a young confrere (twenty-seven years old) in the Congregation who had just been appointed superior of his local community: When there is a question of doing some good work, say to the Son of God, “Lord, if you were in my place, how would you act on this occasion? (CCD:XI:314). The Missionaries must embrace the challenge of following Jesus and living as Jesus did, that is, in the freedom of the Spirit, in conformity with the plan of the Father and in a state of active vigilance before the signs of the time: Today we contemplate Jesus Christ as the gospels transmit him to us so that we may know what He did and discern what we must do in the present?day circumstances (Aparecido Document, 139).
Vincent’s journey was defined by the gospel. In light of the gospel Vincent expressed his convictions, reaffirmed his faith and reflected on his experience. In the Common Rules of the Congregation of the Mission (1658), rules that were formulated over the course of thirty-three years, Vincent wrote: Let each of us accept the truth of the following statement and try to make it our most fundamental principle: Christ’s teaching will never let us down … That is why the Congregation should always try to follow the teaching of Christ himself and never that of the world-wise (Common Rules II:1). Clothing oneself in the spirit of Christ, accepting Christ’s teaching, engraving his value in our hearts and our lives, taking on Christ’s attitudes, embracing as our own Christ’s fundamental option for the kingdom and nourishing ourselves with Christ’s love … all of these are elements of Vincentian spirituality, conditions that make any missionary endeavor possible. Vincent, mature physically and spiritually, spoke to the priests and the brothers: The intention of the Company is to imitate Our Lord to the extent that poor, insignificant persons can do. What does that mean? It means that the Company aspires to take him as a model in the way he acted, what he did, his ministries and his aims. How can one person represent another, if he does not have the same characteristics, features, manners, and looks? That cannot be. So, if we are determined to make ourselves like this divine model, and feel in our hearts this desire and holy affections, it is necessary, I repeat, it is necessary to strive to model our thoughts, works, and intentions on his (CCD:XII:67-68).
II:2] Advocating on behalf of the poor
As Vincent continued his journey, he embraced the request that the apostle Paul made during the Jerusalem Council: We are to be mindful of the poor, which is the very thing I am eager to do (Galatians 2:10). The poor were at the center of Vincent’s vocation and mission. The identity of his various establishments and his own identity was bound up with service to the poor. In the conference of December 6, 1658, Vincent expressed his most intimate convictions with regard to the dedication of the Missionaries to the poor: But, Monsieur, we are not the only ones who instruct poor people; do Pastors do anything else? What about preachers in towns and villages? What do they do in Advent and Lent? They preach to the poor, and they do it better than we do. True, but there isn’t a single Company in the church of God that has for its portion persons who are poor, devoting itself totally to the poor and never preaching in large towns. That is what Missioners profess to do; it is their special characteristic to be, like Jesus Christ, committed to the poor. So, our vocation is a continuation of his, or, at least, it is similar to it in its circumstances. Oh, what happiness, brothers, but what an obligation we have to be attached to it (CCD:XII:71).
In fact, the option for the poor is common to the whole Church and is a gospel imperative. The Document of Aparecido addresses this fundamental conviction as it presents the poor as the privileged place of the encounter with Christ and the option on behalf of the disinherited of history as an intrinsic demand of Christological faith. We also encounter Him in a special way in the poor, the afflicted, and the sick (cf. Mt 25:37?40), who reclaim our commitment and give us testimony of faith, patience in suffering, and constant struggle to go on living. How many times do the poor and those who suffer actually evangelize us! In the recognition of this presence and nearness, and in the defense of the rights of the excluded, the Church’s faithfulness to Jesus Christ is at stake. The encounter with Jesus Christ in the poor is a constitutive dimension of our faith in Jesus Christ. Our option for them emerges from contemplation of his suffering face in them and from the encounter with Him in the afflicted and outcast, whose immense dignity He himself reveals to us. It is our very adherence to Jesus Christ that makes us friends of the poor and unites us to their fate (Document of Aparecido. 257).
From the perspective of faith that was adopted by Vincent, the option for the poor was clothed in a universal visceral character, referring to that which is most essential in his foundation. In this option is found a very particular way of being like Jesus Christ, that is, a characteristic manner of following him. Vincent discovered Christ in the poor and the poor in Christ: Turn the medal and you will see by the light of faith that the Son of God, who willed to be poor, is represented to us by these poor people (CCD:XI:26). He was convinced that the poor are our brothers [and sisters] whom God commands us to help (CCD:VII:115). Therefore, the service of the poor must be preferred to everything else (CCD:IX:171). There is a profound identification between Christ and the poor. Through means of them the Lord questions our human sensitivity since he regards what is done to the poor as done to himself, for they are his members (CCD:IX:256). Therefore when Vincent spoke to the Daughters of Charity he told them: In serving persons who are poor, we serve Jesus Christ. How true, Sisters! You are serving Jesus Christ in the person of the poor. And that is as true as that we are here. A Sister will go ten times a day to visit the sick, and ten times a day she will find God there (CCD:IX:199). Here we find the true meaning of charity: to give the poor the love that we ourselves have received in Jesus Christ
Vincent also learned to view the poor in the same way as Christ did, recognizing their dignity and allowing himself to be evangelized by them, by their manner of being and acting, because their style of life is that which is required if one wishes to enter into the kingdom and also Jesus of Nazareth assumed their lifestyle and recommended this way of life to his disciples. The mystery of the Incarnation constitutes the surest way to legitimize the way of being of the poor: For you know the gracious act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that for your sake he became poor although he was rick, so that by his poverty you might become rich (2 Corinthians 8:9). If Jesus wanted to be poor and act in the same way as the poor and choose the ways of the poor, it was to point out a path to his followers. Therefore, to follow Jesus consists in living and acting as Jesus did. In the spirit of the beatitudes (Matthew 5:3) Vincent assured us: What I retain from my experience of this is the discernment I have always made that true religion --- true religion, Messieurs, true religion is found among the poor. God enriches them with a live faith; they believe, they touch, they taste the words of life (CCD:XII:142)
Care for the poor is the gift par excellence of the Vincentian communities: Sisters, if you only realized what a grace it is to serve those who are poor and to be called by God for that purpose! … When a good Daughter of Charity devotes her entire life to the service of God, leaves everything, no longer possesses anything in the world --- father, mother, goods, possessions, and no knowledge except of God or for God --- there is good reason to think that such a Sister will one day be with the blessed (CCD:X:272). We are dealing with a gift which is embraced with humility, creativity and enthusiasm for human freedom: Come then, my dear confreres, let us devote ourselves with renewed love to serve persons who are poor, and even to seek out those who are the poorest and most abandoned; let us acknowledge before God that they are our lords and masters and that we are unworthy of rendering them our little services (CCDXI:349).
On this journey it is most important to unite the spiritual and the material dimension of ministry thus guaranteeing the poor a service of human promotion that is integral, a service that enables them to be the protagonists of their history. Vincent recommended this as a way for the Sisters to give witness to the apostolic aspect of their vocation, a bold idea in an ecclesial context which deprived women of ministerial opportunities to grow in their faith. With some few examples, the ministry of women was one of manual labor and silence. Vincent said: Do you think, Sisters, that God expects you simply to bring his poor persons a piece of bread, a little meat, some soup, and some medicine? Oh no, Sisters! That was not his plan in choosing you from all eternity to render him the services you do for him in the person of the poor. He expects you to provide for their spiritual needs as well as for those of the body. They need heavenly manna; they need the Spirit of God; and where will you find it in order to share it with them? In Holy Communion, Sisters. Both important persons and the simple need this, Sisters (CCD:IX:189). Vincent also reminded the missionaries who were engaged in the ministry of evangelization that was seen as a response to the missionary command to proclaim the Good News of the kingdom … he reminded them about the risk of a proclamation that did not include acceptance, compassion and care for those who were poor (signs that reveal the presence of the kingdom in history: If there are any among us who think they are in the Mission to evangelize poor people but not to alleviate their sufferings, to take care of their spiritual needs but not their temporal ones, I reply that we have to help them and have them assisted in every way, by us and by others, if we want to hear those pleasing words of the Sovereign Judge of the living and the dead, “Come, beloved of my Father; possess the kingdom that has been prepared for you, because I was hungry and you gave me to eat; I was naked and you clothed me; sick and you assisted me” (Matthew 25:34-36). To do this is to preach the Gospel by words and by works, and that is the most perfect way; it is also what Our Lord did, and what those should do who represent him on earth, officially and by nature, as priests do (CCD:XII:78).
Therefore, Vincent proposed to his confreres a process of humanization, a process in which he himself had become involved. Such a process means that they place themselves in the mist of the world where human life is often trampled upon and human dignity frequently vilified. Quoi! To be a Christian and to see our brother suffering without weeping with him, without being sick with him! That is to be lacking in charity; it is being a caricature of a Christian; it is inhuman; it is to be worse than animals (CCD:XII:222). Thus, following the example of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:33-35) one attempts to clothe oneself with an attitude of mercy. Vincent stated: When we go to visit poor persons, we have to sympathize with them in order to suffer with them, and put ourselves in the disposition of the great apostle, who said ‘omnibus omnia factus sum;’ I have made myself all to all … For that purpose, we have to try to stir our hearts to pity, make them sensitive to the sufferings and miseries of our neighbor, and ask God to give us the true spirit of mercy, which is the characteristic spirit of God (CCD:XI:308). From a Vincentian perspective, holiness is a participation in life of Jesus’ God who reaches out to the “little ones” and the poor and who is only satisfied with a merciful love: O Sauveur! O my brothers! How fortunate we are to be on the path to holiness! O Savior, grant us the grace to walk straight on it without growing lax (CCD:XII:69).
The saints never grow old. Therefore it is not enough for us to contemplate the movement of those who have journeyed before us along the path of faith. The greater challenge consists in viewing them as sources of inspiration in the following of Jesus Christ so that the same seeds toke root in us … seeds which in them blossomed forth into life. As we celebrate the 350th anniversary of the death of Saint Vincent de Paul we cannot limit ourselves to recalling his incredible personality and/or the heroic events of his life. This year ought to be viewed as a privileged time to rediscover the fundamental experience that led Vincent to consecrate his life to God and to place himself at the service of those people who are poor, thus making use of the many gifts which had been bestowed on him by the Creator. There is no doubt that the encounter with Jesus Christ transformed Vincent into a tireless messenger of the gospel of life and hope.
Translated Charles T. Plock, CM