The Religious Experience of Saint Vincent de Paul
by: José María Román, C.M.
Third Asian Vincentian Institute (Mother House, Paris, September-December 2006).
When you see the Daughters of Charity all over the world, untiringly dedicated to the service of the poor, one would tend to ask an obvious question: what force is urging and sustaining these women to be constant, to be faithful, to persevere in their service?
The question is not hard to answer. The force that has sustained the Daughters of Charity all over the world is no other than identifying themselves with the religious experience of their Founder. For that reason I would like to speak to you about the religious experience of Saint Vincent de Paul.
An objection could surface here. Can a saint who lived four centuries ago have something to tell us Christians of the 21st century, men and women of post industrial society, of the technological world, of the space era, of the world of computers and the internet/web sites?
The saints of great renown, the saints who have left behind a profound impression in the history of humankind and of the Church did so because they have discovered a new dimension to Christianity, that is to say, they have started a new way of living the message of Jesus. They have left a legacy to the Church, a new way of reading the Gospel. And that new dimension, that new way of living the Christian life and interpreting the Gospel are incorporated in the collective heritage of the Church in order to constitute for succeeding generations a permanent feature of her physiognomy. And even when times change and societies are transformed, that characteristic will continue to be valid and to renew in every Christian generation her transcendent message.
To that genre of spirituality that has enriched Christianity by transforming some universal values, to the type of Saint Benedict of Nursia, of Saint Francis of Assisi or of Saint Therese of Jesus belongs Saint Vincent de Paul.
I. He belongs to them, before all else, by his manner of attaining holiness.
Vincent de Paul is not one of those saints from infancy, to whom a very special divine protection blessed him from his tender years with a celestial halo, that made of them objects of admiration rather than models to imitate.
But neither was Saint Vincent a repentant sinner, like Saint Augustine, who was saved by a powerful outburst of grace from the abyss of perdition to the summit of sanctity.
No. What was typical of Vincent de Paul is less spectacular and therefore more difficult: being a mediocre Christian, an average priest whom the slow work of grace marvelously transformed through a long process of purification and trials, of works and struggles, of a “forced” process of conversion towards becoming a saint who undertook admirable and great works.
In effect, through him and through his early biographers, we know that during his infancy that was quite ordinary, traits of kindness — giving the flour that was the family’s share to the poor after coming back from the mill or giving his little savings as alms to the beggars —alternated with traits of vanity and adolescent pride: being ashamed of accompanying his lame and poorly dressed father along the streets of the city.
We also know of his early sacerdotal years, occupied by his illusion of an earthly ambition of having a good employment, of using his priesthood as means of prosperity and profit, rather than a disinterested service for the glory of God and the salvation of souls.
That is how his first thirty years evolved, until one day he had the fundamental religious experience of his life that will give him a new dimension and a new sense of meaning.
While he was the chaplain of Marguerite de Valois, the rejected wife of Henry IV, he knew a famous preacher who was also in the service of the same queen who, because of too much leisure that his charge permitted him, was terribly tempted against his faith and felt many times the desire to throw himself out of the window. Vincent who became his spiritual director, gave him advices but all in vain. He would tell him that when the temptation was great, all he had to do was point his fingers in the direction of Rome or toward the nearest church to indicate his firm determination to believe all the teachings of Holy Mother Church. Nothing worked. The doubts and anguish continued. Vincent then did something heroic. He asked God that the temptation of the doctor be passed on to him so that the doctor would be liberated from his suffering, if it was His will. His prayers were answered. The doctor died in perfect peace after the serene light of faith had enlightened his tormented spirit. But from that moment on, Saint Vincent would be visited by terrible temptations. He would personally feel the cost of effectively serving man in communion with his brothers. Identifying himself with the doctor, he was able to help and free him. In exchange, he began a long journey of three to four years. During these times, Vincent suffered terribly. Something like the dark night of the soul described by Saint John of the Cross over¬came him. He could not recite the Creed. He wrote down the Creed and sewed it on the lining of his cassock. He made a pact with God that every time he put his hands over it, he wanted to reaffirm his faith.
At the same time, he devoted himself to acts that are contrary to the urging of the temptation: living the faith in intense acts of charity through daily visits to the sick in the hospital. Little by little he realized the necessity to live charity deeply, an unavoidable act for Christians. And this way of living brought him to the greatest discovery of his life. One day, his first biographer wrote, “he took the firm and irrevocable decision to devote his whole life to the service of the poor out of love for Our Lord Jesus Christ.” “Scarcely had he made up his mind to do this when the suggestions of the evil one vanished. His heart which had been oppressed for so long was now filled with sweet liberty and his soul inundated with a wonderful light that let him see all the truths of faith with perfect clarity.”
In this way he discovered the liberating power of charity. From that moment on, the conversion of Vincent de Paul was accomplished and his vocation discovered. The basic experience of his life has been precisely the need for him to share the deprivations and sufferings of the neighbor so as to be able to help them more effectively. He had yet much to learn about the concrete exigencies of his vocation and to find ways of actualizing them. This enlightenment was not long in coming.
In January of 1617 in Folleville, a little town in the north of France, he discovered the spiritual poverty of the poor in the country¬side at the death bed of a dying peasant whom he persuaded to make a general confession of all his life; he saw a multitude of poor peasants and laborers “who are condemned for not knowing the necessary truths of salvation and for lack of confession.” This discovery scorched him as if it were he himself who ran the risk of being condemned. Once again the identification with the needs and sufferings of the neighbor made him decide to make the evangelization of the poor the focal point of his priesthood. His first work of charity in favor of the poor was born: the Mission.
After a few months, in August of the same year, in another town, Chatillon-les-Dombes, he had his second enlightenment. A poor family in town was literary dying of hunger. Vincent preached a sermon from the pulpit on the material needs of those poor. A few hours later he was surprised to see the whole town come to the aid of that family. So much so that they would have extra food for that day and the following but after that when the provisions have been consumed, will they return to their miserable way of living? “This charity is not well organized,” he reflected. And thus he founded the first Confraternity of Charity where members will help by turns all the poor and the sick of the town. Thus, the second branch of his vocation came into being: the Charity.
“The poor are dying of hunger and are condemned” is the immortal phrase in which Vincent summarized his double experience. To live, to create, and to act to remedy those two necessities will be in the future, the program of life of Saint Vincent de Paul, his manner of understanding Christianity.
II. The originality of his version of Christianity is the second reason that makes Saint Vincent de Paul one of the great saints in history.
Starting from these triple religious experiences, Vincent de Paul understood that the real Christian life cannot be other than the untiring and impassioned living of charity or, said in another way, charity is mission.
Hence, his two fundamental works will be the Congregation of the Mission—the Vincentian Fathers to bring the Good News to the poor — and the Daughters of Charity to serve them corporally. He co¬founded the latter with Louise de Marillac, which became the perfect evolution of the first Association of Charity.
Saint Vincent de Paul believed that in imitation of the God Incarnate in Jesus Christ, the essential mission of Christians and of the Church is saving the poor. That is why he would take as motto for his Congregation Isaiah’s and Saint Luke’s text: “The Lord has sent me to preach the Good News to the poor.” And for the Daughters of Charity the text of Saint Paul: “The Charity of Christ urges us.”
Evangelization cannot be limited to announcing the word but must be realized in deeds. “So then, if there are any among us who think that they are in the Congregation of the Mission to preach the Gospel to the poor but not to comfort them, to supply their spiritual but not their temporal wants, I reply that we ought to assist them and have them assisted in every way, by ourselves and by others, if we wish to hear those consoling 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 visited me.’ To do this is to preach the Gospel by words and by works, it is to do so most perfectly and it is also what Our Lord did and what those who represent Him on earth, in office and in character, such as priests, should do.”
Vincent de Paul will suffer all his life from the obsession to put the entire Church at the service of the poor, giving back to Christianity her most radical dimension and her most distinctive messianic characteristic.
He will try to lift the poor out of their corporal and spiritual poverty and to make the rich, the well-off and the lords put them¬selves at the service of the poor, making them understand that the only reason for having possession is to use them to aid their brothers and sisters in need and thus gain their own salvation.
Such conviction is based on three principles:
1. Christ is the Evangelizer of the Poor. This was His mission, the reason for His coming to earth. This was why the missions preached by Saint Vincent de Paul and his priests (more than 800 of them from the house in Paris during the lifetime of Vincent) had for their end “to make God known to the poor, announce to them Jesus Christ, tell them that the Kingdom of God is near and that Kingdom is for them.”
2. Christ identified Himself with the poor and the only way to love Him effectively is by loving our neighbor and making our neighbor love Jesus Christ. We can multiply indefinitely His sayings and His deeds that bore witness to this conviction but I will limit my¬self to the most significant. “I should not judge poor peasants, men or women, by their exterior, nor by their apparent mental capacities. All the more is this so, as very frequently they scarcely seem to have the appearance or mind of reasonable beings, so gross and earthly are they. But turn the medal and you will see by the light of Faith, that the Son of God, whose will it was to be poor, is represented to us by these creatures; that He scarcely had the semblance of a man in His Passion, and in the eyes of the Gentiles He was regarded as a fool, and in the eyes of the Jews a stumbling block. And yet, with all that, He styled Himself the Evangelizer of the poor. Evangelizare pauperibus misit me. 0 my God, what a beautiful sight are the poor if we consider them in God and according to the esteem in which they were held by Jesus Christ.”
3. To serve the poor effectively we must identify with them.
Affective identification before all else. Vincent suffered with the poor that he encountered; the poor who did not know where to go nor what to do, who were suffering, who were increasing by the number each day, “they are my burden and pain.” This terrible cry reveals to us the secret of the heart of Vincent de Paul.
Intellectual identification. Vincent was convinced that the poor exist because society is badly organized and the wealth badly distributed. The rich are rich at the expense of the poor; the poor work and exhaust themselves to feed them. He applied all these ideas to himself first so as not to accuse others.
“We are living on the patrimony of Jesus Christ, on the sweat of the poor. We should always think, when going to the refectory: Have I earned the food I am about to eat? This thought often occurs to me and it fills me with shame. ‘Miserable man, have you earned the bread you are about to eat, this bread which comes to you by work of the poor?’ At any rate, if we do not earn it as they do, let us pray for their needs….” So much so that the poor and rich, the weak and the powerful are one and the same flesh of humanity and if the latter had what they need and are seen as free of want, it is because they had separated themselves from the needy and not considering them as their brothers and sisters anymore.
Effective identification. The servant of the poor must be poor himself, must suffer the hunger and the pain of the poor.
The Missioners must live a life adapted to that of the poor. In their manner, in their preaching, in their person, they should avoid all that will make them appear as “great lords” before the poor, benevolent towards the needy and thus creating between them a chasm of separation.
The Daughters of Charity should be more than poor. They should literally, not metaphorically be, the servants, that is the serving maids of the poor. While the rich have many persons to serve them, the poor, on the other hand, do not have servants or serving maids except for the ‘poor’ Daughters of Charity. They should consider the poor as their lords and masters; clean their rooms, wash their houses, make their bed, bring them something to eat, heal them with their own hands and at the same time talk to them about God and Jesus Christ, instructing them, evangelizing them, catechizing them so that the act of charity will be complete both spiritually and corporally.
“…it is one thing to assist physically those who are poor in truth, however, it was never Our Lord’s intention in founding your Company that you should care only for the body, because there will always be someone to do that, but Our Lord’s intention is that you should assist the sick poor spiritually…. A Turk or an idolater can care for the body…. In the future, make up your mind to unite spiritual assistance to the corporal service you render.”
III. There is still a third reason for Saint Vincent de Paul to be considered a key figure in the history of the holiness of the Church: his style of living the vocation that was confided to him.
We can condense this style into three fundamental characteristics:
1. The unlimited expanse of his charitable Vincentian action.
He undertook all kinds of works: • Preaching to the poor in the countryside and the beggars in the cities through the Priests of the Mission and the priests of other institutions formed by him: the Tuesday Conferences or Priests’ Conferences. • Formation of the clergy in the seminaries and in the retreats for ordinands, so that they will be agents of salvation for the poor. • Direction of the laity, men and women, employed in the charitable works not only through almsgiving but through their personal service to the needy to whom they had to bring bread for the body and bread for the soul. • Organization through the Daughters of Charity of the assistance to all types of spiritual and corporal sufferings: teaching the young girls at the little parochial schools to read and write in an era where hardly anyone could read; hospital services; home visitation; visit to those in prison and the galley slaves that were a “dark spot” in the sea during that epoch, and that work which, because of the tenderness it called forth, seems to overshadow all the others — the compassion for the abandoned and the foundling. • Launching in a national scale campaigns for assistance for those regions devastated by the war of thirty years: Lorraine, Champagne, Picardy, or by the civil war of the Fronde: the Paris countryside and the Ile-de-France. • Decisive intervention in the polemics against Jansenism, since the heresy that originated from the Augustinus by the famous bishop of Ypres, according to the understanding of Saint Vincent de Paul, ignored the saving action of Christ for those who were most in need and the compassion and tenderness of God for the ignorant and abandoned poor. • Participation in the Council of Conscience, the group entrusted with religious cases and particularly with the naming of bishops, the reason why Vincent confessed, he stayed: “for the good which he could do for the poor.”
2. To this wide expanse of Vincentian works, we have to add as a second characteristic, his preoccupation of putting all Christians, from the Pope and the bishops to the humble parish priests in the countryside, at the service of charity, thus making of the Church a real Church for the Poor:
“You must make it understood that the poor are being damned for want of knowing the things necessary for salvation, and for lack of confession. If His Holiness were aware of this necessity, he would have no rest until he had done all he could to set things right. It is the know¬ledge we had of this situation that brought about the establishment of the Company….”
3. The third distinctive note of the Vincentian vocation is his immense realism. Saint Vincent is not a man of appearances and good intentions. He is a man who demands of the apostolic worker, that is to say, of all Christians, a real and effective dedication to the work of evangelization in words and in deed.
“Let us love God, my Brothers, but let us love Him with all our strength and in the sweat of our brow… there are many who, if they have a recollected exterior, and an interior filled with lofty feelings about God, rest there, but when it comes to deeds, and there is need of action, they stop short. They flatter themselves by the warmth of their imagination; they rest content with the sweet discourses that they have with God in prayer; they even speak to Him as though they were angels. But apart from this, should there be question of working for God, of suffering, of self-denial, of instructing the poor, of accepting illness or disgrace, alas! They are no longer to be found; their courage fails them… let us not deceive ourselves: Totum opus nostrum in operatione consistit. (All that we have to do is work.)”
And looking around him at the panorama of the religious life in France during his epoch, he saw that it was not still penetrated by the spirit of the Tridentine reform, and he added:
“… there are many in this age who seem virtuous, and in reality are so, who are nevertheless more inclined to a soft and easy life than to solid and hardworking devotion. The Church is compared to a great harvest field that needs laborers; but the laborers are wanting. There is nothing more in keeping with the Gospel than, on the one hand, to gather up light and strength for the soul in prayer, spiritual reading, and solitude, and then to go forth and dispense this spiritual good to men. This is how we should act; that is how we should by our deeds bear witness to God, that we love Him. Totum opus nostrum in operatione consistit. (All that we have to do is work.)”
That is the reason why Vincent rejected, in spite of the great esteem he had for it, the religious canonical state for his Missioners and for his Daughters of Charity. Thus he started a new style of community that was destined for a splendid future in the Church. Above all the feminine religious life owes him a debt for bringing them out of the walls and grills of the convent, to send them out to the vast field of the real life of men and women, to serve in authentic communion with them in their sufferings and needs.
4. The last characteristic of the Vincentian way of service that I would like to discuss is his sense of organization. In this, perhaps more than in the others, Vincent was a man of his time, a time of methods. (Let us not forget that a key book of the epoch was the “Discourse on Method” by Descartes.) Vincent wanted with the Christians around him to practice charity. He did not desire a disordered and disorganized charity but an organized and methodical charity.
Already in the first and decisive experience of his charitable life alluded to as the episode in Chatillon, Vincent already saw the need for an organized charity: “This is not well organized,” was his penetrating observation. Since then he dedicated himself to organizing charities.
This organized charity has various aspects that we have to review briefly.
First, we have Vincent as author of rules. There were no works, associations or charitable activities founded, directed or governed by Vincent that did not have their own rules. That was how the first charity, that of Chatillon, came up with rules, rules that were later applied to the other charities that he founded and later still would crystallize into basic rules adaptable to different circumstances and places.
He authored rules for the chaplains that were sent to the battle¬field, for the Congregation of the Mission and for the Daughters of Charity, for the Ladies of Charity of the Hotel-Dieu, for the General Hospital of Paris, for the Conferences of the Clergy, for the seminaries, for the Sisters who served the galley slaves, for those who cared for the foundlings, for those who worked in the parishes, for those who served in the hospitals.
Analyzing the content of his rules would reveal the organizing mind of Saint Vincent, that put a touch of absolute realism in the most cordial of virtues: charity.
In all the rules one can distinguish several parts: a structural, juridical or legal (election of officers, assembly directives, attributes) part; a devotional part which shows the acts of piety to be recited by the members; and the inspirational part which summarized the spirit of the work. It is in the last part that we can discover the authentic Vincent de Paul. It is there that the saint describes the manner and the qualities that should adorn the servants of the poor and actualizes the general mystic of the service of the poor for the love of Jesus Christ — applying it to the different circumstances of the needy. That is why we can say — and this was mentioned by Pope John Paul II — that Saint Vincent de Paul is a real mystic, a mystic in action.
But Saint Vincent is not just an organizer on paper, a theoretician. His activities and his capacity as organizer are seen above all in practice, in the reality of his charitable acts. But here we have to draw the complete picture of the Vincentian works that go from the minutest organization he gave to both communities to the setting up of the more spectacular among his works. Tasks undertaken with a precise vision of needs, painstaking distribution of the different functions among the workers, synchronized coordination of all the forces and available resources. Naturally, we do not have the time now to trace that picture.
Now we are living in a very different time from that of Saint Vincent de Paul. Nevertheless, there are many similarities that oblige us to consider fully the mission and message of Saint Vincent de Paul. Here are some of the more striking ones:
• Poverty in its new form in the midst of an affluent society and not only in the cities of the third world but also in the well developed countries; for example, the dreadful specter of unemployment, the scourge of HIV/ AIDS, the phenomenon of migration, and as we know, the endless threat of slavery. • The dechristianization of large sectors of society which calls for a profound rethinking of the need for and urgency of a new evangelization as John Paul II repeatedly told us. • The fact that, in each society, the marginalized are also those in greatest need of evangelization, like the peasants of the 17th century or probably worst than they were. • The necessity for the Church to present itself before men as the incarnation of the universal mercy of the Lord, as emphasized by John Paul II in Dives in Misericordia and about which he wrote during the fourth centenary of Saint Vincent:
“A glance at the Vincentian epic (that is what we tried to do in these pages) obliges us to say that Saint Vincent is a modern saint. Of course, if he returns now his field of action will not be the same. Now many sicknesses he took care of are curable. But surely, he will find anew the world of the poor, the new poor in the crowded cities of our time, just like he did in the countryside. Can you imagine what this herald of mercy, of the tenderness of God can do using wisely the modern means that are at our disposal? In a word, his life will be the same: the Good News wide open to the same retinue of poor, the sick, sinners, abused children, men and women who can serve and love the poor, all hungering for the truth and for love, for both earthly food and corporal care and all of them listening to Christ saying once again: `Learn from me for I am meek and humble of heart.’”
1. José Marí Román, C.M., Saint Vincent de Paul: A Biography (London: St. Edundsbury Press, 1999), p. 101
2. Coste I, Letter 73, p. 112.
3. Conferences to the CM’s, Conference 195, p. 608.
4. Ibid., p. 602.
5. Conferences to the CM’s, Conference 16, pp. 41-42.
6. Collet, o.p. t,l, p. 179.
7. Conferences to the CM’s, Conference 125, p. 198.
8. Coste IX, Conference 85, p. 269.
9. Coste I, Letter 73, p. 112.
10. Conferences to the CM’s, Conference 22, pp. 49-50.
Translated: Charles T. Plock, CM