Vincent de Paul and Jesus Christ: the Christ of Vincent
[This article appeared in Volume I of En tiempos de San Vicente de Paúl … y hoy, Editorial CEME, Santa Marta de Tormes (Salamanca) Spain, 1997, p. 211-221. The above cited work was translated from the French by Martín Abaitua, CM (Au tempts de St. Vincent-de-Paul… et aujourd ‘hui), Animation Vicentienne, 16, Grande rue Saínt-Michel, Toulouse, France … this work is not attributed to any one author but it is stated in the Introduction that the articles were written by various authors].
Presentation of the theme
In line with some current thinking about the death of God, Jesus Christ is often viewed as someone who died but nevertheless acted in a good manner while he was alive … in fact there are countless books and articles and even films that highlight different aspects of his personality and/or that project onto the person of Jesus the dreams and vision of the author of these various works. The one whom the Father appointed as judge of the living and the dead could not remain indifferent to anyone of us. All people, whether they want to or not, have a personal relation with God and thus, their existence is viewed in relationship to this God. Therefore, each one of us is invited to reflect upon the question that Jesus places before us: “who do you say I am?” This question obliges us to look at ourselves and who we are … it is the balance beam upon which our lives will be judged.
Vincent de Paul was unable to escape this question … and we know how he responded. In fact we are able to decipher his response as we examine and reflect on his life. The young Vincent found Christ in the call to the priesthood and, like many other men, he committed himself to follow Christ as a worthy priest … he committed himself in accord with the spirit of his era, renouncing certain worldly advantages in order to serve God (but not renouncing all those advantages).
He received a degree in theology and for some time (perhaps too short a time in the eyes of Bérulle) was instructed in the views of the French School of Spirituality … Bérulle instructed Vincent who in turn learned to focus his life on Jesus Christ. But the Jesus Christ of Bérulle had completed his earthly struggle and thus the Incarnate Word had become the great High Priest who presided at the altar of heaven in the presence of the Father. The orderly majesty of this invisible liturgy is dimly reflected in the ceremonies that are celebrated in the cathedrals throughout the world and is also revealed in the world liturgies that are offered to the god of the sun, etc.
Vincent did not spend much time with the circle of individuals who were members of the French School of Spirituality. Vincent was not comfortable there and he also wanted the Missionaries to search for the lost sheep and to engage in this search to the point of being willing to die of weariness. Vincent became a member of a more demanding school, the school of the poor. These poor men and women taught Vincent that the poor are dying of hunger, of material hunger as well as a hunger for the word of God (as he told M. Olier when he spoke about the inhabitants of Gevaudam.
Jesus Christ is the one sent by the Father, the missionary of the Father to the poor … at the end of Jesus’ life he exhorted his followers to continue the mission: “as the Father has sent me so I send you” and in this way the good news can continue to be proclaimed in a preferential manner to those who are poor.
To imitate Jesus Christ, to follow Jesus Christ, to make Jesus Christ the center of our life … this is to become like Jesus Christ in order to do what he did, in order to continue the mission from one generation to the next.
Jesus Christ is not only the person who stands behind us and sends us forth but he also invites to go further than he did, he invites us to go the every part of the world and there we are to proclaim the good news. This Jesus Christ is also before us: his grace and presence precede us. We believe that we proclaim the treasure of his gospel to others but we then discover that this Jesus stands before us in the person of the poor and the humble. Jesus is simultaneously at the point of departure (the process of the missions) and at the point of arrival. Jesus encouraged Vincent as he proclaimed the good news but also waited for Vincent in order to break bread as the evening turned to night. Jesus was in the person of the poor and there Vincent discovered Jesus and awaited the definitive encounter when he would be embraced by the One who had given him his mission.
Today people want a calm, peaceful church that proclaims a Christ of years gone by, a Christ who blesses the established order and disturbs no one in the pursuit of worldly happiness. But Vincent reminds us about a different reality, namely, that Jesus Christ sends us forth to proclaim the Good News about a world that is quite different … in that world the last will be first and the poor will be the true leaders; in that world other will be admitted because the poor allow them to enter; in that world all people will live in accord with the Beatitudes.
Jesus Christ does not send us forth to reorganize the world, that is, to change the frontiers of injustice and oppression. Rather Jesus Christ sends us forth to proclaim a new world, a different world where the Beatitudes become the law of everyday life, a world in which Jesus himself, in the person of “the little ones” becomes the center of life and the light of life.
Thus we see the Christ of Vincent de Paul is also the Christ of our belief and the Christ of the Church our era.
The great insight of the French School and the spiritual contemporaries of Vincent de Paul was that of focusing the Christian faith on the Incarnate Word, Jesus Christ. Vincent benefitted greatly from this teaching and therefore we find that he was definitely influenced by some of Bérulle ideas.
Nevertheless, Vincent translated this rediscovery of Christ in a manner that became more and more personal (especially after the events of 1617). Christ became the center of his faith and was viewed as the center of salvation. Vincent contemplated Jesus Christ as the Missionary, the one sent by the Father … Vincent viewed his followers as missionaries who continued the mission of Christ, who followed Christ and found Christ ever anew in the person of the poor.
Jesus Christ contemplated and his mission continued
In a letter addressed to M. Portail, Vincent’s first disciple, we find him writing this hymn to Jesus Christ which demonstrates the central place that the Son of God had in his faith and in his life: 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).
“…fortunate to belong to the Mission for the same purpose that caused God to become man…”
The Christ that Vincent placed at the center of his faith and life was clearly “the Missionary of the Father who was sent to humankind” and thus, we are sent to continue that mission: In this vocation, we’re very much in conformity with Our Lord Jesus Christ, who seems to have made his principal aim, in coming into the world, to assist poor people and to take care of them. Misit me evangelizare pauperibus. And if we ask Our Lord, "What did you come to do on earth?" “To assist the poor.” "Anything else?" “To assist the poor,” etc. Now, he had only poor persons in his company and he devoted himself very little to cities, almost always conversing with and instructing village people. So, are we not very fortunate to belong to the Mission for the same purpose that caused God to become man? And if someone were to question a Missioner, wouldn’t it be a great honor for him to be able to say with Our Lord, Misit me evangelizare pauperibus? I’m here to catechize, instruct, hear confessions, and assist persons who are poor (CCD:XI:98-99).
“…The vocation of Jesus Christ…”
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 hadn’t judged that this was necessary to maintain the people and preserve the fruits of missions given by good priests. ln that we imitate the great conquerors, who leave garrisons in the places they capture for fear of losing what they have acquired with so much difficulty. Aren’t we very blessed, my dear confreres, to live authentically the vocation of Jesus Christ? For who lives better the way of life Jesus lived on earth than missionaries? I’m not just talking about us, but missionaries from the Oratory, from Christian Doctrine, Capuchin missionaries, Jesuit missionaries. O brothers, those are the great missionaries, and we’re only shadows of them. Look at how they go even as far as the Indies, Japan, and Canada to complete the work Jesus Christ began on earth and never abandoned from the first instant of his call! Hic est Filius meus dilectus, ipsum audite … from the time his Father commanded this, he didn’t stop for a single moment until his death. Let’s try to imagine that he’s saying to us, “Set out, you Missioners, set out! You’re still here, and there are poor souls waiting for you, whose salvation depends perhaps on your preaching and catechizing!” ... How happy will those be who, at the hour of death, can say these beautiful words of Our Lord, Evangelizare pauperibus misit me Dominus! You see, brothers, that the essential aim of Our Lord was to work for poor persons. When he went to others, it was only in passing. But woe to us also if we become lax in carrying out the obligations we have to help poor souls! For we have given ourselves to God for that purpose and God is counting on us (CCD:XI:121, 122).
“…To evangelize poor persons as Our Lord did…”
The first reason we have for thanking God for the state in which he has placed us, by his mercy, is that it’s the state in which he placed his own Son, who himself has said, Pauperibus evangelizare misit me! What cause for great consolation to be in that state! See what good reason we have to thank God for it! To evangelize poor persons as Our Lord did, and in the way Our Lord did it, using the same weapons, contending with the passions and desires of having possessions, pleasures, and honors! (CCD:XII:299).
Imitate Jesus Christ
Vincent de Paul saw Jesus Christ as the missionary of the Father who was sent to the poor. Jesus, then, is the perfect missionary whom we must imitate … in fact we must clothe ourselves in his spirit. What did he say? what did he do? … These are the questions that we must ask if we want to follow Jesus Christ and continue his mission.
“…We must be clothed with the Spirit of Jesus Christ…”
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. To understand this clearly, we have to know that his Spirit is poured out on all Christians who live according to the rules of Christianity; their words and actions are diffused with the Spirit of God, with the result that God has raised up the Company --- and you see this clearly --- in order to act in like manner. lt has always had a love for Christian teachings and has desired to be clothed with the spirit of the Gospel in order to live and act as Our Lord did so that his Spirit may be apparent in the entire Company and in each Missioner, in all its ministries in general and in each one in particular ... But what is the Spirit of Our Lord? It is a spirit of perfect charity, filled with a marvelous esteem of the Divinity and an infinite desire to honor it in a worthy manner, together with a knowledge of the greatness of his Father, in order to admire and extol them unceasingly. He has such a high esteem of this that he paid homage to him for all the things that were in his sacred person and that passed out from it; he attributed everything to him; he was unwilling to say that his teaching was his own, but referred it to his Father: Doctrina mea non est mea, sed ejus qui misit me Patris [sic]. Is there any greater esteem than that of the Son, who is equal to the Father, and yet who acknowledges the Father as the author and sole principle of all the good that’s in him? And what was his love? Oh, what love! O my Savior, what love did you not show for your Father! Could there have been any greater love, my dear confreres, than to annihilate himself for him? For when Saint Paul speaks of the birth of the Son of God on earth, he says that he annihilated himself. Could he show any greater love in that than by dying through love in the way he died? O love of my Savior! O love! You were incomparably greater than the angels were able to understand and will never understand! His humiliations were nothing but love, his work only love, his sufferings only love, his meditations only love, and all his interior and exterior actions were nothing but repeated acts of his love (CCD:XII:93-94).
“…a sheep produces a sheep…”
The following advice was directed to an especially gifted missionary, M. Durand, who was the superior of the house in Agen. This young missionary of twenty-seven years was given the advice that he needed in order to govern well. Vincent was very precise in his words, namely, in order to continue the work of Jesus Christ people must clothe themselves in his spirit of humility and must allow themselves to be guided by the Son of God. No, Monsieur, neither philosophy, nor theology, nor discourses can act in souls; Jesus Christ must be involved in this with us --- or we with him --- so that we may act in him and he in us, that we may speak as he did and in his Spirit, as he himself was in his Father, and preached the doctrine he had taught him; those are the words of Holy Scripture. So, Monsieur, you must empty yourself of self in order to clothe yourself with Jesus Christ. You know that ordinary causes produce the effects of their nature: a sheep produces a sheep, etc., and a human another human; likewise, if the man who directs and forms others and speaks to them is animated with only a human spirit, those who see him, listen to him, and strive to imitate him will become totally human: no matter what he says and does, he’ll inspire them with only the appearance of virtue, and not the substance; he’ll communicate to them the spirit with which he himself is animated, as we see that masters impress their maxims and ways of acting firmly on the minds of their disciples. On the contrary, if a Superior is filled with God and with the maxims of Our Lord, all his words will be efficacious; virtue will go out of him that will edify others, and all his actions will be so many beneficial instructions that will bring about good in those who are aware of them. To reach that point, Monsieur, Our Lord himself has to imprint firmly on you his stamp and his character. For, just as we see a wild stock, on which a seedling has been grafted, bear the fruits of the nature of this same seedling, we, too, wretched creatures, even though we’re only flesh, hay, and thorns, yet if Our Lord imprints his own character on us, and gives us, so to speak, the sap of his Spirit and grace, uniting us to him like the vine branches to the vine stock, we do the same as he did on earth --- I mean we carry out divine actions and, like Saint Paul, filled with this Spirit, beget children to Our Lord (CCD:XI:311).
“…What did Jesus say and do…”
To use our intelligence and reason well, it must be our inviolable rule to judge everything as Our Lord did; but, I repeat, always and in all things, and to ask ourselves, if need be, “How did Our Lord judge this? How did he act in a similar situation? What did he say about it? I have to adjust my way of acting to his teachings and examples.” Let’s be determined to do that, Messieurs, let’s walk on this path with assurance; it’s a royal rule; heaven and earth will pass away, but his words will not pass away ... Oh, if God grants us the grace of adopting this practice of never judging with human reasoning because it never arrives at the truth, never attains God or divine reasons, never; if, I repeat, we consider our reason alone as deceptive and we act according to the Gospel, let’s bless Our Lord, my dear confreres, and strive to judge as he did and to do what he has recommended by word and example. Not only that, but let’s enter into his mind so that we may enter into his workings. Doing good isn’t everything; we have to do it well, after the example of Our Lord, of whom it’s said in the Gospel that he did all things well: Bene omnia fecit. Fasting, keeping the Rules, turning our attention to God isn’t everything; we have to do all that in his spirit, that is, with perfection, with the purpose and appropriateness with which he himself did them. So then, prudence consists in judging and acting as Eternal Wisdom judged and acted (CCD:XII:148).
“…Jesus Christ is the great invisible portrait…”
Our Lord Jesus Christ is the true model and that great invisible portrait on whom we must fashion all our actions. The most perfect men living here below on earth are the visible, tangible pictures who serve as models for us to regulate all our actions well and make them pleasing to God (CCD:XI:201).
“…To imitate Our Lord…”
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 doesn’t have the same characteristics, features, manners, and looks? That can’t be. So, if we’re determined to make ourselves like this divine model, and feel in our hearts this desire and holy affection, it’s necessary, I repeat, it’s necessary to strive to model our thoughts, works, and intentions on his. He’s not only Deus virtutum, but he came to practice all the virtues, and since what he did and did not do were so many virtues, we, too, must conform ourselves to them by striving to be men of virtue, not only with regard to the interior, but by acting virtuously exteriorly so that what we do or don’t do is based on this principle (CCD:XII:67-68).
“…you must resemble Our Lord…”
The spirit of the Company consists in giving yourselves to God to love Our Lord and to serve him corporally and spiritually in the person of the poor in their homes or elsewhere; to instruct poor young women, children, and generally all those whom Divine Providence may send you. You see, dear Sisters, this Company of Daughters of Charity is composed, for the most part, of poor young women. How excellent is this characteristic of poor young women --- poor in their clothing and poor in their food! In fact, people call you poor Daughters of Charity, and you should consider it a great honor to have this title because the Pope himself considers it a great honor to be called the Servant of the Servants of God. This qualification of poor distinguishes you from those who are rich. You've left your villages, your parents, and your possessions. And why? To love Our Lord and his maxims. You are his daughters and he is your Father. He begot you and gave you his Spirit; for whoever sees the life of Jesus Christ would see far and away the similarity in the life of a Daughter of Charity. And what did he come to do? He came to teach and to enlighten. That's what you're doing. You're continuing what he began; you are his daughters, and you can say, “I'm the daughter of Our Lord,” and you must resemble him (CCD:IX:465:466)
Jesus Christ discovered in the poor
The abandonment of the poor which Vincent witnessed and the gospel upon which he reflected (especially Luke 4:18) led Vincent to focus his faith and his life on Jesus Christ. Vincent went forth to encounter the poor and did this in the name of Jesus Christ, the perfect Missionary whose mission he must continue. Yet as Vincent served the poor he discovered the living image of Jesus Christ. But 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).
“…in serving persons who are poor, we serve Jesus Christ…”
Another motive … is that 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'll find God there. As Saint Augustine says, what we see with our eyes is not so certain because our senses sometimes deceive us, but the truths of God never deceive. Go to visit a chain gang, you'll find God there. Look after those little children, you'll find God there. How delightful, Sisters! You go into poor homes, but you find God there. Again, Sisters, how delightful! He accepts the services you do for those sick persons and, as you have said, considers them as done to himself (CCD:IX:199).
“…the poor represent Jesus Christ…”
That, then, is what obliges you to serve them with respect as your masters, and with devotion because they represent for you the person of Our Lord who said, “What you do to the least of mine I will consider as done to myself.” So, Sisters, Our Lord is, in fact, with that patient who is the recipient of the service you render him. In line with that, you must be careful not only to distance yourselves from harshness and impatience, but also to strive to serve them with cordiality and great gentleness, even the most troublesome and difficult, not forgetting to say a few good words to them, such as, “Eh bien, brother! How do you think you're going to make the journey to the next world?” Then to another, “Eh bien, my child! Don't you want to be united with God? Don't you want to make a good general confession so as to prepare yourself to die well? Don't you want to go to see Our Lord?” In this way, always say something to them that will raise their hearts to God (CCD:X:268).
“…you did this to Jesus Christ…”
Dear Sisters, here's the twelfth article, which states: Although they should be neither too lenient nor too condescending if the patients refuse to take the remedies or are too insolent, they must, nevertheless, be very careful not to be harsh or disrespectful to them; on the contrary, they will treat them respectfully and humbly, remembering that the harshness and disrespect they show them, as well as the service and honor they render them, are directed to Our Lord himself. That speaks for itself, Sisters, namely, that you must treat poor persons with great gentleness and respect: with gentleness, reflecting that they have to open heaven for you; for the poor have that advantage of opening heaven, and that's what Our Lord says, “Make friends of your riches so that they may receive you into the eternal tabernacles." So, you must treat them with gentleness and respect, remembering that it's Our Lord to whom you render that service, since he considers it as done to himself: Cum ipso sum in tribulatione, speaking of a poor person. If he's sick, so am I; if he's in prison, I'm there too; if he has shackles on his feet, so have I. And another reason is that you must look on poor persons as your masters (CCD:X:545).
“…The grace to serve Our Lord…”
God be praised, Ladies, for granting you the grace of clothing Our Lord in his poor members, most of whom had nothing but rags to cover them, and several children were as naked as the back of my hand! … Eight members of your Company have died within the year …There's good reason to hope that those Ladies are now enjoying glory. They are experiencing how good it is to serve God and to assist the poor, and at Judgment they will hear these pleasing words of the Son of God, Come, you beloved of my Father, possess the kingdom that has been prepared for you. For I was hungry and you gave me food; I was naked and you clothed me; I was ill and you visited and comforted me, etc."( CCD:XIIIb:428-429).
“…Poor among the poor…”
Abelly, the first biographer of Vincent de Paul, has written: The second maxim of this faithful servant of God was always to see our Savior Jesus Christ in others, to inspire our charity toward them. In the Holy Father, the pope, he saw our divine Savior as pontiff and head of the Church. The bishop he saw as Jesus the bishop and prince of pastors. He saw the doctors of the Church as Jesus the doctor, priests as Jesus the priest, all religious as Jesus the religious, the king as Jesus the sovereign ruler, gentlemen as Jesus the noble one, magistrates, governors, and other officers as Jesus the judge and all ---wise ruler. In the Gospel the kingdom of heaven is compared to a merchant, and so it was that he looked on traders. He saw Jesus the worker in the artisans, Jesus the poor man in the poor, Jesus suffering in the sick and dying. He looked on all states in life, seeing in each the image of his sovereign Lord who dwelt in the person of his neighbor. He was moved, in this view, to honor, respect, love, and serve each person as our Lord, and our Lord in each individual. He wanted his followers and all those with whom he spoke to enter into these same sentiments, to make their charity toward the neighbor more constant and more perfect (Abelly I:107).
Questions for reflection and dialogue
A] And you, who do you say I am? •Who is Jesus Christ for me, today?
•What place do I give Jesus in my life?
•How have I been enriched by my on-going discovery of Jesus Christ throughout my life?
B] To clothe ourselves in the spirit of Jesus Christ … to imitate what Jesus did •Do we use the gospel to reflect on our life?
•Do we review our past plans and draw up new plans in light of the gospel?
C] To continue the mission of Jesus Christ, the missionary of the Father … to discover Jesus Christ in the poor •Today how do I continue the mission of Jesus Christ?
•What does it mean for me to encounter and recognize Jesus Christ in the person of the poor?
Translated: Charles T. Plock, CM