Vincent de Paul and the Laity

From Vincentian Encyclopedia

[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. 53-62. 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

The Second Vatican Council, in its constitution Lumen gentium, has presented us with a very unfamiliar vision. The Church has been viewed primarily as a “hierarchy” and the Council presents us with the vision of a people, “the people of God”. Responsibilities and tasks are distributed among all the people … the clergy accept some of these responsibilities and the laity accept others.

Until the present time the clergy have maintained a central and primary role in the church, but we are moving toward a church in which the laity embrace an ever more active role … indeed it is the laity who find themselves at the center of the questions that the world places before the Church.

After the Council of Trent the general tendency of the Church was oriented toward strengthening its hierarchical dimension. It was the clergy who became responsible for implementing the necessary reforms … and it was also the clergy who became an obstacle to the church’s evolution.

Vincent was tempted to situate himself in the midst of the hierarchy (he was seeking an honorable retirement). But the laity made him put aside those plans and made him ask different questions: Would he abandon the poor and leave them submerged in religious ignorance? Could he not create some institutions that would confront the scandalous situation of misery?

Vincent allowed himself to become unsettled by those questions which eventually led him to unforeseen horizons. Vincent’s organizing genius enabled him to separate the social dimension of these problems from the collective dimension. Thus he once again placed these questions before the laity and instructed them to accept their proper responsibility while at the same time helping them to organize in order to confront the various situations of poverty and misery.

Vincent lived in the midst of a violent universe, a universe that presented an elegant façade but behind which it was most clear that power held sway over every aspect of life. The “little ones” were perpetual victims who occupied the lowest places in a social pyramid that crushed them. It was a “man’s” world in which every form of excess was tolerated: foreign wars, duels, destruction of towns and villages, devastation and pillage of entire areas. The women, more than men, seemed to be more sensitive to the injustices of this inhuman world and so it was these same women who became disciples of Vincent de Paul.

It was the women to whom Vincent proposed establishing an association in order to channel their generosity and thus provide a long-term solution to some of the evils that existed at that time. In this way mothers, distinguished women in society, middle-class women, humble peasants, single women and widows consecrated themselves to serve the poor. As a result, these dedicated women enlisted their contemporaries to visualize another form of human relationship, a more human and just world in which the humble and lowly people would not have to live in a state of constant oppression.

In recent years there has been much discussion about the laity and their role in the Church. After having been viewed for so many years as passive members of the church they are now seen as active and responsible for the affairs of the Church and the affairs of the world. Because the laity find themselves in the midst of today’s problems they are the ones who are best able to interrogate the church and the clergy. The dialogue between Vincent and the laity led to initiatives that changed the face of the church. The present day situation demands a similar search for solutions as well as dialogue between the laity and the clergy.

Vincent and the laity

Vincent discovered, encouraged and organized the laity of the seventeenth century who lived in the midst of a “Christian” society and church. While this might be very obvious, nevertheless, we need to be reminded about this fact which should also be highlighted. At the same time we must remember that we will not find in Vincent the same theology of the laity that has matured and been formulated three hundred years later. When Vincent dealt with the laity, however, he acted as a missionary and reflected on his experience and life … this led him to see the laity as continuing the mission of the Jesus Christ.

The laity revealed to Vincent his mission and his responsibility as a priest

It is important to highlight the fact that on numerous occasions it was the laity who made Vincent aware of “the signs of the time” … thus his missionary plans were given greater precision … Ah, M. Vincent! How many souls are being lost! How can this be remedied? (CCD:XI:3).

In the narration of the events that occurred in Gannes-Folleville, it is important to note that Vincent attributed the initiative to Madame de Gondi … it was she who encouraged Vincent to preach about the theme of general confession in order to exhort the people to do this; it was she who encouraged Vincent to engage in that first missionary experience.

This grace prompted the peasant of Gannes to acknowledge publicly, even in the presence of Mme de Gondi, whose vassal he was, the serious sins of his past life. "Ah, Monsieur! What’s this?" that virtuous lady then said to the saint. "What have we just heard? No doubt it’s the same for most of these poor people. If this man, who is considered an upright man, was in a state of damnation, what will it be like for others who live more badly? Ah, M. Vincent! How many souls are being lost! How can this be remedied?" (CCD:XI:3). The man died shortly afterward and the said Lady, realizing the necessity of general confessions, wanted me to preach a sermon on this subject the next day. I did so, and God blessed it so much that all the inhabitants of the place made a general confession ... . This led to doing the same thing for several years in the other parishes on the estates of the said Lady. In the end she wanted to maintain some priests to continue these missions (CCD:XII:7).

“…I was informed of his illness and poverty…”

Some months later in Châtillon, it was some anonymous lay people who called Vincent’s attention to the situation of a poor infirm family: I, though unworthy, was Pastor of a small parish. As I was about to give the sermon, someone came to tell me there was an indigent man who was sick and very badly lodged in a poor barn. I was informed of his illness and poverty in such terms that, moved by compassion, I made a strong plea, speaking with such feeling… (CCD:IX:165).

“…this young women wanted to be a part of this project…”

At the time of the establishment of the Daughters of Charity it was again a lay person, Marguerite Naseau, who took the initiative and showed Vincent the value of the poor serving the poor: The Ladies at Saint-Sauveur had a Confraternity of Charity in their parish; they were serving the sick themselves, carrying the soup pots, medicine, and everything else. Since most of them were of the upper class, were married, and had families ... they talked of finding some servants who would do it for them. When this good young woman heard of the project, she wanted to be part of it and was accepted by the Ladies. The Ladies in other parishes wanted to do the same and asked me if there was any way I could give them some of these women. Mile Le Gras ... was asked to take charge of them, to form them in holiness and in the manner of serving poor persons. So, we got a house for them (CCD:IX:359).

Vincent revealed to the laity their mission and responsibility in the church … a mission and responsibility toward the poor

Because of the laity Vincent quickly realized that those men and women had many resources that had not been utilized and that could be placed at the service of the poor. Thus Vincent became the one who continually encouraged the laity to serve the poor.

“…enflamed the hearts of many people…”

In Châtillon Vincent was advised about the situation of a poor family … and he preached with much feeling (CCD:IX:165). He reminded the parishioners about their responsibility who in groups reached out to this family.

After dinner a meeting was held in the home of a good townswoman to see what help could be given them, and everyone present felt urged to go to visit them, console them with their words, and do what they could to help them. After Vespers, I took with me an upright citizen of the town, and we set out together to go there ... So, after I had heard their confessions and given them Holy Communion, the next thing was to see how to provide for their needs. I suggested that all those good persons animated by charity to go there might each take a day to make soup, not for those sick persons only, but also for others who might come afterward… Vincent then concluded: Was it human beings who had inflamed the hearts of all those who went off in droves to bring them some help? ... Oh no, Sisters! that's not the work of humans; it's clear that God was powerfully at work there… (CCD:IX:192-193).

“…Stop being their mothers to be their judges…”

Vincent took on the role of “advisor” to the men and women who served the poor with dynamism, fidelity and great success. We are very familiar with the exhortation that Vincent addressed to the Ladies of Charity: Well then, Ladies, compassion and charity have led you to adopt these little creatures as your own children; you have been their mothers according to grace since the time their mothers according to nature abandoned them. See now whether you, too, want to abandon them. Stop being their mothers to be their judges at present; their life and death are in your hands. I'm going to take the vote; it's time to pass sentence on them and to find out whether you are no longer willing to have pity on them. If you continue to take charitable care of them, they will live; if, on the contrary, you abandon them, they will most certainly perish and die; experience does not allow you to doubt that (CCD:XIIIb:423-424).

Vincent organized the activity of the laity in the church … an activity on behalf of the poor

As a result of Vincent’s ministry with the laity he came to understand the irreplaceable role of these men and women in the church as they served the poor. Vincent also realized that it was necessary to organize the generosity and the activity of the laity.

Vincent’s reaction during the afternoon when the events unfolded in Châtillon is particularly significant: the commitment of the lay people who wanted to serve the poor should be a commitment of the group and a commitment that expresses their solidarity. This reality was affirmed in the introduction to the Rule of the Confraternity in Châtillon which is dated November-December 1617: Since charity toward the neighbor is an infallible sign of the true children of God, and since one of its principal acts is to visit and bring food to the sick poor, some devout young women and virtuous inhabitants of the town of Chlitillon-les-Dombes, in the Lyons diocese, wishing to obtain from God the mercy of being his true daughters, have decided among themselves to assist spiritually and corporally the people of their town who have sometimes suffered a great deal, more through a lack of organized assistance than from lack of charitable persons. Because, however, it is to be feared that this good work, once begun, might die out in a short time if they do not have some union and spiritual bond among themselves to maintain it, they have arranged to form an association that can be set up as a confraternity with the regulations that follow. All of this is, nevertheless, subject to the good pleasure of their most honored Prelate the Archbishop, to whom this work is entirely subject (CCD:XIIIb:8-9).

In this text we find some essential elements of Vincent’s thinking with regard to organizing the laity in order to serve the poor: it is necessary for people to come together and to minister together; the laity cannot be satisfied with providing for the material needs of people but must also provide for their spiritual needs; there must be a relationship with the bishop. We find these principles of organization and activity expressed in almost every one of the Rules for the different confraternities and in all of Vincent’s initiatives with the laity.

The place and the role of women in the church

Vincent invited men to participate in these confraternities but the needs of the poor, especially the sick poor, demanded the attention of a woman (also, as in Châtillon, the women expressed a greater degree of availability). In doing this Vincent was aware of the fact that he was extending to women a role and a responsibility that had been taken away from them.

“…Our Lord receives as much glory from the women's ministry as from that of the men…”

Because both the men's and the women's associations are only one and the same association ... and since only the ministry is divided ... and because Our Lord receives as much glory from the women's ministry as from that of the men ... for these reasons the Servants of the Poor will show as much concern for the preservation and growth of the women's association as for their own (CCD:XIIIb:62).

“…For eight hundred years…”

The second motive is the fear you should have that those works may fail and die in your hands. That would doubtless be a great misfortune, Ladies, and even greater, since the grace God has given you of engaging you in them is so rare and extraordinary. For eight hundred years or so, women have had no public role in the Church; in the past there were some called Deaconesses ... About the time of Charlemagne, however, by a discreet working of Divine Providence, this practice came to an end; persons of your sex were deprived of any role and haven't had any since then. And now that same Providence is turning today to some of you to supply what was lacking to the sick poor of the Hôltel-Dieu (CCD:XIIIb:432).

“…you are released from the prohibition placed upon you…”

Vincent spoke about the excellence of the ministry of these women: You practice what widows of the primitive Church did, namely, to meet the material needs of the poor as they did, and even the spiritual needs of persons of their own sex, as they did. In this you will be released, as it were, from the prohibition placed upon you by Saint Paul in I Cor 14, “Women should keep silent in the churches; nor are they permitted to speak.” Then he adds, “For it is a disgrace for women to speak in church." And in I Tm 2, “I do not permit a woman to act as a teacher,” adding as the reason that, “Adam was created first; Eve afterward,” and “It was not Adam who was deceived but the woman. It was she who was led astray” (CCD:XIIIb:381).

The value of charity

The above referenced text concerning the ministry of charity Vincent put aside the strict interpretation of the rules of Saint Paul. Indeed, Vincent’s words constituted a dispensation from that prohibition. For Vincent charity is the greatest value in the kingdom of God and at the time of the final judgment priests and laity must give an account of themselves … an account of the manner in which they lived according to the norms of charity as dictated in Matthew 25.

“…a poor weakling as much as those who are learned…”

That’s how you can help to advance virtue as much as the priests do. And if you work faithfully at acquiring virtue, it will be true to say that you’ll be in a state of holiness. And if there’s a priest who’s doing a miserable job at this --- like myself, abominable sinner that I am --- it must be acknowledged that you’ll also be holier than he, even though he’s a priest, or a senior member, or even a Superior. How is that? Because it’s neither high positions nor age that give merit to a person, but the works that make him more like Our Lord. It’s through them that he grows in holiness; it’s through the practice of the virtues that he’s saved. That’s clear in the Gospel of the Last Judgment, where it’s stated that Our Lord will place at his right those who worked at acquiring virtue, especially the virtue of charity, and they’re the only ones who will enter the kingdom of heaven. So then, it’s the practice of the virtues that binds us to his love, and it’s his love that prompts you to perform more acts of virtue. If you really love God, you’ll act in the same way. Now, you can love God as much as the priests; and a poor weakling as much as those who are learned (CCD:XII:87).

“…charity makes our actions pleasing to God…”

When a priest says Mass, we’re bound to believe and know that it’s Jesus Christ Our Lord himself, the principal and sovereign priest, who is offering the sacrifice; the priest is only the minister of Our Lord, who makes use of him to perform this action externally. Now, doesn’t the assistant who serves the priest, and those who hear Mass, participate, like the priest. in the sacrifice he offers, and which they offer with him, as he himself says in his Orate, fratres, ut meum ac vestrum sacrificium acceptabile fiat apud Deum Patrem 0mnipotentem? No doubt they do participate in it, and more than him, if they have greater charity than the priest. Actiones sunt suppositorum; actions are personal. It’s not the title of priest or religious that makes the actions more pleasing to God and more meritorious, but charity, if they have greater charity than we do (CCD:XII:306).

Questions for reflection and dialogue

A] How have the laity (through the witness of their life, their suggestions and initiatives) revealed to you the will of God?

B] With regard to collaboration between priests, laity and between men and women religious, what place do I give to the laity? How do I react to the initiatives of the laity?

C] What is my thinking with regard to the role of women in the mission of the church?

Translated: Charles T. Plock, CM