Vincent de Paul and the Mission of the Laity

From Vincentian Encyclopedia

[This article appeared in Volume II of En tiempos de San Vicente de Paúl … y hoy, Editorial CEME, Santa Marta de Tormes (Salamanca) Spain, 1997, p. 31-42. 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

At the end of the sixteenth century the laity played no insignificant role in the Church. Some enjoyed the right to present candidates for an appointment to which a benefice was attached (for example, parishes and other such institutions).

Some others administered works of charity or were members of pious associations that cared for the infirm or the elderly, for example the hospices de Beaune which were founded in 1444 by a pious lay couple, Nicolas Rollin and his wife. At this time very often the zeal of the laity for matters concerning faith was frequently an indiscriminate zeal and as a result on many occasions politics and religion became one and the same reality. Many people, with sword in hand and unprotected chests, became involved in the adventures of the League and later opposed Henry of Navarre, the future Henry IV.

After the moral and religious ruin that occurred during that century of reform and struggle, there was need for a complete reconstruction … and much good will surfaced.

A short time before some religious communities were established and they had various social and charitable objectives. Here we mention the Brothers of Saint John of God and the Order of Clerics Regular who care for the infirm (Saint Camilo de Lelis), the Piarists Fathers who were involved in education and later the Jesuits.

At the beginning of the seventeenth century it was understood that the all encompassing scope of this work of the re-christianization of society could not be accomplished without the collaboration of the laity.

In his Introduction to a Devout Life, Francis de Sales referred to the search for holiness, a search that should involve every person regardless of their state in life: Almost all those who have written concerning the devout life have had chiefly in view persons who have altogether quitted the world; or at any rate they have taught a manner of devotion which would lead to such total retirement. But my object is to teach those who are living in towns, at court, in their own households, and whose calling obliges them to a social life, so far as externals are concerned. These persons would become the columns of the new Christian society.

The Company of the Most Blessed Sacrament would recruits its members from among those lay persons concerned about their holiness, that is, holiness is their private life as well as in their public life of service to the State. At that time we find Madame Acarie and her circle of friends concerned about the process of maturing in holiness and many of her followers would become Vincent’s collaborators.

Francis de Sales organized a group of pious women to serve the poor … these women would visit the poor and the infirm and provide for them. But Francis was eventually obliged to organize this group as a cloistered religious community. The principles, however, that he had enunciated and his failure to attain his objective would not be lost on Vincent de Paul who was a friend and an admirer of Francis de Sales.

When Vincent “converted”, which did not occur in the span of twenty-four hours … when Vincent renounced his search for a benefice that would enable him to live a comfortable life … when Vincent discovered Jesus Christ in his encounters with poor men and women, then Vincent realized the immensity of the task that was before him because people are dying of hunger and are condemned.

Here, then, Vincent was confronted not simply with some isolated cases of people who needed help but rather he realized that it was necessary to restore the poor to the Church and to restore the Church to the poor.

When Vincent returned from the missions that he had given in the areas that surrounded Paris, he felt discouraged as he viewed the spread of material and spiritual misery that he knew had to be dealt with: It seemed to me that, when I reached Paris, the gates of the city were going to fall upon and crush me (CCD:XI:391).

Vincent realized that he had to organize the laity in a methodical manner in order to assist the poor. As a result, in all the places where missions were preached the Confraternity of Charity was established. In fact, a confraternity was established in the royal court and the most distinguished women there considered it an honor to serve the poor. They took charged of situations in which various needs had to be provided for … this included caring for children who had been abandoned. These women committed their spouses and other family members and they became members of an organization that was formed to assist the nobles who, as a result of the war, were forced to flee their homes in the various provinces and seek refuge in Paris.

Overwhelmed, however, by the many tasks that they were presented with, the Ladies found themselves unable to attend to all of this work.

Guided by circumstances, Vincent organized a stable association of young women who voluntarily offered to serve the poor. He placed these women under the care of Louise de Marillac. Mindful of what had happened to Francis de Sales when he attempted to do the same thing, Vincent made every effort to avoid making these women, religious.

Vincent understood that at a time when violence and brutality seemed to predominate the social scene there was an urgent need for compassionate hearts. All the evils that the pride and brutality of individuals brought about could only be corrected by the tenderness and kindness of women.

Even though there were confraternities of charity for men as well as mixed confraternities, the majority of the confraternities that were established were composed of women … and it was thanks to these women, to thus countless number of lay women who became members of these confraternities … it was thanks to them that little by little, seventeenth century society was transformed into a gentler, more compassionate society.

Economists are convinced that thanks to Francis de Sales and Vincent de Paul and the influence that they had on the laity who became involved in a vast movement of charity and solidarity … thanks to them that the French society of the later seventeenth century and early eighteenth century achieve a rare balance on both a human and Christian level. Customs and relationships were refined and this led to a change throughout Europe.

Today we are in a very distinct period in the history of the world and the Church. The religious renaissance of the nineteenth century, which continued into the twentieth century, had accustomed us to find comfort in the so called “clerical era”, that is, the power of the clergy, a situation in which ecclesiastics assumed all the important roles in the church.

The laity who engaged in any activity (members of various groups and movements) lacked episcopal approval and God knows how much ink has been consumed by this issue. Yet the Vincentian movements (the Vincent de Paul Society and the AIC), because of their statutes, were able to preserve a relative freedom with regard to their activity.

But today we find ourselves in a different situation: the clergy who wanted to maintain their position of power can no longer do so because their numbers have diminished.

Furthermore, the Second Vatican Council has affirmed the autonomy of the laity: the church is above all the People of God and the clergy are at the service of this people.

The laity are called to collaborate with the clergy and thus assure the presence of the four fundamental functions of the Church, namely, prayer, transmission of the faith, evangelization (presence in the world), and charity. Without these the Church would cease to exist.

The important role that Vincent gave to the laity reveals him as a precursor. His spiritual heritage should make us willing to give life to the teachings of the Second Vatican Council.

Hopefully we will make every effort to form good collaborators … indeed, the future of the Church depends on the efforts we make in this area.

Vincent and the mission of the laity

The missionary work of Vincent is founded upon two inseparable supports: Folleville and Châtillon, “the mission and charity” … two events that occurred in 1617 and that consequently formed the Vincentian way of life and the Vincentian charism.

Previously we had seen that Vincent was interested in ministering with other priests. After the experience in Châtillon every mission was concluded by organizing a Confraternity of Charity … Vincent was convinced that the laity had an irreplaceable role in the efforts to evangelize and serve the poor. Later on, a poor woman, Marguerite Naseau, would help Vincent give form to his insight and experience at Châtillon … thus revealing the need to bring together a group of true servants of the poor.

Vincent and the Confraternities

“…more than fifty of them set out…”

Châtillon is for the laity what Folleville is for the priests. After his experience of January 1617 Vincent brought together some priests who were willing to engage in an effective ministry of evangelization. In August 1617, in light of the willingness and the activity of the laity, Vincent was convinced of the need to organize men and women in order to create a long term effective missionary ministry. Let us allow our Founder to speak about the events that led to this lay initiative and that gave form to his own insight: 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 that all the ladies were touched by it. More than fifty of them set out from the town, and I did the same. When I visited him, I found him in such a state that I judged it wise to hear his confession. As I was taking the Blessed Sacrament to him, I met the ladies returning in droves, and God gave me this thought: 'Couldn't these good ladies be brought together and encouraged to give themselves to God to serve the sick poor?' As a follow-up, I pointed out to them that these great needs could very easily be alleviated. They immediately resolved to see to It (CCD:IX:165-166).

“…The Ladies … have charitably joined forces…” In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. On this day, August 23, 1617, the Ladies named below have charitably joined forces to take their turn to assist the sick poor of the town of Châtillon, having decided unanimously that, for an entire day only, each will be responsible for all those whom they have decided together to be in need of their help. To do so, they propose two aims, namely, to assist body and soul: the body by nourishing it and tending to its ailments; the soul by preparing those who seem to be tending toward death to die well, and preparing those who will recover to live a good life. And because, when the Mother of God has been invoked and taken as patroness in important matters, everything can only go well and accrue to the glory of Jesus her Son, the Ladies lake her for patroness and protector of the work, most humbly entreating her to take special care of it, as they also entreat Saint Martin and Saint Andrew, true examples of charity and patrons of Châtillon. Starting tomorrow, the feast of Saint Bartholomew, they will begin, with God's help, to function in this good work in the order in which they are listed here: First, the chatelaine on her day; Mlle. de Brie on hers; Mme. Philiberte, wife of M. des Hugonieres; Benoite, daughter of M. Ennemond Prost; Mme. Denise Beynier, wife of M. Claude Bouchour; One of the daughters of Mme. Perra; Mme. Colette; And, lastly, Mlle. de la Chassaigne. After her the chatelaine will do the same service on another day, and the others will take their turns successively, according to the above order (CCD:XIIIb:3-4).

“…They have arranged to form an association…”

As time passed this first Confraternity was restructured and a new rule was put in place in November-December 1617 which underlined the twofold Vincentian priority: spiritual and corporal service on behalf of the poor: 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 Châtillon-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. The confraternity will be called Confraternity of Charity, in imitation of the Charity Hospital in Rome, and the persons of which it will be mainly composed will be called Servants of the Poor or of the Charity (CCD:XIIIb:8-9).

Almost a dozen rules were formulated for the different confraternities of women. History also makes it clear that Vincent was very hesitant with regard to forming “mixed confraternities”. It seems that in a very short period of time problems arose in these confraternities whose members were both men and women. At the same time, however, we must underline the fact that Vincent was concerned about involving all the laity in the missionary service of charity. The confraternity in Joigny (1621) is a typical experience and reflects Vincent’s insistence on providing for those who are truly poor and/or truly sick. Once again we see that the confraternities highlight that which is a Vincentian priority: Because the association has been established only for persons who are truly poor and truly sick, the male officers will give the alms of the association only to those men and women whom they judge in conscience to be truly poor. The women officers will do the same only for those whom they judge in conscience to be truly poor and sick (CCD:XIIIb:60).

“…Compassion and charity…”

Vincent continually urged the women to remain faithful to their commitment to serve the poor. Vincent’s exhortation to the women who care for the children who were abandoned was made famous by Pierre Fresnay (Monsieur Vincent) and continues to serve as a model of Vincent’s tenacity: 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)

Marguerite Nasseau, the first Daughter

“…a good country woman…”

On January 22, 1645 Vincent spoke to the Daughters of Charity about the divine origins of their Company: Châtillon is without a doubt the place of their birth. Thus the conference of 1645 has a surprising twist as Vincent referred to the role that this good country woman played in the foundation of the Company. He stated: The Charity was established in Paris to do here what all of you can see. And all the good began with that. I hadn't given it a thought. God is the one who willed it, Sisters, and Saint Augustine asserts that, when things happen in that way, God is their author. In this city of Paris a few ladies had a similar desire to help the poor in their own parishes, but when it came to carrying out the project, they were greatly hindered in rendering them the lowly, difficult services. During the missions I met a good country woman, who had given herself to God to teach girls here and there. God inspired her with the thought of coming to see me, and I suggested the service of the poor to her. Immediately she gladly accepted, and I sent her to Saint-Sauveur, the first parish in Paris in which the Charity was established. A Charity was next set up in Saint-Nicolas-du-Chardonnet, then at Saint-Benoît, where there were some good country women. God blessed them so much that, from that time on, they began to meet and come together almost imperceptibly (CCD:IX:166).

“…the first who showed others the way…” Marguerite Naseau from Suresnes was the first Sister who had the happiness of showing others the way, both to teach young girls and to nurse the sick poor, although she had almost no other teacher or schoolmistress but God. She was just a poor, uneducated cowherd (CCD:IX:65).

“…This good woman wanted to be part of it …”

On several occasions Vincent would return to the ministry of Marguerite Naseau. On December 25th, 1647 he described the process that led to the establishment of those true servants of 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 were often inconvenienced by carrying this soup pot, became disheartened, and 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. Mlle Le Gras, to whom God had given the zeal she had all her life for His glory, 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. And that's how the Company began, with no one planning it, for the good country woman who started it had no thought of it; so you see, Sisters, it's God himself who has brought you together in a very mysterious, excellent way, and not a single person has ever found fault with it (CCD:IX:358-359).

“…A young woman, willing to carry the soup pot to the sick…”

In 1653, as Vincent’s life was coming to an end, he wanted to define the spirit of the Company of the Daughters of Charity and placed Marguerite Naseau before the Sisters and referred to her as a pioneer: It's not Mile Le Gras, it's not I, it's not M. Portail, it's God who has given this spirit to some great saints, now in heaven, for we can believe that some of them are there. If Mile Le Gras, or M. Portail, or I have done anything, alas! it was rather to place some obstacle in the way of this. God is the author of works whose author can't be found. I never thought of it; consequently, it's God himself who did it on His own. The first Confraternity of Ladies established in Paris, by God's inspiration, was that of Saint-Sauveur parish. At that time a poor young woman from Suresnes I had a desire to teach those who were poor. She had learned to read while tending cows. She had procured a primer for herself, and whenever she saw someone, she would ask him to point out the letters to her; then she would spell them out, little by little, and when other people passed by, she would ask them to help her to form her words; on their return, she would ask if that was what they had told her to do. When she learned how to read, she went to live five or six leagues from Paris. We went there to give a mission. She made her confession to me and told me about her plan. When we set up the Charity there, she was so attracted to it that she said to me, “I'd like very much to serve the poor in that way” (CCD:IX:472-473).

The Daughters of Charity ... a family of laywomen

All serious historians agree that the Daughters of Charity have a “secular” origin. Their Constitutions speak about “a secular family”, an expression that Louise de Marillac used when she wrote to Monsieur L’ Abbé de Vaux (June 29, 1649): I met with the Vicar General two or three times to explain to him that we were just a secular family (SWLM:294 [L.481]). What is the meaning of these words?

“…wearing ordinary attire…”

When Vincent referred to Châtillon in his conference of January 22, 1645, he did this to underline the proper “secular character” of the Company: It may be said in truth that it's God who established your Company. I was thinking about this again today and I said to myself, “Did you ever dream of founding a Company of Sisters?” Oh no, not I! Was it Mile Le Gras? Just as little. I can tell you in all truth that I never thought of it. Who then had the idea of establishing in the Church of God a Company of women and Daughters of Charity wearing ordinary attire? (CCD:IX:165).

“… a special association…”

In 1647 Vincent wanted to highlight the importance of the rules of the Daughters of Charity and was every insistent on this matter even though thirteen years has passed from the time of their foundation: Up to the present, you've worked on your own, with no other obligation in relation to God except to carry out the order prescribed for you and in the way of life laid down for you. Up to the present, you haven't been a body independent of the Ladies of the Confraternity of Charity; but now, Sisters, God wills that you form a special body which, however, without being separated from that of the Ladies, will still have its particular functions and spiritual exercises. Until now you've worked with no other obligation; now God wants to bind you more closely by the approval he has permitted the Most Reverend and Most Illustrious Archbishop of Paris to give to your Rules and your way of life (CCD:IX:255). “…What a lovely title, Sisters…”

While Vincent recognized the positive elements that resulted from the rules he could not deny the bond that united the Daughters and the Ladies since they shared the same charism with regard to ministry: lay women who served the poor. Their title, servants of the poor, should produce admiration even though they still continued to be members of a confraternity: [Vincent] then continued to read until he reached the article that states, “It will be a Confraternity and will bear the name of Confraternity of Sisters of the Charity, Servants of the Sick Poor.” Having said that, he exclaimed softly, what a lovely title, Sisters! Mon Dieu! What a lovely title and what a beautiful designation! What have you done for God to deserve it? Servants of the Poor is the same as saying Servants of Jesus Christ, since he regards what is done to them as done to himself, for they are his members. And what did he do in this world but serve persons who were poor? Preserve this title carefully, dear Sisters, for it's the most beautiful and the most worthwhile one you could have. Do you know ---I don't know if I've mentioned this to you before --- do you know what title the Pope takes? The most beautiful and most venerable of his titles, the one he uses when dealing with the most important affairs, is Servant of the Servants of God. We read, “Such and Such --- Clement, Urban, or Innocent --- at this time Servant of the Servants of God.” You also, Sisters, may sign your name Servants of the Poor, who are the well-beloved of Jesus Christ! When Saint Francis gave his Rule, he took the title of Minor which means little. If this great patriarch called himself “little”, shouldn't you consider it a great honor to follow him and to call yourselves Servants of the Poor? (CCD:IX:256).

“…a little snowball…”

Some good country women … began to meet and come together almost imperceptibly (CCD:IX:166). On August 8, 1655, five years before his death, Vincent referred to this long process of maturation and continued to read and interpret the events that gave rise to this “secular” institution: In the beginning it was a little snowball, and that Little Company has grown so much and made itself so pleasing to God that we can certainly say that it's the finger of God that has produced this work because it's spreading everywhere. Yes, Sisters, your name is extending to so many places that it has reached even Madagascar, where they're asking for you (CCD:X:82). “…you will tell him that you are not nuns…”

This little snowball had become an avalanche … an avalanche of charity … a power that came from God. There is no doubt that the Daughters of Charity are not “religious”, are not “cloistered”. Vincent stated this very clearly when he missioned various Sisters: So, you'll be going to visit certain persons, dear Sisters, and if you're taken to see the Bishop of the area, ask for his blessing; tell him you want to live entirely under obedience to him, that you give yourselves entirely to him for the service of the poor, and that you've been sent for that purpose. If he asks you who you are and whether you're nuns, tell him that you're not, by the grace of God --- not that you don't have a high opinion of nuns, but that, if you were nuns, you'd have to be enclosed; consequently, you'd have to say good-bye to the service of the poor. Tell him that you're poor Daughters of Charity, who have given yourselves to God for the service of the poor, that it's permitted for you to withdraw, and that you may also be dismissed. If he asks you, “do you make religious vows?” tell him, “Oh no, Monsieur! we give ourselves to God to live in poverty, chastity, and obedience, some of us forever, and others for a year” (CCD:IX:432). “..We do not belong to a religious order…”

Because of the ease with which Vincent spoke we might think that he was exaggerating or not using the word “secular” in its proper sense. That, however, would be a mistake because the “secular character” of the Sisters was codified in the rules of the Daughters serving in parishes: They shall bear in mind that they do not belong to a religious Order because that state is incompatible with the duties of their vocation. Nevertheless, since they are more exposed to the occasions of sin than nuns bound to the cloister, having for monastery only the houses of the sick and the place where the Superioress resides; for cell, a hired room; for chapel, the parish church; for cloister, the streets of the city; for enclosure, obedience, with an obligation to go nowhere but to the houses of the sick or to places necessary for their service; for grille, the fear of God; for veil holy modesty; making no other profession to ensure their vocation and that, by their constant trust in Divine Providence and the offering they make to God of all that they are and of their service in the person of the poor, for all these considerations they should have as much or more virtue than if they had made their profession in a religious Order; therefore, they will strive to conduct themselves in all those places with at least as much reserve, recollection, and edification as true religious in their convent (CCD:X:530).

We conclude this presentation on the “secular” origin of the Daughters of Charity by citing the following letter that Vincent wrote to Jacques de la Fosse (February 7, 1660). Because of the date of this letter, his words could appear as his final testament with regard to this matter: The Daughters of Charity are not nuns, but Sisters who come and go like seculars; they are parishioners under the guidance of the Pastors in the places where they are established. If we have the direction of the house in which they are formed, it is because the guidance of God has made use of us to bring their Little Company to birth, and you know that the same things God uses to give being to things he also uses to preserve them (CCD:VIII:277).

Questions for reflection and dialogue

In all his activity as he responded to the urgent and immediate needs of the poor, Vincent knew how to enlist collaborators. At the same time Vincent communicated to government and church officials the calls that he perceived as he encountered the poor in their different situations.

--- How do we affirm, help and support those who collaborate with us in our ministry?

--- What criteria do we use in choosing collaborators?

--- What do we hope to achieve through our ministry?

--- How are we the voice of the voiceless?

Translated: Charles T. Plock, CM