Vincentian Spirituality: Love
VINCENTIAN SPIRITUALITY: LOVE
by: J. F. Gazziello, CM
Louise de Marillac had placed herself under the direction of Vincent de Paul. At first she was focused on her own problems and exhibited a piety that revolved around the multiplication of religious devotions. At the same time, however, she began to move beyond her anxiety and committed herself to the Confraternities of Charity. Thus it was that in 1630 Vincent advised Louise and shared with her the true meaning of the religion of Jesus Christ: God is love and wants us to go to him through love (CCD:I:81). In formulating this “creed” that reveals the true face of God, Vincent was influenced by the words of Saint John: Let us love one another … for God is love (1John 4:7-8)
1.] God is love
The God of Vincent’s belief, the God to whom he consecrated his life and whom he preached during the missions and spoke about to his followers was the living and true God, the God of the covenant, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of the prophets, the God of Jesus Christ. Vincent never defined God in ontological terms. For Vincent God is love –fidelity who is revealed in His creative and saving Word (Cf., Hosea 2:16-25; 1John 1:9-14, 4:8-10; Colossians 1:15-20). God is revealed in His intimate life as a Trinity of Persons and is also revealed in the history of His people. The God whom Monsieur Vincent proclaimed to the poor and to sinners, the God who gave meaning to his life is the God who reveals himself as Salvation and Liberation through his action in the world on behalf of the poor … this is the God who wants us to enter into an intimate relationship with him and also wants us to share in his gifts.
Vincent never separated his discourse about God from the practice of charity and his spirituality of action: Each of us knows that the Law and the prophets are included in the love of God and neighbor … now that concerns not only love of God but love of the neighbor for the love of God … which is so great that human understanding cannot grasp it; enlightenment from on high is needed to raise us up in order to show us the height and depth, the breadth and excellence of this love (CCD:XII:213).
For Vincent, God is the foundation of his life, the source of every perfect gift (James 1:17) and the end toward which everything is directed (Romans 8:19-30). God is not some object to be contemplated but rather is the One who sends the Son and the Spirit and the One who is open to all people. Spirituality is never simply a matter of knowledge but is primarily a matter of love and life: We have to study in such a way that love corresponds to knowledge (CCD:XI:116).
Vincent’s relationship with the Trinity, one God in three Persons, reveals to us his faith and experience and points out to us our place within the divine plan: it is in Jesus Christ, the One sent by the Father and animated by the Spirit, that we become the mystical body of Christ, children of the Father who are enlightened by the Spirit and thus able to say, Abba, Father. We do not find some well thought out treatise on the Trinity among Vincent’s works. We do, however, have a catechetical instruction that was presented in 1653 to the poor who resided at Nom-du-Jésus (Cf., CCD:XIIIa:173-179). Vincent’s conferences and talks to his followers reveal the outlines of his faith and experience which in turn are intimately related to mission and community life. God loves people in a way that shows that God wants to live in union with us through an intimate relationship. This relationship has its origin in our very existence and in the reality of God’s intimate presence to each person through the sharing of his life with us. Vincent developed his doctrine and directs our attention to the reality that for all eternity the Father begets the Son and the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. This continual movement of the living and true God is alive in us and in all people: The soul of the person who loves Our Lord is the dwelling place of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and the place where the Father perpetually begets his Son and the Holy Spirit constantly proceeds from the Father and the Son (CCD:XI:36). 1.1.] The indwelling of the Trinity, the height of love
Vincent viewed the Trinity as the height of love, the foundation of the Christian life and every form of spirituality. Like Saint Paul (1 Corinthians 3:16-17; 6:19), Vincent invites us to allow the indwelling of the Trinity, which we received at the time of our baptism … to allow this gift to develop in such a way that we become the temple of the living God, the place of love. To love God is to allow ourselves to be impregnated by the Father, the Incarnate Son, and the life-giving Spirit in all our attitudes and activities. In order for all of this to happen we must affirm the coming of the Spirit of love among us: The Holy Spirit personally is poured out on the righteous and dwells personally in them. When we say that the Holy Spirit is at work in someone, it means that this Spirit, residing in that person, gives him or her the same inclinations and dispositions Jesus Christ had on earth, and they cause the person to act in the same way --- I am not saying with equal perfection, but according to the measure of the gifts of that Divine Spirit (CCD:XII:93). The response of faith to the gift of charity poured forth in our hearts is not enough … we need to respond with love. We must believe in God through and in our actions: Where there is charity, God abides. An important person has said that God’s cloister is charity. He enjoys being there, his place of delight is there; it is the dwelling place in which he is well pleased. Be charitable, be kind, have the spirit of forbearance, and God will live in your midst. You will be his cloisters, you will have him in your home and you will have him in your hearts (CCD:IX:231).
1.2.] The love of God is revealed in the mission
God’s love for humankind is revealed through the mission: the Father sends the Son to evangelize the poor and save the world. The Father and the Son send the Holy Spirit who continues to act in the world and brings about the sanctification of all. In the work of creation the three Persons act together and in the work of Redemption each Person has a distinct role. Vincent seems to be asking for respect for the mystics of his era as he refers to the love of God that is revealed in the mission of the Son and the Spirit. He viewed the mission of the Son from the perspective of the eternal plan of salvation which revealed Jesus’ love for humankind and his obedience to the Father. When the Eternal Father willed to send his Son on earth, he put before him all the things he would have to do and suffer. You know the life of Our Lord and how filled with suffering it was. Holy Father said to him, “I will allow you to be despised and rejected by everyone; I will let Herod make you flee from the time you are a baby; that you be considered a madman and receive curses for your miracles; in short, I will allow all creatures to rebel against you.” That is what the Eternal Father set before his Son, who replied, “Father, I will do whatever you command me.” This shows us that we must obey in all things without reserve (CCD:X:69). Is this not God’s great love for humankind: the sending of his only Son? God surely thought that people would respect him and listen to him and but instead people killed him thinking that somehow they would acquire the inheritance (Cf., Matthew 21:37-39). Yet despite this the Son of God was still sent among us so that we might share in God’s life.
1.3.] God’s love for all people is revealed in the Incarnation
God’s love for people is revealed in the Incarnation of the Word in the womb of the virgin, Mary. Vincent reflected on this extraordinary love of God-Love as he contemplated the Eucharist. We have two sermons from about 1613 that he gave on Communion: The eternal Father shows how carefully we must prepare ourselves to receive our Creator into our souls, since he himself, when sending him into the world, willed to prepare for him a palace filled with every perfection, namely the virginal womb of his Blessed Mother. The Holy Spirit also willed to show the same respect that one should have for the Body of Our Lord, since, having rejected the ways of nature for the formation of this body, he willed to be himself the workman, by taking the most pure blood of the Virgin (CCD:XIIIa:36).
In Jesus Christ, God-Love became a missionary who came to earth in order to reveal God’s love, gentleness and mercy toward all people regardless of where they lived: all the gospels proclaim this reality (1). The mission of the only Son of God is the center of Vincentian spirituality: in the Incarnate Word Vincent discovered the love of God who came to dwell among us in order to evangelize the poor. He read about this love in the gospel of Saint Luke: to bring glad tidings to the poor, to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord (Luke 4:18). Thus Jesus defined his service as one that is both corporal and spiritual. In the Lord’s “school” love becomes affective and effective. Vincent saw the mission of Jesus as proof of his love and a model that should be imitated by Christians because our vocation is a continuation of his [Jesus Christ’s], or, at least, it is similar to it in its circumstances. … it is such a loft ministry to evangelize poor persons, which is, par excellence, the work of the Son of God and we have been included in it as instruments by which the Son of God continues to do from heaven what he did on earth (CCD:XII:71-72).
For Christians love is to accept the reality that their service, their mission is not the work of a man, [but] is the work of God. It is the continuation of the ministry of Jesus Christ … Jesus Christ must be involved in this with us --- or we with him …so that we may speak as he did and in his Spirit, as he himself was in his Father … So, Monsieur, you must empty yourself of self in order to clothe yourself with Jesus Christ (CCD:XI:310-311).
1.4.] To clothe oneself in Jesus Christ
To clothe oneself in Jesus Christ … this is how Christian accept the love God and respond to God: the manner in which the Son of God carried out his mission and his role as Servant … these are placed before the members of the Body of Christ, the Church and are proposed to them as models. Following Jesus Christ means that we allow love to lead us to those places where the Father wants to send us, to those places where people are crying out for help. Thus love means that we are willing to do the will of the Father who sends us forth rather than to do what we want to do. Love means that we do that which Jesus would do if he were in our place because whoever sees the life of Jesus Christ would see far away the similarity in the life of a Daughter of Charity (CCD:IX:466). For Vincent love is to become perfectly united to the living and true God through prayer and service; it means that we allow the Son and the Spirit (who was sent by the Son) to mold our lives in such a way that they reflect God and reveal God’s love to the little ones. Thus Vincent sought union with God and, like Jesus, desired to do only that which was pleased to the Father. Doing the will of God is how we give witness to our love: O Savior! … You are the King of Glory, yet you came into the world only to do the will of the One who sent you. You know, brothers, hoe dear this sacred affection was to the heart of Our Lord … It was your pleasure, Savior of the world, your ambrosia, your nectar to do your Father’s will. We are your children, who throw ourselves into your arms to imitate your practice; give us this grace (CCD:XI:129-130, 137).
Even if we do nothing else but speak about God’s love, even if we only engage in social action, yet if we are filled with the Spirit of Jesus Christ, then we will always be the presence and the love of God to our sisters and brothers … we will always be the sign of God’s presence and love that today becomes visible through our love which is concretized in committed service to people and to society: You are destined to represent the goodness of God to those poor sick people (CCD:X:268). This is what Vincent proposed to the Daughters of Charity. We have to look at and contemplate Jesus Christ in prayer in order to live in Jesus Christ, in order to allow the love of God to penetrate and transform our lives and in order to give witness to this same love of God through our actions. Let us look at the Son of God; what a heart of charity he had; what a fire of love! Please tell us, Jesus, who pulled you away from heaven to come to endure the curse of earth and the many persecutions and torments you suffered? O Savior! Source of love humbled even to our level and to a vile agony, who showed, in that, greater love for the neighbor than your yourself did? You came to lay yourself open to all our misfortunes, to take the form of a sinner, to lead a life of suffering and to undergo a shameful death for us; is there any love like that? But who else could love in such an outstanding way? Only Our Lord, who was so enamored with the love of creatures as to leave the throne of his Father to come to take a body subject to weaknesses. And why? To establish among us, by his word and example, love of the neighbor. This is the love that crucified him and brought about that admirable work of our redemption. O Messieurs, if we had only a little of that love, would we stand around with our arms folded? Would we let those we could assist perish? Oh, no! Charity cannot remain idle; it impels us to work for the salvation and consolation of others (CCD:XII:216).
1.5.] Christ: lover and servant
When Vincent speaks about Christ as love and servant, as the worshiper of the Father and the servant of humankind, he does not use the theology of his era but begins with his lived experiences and his relationships with other people. Vincent encountered Christ and felt that Christ was near to him in his own experiences of suffering and physical and spiritual misery. Vincent encountered Christ who had taken on the human condition so that all people might share in his divine nature: But don’t we also see that the Eternal Father, having sent his Son on earth to be the light of the world, nevertheless, had him appear only as a little boy, like one of those poor little ones you see coming to this door? Eh quoi! Eternal Father, you have sent your Son to enlighten and teach everyone, and yet he appears to us nothing less than that! But wait a little, and you will see God’s plan; and because he determined not to allow the world to be lost and had compassion on it, that same Son will give his life for us (CCD:XI:339-340).
Vincent teaches us to meditate on God’s love for humankind through the contemplation of Jesus abandoned, despised and ridiculed. Vincent discovered this humiliated Jesus in the refugees of the wars who had to flee their homes, in the galley slaves forced to man the king’s ships, in those who were hungry, in the abandoned children and those individuals who were caught up in selfishness and anger. Vincent invites us to reread our lives in light of Jesus’ passion: They crown him, they burden him with his cross, they stretch him out on it, they hammer the nails into his hands and feet; they raise him up and drop his cross violently into the hole they had prepared for it; in a word, far from mingling any gentleness with all that, they treat him as cruelly as possible … What does he say on the cross? Five words, and not one of them shows any impatience. He says clearly, “Eli, Eli, Father, Father, why have you abandoned me?” But this is not a complaint, it is an expression of tormented nature, suffering agony with no consolation. The superior part of his soul acquiesces gently to this; otherwise, having the power to overthrow this rabble and cause all of them to die and free himself from their hands, he could have done it, but he didn’t. O Jesus my God! What an example for us who have committed ourselves to imitate you! What a lesson for those who are unwilling to suffering anything (CCD:XII:159-160).
1.6.] Jesus: friend and spouse
As Jesus poured himself out in love and handed himself over to the Father and to humankind he became their friend, their spouse: This is what Jesus Christ is for souls who have given themselves to him. He is more a spouse than all the spouses on earth, and in a very different way, for his way is truly heavenly and truly divine. He is more a friend than all the friends in the world since he has given his blood and his life for the salvation of each soul (CCD:IX:266-267). From the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks and, ordinarily, exterior actions give witness to what is within the person; those who have true charity interiorly will manifest it externally. It is characteristic of fire to give light and heat, and it is characteristic of love to show respect and kindness to the person who is loved (CCD:XII:217). Love cannot see someone suffering without suffering long with him, or see someone cry without crying as well. This is an act of love causing people to enter one another’s hearts and to feel what they feel, far from those persons who have no feeling for the anguish of the afflicted, or the suffering of poor persons. Ah, how tenderhearted the Son of God was! (CCD:XII:221). Jesus’ love for humankind is that of a Son who came to earth in order to atone for ways in which people offended God as a result of their sins. Jesus, the only Son of the Father presents himself as love and everything in his life is oriented according to the demands of love: 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. His love gave him great contempt for the world, for the spirit of the world, for wealth, for pleasures, and for honors (CCD:XII:94).
1.7.] Jesus invites us to live in accord with his love
Jesus, who knows the importance of affective and effective love, invites us to live in accord with his love and to conform our life to the will of God who wants to share with us the fullness of life and joy. Here we are not talking about some abstract acceptance of the will of God or some action in which we affirm God’s will once and for all. Rather we are referring to a way of living in the midst of world and a way of responding to the cries of the poor that makes one pleasing to God. Indeed we are invited to give ourselves totally to God through service of the poor. We think all this is desirable and that it is good to be reduced to that state by the love we have for God; it is to die of love, to be a martyr --- a martyr of love … It is you, my loving God, who have wounded me; you are the one who has broken and pierced my heart with your burning arrows; you are the one who put this sacred fire in my inmost being, causing me to die of love (CCD:XI:205).
For Vincent, Jesus is the rule of the Mission (CCD:XII:110) because he is the unique model of being with God and of being with men and women. Vincent felt that if people desired to contemplate Christ then they should also look at their own lives, their attitude toward the humble and the oppressed, their way of participating in the Eucharist and their practice of virtue: we have to imitate Jesus Christ in order to be clothed with his Spirit, therefore we have to practice the virtues that were particularly evident in Our Lord when he was living on earth, namely, those that are contained in his teaching, in his poverty, chastity, and obedience, in his charity toward the sick, etc. (CCD:XII:96).
All of this is revealed in affectionate love. The Missionaries are called to be animated and filled with this love in order to communicate this love in the language of God. In a lengthy exhortation to a Brother who was dying Vincent burst forth in a hymn of love: O God of my heart, your infinite goodness does not allow me to share my affections or to give them to anyone else if that is prejudicial to you! Take possession, for yourself alone, of my heart and my liberty! And how could I wish for anything good from anyone else but You! Would it be, perhaps, from myself? Alas! You love me infinitely more than I love myself, who have nothing and hope for nothing except from you (CCD:XI:130).
2.] God wants us to go to him through love
God is love; God loves us; God calls us to love. For Vincent these statements are truths of faith, truths that have to be made a part of daily life in order for God to become known and in order for men and women to be saved. Therefore Vincent asks his followers to give expression to this love which is received from the heart of God and to make this love an integral part of two realities which give witness to and imitate Christ: the realities of community life and service on behalf of the poor. For Vincent these two realities are fundamental and are expressions of the love that God has placed in the hearts of all people (2).
2.1.] Community life: its two points of reference, the Trinity and Mission
On July 30, 1651 Vincent wrote to Sister Anne Hardemont, the Sister-Servant in Hardemont: As Sister servant, please take good care of your Sisters. They should do the same for you, as daughters of Our Lord, whom they should esteem in you and you in Him. In a word, live together as having but one heart and one soul so that by this union of spirit you may be a true image of the unity of God, since your number represents the three persons of the Most Holy Trinity. I pray for this to the Holy Spirit, who is the union of the Father and the Son, that he may be yours likewise and give you profound peace in the midst of contradictions and difficulties, which can only be frequent among the poor. But remember also that this is your cross, by which Our Lord calls you to himself and to his peace. Everyone has a high opinion of your work, and good people acknowledge that there is no other work on earth more honorable or holy, when it is preformed faithfully (CCD:IV:238-239).
This text expresses very clearly the different elements that constitute the living together in Vincentian community:
• A union of spirit in the image of the Trinity: unity in the diversity of persons;
• The gift of the Holy Spirit who establishes communion among the members of the community and gives them a certain dynamism;
• An effort to live in peace in the midst of difficulties: the Christian community is not something that is formed once for all but rather is built up day after day;
• The community is entrusted to each one of its members: we are called to care for one another;
• A community of service on behalf of the poor: community is related to the cross and proclaims Jesus crucified whose charity urges us;
• Community is lived from a faith perspective and for service on behalf of the poor.
Therefore, the Christian community is recognized by the Church and the world as an agent of evangelization.
The spiritual experience of Vincent is characterized by a powerful idea: the poor people are condemned and die of hunger; they lack apostolic workers, apostles of charity, who as members of the Church are willing to imitate Jesus Christ and serve them: Providence seems to have brought the twelve of you together here with the intention of honoring his human life on earth. What a blessing to be a member of a community because each individual shares in the good that is done by all! By this means you will have abundant grace. Our Lord promised us this, saying, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in their midst. For even greater reason, when several of you have the same intention of serving God, “my Father and I will come and dwell among them” (CCD:IX:2). As an example of the Trinity and as a sign of love, the community has always been for Vincent a reality of faith. In 1617 when he arrived in Châtillon as the young pastor in a parish where religion was in ruins, he gave a missionary thrust to the parish by bringing together six elderly priests who were living a worldly lifestyle and now they would live together in community. For Vincent community was a means of perfection; but above all else community establishes an apostolic relationship with the life of Jesus and his apostles and a relationship with the primitive Christian community. When the first Confraternity was created in 1617 their rule quite naturally states: The Ladies … have charitably joined force to take their turn to assist the sick poor (CCD:XIIIb:3)
As Vincent meditated on the gospel he discovered that service and community were united and were the sources of our life and work, that is, the sources of fraternal charity and the apostolate. The Vincentian vocation does not consist of living together well, in a friendly environment and in a situation in which everyone is comfortable. The end of the Company and therefore the end of our personal vocation is very clear with regard to the achievement of the desired objective: a community oriented toward serving the Lord in the poor. This is the only aim that can give meaning and power to our apostolic ministry and our fraternal community.
Vincent saw service and community united in such a way that he was convinced that without a strong community life one was unable to serve the Church, unable to serve the poor. Vincent wrote a letter to M. Portail who was ministering in Cevennes with M. Lucas and addressed the problems they were confronting in their community life together: I am hoping for much fruit from on high through the goodness of Our Lord, if union, cordiality, and support exist between you two … Let there appear no sign of division between you. You are, as it were, on a stage upon which one act of bitterness is capable of spoiling everything. I hope you will conduct yourself in this manner and that God will make use of a million acts of virtue, which you practice in this way, as the basis and foundation of the good you are to do in that region (CCD:I:110). This same teaching was highlighted when missioning the Daughters of Charity. After reminding these women about their humble position as servants of the poor, as women called to imitate Jesus Christ, and after speaking to them about their obligations to the local church and to the poor, he told them that their community life was a sign of their mission to proclaim the love of God for all people: The third thing, dear Sisters --- and I recommend it above all --- is mutual support; yes, Sisters, great support … by doing so, you will preserve union among you (CCD:IX431). Vincentian community life highlights two points of reference: GOD-TRINITY
Vincent’s faith and experience led him to think and to speak about the possibility of fraternal community being a reality of faith, that is, a reality based on the image of the Trinity, the perfect model of love. If we want to have within us the image of the adorable Trinity and a holy relationship with Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, let us establish ourselves in this spirit. What creates unity and single-mindedness in God, if not equality and the distinction of the Three Persons. And what creates their love if not their resemblance? And if there were no love among them, what would be loveable in them … That is the source of holiness and our model. Let us make ourselves uniform; we will be many as if we were only one and we will have holy union in plurality … for resemblance and equality engender love, and love tends toward unity (CCD:XII:210-211). We cannot proclaim the mystery of the Trinity in any clearer manner than by making every effort to live together as dear friends in community. An authentic community life can make visible our faith: Be united among yourselves and God will bless you; but let it be through the charity of Jesus Christ, for any other union that is not cemented by the Blood of this Divine Savior cannot subsist. So, it is in Jesus Christ, through Jesus Christ, and for Jesus Christ that you must be united with one another (CCD:XI:136)
Vincent believed that it was only the light of the Word of God that made it possible to learn how to live in communion with one another and thus able to become messengers of God’s love. Community life ought to be seen as a continuation of Christ’s love for his Body, that is, his love for his Church: O Divine Goodness, unite in this way all hearts in the Little Company of the Mission, then order whatever you please. Labor will be sweet to them and every task easy; the strong person will relieve the weak one, and the weak will cherish the strong and obtain increased strength for him from God. And so, Lord, your work will be done as you would like, for the building up of your church and your workers will multiply, attracted by the perfume of such charity (CCD:III:258).
Vincent wanted the community to serve and he stated this in all the documents that refer to its establishment. Rather than speak about the bond of religious life he preferred to speak about the Sisters who associate themselves with the Company and said that they are called to live in mutual understanding of one another (CCD:XIIIb:277). Through service we enter into the mission of Jesus Christ who was sent by the Father to reveal his love to all people. Therefore service should guide the organization of our community life because we have committed ourselves to apostolic ministry. The mission of the community has to be sought in the midst of the realities of life and then formulated into a plan of communal apostolic life. This plan must take into consideration a) the human and ecclesial realities of the place where the community is established, b) the different possibilities for insertion into the community, c) the real possibilities for insertion of each member of the community and d) the poor who are to be served. In this way the plan becomes a permanent mirror of the community and its apostolic life. Our evaluation of our life allows us to verify our faithfulness to God’s love as we serve the poor.
Vincent defined the virtues of service as a way of imitating Jesus Christ. On November 11, 1657 in a conference to the Sisters and a talk to the Missionaries, our Founder (now seventy-seven years old) gave his followers the Magna Charta of service on behalf of the poor. He shared with them his faith and experience and stated: Your chief concern, after the love of God and the desire to make yourselves pleasing to his divine majesty, must be to serve the sick poor with great gentleness and cordiality, sympathizing with them in their sufferings and listening to their little complaints, as a good mother should because they look upon you as their nursing mothers and as persons sent by God to assist them. So you are destined to represent the goodness of God to those poor people. Now, since the divine goodness deals with the afflicted in a gentle, charitable manner, so the sick poor should be treated as this same goodness teaches you, that is, with gentleness, compassion, and love; for they are you masters, and mine as well … the poor are our lords and masters. That then is what obliges you to serve them with respect as yours masters, and with devotion because they represent for you the person of Our Lord who said, “What you do for the least of mine I will consider as done to myself” … 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 … a good word coming from the heart and spoken in the right spirit will suffice to lead them to God … For you see, dear Sisters, 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 (CCD:X:268-269)
Vincent repeated to the Missionaries the aim of the Company: In fact, my dear confreres, it is not enough to do what God asks of us, but we should, in addition, do it for love of God; to do the will of God, this same will of God, and to do it according to his will, that is, in the way Our Lord did the will of his Father when he was on earth … So you see that everything we do or suffer, if we do not do it or suffer it for love of God, it is useless for us … For example, assisting poor slaves is a very excellent ministry … but I think there is also something more in those who not only go off to Algiers and to Tunis to contribute to the ransom of poor Christians there, but who, besides that, remain there to ransom those poor men, to assist them corporally and spiritually, to hasten to fulfill their needs, and to be there at all times to help them (CCD:XI:384-385). Can we find a better synthesis of the Vincent’s teaching on the qualities of love with regard to service? It is precisely for this reason that we draw near to Saint Vincent, our teacher, and are able to learn from him how to serve those people who are poor.
a.] The qualities of service
According to Saint Vincent the quality of service on behalf of the poor were derived from his faith and experience. In the first place these qualities are expressions of his faith in the Incarnate Christ, in the God who became one with the poor. These same qualities ought to characterize every Christian servant and they contain within themselves the life of God’s love that also dwells among us: There are those in our time who seem virtuous enough, and perhaps are. However, they are inclined to an easy and soft life rather than to a solid and laborious one … we should be on our guard, for it is possible to well mannered exteriorly and filled with noble sentiments toward the Almighty in our minds and yet stop there. When the occasion for action arises, such people fall short (Luis Abelly, The Life of the Venerable Servant of God Vincent de Paul, Volume I, p. 107, 106). Vincent placed his own personal actions and those of his followers in the perspective of an apostolic life that is based on the following of Jesus Christ, the evangelizer: There is a vast difference between the apostolic life and the solitude of the Carthusians. The latter is truly very holy but is not suited to those whom God has called to the former, which is in itself more excellent. Otherwise, Saint John the Baptist and Jesus Christ himself would not have preferred it to the other, as they did by leaving the desert to preach to the people. Furthermore, the apostolic life does not exclude contemplation but encompasses it and profits by it to know better the eternal truth it must proclaim. In addition, it is more helpful to our neighbor, whom we are obliged to love as ourselves and consequently to assist in a way solitaries do not (CCD:III:344).
b.] The charity of Christ urges us
It is the love of Christ that leads Vincent to love the poor. As he loved and served the poor he came to a true appreciation of God’s love (Cf., Matthew 25:31): You must always remember that your principal concern, which God asks especially of you, is to be very attentive in serving the poor, who are our lords. Oh yes, Sisters! They are our masters. That is why you must treat them gently and kindly, reflecting that this is why God has brought you together; and why he formed your Company. You must see that, as far as in you lies, they want for nothing, both regard to their physical health and for the salvation of their souls. How blessed are you, Sisters, that God has destined you for this for your entire life! (CCD:IX:97)
For Vincent the dispossessed are first of all people who must be assisted, cared for and loved. His concern was to provide the poor with opportunities that in his time were reserved only for the wealthy. He was concerned with providing those who were ill with care and treatment and there he discovered that the loneliness of the sick was the painful aspect of their situation. This reality led him to insist on the establishment of personal relationships when dealing with the sick poor, an idea that was based on following the example of Jesus in the gospel (John 5:1-18; Mark 1:40ff; Luke 7:1-16). Hospitals have been founded for the care of the sick, and devoted religious have served them; until now, however, it was unheard of to have the sick poor nursed in their own homes. If someone in a poor family became ill, the husband had to be separated from his wife, the mother from her children, and the father from his family. Up to the present, my God, You did not establish any orderly way to assist them, and it seemed that Your adorable Providence, which never fails anyone, had no concern for them (CCD:IX:194-195). Contemplation of Jesus, the Lord and Master, who became a servant in order to enrich all people with his love, led Vincent to draw up a plan with regard to visiting the sick poor: After greeting the sick in a moderately cheerful manner, finding out the state of their illness, sympathizing with them in their sufferings, and telling them that God is sending you to serve and comfort them to the best of your ability, inquire into the state of their soul (CCD:IX:53).
Vincent promoted this doctrine which was the fruit of his experience and provided the Confraternities with rules that outlined in detail how these services, services of love, should be provided to those who are ill: When the person whose turn it is has received from the Treasurer whatever is needed on her day for the food of the poor persons, she will prepare the dinner and take it to the patients, greeting them cheerfully and kindly. She will set up the tray on the bed, place on it a napkin, a cup, a spoon, and some bread, wash the patient’s hands, and then say grace. She will pour the soup into a bowl, and put the meat on a plate. She will arrange everything on the bed tray, then kindly encourage the patient to eat … she will do all this as lovingly as if she were serving her own son --- or rather God (CCD:XIIIb:12-13).
c] When we care for them we are doing a work of justice
What Vincent asked for the infirm (people who were often excluded from society) he also demanded the same for prisoners, the galley slaves, condemned criminals … people who were often placed on the margins of society. Vincent said that he himself had served them when he was their chaplain. Therefore he told his followers that they were to serve these prisoners with and through love, that is, they were to establish relationships with them through their warmth and goodness because this is the only way in which they can do good to these individuals: Even convicts, with whom I have spent some time, are not won over in any other way. Whenever I happened to speak sharply to them, I spoiled everything; on the contrary, when I praised them for their resignation and sympathized with them in their sufferings; when I told them they were fortunate to have their purgatory in this world; when I kissed their chains, showed compassion for the distress, and expressed sorrow for their misfortune, it was then that they listened to me, gave glory to God, and opened themselves to salvation (CCD:IV:58).
After offering these considerations with regard to the love that should be shown to those living on the margins of society, Vincent pointed out the demands of justice and love when dealing with the galley slaves: Care must be taken to ensure that all the galley slaves have shirts, underwear, smocks, cloaks, hats, and stockings; note also whether there is a double canvas in the galleys; ask whether the bread they are given is of the prescribed weight and is fresh, and whether they are given beans daily. However, this and the two preceding articles must be investigated at a time when the officers are not present. To inquire about the invalids on the galleys, and be present during the commissioners’ visit in order to appeal for their release (CCD:XIIIa:349-350).
God will grant you the grace, Monsieur, of softening our hearts toward the wretched creatures and of realizing that in helping them we are doing an act of justice and not of mercy! They are our brothers, whom God commands us to help, but let us do so through Him and in the way He intends in today’s gospel (CCD:VII:115). According to Vincent the spirit of justice, which is also the fruit of God’s love, is to be practiced in such a way that its various qualities are revealed:
• The first dimension is that of providing care, that is, caring for those who are least protected. Caring for people is an indispensable dimension of evangelization, the first step in proclaiming God’s love for humankind. Caring for others affects both the individual person and the social-cultural realities and at the same time is a sign of the presence and the movement of the Holy Spirit in the world. This care for people is shown through visiting and assisting them: Great prudence is required in order not to offend anyone, and great charity and humility must be exercised so as to truly edify the congregation (CCD:VI:344).
• A second sign is respect for the human person, especially since the poor are often viewed as inconsequential, as non-beings. Vincent saw the poor as children of God, icons of Jesus Christ who was incarnated and shared his life with all people, but especially the most poor, the voiceless and those who could not make themselves heard. Vincent defended their cause, invited others to assist them and advocated on their behalf (the Fronde).
• The third constant of service is the will to be non-partisan. Vincent always took the side of the poor and even though he engaged in a struggle to have their rights and dignity recognized, he was never partisan. No one was excluded from his charitable action: the insane who lived at Saint Lazare, nobles who had lost everything and were reduced to begging … (cf., CCD:XII:76-77).
• The fourth and central characteristic of all these qualities of Vincentian service is to act, that is, to serve and to assist the poor as one attempts to make the Kingdom of God more present in the world. This is the purest fruit of love and the source of apostolic zeal: Seek first his kingdom and justice … I mean it does not suffice to act in such a way that God may reign in us, seeking his kingdom and his justice in this way, but, in addition, we should desire and see that the kingdom of God is brought and extended everywhere that God reigns in all souls, that there is only one true religion on earth, and that the world may live other than it is doing, but the strength and power of God and the means established by his Church, and last, that his justice may be sought and imitated so well by everyone through their holy lives (CCD:XII:116)/
d] To move from affective to effective love
This axiom of Vincent urges us to act in light of the situation, the needs and the cries of our sisters and brothers. We have to go the fringes of society and run to help the poor in their time of need in the same as if we were running to put out a fire. This spirituality of action gives credibility to our Christian vocation and therefore influences every aspect of our life: Affective love is the tender element of love … A heart that loves Our Lord cannot endure his absence and has to hold fast to him by this affective love … Affective love must pass to effective love, which is to be engaged in the works of the Charity and the service of poor persons, undertaken with joy, courage, fidelity and love (CCD:IX:466)
In light of the above Vincent spoke to the Missionaries and said: Let us give ourselves to God then once and for all, let us work, let us work, let us go to the assistance of the poor country people who are waiting for us (CCD:XI:391) and also said: Let us love God, brother, let us love God, but let it be with the strength of our arms and the sweat of our brows (CCD:XI:32).
In Vincent’s experience we see that he had a very clear understanding of the human person and this guided his thinking and action. We see this revealed in the fact that he not only did not exclude the poor from salvation but gave them a preferential position. What separates Vincent from others of his era is the intimate relationship that he saw between Christ-Church-poor. Vincent believed in God’s love and in the fact that God shared this love with all people. His efforts at Christian renewal opened people to God’s love for them, a love which showed them how to love God and how to love their sisters and brothers. God loves the poor, consequently, He loves those who love the poor … the Little Company of the Mission strives to devote itself ardently to serve persons who are poor, the well-beloved of God … Come then and let us devote ourselves with renewed love to serve persons who are poor, and even to seek out those who are the poorest and most abandoned (CCD:XI:349).
Notes: (1) The Good Shepherd, the healing of those who were will, raising people to life, dialogues with his friends and enemies, concern about providing bread to those who are hungry and forgiving public sinners. (2) This same teach is found in the spiritual testament of Louise de Marillac: Take good care of the service of the poor. Above all, live together in great union and cordiality, loving one another in imitation of the union and life of Our Lord (SWLM:835).
Translated Charles T. Plock, CM