Saint Vincent describes the spirit of the Company very clearly (SV IX, 594-95):
The spirit of your Company consists of three things: to love our Lord and to serve him in a spirit of humility and simplicity. As long as charity, humility and simplicity exist among you, it may be said that the Company is still alive.
Your Constitutions say the very same thing when they speak about the spirit of the Daughters of Charity: “The Evangelical virtues of humility, simplicity and charity are the path along which the Daughters of Charity should allow themselves to be guided by the Holy Spirit.”1
I have already reflected with you on simplicity and humility. Today, let us focus on charity.
Charity: Developing a “Filial Relationship with the Father and Love for Our Neighbor”
Jesus’ psychology, Saint Vincent writes in one of his letters, is caught up in two all-consuming directions, “his filial relationship with the Father and his charity toward the neighbor” (SV VI, 393)2.
1. A filial relationship with the Father and docility to his providence.
“Let us give ourselves to God,” Saint Vincent says repeatedly to the Daughters of Charity, as well as to the Vincentians (cf. SV IX, 26, 534, 592; X, 513; XII, 323, 354). He has deep confidence in God as his Father, into whose hands he can place himself and his works. The journal written by Jean Gicquel recounts how Vincent told Frs. Almeras, Berthe and Gicquel, on June 7, 1660, just four months before his death: “To be consumed for God, to have no goods nor power except for the purpose of consuming them for God. That is what our Savior did himself, who was consumed for love of his Father” (SV XIII, 179).
Saint Vincent wanted love for God to be all-embracing. He writes to Pierre Escart: “I greatly hope we may set about stripping ourselves entirely of affection for anything that is not God, be attached to things only for God and according to God, and that we may seek and establish his kingdom first of all in ourselves, and then in others, That is what I entreat you to ask of him for me” (SV II, 106).
Because God loves us deeply as a Father, he exercises a continual providence in our lives. In a letter to Bernard Codoing, Saint Vincent states: “The rest will come in its time. Grace has its moments. Let us abandon ourselves to the providence of God and be very careful not to run ahead of it. If it pleases God to give me some consolation in our vocation it is this: that I think, so it seems to me, that we have tried to follow his great providence in everything” (SV 11,453), Likewise he writes to Saint Louise de Marillac: “My God, my daughter, what great hidden treasures there are in holy providence and how marvelously our Lord is honored by those who follow it and do not kick against itr– (SV I, 68; cf. III, 197).
Saint Vincent’s teaching on providence rests on two foundation-stones: 1) deep confidence in God as a loving Father; 2) “indifference,” that is, “willing only what he wills” (SV V, 402).
One senses in this focus on providence a distinctively Lucan emphasis3. The Spirit of God is active from the beginning in Luke, guiding the course of history. He anoints Jesus with power from on high and directs him and his disciples in their ministry.”4
- The Holy Spirit will come down on you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. (Lk 1:35)
- Having received baptism . . the Holy Spirit descended on him. (Lk 3:22)
- Jesus, filled with the Holy Spirit . . . was led by the Spirit into the desert. (Lk 4:1)
- Jesus returned to Galilee with the power of the Holy Spirit. (Lk 4:14)
- The Spirit of the Lord is upon me. (Lk 4:18)
- Jesus rejoiced in the Holy Spirit. (Lk 10:21)
- Your heavenly Father will give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him. (Lk 11:13)
- Whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven. (Lk 12:10)
- The Holy Spirit will teach you at that moment what you should say. (Lk 12:12)
Trust in providence is confidence in a loving Father. It shows itself in the ability to see beyond particular events to a larger picture, in patient waiting, in perseverance. But providence is also honored, as Saint Vincent pointed out, by using the means that God places at our disposal for accomplishing his goals5. If someone should be tempted to interpret Saint Vincent’s teaching on providence too passively, she might recall the founder’s words to Edme Jolly (SV VII, 310): “You are one of the few who honor the providence of God very much by the preparation of remedies against foreseen evils. I thank you very humbly for this and pray that our Lord will continue to enlighten you more and more so that such enlightenment may spread through the Company.”
Love for Christ in the person of the poor.
While the Christ of Saint Vincent is “Lord” and “Son of God,” he lives in the person of the poor. He continues to suffer in them (SV X, 680)6.
He says to the Daughters of Charity on February 13, 1646: “In serving the poor, you serve Jesus Christ. 0 my Daughters, how true that is! You serve Christ in the person of the poor. That is as true as the fact that we are here” (SV IX, 252; cf. X, 123). He frequently cites Matthew 25:31-46 to reinforce the identification of Jesus with the poor7: “So this is what obliges you to serve them with respect, as your masters, and with devotion: that they represent for you the person of our Lord, who said: ‘Whatever you do for one of these, the least of my brethren, I will consider it as done to me’ ” (SV X, 332)8.
Because of this identification with Christ, the poor are “our lords and masters” (cf. SV IX, 119; X, 332). In drafting the rule for the Daughters, he writes that they should “love one another deeply, as sisters whom he has joined together with the bond of his love, and they should cherish the poor as their masters, since our Lord is in them, and they in Our Lord” (SV XIII, 540). He repeats the same theme to the priests and the brothers of the Mission: “Let us go then, my brothers, and work with a new love in the service of the poor looking even for the poorest and the most abandoned, recognizing before God that they are our lords and masters and that we are unworthy to render them our small services” (S V XI, 393). The Christ of Vincent, his “lord and master,” is therefore to be found in the sick, the prisoner, the galley-slave, the abandoned child, those ravaged by the religious wars of the day (SV X, 680).
Let me briefly mention two characteristics of love of neighbor, as taught by Saint Vincent to the Daughters of Charity.
a. The love of those living in the Vincentian spirit is to be both “affective and effective” (SV IX, 475, 592. 599; XI, 40). Saint Vincent repeats this theme over and over again. “The love of a Daughter of Charity is not only tender, it is effective, because they serve the poor effectively” (SV IX, 593).
b. They will minister to the poor “spiritually and corporally” (SV IX, 59, 593; XI, 364). This is clear not only in regard to the Daughters of Charity, but it is evident in the mandates that Saint Vincent gives to the various other groups he founded: the Congregation of the Mission, the Confraternities of Charity, and the Ladies of Charity. For Vincent, Jesus comes “to proclaim liberty to captives, recovery of sight to the blind and release to prisoners, to announce a year of favor from the Lord” (Lk 4:18). He comes to “save his people from their sins” (Mt 1:21; cf. Lk 1:77). The Daughter of Charity, therefore, will tend not only to bodily needs; she will share her faith by her witness and her words. Saint Vincent, moreover, warns the members of the Congregation of the Mission that they should not think of their mission in exclusively spiritual terms9. Rather, they too should care for the sick, the foundlings, the insane, even the most abandoned (SV XI, 393).
Today, the unity between evangelization and human promotion, so much a part of Saint Vincent’s spirit, is one of the linchpins in the Church’s social teaching10.
Some Means toward Practical Charity
The emphasis in the Vincentian tradition is on practical charity. Saint Vincent puts the accent on effective love. It is as if he hears Jesus saying: “When I was hungry, not only did you sympathize with me, you gave me to eat. When I was thirsty, not only did you look on me with compassion, but you gave me something to drink.” From the origins of the Company right up to the present, the world has recognized in the Daughter of Charity a woman of practical, concrete, effective love. It is in this way that she shows herself a daughter of God, who is love. Let me suggest four ways of loving concretely.
1. Accepting the Lord’s love
God’s love comes first. We give only what we have received.
A number of superiors and those responsible for formation programs today attest that a negative self-image is the root of many of the problems with which members of communities struggle. This being the case, let me suggest that, along with healthy, loving human relationships, acceptance of the Lord’s love is a key factor in the self-acceptance that enables us to love maturely. For many, work or achievements unfortunately play a disproportionate role in their feeling valued personally. But in the long run, genuine self-worth rests on a consciousness of the deep personal love of the Lord as Creator and Redeemer.
Meditation on some striking scriptural texts concerning the Lord’s personal love for us is a very helpful means of growing in awareness of that love. In his struggles to be faithful, Moses, pleading for light and strength, heard these words from the Lord: “This request, too, which you have just made, I will carry out, because you have found favor with me and you are my intimate friend” (Ex 33:7-17)11.
Servants get their hands dirty. They labor long and hard. They engage in difficult tasks as nurses, teachers, social workers, administrators. They are on the front lines in ministering to the poor.
In your ministry, as Saint Vincent says, first do and then teach. As a follower of Christ, a servant of the poor, you will touch the hearts of God’s people especially when you give vibrant witness:
- through the language of works (cf. SV II, 4): performing the works of justice and mercy which are a sign that the kingdom of God is really alive among us: feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, helping to find the causes of their hunger and thirst and the ways of alleviating them;
- through the language of words: announcing with deep conviction the Lord’s presence, his love, his offer of forgiveness and acceptance to all;
- through the language of relationships: being with the poor, working with them, forming a community that shows the Lord’s love for all.
Saint Vincent tells us that “Love is inventive to the point of infinity” (SV XI, 146). I have always admired the Daughters of Charity for your inventiveness. Because you live in daily contact with the poor you will be among the first to know their real needs. It will not be I, who am sitting behind a desk or visiting the provinces. It will not be sociologists or economists, who study the needs of the poor by examining the data they receive. You will know ahead of us, because the poor tell you directly. I encourage you to continue to be inventive in the service of the needs that you discover. Ask the question individually and as a Community: What is this poor person asking of me concretely? What is the AIDS patient asking of the Daughter of Charity? What is the handicapped child asking? What is the refugee in a camp asking? What is the sick person in his or her home crying out for? Then be creative in ministering to his or her needs.
Love in practice, as Dorothy Day tells us, can be a harsh and dreadful thing compared with love in dreams.
It is easy to love for a time. It is difficult to love for life. Permanent commitment is more fragile today than it was in the seventeenth century, especially since many of the societal supports that undergirded it at that time have disappeared. So practical charity shows itself today especially as fidelity. It is gold tested in fire. It finds ways of loving both “in season and out of season.” Practical charity adjusts, finding new ways and developing professionally, especially through ongoing formation. In this era of second careers and early retirement, it seeks to learn ways of expressing love for the Lord and love for the poor even in ministries that may be quite different from the ways in which one served in his or her youth. The challenge which persevering and adjusting present today was not unknown to Saint Vincent: “As for myself, in spite of my age, I say before God that 1 do not feel exempt from the obligation of laboring for the salvation of those poor people, for what could hinder me from doing so? If I cannot preach every day, all right! I will preach twice a week. If I cannot preach more important sermons, I will strive to preach less important ones; and if the people do not hear me, then what is there to prevent me from speaking in a friendly, homely way to those poor folk, as I am now speaking to you, gathering them around me as you are now” (SV XI, 136)?
My sisters, I conclude today with the words of Saint Vincent: “Charity,” he tells us, “when it dwells in a soul takes complete possession of all its powers. It never rests. It is a fire that acts ceaselessly” (SV XI, 2 6). The Daughter of Charity is a daughter of love. She has a wonderful vocation. Saint Vincent assures her: “There is no better way to assure our eternal happiness than to live and die in the service of the poor within the arms of providence and in a real renunciation of ourselves by following Jesus Christ” (SV III, 392).
- Constitutions of the Daughters of Charity, 1.10
- The French reads: “… religion vers on Pére.”
- Cf. I. Shultz, “Ganes Vorsehung bei Lukas,” Zeitsehrift fur die neutrstamentiche Wis;sertsehaft 54 ( S 963), 104-16.
- The Book of Acts continues this theme of the • ‘Gospel of the Holy Spirit—. There are fifty’-seven references to the Spirit in Acts; cf. Fitzmyrr, The Gospel According to Lake 227.
- SV V, 396: “Let us wait patiently, but let us act, and, as it were, let us make haste slowly.”
- On this same theme, cf. José-María Ibáñez, “Le Pauvre, Icóne de Jesus-Christ,”, in Monsieur Vincent, Témoin de L’Evongile (Toulouse, 1990) 155-68.
- Cf. SV IX, 252, 324, 454; X, 332; XIII, 788, 790, 806; XII, 88, 100.
- Cf. also SV X, 679-80.
- SV XII, 87: “If there are any among us who think they are in the Congregation of the Mission to preach the gospel to the poor but not to comfort them, to tend to their spiritual needs and not to their temporal needs. I respond that we ought to assist them and have them assisted in every way, by ourselves and by others . . To do this is to preach the gospel by words and by works…
- Cf. Synod of Bishops. 1971, Justice in the World, in AAS LXIII (1971) 924: “Action on behalf of justice and participation in the transformation of the world are integral elements in the preaching of the gospel… Cf. also, Centesimus Annus, 5.
- Among many other texts on which it might be helpful to meditate throughout our lives, I would suggest: DI 1:29-33; 7:7-11; g:5- 10; 11:10-17; 32:10-11; is 43:1-7; 49:14-16; 54:540; 55; Hos 11:1-9; Ps 103; 139; 145; 1,1c 7:36-50; 12:22-32; 15:11-32; Jn 3:16-17; 14:14-28; Eph 1:3-14; Iris 1:17-18; 1 In 4:9-10.