When Vincent de Paul died 350 years ago last September, all of Paris mourned. Poor and rich alike wept because they loved this man whose life (1581-1660) had been extraordinary. As a teenager he fled the poverty of his peasant village, was ordained illegally at 19 and began to build a secure future as a priest eager to take on lucrative jobs. Gradually, however, he underwent an extraordinary conversion and decided to devote his life to God in the service of the poor.
“Love is inventive, even to infinity,” Vincent told his followers. He also showed them what such inventiveness meant. Few saints have been as active. If one highlights only his principal accomplishments, the list is still impressive.
Struck by the need to organize practical works of charity in Châtillon, France, Vincent, then 36, founded “the Charities.” The work spread rapidly. Under different names in different places but linked worldwide as the International Association of Charities, the association today engages more than 260,000 members in 53 countries. (Frederic Ozanam and six companions adopted a similar structure centuries later to found in 1833 the Society of St. Vincent de Paul; it now has 750,000 members in 145 countries.)
Vincent also established the Congregation of the Mission, which by the time of his death had spread to Poland, Italy, Algeria, Madagascar, Ireland, Scotland, the Hebrides and the Orkney Islands. He served as superior general of the congregation until his death, writing its rules, conducting general assemblies and resolving foundational questions. The priests at the motherhouse conducted more than 1,000 parish missions.
Increasingly involved in the reform of the clergy, Vincent met with clergy leaders every Tuesday for ongoing formation. More than 12,000 young men made retreats in preparation for the priesthood. During the last 25 years of his life, Vincent established 20 seminaries.
In midlife, Vincent, age 52, joined with Louise de Marillac, a 42-year-old widow with an intense attraction to the religious life, to co-found the Daughters of Charity. With Louise at his side, he served as superior general, drafting a rule and working out the revolutionary juridical formula that would make this community of women a powerful apostolic force. The Daughters of Charity were among the first sisters to work outside the cloister, serving the poor in their homes, in hospitals and in schools—a model followed by hundreds of thousands of sisters in succeeding centuries.
As the daughters took to the streets of Paris, Vincent faced opposition. “Did not the Lord agree that women should enter his company?” Vincent would ask. “Did the Lord not lead them to perfection and to the service of the poor? If, therefore, the Lord did it—he who did everything for our instruction—should we not do the same thing?” Rapidly, more than 60 houses of the daughters sprang up in France and Poland. And in the years after Vincent’s death, the Daughters of Charity became one of the church’s largest congregations.
Vincent also promoted the care of foundlings. He assigned many members of the Daughters of Charity to the work and built 13 houses to receive the children. In 1647, when funds fell short, Vincent issued a simple, eloquent appeal to the Ladies of Charity, a group of wealthy women he had assembled: “Ladies, if you continue to support these little ones, they will live. If you abandon them, they will die. Pronounce sentence. Their life and death are in your hands. What is your verdict?” They elected to support the children.
When the Thirty Years’ War began to wind down, Vincent organized relief. He sent Brother Matthew Regnard (nicknamed Reynard, or fox) across battle lines in Lorraine 53 times, disguised and carrying a fortune for the relief of the people.
For nearly a decade, Vincent also served on the Council of Conscience, an elite administrative body that advised the queen on the selection of bishops. Eventually, Cardinal Jules Mazarin, whose criteria for choosing bishops were more political than Vincent’s, maneuvered to have him removed. Yet Vincent remained a counselor to the great spiritual leaders of the day.
In 1652 poverty enveloped Paris, and Vincent, then 72 years old, initiated massive relief programs. At the motherhouse, the priests and brothers provided soup twice a day for thousands of poor people, and the houses of the Daughters of Charity fed countless others. “Let us love God,” he encouraged them, “but let it be with the strength of our arms and the sweat of our brows.” He organized collections and each week distributed some 6,000 pounds of meat and 3,000 eggs, as well as winter and summer clothing.
These examples are merely the highlights of his life of service. So striking were his activities that the homilist at his funeral said of Vincent, “He just about transformed the face of the church.”
In recent years, artists have created new images of Vincent as Father of the Poor. Particularly striking is the centerpiece of a triptych painted by Kurt Welther for the Chapel of Mercy at St. Vincent’s Parish in Graz, Austria. Vincent sits among the poor as one of them. He wears no halo. It is as if everyone had just come in as Vincent sat down to eat a simple meal, and he shares it with them. The faces of the poor at the table are indistinct. But the viewer, Vincent told his followers, “will see by the light of faith that the Son of God, whose will it was to be poor, is represented to us by these men and women.” The face of Christ shines from the center of the table, reflecting the Lord’s presence. This meal recalls Christ surrounded by his disciples at the Last Supper, the sacramental meal of God’s love for his people.
The Simple Way
During Vincent’s lifetime, those close to him regarded him as a saint. What struck his contemporaries was the spirituality that lay beneath whatever he did. Vincent emphasized simplicity, proposing it to each of the groups he founded as the first virtue for them to nurture. “Simplicity is the virtue I love most,” he said, “I call it my gospel.” He told the Daughters of Charity, “Wherever you see Christian simplicity, walk with confidence.”
“God is very simple,” he said. Vincent saw simplicity as a mission-oriented virtue that would enable his followers to identify with the poor and communicate authentically with all. A fundamental way of being simple, he said, is to listen humbly to all. Our ears should be open to the words of those who teach officially in the church, like the pope and bishops, and also to the cries of the poor, our brothers and sisters. In fact the poor, who so often go unheard, should have a privileged voice in the church. Experiencing the turbulence of church politics in his day, Vincent said, “The poor have the true religion.” For this man, who had once escaped poverty in search of a comfortable life, living simply moved to the top of his values. He believed that Christians must share God’s gifts generously with the poor.
When Vincent died on Sept. 27, 1660, it was clear that a deep spirituality had transformed his humanity. By his own account, he was strong-willed and had been easily moved to anger as a young man. He also had a tendency to be moody. But he recognized these traits and the need to confront them. “I turned to God and begged him incessantly to change my dry, contentious manner and to give me a warm, gentle spirit. And by the grace of God, and with the little bit of attention that I gave to holding back the movements of nature, I have somewhat changed my dark moods.” His contemporaries witnessed that the mature Vincent was not only inventive in deeds, but had become a warm, approachable man who related to rich and poor alike in a simple, loving way.
• Vincent urged his followers to let the truth have a special place in their lives. He encouraged them to: speak the truth, despite embarrassment or inconvenience; witness to the truth, so that their lives match their words; search for the truth humbly as wayfarers rather than thinking that they possess it as an owner; practice the truth through works of justice, charity and peace; strive for single-minded truth, or purity of intention; and live truthfully as servants of the poor, keeping their possessions modest and sharing readily.
• There is a great attractiveness about those who speak the truth. They are truly free. People relate to them easily because they sense that they are transparent and have no hidden agendas. Vincent acknowledged that speaking the truth consistently is a difficult discipline. Truth, in this sense, is fidelity. Jesus is true to us and promises to be with us always, even to the end.
Vincent often spoke of a love that is both “affective and effective.” He sought to provide ongoing educational and health care programs and to establish structures that would help the poor emerge from poverty. In that light, to celebrate the 350th anniversary of Vincent’s death, the international leaders of the Vincentian family have chosen to focus on the poor in Haiti and have inaugurated a microfinance Web site, www.zafen.org, which invites all interested parties to offer micro-loans and donations to previously screened projects there. The goal is not almsgiving, but work toward systemic change—helping Haitians create sustainable businesses that will enable them to emerge from poverty.