St Vincent, Vatican II and our new Constitutions

Francisco Javier Fernández ChentoCongregation of the MissionLeave a Comment

Author: Aidan McGing, C.M. · Year of first publication: 1985 · Source: Colloque, Journal of the Irish Province of the Congregation of the Mission.

(Revised version of paper read to Vincentian Study Group, 11 October 1984)

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When I began this article it did not occur to me to consult the Constitutions, but as I went along I was irresistibly drawn to them, finding to my surprise that they answered most of the questions I was asking. I quote from the provisional text of 1980.

The Congregation a Religious Community

After much searching Vincent founded the Congregation of the Mission1. He insisted that we were not religious, as the term was understood at that time, but he gave us all the marks of a religious community: a motto, a logo (Christ evangelising), a purpose peculiar to ourselves, prayer in common, vows, a very strong sense of community, and, perhaps above all, a rule. We were in fact to become a model for most of the male religious communities established during the next three hundred years, more communal than the Jesuits, less monastic than the friars.

But, like most religious communities, we seem destined to pass through cycles of development and decay. The very success of a com­munity as it develops, prospers and loses its first enthusiasm, brings about its decline. Then it either disappears or is renewed2. If the first cycle of the Congregation lasted from about 1640 to 1790— although the decline had already begun before 17903 —the second cycle began in the 1830s, after the apparitions in the rue du Bac. It was then that our Province began, and after 150 years of existence it is now faced with decline.

The future is in God’s hands: “The Spirit breathes where it wills …; you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes” (Jn 3:8); but we have been given talents to trade with until the Master comes. Often the Spirit will come only if we first do what we can. Events will certainly overtake us, but we can prepare for them by open discussions in which nobody claims to be infallible.

The Second Vatican Council raised three key issues about religious communities: (a) Life in a religious community is a following of Christ based on faith; (b) Different founders had different aims and different spirits; one must if necessary, return to the original aim and spirit of the founder. Paul VI refined this idea further by referring to the “charism” of the founder; (c) Communities should examine the signs of the times — how are the original aims, in the spirit of the founder, to be adapted to a changing world?4

We are not going to be renewed by Roman documents so much as by charismatic figures perhaps already among us. In the meantime I would like to reflect on the above three issues which, incidentally, our new Constitutions take as foundational (§1 and §2).

Life in the Community a following of Christ in faith

Along with the other great founders Vincent had entered a world where human success, reputation and getting one’s way are less important than following Christ (Lk 9:57), and doing the Father’s will (Mt 7:21), so it is no accident that the longest chapter in the Common Rules is the second one, on the Maxims of the Gospel.

The problem is that one accepts the gospel, one is evangelised, only through faith, and this faith comes easy to none of us in the pluralist post-critical society. Already in Matthew and Luke even the apostles doubt in the presence of the risen Christ, while in Mark and John they are blamed by Jesus for not believing in his resurrection (Mt 28:17; Lk 24:33; Mk 16:11, 13-14; Jn ch 20).

The inner life even of Jesus himself was stormy and full of tempta­tion from within and without; the tradition is eloquent on the desert temptation, his rejection by his own family, village and people, and on his terror before his passion. Paul speaks of the same inner drama in himself (Cf Rm 7:14-25; Phil 3:5-16; 2 Cor 12:7-10); and we know that Vincent spent several years of agonising doubt before he came to believe peacefully. Whatever mixed motives drew us into the commu­nity Vincent invites us to live increasingly from faith, a faith not to be taken for granted. That faith asks questions is a sign of life, as pain is a sign of life.

The Charism of the Founder

Vincent knew well that different communities followed Christ in differ­ent ways (IX, 582), and he was quite clear, for all his humility, that he was leaving something distinctive to both the Daughters and ourselves, what we would now call the charism of the founder. Speaking both to the priests and the Daughters he is surprisingly categorical that their vocation is new and unique (XII, 79-80; IX, 18-19).

The ethos of the Congregation, as I remarked above, had a great influ­ence on subsequent male communities, while the conception behind the Daughters was as original as that of St Francis of Assisi, and perhaps as influential. We underestimate ourselves.

The word “charism” appears fifteen times in the New Testament. It generally means a spiritual gift, such as prophecy or administration, given to individuals for the service of others. A charism accords with God’s revelation, it perfects the person who receives it, is consonant to his temperament and the needs he sees around him5. “As each has received a gift (charism), employ it for one another, as good servants of God’s varied grace; whoever speaks, as one who utters oracles of God; whoever renders service, as one who renders by the strength which God supplies …” (I Pet 4:10-11)6.

The charism of a religious founder is some aspect of Christ which the founder appropriates and applies to the conditions he sees before him. If he is a great founder others will continue to apply his insights but may in time fall away from them. In this case the survival or renewal of the community means returning to the original insights and adapting them to the new conditions.

For instance, the founding charism of the Benedictines turns on two main points, devotion to liturgical prayer and sheer hard work —laborare est orare. In the chaos which surrounded him in the sixth century Benedict saw these two elements as central. But since then, wherever Benedictines have flourished, Cîteaux, Maria Laach, Collegeville in Minnesota, these two constants recur, always different yet always the same.

Vincent’s charism is equally distinct. Stafford Poole remarks that “… in areas of daily living… St Vincent was heavily indebted to the Jesuits, but… in the major part of his rule —that which deals with the purpose, scope, breadth and nature of the Congregation— he has borrowed from his own experience and spirit”7. The weakest parts of a religious rule are always those which reflect conditions during the founder’s lifetime, and this is where Vincent borrowed from others, for instance the injunction never to leave the house alone (CR IX 11). But the core of the Common Rules, the “possession for ever”, is quintessentially Vincent.

Nevertheless, this charism exists in a living tradition. If we wish to understand it today we have to turn to the Constitutions which have been brought to birth after seventeen years of co-operating work If they reflect insights from Vatican II they also reflect the collective wisdom of provinces all round the world. If ever the Spirit has spoken to us it is here. One has only to compare them with the old legalistic Constitutions of 1954; these meant nothing to us and they spoke of a world that has gone. The new Constitutions speak of a renewed Vincentian world yet to be built up, not indeed from the letter only, but from the Spirit: “…as you progress in the school of Christ (by prayer) he will give you insights that cannot be found in books; he will give you his Spirit” (IV 125).

I would like to consider two characteristics of Vincent’s charism, evangelisation and willingness to help the neighbour. They are both clearly a participation in the spirit of Christ. Two of the high points of Matthew’s gospel are the great judgement on what we have done for others (ch 25) and the final command “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations …” (Mt 28:18). In Lk 9:2 Jesus sends the disciples out to evangelise and to heal.

Attending a seminar in the summer of 1984 in Damascus House I found myself alone at breakfast with a Nigerian sister. Making conver­sation I asked her whether she was a teacher, a nurse or a catechist. I did not know what I meant by “catechist” but thought vaguely it had some­thing to do with evangelisation. To my horror, I suddenly realised that I was hoping she would say she was either a nurse or a teacher, because deep down I felt that these occupations had more status than the direct spreading of the gospel. I suddenly saw my real values as opposed to my proclaimed values. A nurse or a teacher did something tangible, had a place in society, was intelligent enough to get a degree, and so escaped the fate of having to announce the word of God directly, of being made a fool before angels and men. Should I have been surprised at my real values? Jesus himself, before he started to evangelise (Mk 1:15) struggled with himself to give up the more attractive goals of security, popularity and power (Mt 4:1-10; Lk 4:1-12). Vincent too would have been more comfortable in the De Gondi household rather than wander­ing round among the tenants of their estates. Karl Rahner writes:

Paul says that he is not ashamed of the gospel (evangelium, Rm 1:16), and the very fact that this has to be particularly emphasised implies that this attitude of boldly refusing to be ashamed must be intended as some kind of counter to an interior shrinking, a reluc­tance to speak out, a feeling that preaching the word or any other kind of coming out into the open with the hidden reality and truth of Christianity into the “world”, which is uninterested and irri­tated by it, is out of place and inappropriate (Rahner: Theological Investigations, Vol 7, P 261).

And yet the end of the Congregation is to follow Christ the evange­liser (Constitutions §1). My encounter with the Nigerian sister showed what a deep conversion this part of our charism requires of me. I am at present spared the stress of being a “mere” evangeliser since I am placed in a prestigious institution.

A second part of Vincent’s charism, the one by which he is best known, is the way he helped others. But if the modern industrial state has taken over and developed the medical, welfare and educational services that Vincent sought to provide, are we to conclude that this part of his charism is now irrelevant? Napoleon wished to revive the Daughters of Charity to run his hospitals, but in our society such a thought would be an anachronism.

In his own time Vincent helped the distressed in the only way he could, by getting money from the rich for them, with the typical remark that “we should ask their forgiveness for humiliating them” (the poor) in the process. He said that Christ not only spoke to the crowds about his Father but he also had pity on them, he healed and fed them and re-integrated outcasts back into society. Christ was not just making rice Christians — he blamed those who followed him for bread — but he wished to help people because he liked them, and it was this aspect of the spirit of Christ which Vincent copied.

Today, with increased wealth, education, mobility and communica­tion, the options have changed. If during the golden sixties, with the euphoria of the Council, the Church seemed to be reconciling itself with the contradictory ideologies of Marxism and liberalism, she is now steadily developing a social theory which avoids the excesses of both sides. Sometimes it is called the option for the poor, but it is more subtle than it sounds (cf Gaudium et Spes § §63-72). Suffice it to say for our present purpose that Paul VI, back in a long statement on the need for evangelisation today, devoted eleven paragraphs (§§29-39) to the close link between evangelisation and human development8. What he elabo­rates in terms of today’s society Vincent was already doing 350 years ago. My point is that Vincent’s vision of the union between redemption and creation is still relevant today. Vincent’s missions left “charities” behind them; what will a mission or its equivalent leave behind it in thirty years time? Will it be something like Gamblers Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous, a service for family counselling, or a renewed St Vincent de Paul Society conference?

Is Vincent’s charism one of mediocrity?

It has sometimes been said that CM stands for Congregation of Mediocrity and, interestingly, Vincent himself wrote to Gaspard Stelle in 1659 that “mediocrity is enough” (VIII, 33). We are told also that Newman would not join the Vincentians (he was interested) because they did not give “… to theology and literature that place in their system which he wished”9. So, is there a great lacuna in our charism? Such a lacuna is possible. After all, St Bonaventure had to sort out the chaos which he had inherited from St Francis of Assisi, and St Francis of Borgia changed some of Ignatius’ most cherished ideas, because he thought them impractical10; yet the charisms of Francis and Ignatius are still around.

Concretely, if we aimed “in our system”, as Newman put it, at the same sort of erudition as, let us say, the Dominicans or Benedictines, would we diminish the charism? The answer must be very nuanced.

Vincent himself, as his letters show, had a considerable formation both in theology and in the humanities. His correspondence in fact con­stitutes a minor classic of 17th century French prose. But it appears that before his conversion Vincent was an ecclesiastical careerist who saw knowledge as a way upwards. After his conversion, living in the intel­lectual centre of Europe, he saw knowledge being sought as a means of acquiring power and wealth in the Church; he saw endless disputes among theologians, and civil war was exacerbated by religious con­troversy. Everybody in Paris seemed to want either to read or to write religious books; in 1643-45 forty per cent of works published in Paris were to do with the Christian faith, while the dechristianised country people were being neglected11.

We have always said that Vincent was a pragmatist. In the circum­stances he simply wanted priests who would be willing to speak simply to illiterate peasants in a language they could understand; and priests who would give primitive seminary courses often lasting no longer than six months. Hence the recurring motif in his correspondence with the priests: you know enough, leave your books and get on with the work. And yet he was delighted with the progress of the students in their studies, he was glad to have learned priests, and he insisted that the mis­sioners should study and revise their sermons during the summer. Are we so insistent today on in-service training?

Indeed, reading between the lines, we will often sense that he is playing down the need for knowledge either to goad the laggard into action or to reassure the diffident. But in the end we get the impression that knowledge is a sort of necessary evil. Must we accept this verdict today?

How could we? No matter what form our evangelisation takes, the people we communicate with today have been exposed to a range of ideas, education and experience unknown to Vincent’s audiences. They are being assailed by a steady anti-Christian propaganda both from Marxists and (for lack of a better word) the liberals. The thinking behind “the little method” is correct; one must speak to people simply and concretely. But the person who can speak most simply and con­cretely, and relevantly to the preoccupations of his audience, all things being equal, is the person who has studied and reflected on the matter. People usually do not even realise why they think in the way they do; if the preacher understands what they think and why they think it he can reach them at a far deeper level.

My generation was taught a decadent theology and biblical funda­mentalism. Catholic theology had been effectively shackled since the counter-reformation, and all the more so since the appearance of critical scholarship, but at present we are entering a golden age of theology when real questions are being asked and revelation is being related to a world as it is.

For those who feel drawn to deeper studies in theology or related bodies of knowledge, the field is wide open. To take a simple example: why is the family disintegrating before us? I suggest that there are many reasons which people do not fully understand. To know some of these reasons, even in a simplified form, would support many in their struggle. What has been the depersonalising effect of Marxism in this regard, the effect of a selfish liberalism, the effect of the media taking over from parents, and why exactly has sex so suddenly become divorced from both love and responsibility? How has Freud’s work and the subse­quent clinical discoveries disturbed our traditional understanding of the family? We are really talking about re-discovering the natural law in terms of our own age, which we must do if we are to be convincing.

The New Testament, which is all about evangelisation, reflects the ferment of thought which the first generations of Christians went through as they carved out a thought world amid the hostile culture of the day. The same ferment is at work again in our time.

Writing in 1646 Vincent remarked in an untranslatable sentence: “For a long time now I have been thinking how we can ensure that we are all open to all men and to all the works of the Congregation…12 Vincent’s intuition, on which he had long reflected, that we should individually be open to all employments, is corroborated by recent findings. An experi­enced administrator, asking the question how can one ensure continuous renewal in an organisation, replies: “The far-sighted administrator can and does take action to prevent excessive compartmentalisation. he re-organises to break down calcified organisational lines. He shifts personnel (perhaps even establishes a system of rotation) to eliminate unnecessary specialisation and to broaden perspectives. He redefines jobs to break them out of rigid categories”13.

By a stroke of genius Vincent had added a fourth vow of stability which did the opposite of the Benedictine vow of stability; instead of tying us down to a place it ensured that we were always open to new employment in the service of evangelisation. Ideally, as we move from one apostolic experience to another we become enriched ourselves and enrich each other mutually.

Paragraphs 34 and 37 n.2 of the Constitutions are to the point:

§34: We shall weigh all our personal affairs and matters touching ourselves in the light of our presence in community. Yet at the same time we shall duly respond to those matters which touch our private lives; we shall promote personal values. We shall discern the initia­tives of confrères in the light of the end and the spirit of the mission. In this way the differences and the charisms of individual confrères can come together to increase communion (communion = koinonia of the New Testament: Un 1:3, Acts 4:32, etc.) and make the mission fruitful.

§37, n.2: The evangelisation of the poor gives to all our labours a unity which does not extinguish diverse talents and gifts, but directs them to the service of this mission.

Pace St Vincent, mediocrity is no longer enough. We develop what talents we have, human, organisational, intellectual, not just in the old mould of études ecclésiastiques (ecclesiastical studies). But granted personal interests, the Constitutions seem to believe it to be part of our charism to subordinate these to the overall apostolate of the Province.

Since St Vincent’s time we know that people are very different from each other, and should be allowed to develop in different ways, faced as they are with more specialised tasks. Still, this personalism can become selfish and damaging both to one’s self and to others; and so the Common Rules, the Constitutions, the gospel itself, set us limits, paradoxically turn us all, even the most gifted, out from ourselves and towards an end which transcends ourselves.

The Signs of the Times

The charismatic founder is always a prophet who in one way, like Christ, moves against the world; but in another way, also like Christ, he works through the roles, the needs and the expectations of contempo­rary society.

Vincent read the signs of his time very accurately. To take an example: in the early 1600s the ideal of organising relief for poor people was in the air. It was the one topic which united humanists, Catholics and Reformers. Lyons in particular had the most sophisticated welfare system in France, based on new methods of census-taking, record-keeping, and estimating supply and demand14. Vincent established his first “charity” at Châtillon, which is close to Lyons. Before moving out to Châtillon he had spent a month in Lyons where he saw the system at work. He guessed correctly that the people in Châtillon were ready for it, and so he started his enterprise. It was a classic example of reading the signs of the times in the light of the gospel. While the burghers of Lyons helped the poor because they were afraid of social unrest Vincent helped them because it was a Christian thing to do.

Out of the signs of the times for our Province I would like to point to the development of teamwork among us. For years I had been hearing about “teams” without giving the matter much thought, until last Easter I read the memoirs of a General Balck15. Balck emerged as a sinister figure, an apologist for Hitler, but a highly intelligent man. One of his major themes, drawn from a lifetime’s experience, was the absolute necessity of teamwork, in a world which has grown so complex that we can know how to act only by combining the knowledge and insights of different people. In the end, of course, there must be an authority who decides. Balck’s exposition drew many things together in my mind, and for the first time I suddenly glimpsed what “team” was all about. I saw that medical people were supposed to be working in teams. I had heard that good management involved systematic communication between the managers, so that each contributed from his expertise and responsibility. Armies were increasingly organised around small teams emotionally bonded. I even realised that in my last year in St Patrick’s the Religion Department had developed into a team, where the members generously undertook administrative tasks according to their talents, where we held regular meetings at which we discussed the real issues, exchanged information, and even asked awkward questions of each other. Like the man who had spoken prose without knowing it, I had been on a team without knowing it.

I suddenly saw that a team is not a group of individuals who happened to be working together, but a group who supported each other (“built each other up” was Paul’s way of putting it), listened to each other with an open mind, contributing differently to a common venture with different talents, and were prepared to submit to the discipline of real meetings where the truth, sometimes painful, but usually supportive, was brought out into the open16.

There is no perfect system, no perfect people, no panacea. We are all changing all the time. In the end, no matter how we organise ourselves, we have made a vow of obedience, ultimately based on faith and not on managerial expediency. I believe that it is this obedience working out of faith which has held our Province together over the years. But even a religious organisation should reflect its surrounding culture, and our culture has forms of social control very different from those of Vincent’s time.

By our standards the regime described in the Common Rules was very strange. Any letters coming in and out of the house were read by the superior17; confrères could not enter each other’s rooms or speak to outsiders without his permission. No one could leave the house alone; if he did go out he had to explain to the superior where he was going and why; and on his return give an account of all that had happened. Personal problems might be discussed with the superior or director, but not with any of the others. It was a regime of divide and conquer.

Vincent, like the rest of us, was a child of his time. From about 1600 till well into the following century the power of the French paterfamilias over his wife and family had grown steadily both in accepted attitudes and in legal enactments; it appears to have reflected the growing powers of the king18. The problem grew so serious that patricide became a grave social evil in France even into the 19th century19. It was from such a society that Vincent drew his methods of government.

I mentioned above that time-conditioned sections of religious rules are always the weakest and this is a case in point. But though we may have dropped Vincent’s methods of government they left us with an unfortunate legacy, the inability to say to each other what we really think. Hence those dreary community meetings we have all known, long filibusters where we stretched out the discussion of unimportant matters to ensure that nothing important came up. The system had ended by stunting us.

The system worked in the past, it may work in the future, but it will not work now. One of the key words of Trent was potestas, the power of the priest: one of the key words of Vatican II was dialogue, which it used about 150 times. But dialogue will remain another cliche until we find the courage to sit down with each other and say, like adults, what we really think. If this new frankness is accompanied by prayer then teamwork will be a reality, different of course in different houses. “Rather speaking the truth in love we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ…” (Eph 4:15). Conversely, “Have I then become your enemy by telling you the truth?” (Gal 4:16).

The Constitutions put it well:

§36:1. We will strive to live in harmony to fulfil our mission by supporting one another, especially in difficulties, and by sharing our joy in simplicity of heart.

We will become co-responsible, helped by the necessary service of authority, and along with the superior, in seeking the will of God in our life and works, thus engaging in active obedience. Also, we will foster mutual dialogue, thereby overcoming an excessively individual way of living.

We will pay close attention to the opinions and needs of each confrère humbly and fraternally …

§55:1 To participate in the mystery of the obedient Christ requires us all to seek the will of the Father as community. We do this through mutual sharing of experience, open and responsible dialogue, in which differences of age and outlook interact, so that common directions may surface and develop, and lead to making decisions.

2. Confrères will strive to obey superiors in a spirit of co-responsibil­ity, promptly, joyfully and perseveringly, according to the words of St Vincent.

Like most other communities we are not yet altogether ready for this way of life, which in the coming decades will indicate the path ahead. It should help to promote among us Vincent’s essential charism of kindness and compassion, in a manner impossible in the rigid society in which he himself lived; as the logic of Christianity should have abol­ished slavery, but could not until the social structures had first changed.

There is no perfect system, but we do seem to be moving towards a new dominant image of community life, breaking away from the Renaissance individualism of Ignatius and Vincent, and returning to older images, like that of St Dominic, more democratic but requiring their own discipline. Nearly 1500 years ago St Benedict remarked (Rule, ch. 3): “We feel that all should meet, for the Lord often reveals the best course to a younger monk”. In his patriarchal age Benedict assumed that the meetings would address real issues, and the younger monks would as a matter of course say what they thought. He even assumed that they would be listened to.

A Lesson from the Past

In regard to the CM home missions there were two crucial periods of growth in the past: the decades during St Vincent’s lifetime, and the decades immediately after 1830. Now both periods had this in common, that they helped people to re-integrate their lives after a time of confu­sion. During Vincent’s lifetime France gradually stabilised after a long period of unrest. Similarly, the period after 1830 was one of restoration, a time when large sections of the population wanted peace after the revolutionary and Napoleonic wars. In Ireland after 1830 the missions corresponded to a new integration.

But to return to France: the seventeenth century missions probably supported the throne (indirectly) too much, witness the favour of Richelieu, Anne of Austria, Louis XIII, and Louis XIV’s transfer of the royal parishes of Versailles and Fontainebleau, and also the royal military hospital of Les Invalides in Paris, to the Congregation. After 1830 the mission crosses set up after the missions were commonly interpreted as anti-republican symbols; not indeed that we should take this interpretation too tragically, for any excuse that comes to hand can be used against Christianity.

Still, however one interprets the overtones of these missions, they clearly corresponded to deep human needs. Natural law, properly under­stood, is also about deep human needs and how to discern them in changing circumstances. To underline the point I may say that it is here that we part company with Luther. He regarded man as intrinsi­cally depraved20, and salvation as a sort of thunderbolt which comes to the individual from without. Catholicism insists that man is not so depraved, and that human institutions and conduct are somehow con­tinuous with the plan of salvation. “That the earthly and heavenly city penetrate one another is a fact open only to the eyes of faith;… not only does the Church communicate divine life to men but in a certain sense it casts the reflected light of that divine life over all the earth, notably in the way it heals and elevates the dignity of the human person, in the way it consolidates society, and endows the daily activity of men with a deeper sense and meaning” (Gaudium et Spes, §40).

Hence in the wide sense, as Paul VI insisted above, evangelisation includes both the Word of God and development. What is the develop­ment, the human integration, required of us today to under-gird faith? I suggest: how to meet unemployment, how to cope with the stress of city life, the loneliness of the nuclear family, physical and mental ill-health — all clichés, until you actually meet or experience them. It is in these areas that we will find the deep human needs of the moment. Field work and research in these areas will help us to apply revelation to people’s felt needs, if we work in a spirit of faith. Probably somewhere in here, and not in any paternalism, we will see Vincent’s charism of evangeli­sation plus help in the third millennium. In these matters we have a lot to learn from North and South America, from Africa and from further afield. Europe with its Mediterranean origins is no longer the centre of the world.


Larence Cada, basing himself on Elizabeth Kuebler-Ross, outlines the dynamic whereby members of a religious community reconcile themselves with its decline:

  1. Denial — not us!
  2. Anger — why us?
  3. Bargaining — if we changed a little, could we survive?
  4. Depression — we are losing something precious.
  5. Acceptance — willingness to accept a new passover journey, to enter the desert21.

The first temple in Jerusalem had to be destroyed, and Jeremiah had to ask his terrible questions, before it could be revealed to second Isaiah that there was a new way forward (Jer 8:18-23, 12: 1-3, 14:1-9, 20:7-8, etc. Is chs 40-55). We too must face more destruction in the Province, not of our own making, and ask ourselves terrible questions before the new way forward opens up to us. The cycles of other communities show that a lot of the old must be abandoned before the new comes to life. Then, new wine-skins must be found for new wine.

Our purification, if I may use the word, will be all the deeper because both priesthood and society are going through a crisis which we must share with them; crises which will add to our perplexity.

For his understanding of priests Vincent drew from the counter-ref­ormation model, which we know had been preceded by a long historical development. We can now see more calmly the point the Reformers were making, that the priest had acquired too high a profile. Indeed already by 80 AD (?) Matthew seems to have been attacking incipient clericalism: nobody in the Church is to be called teacher, father or lord (Mt 23:8-10). Matthew’s reasoning was simple: “You are all brothers” (23:8), and “He who is greatest among you shall be your servant” (23:11). Having lost our historical and sociological innocence how do we reconcile service with leadership? If there is a new model of what a priest is, how does that affect the Vincentian priest?

Society, too, has its problems. Suffice it to say here that in the richest and most rational society the world has ever known the arts generally show a lack of form, an inner chaos of soul un-parallelled in western history. At a less sophisticated level, why these relentlessly bleak TV dramas? I have sufficient faith in the writers to believe that they and most of their viewers find life just so sour and confusing. If we are to live in the world we must share this inner chaos before we can rise above it, and this too must darken our counsels, perhaps more than we understand. And then there is the cataclysm in our own country; how will that affect our future?

Our previous stay in the desert (1790-1830) lasted the biblical forty years. This time, let us hope that the days will be shortened. Meanwhile, it is asked of us that we be faithful servants, that we pray, reflect — and listen to each other with our various gifts, graces and experiences.

To take a wider perspective, societies which begin with enthusiasm end as power structures. Irish people who from the 1830s began enthu­siastically to welcome their religion now feel it less and less a support, and more an oppressive institution. The alienation has proceeded even faster in French Canada and Catholic Holland, societies with a history very like our own. If our contemporaries are to own their religion and find it a support, then an enormous work of evangelisation has to begin all over again. But such an evangelisation will be very different from the 1830s, and indeed from the 1980s. The great changes will make us suffer as the old wine-skins burst. “…you will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will be turned into joy. When a woman is in travail she has sorrow, because her hour has come; but when she is delivered of the child, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a child is born into the world” (Jn 16:20-21).


From the many points raised during the discussion after the above paper, two may be mentioned here. Firstly, it was objected that the paper had painted Vincent’s regime too starkly: surely the reality must have been milder? This was a fair comment, but the point at issue is whether the old attitudes had left us unable to say what we think, and listen clearly to each other. The present writer believes that we cannot yet do these things.

Secondly, a confrère synthesised the difference between the past and the future of the Congregation as follows:

  • CM in the Past: Patriarchal, CM Regime
    CM in the Future:
  • CM in the Past: Individualism, CM Work Method
    CM in the Future:
  • CM in the Past: Law & Order; Human Support offered by
    CM in the Future:
    Helping to cope with the
  • CM in the Past: Royalism, CM Apostolate
    CM in the Future:
    Innovating Society

This is a very schematic synthesis, but a constructive one, for it sees a new order for us. Working through dialogue and teamwork (and the four vows) we may find where men and women in the next millennium are in pain, and then under God and with the same methods, we help them to be reconciled to themselves, to each other, and to God, (Mt 22:36-40). While remaining true to Vincent’s original vision this is innovation on the same grand scale that Vincent himself was accustomed to.

  1. Vincent’s hesitations about founding a community and his search for the will of God in the matter have been documented by Padraig Regan in COLLOQUE No. 11.
  2. One may question how far individual communities have declined, or why, or what exceptions there are, but the general rule that they go through cycles or growth and decay cannot be disputed. See, for instance, Gannon & Traub: The Desert and the City, New York 1969; Hostie: The Life and Death of Religious Orders, Washington 1983 (French original 1972); Cada and others: Shaping the Future Age of Religious Life, New York 1979.1 have so far been unable to obtain Hostie’s work but Diarmuid Ó Murchú has given an abbreviated version of it in Religious Life, Survival or Extinction, Dublin 1980.
  3. Poole: A History of the CM, pp 98-100.
  4. See especially Perfectae Caritatis (October 28, 1965) §2; also Evangelica Testificatio (Paul VI, 1971), §§3, 11, 12.
  5. It is true, as far as I know, that we have no direct evidence of NT charisms agreeing with the temperament of the recipients, but the evidence of later charisms suggests as much.
  6. Cada et al., op. cit., pp 163-183, give a convincing account of the founder’s charism in the growth and decay of a religious community.
  7. Op. Cit., p 57.
  8. Evangelii Nuntiandi, 8 December 1975. Cf also an article by Gregory Baum: “The Canadian Bishops on the Economic Crisis” in The Furrow, August 1984; and Charles and Maclaren: The Social Teaching of Vatican 77, San Francisco, 1982.
  9. Quoted from Newman the Oralorian, edited by P. Murray, Dublin 1969, p 81.
  10. Poole: Op. Cit., p86.
  11. Jean Delumeau: Catholicism between Luther and Voltaire, London, 1977.
  12. II, 557; leter to René Sauvage. 19 January 1646: “II y a longtemps que je pense aux moyens de faire que nous soyons tous a tous et à tous les emplois de la compag­nie…”.
  13. John W Gardner: Self-renewal, New York, 1971.
  14. Details of the system in Lyons, and of contemporary welfare trends in Europe, can be found in N Z Davies: Society and Culture in Early Modern France, New York, n.d., chapter I.
  15. Hermann Balck: Ordnungim Chaos: Erinnerungen 1893-1948, Mainz, 1980.
  16. A simple introduction to team-work can be found in T Gordan: Leadership Effectiveness Training, London, 1979.
  17. Except those to or from Superior General.
  18. Davies, op. cit., passim.
  19. Lumière et Vie, avril-juin 1981, p 26.
  20. This is an outrageous over-simplification, but not too far from the truth. We have to remember that nominalism, the philosophy which Luther knew best. denied in effect that man can know reality, and hence was incapable of working out a natural law corresponding to his needs. Starting from this pessimistic view of man Luther darkened it further by projecting his own terrible guilt-feelings on to mankind in general. He then saw God more as one who forgives the depraved than as one who loves men and women whom he makes lovable because they and their institutions are potentially good though vitiated by original sin. Vincent may have been a pessimist by temperament but, unlike Luther, he linked firmly the visible and invisible order of things, remembering that the Lord both forgave sin and healed sickness.
  21. Op. cit., p 100.

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