As we reflect on the contribution of the Vincentian charism to the mission of the Church, it seems necessary to begin with some precisions on this matter.
- When we speak about the Vincentian charism, we are referring to the gift of the Spirit, a gift that God bestowed on the Church through the person of Vincent de Paul and Louise de Marillac, a gift of the Spirit which has been passed on to the followers of these two individuals (that is, persons who are members of the various institutions and associations that were inspired by them, men and women who make every effort to live, preserve, deepen and develop that gift in an on-going manner and in harmony with Body of Christ1.
Even though the word “Vincentian” is derived etymologically from the proper name “Vincent” (Vincentius), the uniqueness of the charism cannot be understood apart from the contribution of Louise de Marillac.
Furthermore, the Vincentian charism cannot be reduced in some exclusive manner to the era of the Founders. The charism is a dynamic reality, one that is recreated in every era, one that is deepened and enriched by the responses of each person, each community and each association, especially as their members live in fidelity to the Spirit.
- When speaking about the contribution of the Vincentian charism to the mission of the Church, we do not mean that our charism has filled out that which was lacking in the Church. Rather the charism highlights some simple elements that are part of the Church’s mission, elements that the Vincentian charism has been privileged to live with greater intensity.
- Our reflections take place within the context of the Year of Consecrated Life and, more specifically, within the context of the Pope’s call to discover the particular form of life in which the charism translates the gospel and responds to the needs of the Church: At their origins we see the hand of God who, in his Spirit, calls certain individuals to follow Christ more closely, to translate the Gospel into a particular way of life, to read the signs of the times with the eyes of faith and to respond creatively to the needs of the Church. This initial experience then matured and developed, engaging new members in new geographic and cultural contexts, and giving rise to new ways of exercising the charism, new initiatives and expressions of apostolic charity. Like the seed which becomes a tree, each Institute grew and stretched out its branches (Francis, Apostolic Letter to All Consecrated People on the Occasion of the Year of Consecrated Life, November 21,2014, #1).
Mindful of these precisions, allow me, in the following ten reflections, to concretize the contributions of the Vincentian charism to the mission of the Church.
1. The canonical opening that was provided by the various Vincentian establishments
Those who study the history of consecrated life do not hesitate to affirm the fact that the various Vincentian establishments opened a path that has become wider with the passing of time2.
The Congregation of the Mission and the Company of the Daughters of the charity created new form of life and opened doors that would allow many other groups to enders as the years passed.
In order to understand the canonical opening that the Vincentian establishments have provided, we simply have to recall that which has been referred to as the Magna Carta of the Daughters of Charity and compare that document to the prescriptions of Pope Pius V that were in force at that time3. We are all familiar with the text of the Magna Carta: They shall bear in mind that they do not belong to a religious Order because that state is incompatible with the duties of their vocation … having for monastery only the houses of the sick and the place where the Superioress resides; for cell, a hired room; for chapel, the parish church; for cloister, the streets of the city; for enclosure, obedience, with an obligation to go nowhere but to the houses of the sick or to places necessary for their service; for grille, the fear of God; for veil holy modesty; making no other profession to ensure their vocation and that, by their constant trust in Divine Providence and the offering they make to God of all that they are and of their service in the person of the poor4.
With great patience Louise de Marillac explained the meaning of this new form of life to the first Sisters: Do you love your way of life? Do you esteem it as more excellent for you than all the hermitages and religious convents because God has called you to it? Do you believe that you have been assembled together for your sanctification by a secret action of Divine Providence? Does the stronger support the weaker lovingly and cordially as the need arises? Do you often recall the counsel our Most Honored Father gave us in a conference when he said that we, as well as religious, have a cloister, and that it is as difficult for faithful souls to leave it as it is for religious to leave theirs, although it is not a cloister made of stones but rather one constituted by holy obedience which must govern all our actions and desires? I beg Our Lord, whose example has enclosed us in this holy cloister, to grant us the grace never to violate it5.
With regard to the young women who desired to enter the Company of the Daughters of Charity, Louise stated: The girls from Saint-Fargeau, who are asking to enter the Company of the Daughters of Charity, must be informed that it is not a religious house; nor is it a hospital from which they will never be moved. Rather they must continuously go to seek out the sick poor, in various places, in any kind of weather and at predetermined times. They will be very poorly clothed and nourished and will never wear anything on their heads except a linen cornette in cases of great necessity (SWLM:583 [L.561]).
Even though the Daughters are not religious, Louise formed the first Sisters so that they would seek perfection, even greater perfection than religious: The Daughters of Charity are obliged, therefore, to strive to become more holy than religious (SWLM:645 [L.627]).
Vincent had no hesitation in referring to the service that the Daughters of Charity provided as apostolic ministry, the same form of ministry as the Missionaries: … these Sister are devoted, like us, to the salvation and comfort of their neighbor. If I say “with us”, I will be saying nothing contrary to the Gospel but something very much in conformity with the practice of the primitive Church, for Our Lord took care of some women who followed him, and we see the Canon of the Apostles that they administered provisions to the faithful and were involved in apostolic duties (CCD:VIII:278-279).
With regard to the Congregation of the Mission, Vincent made it clear that the Missionaries were members of the secular clergy (CCD:XIIIb:420) and that because of the fact that they take vows the members of the Congregation should not therefore be considered of the number of religious Orders, but that it is of the body of the secular clergy (CCD:XIIIa:418)
The canonical opening initiated by the various Vincentian establishments made it possible for many other forms of “non-religious” to flourish in the Church. Even though ecclesiastical law and legislation have frequently understood these forms of life as similar to that of religious, nevertheless the theology of mission has viewed this as a new starting point, multi-faceted in its creativity, especially with regard to that which today is known as Societies of Apostolic Life6 and with regard to other religious congregations that have reformulated their original apostolic dimension in light of the intuitions of said Societies7. The Congregation of the Mission and the Company of the Daughters of Charity have been pioneers in as much as they have contributed a canonical opening that today is viewed as very natural8.
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- Cf. C. Delgado, “Validez de la experiencia spiritual de Santa Luisa de Marillac para la espiritualidad vicenciana” [Validity of the spiritual experience of Saint Louise de Marillac for Vincentian Spirituality] in Santa Luisa de Marillac, ayer y hoy [Saint Louise de Marillac, Yesterday and Today], CEME, Salamanca, 2010, p. 375-414. Cf. Congregación for Bishops, Congregation for Institutes of Religious Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, Mutuae Relationes, Rome 1978, #11; Paul VI, Evangelica Testificatio, #11; cf. J. Elizondo, “Carisma y Espíritu Vicentianos”, Vincentiana, (1998), p. 323-340.
- A. López Amat, El seguimiento radical de Cristo. Esbozo histórico de la Vida Consagrada [The Radical Following of Christ: an historical outline of consecrated life], Ediciones Encuentro, Madrid, 1987 (two volumes), the author does not hesitate to refer to the Vincentian institutions as the great achievement of Vincent de Paul, II:494-512; cf. Álvarez Gómez, Historia de la Vida Religiosa [History of Religious Life], Publicaciones Claretianas, Madrid, 1990, three volumes; M. Pérez-Flores, “La Congregación de la Misión, ejemplo de Sociedad de Vida Apostolica” [The Congregation of the Mission, an example of a Society of Apostolic Life], Vincentiana (1994), p. 234-245; M. Pérez Flores, Historia del Derecho de la Congregación de la Mission, [History of the Law of the Congregation of the Mission], CEME, Salamanca, 2005, p. 321-338; M. Pérez-Flores, “Datos históricos y cuestiones communes al Nuevo Código y a las Constituciones de las Hijas de la Caridad [Historical data and common questions with regard to the new Code and to the Constitutions of the Daughters of Charity], Anales (1984), p. 331-338; cf. Vincentiana (1983), p. 456-480.
- Religious women should submit themselves to the cloister even if they are not obliged to do so and even if they have ceased to observe that practice. Third Order Sisters, who have taken perpetual vows are obliged to the cloister; those who have taken simple vows ought to submit themselves to the cloister, and should take solemn vows. Religious women who do not take solemn vows and are not cloistered, cannot receive new candidates. R. Meyer – L. Huerga, Una institución singular: el superior general de la Congregación de la Misión y de las Hijas de la Caridad [A unique institution: the superior general of the Congregation of the Mission and of the Daughters of Charity], CEME, Salamanca, 1974, p. 111-112.
- Vincent de Paul, Correspondence, Conferences, Documents, translators: Helen Marie Law, DC (Vol. 1), Marie Poole, DC (Vol. 1-14), James King, CM (Vol. 1-2), Francis Germovnik, CM (Vol. 1-8, 13a-13b [Latin]), Esther Cavanagh, DC (Vol. 2), Ann Mary Dougherty, DC (Vol. 12); Evelyne Franc, DC (Vol. 13a-13b), Thomas Davitt, CM (Vol. 13a-13b [Latin]), Glennon E. Figge, CM (Vol. 13a-13b [Latin]), John G. Nugent, CM (Vol. 13a-13b [Latin]), Andrew Spellman, CM (Vol. 13a-13b [Latin]); edited: Jacqueline Kilar, DC (Vol. 1-2), Marie Poole, DC (Vol. 2-14), Julia Denton, DC [editor-in-chief] (Vol. 3-10, 13a-13b), Paule Freeburg, DC (Vol. 3), Mirian Hamway, DC (Vol. 3), Elinor Hartman, DC (Vol. 4-10, 13a-13b), Ellen Van Zandt, DC (Vol. 9-13b), Ann Mary Dougherty (Vol. 11, 12 and 14); annotated: John W. Carven, CM (Vol. 1-14); New City Press, Brooklyn and Hyde Park, 1985-2014; volume X, p. 530; future references to this work will be inserted into the text using the initials [CCD] followed by the volume number, followed by the page number, for example, CCD:X:530.
- Louise de Marillac, Spiritual Writings of Louise de Marillac, Edited and Translated from the French by Sister Louise Sullivan, DC, New City Press, Brooklyn, New York, 1991, p. 406-407 (L.377). Future references to this work will be inserted into the text using the initials [SWLM] followed by the page number, followed by the number of the letter or the number of the writing and/or manuscript, for example (SWLM:406-407 [L.377]).
- Originally called Societies of Associates in the first draft of the new Code (1977), the superior generals of those groups, which came to be known as Societies of Apostolic Life, formed a reflection group that contributed decisively to the understanding that was later formulated in the Code of Canon Law (1983). Father James Richardson, superior general of the Congregation of the Mission and the Company of the Daughters of Charity, presided over this group in 1978 and later, Father Cecilio Parres, CM participated as a permanent member of the group that provided assistance to the commission that redacted that section of the Code of Canon Law. Cf. M. Pérez-Flores, “La Congregacion de la Misión, ejemplo de Sociedad de Vida Apostólica” [The Congregation of the Mission, an example of a Society of Apostolic Life], Vincentiana, (1994), p. 237.
- Institutes of Consecrated Life that moved into the group of religious as a result of the Constitution, Conditae a Christo (Leo XIII) and as a result of the 1917 Code of Canon Law are somewhat displeased with their present status in the present Code, but are more pleased with the way that they are described in the section that deals with the Societies of Apostolic Life; Cf. M. Pérez-Flores, op.cit., p. 239.
- Cf. M. Pérez-Flores, op.cit., p. 236