3. Participation of the laity, especially women, in the mission of the Apostles
The biographers of Vincent de Paul1 and Louise de Marillac2 highlight their important contribution to the promotion of the laity, especially women. They also point out the various ways in which Vincent and Louise promoted the laity to take responsibility for their proper apostolate in the Church. The many impressive Vincentian accomplishments cannot be understood apart from the participation of so many lay persons, so many laymen and laywomen, in the mission3.
As a result of Vincent’s lived experience in Châtillon and the establishment of the Confraternity in that place, as a result of the essential collaboration of Louise de Marillac and other women who animated the members of the Confraternities in the rural areas, who brought together the Daughters of Charity and supported the Ladies … all of these experiences led to the development of multiple creative forms that enhanced and affirmed the participation of the laity in the mission of the Church.
In a lengthy document which Abelly (II:304-314) attributes to Vincent de Paul and which Nicolás Gobillon (II:18-22) places among the writings of Louise de Marillac we find a summary of the contributions of the laity to Vincentian charism as they participate in the mission of the Church.
The text affirms that among Jesus’ followers there were both men and women, all of whom engaged in an apostolic ministry: Among those who were steadfast in following Our Lord, there were women as well as men, who followed him even to the cross. The women were not Apostles, but they formed a middle state … they went from one place to another to meet the needs, not only of the Church workers, but of the faithful who were in distress (CCD:XIIIb:436).
During the first centuries of Christianity, women were involved in many important apostolic activities: For eight hundred years or so, women have had no public role in the Church; in the past there were some who were called Deaconesses, who were responsible for seating the women in the churches and teaching them the rubrics then in use. About the time of Charlemagne, however, by a discreet working of Divine Providence, this practice came to an end; persons of your sex were deprived of any role and have not had any since then (CCD:XIIIb:432).
The time, however, has come for women to take up anew the ministry which corresponds to them as they continue the mission of the Church: Now that same Providence is turning today to some of you to supply what was lacking to the sick poor of the Hôtel-Dieu. They corresponded to God’s plan, and soon after, when others joined the first ones, God established them as the mothers of abandoned children, made them the heads of their hospital and the distributors of alms from Paris … Those good souls have responded to all that with zeal and firmness, by the grace of God (CCD:XIIIb:432). It is very evident, in this century, that Divine Providence willed to make use of women to show that it was His goodness alone which desired to aid afflicted peoples and to bring them powerful helps for their salvation … Therefore, it seems to be essential for the Company of the Ladies of Charity of the Hôtel-Dieu to continue its functions, since, from the origin of this noble group, their visits to the sick of this holy hospital have brought such apparent good to the place itself and to the souls who have found the way to salvation there. Through their ministry, some of the sick poor died a happy death as a result of their good dispositions following a general confession. Others recovered but their confessions led to admirable conversions. The Ladies themselves entered on the pathway to sanctification which is perfect charity, such as that which they have practiced in this place where they have frequently put their lives in danger by their service to the sick. All this has been accomplished by Ladies of noble birth such as princesses and duchesses whom we have seen spending entire hours at the bedside of the sick instructing them in the things necessary for their salvation and helping them to free themselves from the dangers surrounding them (SWLM:789-790 [A.56]).
According to that text, which is also supported by Abelly, Vincent de Paul confronted possible resistances to the active participation of women in the mission of the Church by referring to the writings of Saint Paul. At that time women who served and continued the mission of the Church were dispensed from every prohibition that Saint Paul had placed upon them: You practice what widows of the primitive Church did, namely, to meet the material needs of the poor as they did, and even the spiritual needs of persons of their own sex, as they did. In this you will be released, as it were, from the prohibition placed upon you by Saint Paul in I Corinthians 14, “Women should keep silent in the churches; nor are they permitted to speak”. And in I Timothy 2, “I do not permit a woman to act as a teacher” (CCD:XIIIb:381).
The participation of women in ministry on behalf of the poor must be viewed as an apostolic activity, as a missionary activity of the Church, as an authentic building up of the Church (notice in the following text the use of specific apostolic words in order to describe the participation of the laity in the mission of the Church): In caring for the poor, you care for God Himself in them; and the service you render them is rendered to God Himself … you cause the goodness of God to be seen and felt through you goodness to those poor persons, and have God glorified … you cooperate with Jesus Christ in the salvation of those poor souls … you edify the whole Church … you edify one another and become more closely united with God (CCD:XIIIb:404).
This text that has been preserved for us is not the only argument that reveals the contribution of the Vincentian charism to the laity’s participation in the mission of the Church. Much more decisive are the Vincentian ministries and the spirit that animates them.
The life of Louise de Marillac is the best description of the apostolic mission of women in the Church: her understanding of Church, her dedication to the service of the poor and to every form of poverty4, the encouragement that she gave to the members of the Confraternities of Charity5, her dedication to the formation of the Daughters of Charity, her accompaniment of other women during their time of retreat…6
There can be no doubt that the contribution of the Vincentian charism to the participation of the laity in the various apostolates of the Church has been most significant … and that contribution has continued to the present day.
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- L. ABELLY, The Life of the Venerable Servant of God Vincent de Paul: Founder and First Superior General of the Congregation of the Mission, 3 vol., edited by John E. Rybolt, CM, translated by William Quinn, FSC, notes by Edward R. Udovic, CM and John E. Rybolt, CM, introduction by Stafford Poole, CM, New City Press, New Rochelle, New York, 1993; P. COSTE, The Life and Work of Saint Vincent de Paul, 3 volumes, translated from the French by Joseph Leonard, CM, The Newman Press, Westminster, Maryland, 1952; P. COLLET, The Life of Saint Vincent de Paul, Founder of the Congregation of the Mission and the Sisters of Charity, translated from the French by a Catholic clergyman, John Murphy and Co., Baltimore, 1845; J. M. ROMÁN, St. Vincent de Paul: A Biography, translated by Sr. Joyce Howard, DC, Melisende, London, 1999; J. CORRERA, Vida del señor Vicente de Paúl [Life of Vincent de Paul], CEME, Salamanca, 1989; L. MEZZADRI, San Vicente de Paúl, el santo de la Caridad [Vincent de Paul, the saint of charity], CEME, Salamanca, 2012; P. COLLET, La vie de Saint Vincent de Paul, instituteur de la Congrégation de la Mission et des Filles de la Charité, two volumes, Paris, 1860; U. MAYNARD, Saint Vincent de Paul, Sa vie, son temps, ses oeuvres, son influence, four volumes, Paris 1860; A. REDIER, Vicente de Paúl, todo un carácter, CEME, Salamanca, 1977; P. RENAUDIN, Saint Vincent de Paul, Marsella, 1927; André DODIN, CM, Vincent de Paul and Charity, translated: Jean Marie Samith and Dennis Saunders, edited: Hugh O’Donnell, CM and Marjorie Gale Hornstein, New City Press, New Hyde Park, N.Y., 1993.
- N. GOBILLON, Vida de la señorita Le Gras, fundadora y primera superior de la Compañia de las Hijas de la Caridad, siervas de los pobres enfermos, CEME, Salamanca, 1991; B. MARTÍNEZ, Empeñada en un paraíso para los pobres, CEME, Salamanca, 1995; L. BAUNARD, Vida de la Venerable Luisa de Marillac, Fundadora de las Hijas de la Caridad, Madrid, 1904; JOSEPH I. DIRVIN, Louise de Marillac, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, New York, 1970; E. CHARPY, Contra viento y marea, Louisa de Marillac, Madrid, 1989.
- Cf. A. DODIN, “Saint Vincent de Paul y la mujer en la vida de la Iglesia” in Lecciones sobre Vicencianismo, CEME, Salamanca, 1978, p. 161ff.; cf. J.M. ROMAN, “El año 1617 en la biografia de san Vicente de Paúl” in Vincentiana (1984) 443-456; M. SAGASTAGOITIA, Vicente de Paúl y la Mision, Salamanca, 2006.
- A servant of the Le Gras household attested that Louise had a great piety and devotion for serving the poor. She brought them confections and sweetmeats, biscuits and other good things. She combed their hair, she cleansed their sores and vermin; she sewed them in their shroud. She would leave her company to climb a hill [the Montagne Ste. Genviève?], despite rain or hail, to help some poor man who shivered with the cold. At night, when her husband was asleep, Louise would get up and enclose herself in a closet where she administered herself with the discipline. Gobillion adds: it was not enough for her personally to serve the suffering members of Jesus Christ … she wishes that other noble-born ladies share this honor with her and she persuaded them by her urgings and example (Dirvin, op.cit., p. 29).
- Louise’s visits to the Confraternities and her encouragement of the members of those Confraternities that Vincent entrusted to her clearly reveal how her activity promoted the participation of women in the mission of the Church in that era. Louise’s reports on those visits, documents that were sent to Vincent de Paul, enable us to follow this important contribution to the mission of the Church. See for example, SWLM:704-705 [A.50], 705-706 [A.51], 720-722 [A,53], 722=725 [A.55], 729-730 [A.47].
- In order to encourage the participation of women in the life and the mission of the Church, Louise took on the role of retreat director: [Louise] began to prepare for them places of retreat while she lived at La Chapelle, and this has been continued ever since in her community. The grace which inspired her with this purpose, gave her the greatest success she could wish for. Several ladies, including some of high society, were attracted by her zeal, and left Paris depriving themselves of the conversation of the world to spend some days in a village, to converse there with God. They left the comforts and delicacies of life, to think of their salvation in a place of mortification and penance. Without considering their rank and position, which raised them above others, they came into a house of servants of the poor and submitted themselves to the same discipline of a superior, to learn to despise riches and grandeurs by her instruction and example (N. Gobillon, op.cit., p.28).