4. The salvation of the poor at the center of the Church’s mission
Vincent de Paul and Louise de Marillac shared the same experience: the poor are members of Christ and as such, are members of the Church. In the Church, the Body of Christ, the poor occupy the most prominent places … they are our Masters. Thus, the salvation of the poor is constituted as the center of the Church’s mission.
In discovering the fact that the poor are members of Jesus Christ, Louise de Marillac, a daughter of the Church, had no hesitation in exerting all of her energy in service on their behalf. At the same time, Louise taught the Sisters, daughters of the Church, how to serve the poor, which is the very reason for their being and their vocation.
Furthermore, Saint Louise understood that the mission of the Church on this earth was to minister on behalf of the poor. It seems to me that such is the meaning of the letter that she wrote on July 18, 1656 to Sister Carcireux. Louise distinguished the mission of the Church militant (serve the poor) from the mission of the triumphant Church (intimate union with God). She concluded the Church militant ought to diligently apply itself to the corporal and spiritual service of the sick poor for the love of Jesus Crucified: If God. in His goodness. shows us His mercy and admits us into the Church Triumphant, we shall then enjoy that intimate union with Him which we can never completely attain here on earth. Let us then, my dear Sisters, apply ourselves diligently to the corporal and spiritual service of the sick poor for the love of Jesus Crucified (SWLM:515 [L.531b]).
Vincent de Paul, distancing himself from the dominant ecclesiologies of his time1, contemplated and experienced the Church as the continuation of the mission of Jesus Christ. Vincent maintained the position of the ecclesiology that was taught in the manuals (CCD:VI:292-293) and he did not want to depart in any way from the Church’s teaching (CCD:XI:30-31). Nevertheless, Vincent’s originality with regard to his vision of the Church is rooted in the fact that he viewed the church as an historical reality, as a missionary church, as a church at the service of the poor, as a church that continues the mission of Christ2.
Thus, Vincent did not place an emphasis on the hierarchy nor on some exterior adornment. For Vincent “the Church is above all else composed of those poor men and women who request assistance, all those individuals with whom he was able to identify himself when he was pastor in Clichy (a church near Paris). As Vincent served those poor people he offered up himself and his people. When speaking about those poor and humble men and women, he stated: ‘they are our lords and masters … they represent Jesus Christ’. In this way Vincent gave a new perspective to the theology of the mystical body”3. The Church is neither in the silk nor the gold of the princes-bishops or abbots but rather is in the body and blood of those who suffer, in the tears of the people. The People of God participate in the mystery of Christ’s life, in the mystery of the sufferings and the death of the Son of God. Called to participate in the Council of Conscience, Vincent was mindful of this Church as he attempted to appoint bishops who would serve the people of God and who would especially serve the poor4.
According to Vincent de Paul, the Church continues the work of Christ and does what Jesus did when he was on earth and therefore, the Church cooperates with Jesus in regard to the salvation of humankind. This close relationship between Christ and the Church is most evident in the expressions that refer to the Church: spouse of the Savior, spouse of Jesus Christ (CCD:I:561; III:188, 204; XII:132-133), the Lord’s vineyard (CCD:V:113, 180, 465; VII:304, 559; VIII:64-65, 147), the harvest that requires workers (CCD:VIII:145; X:100), the mystical body: All of us make up a mystical body, but we’re all members of one another. It has never been heard that a member, not even among animals, was insensitive to the suffering of another member, or that one part of a person’s body may be bruised, wounded, or injured and the other parts don’t feel it. That’s impossible. Every part of us is in such sympathy with one another and so interconnected that the pain of one is the pain of the other. Since Christians are members of the same body and members of one another, with even greater reason should they sympathize with one another. Quoi! To be a Christian and to see our brother suffering without weeping with him, without being sick with him! That’s to be lacking in charity; it’s being a caricature of a Christian; it’s inhuman; it’s to be worse than animals (CCD:XII:221-222; cf. CCD:XI:296-297).
As members of this Body, which we call the church, the poor are the afflicted members of Our Lord (CCD:XII:77). The evangelization of the poor is the sure sign that they Holy Spirit guides the Church (CCD:XI:30).
Scholars do not hesitate to affirm that it was Bossuet who best understood the Vincentian focus with regard to the centrality of the poor in the mission of the Church: Like Jesus Christ its Founder, the Church has come into the world in order to govern in a way that directly contradicts and reverses the order that the proud rulers of the present age have established there … In the world the rich enjoy all the advantages of their wealth and power, while in the kingdom of Jesus Christ the preeminence belongs to the poor who are the first-born of the Church and her children. In the world the poor are submissive to the rich, and it seems that the only reason that they are born is to be their servants. On the contrary, in the holy Church, the rich find that they can be admitted only on the condition that they themselves serve the poor. The advantages and privileges of this world benefit only the powerful and the rich, while the poor have no claim on any part of those for their living. However, in the Church of Jesus Christ the advantages and blessings of the kingdom of have are reserved for the poor, and the rich have no right to share in these advantages and privileges, except through the poor5.
The members of the Vincentian Family are pleased to listen to the words of Pope Francis:
- God’s heart has a special place for the poor, so much so that he himself became poor (Evangelii Gaudium, #197).
- Our faith in Christ, who became poor, and was always close to the poor and the outcast, is the basis of our concern for the integral development of society’s most neglected members (Evangelii Gaudium, #186).
- Each individual and every community is called to be an instrument of God for the liberation and promotion of the poor, and for enabling them to be fully part of society. This demands that we be docile and attentive to the cry of the poor and to come to their aid (Evangelii Gaudium, #187).
- Jesus, the evangelizer par excellence and the Gospel in person, identifies especially with the little ones (cf. Matthew 25:40). This reminds us Christians that we are called to care for the vulnerable of the earth (Evangelii Gaudium, #209).
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- A. DODIN does not hesitate to affirm: What characterized Vincent’s presentation of the Church? Vincent’s presentation is totally different from the ecclesiology of “roman” inspiration. That Roman vision flowed from the theories of Carinal Bellarmine and Peter Canisius: a hierarchical church, a stable and vertical institution. The Pope occupied the highest position in the pyramid, then the bishops and priests and on the lowest level were the laity. Vincent de Paul did not share in that vision and he was not the only one. A. DODIN, Lecciones sobre vicencianismo, CEME, Salamanca, 1978, p. 66-67.
- A. DODIN, ibid., p. 67
- A. SYLVESTRE, “Saint Vincent el L’Eglise” in Monsieur Vincent, témoin de l’Evangile, Animation Vincentienne, Toulouse, 1990, 126.
- San Vicente de Paúl y la Iglesia, ANALES (1974), P. 75.
- E. UDOVIC, CM, “On the Eminent Dignity of the Poor in the Church: A Sermon by Jacques Bénigne Bossuet” in Vincentian Heritage, Volume 13, #1 (1992), p. 45-46.