7. The poor are protagonists and not simply the beneficiaries of the Church’s mission
We have recalled the fact that the salvation of the poor is constituted as the center of the Church’s mission. We now want to highlight another important contribution of the Vincentian charism, namely, the poor are protagonists and not simply the beneficiaries of the Church’s mission.
Jean Anouilh has given a literary form to this contribution of the Vincentian charism as he places on the lips of Monsieur Vincent the often repeated words, only the poor can save the poor1.
The majority of the Daughters of Charity have been chosen from among the poor in order to serve God in the person of the poor: The spirit of the Company consists in giving yourselves to God to love Our Lord and to serve Him corporally and spiritually in the person of the poor in their homes or elsewhere; to instruct poor young women, children, and generally all those whom Divine Providence may send you. You see, dear Sisters, this Company of Daughters of Charity is composed, for the most part, of poor young women. How excellent is this characteristic of poor young women — poor in their clothing and poor in their food! (CCD:IX:465).
In turn, the young women became exemplary ministers as evangelizers of the poor: Do you know, Sisters, that I’ve heard that those poor men are so grateful for the grace God is giving them that, when they see how we come to help them and consider that those Sisters have no other interest in doing this than the love of God, they say that it’ s quite clear to them that God is the protector of the poor. See what a blessing it is to help poor people recognize the Goodness of God! For they see plainly that He’s the one who’s having this service rendered to them. Thus, they experience deep feelings of piety and say, “O my God, now we acknowledge that what we formerly heard preached is true, that You are mindful of all those who need help and never abandon us when we’re in danger, since You take care of poor wretches who have so greatly offended Your Goodness”. I’ve heard from the very persons who were nursed by our Sisters and from many others that they were edified at seeing the trouble those Sisters took to go to visit them, that they recognized the Goodness of God in it and saw that they were obliged to praise and thank Him. (CCD:X:411)
The poor should not be viewed as passive beneficiaries of the evangelization process, rather, in accord with their abilities, they should be actively involved in the process: I can tell you that their original intention was to assist only those who cannot work nor earn their living and would be in danger of dying of starvation if someone did not assist them. In fact, as soon as anyone is strong enough to work, tools of his trade are bought for him and nothing more is given to him. Accordingly, the alms are not for those able to work, but for seriously sill sick persons, orphans, or the elderly (CCD:IV:188)
A concrete expression of that reality is found in the organization of the Hospice du Nom-de-Jésus. An individual, with a high ranking position, made a donation to Vincent that he was free to utilize for any good work of his choosing. Thus with that money Vincent bought a house in the neighborhood of Saint-Laurent, a house that became known as Nom-de-Jésus. In accord with the conditions of the contract, the donation was used to house, feed and clothe forty persons of both sexes and to teach them the things necessary for salvation, to make them live in the fear of God and His love, and also to occupy them in some work, thus causing them to avoid begging and idleness which are the mother of all vices2.
In 1653 Louise began to prepare for the opening of the Hospice du Nom-de Jésus and then, with the help of the other Sisters, put her plan into action: Another end is that persons sheltered there will be helped to become participants in the merits of the life and death of Jesus Christ and thereby to gain eternal salvation … as much by the instruction they receive as by the good use they make of their time … Since one of the greatest assets of this project is the work which it provides, it is necessary to assign tasks which are useful and productive. An acceptable one would be that of cloth-maker. Apart from being productive — the cloth could be used in the house and in other places — it employs many persons and requires little equipment. Bootmakers and shoemakers would also be most useful. Any button-makers and muslin workers who are skilled in their trade can put the finishing touches on the products before they are put into use. Other useful workers are: lace-makers, glove-makers who know how to trim, seamstresses who can take in work from the dressmakers of the city and of other places, and pin-makers. Having quite enough workers to get the project underway and to keep it going, there is no need to consider the expense that will be incurred for tools and building supplies, nor is there need to be concerned about the difficulty of the skills involved or the problem of securing a location cheaply and easily. Divine Providence provides for all, and skills will be discovered through experience. Rest assured that there will be very little progress during the first year (SWLM:794 [A.99]).
The Hospice functioned so well that many other places requested Louise and Vincent to establish similar institutions for single people, for homeless persons, as well as for people with few or no resources3.
When speaking about the poor being protagonists with regard to the Church’s mission, we should not forget the following Vincentian affirmation: It’s among the poor that true religion and a living faith are preserved (CCD:XI:190). Jaime Corera has stated: in the eyes of Vincent the poor are the sacrament of faith and only in the poor will one encounter Jesus Christ … and in encountering Jesus Christ, one encounters the living God4.
Near the end of his life Vincent told his followers: Some day the poor people will vie with us for paradise and will carry it off because there is a great difference between their manner of loving God and ours. Their love, like that of Our Lord, is practiced in suffering, humiliations, work, and conformity to God’s good pleasure. And how is our shown — if we have any? (CCD:XII:88).
Vincent de Paul (and the members of the Vincentian Family) have had the experience of being evangelized by the poor … through the instrumentality of the poor they have learned the true gospel and the true faith. They have no greater security in their life than to dedicate themselves to service on behalf of the poor and through the poor they await their own definitive salvation (cf. CCD:IX:199-200): we cannot better assure our eternal happiness than by living and dying in the service of the poor (CCD:III:384).
Pope Francis refers to Paul VI and reminds us that popular piety manifests a thirst for God which only the simple and the poor can know and it makes people capable of generosity and sacrifice even to the point of heroism, when it is a question of bearing witness to belief (Evangelii Gaudium, #123). He goes on to say: This is why I want a Church which is poor and for the poor. They have much to teach us. Not only do they share in the sensus fidei, but in their difficulties they know the sufferings of Christ. We need to let ourselves be evangelized by them. The new evangelization is an invitation to acknowledge the saving power at work in their lives and to put them at the centre of the Church’s pilgrim way. We are called to find Christ in them, to lend our voice to their causes, but also to be their friends, to listen to them, to speak for them and to embrace the mysterious wisdom which God wishes to share with us through them (Evangelii Gaudium, #198).
The mission becomes truly universal when the poor become protagonists and sharers in the blessings of the Kingdom5.
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- Jean Anouilh, Monsieur Vincent, [Translator’s Note: the English translation of the script of this film was given to me sometime ago but I have never been able to find that script online]. The film was directed by Maurice Cloche and Pierre Fr3esnay played the role of Vincent de Paul. According to the script, Vincent said: the poor will help me save the poor. According to the script, Vincent stated: the poor will help me save the poor.
- Margaret Flinton, DC, Louise de Marillac: Social Aspect of Her Work, translated from the original French edition by the author, New City Press, New Rochelle, NY, 1992, p. 122.
- Louise created a family environment in the Hospice and we know that Vincent himself went there to instruct the residents in the catechism.
- Jaime Corera, Diez Estudios Vicencianos, Editorial CEME, Salamanca, 1983, p. 39.
- One of the central purposes of mission is to bring people together in hearing the Gospel, in fraternal communion, in prayer and in the Eucharist. To live in “fraternal communion” (koinonia) means to be “of one heart and soul” (Acts 4:32), establishing fellowship from every point of view: human, spiritual and material. Indeed, a true Christian community is also committed to distributing earthly goods, so that no one is in want, and all can receive such goods “as they need” (cf. Acts 2:45; 4:35) (John Paul II, Redemptoris Missio, #26).