The Dynamism of St Vincent’s Works

Francisco Javier Fernández ChentoVincent de PaulLeave a Comment

Author: Eamonn Flanagan · Year of first publication: 1982 · Source: Colloque, Journal of the Irish Province of the Congregation of the Mission, no. 6.
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This article is made up mostly of reflections arising from two Spanish works on St Vincent: J M Ibáñez CM, Vicente de Paúl y los pobres de su tiempo (Vincent de Paul and the Poor of his Time), Salamanca 1977, to be referred to as Ibánez; and A Orcajo CM and M P Flores CM, San Vicente de Paúl, Volume 2 (Spirituality and selection of his writings), Madrid 1981. referred to as Orcajo-Flores.

Earlier this year I walked along the country road in southern France to the village called Saint-Vincent-de-Paul. In the local church stands the font where the infant Vincent was baptised 400 years ago. At this baptistery there arose the tiny spring from which a powerful stream of charity would flow, albeit gradually and with many laborious vicissitudes. Back in Ranquines one can see a reconstructed building in the style of St Vincent’s own birthplace which was located about this spot. The simplicity of his early years is somehow evoked amid the rafters and baked brick of Le Berceau. Inside, the walls are decked with maps and charts illustrating the great works and travels of the saint. In the fields close by the soil is cultivated by local men with shrewd, sharp features reminiscent of the Vincentian portraits. Dignity and humility show through in them as in the saint who originated here. The dignity is God’s, reflecting the inner glory of the human person, even the poorest. Humility searches for man’s true place before his Creator, and finds grace in weakness.

Power for St Vincent, like St Paul, is discovered and thrives in weakness. “My power is made perfect in weakness. I will all the more gladly boast of my weakness…, for when I am weak then I am strong” (2 Cor 12:9-10). The strength of God shining through the “weakness”, poverty and recognised need of St Vincent was the solid rock on which his spiritual life and all his works were founded. He wrote to Philippe Le Vacher in 1651:

God wishes good to be wrought as if by itself, without a person even thinking of it; thus was born the Congregation of the Mission; thus we began the missions and the exercises for the ordinands. Thus was the Company of the Daughters of Charity founded, as also that of the Ladies of Charity…; finally, that is how all our present works came into being. (IV 122-123)

The motive force behind St Vincent’s achievements is inscrutably wrapped in God’s loving power and in his plans. The dynamis of God was allowed to control his natural will and mind. Vincent, the man of faith, was given a vision proportionate to faith, and it is never completely analysed or intelligible in human terms. He himself saw the vision in the context of belief, and not as a complete programme like political strategists might see an economic plan. Economics and mundane realities would in their time find due recognition, but it was the noble providential outlook which always prevailed. Ultimately, human wisdom would have no place, but only the power of God, dynamis Theou (1 Cor 2:5).

To underline this unshakable conviction we find Vincent proposing a true response on our part to the active power of God. He recommends the following prayer to the Daughters of Charity: “O my Saviour, grant me the grace to love my own abjection, and never to seek to be esteemed but rather to love the most lowly exercises and the last place”1. This is not an expression of poor self-concept, so much deprecated today, and rightly so. It is rather a summons to authentic humility and to a discovery of our real selves, our better selves, to use Merton’s phrase, in the Saviour himself. Such a discovery of one’s riches in God (or true humility) is closely related to the works of charity which mostly popularise St Vincent de Paul. He adds in the same discourse to the Sisters: “Humility preserves charity. A sister who has humility is not out of harmony with others, for humility begets charity”2.

Key formative events

In trying to look at the central dynamism of any saint it must be imperative to seek for some occasion or set of circumstances which proved crucial for his or her spiritual development. Vincent the young priest, was no saint, though a man of integrity. His pursuit of a benefice to ensure a passably well-off life characterises his early ordained years. He reached Paris in 1609. If the Landes gave him birth it was the capital which set him on the “narrow road” of sanctity. In the first Parisian years two events, or rather Vincent’s response to them, had a critical and transforming effect on his life. Both events ploughed deeply into the being of the saint and searched out the areas where his true affections lay, nudging and attracting him to radical decisions. Both were agonising and humiliating and placed him in absolute poverty of spirit, in utter human incapacity before the mystery of evil and the unfathomable trials permitted by God for his purification. Not long after his arrival in Paris he was wrongly accused of a theft. He was expelled from his lodgings and defamed before certain influential people, including Cardinal de Bérulle, by then his spiritual guide. Yet Vincent kept his peace, was patient and accepted the grinding humiliation until at last the storm passed.

This affliction of at least six months duration introduced him into the ranks of the really poor, and he himself would later confess: “God sometimes wishes to test souls and therefore permits such things to happen” (XI 337). Scarcely had this trial ended, or perhaps it was still taking its course, when another, more refined and deeper, was offered to him. the former possessed an active quality in the sense that the subject had some control, but the latter was an interior purification of soul, a trial of faith, a passive purgation of the spirit. St Vincent was trying to help a doctor of theology who was in a most distressing temptation against faith and hope. As soon as this man was set free from his trial Vincent himself was assaulted by a similar temptation which lasted four years or more. The words of the Credo were his salvation in the midst of his darkness. He performed his priestly duties, prayed with fidelity. and began to visit the sick in the hospital beside where he lived. All this was of no avail for immediate relief, and the temptation continued unabated. It was only when St Vincent offered himself and his whole life to the poor that all his doubts of faith disappeared never to return. This was the Lord’s will, the call to a certain area among mankind, at least broadly understood. His time and money were not enough in this adorable, loving, plan of Providence, but a definitive unconditional oblation of himself was necessary. I cannot say if at first there was resistance in the young priest to the design God was portraying for him, but at least there had been uncertainty about the exact way ahead, particularly before his positive surrender. It would be normal enough if there was some human resistance to a plan so all- absorbing. Other great ones before him had surely felt resistance in the light of the divine fire of love, calling them to a higher life. St Paul was told to let go his grip: “It is hard for you to go on kicking against the goad”, i.e. to go on offering resistance (Acts 26:14). St Ignatius wavered between chivalry and sanctity, and St Teresa felt torn asunder as she left her home and made her way across the city to enter the Carmel of Avila3. It may well be that St Vincent was feeling for a time the Lord’s invitation to abandon all and that his darkness of faith was associated in some way with this. At all events when he did make the generous surrender of self a great clarity of belief enfolded him4.

These events gave the saint a remarkable insight into the psychology and real positive value of temptation. He said in later life about severe temptation, even against faith: “We should not ask God to free us from it but that we make good use of it and that he save us from falling” (XI 148-149). But also from these experiences he felt in a prolonged way his need of God who alone can give the victory, with the addition of our own personal co-operation (cf I 510, III 407). St Vincent had thus passed through the fire of intense testing. Wisdom was harvested from the experiences. Then the whole rich terrain of his personality was opened to growth. The great exploits of charity and evangelisation would follow but they could never be accomplished by somebody of mediocre spiritual calibre. That is why it is necessary to stress the man himself and his own relationship with God who led his faithful, prayerful, servant forward to cultivate his neglected vineyard. Once Vincent had submitted his unreserved affirmation to his Lord he was thereafter the yielding clay in the hands of the omnipotent Potter. Bérulle was his closest guide in the years 1609-17 and along with him the saint learned to “confront himself, to distrust the illusions of nature, but above all to discover the meaning of his own priesthood and the sacerdotal mission of Jesus Christ”5. Clearly he was gradually but profoundly maturing from his darkest hours and working the lesson into the very fibres of his spiritual existence. This period of gestation, so to speak, was most valuable for assimilation, for prayer, for discernment. A precipitate rush into activity could have produced a stillborn saint.

The darkness enlightens

The night of the faith trials had given way to a new personal enrichment in St Vincent. He was now in possession of a great light and soon it would be allowed to shine on the spiritual and material indigence of his neighbour. In 1617 along with some other priests he preached a mission to the country people at Folleville and spent several months evangelising in the villages of Picardy. This was a time of discovery, for the saint felt an inner impulse to seek his way to God in the footsteps of the poor, whatever the modalities of realisation might be in the long run. Bérulle, his director, approved of this and then suggested he go as Parish Priest to Châtillon-les-Dombes near Lyon. It was here that St Vincent spoke from the pulpit calling the people to bring aid to a destitute family. He himself visited the family and noted the generosity of the help provided. He had found more than a poor household, he had come face to face with the living Christ in the poor. The specific vocation of Vincent was now becoming more clearly focused. Folleville had crystalised the ideal of the Church renewed through and through by means of evangelisation with the word and a clergy reformed in the spirit of their vocation. Châtillon reinforced an inner predilection towards those with little or none of this world’s advantages, “the weak and little ones”, a love of whom is a certain sign of divine authenticity since there is nothing humanly attractive about them, not having riches, esteem or visible beauty. St Vincent goes to the heart of things when he says “Oh yes. Sisters, the poor are our masters. Therefore you should treat them with sweetness and cordiality, reflecting “… that God has created your Company for this purpose” (IX 119). And he exhorted his priests that following the example of Jesus and the saints they ought to take care of the poor (cf XII 87, XI 202), with a reminder that if our love is strong other workers will join in. “attracted by the perfume of a great charity” as he wrote to Etienne Blatiron in 1647 (III 257).

The poor are “our masters” like the Master himself who lives in them (Mt 25), and so the one who serves them is being favoured with a grace and has no reason to boast. Again, the Lord leads, his power prevails, and he loves through us. The doctrine of the vine and the branches takes on a particular significance (Jn 15). The providential God does not neglect his children and those he chooses to do his work may rightly depend on his goodness to accompany them. “You were thinking that all was lost, but as it was God’s goodness that gave its beginnings and progress to the Charity we must hope that he will continue to maintain and perfect it”6. This caring love of God brings forth a response of humble dependent love from us. Vincent expressed this to Louise de Marillac: “It is not for God one is concerned if one is worried in his service. God is love and wants us to go to him by way of love”7.

The sun never sets

“The light shines in the darkness” and it was too powerful for the darkness to extinguish. The same light unveils God’s truth for all peoples (Lk 2), and he is the One to reign for ever (Lk 1:33). If the cosmic sun did not set on certain former empires of the world neither does the love of Jesus stop shining on his brothers and sisters everywhere and for all time. And the life and work of St Vincent de Paul and his followers are a great incarnational channel of that Sun which always shines. In the above pages I have looked at a few aspects of the many-faceted “immortal diamond” which is the humble man from the Landes. Vincent’s love for the poor and his service to the priesthood were unquestionable. Along with his quest for peace and God’s reign in all hearts these were his most typical fields of labour. Always, however, even within the parameters mentioned, the saint was circumspect and prudent and was ever reluctant to assume a new responsibility without the clear indication of the Lord’s will. A case in point is the invitation to assist in the work of Madame Goussault for the sick poor of the Hôtel-Dieu. He asked for time to reflect and after reflection he felt that he would be “putting his sickle into another’s harvest”. Only on the special plea of the archbishop of Paris did he accede to the request8. Of course when a work was discerned as divinely ordained for him then his whole heart was devoted to it with a paramount stress on the right perspective. He says to the Sisters looking after the foundlings:

“Only the love of God impels the Daughters of Charity to take care of these children” (IX 133). That is the love of God revealed in Jesus Christ (Jn 15:9). The God who first loved us asks us to love in return, and Jesus models for us this ineffable yearning of the human soul. The fundamental option of love, if authentic, has to lead to many others (Jn 15:10). No person could have realised this better than Vincent. With resonances of Paul he exclaims in a letter to Antoine Portail in 1635: “Remember that we must live in Jesus Christ by the life of Jesus Christ…, and that in order to die like Jesus Christ we must live as Jesus Christ lived” (1295). There, one might say, is the total vision of life for a Vincentian. In the following words one can find a hint of Bérulle’s “religion towards the Father”, but tinged by Vincent with a Salesian affective-effective love towards God and mankind. In them there is a perception of the Saviour’s life as an act of obedience and continual love:

His humiliations were nothing but love; his work was love; his sufferings love, his prayers love, and all his interior and exterior exercises were nothing but repeated acts of love. His love gave him a great contempt for the spirit of the world, a disesteem for possessions, pleasures and honours. (XI 119)

In a real sense St Vincent caught this Johannine-Pauline vision of Jesus. The saint’s love for God became flesh in the profundity of his prayer life, in the “complacent love” he interiorly enjoyed and radiated from his person to enlighten and uplift those to whom his Master sent him.


The man of great works whose horizons were boundless reaching far away even to missionary fields was a man who related all external activity to an awareness of God’s providence and will for him. God’s will was always first and the works a consequence, not an end in themselves. This will of God was something to which Vincent was attuned by a rich prayer life and a contemplative world-view in which all created things were seen from a divine standpoint. He saw interior prayer as “a conversation of the soul with God in which God speaks interiorly to the soul what he wishes it to know and do, and in which the soul speaks to God …” (IX 419). In prayer he found knowledge of God’s ways and signs of discerning how they should be followed. Following God’s will, just as discovering it, is for St Vincent a whole way of life in which Jesus is his strength and exemplar. The dynamism of St Vincent’s works is paradoxically distilled from the chalice of humiliation, and possibly of disgrace: “our life must be hidden in Jesus Christ” in order that our sorrow may be turned into pure joy9. His attachment to Christ was the unfailing fountain giving him in his lowliness an enormous measure of love and fruitfulness in a perennial stream.

  1. Leonard (trans): Conferences of St Vincent de Paul to the Sisters of Charity, London 1938-40, Vol IV p 146.
  2. ibid 147.
  3. The Book of her Life (Autobiography), chapter 4.
  4. Coste: The Life and Labours of St Vincent de Paul, London 1934-35, Vol I p49.
  5. Orcajo-Flores p 59.
  6. Orcajo-Flores, p 301 (Letter to Sr Marguerite Chétif, 24 May 1660).
  7. From two separate letters of about 1629-30, (168,186).
  8. Cf Ibánez p 139.
  9. Orcajo-Flores p 243 (from the Collection for the Beatification Process).

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