The Just Man Liveth by Faith

Francisco Javier Fernández ChentoVincentian FormationLeave a Comment

Author: William Hederman · Year of first publication: 1983 · Source: Colloque, Journal of the Irish Province of the Congregation of the Mission, no. 8.

Reprinted from EVANGELIZARE, February 1958

Estimated Reading Time:

Many of the saints are represented in painting and sculpture carrying their symbol. St John the Baptist has a lamb, St Peter carries the keys, St Anthony carries the Infant Jesus, St Therese has her roses and St Vincent de Paul has his hands full with little beggarly orphans. For an historian who has read of the place of St Vincent in the making of the seventeenth and following centuries his popular statue might invite a disapproving query. Why represent the founder of the Congregation of the Mission, the revolutionary Daughters of Charity, the seminaries and retreats for priests, the Ladies of Charity, the Tuesday Conferences, why present such a man with beggarly little children? While the art is some- times poor the idea meets with popular Catholic approval. Even in an age when the doctrine of the Mystical Body of Christ did not get its due prominence in the pulpit the Catholic instinct welcomed this teaching in the cheap plaster statues of St Vincent de Paul. These statues showed Vincent loving and serving the needy Christ in his little members. Christ in his little ones was the raison d’etre of Vincent’s foundation of priests, sisters and lay apostolate.

Vincent’s faith was not only deep but complete. His vision of Christ was not confined to the Mass, the tabernacle, sacraments and sacred scripture. He saw Christ in the bishops, frail as some were, in priests, ordinands, nuns, helpless sinners, beggars, criminals, lunatics and little orphans. It was the same Christ as that of the Eucharist though present in a different manner and state.

It was Christ-ruling in the bishops and civil authority. What one may be sometimes tempted to call his diplomatic prudence in speaking to bishops was fundamentally a deep reverence born of faith in Christ- ruling. Christ was exercising his authority in the person of the bishop as truly as he exercises his power in the sacred host. Knowing his great humility, how otherwise can we understand his accepting obedience from a whole congregation unless his great faith showed him Christ working in his unworthy self?

In addition to his obeying Christ in his superiors and ruling his subjects through Christ the greater part of his life was spent in serving the needy Christ, Christ in his little ones. His every action began and ended in Christ because his faith showed him Christ in everyone. St Patrick’s Breastplate, and likewise St Paul’s “For me to live is Christ”, stems from the same great faith. This view of Christ in all is summed up in a letter to a priest whose faith could have been stronger: “But though he (the Superior) were even better it is not so much on account of his virtues that you respect him but because he represents to you Our Lord and because Our Lord is in him to conduct you, as he is in the person of the poor to receive the alms of the rich; and thus, Sir, in opening your mind to him you open your mind to God”. In another place he says: “Our Lord takes to himself the contempt we entertain for persons who represent him”. The doctrine of the Mystical Body of Christ is one thing, its practice is another thing. Doctrine without example remains barren. Only when it is lived can others catch the flame. The life of Vincent makes the encyclical Mystici Corporis a burning light. He shows us today how to see Christ in the refugee, the emigrant, the proletariat, the teddy-boy and all the needy. Men need this model today. On the conti- nent Communists accuse the clergy of favouring the rich at the expense of the poor. Some outstanding priests who have suffered in the concen- tration camps have admitted that there is a foundation for the charge.

Many humanitarians still admire Vincent, but not for the right reason. Monsieur Vincent was a film of brilliant artistry both in acting and pho- tography, but it was like Hamlet without the Prince; the faith of Vincent was absent. It showed a brave man fighting social injustices, just as any good Communist fights. No wonder it could be used as Communist propaganda!

Even among Christians there are some who reject what they call “charity”, saying they wish to be loved purely for their own sakes. Perhaps they have been the victims of “cold charity” which can give alms to a beggar to make him move on and not because he is Christ. No Christian would throw a coin at Christ in his natural body, yet if his faith is weak he could throw it at him in a beggar.

Since all men are members of Christ, or destined to be such, it is unrealistic to love them for themselves alone, for they are not themselves alone. One never loves a hand merely for its own sake but because it belongs to a person. Everyone is, or at least is destined to be, a member of Christ. Just as the person makes the hand valuable so Christ makes the person lovable; that is why St. Vincent had beggars dine with him and kept fools at St Lazare.

It was this same vision of the needy Christ that could make Vincent firm and severe. Saint-Cyran had lost the faith, at least to all appear- ances, and Vincent was patience personified with him; he would not quench the smoking flax. But when it was a question of Jansenism attacking the divine life of faith in souls he was severe. His own com- panions who handled the poison were banished from the Little Company. To do battle for Truth and Justice was noble; to fight for the salvation of souls was supernatural; to obey God’s law with love was sanctity; but to save Christ’s life in souls gave charity a special tone of tenderness and strength such as a mother’s love for her child. He reflected the Immaculate Heart in her motherly love.

In his conferences to the Daughters of Charity on the care of found- lings he returns more than half a dozen times to this truth of helping the needy Christ: “If you care for them, seeing God in them, you will say that the pain entailed will be very sweet to you and easy to bear;… reflect that the only way to overcome self when difficulties arise is to see God in these little ones and to think he is saying to you ‘My daughter, the trouble you are taking in these little ones is so pleasing to me that I feel its effects, and the services you render them I regard as done to myself”. And again: “Accustom yourself to see God in them and to serve them in God and for his love”. This is the vision which evokes such tender and strong love.

St Vincent loved Christ as his Creator and Redeemer, as his God and his All. He finds no contradiction in being carried through life in the arms of his heavenly Father while at the same time he carries and defends in his own arms the needy Christ. That sense of serene pater- nity and that identification with Providence in Vincent comes from his constant childlike dependence on his Father. Everything, even the docile mules outside St Lazare, reminded him of his dependence on God. Those who trust in Our Father’s Providence are rewarded in turn with a share in that active Providence.

It is interesting to recall the circumstances of St Vincent’s call to the service of the Mystical Body of Christ. After a year or more of great anguish (troubled mind and temptation against the faith) Vincent vowed to spend the rest of his life in the service of the poor. The relief brought by this resolution was immediate; he was never afterwards tempted against the faith. The women he most influenced experienced a similar relief. St Louise de Marillac suffered severe temptations against the faith, such as doubting the immortality of the soul. She, too, was cured suddenly. While praying she heard a voice telling her that she would belong to a community vowed to the service of the poor.

Such a radical experience in two lives must have shown Vincent, in a way no theological treatise could have shown him, that peace of mind was to be had in serving the needy Christ. Theodore Maynard, speaking of Vincent’s cure of Louise’s neurosis, says: “Many of the world’s most notable achievements have been brought about by such people (former neurotics). This Vincent instinctively understood. Genius has, time after time, anticipated the conclusions of modern psychology”. Frank Duff, in his book The Spirit of the Legion, repeats what Vincent de Paul did three hundred years ago: “If neurotic sufferers could be induced to minister to some other sorts of suffering (such as could be found in a Cancer Hospital etc.) it must have a counter-balancing influence, sometimes even a decisive one. In other words, if you could bring your neurosis subject into membership of the Legion or kindred organisation you would have brought him no small part of the road towards amelio- ration”. There is a new race of the poor today; they have the material wealth but not the peace of mind. Worry has never been more prevalent than in our century. Vincent has the remedy: “…reflect that the only way to overcome self when difficulties arise is to see God in those little ones and to think he is saying to you The trouble you are taking with these little creatures is so pleasing to me that I feel its effects’”.

St Francis of Assisi, who certainly had no worries, experienced a similar conversion to that of St Vincent. Francis in his Testament wrote how he was converted: “In the time of my sinful life nothing disgusted me more than to see lepers. It was the Lord who made me go to them. I did his bidding and everything was changed for me so that I found sweet and easy what previously had been painful and impossible”. St Vincent and St Louise could make those words their own. Actually St Vincent said those identical words: “What! My Lord has called me to serve him in the person of the poor. If you look at the poor they will inspire disgust; see Jesus Christ in them and you will be attracted and charmed”. Both confess that the initiative came from God: “I did his bidding”; “My Lord called me”.

Priests’should direct souls to the needy Christ. It is not enough to tell them to pray and to offer up their cross. Vincent, Louise and Francis did that, and something more. They took that step which “changes everything”; “My Lord has called me to serve Jesus in the service of the poor”. Priests must direct souls into the various forms of the Lay Apostolate and Catholic Action, for Christ has called them again through his Vicar, Pius XII:

“That such a love, solidly grounded and undivided, may abide and increase in our souls we must accustom ourselves to see Christ in the Church. It is Christ who lives in the Church, who teaches, governs, sanctifies through her. It is Christ too who mani- fests himself differently in different members of his society. Once the faithful try to live in this spirit of conscious faith they will not only pay due honour and reverence to the superior members of this Mystical Body… but they will take to their hearts those members who are the objects of Our Saviour’s special love, the weak, the mean, the wounded and the sick, who are in need of natural or supernatural assistance; the children whose innocence is so easily exposed to danger nowadays…; and finally the poor, in helping whom we touch, as it were, through his supreme mercy, the very person of Jesus Christ” (Mystici Corporis Christi).

In his conference on charity, given to his fellow-priests on May 30, 1650, St Vincent reveals the hidden life-source of his activity. Vincent speaks at times in the first person plural; change it to the singular and you have Vincent speaking of his own vocation. He makes it quite clear that divine faith is its source: “The love of the neighbour for the love of God is so lofty a matter that human reasoning cannot grasp it; light from on high is needed”. He explains what divine faith reveals about the neigh- bour: “All men are members of a mystical body; we are all members of one another. It has never been heard that one member did not share the pain of another”. He illustrates why we should weep or rejoice with our neighbour: “St John, speaking of our Lord and himself, says that the friend of the bridegroom is gladdened by his voice. Let us in the same way rejoice at the sound of our neighbour’s voice, rejoicing because he represents Our Lord to us; let us rejoice at his success and that he sur- passes ourselves in honour, esteem, talent and virtues”. He shows that because this faith is supernatural he must pray for it, and he bursts into a prayer, profound and universal, like the prayers of the Missal: “My Saviour, I no longer wish to see faults save in myself; grant that from this moment, enlightened by the light of your example, I may bear all men in my heart and suffer them in your strength; grant me the grace to do so, inflame me with your love”. He notes that he has a share in God’s Providence: “We have been chosen as instruments of his fatherly and boundless love which desires to be established in, and replenish, souls”. He is conscious that it is his double mission to love Christ in all men and to make all men love Christ: “It is true that I am sent not merely to love God but to have him loved”. Finally, he becomes so happy at the thought of his mission that he concludes his conference: “Saviour, how happy I am to be in a state of love for my neighbours, in a state that of itself calls you, cries out to you, implores you on his behalf. Grant to me the grace to know my happiness, truly to love this blessed state and to do all in my power that this virtue may reign in the Company now and forever, Amen”. A prayer of petition born of gratitude.

Jesus was Vincent’s treasure. He saw what some of us blind ones fail to see, this treasure hidden in the field of humanity. He sold all, self, to buy that field with its treasure. And because it was his treasure he did it “in his joy”. “The Kingdom of Heaven is like unto a treasure hid in the field, which a man findeth and covereth; and in his joy he goeth and selleth all that he hath and buyeth that field” (Mt. 13:44).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *