CHAPTER EIGHT: The Confraternities of Charity in the Parishes
Among the signs our Lord gave of his divine mission and his role as messiah and redeemer of the world, when the holy precursor John the Baptist sent two of his disciples to him, the last and principal one was Pauperes evangelizantur, that the poor would have the Gospel preached to them.1 As he said in another part of the Gospel, all his works gave testimony to who he was. The marvelous cures he wrought by his word were undeniable proofs of his identity as Son of God and savior. Nevertheless, after referring to giving sight to the blind, speech to the mute, hearing to the deaf, life to the dead, he added one more proof, more compelling than the others: Pauperes evangelizantur, the poor would have the Gospel preached to them.
Beyond any doubt charity is the true mark of the children of God, but the surest sign of the presence of true and perfect charity, free from all self-interest and personal satisfaction, is its exercise in favor of the poor. If it be permitted to extend this thought, added luster is given to the precious pearl of this virtue when it is given in service to the sick poor. In the double handicap which they suffer, poverty and sickness, their corporal and spiritual needs are tended to; their body is given the food and medicine it requires, and their souls the consolation they need. In these conditions charity shines forth even more than usual, because of the benefits it confers, the efforts it demands, and the natural repugnances which ordinarily have to be overcome in these situations.
The corporal and spiritual help to the poor, especially to the sick and afflicted among them, allows us to appreciate the degree to which Monsieur Vincent possessed this virtue of charity. We have already seen this in Book One2 and in Chapter One of Book Two. We spoke there about the missions and the great results they produced, especially for the poor. Besides all these benefits there is still another that we have put off until this chapter, the establishment of the Confraternities of Charity for the help of the sick poor, a creation of Monsieur Vincent. God used him for the creation of this great work, which cannot be praised enough, not only for the bodily relief of a multitude of the sick poor, but even more for the salvation of their souls. Were it not for him, in many places they would have lived and died abandoned. They were often in danger of being lost were it not for the spiritual help he gave them, especially in preparing them to die a happy death.
We appreciate the charity of those who contributed to the support of the hospital for receiving and treating the sick poor. If some rich person were to use part of his wealth to found one, this would undoubtedly be approved and applauded by everyone. What do we think then of a poor priest, working alone, who was able to do what the richest and most powerful with all their resources were not able to accomplish? I do not speak of the founding of one hospital, or of ten, or of a hundred, but of a thousand and more. Making something out of nothing, with five small loaves feeding thousands of people, this is something that only God could do. Surely this would be seen as an undertaking beyond human power. We can say that Monsieur Vincent was this poor priest whom God used to work this marvel, not in building hospitals to receive the sick poor, but in establishing the Confraternities of Charity for their care. This was something even more advantageous for them than the hospitals would have been, as they themselves agree.
If, for example, fifty or sixty sick poor of a parish in Paris, helped by the Confraternity of Charity, were asked if they would have preferred to be taken to the Hotel Dieu, the answer would have been unanimous: they appreciated being left in their poor homes under the constant care of the members of the Confraternity of Charity.
We saw in Book One3 the origin of these Confraternities of Charity, in 1617 when Monsieur Vincent was at Chatillon in Bresse. It was there he began for the first time to gather some good and virtuous women to help the sick poor of the parish, to provide the food and medicines and spiritual help for them in their own homes, without separating husband and wife, or mothers and children.
This great servant of God had never heard anyone speak of this way of helping the sick poor, as he himself has told us. The thought came to him only on the occasion of finding some sick persons in his parish deprived of every resource, and he wondered how he might help out. His charity was so cordial and tender toward the poor that his ingenuity suggested this novel and saintly innovation. He started it as an experiment but its immediate success showed decidedly that the inspiration had come from God. He blessed this first Confraternity of Charity so manifestly that it has continued for more than fifty years, even though Monsieur Vincent was called away to other duties and occupations and could not give it his personal attention.
Since the beginning of this first Confraternity, it pleased the bounty of God to shower so many graces upon the father of the poor that he was able to spread this holy institution in innumerable parishes throughout France, Italy and elsewhere. His spiritual sons continue to this day in the parishes where missions are given, inside and outside the kingdom, to organize these Confraternities of Charity with the approbation of the Holy See, and the permission of the prelates and pastors of the locality.
Someone may ask how these Confraternities of Charity are supported, since most have no source of fixed income. It would have to be admitted that indeed they are founded, but only on the Providence of God. He has not allowed any one of these confraternities which has faithfully followed the regulations to be cited shortly, to lack what was needed to serve the sick. Generally, a collection would be taken up in the parish on the occasion of the establishment of the first confraternity. From this a small income, smaller or larger depending on the place, would be generated. Also, a collection of furniture, clothing, and household utensils was organized. Collections were taken up in the churches on Sundays and feasts. This proved enough to support the work, above all when the officers followed the directions they had received for the good government of the Confraternity, and when the pastors of the parishes supported the undertaking.
Since good order preserves things as they should be, and since as the apostle says, all that comes from God is well ordered, Monsieur Vincent felt it desirable from the very beginning of these confraternities that some organization of them was necessary. He drew up a set of regulations, therefore, which we append to this chapter. They were followed wherever the confraternities were established. It is written in simple and direct language, in few articles, but enough to show the truly Christian prudence of its author.
Monsieur Vincent planned originally to set up these confraternities in the villages of the countryside, for the care of the sick poor where the need was usually most pressing. However, some noble ladies with lands in the diocese of Paris or elsewhere, and who had hosted the missions, saw the Confraternity of Charity established with happy results for the sick poor. They realized that many similar cases existed in Paris, and believed these same Confraternities of Charity should be formed in the parishes of Paris and in the outlying districts. Many of the poorer families could barely manage on the wages from their work. When sickness overtook the breadwinner, the family fell into great distress. Many through shame, or for some other reason, did not want to go to the Hotel Dieu, but this left them and their families in utter desolation.
These women spoke to the pastors, and they in turn consulted Monsieur Vincent. He agreed to help in setting up these confraternities in the parishes which needed them. They have continued there to our own day, greatly blessed by God. The Ladies of Charity of each parish were independent of the others, but for twenty-five or thirty years have provided the same care and concern for the sick poor as was done in the Confraternities of Charity in the country places, and sometimes even more. At their own expense the women took turns in preparing soup and meat and other needed items for the sick of the parish.
Since that time, in imitation of those of Paris, these confraternities have spread to many other cities of the kingdom, and even into the villages and to foreign countries, so that today their number can hardly be counted. We can well imagine how thousands of poor people are helped every day, in body and soul. After God, they owe so much of this charitable help, and for many the healthy state of their souls and perhaps even their eternal salvation, to the charity of this great servant of God. By this alone, not considering all his other activities, he has earned a glorious crown in heaven, ever increasing because of those who are saved daily because of him. On earth he merited the title of Father of the Poor, and this will draw down upon all his enterprises an infinity of graces and blessings.
REGULATIONS OF THE CONFRATERNITIES OF CHARITY
The Confraternity of Charity is established to honor our lord Jesus Christ and his holy mother, to help in body and in soul the sick poor of the place where it is established, by providing food and drink and medicines in time of sickness. Spiritually, these persons are helped to receive the sacraments of penance, holy eucharist, and extreme unction. Those about to die are helped to leave this world in good conscience. Those who are cured are helped to resolve to lead a good life in the future.
The confraternity shall be composed of a certain limited number of women and girls, with the consent of their husbands or of their fathers and mothers, as the case may be. They shall hold an election, in the presence of the pastor, for three officers, every two years. This shall take place on the day after Pentecost. The first of these officers shall be called the superior or director; the second, treasurer or first assistant; the third, the storekeeper, or second assistant. These three officers shall have the complete direction of the confraternity.
With the advice of the pastor, a pious and charitable layman of the parish shall be elected to serve as procurator.
The superior shall take care to see that the present regulations are observed and that all members of the confraternity do their duty well. She shall accept the sick poor of the parish for treatment, and shall discharge them with the advice of the other officers.
The second person shall serve as a counselor to the superior. She shall keep the funds of the confraternity in a safe, locked with a lock having two different keys, of which she shall hold one, and the other shall be held by the superior. She shall keep no money on her person, except a single ecu, for current expenses. She shall give an account at the end of two years to the newly elected officers, to the other members of the confraternity, in the presence of the pastor and interested parishioners.
The storekeeper shall also be a member of the council of the superior. She shall keep the linens of the confraternity, wash and mend them, and shall supply the sick poor with needed items upon orders of the superior. Like the treasurer, she shall give an account of her services at the end of the two years.
The procurator shall hold the funds raised in the collections in the parish and the gifts from individuals. He shall furnish receipts for gifts. He shall provide for a storehouse and see that it be well supplied with needed items. He shall aid in drawing up the treasurer’s report as needed. He shall keep a record book in which these present regulations will be copied, and the act of foundation of the confraternity shall be included. This same record should hold the names of the women and girls accepted as members of the confraternity, the day of their joining, and the day of their death; the election of officers shall be recorded; the summary of the reports of the officers shall be included; the names of the sick poor helped by the confraternity, the day of their reception, the day of their death or discharge, and in general, all that has happened that is most significant or remarkable.
Each day the sisters of the confraternity shall serve the sick poor accepted by the superior, bringing to their homes the food and drink prepared for them. They shall all take their turn at seeking alms at church and in the homes of the people, on Sundays and the main solemn feasts. They shall deposit these alms with the treasurer, and give a report to the procurator of what was collected. They shall gather for a mass at the altar of the confraternity the first or third Sunday of the month, at which they shall communicate, after going to confession, if this is convenient. On this same day they shall attend the procession held between vespers and compline, when the litanies of our Lord or of our Blessed Mother are chanted. They shall do the same each year on January 14, feast of the name of Jesus, their patron.
They shall mutually cherish each other as those called and bound by the love of our savior, often visiting and consoling one another in their afflictions and sicknesses. They shall attend as a group the wake of anyone who shall have died, and receive communion for her intention at a high mass to be celebrated for her.
They shall do the same for the pastor and for their procurator, if they should die. In the same way they should attend in a body the funeral services for any of the sick poor they had cared for, and have a low mass said for the repose of their soul. All the above shall not bind under pain of sin, either mortal or venial.
At each meal for the poor they shall give the sick enough bread to eat, and five ounces of veal or lamb, a soup and a demi-setier of wine in the Paris measure.
On fast days, besides bread, the sick should also be given wine, and soup, two eggs, and a bit of butter. For those unable to eat solid food, they should be given some bouillon, and some fresh eggs, four times a day. When death approaches, if there are no relatives to help, the sisters of the confraternity should offer this service.4