SECTION TWO: His Special Charity Towards the Poor
After seeing Monsieur Vincent’s charity in general, and some examples of this virtue in his life, we must now consider in greater detail his charity towards various groups of people. The first of these are the poor, for whom he had a tender love and a paternal care. If we consider his life, especially after he dedicated himself to God as a priest, it was a constant exercise of charity towards the poor, and his main works and most noted enterprises were in their favor. For them he founded various hospitals, established the Confraternities of Charity in so many places, and began the Daughters of Charity with their special mission indicated in their name, Servants of the Sick Poor. In their favor he held many fundraising meetings, which obliged his followers to undertake numerous trips. He used watchful care, and did everything he could think of to contribute to their help or service. We can say that he founded the Congregation of the Mission to evangelize the poor. He often used to say to his missionaries, “We are priests of the poor. God has chosen us for them. They are our chief duty, all the rest is just secondary.”1
In short, it seemed that the chief concern of this charitable priest was to serve the poor. This was the thing which usually occupied his mind or moved his heart. He carried the poor in his heart, and their sufferings touched him deeply. Knowing their needs and miseries, he felt it keenly when he could see no way to help them.
On one occasion, while walking with one of his confreres in the city, he spoke about the bad weather and crop failure which threatened the poor with famine and death.
I worry about our Company, but to tell you the truth, not so much as I do about the poor. If we need to, we could ask for help from our other houses or appeal to the vicars in the parishes. But where can the poor turn? Where can they go? This is my worry and my sorrow. I am told that the peasants say they can live as long as they have their crops. Once the crops are gone, their only recourse is to retire to their graves and bury themselves alive. O God, what extreme misery! What remedy is there?
Another time, speaking to his confreres about the poor, he said:
God loves the poor, and thus surely he must love those who love and serve them. When we also love someone, we love his friends and servants. The little Company of the Mission strives to serve the poor tenderly. God loves them so much, and so we have reason to hope that because of them God will love us as well. We then have, my brothers, a new reason to serve them. We should seek out the poorest and most abandoned. We must recognize before God that they are our lords and masters, and that we are unworthy to render them our small favors.2
Another time, while speaking with two highly placed priests, he said something which should not be forgotten: “‘Those who love the poor in life will have nothing to fear in death, as I have seen on many occasions myself.’ Because of this he tried to teach a love of the poor to those who were afraid of death.”3
In one of his letters, speaking of the death of a virtuous priest,4 he remarked:
His death was in keeping with his life. He was committed to carrying out the good pleasure of God’s will from the beginning of his sickness to the end with no change in this sentiment. He had always lived in fear of death, but from the beginning of his last sickness he lost all fear. He even faced death with happiness, for he remembered what I had once said to him: “God takes away the fear of dying from those who have generously exercised charity towards the poor in their lives, even if during their lifetime they had always lived in this fear.”5
Monsieur Vincent’s love of the poor produced two effects in his heart. One was his great sense of compassion for their indigence and misery, for he had a most tender affection for them. For example, when the litany of Jesus was said, and he came to the words Jesu pater pauperum [“Jesus, father of the poor”], he pronounced them in a way that showed the sentiments of his heart. When people would speak to him about some particular misery or necessity of the poor, he would sigh, close his eyes, and hunch his shoulders like a person weighed down with sufferings. His face would reveal the deep suffering by which he shared in the misfortunes of the poor.
Once, in speaking about compassion for the poor, he said to his confreres:
When we go to visit the poor we should so identify with them that we share their sufferings. We should have the same attitude as the great apostle who said6 omnibus omnia factus sum, I make myself all to all, so completely that the words of the prophet would not apply to us: Sustinui qui simul mecum contristaretur, et non fuit,7 I looked for someone to grieve with me in my sufferings, but found none. We must open our hearts so that they become responsive to the sufferings and miseries of the neighbor. We should pray God to give us a true spirit of mercy, which is in truth the spirit of God. The Church says that it is the nature of God to be merciful and to confer this spirit upon us. Ask this grace of God, my brothers, that he may give us this spirit of compassion and mercy, and that he may so fill us with it that as soon as anyone sees a missionary, he immediately will think, there goes a person full of compassion. Think for a moment of how much we ourselves stand in need of mercy, we who must exercise it towards others. We must bring this mercy everywhere, and endure everything for the sake of compassion.
How happy our confreres in Poland are. They have suffered so much because of the wars there, not to mention the plague, all for the sake of relieving, helping, and consoling the poor! How happy are these missionaries. Cannons, fire, armies, or the plague could not dislodge them from Warsaw. The misery and sufferings of others kept them where they were. They persevered and still persevere amid such perils and sufferings, only to show mercy. Oh, how happy they are to use this precious moment of their lives to exercise mercy! I say, “this moment,” for our entire lives are but a moment, soon gone. Alas, the seventy-six years of my life seem now only a momentary dream. What remains now is only the regret that I have used this time so poorly. Think of what unhappiness we will have at the moment of our death if we have not used this brief time of our lives to show mercy to others. Brothers, be merciful towards everyone. Never meet a poor person without seeking to console him, or an uneducated person without seeking to help him understand, in a few words, what he must believe and do to assure his salvation. O Savior, do not let us abuse our vocation. Do not withdraw from this Company the spirit of mercy. What would become of us if you did so? Give us this, then, O Lord, together with the spirit of meekness and humility.8
On another occasion he said:
The Son of God could not have experienced a sense of compassion in the glorious state in which he existed in heaven from all eternity. He became man to share our miseries. For us to reign with him in heaven we should share with others his compassion for his people on earth. Missionaries above all other priests should be filled with this spirit of compassion. They are obliged by their state and their vocation to serve the most miserable, the most abandoned, and those suffering most from corporal or spiritual ills. First, they should feel in their hearts the sufferings of their neighbor. Second, this sentiment ought to appear in their features and their whole attitude, after the example of our Lord who wept over Jerusalem because of the calamity about to come upon the city. Third, we should use compassionate language to make our neighbors aware that we truly have their interests and sufferings at heart. Lastly, we must help them as much as we can to bring about a partial or complete end to their sufferings, for the hand must be directed as much as possible by the heart.9
The second effect of this love for the poor was that he always helped them as much as was in his power. He became a sort of general overseer of help to the poor wherever they were, even in distant regions. He took great care to relieve their sufferings, and to provide food, clothing, shelter, and the other necessities of life. This is why other charitable persons willingly sent him their alms to distribute. He was so careful in this service that he always gave away more than he had received.
In this spirit a noble and virtuous priest who lived in a community in Paris and who had a large sum at his disposal for the relief of the poor, continued to send money to the Congregation of the Mission to distribute in remote provinces, even after the death of Monsieur Vincent at Saint Lazare. He said, “Monsieur Vincent was the true father of the poor and had a special grace and spirit to come to their aid. He has left this spirit as a precious heritage to his Congregation, who have followed his example and who walk in the footsteps of this worthy father.”
We will not repeat here what was said elsewhere about Monsieur Vincent’s activities on those occasions when the Seine overflowed. He took special care to have the bakery at Saint Lazare make bread, using the wheat of his community. It would then be brought by boat to a nearby town named Gennevilliers, about two leagues from Paris. There, the poor people, assailed by the flood waters and by famine, were reduced almost to utter ruin. They received this opportune and abundant help from the charity of this father of the poor. Two brothers were sent to distribute this food despite the danger. They distributed the bread with the help of the local pastor, who was aware of the needs of each family. This charitable service continued for as long as the flood waters lasted.
We will pass over in silence a great number of similar charitable activities of Monsieur Vincent in favor of the poor. One, however, would have been forgotten, as were many others, were it not for a document, written in his own hand, which he had to write during wartime to enable a wagon from Saint Lazare to pass through the gates of Paris. This wagon contained food destined for the poor suffering peasants, but the guards demanded proof of where it had come from, and to whom it was consigned. This certificate was written in these terms:
I, the undersigned, the superior of the Congregation of the Mission, affirm to all concerned that I have learned from some pious persons that half the people of Palaiseau are ill, and that ten or twelve die every day. I have been asked to send them some priests for the corporal and spiritual help of these people, afflicted these past twenty days by an occupation of the army. We have sent four priests and a physician there to help them. Since the vigil of the feast of Corpus Christi we have sent every day, except for one or two, sixteen large loaves of white bread, fifteen pints of wine, and yesterday, some meat. The priests have testified to the need for some flour and a hogshead of wine for the sick of the said town and surrounding areas. I have today sent a wagon drawn by three horses, carrying four setiers of flour, two half hogsheads of wine, for the relief of the sick poor of Palaiseau and surrounding villages. Testifying to these facts, I have signed this, at Saint-Lazare-lez-Paris, this fifth day of June, 1652. Signed, Vincent de Paul, Superior.10
This document lets us catch a glimpse of Monsieur Vincent’s charity. He sent four priests and a doctor to aid the poor and sick of Palaiseau, instead of the single priest he had been asked to send originally. While not forgetting the spiritual welfare of these poor souls, he first relieved their hunger and looked after their health. He did so at once, with all possible diligence. He sent his priests, provisions, horses from the community, and not waiting for other alms, he sent money from the community treasury amounting to 663 livres. This deprived him of all the community’s reserve, so that he had to ask the Duchess d’Aiguillon if she might help to relieve this pressing need. She was not able to do so, but instead called a meeting of the Ladies of Charity at her home to see what could be done. He wrote her:
I have sent another priest and a brother, and fifty more livres. The pestilence is so virulent that the first four priests have all taken sick, and also the brother who accompanied them. I had to bring them back here, where two of them are still very sick. O Madame, what a harvest to gather for heaven at this time when this misery is so close to our very doors! As scripture says, the coming of the Son of God was the downfall of some and the redemption of many. In some way, we can say the same of this war, which causes the loss of so many. Yet God uses this war to give his grace, salvation, and glory to others. We have reason to hope that you are in that number, as I pray to our Lord that you are.11
This charitable intervention by Monsieur Vincent to help the poor of Palaiseau was also the occasion when he helped the people of Etampes and other places near Paris, with the help of the Ladies of Charity of Paris, and some other persons of great piety. All these persons gained great merit by their involvement in these works of mercy, and their memory will never die.
This has been but a small sample of the charitable attempts of Monsieur Vincent to aid the poor as much as he could and in every way he could. When he did all that he could, and yet saw that his own resources and those of his friends were still insufficient, his last resource was the queen mother. He did not want to make a nuisance of himself, for it was well known that she was generous in many other works of piety. Yet in the case of extreme necessity he would present her with the pressing needs of the poor, confident that he would get a hearing. He was never disappointed.
This charitable princess would open her arms, but even more, her heart, to help him. When she had money available she would give it to him. If money was lacking, she would give him other things to help out. Once she gave him a diamond worth seven thousand livres. Another time she gave him a beautiful set of earrings, which the Ladies of Charity sold for eighteen thousand livres. Although, through a sentiment of Christian humility, Her Majesty requested Monsieur Vincent not to reveal the source of his benefactions, he did not feel obliged to accede to her request. He said to her, “Madame, Your Majesty will please pardon me if I no longer keep secret such a marvelous example of charity. It is good, Madame, that all of Paris and even all of France should know of it. I feel obliged to speak of it wherever I go.”
Monsieur Vincent held this truth, that in helping the poor he should be partial towards the most abandoned. Following this maxim, he had a special love for abandoned children, since they were most in need and least able to help themselves. He had a tender love for these poor innocents, but it was as effective as it was affective. Speaking to his community once on this subject he said:
Is it not the duty of fathers to look after the needs of their children? Since God has put us in the place of their parents to save the lives of these children, to raise them, and to instruct them in saving knowledge, we must take care not to fail in a task so dear to him. After their own mothers have left them exposed on the doorsteps, if we too should neglect their care and education, what would become of them? Could we consent to see them all die, as used to happen in this great city of Paris?12
A well-respected person, aware of the efforts of Monsieur Vincent for these poor little creatures, and also aware of how even the most charitable ladies who had undertaken their care were losing heart because of the large expense involved, had this to say several years before Monsieur Vincent’s death: “God alone knows how many sighs and groans Monsieur Vincent raised to heaven in favor of these small children. Who can count the number of times he asked his Company to pray for them? Who can know his efforts to feed them as economically as possible? Who can tell of his care in these last years in having the Daughters of Charity visit the wet nurses in various villages? Or the visits by a brother for the same reason for more than six weeks in 1649?”
Once it was reported to him that a priest of the Congregation had complained that the care of these abandoned children caused the great poverty of the house at Saint Lazare. He charged that it was in difficult straits and in danger of complete ruin, all because the alms received for the upkeep of the house were being diverted to the care of these children. He said that their needs seemed greater and more pressing than those of the community, and that those who had been contributing to the upkeep of Saint Lazare could not support both the children and the Congregation.
Monsieur Vincent replied to these complaints:
God will forgive me this failing, which is in keeping with the sentiments of the Gospel. What a lack of faith it is to believe that by looking after these poor and abandoned children our Lord will take less care of us. Don’t forget, he has promised to repay a hundredfold whatever is done in his name. Since our loving Savior told his disciples to let the little children come to him, can we reject them or abandon them when they come to us? What kindness he showed to children. He went so far as to take them in his arms, and bless them with his hands. Did he not on that occasion give us this as a rule of salvation by showing us that we must do the same if we are to enter the kingdom of heaven? To love these children and to care for them is in some way to become their fathers. To see to the needs of these abandoned children is to replace their fathers and mothers, or rather God himself, who said that even if a mother should forget her child, he would never forget. If our Lord still lived among us on earth, and if he came across these abandoned children, do you think he would pass them by? It would offend his divine goodness even to have such a thought. We would be unfaithful to his grace if after having been chosen by Providence to provide the corporal care and spiritual good of these poor abandoned children we would desert them, all because they are causing us too much trouble.
- CED XI:133.
- CED XI:392-93.
- Louis de Chandenier and Monsieur de Blampignon. This account was given by Brother Robineau, the saint’s secretary.
- Jean de la Salle, one of his first companions, who died October 9, 1639, at age forty-one.
- CED I:595-97.
- 1 Cor 9:22.
- Ps 69:21.
- CED XI:340-42.
- CED XI:77.
- CED XIII:362.
- CED IV:424.
- Abelly’s version differs considerably from CED XII:89.