SECTION THREE: His Alms
The subject of this section will perhaps trouble some readers. They will wonder how the superior general of a congregation, on his own initiative and without the consent of the members, could distribute so much of the wealth of the congregation to the poor. Even more, how could Monsieur Vincent do so? He was so humble, so deferential, and so committed to evangelical poverty, that, as we saw in Book One, he would not give even a modest sum to his own nephew who had traveled two hundred leagues to visit him at great cost to the meager resources of his family.1 If he had insisted on obtaining the express approval of the community for this expense, how, we wonder, could he give such abundant alms to the poor? This faithful servant of God often and generously helped all sorts of poor people at the expense of his community, as we shall see in these pages.
At first sight this appears somewhat surprising. Those favorably inclined to him might probably think that he acted through one of those extraordinary inspirations of the Holy Spirit which sometimes makes the saints in themselves more admirable in their practice of virtue rather than as models to imitate. This might be true here, and we might see in the life of Monsieur Vincent the extraordinary direction of the hand of God, which made him act with that divine prudence of Jesus Christ, so opposed to the wisdom of the flesh. Nevertheless, we still can consider some aspects of the case which make his conduct more understandable.
In the first place, we must recognize Monsieur Vincent not only as the superior general, but also as the source, the founder, and the organizer of this new congregation, founded on charity. While he lived it was still in its formative stages. After God, it was he who gave it being, form, and consistency. He prescribed its organization, employments, and functions. He accepted, taught, and perfected those who came to the Congregation. They always looked upon him as their true father and in turn Monsieur Vincent regarded them as his dear children. He could speak of them in imitation of the holy apostle: Filioli quos iterum parturio donec Christus formetur in vobis [“You are my children, and you put me back in labor pains until Christ is formed in you”].2
Since this was so, we should look upon him not merely as superior general, but rather as founder and father, using the goods of the family held jointly by him and his children. He controlled these goods during their minority and gave them away, not for any personal interests but for those of Jesus Christ, and in the service and relief of his brothers and sisters, the poor. Some rigorous legalist might point out that in any case he still should have obtained the consent of the children of the family. Yet he could be answered by saying that Monsieur Vincent possessed such a union of hearts with them that he never even considered the necessity of consulting them or seeking their authorization for his activities. They willed what he willed. What he did was so good, so holy, and so conformed to the designs and orders of God that it would insult their virtue to think they disagreed with him in the least.
Besides, we are speaking here of the beginnings of a new company, with both its temporal and spiritual traditions not yet fully formed. It is not enough to organize a community outwardly. The interior spirit proper to its own end must also be formed and communicated to its members. One of the community’s chief ends, as we have said, was the evangelization of the poor, with the obligation of providing them all possible services and help. For this to happen, a spirit of compassion would have to be developed in the community, which would be characterized by a tenderness and love towards the poor. Since the inspiration of the holy founder was that the members of the Company should expose and sacrifice their very lives, to the extent needed, to achieve the salvation of the poor, he was surely justified in distributing a good part of their temporal goods to these same poor, especially when this help contributed to their spiritual progress.
The state of public affairs at the beginning of the Congregation of the Mission was tragic: calamities and miseries of all kinds had overwhelmed most of the provinces of the kingdom and even all of Europe. The extreme poverty of the peasants of the countryside, and the villages overcome by the ravages of war and other misfortunes so moved the charitable heart of Monsieur Vincent that he did everything in his power to come to their aid. He appealed to the wealthy to show compassion and mercy. He persuaded them to contribute in proportion to the extreme conditions endured by countless poor people, many on the verge of perishing.
This prudent and faithful servant of Jesus Christ was well aware that actions speak louder than words. He could not have chosen a more powerful argument for help from others in the great works of charity which he practiced during his entire life than the example of what himself had first done before recommending it to others. What made his example even more effective was that he went beyond what was merely reasonable. He and his followers took what they gave to the poor from their own resources. Far from lessening their commitment and love for the poor, this rather increased their determination to devote themselves completely to the spiritual help of these same poor people.
All this being true, let us examine just a small part of what this father of the poor gave to them. I say just a small part, since only God knows everything he did. His humility always sought to conceal his actions from others, since he acted solely for the love of God. He was far from imitating those whom Jesus Christ condemned in the Gospel: those who blew the trumpet before giving alms, or used other devices to attract attention to what they had done for the poor.3 On the contrary, he used all his ingenuity to conceal his gifts. He never spoke of them, and was visibly embarrassed when others mentioned them. He incurred other heavy expenses in favor of the poor, either by sending his missionaries to remote places to help them, or by paying the postage on letters addressed to him. These came either from distant provinces or from the poor slaves of Algiers, Tunis, Bizerte or elsewhere, and the cost amounted to great sums. He never spoke about these matters or took this expense into account. It was enough for him that God was aware of what he did and approved of it. If some of his charitable works became known, he would make light of them, saying it was simply a case of beggars giving their scraps and rags to other beggars.
He had established the Confraternity of Charity in the parish of Saint Lawrence. Because this parish lay within the bounds of the Saint Lazare section of the city, he would donate two hundred livres each year to support this confraternity, as well as the Daughters of Charity, Servants of the Sick Poor in this parish. In addition, every Friday he would send two priests from Saint Lazare to visit and console the sick among the poor.
When poor persons living near Saint Lazare would die, even when he did not know them, he would provide a shroud for them if they did not have one. Once, after burying a poor woman at his expense, Monsieur Vincent received her husband into the house, where the man remained quite ill for a long time. He did the same for another man, caring for him until he died.
Once, meeting an almost naked man in the street near Saint Lazare, he at once gave him a garment. This was not unusual, for he often gave away shoes, a hat, or shirts, all at the expense of the house.
Each day he received two poor people at Saint Lazare. He had them dine with the community, after first giving them any spiritual instruction which they needed. Often it was observed that this friend of the poor, after greeting them with great affability, would help them up the steps to the refectory, and seat them beside himself. He would then see to it they were well taken care of, and would himself render little services to them.
Besides these two poor persons, each day he would distribute bread, soup, and meat to poor families who would come to the door of Saint Lazare. Two other practices that he had were to distribute bread and even money to poor peasants who came to the door no matter at what hour. Another distribution of bread and soup was made at a fixed hour three times a week for whomever might be passing by, regardless of where they came from. On all these occasions a short instruction would be given on some point of the catechism or on the duties of a Christian. After explaining the chief mysteries they should know and believe, those receiving aid were taught how to pray, how to live good lives despite their poverty, and how to bear their sufferings and deprivations with patience. All those points were in keeping with their state in life, and had been arranged by Monsieur Vincent himself.
Hundreds of these poor would always come for help, and sometimes the number reached five or six hundred. He did have to stop distributing soup two or three years before his death, because after the establishment of the general hospital for the poor of Paris he was forbidden to do so. When the poor would complain to him, “Father, did not God direct that alms should be given to the poor?”, he would reply, “Yes, it is true, my friends, but God has also commanded that we should obey the magistrates.” Despite these prohibitions, on the occasion of a particularly severe winter which brought many poor families to the brink of disaster, he would distribute soup and bread each day. During the time of troubles in Paris he had this daily distribution made to nearly two thousand people, at a great cost to the house at Saint Lazare, which still remains in debt because of this charity. At that time he was obliged to be away from Paris for a long time, as we related in Book One.4 He was informed of the pillage, thefts, and losses committed by the eight hundred soldiers quartered in Saint Lazare, but realizing the great suffering of the poor, he did not lessen his care for them. He wrote to his assistant telling him to continue this daily distribution of bread, using up to three setiers of flour each day, although it was then exceedingly costly. It was impossible to find wheat in Paris, no matter what you were willing to pay. The charity of this true father of the poor was above all such considerations, which would have deterred anyone less generous than he. The brother-baker of the house, in charge of the wheat, has declared that in three months he used ten muids for making bread. We must admire God’s Providence, for three months later, around Easter, the community did not have enough bread to live on, and seemed on the point of starvation. Just at that moment a settlement between the warring factions was reached, and passage to the outside countryside was again allowed. By borrowing money, the community was finally able to buy wheat. The care which divine goodness takes of those who help the poor was thus shown for all to see.
A virtuous priest testified to these events.
We can see the great heart of Monsieur Vincent and his incomparable love for the poor by considering that when he learned of the damage done to Saint Lazare by the soldiers, and the shortages caused by the blockade of Paris, he directed the late Monsieur Lambert, his assistant, to provide daily aid to the poor. The house of Saint Lazare had to borrow sixteen to twenty thousand livres to carry out these directives. Each day the missionaries distributed bread and provided two or three large cauldrons of soup for the poor, all as if the wheat cost the house nothing. This continued for several months, even after the settlement of the war, and fortunately several other communities and some rich persons have imitated it. This latter effect is not the least of the blessings owed to the charitable initiative of Monsieur Vincent for the relief of the poor. He has been their father and provider everywhere and always.
What is noteworthy is that he was not content to distribute alms to those who came to Saint Lazare seeking help. He even sent out his confreres, a priest and a brother, into the hovels and caves of Paris seeking out those in need, especially the sick. Since charity has neither measure nor limits, he directed his care to persons of all classes and nations.
In this regard, he learned of a group of Irish Catholics in Paris, exiled for their faith and reduced to great misery. He called in a priest of the Congregation of the Mission, a native of Ireland, and asked what might possibly be done to help these poor refugees. He said to the priest, “Is there no way we can bring them together, to console them in their suffering, and instruct them? They do not understand our language, and they seem so abandoned. My heart is stricken for I have great compassion for them.” The priest responded that he would do what he could. “God bless you,” replied Monsieur Vincent, “here are ten pistoles. Go in the name of God, to give them whatever consolation you can.” We should remark that this help was quite apart from what he also did for some Irish priests, which we will describe below.5
Once, a young man, who had served as a tailor, returned to his own region from Saint Lazare. Aware from experience of the great charity of Monsieur Vincent, he took the liberty of writing to him, at a time when he was preoccupied with affairs at court, to ask him to send a packet of one hundred needles from Paris. He took this request seriously, and saw to it that the needles were sent. In no way did he show that he thought it strange to be bothered by such a trifling request.
Once when returning to Saint Lazare he found several poor women at the door asking for an alms. He said he would find something to give them. No sooner had he entered the house, however, than he was taken up with several important and pressing matters of business so that he forgot the women at the door. As soon as he remembered, however, he brought the alms himself, and falling on his knees before them, begged their pardon for having forgotten them and for making them wait.
Once a poor woman asked an alms from Monsieur Vincent. He sent her a half-ecu, but she complained that in her great need this was not enough. Without further ado he sent her another half-sou. Such events were not unusual with him.
A poor drayman who lost his horses had recourse to Monsieur Vincent, and asked for help in making up this loss. At once his charitable benefactor gave him one hundred livres.
A tenant farmer of the community of Saint Lazare found himself unable to pay what he owed. Monsieur Vincent responded by giving him something himself. It is impossible to know how often he helped the farmers, tenants, or other debtors of the community who were unable to meet their obligations. He preferred to make new loans and risk losing everything, rather than to demand payment from them.
Through a long-term lease a farmer held a property belonging to a hospital, but being unable to pay his rent, he was evicted. After his death, he left his wife and children in great poverty. Monsieur Vincent took the two small boys into the house at Saint Lazare. He cared for them there for nearly ten years, and used the opportunity to have them taught a trade so they could earn their living. He also contributed to the support of the poor widow during this same time.
Monsieur Vincent’s reputation as a man of great charity attracted a large number of people to Saint Lazare from Paris and elsewhere. Some had been prosperous or had come from respectable families. Some of these came to him in confidence to tell him of their problems, but others were ashamed at having to accept alms, and instead asked only for a loan. He gave something to everyone, to some more, to others less, often down to the last sou of the community’s money. On these occasions he would borrow from Mademoiselle le Gras, so as to have something to give to those who came to him.
There were a few others to whom he gave some money every month. One man showed up shortly before Monsieur Vincent’s death, saying that for seventeen years he had been coming for these alms, which amounted to two ecus every month. He had come to regard it as a sum owed him, almost as a regular income.
One day while returning in a carriage from the country to Paris, Monsieur Vincent saw a poor person along the road. He was all covered with sores and had an otherwise revolting appearance. He had the poor man step into the carriage, and took him to his destination in Paris. He often did similar things, particularly during the winter when he would meet older or handicapped persons. He would have them get in the carriage with him, which through humility he called “my infamy,” out of his sense that he was unworthy of this convenience. His attitude was that whatever he had, whether possessions or advantages, ought to be shared with the poor, so great was his love, tenderness, and compassion for them.
When he saw poor sick persons lying along the streets or lanes he would go up to them to find out what was wrong or what they needed, so he could provide some relief for them. When he saw they were not pretending but were really sick, he would offer to take them to the hospital in Paris. If he were not in his carriage, he would have them taken there. Not content to pay those who transported them, he would give the sick person an alms as well.
One day while riding through Paris he saw a young boy in distress. He stopped the carriage, went to the boy to find out what his trouble was. When the boy showed him that he had cut his hand badly, Monsieur Vincent took him at once to a doctor. He then waited until he was treated, paid the doctor, and in parting gave a bit of money to the poor child.
There was an old soldier people called The Sieve because of the number of wounds he had sustained in the war. He showed up one day at Saint Lazare knowing no one, but since he had heard of the charity of Monsieur Vincent he felt free to ask if he might stay at the house for several days. This was willingly accorded him, but several days later he fell sick. Monsieur Vincent moved him to a room with a stove. For two months he took care of him, and even assigned a brother to look after him until he was completely cured.
These are but a few samples of the charity which this holy man showed to the poor. We should not be surprised at these. Though he was extraordinarily generous in their behalf, what he gave came from his heart. He was even prepared to risk his life for the good of their souls. He wished nothing so much as to provide every sort of service to them, for the love of Jesus Christ whom he honored in them. He looked on the poor as true images of that infinite charity which led our divine Savior to forego all riches. He became poor for our sakes, so that, as the apostle says, we might become rich through his poverty.6