The poor: An attempt to fathom the mind of St. Vincent

Francisco Javier Fernández ChentoVincentian FormationLeave a Comment

Author: John W. Carven, C.M. · Year of first publication: 1979 · Source: Vincentiana.
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I. Introduction

While reading Louis Abelly’s La Vie De S. Vincent De Paul, I was struck by his use of the adjective pauvre. Abelly lived at St. Lazare during the later part of St. Vincent’s life and was an eyewitness to the activity of St. Vincent. Since he was conver­sant with the usual use of spoken and written language of the age of St. Vincent, from an historian’s point of view, his work has certain value for us, despite some understandable inaccura­cies in his biography of St. Vincent.

In speaking of the beginnings of the Congregation of the Mission he says:

Ces sept étant ainsi assemblés et unis avec M. Vin­cent pour vivre et mourir dans la Congrégation de la Mission promirent á Dieu de s’appliquer toute leur vie á procurer le salut et la sanctification du pauvre peuple des champs en la méme Congregation; …

The use of the adjective pauvre before the noun peuple caused me to pause since, in French, placing the adjective before the noun instead of after it often alters its meaning. Thus, the above quote from Abelly could allow for a translation different from simply poor, with its usual connotation of material or economic poor. The above quote could be rendered:

These seven [priestsl, thus being assembled and unit­ed with M. Vincent to live and die in the Congregation of the Mission, promised to God to apply themselves all their life in the same Congregation to procure the salvation and sanctification of the wretched people of the country; …

Certain chapter headings in Abelly use the same juxtaposition of the adjective pauvre: Pauvres petits enfants (sorry little in­fants) and Pauvres gentilshommes et demoiselles refugiés á Paris (needy gentlemen and gentlewomen [young lady (of noble birth) who took refuge in Paris) — from the civil war in Lorraine.

A study of dictionaries provided inspiration to pursue this question further. Cassell’s French Dictionary cites, in part, pauvre as follows:

pauvre: noun, masculine — poor person, pauper, beg­gar; (pf) the poor.

pauvre: adj. — poor, needy, indigent, wretched, sorry, etc.

Three examples given in this citation are illuminating:

c’est un pauvre poéte — he is a wretched poet;

le pauvre homme! — the poor devil!

un homme pauvre — a poor man.

A similar example is found when looking up petit (e.g. la petite Compagnie or petits enfants):

petit: adj. — little, small, unimportant, petty, trifling, mean, shabby, limited, humble, feeble.

un homme petit — a mean man;

un petit homme — a little man.

With regard to poor, an English Dictionary allows for varia­tions in meaning:

poor: la — lacking material possessions; b — of, relating to, or characterized by poverty. 2a— fess than adequate: meager; b — small in worth; 3 — exciting pity; 4a — inferior in quality or value; b — humble, unpretentious; c— mean, petty.

Finally, an example from French secular history lends credence to the hypothesis that pauvre, placed before the noun, does not exclusively connote the poor in an economic or material sense. John L. Carr, in Life in France under Louis XIV, treats, in one section, of Louis and the Arts. It must be remembered that the Sun King (1638-1715) had a great influence on the styliza­tion of the French language and set the fashion for many of the artists of his day. In his work, Carr details the personal relationship between Louis and the dramatist Moliére, who gives us evidente of the special meaning of pauvre when used before a noun. In Tartuffe he uses the expression pauvre homme. It reflects an incident at Versailles when Louis XIV used this expression (pauvre homme, not homme pauvre) with regard to his dinner, during Lent, at the house of the Bishop of Péréfixe, hardly a destitute person.


the_poorSpurred by Abelly’s use of pauvre, I undertook a semantical study of Pierre Coste to investigate the use of pauvre in official documents of the Community and in a representative selection from the Conferences of St. Vincent. Although it is not an exhaustive research, it can be considered to be illustrative in attempting to fathom the mind of St. Vincent in the use of the word “poor.” This study, then, is an attempt to present, as objectively as possible, material from documents dealing with the foundation of the Community and from Conferences of St. Vincent, principally those on the Rules, which he preached during 1658-1660. The reader will hopefully be able to frame an informed opinion based on officio’ material, be able to appreciate the ordinary mode of speaking of St. Vincent as a possible indication of his understanding of “poor.” Finally, this study is concluded with an amateurish presentation of a biblical understanding of poor and a statement of a possible interpretation of St. Vincent.

III.- Coste

A. Oficial documents of the Congregation of the Mission (1625­-1632)

Of the documents relating to the foundation of the Commu­nity, the first document of importance is the contract entered into by St. Vincent and the De Gondi family. As stated in the contract, the De Gondis believed that the people in the cities, notably Paris, were adequately ministered to spiritually, but that

il ne reste que le pauvre peuple de la campagne, qui demeure comme abandonné. — there remains only the poor [wretched, sorry] people of the countryside, who alone continue as abandoned.

These suburban and/or rural inhabitants can be helped, accor­ding to the contract, by pious ecclesiastics who “completely and unconditionally apply themselves to the needy people (pauvre peuple), [priests] going from village to village to preach, instruct, exhort and catechize these poor folk (pauvres gens) …” The De Gondis were interested in the “salvation of these wretched souls” (….du salut des pauvres ames …), so much so that they stipulated in the contract that St. Vincent and his companions could preach “in the city only in case of notable necessity. Moreover, since De Gondi was General-of-the-Galleys, he stipulated that the first confréres “assist spiritually the wretched galley-slaves (á assister spirituellement les pauvres forçats).

Subsequent to the contract between the De Gondis and St. Vincent, the Archbishop of Paris approved the Congregation of the Mission.12 He stated that the missionaries

…qui s’emploient aux missions, á catéchiser, précher, et faire confessions générales au pauvre peuple des champs, — who are employed for missions, to catechize, preach and bring the wretched people of the country to make general confessions, …”

Furthermore, the Archbishop stated that the missionaries not only should not work in the city, but also “that they should go only to places assigned by the Archbishop.

With the approbation of the Archbishop of Paris in hand, King Louis XIII approved the Congregation of the Mission.” Louis approval manifested his awareness of the spiritual needy of the people living outside the cities in France:

…vers le pauvre peuple, ayant considéré pendant quel­ques années que les habitants des villes étaient assistés au spirituel par quantité de personnes de savoir et insigne piété, et que ledit pauvre peuple de la campagne demeurait seul privé de cette consolation et assistan­ce … s’appliqueront entiérement et purernent á l’in­struction spirituelle dudit pauvre peuple catéchiser ces pauvres gens de village,… — towards wretched people, having considered for some years that the inhabitants of the cities were assisted spiritually by an abundance of persons of knowledge and distinguished piety, and that the aforementioned needy (poor) people of the countryside live deprived of this consolation and assistance will apply themselves entirely and uncon­ditionally to the spiritual instruction of the said sorry (poor) people to catechize the wretched (poor) folk of the village, …

In the same document Louis used the terminology “…de nosdits pauvres sujets (… to our aforementioned poor subjects).

Within the context of the developments of which the above documents give evidence, St. Vincent and his first companions drew up and signed an Act of Association.” They agreed to:

…unissent ensemble pour s’employer, en maniére de mission, á catéchiser, précher et faire faire confession générale au pauvre peuple des champs, — unite together to employ themselves, in the manner of a mission, to catechize, preach, and exhort the poor (needy, wretched) people of the country to make a general confession, …”

Furthermore, they “…nous employer au salut dudit pauvre peuple des champs …” (to dedicate ourselves to the salvation of the said poor (sorry) people of the country).

Finally, all these acts received the approbation of the Holy See in the Bull of Erection of Pope Urban VIII.” It stipulated that “the special and peculiar end of this congregation and its members be, with the favor of God, to lead to salvation those who dwell in farms, villages, lands, and more humble places and towns”. The venue of the missionaries’ work was to be “rusticorum” (of country places) and among “ignorantium in­structioni” (ignorant of instruction).” There is nothing in the Bull of Erection which appears to limit apostolic action to the economic poor only.

The Documents relating to the early Community further exemplify the thinking of the men of the time of St. Vincent. King Louis XIII wrote to Pope Urban VIII:

Le fruit et grande édification que reÇoivent nos sujets de la campagne … par les prétres de la Mission fondés pour aller de village en village précher, exhorter, confesser et catéchiser le pauvre peuple,…, — The advan­tage and great edification which our subjects of the countryside … by the priests of the Mission established to go from village to village to preach, exhort, hear confessions and catechize the needy (wretched, poor) people,…

Furthermore, the documents relating to the acquisition of the houses for the early confréres contain important information for understanding the idea of “poor.” In the Act of Union of the Collége of Bons-Enfants to the Congregation of the Mission,” The Archbishop of Paris stated:

…tam ad catechisandos et informandos rudium ani­mos, quam ad sublevandos plebeiorum per sacram exo­mologesim conscientias — both to catechize and form the souls of the uncultivated (rude, unrefined, ignorant) and to raise the consciences of the people [opposite to nobles] through holy confession…

The contract of union of the Priory of St. Lazare to the Congregation of the Mission” stated that “the revenues of the said priory have been destined for the purpose of relieving and assisting corporally the wretched lepers (pauvres lépreux), and, lacking them, it would be more natural and conformable to the intention of the founders to apply the said revenues to help spiritually the needy people (le pauvre peuple) of the country­side, distant from the cities, infected with the leprosy of sin and in no way instructed in the mysteries of the faith necessary for salvation …” In his approbation of the Community’s acquisi­tion of St. Lazare, the Archbishop stated that the work of the Missioners was “to instruct more uncultivated men in Christian matters (…rudiores homines in rebus christianis instituunt) and to engage themselves completely by assiduous vigilance and indefatigable labors for the salvation of men, as yet of the rural arcas” (…assiduis vigiliis et indefessis laboribus se totos in hominum etiam rusticorum salutem impendunt). Later in the same year, another approbation by the Archbishop of Paris contains the following phrases:

…ut non retardentur ab eorum onere et labore percur­rendi pagos; — in order that they not be impeded from their work and labor of traveling through villages; [“through the villages of the diocese of Paris.”]

…et ibi fidei mysteria doceant, confessiones, praecipue generales, audiant, rudiores in rebus christianis insti­tuant, — and their teaching the mystery of faith, hearing confessions, especially general, instructing the more ignorant in Christian matters, …

As French law of the day demanded, Letter-patent registered with Parlement the transfer of the Priory of St. Lazare to the Congregation of the Mission. They stated:

au dessein de convertir et appliquer le revenu temporel dudit prieuré pour subvenir et assister spirituelle­ment le pauvre peuple de la campagne, éloigné des villes et peu instruit des mystéres de notre foi absolu­ment nécessaires á salut. — for the purpose of convert­ing and applying the temporal revenue of the said priory to aid and assist spiritually the needy people of the countryside, far from the cities and little instructed in the mysteries of our faith absolutely necessary for salvation.”


…conversion et salut des ames de nos sujets résidant á la campagne — conversion and salvation of the souls of our subjects residing in the countryside.

Various other documents of this period (1625-1632) give evidence of similar terminology. In Letters-patent of February 15, 1630 Louis stated that the early Confréres …for the glory of God and spiritual solace of our subjects residing in the countryside (de nos sujets résidant en la campagne), would wish to give themselves entirely to the spiritual instruction of the said needy people (dudit pauvre peuple). In enregistering the Letters-patent of May 1627 and of February 15, 1630 Parlement stated that the Confréres worked …for the practice of charity and the spiritual instruction of the people of the countryside (du peuple de la campagne). Finally, the mem­bers of the Congregation of the Mission, sufficiently endowed by the De Gondis and the revenues from St. Lazare, could write: “having begged God to institute this small and poor Company (cette petite et pauvre Compagnie).

In all these documents pauvre is used as an adjective and allows for various translations, but usually in a sense of pity — it appears. Nevertheless, it must be pointed out that at least in one instance which I found, the Papal Brief on our Vows (August 12, 1659), “there is the phrase”…saluti pauperum rusticanorum applicandi…” (to be applied for the salvation of poor country-people).

B. Conferences of St. Vincent

The Documents cover the legal written word, basically from a period of 1625-1632. As we all know, we speak differently than we write. With this in mind, it must be asked if St. Vincent used different terminology in his Conferences. If we examine his Conferences preached at the end of his life, do we find an evolution and refinement of his thought? Is the use of pauvre as an adjective altered? I examined the Conferences preached in 1658-1659, Conferences dealing with the Rules of the Congregation, which he had recently distributed.

Prime Conferences to be investigated are those on the Obser­vance of the Rules (May 17, 1658) and on the End of the Congregation of the Mission (December 6, 1658). In both Conferences pauvre is used as a noun in a number of instances. In the Conference on the Rules St. Vincent stated: “Notre-Sei­gneur vint et fut envoyé de son Pire pour évangéliser les pauvres. Pauperibus evangelizare misit me. Pauperibus, aux pauvres!” (Our Lord came and was sent from His Father to evangelize the poor. To evangelize the poor He sent me. To the poor, to the poor). Later in the same Conference he said: “…aux pauvres abandonnés” (to the abandoned poor). In the Conference on the End of the Congregation St. Vincent stated: “Notre fin, c’est donc de travailler á notre perfection, á évangéliser les pauvres et á enseigner la science et les vertus propres aux ecclésiastiques.” (Our End is thus to apply our­selves to our perfection, to bring the Gospel to the poor and to teach the expertness and virtue appropriate for ecclesi­astics). Later in the same Conference St. Vincent said:

La seconde chose que la règle marque que nous avons á faire, c’est d’instruire les peuples des champs; voilà où nous sommes appelés. Oui, Notre-Seigneur demande de nous que nous évangélisions les pauvres: voilà ce qu’il a fait et ce qu’il veut continuer de faire par nous. — The second thing which the Rule appoints us to do is to instruct the people of the country. Yes, Our Lord requires us to evangelize the poor: behold what He has done and what He wishes to continue to do through us.

However, in the same Conferences pauvre is also used as an adjective before the noun. In the Conference on the Rules St. Vincent related his response to the request of the Queen to give missions in Metz: “…les pauvres prêtres de la Mission ne sont que pour les pauvres gens de la campagne” (… the wretched priests of the Mission are only for the needy people of the countryside). In the same Conference he spoke of the work with the foundlings: “…retirer les pauvres enfants trouvés” — to snatch back the sorry foundlings.” When speaking of the End of the Congregation, St. Vincent stated that “the purpose of the Company is to imitate Our Lord, autant que des pauvres et chétives personnes le peuvent faire” (as far as poor and puny persons can do it). Again, in the same Conference, he told the Confréres:

…vous savez l’ignorance du pauvre peuple, qui est presque incroyable, et savez aussi qu’il n’y a point de salut pour les personnes qui ignorent les vérités chré­tiennes nécessaires — you know the ignorance of the wretched people, which is almost unbelievable, and you know also that there is no salvation for people who do not know necessary Christian truths …

He continued: “But, God, seeing this necessity and the mishaps which, through the succession of time, have occurred through the negligence of pastors and the birth of heresies, which have caused a great diminution in the Church, has wished, in His great mercy, to remedy that by missionaries, sending them to put these poor folks (ces pauvres gens) in a state to be saved.”51 Our mission, then, is “to assist the needy people (le pauvre peuple) in the way Our Lord Himself would assist them, if He were still on earth”.

The Conferences on the Observance of the Rules and on the End of the Congregation of the Mission are of prime impor­tance in fathoming the mind of St. Vincent, but they are not the only places in which he appealed to our End. Throughout 1658-1659 he explained our Rules to the Confréres at St. Lazare. In many of the Conferences he referred to our End, and in these Conferences he spoke of pauvre peuple. In the Conference on the Members of the Community” he reminded the Confréres that they must work “for the salvation of the people of the countryside” (…au salut des peuples de la campagne). When St. Vincent spoke of Evangelical Maximes, he first summarized the previous Conference on Chapter I of the Rules and again reminded the Confréres that our End was “…d’assister les pauvres gens des champs …” (to assist the wretched folk of the country) and “to go from village to village to evangelize the poor people, to direct the seminaries and conferences, and to devote oneself to the other works which the Company is accustomed to exercise toward the neighbor”. In speaking on the Five Fundamental Virtues,” he said: “Notre fin, c’est le pauvre peuple, gens grossiers” (Our end, it is the poor people, the common folk). Finally, in his Conference on the Vows, St. Vincent cited article 18 of Chapter II of our Rules:

…et cette petite Congrégation de la Mission ayant été suscitée en l’Eglise pour s’employer au salut des ames, principalement du pauvre peuple des champs… — and this feeble Congregation of the Mission, having been raised up in the Church to be used for the salvation of souls, principally of the needy people of the country …

In the Conferences already cited and in other Conferences and Repetitions of Prayer of this period are found other instances where pauvre is used as an adjective before the noun in an apparently non-economic sense. Referring to the foundation of the Church, he said: “In establishing the Church did He not choose poor folk who were ignorant and simple?” (pauvres gens ignorants et rustiques). In another place, talking about the universal Church, he said: “… and which delivers this poor Church (pauvre Eglise) from this pitiable state …„62 He em­pathized with the wretched wounded soldiers (pauvres soldats blessés).63 In a Conference On Mortification, St. Vincent related his relationship with his parents and brothers and sisters and his desire for a benefice in order to support and advance them: “c’était le poids continuel de mon pauvre esprit” (it was a continual burden for my poor spirit). When speaking of True Wisdom and Illusions, he used the phrases “la pauvre nature” (sorry character)67 and “une pauvre ame” (a poor soul)” at­tacked by the wiles of the devil. In a Conference on Poverty, St. Vincent mentioned the heresy of Millenarianism in the early Church and exclaimed: “Sorry, people!” (Pauvres gens!), if they had studied well…” Preaching at another time on Poverty,” he stated: “… j’excepte toujours les malades, oh! pauvres malades!” (I exclude always the sick, oh! the sorry sick!).

Any attempt to fathom the mind of St. Vincent in his use of pauvre would not be complete without citing his use of the term with regard to himself and others who were close to himself. Despite the various benefactions and foundations which supported the Community, he could refer to “cette pauvre Compagnie” (This wretched Company)” which was “made up of poor folk” (composée de pauvres gens)”. He called M. Portail “poor” (le pauvre M. Portail)” and talked about “our poor coadjutor brothers” (nos pauvres fréres coadjuteurs). He considered himself “a sorry ignoramus” (un pauvre ignorant)” and “a wretched swineherd, only a villain” (… je ne suis qu’un pauvre porcher, qu’un vilain). Can one overlook his hyperbole in speaking of his first benefactress, Madame De Gondi: “la pauvre feue Madame la Générale des Galéres (the poor late Madame General of the Galleys).

To this point I have detailed the use of the adjective pauvre before nouns and its consequent special meaning. Of its use after a noun, where it clearly means economically poor, I found only one instance in my consultation of Vol. XII and XIII of Coste: “Oh! bienheureux serions-nous alors de ressembler da­vantage á Notre-Seigneur pauvre” (Oh! happy will we be then to resemble more Our poor Lord).” It appeared in a Conference on Poverty where St. Vincent spoke of Our Lord having no where to lay His head and His being dependent on others for His daily needs.

IV. Biblical

In the Conferences investigated for this study, St. Vincent informed us that “the purpose of the Company is to imitate Our Lord, as far as poor and puny persons can do it” and that we are “to apply ourselves as the instruments by which the Son of God continues to do from heaven what He did on earth”. St. Vincent summarized this mission in the motto: Evangelizare pauperibus misit me. In their response to the C.P.A.G.’s study on the End of the Congregation of the Mission the Visitors of the Central European Provinces re­quested that this mono be understood in a biblical sense. While I am in no way a Scripture scholar, I would like to present, in an amateurish fashion, some ideas gleaned from minimal research on Isaiah 61:1-2 and Luke 4:17-19 on which our motto is based.

In the New American Bible” Isaiah 61:1-2 is translated:

“The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; He has sent me to bring glad tidings to the lowly…”

In Luke 4:17-19 Our Lord paraphrased Isaiah:

When the book of the prophet Isaiah was handed him, he unrolled the scroll and found the passage where it was written:

“The spirit of the Lord is upon me; therefore, he has anointed me. He has sent me to bring glad tidings to the poor,

How do some scholars commentate on these passages? E. Powers states that the lowly of Isaiah should be understood as the “afllicted.”. John L. McKenzie maintains that the “affiicted” consists in membership in a lower class which is indigent and subjected to oppression with no power to defend itself”. He stated that Our Lord used Isaiah to announce the messianic character of His mission and, in the face of the haughtiness of the Pharisees, to announce that no one is to be excluded from His kingdom, not even the lowly, the poor”. A. Jones equated the poor (Matt. 11:5) with the simple and docile. In commen­ting on the Beatitudes (Matt. 5:3) he stated that the poor in biblical language indicates all in adversity (rich and poor) who humbly turn to God.” A footnote in the New American Bible speaks of the poor, anawim, those who lack material goods and stand in need of the spiritual blessings promised by God. Can, therefore, poor in the biblical sense be understood as the simple and docile, enconomically poor or not, who are in need of the spiritual blessings promised by God and who, if the Gospel were zealously preached to them when they appear to be abandoned, can be inspired to humbly turn to God?

V. Summary

St. Vincent has stated that “you know the ignorance of the poor (wretched) people which is almost unbelievable, and you also know that there is no salvation for people who do not know necessary Christian truths.” God, in His Providence, “seeing this necessity and the mishaps, which through the succession of time have occurred through the negligence of pastors and the birth of heresies, which have caused a great diminution in the Church, has wished, in His great mercy, to remedy that by missionaries, sending them to put these needy people in a state to be saved”, especially to those who did not benefit from the zeal of priests of knowledge and known piety, those who lived outside the cities in France. It was to them, St. Vincent said, that “our vocation is thus to go, not in one parish nor only in one diocese, but through all the land to embrace the hearts of men, to do what the Son of God did”, that “we apply ourselves as the instruments by which the Son of God continuues to do from heaven what He did on earth”. It was in this vein, as Abelly said, that the “charity of M. Vincent was not limited to any particular works, but was extended universally to all where he saw that God could be glorified,” — that “since the spiritual needs were ordinarily greater in the villages and rural places than in the cities”, St. Vincent initially undertook that venue, later to extend the scope of his zeal to seminaries, foreign missions, hospital chaplain­cies, military chaplaincies — to whatever works authority, such as the Archbishop of Paris, requested. God, he said, “has given us [these works], either through those in which power resides or by pure necessity, which are the ways by which God has engaged us to these designs… because it is seen that [the Company] rushes to the most pressing and most forsaken necessities”.

If I may paraphrase St. Vincent, our End is to embrace the hearts of men, to do what the Son of God did, to preach the Gospel to needy people, the common folk (Gens grossiers).

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