I would like to say a word about the ambitious tone of the title and make clear the limitations of this presentation. Regarding the past, I am not in a position to know the entire background of what is called the “Vincentian spirit” (neither as in Saint Vincent’s grounding experience nor in its development to the present), nor can I describe it to its full depth. Regarding the future, I was convinced years ago by a sociological study I read that foretelling future events is practically senseless and really without meaning. Knowledge of the past is certainly possible, but it is nevertheless fragile and partial and strongly conditioned by the personal perspective of the author. So, I acknowledge from the beginning that my description of the history of the Vincentian spirit which is the object of this study will be by its nature highly selective and very much my own synthesis. What I say about the future is not intended to foretell anything. It is only to indicate some themes that seem essential so the Vincentian spirit might have a meaningful and intelligible future.
Let me make one last introductory comment. The term “spirit” or “spirituality,” applied to the personality of St. Vincent and his influence in history, appears to me to be a category invented for some other context and does not fit very well here. I prefer to use terms like the experience of Saint Vincent, or the Christian experience of Saint Vincent, or perhaps the Christian vision of Saint Vincent, whichever of these expressions better conveys the meaning in the context.
1. The Original Experience
Reliable information about the life of St. Vincent points to a clear personal concern for the poor before 1617, when he was 37 years of age. In addition to the data which Abelly gives us about his childhood (1. I, c.2), he had experience of a confraternity at the Hospital of Charity during his second stay in Rome (XIII b, 9), he used to visit the Hospital of Charity in Paris (Abelly, 1, III, c. XI, sec I), he made a donation of 15,000 livres in 1611 to the hospital, although it seems from all the information we have that Vincent was only an intermediary (XIII a, 20-22), and he taught catechism to the servants of the Gondi household and to the peasants on their estates (XIII, 31 ff). These are reliable facts, but nothing supports the picture of a person of deep faith who from his earliest days wanted to turn his life over to the poor (as Abelly would have us believe). Biographers in various periods of history commonly paint the same kind of picture of Christian children and devout and promising young priests.
Biographers differ about the process by which Vincent de Paul was converted from the thoughtless and self-centered years of his early priesthood, but practically all the biographers of St. Vincent as well as dedicated students of his spirituality agree on two points. First, there is the date. The year 1617 marks the decisive date for a radical change in the direction of his life, stemming from the experiences of Folleville and Chatillon. Secondly, the change of direction led to a complete dedication of his personhood and priesthood to the evangelization of the poor.
Who were those poor? First, they were poor peasants, a little later the galley slaves. But with the passing of the years, and in good part because of the influence of the Daughters of Charity and Ladies of Charity, all kinds of poor people were included: the mentally ill, sick people in public hospitals, abandoned children, slaves, immigrants from inside and outside the country, mercenaries, aging craftsmen and laborers without work or pensions, beggars, refugees and victims of wars, persecuted rural Catholics (from Ireland, Scotland and the British Isles) and natives of Madagascar. There were also other poor people in France at this time, people who were not rich in any way whatsoever nor who did not belong to what we call the middle class, neither high nor low, craftsmen for example, people whom St. Vincent never considered the object of his dedication and efforts nor did the men and women inspired by St. Vincent. The poverty of those helped by St. Vincent and his institutions, by contrast, had a common characteristic, a characteristic which today we would more appropriately call marginalization, an idea very close to what St. Louise meant by the expression: “the poor who lack everything.”
The conversion of St. Vincent de Paul to the evangelization of the poor was, of course, totally an experience of faith, which he personally lived from 1618 to 1625 by preaching missions on the de Gondi estates with the help of occasional companions. He soon discovered, however, through the suggestions and influence of Madame de Gondi, that a long-term work of evangelizing the poor could not be undertaken without stable organizations built on good foundations. This discovery was embodied in the founding of the Congregation of the Mission (1625-1626), the Daughters of Charity (1633), and the Ladies of Charity (1634), and other kinds of organizations more loosely structured, created for particular situations (Macon, organizations of help for the war in Lorraine, Picardy and Paris).
The transformation of the scope of Vincent’s work is very interesting. His vision, in the beginning centered on small towns near Paris and later extended throughout the kingdom of France, ended up by taking on international dimensions. The advice and influence of the Congregation of the Propagation of the Faith played an important role (III, 163-65). St. Vincent believed he was obligated to respond affirmatively to its requests, as was the case in all his works, because he was called “to respond to the will of God “(ibid). In addition, one of the reasons for sending his followers to the farthest frontiers of Europe was a fear that God would remove the faith from Europe “because of the fault of our corrupt practices” (III, 187-89). The new vision of a universal outreach was in perfect harmony with the original and central intuition of his spirituality. In effect, at that time, like today, the masses of the poor were rather outside than inside corrupt Europe.
The conversion of St. Vincent affected all the psychological and emotional dimensions of his personality. But it also profoundly affected his theology, his relation to God in theory and in practice. Before Vincent’s conversion to the poor, Berulle was his chief mentor in dismantling the God-centeredness of his youthful piety and his studies in Toulouse, in order to orient him toward a purely Christo-centric Christian vision (please forgive the redundancy, but it is useful here). This means that his vision of faith passed from being a theo-logy (which all religions have) to being a Christo-logy (which only Christianity has and this is what precisely distinguishes it from other religions).
In Vincent’s case his Christological vision was centered, however, not on the incarnate Word glorified at the right hand of the Father as it was with Berulle, but on Jesus of Nazareth, born of Mary, evangelizer of the country people of Galilee who died on the cross. The resurrected and glorified Christ was also for him, without a doubt, the object of loving adoration and faith. But in order to dedicate himself to continuing the mission of Christ and in the footsteps of Christ, he could not have a better model than that of God becoming flesh and taking on historical existence, who became present in the world through his incarnation, and who ended his historical life on the cross. Vincent said, for example, “In order to be a true Daughter of Charity one needs to do what the Son of God did on earth” (IX, 14). And to the missionaries: “Our Company has always had as its end to do what our Lord came to do in the world” (XI, 323).
His ecclesiological vision also had to undergo radical revisions in light of the exigencies of his new vocation. The youthful Vincent had faithfully assimilated the ecclesiology that emerged from Trent. But this ecclesiology was focused, to a great extent in reaction to the Protestants on aspects of the internal constitution of the Church and overlooked its missionary dimension. But this is exactly the decisive dimension for Vincent who centers his personal experience of faith on the evangelization of the peasant population which, though baptized, was very poorly instructed in the faith, no less than to evangelize those who had not heard anyone speak of Christ.
In the dogmatic documents of Trent, the image of the priest was defined above all as a man of cult, a minister of the Eucharist. Although the documents about the reform of the life of the clergy indeed took into account the pastoral dimension of the Catholic priesthood, as a whole “…what emerged from the Council was an image of a priest as a man of the sacred, set apart, more concerned about people relating to God than about animating the common life of the Church.” In other words, it was a clearly theo-centric vision of the priesthood, clearly God-centered. This vision of the Church, a vision that lasted from Trent until Vatican II, was evidently a hierarchical-clerical vision, in which the lay people are little more than passive-receptive members of grace and the sacraments.
Nevertheless, to imitate Jesus Christ, to continue his mission in history, “to do what the Son of God did on earth” (to feed the hungry, to teach those who do not know, to cure the sick, to expel ‘demons’; in summary, to evangelize the poor in word and deed) and to bring to completion the best of that mission and that imitation – for all of this what is required is just baptism. St. Vincent said to the Daughters of Charity: “Anyone who would like to seed a resemblance of the life of Jesus Christ can see it in the life of a Daughter of Charity. What is it he came to do? He came to teach, to enlighten. That is what you do” (IX, 466). In summary: to prolong the mission of the Christ in history, it is not necessary to be a member of the clergy (on the other hand, being a member of the clergy does not have to be an obstacle to that same mission).
Neither is it necessary to be a religious. More than that, St. Vincent would have encountered (in fact did encounter) insuperable difficulties from the religious structures of his time in his efforts to bring to fruition his way of living out the faith, his spiritual way. All of his institutions without exception are secular, standing over against religious institutions. And nearly all of them are secular in contrast to the clerical state. The only exception in this second sense is the Congregation of the Mission, but only in part, because the Brothers are not clerics. However, also among the clerical members of the Congregation of the Mission the missionary dimension ought to dominate (that for which the Congregation of the Mission was created) over the clerical aspect. To be clerics in the full sense according to the mind of Trent, it was not necessary to found the Congregation of the Mission. For that purpose, the Oratory of Berulle had been founded some 15 years before.
It is not just on the theological level that the spirituality of St. Vincent presupposes new openings and perspectives beyond the design of the ecclesiology of the Council of Trent. This spirituality also presupposes new openings in the areas of sociology and history. All his activity implies a rupture on various levels of the alliance between the throne and the altar typical of the Old Regime. Let’s call to mind, for example, his attitude toward his own men not accepting ecclesiastical benefices or the intense discomfort which he felt before and during his participation in the Council of Conscience, the most explicit incarnation of the above mentioned alliance. For St. Vincent, as well as his disciple Bossuet, the Church ought to be, above all, not the Church of kings and rich people but the Church of the poor.
In summary: when St. Vincent died in 1660, he left to posterity an experience of faith, a rich and new spiritual way, built up progressively on the bases of the experiences of Folleville and Chatillon. Some of his most significant themes are as follows:
- On the personal level
- abandonment of a self-centered vision of faith and life;
- conversion-dedication to the poor, with a clear desire to encounter those marginalized by **society and the Church in every part of the world;
- working for the poor in organized institutions, in communities and in teams;
- motivated and directed by a radical purpose: “to respond to the designs of God and to imitate the earthly life of Jesus Christ.”
- On the theological level
- abandonment of a theo-centric vision in favor of a Christo-centric vision and even an anthropo-centric vision (in conformity with the very words of Christ: “. . . you did it unto me”; compare also I John 4, 21: “Whoever does not love his brother whom he sees. . .”).
- On the ecclesiological level
- from a vision of the Church as a society-community more or less subsisting in itself to a vision of the Church as clearly missionary and open to the world;
- from a Church in which the clerical-religious element dominates to a Church with a more secular and lay character;
- from a Church allied with the political and financial powers of this world to a Church fully turned toward the poor.
2. The Later Evolution and Intervening Crisis
The three institutions which embodied the spirit of St Vincent in France, where they were founded, lasted 130 years after the death of the founder. The French Revolution was quick to decree the end of the Congregation of the Mission, the Daughters of Charity and the Ladies/Confraternities of Charity. A few years later another decree brought the Congregation of the Mission and the Daughters of Charity back into existence. The Ladies of Charity had to wait another 50 years for their restoration through the efforts of Father Etienne. Today, these three institutions enjoy a worldwide expansion, more than in any previous century.
The fact of vigorous numerical growth in principle speaks in favor of the legitimacy of the Christian experience of St. Vincent de Paul. Without a doubt, the spirituality of St. Vincent is solidly Christian. To say it another way, it is a very legitimate interpretation of the Gospel that has borne the test of time. Legitimate, on the one hand, and rich, on the other hand, because its power of attraction for so many baptized Christians, clergy and lay, has been demonstrated through more than three centuries. It is flexible and adaptable to changing times, and, as far as anyone can see, is rising to the challenge and giving inspiration for the present time in the life of the Church and the world. The number of the baptized today who explicitly call upon St. Vincent for inspiration in their own Christian lives numbers over 1,000,000. This number means a little more than one Vincentian member for every thousand Catholics.
Within a few years after the French Revolution — for all those who are not inclined to be blinded by pining continually for the glories of the Old Regime — it was obvious that the political revolution and the economic-industrial revolution obligated the Church to reconsider its ancient mission in new terms and to redefine afresh its place in a new society. Though Frederic Ozanam was not the only one who attempted this, nor was France the only country where the challenge was taken up, it does not seem exaggerated to affirm that Ozanam was one of the earliest to see the problem and define it with great clarity. Look at this text of 1836:
The question which stirs up the world today is not a question of persons, neither is it a question of political form, but a social question; the struggle of those who have nothing and of those who have too much, the violent battles of the opulent and the poor, that shakes the floor beneath our feet. The obligation of us Christians is to place ourselves in between those irreconcilable enemies…and to get equality to reign as much as possible among men…and charity to attain that which justice cannot produce by itself.
There you have it with complete clarity: the analysis of a new society. It was not an “organic” society, like the old one, but a society, divided into classes (that also was true of the old society: the estates) confronting each other, not for political reasons or religious ones (as much as it was in the old regime), but because of the unjust distribution of national wealth. To the degree this was true in the old regime, but it was legitimized easily by philosophical, political and even religious concepts (Christian resignation, the will of God…), ideas which were swept away without pity by the winds of revolution. The injustice now appeared in all its cruel nakedness, without the ideological coverings which had concealed inhuman feelings of shame.
Ozanam, also with complete clarity, described the role of Christians in this new society; a role, which is to be no less than treating themselves as true believers in Jesus Christ; as peace makers and intermediaries in the social struggle. Reconciliation at any price, however, which would leave unjust structures intact was not an acceptable solution, rather it would have to be reconciliation built upon the fundamentals of equality and justice “…as soon as possible among people.” Still there is even more: charity needs to lead to action which does not merely alleviate or conceal the ravages of injustice, as happened before, but precisely to go even further, to obtain “that which justice is not able to do by itself.”
Furthermore, the intermediary role of the Christian to bring about a resolution of the structural injustices of society, according to Ozanam, was not to be done from a stance of what we might call neutrality, but rather from what we now call a preferential option for the poor. Note his vigorous expression: “Let us pass over to the side of ‘the barbarians’” that is
…go among the people who do not know us; let us help them not only with alms which tie people down but also with the creation of institutions destined to free them and make them better.…Let us pass over to the side of the barbarians (note: It is parallel to what the Church did at the end of the decadent Roman Empire)…in order to convert them into true citizens and to give them dignity capable of possessing the liberty of the children of God.
His use of the word “barbarians,” without meaning to do so, greatly scandalized well meaning Catholics. However, Ozanam did not downplay the force of his expression when he wrote to explain his thinking in a letter to a friend:
In saying “Let us pass over to the side of the barbarians,” I am asking that, in place of being married to the interests of a selfish middle-class (bourgeoisie), we devote ourselves to the common people. It is among the common people that I see enough remnants of faith and morality which can save our society, something the upper classes have already lost.
He was even more explicit in a letter to his priest brother dated May 23, 1848:
In place of seeking an alliance with the middle-class whose time is up, let us support the common people, who are the true allies of the Church, poor like her, rejected like her, blessed with all the blessings of the Savior.
This expressed with great clarity something which more than 120 years later came to be treated theologically and in a systematic manner (specifically by the theology of liberation), and entered into the general consciousness of the Church after the Second Vatican Council, that is, the preferential option for the poor.
Did such an option as Ozanam expressed it have something to do with the fundamental posture of St. Vincent de Paul? Definitely, and in a deeply rooted way, for Vincent attributed such an option to Jesus Christ himself, as a way of caring for his people.
See, my brothers, how the chief thing in our Lord’s eyes was to work for the poor! When he went to others, it was only just as they happened to be on his way.
Since there is a harmony of spirit between Frederic and Vincent in what is most profound, it is not strange that we find many examples of this harmony of spirit in specifics. Notice the strongly Vincentian flavor of this text of Ozanam:
We see the poor with the eyes of the flesh; there they are and we are able to put our fingers in their sores; the marks from the crown of thorns are visible on their foreheads……. You are the sacred image of that God whom we do not see, and since we cannot love him in some other way, we love him in your persons…You are our lords and we will be your servants.
It is necessary to admit publicly that there is nothing in the official writings of the Congregation of the Mission nor of the Daughters of Charity throughout the 19th century that comes close to either the clarity of Ozanam’s analysis or to the purity of his Vincentian sensitivity applied to modern times. An admirable figure, a contemporary of Ozanam who was indeed close to him, was Sister Rosalie Rendu. She was an inspiration and animator of the first works for the poor of Ozanam and his companions in the foundation of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, but she was not understood by the authorities of either of the religious communities.
Perhaps there were historical circumstances which explain or give a reason for this lacuna. For example, it is possible to think that the major superiors had their hands full with the concerns of reestablishing the structures of both religious communities, very much damaged by the French Revolution and its after effects. Without a doubt, what gave direction to the activities of Father Etienne throughout his life, which he accomplished with stunning success, was restoration. Ozanam and he were contemporaries.
Father Etienne, a man of great practical insight, knew very well that these new times offered an historic opportunity to renew and to make relevant the structures of the Congregation.
Is there not in this new situation a totally new terrain on which the Company can freely design and reconstruct its edifice on conditions very favorable for the freedom of its movements and for the development of its activities?
The contemporary historical situation and the possibilities of the future were seen with such clarity. Strangely, Father Etienne believed that the best way to make use of these possibilities was by a strict return to the text of the Common Rules, a return that guaranteed the historical immutability of the Congregation.
The Company ought not to be subject to the changes and alternatives which institutions made by human hands suffer, because our Rules move us to the practice of the evangelical counsels, which participate in some fashion in the immutability of the Gospel itself…One ought not to introduce the smallest change into our Rules and Constitutions; since one is able to observe them with the same fruitfulness and with the same fidelity in the present as in the past…
Ozanam, however, reacted differently to the changes toward more democratic forms of social organizations, which resulted from the 1848 Revolution (the Second Republic) when the monarchy fell for the third time in 50 years:
We have accepted the republic not as an evil of the times to which one must resign oneself, rather as progress which must be defended.… Providence does not destroy except in order to build up, and the more it renews the earth, the more we ought to think of the foundations deepening for a new order.
And a few days earlier:
Everyone is in agreement that if ever the finger of God has been seen in the human story, it is in the revolution which just took place…What I have learned from history gives me reason to believe that democracy is the natural end of political progress and that God is leading towards it.
He was reading the signs of the times with keen insight and fidelity. However, not everybody was in agreement with his vision, neither those in the Church nor those outside the Church. How could the true monarchists or the churchmen who were pining for the past marriage between the throne and the altar be in agreement? Father Etienne, although he in an earlier letter of January 1849 manifested some indecision about how to interpret the recent revolutionary movements without excluding a possible action from Providence, wrote to the entire Congregation in November of that same year:
The principle that excites people, which brings catastrophe to the world, is pride and a spirit of independence. The cause of all revolutions, which topple thrones to the ground and turn empires upside down, is found in this saying from Scripture which is placed in the mouths of the impious: I will not serve, I will not surrender…The base upon which the social order rests is respect for authority.
He applies the same idea about authority to the Congregation of the Mission in affirming that authority “is the base upon which the entire edifice of the Congregation rests” (Ibid.…t. III, p 169). One might dare to object, even timidly, that a person could legitimately think the base of the edifice of the Company is not authority, but rather following Christ in the evangelization of the poor; and the constitutive principle of all society is not respect for authority, but the search for the common good.
It has been commonly held for a long time now that throughout the 19th century and a good part of the 20th century the Church adopted a defensive posture, a retreat into itself in the face of an avalanche of lifestyles and ideas that invaded European society from the Enlightenment onwards. The most visible and most notorious sign of this posture was the Syllabus (of Errors) of Pius IX, who attacked head on all those ideas or ways of social acting which could be called “modern.” (Pius IX certainly owed his fame at the beginning of his pontificate to being sympathetic to the new currents then hailed with enthusiasm by the more open segments of the Church, among them Ozanam.)
There was, without a doubt, in such a posture, motives and legitimate aspects of safeguarding the essentials, which needed to be maintained at all costs in order to avoid the very real danger of an amorphous dissolution of fundamental Christian values. What resulted, however, was the posture of a siege-mentality, profound and long lasting. Only with the Second Vatican Council did the Church leave behind in an official way its wintertime hibernation in order to return to the world which it had to save, as Paul VI expressed with such depth and clarity in the closing address of the Council (n. 14). He was questioning himself and he was asking the Church present at the Council: “Has the mind of the Church perhaps been diverted toward the anthropocentric orientation of modern culture?” He himself responded: “Diverted, no; turned toward, yes.” It was the same as openly admitting two things:
- Before the Council, the Church had its back to the anthropocentric orientation of modern culture;
- turning toward the anthropocentric orientation of modern culture does not mean a diversion for the Church, since
our humanism is Christian, our Christianity is theocentric; so much so that we are able to affirm that in order to know God it is necessary to know humanity (n.16).
It is not necessary to add that the communities founded by St. Vincent were no exception to the general posture of retreating from the new society and the new anthropocentric orientation. I indicated above the distinguishing Christocentric-anthropocentric character of the spiritual experience of St. Vincent. Can it be honestly said that the following words of another Superior General, the successor of Father Etienne, namely Father Fiat, are faithful to the true spiritual vision of St. Vincent?
The first end of the little Company is the sanctification of its members, and as such, it ought to be the primary object of our concern; all the others ought to be subordinate.
A true disciple of St. Vincent, then, according to Father Fiat, when evangelizing the poor, should be thinking above all of his own personal sanctification. It is a return to the egocentricity (the egocentricity seen, however, as “spiritual”) and the theocentrism of the youthful Vincent, the same theocentrism that is seen in the spiritual writings of the 19th century when speaking of personal sanctity. Is what Father Fiat wrote at heart compatible with the mystical-spiritual-Christian vision of St. Vincent de Paul, “to leave God for God”?
In all that I have been saying I do not intend in any way whatsoever to cast a shadow of doubt on the Vincentianism of either Father Etienne or Father Fiat. The Superiors General of the Congregation of the Mission and the Daughters of Charity actually distinguished themselves by having very strongly and very positively influenced the life and growth of both communities. To a great extent, we continue today because of the inheritance that they left us. Furthermore, it would have been too much to ask that the two Little Companies would have opposed the general attitude of the Church and of the great religious orders. The critical observations that we have made refer more to the modes of expression that proceed from them and shape certain mental attitudes which had a real influence on our subsequent life.
It is also necessary to add that neither of the two communities retreated completely from the emerging world. This world also included Ethiopia, the Far East, the Near East, the United States, the working classes of the English industrial cities, countless asylums, hospitals, leprosariums, and schools for the poor, where Missionaries and Daughters continued to express in their daily lives and in their ministries the best of the spirituality of the founder.
One might have hoped for an end to the mental attitudes of isolationism and rejection of the world by the end of the 19th century when Leo XIII published the first great social encyclical (1891), which called for a significant conversion of Christian conscience toward the social and political dimensions of faith. But this did not happen, as was lamented 40 years later in another social encyclical, that of Pius XI. This change did not occur in the church as a whole; nor did it occur in the institutions of St. Vincent de Paul as a whole.
3. Today’s World
I am not going to follow the customary post-conciliar approach of attempting a thorough and penetrating description of the tendencies and ways of the modern world. I will limit myself to three characteristics of that world that bear directly on three characteristics of Vincentian spirituality.
1) The world of today is a world distant from the Church.
First of all there is an immense number of believers in other religions (more than 3,500,000,000 people). But it also applies to a large percentage of baptized Christians and Catholics. At the same time, we have to acknowledge and thank God that in this world distant from the Church there are abundant signs of “the seeds of the Word.” For example: works for the poor and the struggle for human rights by individuals and organizations that are not officially Christian and that do not consider themselves Christian. These seeds of the Word spread throughout the world are doing good either by means of the historical and millennial influence of the Gospel and of the educational action of the Church, or by means of what theologians call “natural revelation.”
This reality of distance from the Church ought not to disillusion Vincentian organizations, for it places them in the middle of the world and in a state of mission that responds completely to their original missionary vocation. Regarding the Congregation of the Mission, this missionary vocation is seen in the very title, and, regarding the Daughters of Charity, their Constitutions affirm it: “The Company is missionary by its nature” (2.10).
“Missionary” in its strongest and most general meaning is applied to all the faithful who are concerned with attracting to Christ those who do not (explicitly) believe in him. Since the Christian world and the non-Christian world are full of such non-believers, there is no danger that the communities of St. Vincent will be without work in the foreseeable future.
Since mission according to Paul VI expresses the true nature of the Church (EN, 14), it is consequently true that Vincentian missionary spirituality finds its place in the very heart of what the Church is and ought to be. There are other dimensions in the life and being of the Church, also very important, dimensions which refer to what might be called her internal life: worship, sacraments and shepherding the people of God in faith and in practice. The communities of St. Vincent live, of course, completely in these dimensions, since they also believe and live out the faith. However, the communities of St. Vincent were not created to maintain these dimensions. Theirs is to work for and among those who do not believe and/or do not practice. Theirs is to be missionary vocation.
2) The second characteristic of the modern world that is of interest from our perspective is its autonomy, its secularity, its lay character.
Any one of these three terms can express what I have in mind here. Using all three avoids making a detailed analysis of each term. We will detail only what is of greatest interest to this work.
From about the 6th until the 18th century, the Church in large measure was able to instill a religious spirit (although not always specifically Christian) in nearly all the creations of European society, whether its social and political forms of living together, its cultural patterns, philosophy, history, and art or even its science and economics. Today, however, things have changed. The church’s monopoly and clerical dominance over nearly all the cultural forms of society have ended. There is no aspect of modern culture which does not see itself as autonomous and which does not rebuff in principle any type of tutelage or guidance from religious institutions. Everything in today’s world which does not specifically belong to the internal life of the Church strongly insists on its lay and secular character.
This second aspect of the modern world, like the first, ought not to disillusion our Vincentian spirit, because it also reveals to us a world inviting mission. When we remember that the words, “lay” and “secular” are analogical terms that have a positive meaning for us, it is valuable to recall, then, that the spirituality of St. Vincent has a secular and lay character.
Although the theology of religious life today is making efforts to orient itself to the world, it was not always this way, neither at the time of St. Vincent, nor before or after him. Religious life focused on centering oneself on God and keeping one’s distance from the world. That was the way not only in cloistered orders but also in those with apostolic goals.
By contrast… the mottos “to evangelize the poor” and “the charity of Christ urges us” suggest a secular orientation. What does charity urges us to? …to turn toward the poor of the world. It is true that for the Franciscans, so also for the men and women followers of St. Vincent, “Jesus Christ is the rule (of the Mission)” (XI, 429; CM Constitutions, 5; DC Constitutions, 1, 5). However, the Vincentians and Daughters know very well that the Christ whom they serve is not simply the poor Christ, but the Christ who came into the world to preach the Good News to the poor. All the Vincentian institutions were founded for the “secular,” in whatever way one wishes to understand that word (in the world, time or history) in order to move within the world and to bring it to God by means of Christ. So it is easy to understand the insistence of St. Vincent on the clearly secular character of his foundations (not diocesan, but missionary), including the clerical members of the Congregation of the Mission. The secular character of the members of all the Vincentian institutions and the lay membership of nearly all of them (excluding the clerics of the Congregation of the Mission) has made them very appropriate “instruments” for moving easily in a world which considers itself secular and lay.
However, there is still more, which it is good to recall, so that the clerical members of the Congregation of the Mission do not fall into the temptation of believing that they are the ones who primarily incarnate the Vincentian spirit, as if the rest (coadjutor Brothers, Daughters of Charity, AIC, the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul, the youth) are not Vincentian except in a secondary and participative way. It is good to recall that throughout three centuries of history, the clergy have been only a small minority among the men and women who have considered themselves followers of St. Vincent. This means that the Vincentian spirit has been lived overwhelmingly in numbers and time (also today) by lay Christians in the world.
It is not a matter of asking the embarrassing question of who has lived out the life better, clergy or laity. Only God knows and God will tell us at the appropriate time. However, we can affirm that lay members in overwhelming numbers have lived out the Vincentian spirit during three centuries with total fidelity. They did so including the final and supreme test of love for Christ and for the poor that consisted in giving their lives for him and them.
The predominant and secular or lay character of the real world (and it seems like the future of the world for some time to come) suggests an interesting question for the future of the Vincentian spirit. Today, that same spirit lives incarnated in a great number (more than a million, as we noted above), out of whom some 2,800 are ordained priests of the Congregation of the Mission. The question is this: Does it not seem to indicate the fact that the non-clerical status, far from being an impediment for living out the Vincentian spirit in its fullness, lends itself more easily to living it out? Already we have said that the clerical status should not be an obstacle to living out the missionary dimension of the priesthood. The proof is in St. Vincent himself and in the many priests of the Congregation of the Mission, inspired by him. Neither the clerical nor the episcopal status are obstacles. Remember St. Justin de Jacobis, just to mention one example.
Clerical status should not be an obstacle. However, we have to admit frankly what we have seen happen frequently and continues to happen today. We see so many priests employing the major part of their time and energy, not in the work of the missions (although they are called missionaries: CM Constitutions, n. 51, 1), but in the works of the internal strengthening of the Church, especially in parishes. Perhaps there may be no easy answer to the actual situation in the short run, but through wise planning for the future, what the priests of the Congregation of the Mission can do at the very least (even though nothing is impossible, it is very likely that the number of Vincentian clerics will grow even smaller), is to dedicate a small part of their energy to animating and inspiring those who are not clerics. This work is also explicitly requested by the Constitutions (C. 1, 14, 17) and Statute 7. All this is done with the hope that the laity can bring to completion in the Vincentian circle that which the priests are not able to do by reason of their clerical status.
3) The third characteristic of the modern world that interests us and profoundly affects Vincentian spirituality is the fact of structural injustice.
To tell the truth, structural injustice does not belong exclusively to the modern world, because it is found in practically all known forms of social organization. What is new in this context is the following. First, no one attributes to God the injustice of the social organization (like they did in the past, and not so very long ago), but rather injustice is known and recognized as the work of human beings. Secondly, the consciousness of injustice is practically universal. This applies equally to those who are the victims of injustice, who previously were easily subjugated by injustice when it masqueraded as-the will of God, as well as those who benefit from injustice, who previously found all kinds of convenient reasons, even religious reasons, to justify their position of privilege.
Structural injustice in the modern world is not merely economic, but it shows itself in all the systems of the social order: access to healthcare, to culture, to the means of social communication, to many forms of sports and leisure; and finally to the benefits of the Church, although it may hurt to admit it. Today, as also in the time of St. Vincent, the poor masses are inadequately served by the efforts of the Church, unlike the well-to-do. The overall picture of social injustice is certainly depressing, but it ought not to dishearten the Vincentian soul, since that scene is the natural place of its activity and its care.
On this point, as was also noted in the first point of this section, it would be wonderful to look forward to that time when Vincentian institutions would be left without work. If by some stretch of the imagination (John 12, 8) all injustices and the resultant poverty ceased and universal justice would be established, then the end of history will have arrived for the Vincentian institutions which began in1617.
Let us summarize this section which tries to highlight the characteristics of the modern world that are most directly related to how we live Vincentian spirituality today, and which must be taken into account in order to be a spirituality for today, that is, an experience of faith which is alive and meaningful.
- Today’s world is a world far removed from the Christian vision of life and history. This aspect pushes us to be more focused on the missionary dimension of Vincentian spirituality, more than we have in the immediate past.
- Today’s world is a secular world which will be very difficult to evangelize from a clerical posture which tends, by its very nature, to center on the internal life of the Church. Since the time of Origin, in the third century, the word “cleric” was applied explicitly to those who dedicated their life to the service of the Church itself, in contrast to the rest of the people of God, the laity. In order to evangelize such a world, Vincentian spirituality will need to give a privileged place to secular and lay aspects which belong to its very origin.
- The real world is a profoundly unjust one which segregates the poor by themselves in numbers greater than in the past. Vincentian spirituality, centered on the spiritual experience of Christ-evangelizer-of-the-poor, has possibly before its eyes a panorama in which Vincentian spirituality can be expressed with an intensity maybe greater than in the time of St. Vincent.
4. The Future of the Vincentian Spirit
To realize such a project in the future, the Vincentian spirit will need to begin where the founder began, namely, by a true conversion, by turning-toward-the-poor. It will not be enough simply to turn more to Christ, that is to say, a Christ removed from the poor. Berulle had already done that. Before and after him, many other forms of spirituality did it too; forms which certainly took into account the poor, but in a manner, more or less, marginal and secondary. For the Vincentian spirit, the Christ who evangelizes the poor is not secondary but totally central.
This spiritual journey (access to God through Christ), this Vincentian journey, has to begin where Christ began and also where his disciple Vincent de Paul began. We need to begin in the world of the poor, in physical contact and close to them. The Vincentian organizations and members who compose them cannot convert themselves into bureaucratic agencies that try to improve the living condition of the disenfranchised through a kind of ministry of social well-being. For each one of them, dedication to the poor is the only road that gives access to God through Christ. The most direct relationship possible with the actual poor is the first step that opens its proper way toward God.
This first step cannot be avoided. Anyone with a Vincentian soul who removes himself or herself from direct contact with the poor, for whatever reason (studies, sickness, work in an institution, age…) ought to feel a tension which makes him or her uncomfortable about being physically distant from their proper world, which also nourishes their spiritual life.
On the other hand, neither the Constitutions of the Congregation of the Mission nor those of the Daughters of Charity mention explicitly how to relate certain expressions of personal or communal piety (expressions which have always been considered essential elements of any spirituality) with the spirit of their proper spirituality, the evangelization of the poor. Nothing is said about the Vincentian dimension when speaking about fundamentals like the Eucharist (CM Constitutions, 45,1 / DC Constitutions 2.12); penance (45, 2 / 2, 13, S.8); liturgical prayer ( 45, 3 / 2. 12); spiritual exercises (47, 1 / 2. 14, S. 10); and devotion to the Virgin Mary (49,1 / 12, 2. 11, 2.16, S. 7). Referring to those necessary aspects of all spirituality, the Constitutions, which define Vincentian spirituality now and in the future, leave the followers of St. Vincent without knowing how to integrate those aspects with what constitutes the soul of their spiritual life. The Constitutions do not state how to understand daily Eucharist or devotion to the Virgin Mary in relation to one’s dedication to the poor. It runs the risk of a certain spiritual schizophrenia when one ends up not knowing how to integrate and unify the center of one’s own spirituality with the fundamental elements intended to nourish it. This danger is, of course, very real. Look at this: how much of our veneration of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal remain merely enthusiastic devotions but do not serve to help us in evangelizing the poor?
The abundant and profound theological-exegetical investigations of the last 50 years have succeeded in emphasizing the importance, fundamental for the Christian faith, of what is now called the historical Jesus, the historical journey of Jesus which began in Bethlehem and ended on the cross and in the tomb. In reality, this was the Christ who served as a definite model for the spiritual experience of St. Vincent. So, it seems that his personal, spiritual genius would feel at home in the theological vision predominant in contemporary biblical studies.
Such work still remains to be done in the area of Mariology (although something is being done). The infrequent though significant references of Saint Vincent to the Virgin Mary always point to the “historical” Mary and not to Mary assumed and glorified, the dimension which has dominated in theological circles and popular piety until this very day. The true Mary, however, who serves as model and inspiration for the Vincentian spirit, is the “historical” Mary of the “fiat,” the one who visited Elizabeth, the one of the birth and infancy of Jesus, the one at the wedding feast of Cana, at Calvary, at Pentecost, and most especially the Mary who in the Magnificat announced with joy and thanksgiving and with tremendous power the full redemption of the poor and the total ruin of those who believe themselves rich and powerful.
All that we have been saying points out two dynamics: on the one hand, the necessity of returning decisively to that which is most basic to the heart of St. Vincent’s theological vision, and, on the other hand, the value of using contemporary theological formulations which can reflect Vincent’s spiritual sensitivity adapted to our times. If Vincentian communities cannot produce or in fact do not produce such formulations, it would seem to be wise to borrow from competent theologians who have indeed produced them. Today, in the Church, there are theological models which certainly seem to formulate in a “modern” fashion those fundamental aspects, proper to St. Vincent de Paul. One example is liberation theology.
The spiritual experience of St. Vincent is completely Christocentric, as all the experts who know him well observe. That is a definite and fundamental fact. It is also the spiritual experience of St. Louise. This evidence is clear in itself, but besides that we know St. Louise was the person who best assimilated the Vincentian spirit from the very beginning and before any other person. This being true, it is not necessary to give much credence to one of the best experts about both founders, Jean Calvet, when he stated that the spiritual vision proper to St. Louise was more properly centered on the Holy Spirit. This affirmation of Jean Calvet, nevertheless, reminds us of something very fundamental which we are in the habit of forgetting frequently: the role of the Holy Spirit.
Explicit references of St. Vincent to the person of the Holy Spirit and its influence in history are actually quite limited, which is not the case with St. Louise, who offers many explicit references to the Holy Spirit. Now then, a true Christian spirituality cannot pass over something that in the very teaching of Christ appears fundamental. Jesus himself attributes to the Holy Spirit all that the Christian is able to do from the Ascension onwards.
The role of the Spirit is not some abstract dogmatic affirmation without a real relationship with history, but actually the key and the soul of history. Based firmly on the words of the Lord, the Church and its members under the action of the Holy Spirit have to adapt the teachings of Christ in changing historical circumstances. This function is not limited to the teaching authority proper to the hierarchy. For example, the Christian (and the follower of Vincent) under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit are called to learn how to discern “the cry of the poor” in changing historical circumstances as a sign of the will of God, without always waiting for an official word from the Church hierarchy. “The Holy Spirit enlightens our minds so that we may know more thoroughly the needs of the world” (CM Constitutions, 43); “…attention to persons, their lives, the social-cultural realities of people and attention to the Holy Spirit of God who is acting in the world…” (DC Constitutions 2.8).
All that we are saying above ought not to create problems for the Vincentian spirit in the modern world. The two founders are models of courageous adaptation of an ancient spirit of charity in the historical circumstances of their times, certainly without getting ahead of Providence (the historical action of the Holy Spirit). They responded with bravery and imagination to their changing times.
There is a lack of similar valor and imagination in one area: the updating of the works of the Congregation. When one appeals to our glorious and historic past as a criterion for maintaining a house or a work that no longer meets the proper end of the Congregation, he is naming a criterion which the founder never considered and which the Constitutions do not take into account.
We need to avoid the trap of preserving things at all costs or giving way to timidity and undue respect for history. From the “historical” life of Jesus and from the spiritual and historical experiences of the founders, we need to extract the fundaments for today, without neglecting our own spiritual experience of being Vincentian. However, knowing how to apply them to changing, historical circumstances and to the changing forms of poverty, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, is another matter
All the organizations founded by St. Vincent or inspired by his spiritual experience are today trying to reformulate and to relive the original experience adapted to these times.
Why would it be necessary to reformulate it? Is it not enough simply to read the 13 volumes of letters, conferences and documents in which the original experience was imparted? Actually, it would be enough to return to rereading them in order to relive them with fidelity, if the times in which St. Vincent lived were our own times; if men and women of today were the same as in his time, if the Church of today were the same as in his time; more importantly, though, if the poor of today were the same as the poor of his time.
However, not one of these suppositions is accurate. It was precisely the constellation of social changes that started the volcanic eruption of the French Revolution that made sure that neither men nor women nor the Church itself, nor, of course, the poor, would be today what they were in the time of St. Vincent. That is why whoever intends to relive the original Vincentian spirit today will not find it sufficient to reread the letters in order to capture the original spirit. He or she must try to relive the spirit by taking from the original experience the foundational elements, which, after all the changes and revolutions that have occurred in society and in the Church, can continue to be significant guides so that our spiritual-Christian experience can be considered for us today legitimately Vincentian.