5] Saint Vincent and the management of material goods
All the documents of the Church’s social doctrine insist on the social function of private property. From the beginning the Church has defended the universal destiny of productive goods. An example of this teaching is found in the encyclical of Pope John XXIII: Private ownership of property, including that of productive goods, is a natural right which the State cannot suppress. But it naturally entails a social obligation as well. It is a right which must be exercised not only for one’s own personal benefit but also for the benefit of others (John XXIII, Mater et Magistra, #19). We also read in Gaudium et Spes: God destined the earth and all that it contains for all men and all peoples so that all created things would be shared fairly by all mankind under the guidance of justice tempered by charity (Gaudium et spes, #69).
Two centuries before public assistance and three centuries before social security, Saint Vincent put in place a number of works and services for the poor … services that were totally free of charge. Therefore Vincent had to find resources in order to continue these works and services.
As part of his organizational strategy Vincent was able to convince the powerful, those who held political, economic and social positions, of their moral obligation to protect the weaker members of society and to help them recuperate their dignity. We are aware of the fact that he was a member of the Council of Conscience, that he pleaded with Queen Anne of Austria to provide protection to the peasants against those who were plundering their lands (CCD:IV:421-422) and that he sought the intervention of Pope Innocent X during the Fronde (CCD:IV:445-447).
As Vincent confronted the political powers of his day he was not one who was opposed to the system nor was he a servile executor of the system but rather he was a faithful disciples of Jesus: (give to Caesar what is Caesar’s) but even more faithful to the poor and to God (give to God what is God’s).
He obtained donations from the king and queen (CCD:II:92-93; 532-533). He found resources for his establishments, that is, he was able to obtain money and land for a wonderful purpose and this income guaranteed the continuation of the work. We know that the de Gondi family contributed 45,000 livres for the foundation of the Congregation of the Mission (it is estimated that one livre is equivalent to 60 euros). The total income from Saint-Lazare, with all of its possessions, was more than 40 or 50 thousand livres annually. Vincent received other monies from members of the nobility, from agricultural investments and from investments made in transportation. We ought to include here monies from other benefices and from the donations of many benefactors.
Vincent saw material goods as necessary in order to care for the poor and this in no way meant that spiritual goods were to be neglected. He said: O my God, necessity obliges us to have these perishable goods and to preserve for the Company what Our Lord has placed in it; but we have to apply ourselves to this in the way God himself applies himself to produce and preserve temporal goods to adorn the world and feed its creatures, so that He takes care to provide for even the tiniest insect. This does not hinder His interior operations, by which He engenders His Son and brings forth the Holy Spirit. He does those things without omitting the others (CCD:XII:95).
This need to rely on material resources led Vincent to go to court in order to defend his right to certain properties. He stated: We go to court as little as possible and, when we are obliged to do so, it is only after having sought advice both within and outside [the Community]. We prefer to relinquish what belongs to us rather than scandalize our neighbor (CCD:III:69).
Today when we speak about the universal destiny of material goods we realize that Vincent saw these goods as belonging to the poor and they belong to the poor precisely because they belong to God. Let us listen to Vincent as he speaks to the Daughters who administered these goods: We are obliged to manage [these goods] well and to use them conscientiously. First, because they belong to our good God, since they are the property of the poor. That is why you have to take good care of them, not only because they belong to the poor, who need them badly, but also because they are the property of Our Lord Jesus Christ (CCD:X:245).
The administration of material goods takes on a mystical dimension which Vincent understood as meaning “a life united with God”, that is, having the same will and non-will as God (CCD:XI:286). Vincent not only found God in the poor but also in the administration of goods, in the ingenuity and creativity that was needed in order to assist such a large number of poor people: abandoned children, orphans, infirm, peasants living in misery, refugees, etc.
Administrators who fulfill their mission and have been purified by detachment and the Vincentian spirit, become an image of God, Creator and Provider. We recall anew the text from Saint Matthew which was so beloved by Vincent: Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers or sisters of mine, you did for me (Matthew 25:40)
As a result of this, to serve the poor is to serve Jesus Christ. This is so because God dwells in us and when we serve the poor it is God who is serving the poor through us … it is God who is caring for the infirm, the elderly and the orphans … we simply make present the action of Divine Providence. So that this might continue to be a reality in our own day let us lift up our minds and hearts to the Lord with the same words that Vincent spoke: So then, my God, allow us, in order to continue our ministries for Your glory, to work at the preservation of temporal things, but to do it in such a way that our spirit may not be contaminated by them, nor justice wounded, nor our hearts encumbered (CCD:XII:95-96).
There is a phrase in the encyclical Sollicitudo rei socialis and I am not sure if we are familiar with these words or not nor can I foresee where the fulfillment of these words might lead us … and perhaps it is precisely for that reason that we may not be so familiar with the following words: Faced by cases of need, one cannot ignore them in favor of superfluous church ornaments and costly furnishings for divine worship; on the contrary it could be obligatory to sell these goods in order to provide food, drink, clothing and shelter for those who lack these things (Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, #31).
Have you read those words before? Have you paused and reflected on those words? Have we thought of the implication of those words? If such words are unheard of for the majority of people, then for the sons and daughters of Saint Vincent de Paul they ought to sound quite normal since three centuries ago during a conference on poverty Vincent spoke to the Missionaries and said: But, for the Company — the poor Company — nothing special should be permitted either in food or clothing! I make exception, as always, for the sick. Oh, the poor patients! For them, even the chalices of the Church should be sold. God has given me tender feelings in that regard and I ask him to give this spirit to the Company (CCD:XII:334).
Someone could think that the expression might be the result of a moment of fervor, but in reality it was a deep conviction of our Holy Founder that he expressed on more than one occasion, including his letters. In 1639 he wrote to Monsieur Pierre du Chesne, the superior of Monsieur Dufestel who was ill: I am writing to him and asking him to do all he can and to spare nothing for his medical care. I entreat you, Monsieur, to be sure that he does so and, for that purpose, see that the doctor visits him every day and that he lacks no remedy or nourishment. Oh! how I hope the Company will provide for his needs with a holy extravagance! I would be delighted if word were sent to me from somewhere that someone in the Company has sold chalices for that purpose (CCD:I:521).
Having examined the attitude and the praxis of Saint Vincent with regard to material goods, we are led by the hand to reflect on the following point.