7] Saint Vincent and human promotion
In the Compendium we read: The poor should be seen not as a problem, but as people who can become the principal builders of a new and more human future for everyone (Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, p.253, #449).
Vincent de Paul’s perspective is that the poor are able to become responsible actors in their own promotion. In Vincent’s experience we see a twofold dimension: an immediate response in which he provides food and care and shelter and then action with regard to structures, political action because if one has to struggle against poverty in order to mitigate it then at the same time one has to struggle against the causes of poverty in order to eliminate them. Let us reflect more on this theme.
Direct assistance cannot be viewed as an end in itself or as an isolated activity but rather should be seen as a means that enables one to awaken those who are concerned about their personal development and in bettering their situation in both the medium and long range.
All of this implies clothing ourselves in certain attitudes: • a realization that all people, without exception, are the subject of rights and duties; • a belief in the ability of every person to better themselves and to move forward.
Brothers and sisters, we ought to believe in people. I am firmly convinced that this is a question of life or death because the future of the people with whom we work is at stake. I say this and I am referring to the poor who have been entrusted to us and also to our collaborators … it will be difficult for them to take on this attitude if they do not see this attitude present in ourselves, we who are the sons and daughters of Vincent de Paul.
In order to believe in people we need to have a vision of faith. Allow me to refer to article 10 of the Constitutions of the Daughters of Charity to illustrate this point. There we read: The Sisters find Christ and contemplate Him in the heart and life of those who are poor, where His grace is ever at work to sanctify and save them. Their primary concern is to make God known to them, to proclaim the Gospel, and to make the Kingdom present. Through faith they see Christ in those who are poor, and they see those who are poor in Christ (Constitutions of the Company of the Daughters of Charity of Saint Vincent de Paul, #10a-b).
Here I ask you to allow me to invite you to pose a question, one that I have asked myself many times especially in situations where I feel helpless and in situations where the realities of those persons who are poor appear to overwhelm me: am I convinced, am I truly convinced and do I believe that the grace of God continues to act in those persons who are wearied, continues to save them and sanctify them? We ought to realize that the first and foremost resource that people have is themselves and their abilities (even if those abilities are dormant).
Saint Paul, in his letter to the Ephesians, expresses the same idea as that which is found in Article 10 of the Constitutions: Now to him who is able to accomplish far more than all we ask or imagine, by the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus, to all generations, forever and ever (Ephesians 3:20-21).
With this vision of the human person it is impossible to fall into stereotyping and labeling other people. Expressions such as: all people are the same … it is impossible to do anything … they do not want to change … should not find a place in the heart of the children of Vincent de Paul. If I do utter such words then I ought to stop and think … it can happen that with such an attitude I am denying my ability to act as I configure the failure of my intervention and thus define the destiny of those persons whom the Lord has entrusted to me.
Another detail to keep in mind is that of our faith in people. We cannot believe that we have some perfect understanding of another person’s problems and therefore a clear understanding of the solution to said problem. We often communicate the idea that we understand another’s situation and that our solution is also valid for that person. This is a mistaken idea since we are unable to place ourselves in that person’s situation. The people who approach us are not interested in encountering someone who wants to change them but rather they want to know that someone will support them and accompany them when their decide to change. To help another person is to become aware of their reality and the steps that are needed in order to overcome said situation. This is a slow process and begins with respect for the other person’s ability to organize his/her life. Therefore here we are not dealing with problem solving but rather with a process of accompaniment.
We return to Saint Vincent. We are sons and daughters of a father who was the first in organizing charity and he did this for a very specific purpose: to avoid duplicating efforts and to provide better services to those persons who were suffering. Here I am referring to what occurred in Châtillon in 1617, events that gave birth to his first foundation. We do not always give sufficient attention to the fact that here Vincent intervened in the specific problems of a group of people and did this while in the midst of the situation that produced the problem in the first place. Consequently, he was committed to the actions that arose from the community. In the field of social work we refer to this as community development.
It is very enlightening to reflect on the way that Vincent acted in Mâcon. We have a letter that Vincent sent to Louise in which he explains the events that occurred in Mâcon in 1620. Coste inserted a footnote in this letter and refers to Abelly, pointing out that there was some good to be done so he stopped there. The men and women of the well-to-do-class, responding to his appeal, formed two distinct confraternities. To the men he entrusted the assistance of the poor; to the women, the care of the sick. The Bishop, the Canons, and the Lieutenant General helped him as best they could. Rules were drawn up and put into practice (CCD:I:281, footnote #1 of letter 198c). Once again we see that different groups and individuals committed themselves to remedy the existing situation of poverty.
We are fortunate to have at our disposal various texts that refer to said Rule and we also have at hand a copy of the Rule and I would exhort you to read these documents (CCD:XIIIb:67ff). Here I will simply point out two articles which provide us with an image of Vincent that might be somewhat distinct from that which we commonly hold:  All those who were found begging in the streets and at the churches during the week, or about whom the Ladies had made justifiable complaints, would receive nothing the following Sunday…  Since the assembly did not want to encourage laziness among the able-bodied poor or their families, they were to be given only what was necessary to supplement the modest salaries from their work (CCD:XIIIb:69-70).
Vincent always joined assistance to some form of human promotion. He looked for different means that would enable those who were poor to become aware of their situation, their rights, their possibilities … means that would enable them to become the protagonists of their integral development. In 1651 he wrote to the superior at Sedan: Their [the Ladies] original intention was to assist only those who cannot work nor earn their living and would be in danger of dying of starvation if someone did not assist them. In fact, as soon as anyone is strong enough to work, tools of his trade are bought for him and nothing more is given to him. Accordingly, the alms are not for those able to work on the fortifications or to do something else, but seriously ill sick persons, orphans, or the elderly (CDD:IV:188).
In 1659 Vincent wrote to Monsieur Jean Parre who had traveled through Picardy and Champagne taking notes with regard to the needs of the poor while seeking remedies to this situation: They [the Ladies] would also like to enable all the other poor people who have no land — men as well as women — to earn their own living, by giving the men some tools for working and the girls and women spinning wheels and flax or linen for spinning — but only the poorest (CCD:VIII:82-83).
Forgive me for once again making reference to the Constitutions of the Daughters (I am not very familiar with the Constitutions of the Congregation of the Mission). When speaking about human promotion the Constitutions cite the encyclical Populorum Progressio, which states: We cannot allow economics to be separated from human realities, nor development from the civilization in which it takes place. What counts for us is man—each individual man, each human group, and humanity as a whole (Populorum Progressio, 14).
The provisional Constitutions of 1975 and 1983 spoke about a constant concern for the whole person. Now, with a more developed formulation and in accord with the present way of thinking, the present Constitutions state: With constant concern for the promotion of the whole person, the Company does not separate corporal service from spiritual service, nor the work of humanization from that of evangelization (Constitutions of the Company of the Daughters of Charity of Saint Vincent de Paul, #14).
Evangelii Nundiandi tells us that evangelization cannot be reduced to human promotion but the Vincentian tradition tell us that evangelization necessarily includes human promotion and at the same time shows us that we cannot separate in some rigid manner evangelization and human promotion, even though there are some who today will defend such a separation.
It would be possible now to relate the praxis of Saint Vincent with other interesting aspects of the Church’s social doctrine: Saint Vincent and refugees (recall here all that Vincent suffered in his organizational efforts on behalf of those multitudes who were arriving in Paris as they fled their homes as a result of the war), Saint Vincent and the theology of work, Saint Vincent and the analysis of the reality, Saint Vincent and networking, Saint Vincent and inculturation … but we have to leave things as they are for the moment, but I do invite you to continue to investigate these themes and others that might interest you.
Mother Guillemin was correct when she spoke to the Sister Servants in 1963: We do not know Saint Vincent and Saint Louise well enough. We imagine we know them because we have read their lives perhaps every year, but we still do not know them in the depths of their souls — and we must admit that those depths are truly magnificent. The better we know Saint Vincent and Saint Louise, the more astonished we are in seeing to what extent they are relevant today. I am always in admiration on discovering how much the Church’s exploration of today is in perfect accord with the teaching of Saint Vincent and Saint Louise … true, they used the language of the seventeenth century, but their spiritual depth was in the same direction as the Church’s exploration of today; so much so that we feel much more at ease in a familiar knowledge of our Holy Founders than in the thoughts expressed during the nineteenth century. Our twentieth century is closer to Saint Vincent’s thinking than was the nineteenth, and for us that is a great encouragement (Mother Guillemin, Instructions to the Sister Servants, The duty of the Sister Servant, 1963).
We studied the life of Saint Louise with the young sisters and it is right to affirm what Father Benito Martínez wrote in his book Empeñada en un paraíso para los pobres (Committed to a paradise for the poor): Vincent de Paul and Louise de Marillac were both founders of the Company. There was one charism shared by two people or if you will, the two saints received the same divine charism to minister on behalf of the community of poor people (Benito Martínez, CM, Empeñada en un paraíso para los pobres, CEME, 1995, p. 76). Personally I am in total agreement with this statement.
At some later time we will reflect on the life of the first Sisters, Sister Rosalie Rendu, Frederic Ozanam and Sister S. Guillemin, a true prophet in our time. We could cite numerous other Vincentians who have walked in these footsteps and we would see how the charism has been transmitted and continues to be transmitted as a living and precious heritage.