“This little company, which occupies the last place and is the poorest of all”

Francisco Javier Fernández ChentoCongregation of the MissionLeave a Comment

Author: Noel Travers · Year of first publication: 1985 · Source: Colloque, Journal of the Irish Province of the Congregation of the Mission. Paper read to Vincentian Study Group, 11 March 1985..
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I was recently asked “What order do you belong to?”. When I said “Vincentians”, the reply was “St Vincent — he was a great saint — he had great charity”. I think the person was commenting on the charity that Vincent had for the neighbour, for the poor. This reply has stayed with me. It is so obvious. Yet it took an outsider to stress the obvious. Vincent had a great love for the poor. As a boy he shared what he had with a beggar. His father did not scold Vincent for his generosity. We know that he was ordained in 1600. The years 1605-1607 were probably spent in captivity in North Africa. In 1608 he was wrongly accused of stealing money from the judge in the lodging house in Paris. From 1611-1616 he took on the temptation of the theologian, according to Fr Román. These three incidents show that Vincent had a great love for people in need. He was freed from the terrible temptation against the faith by dedicating his life to the evangelisation of the poor. From being a young priest with an ecclesiastical career in mind he got involved in serving the poor.Yet he did not take the initiative in going to the poor. Rather it was God who set the scene for Vincent. When he had heard the dying man’s confession at Cannes near Folleville the man was so overjoyed that he told everybody of his joy and peace of mind. Madame de Gondi invited Vincent to preach the following Sunday in Folleville. God blessed his words and many people were reconciled to God. Madame de Gondi then offered a sum of money to any group of priests who would preach on her estates. Vincent did this with the help of Fr Belin and Fr Callon. Later that year at Châtillon-les-Dombes when some parishioners informed him of the plight of a needy family, Vincent organised the Ladies of Charity there and helped, in November of that year, to draw up their rules. He was blessed by God in the Spiritual Directors that he had. Cardinal de Bérulle and St Francis de Sales guided him on his journey towards the poor.

Because he was chaplain to Madame de Gondi and her household he had ready access to her estates. He took the opportunity to preach missions and set up the Ladies of Charity as a back-up and continuing source of help for the needy in these places. M. de Gondi was in charge of the galley-slaves and so Vincent had entry to the galley-slaves in Bordeaux in 1623. The following year he took possession of the Bons Enfants, his future retreat house.

The next year the Community was founded and the same year Vincent met Louise de Marillac. Fr Román tells us in his book on St Vincent (page 186) that 140 Missions were preached in the first six years of its history. The mission team numbered seven. They worked for 290 days in the year.

In 1628 Vincent was invited by the Bishop of Beauvais to preach a retreat for the ordinands. Vincent later developed this work at the Bons Enfants. While Vincent said it was the bishop who took the initiative Fr Román suggests that Vincent is perhaps speaking modestly. In any case this was to be one of the great contributions of Vincent to the Church of France.

Meanwhile Louise met Vincent. During her retreat in May 1623 Louise had serious doubts about her vocation as a wife and mother. Perhaps she should have been a Capuchin nun instead? She also had serious doubts about the immortality of the soul and wondered if she should change her director. During her retreat she had a vision of her director. She had an aversion for him! All her doubts went. The feast of Pentecost was a big feast for her for the rest of her life.

In her vision she also realised that she would be living in community but there would be a lot of coming and going — which she failed to understand; (there still is a lot of coming and going in community life!). Vincent helped her to get on her feet by asking her to do a tour of the Ladies of Charity that had been established—to see if the rules were being followed, if the poor were being cared for and to help train young girls to be catechists. She also took into her house in Paris any girl that Vincent recommended to her. Some of these girls found employment in the homes of good Christian women and some of them were to become the first Daughters of Charity. Notice again that the great founder of the Daughters of Charity, like her Director, found her vocation and release from temptation against the faith in her work for the poor.

In 1631 Vincent began his work for the ordinands in the Bons Enfants. The following year he was eventually persuaded after a delay of at least six months to take on St Lazare with its resident community and handi­capped patients. This was to be a great scene for retreats for lay people as well as for priests. These retreats were given free if the people were not able to pay something. Vincent told the protesting bursar that God would provide (Dodin: Entretiens Spirituels de Saint Vincent de Paul, p 993). During these retreats Vincent asked the community to support those on retreat by giving them good example. He told his confrères that their example was more important than what the retreatants heard in the conferences, as some retreatants knew more theology than Vincent or the confrère who was giving the conferences. Yet God used them all in this great work. Above all, there was to be no hijacking of retreatants into the community. Vincent was adamant that other communities sent young men to his community for a retreat in preparation for the priest­hood precisely because the Vincentians were not in the business of touting for vocations. If a young man expressed a desire to join the Vincentians, Vincent would discuss the business with him.

In 1633 the Tuesday Conferences for ecclesiastics began. A glance at the rules shows that Vincent had some of the ideas that we find in the Vatican II document on priestly life. The idea of a regular meeting to discuss some theological point, the order of day, the interest and care of one another — these are things that are important today as they were in Vincent’s day. This was the year that the community received papal approval for its establishment. We know that Vincent had tried twice before, in 1628, to get approval in Rome. This was also the year that the Daughters were organised into a community. Cardinal de Retz officially approved them in 1655.

I have selected these incidents from Vincent’s life as a backdrop for some reflections. Firstly the poor were the focus of Vincent’s apostolate. He found release from his difficulties about the faith when he dedicated himself to the service of the poor, as Abelly tells us. Dodin in his book paints a grim picture of life in France in Vincent’s day. (Cf St. Vincent de Paul et la charité pp 1-9). Three-quarters of the men and nine-tenths of the women were illiterate. The people were badly fed and they were very ignorant of the Faith.

Our constitutions tell us in the opening paragraph of the chapter on vocation that “we follow Christ the evangeliser of the poor, that we work at evangelising the poor, especially the more abandoned, that we help in the formation of clergy and laity and lead them to a fuller partici­pation in the evangelisation of the poor”.

This paragraph sums up the life and work of Vincent. As I have tried to show in my earlier comments, this is precisely what Vincent did. His great gift was to organise and stimulate people to help the poor. He had a passion for the poor. They were his masters. I see the opening paragraph of our constitutions as a call to conversion — as a call to serve the poor, to have that passion for them, to serve Christ in them. If I have not got that love for the poor then I can hardly call myself a son of St Vincent. I can take comfort in realising that Vincent needed a conversion. Until I undergo a similar conversion I won’t have that love for the poor. Until as a community we try to live that paragraph in our constitutions with the help of God we are not giving the witness that Vincent gave in his life. He kept up contact with the exiled Bishop of Cork in France and sent him money to assist him in his need. We can, most of us, remember, especially the over 40s, the Latin phrase in philosophy “Nemo dat quod non habet” — if I don’t live our motto “Evangelizare pauperibus misit me” I will never fire others with the zeal that Vincent inspired in people who were weak and sinful as we are. My first duty is to my fellow Vincentians. We live in community to support one another in the faith. I am a scandal to my confrères if I don’t try to live as a poor man. One way of helping one another is the implementation of our community plan — especially the headings — the use of goods, and our lifestyle.

The conferences that Vincent gave on poverty, and his repetition of prayer on March 16th 1656, show us what he thought about poverty. The confrères used to send back reports to him of the needs of the poor in regions of Lorraine. Vincent used these reports to get money from rich people. Recently in a news programme on the BBC Michael Burke’s report on Ethiopia had a wonderful response in Britain and Ireland. His programme was educational and prophetic. If we as a community and province respond to the poor it will be a response in faith. The question is “Have I the faith to see Christ in the poor?” A real poverty of spirit is needed to see how lacking I am in poverty and spirit. God expects us to have this poverty of spirit and he will give it to us if we want it. But do I want it? One of the ways of growing in the spirit of poverty is by ministering to poor people. Vincent’s spirituality was forged out of his own experience of poor people. He was not an armchair theorist of the troubles of the poor. He got involved with them. In that way he was evangelised by them. I miss out on this means of growing in the spirit of poverty by not meeting poor people. Fr Richardson, the ex-Superior General, once said to me and other confrères that we should make sure that we meet at least one poor person every week. The way they live will influence the way I live. I have heard Mother Teresa say on tape that her sisters get more from the poor than they give to the poor. She gave an example of the generosity of the poor. May God in his mercy give us grace to be generous in His service and in the service of his poor.

Vincent communicated to others his love for the poor. He discovered ways of helping the poor. It is easy to overlook the fact that he was a pioneer in these matters. With the help of others Vincent broke new ground in the type of apostolate in his country. In our situation things are different. We have inherited a tradition. The meeting of the Provincials at Bogotá and the guidance of the Superior General there give us a simple message — we must concentrate on our original apostolates—missions for the poor and the formation of the clergy. The challenge for us is to break new ground. We need courage to do this, despite our falling numbers. God blessed Vincent and his confrères and the Daughters and the Ladies of Charity. Vincent’s charism lay in the missions for the poor and the work for the clergy. If we don’t use the charism that we have inherited then we run the risk of losing the blessing of God. Vincent in his day appealed to the confrères that they would never give up the work for the retreatants through laziness or lack of zeal (Dodin: Entretiens Spirituels de Saint Vincent de Paul, p 875) .Thank God we have great confrères who are doing great work. The recent Bulletin CM gives us a glimpse at the zeal of our confrères and the way the Lord is blessing their work. We need however, to concentrate on our two foundational works. These are our “portion and cup”. Vincent did his work in times of great poverty and political unrest. Our times are strange times. The drop in vocations and the Godless atmosphere can choke us. But it need not. Our very hopelessness might be God’s trump card. “If today you would listen to his voice harden not your hearts”.

Vincent was a great communicator. I am amazed at the way he managed to keep all the different apostolates going at the same time. Few can match him, yet we can learn from him. He saw the potential in people and he built on it. Look at the way he helped Louise to have confidence and trust in God. He had to tell her that her son Michel was as dear to God as he was to her. He continually tells her to be simple and happy and to have full confidence in God. Despite her poor health and poor self-image she did a lot of travelling and I suspect a lot of the organising for Vincent with the Ladies of Charity. He saw the steel that lay under the diffident anxious mother. He tells her that “I can’t tell you how the poor people have need that you live for a long time, and I have never seen this so clearly as I do at the present” (I, 314). In 1623 Vincent got permission from the King and from the Aldermen of Paris to take over an old square tower and he fitted it out for the care of the sick galley-slaves. Louise and her daughters were involved in this work along with others, notably the clergy of the parish of St Nicholas. We see Vincent the Spiritual Director in action in his letters to Louise. His humanity, simplicity and humour stand out so clearly. The same care and love and firmness appear in his letters to Jean de Horgny concerning Jansenism (III, pp 318ff, and 362; these are on pp 236ff, and pp 245ff, of Letters of St. Vincent, translated by Leonard).

These two letters are marvellous examples of a scholarly wise pastor dealing line by line with the issues raised by his confrères. The cut and thrust of the argument is exhilarating. Yet the stakes are high: for Vincent, nothing less than the teaching of the Church and the salvation of the laity.

This sort of talking is what we need to do to keep us on our theologi­cal toes and to keep the people of God on the straight and narrow road to God. Remember the warning of Vincent about the priests and the damage that they have done to the Church. All we need to do is to take seriously the words of the Constitutions dealing with the Community Plan. We will benefit from the communal confronting of ideas and values when we start talking about what really matters — the points mentioned in the Community Plan. This is a ready-made tool for our use. If we don’t use it — if we don’t challenge one another about our witness to Christ — we fail each other in charity.

One of my first puzzles that I met in the community was — did Vincent really mean that he was a wretched sinner etc? At first I thought he was overdoing it. Now I think he really meant what he said. He also said that we were a wretched company made up of poor people etc. He believed this. Yet at the same time this realisation did not depress him. Quite the contrary. He had unlimited confidence in God who uses “unprofitable servants” to do his work. Hence Vincent’s insistence that we seek first the kingdom of God. An older confrère has often said to me the trouble with us is that we interpreted the “little company” the wrong way. We have picked up an inferiority complex. This older confrère is right. We need to pray for the gift of humility; “the essential thing in the spiritual life” as Vincent said. Fr Maurice Kavanagh told us as students to “take a good laugh at yourselves from time to time” so that we would learn not to take ourselves too seriously, and then we might take God more seriously. We forget that our sense of humour is also a gift of God. Maybe he had a wry sense of humour. The Spaniards have their phrase “God writes straight with crooked lines”. So because we are a little company rather than even if we were a little company we can hope for great things from God.

This year we celebrate 150 years in Castleknock, 100 years of the Daughters of Charity in Britain and 100 years of our confrères in Australia. We think of the 32 confrères who died in Australia and of our Australian-born confrères living and dead; we must include also theDaughters of Charity of the British and Irish Provinces living and dead and the All Hallows priests who have worked and still work in Australia. And all this started with a group of seven in Maynooth in 1832.

We can surely echo the words of Vincent. “Let us have confidence in God, but let it be full and complete, and let us hold for certain that having started his work in us he will complete it; for, I ask you, who was it who established the Company?” (XI, 38). The little group in 1833 had faith in God and in themselves. They wanted to live in the community and yet they did not join any of the other communities then in Ireland. It was in 1839 that Frs Dowley and Kickham went to Paris to begin their novitiate — the former confrère was 52 and the latter 32. They were brave men. They were not afraid to adapt, to take risks. We have eight students preparing for the priesthood in Celbridge and Folleville, and thirty-eight in Nigeria. Either we put our trust in God and be prepared to accept difficult appointments from our Provincial or we will die.

In the same instruction, in Coste Vol XI, Vincent said “Do you want to know why we don’t succeed in any work? It is because we rely on ourselves. This preacher, this superior, this confessor relies too much on his prudence, his knowledge and on his own mind. What does God do? He withdraws from him, he leaves him there; and whatever he does will produce no fruit until he recognises his uselessness and learns by his own experience that no matter what gift he may have, he can do nothing without God”.

It seems to me that we are at a crossroads in the history of our province. Our faith in God and in ourselves is being tested. Vincent and Louise, and the founders of our province gave themselves to the poor unreservedly. Being conscious of our confusion and helplessness is the beginning of our renewal as a province, if we turn to God and to the poor. Although we are poor and unprofitable servants God used us to do his work. He has done great things for us as a province and individually. The greater our spirit of poverty, and the simplicity of our lifestyle, the greater things we will do for God. We have the charism of St Vincent; let us use it, and ask God to fill us to the full with confidence in him and with joy in his service.

“Father of Love, hear our prayers. Help us to know Your will and to do it with courage and faith”. (Prayer for the First Sunday of the year).

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