Throughout the history of the Church many men and women who have followed Jesus Christ have been classified as men and women of the gospel. In reality all the saints could be referred to in the same manner because they took the gospel seriously and made the gospel a part of their life; they also allowed the gospel to inspire their behavior and through their words and actions they communicated the gospel message. The theologian, Henri J. M. Nouwen, a professor at Yale University (United States of America) affirms that the man/woman of the gospel knows the story of Christ and experiences a burning desire to make this knowledge a heartfelt reality. In this way these individuals not only give a new meaning to their lives but are also able to make all things new in Christ.1 This heartfelt conviction as well as renewal in the spirit of Christ were very much a part of the life of our Founder. Therefore we approach Vincent de Paul as a man of the gospel and on this 350th anniversary of his death we draw closer to him with a very clear objective: we allow him to question our life and we pray that he will intercede before God so that we all become men and women of the gospel.
At the beginning of this presentation we want to state that there is currently much discussion in the Church about the need for people who root their life in the gospel. Vincent de Paul is a bright star who, through his passionate love of Jesus Christ and his works, continued the mission of the Divine Teacher and now guides us and challenges us. This presentation has a twofold focus: first, spiritual theology in the present day Church and second, a Vincentian perspective on spiritual theology that was formulated by Vincent and that he now offers to us.
As I speak about spiritual theology, I am going to follow two authors of the Dictionary of spirituality, Giuseppe E. Panella and Carlos María Martini, who have defined gospel men and women as those individuals who are aware of the reality of the Church as a pilgrim Church. According to these authors, this awareness animates the faith of believers and the ecclesial community and leads them to seek the perfection of Christ. Both authors cite Anthony of Padua, Francis Assisi, John of the Cross, Therese of Jesus, Ignatius of Loyola, Saint Dominic of Guzman and other saints as people of the gospel. Therefore, we place Saint Vincent de Paul among these other saints who were aware of the Church as a pilgrim church.2
The authors that I have mentioned and other spiritual teachers3 list specific elements that characterize the lives of those whom we call gospel men/women. These characteristics are:
- their faith and works are rooted in the gospel of Jesus Christ;
- they live in solidarity with the poor;
- they are attentive to the signs of the time and allow themselves to be questioned and challenged by these signs as they attempt to respond in a manner that is in accord with the maxims of Jesus Christ;
- trusting in and guided by Divine Providence they discover the gifts of others and then involve these individuals in the cause of the Kingdom.
Some other important characteristics of the spirituality of a gospel man/woman are added to this list by other authors: Christ-centered, centered on Jesus Christ and his gospel; spiritual, that is, guided by the Holy Spirit; ecclesial, they experience themselves as children of the Church and therefore act in communion with the Church and everything they do is an expression of the Church’s holiness and catholicity.
A cursory examination of Vincent’s life enables us to see that this champion of charity and mission more that verifies the characteristics of a man of the gospel.
Vincent’s faith and good works were rooted in the gospel. We only have to recall the testimony of Louis Abelly: There was no frivolity or undue vehemence in his person. His conduct was founded not on simple human reasoning but on the maxims and truths of the Gospel. These were engraved on his heart, and he took them as the foundation of his life and had them ever present to his mind. He conformed himself in all things to the doctrine and example of Jesus Christ (Abelly I:126).4
• Vincent lived in solidarity with the poor. His life, his thoughts and his works were a clear manifestation of that solidarity. All his biographers and the numerous studies on his spirituality affirm this same reality. His secretary, Brother Bertrand Ducournau, provides us with many anecdotes on this aspect of Vincent life. Here we recall one of Brother’s conversations with Vincent in which he spoke about his concern for those persons who were poor: Paris, he told me, is the sponge of France and attracts people of great wealth … yet the poor are unable to find treatment at the General Hospital. What will happen to them, especially those poor men and women from Champagne and Picardy and the many other areas of the country that have been devastated by the war? … These words are an expression of the mercy and compassion that Vincent felt for those who are poor.5 This solidarity with the poor led Vincent to exclaim from the depths of his heart: We should sell ourselves to rescue our brothers and sisters from destitution(CCD:IX:390).6
• Vincent was attentive to the signs of the time and responded to these with creativity and effectiveness. He never “passed by on the opposite side of the road” when confronted with situations of misery, conflict, ignorance or poverty. He always posed the question: what is God asking of me in this situation? What is God’s will for me? What can I do? Rooted in the gospel Vincent responded in an effective manner. This is clear when we reflect on the events that occurred at Gannes, Folleville, and Châtillon, as well as his encounter with the galley slaves, the abandoned children, the war refugees and so many others groups of people that are described by his biographers. This facet of Vincent’s life has been studied and reflected upon in previous Vincentian Study Weeks.
• Vincent heard God speaking through other persons. The peasant in Gannes and his alarming deathbed confession was the voice of God that called Vincent to organize missions among the country people. Vincent was attentive to the concerns of Madame de Gondi who was moved to found the Congregation of the Mission. On August 20, 1617 he listened to the woman who entered the sacristy of the parish church in Châtillon and told him about a poor family who was in dire need. Vincent was moved and in his sermon he explained the needs of this family to the parishioners. His compassion was contagious or, as he would say, God touched the hearts of those who listened to him. As a result of this event the Confraternity of Charity was established in Châtillon. A few years later, in 1628, Vincent listened to the concerns of the Bishop of Beauvais and again heard God calling him to become involved in a life-long project of reforming the clergy.
• Vincent had great trust in Providence: he neither rushed forward in an attempt to anticipate Providence not retreated when the designs of God were revealed. Louis Abelly affirmed this reality when he stated: If Monsieur Vincent’s confidence in God was great in the pressing needs which he and his community experienced, it was no less firm in the reverses, difficulties, and other annoying and threatening things that happened to him. It was noticed that no matter what occurred, or in what difficulties he found himself, he was never beaten down or discouraged, but was always full of trust in God. He enjoyed a constant evenness of spirit and a perfect abandonment to his divine Providence. He seemed pleased to be put in such disturbing situations, to give himself the opportunity to put himself more completely and absolutely into the hands of divine Providence (Abelly III:25).
Vincent lived in all its fullness the various characteristics that we would associate with one who is a man of the gospel. His first biographer, Louis Abelly, makes this very clear when he refers to Vincent’s spirituality as one that was centered on Christ and then notes that his ministry and spiritual journey were rooted in the life of Our Lord, Jesus Christ: He was so filled with God’s spirit that he hardly every spoke unless it was to recall a Gospel teaching or some action of the Son of God. I often admired how he would apply the words and deeds of our Lord whenever he counseled or recommended something … I have heard [Monsieur Portail] say that Monsieur Vincent was the perfect image of Jesus Christ whom he knew upon earth (Abelly III:87).
Before Abelly wrote his biography he studied Vincent’s writings and gathered together testimony from individuals who had lived with or who had a relationship with Vincent. Listen now to these words of Abelly: [Vincent] had taken Jesus Christ, our divine savior, as the only exemplar of his life. He had so imprinted the image of Jesus Christ upon his mind and was so penetrated with his holy maxims that he spoke, thought, and acted only in view of God. The life of our divine Savior and the lessons of the Gospel were the sole rule of his life and actions. They were his book of morals and his book of politics, and they guided him in all the matters that passed through his hands. They were, in a word, the sure foundation on which he built his entire spiritual edifice. We can say in truth that without realizing it, he left us a miniature portrait of his whole life and a sort of motto, when he said one day: “Nothing pleases me except in Jesus Christ.” That was the source of his unshakable constancy and firmness in doing good and of his being able to stand unmoved by any consideration of human respect or his own personal interest. This source enabled him to support the contradictions, to endure the persecutions, to put his life on the line and, as the wise man says, to defend to the death justice and truth (Abelly I:103).
Among Vincent’s writings we find a letter dated May 1635 that was addressed to M. Antoine Portail. In this letter Vincent spoke about the reality of being rooted in Christ, a spiritual experience that gave meaning to his life: Remember, Monsieur, we live in Jesus Christ through the death of Jesus Christ, and we must die in Jesus Christ through the life of Jesus Christ, and our life must be hidden in Jesus Christ and filled with Jesus Christ, and in order to die as Jesus Christ, we must live as Jesus Christ (CCD:I:276). This was not some game of words but rather these words expressed in a very natural way Vincent’s identification with Jesus Christ. This was an expression of his Christ-centered spirituality. Vincent’s words seem to summarize the conviction of Saint Paul when he stated: I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me (Galatians 2:20).
Vincent’s spirituality was inspired by the Holy Spirit whom Vincent often referred to as the spirit of Jesus Christ. This aspect of his spirituality is revealed in his correspondence with M. Bernard Codoing, one of the missionaries who was sent to Rome in 1642. Vincent stated that his spirituality was inspired by the Holy Spirit who led him to act with calmness and humility: The spirit of God proceeds discreetly and always humbly. Remember that you and I are subject to a thousand outbursts of nature and recall what I told you about finding myself, in the early states of the project of the Mission, with it constantly on my mind. That made me wonder whether the affair sprang from nature or from the evil spirit, and I purposely made a retreat in Soissons so that God might be pleased to remove from my mind the pleasure and eagerness I was experiencing in this matter. God was pleased to answer my prayer in such a manner that, by his mercy, he took them both away and allowed me to be in the opposite dispositions. I think that, if God is granting some blessing to the Mission and I am less a subject of scandal to it, I attribute it after God to this fact. I wish to remain in this practice (CCD:II:278).
Vincent invoked the Holy Spirit at the beginning of his prayer and conferences and any other charitable or missionary activity. He attributed to the Holy Spirit all the good that he did and the good done by the members of the Confraternities of Charity and the two Congregations that he founded. He admired and praised God because in the midst of temptations and other difficult situations Vincent experienced the presence of the Holy Spirit (CCD:II:123-124; V:166, 463-465).
Vincent’s spirituality was ecclesial as seen by the way he drew closer to God and related to God … this was done in full communion with the Church and was inspired by his love for the Church. In 1644 he wrote to Bernard Codoing about the question of seminaries: the Council’s ruling is to be respected as coming from the Holy Spirit (CCD:II:234). Vincent experienced himself as a son of the Church, a committed member. It pained him to see the ignorance of the country people and the state of abandonment that was so widespread in the rural parishes. He was equally moved by the abandonment of poor women and men, the ignorance of the clergy, the lack of transparency in the appointment of bishops, the errors and the controversy stirred up by Jansenism, the situation of the Christian slaves in Algiers, and the ignorance of the inhabitants of Madagascar. As a result of his ecclesial spirituality and his deep sense of being a son of the Church, Vincent responded to these situations:
- In order to remedy the situation of abandonment and ignorance in the rural parishes, Vincent organized popular missions and, guided by the Spirit, he gave stability to these missions through the establishment of the Congregation of the Mission;
- Vincent resolved the situation of the sick-poor and the ignorance among children in the cities and the rural area by organizing the International Association of Charity and the Company of the Daughters of Charity;
- He responded to the deplorable situation among the clergy by arranging retreats for those who were about to be ordained as priests and began the Tuesday Conferences for those priests with pastoral obligations and responsibilities in seminaries … in this way he was able to assure a solid formation for future priests;
- To make the process of appointing bishops more transparent Vincent accepted a position on the Council of Conscience;
- He joined forces with other individuals and engaged in a struggle against the spread of Jansenism;
- In order to alleviate the situation of the Christian slaves in Algiers Vincent, with the help of the Duchesse d’Aiguillon who established a house for missionaries in Merseilles, was able to send Missionaries to North Africa;
- Despite the man dangers, Vincent also sent Missionaries to Madagascar to evangelize and instruct the native population.
These few facts are sufficient to affirm and present Vincent de Paul as a man of the gospel who embodies those characteristics that are enumerated by specialists in spiritual theology.
In the following sections we are going to look at Vincent as a man of the gospel but we will do this from a Vincentian perspective. Through his conferences to the Missionaries and the Daughters of Charity Vincent revealed himself as a man of the gospel. From the fullness of his heart Vincent spoke (with no pretentiousness) as a man of the gospel:
• his ideas, thoughts, and convictions were in accord with the gospel;
• his attitudes were similar to those of Jesus Christ;
• throughout his life Vincent revealed that the beatitudes were the norms that guided his conduct.
I will now develop this perspective that Vincent shares with us. The sources for my study and reflection were the following: the words and testimony of Vincent; the testimony of Louis Abelly, Vincent’s first biographer; the testimony of Louis Robineau, Vincent’s secretary. I believe these three are the most important eye-witnesses. I have also utilized some written studies of various Vincentian scholars.
Vincent’s convictions are in accord with the gospel
The ideas-convictions that ground the life of an individual are ways of thinking or awareness that are not only internalized but also, in light of their intensity and the union of reason and morality, they constitute a way of acting and a form of social communication. Therefore to speak about the gospel convictions of Vincent we have to be aware of the moral significance of this phrase. According to the dictionary, conviction is the certainty that a person possesses with regard to the truthfulness or correctness of what said individual thinks or feels. This certainty grounds the ideas-convictions which one believes.
Vincent based his ideas on the Christian concept of life, the concept of the human person and the concept of God … these concepts were all gospel ideas. Vincent was a man of firm and solid gospel convictions. His contemporaries viewed him in the following manner: Monsieur Vincent was not content to fill only his own mind and heart with the truths and maxims of the gospel. He used every opportunity to persuade others, and particularly those of his own Congregation (Abelly I:104) … Vincent spoke firmly and convincingly to the Confreres: the practice of seeking to do the will of God, which ought to be the soul of the Congregation and a practice you should keep close to your heart … will [provide you with] a means of perfection that is easy, excellent, and infallible. Our actions will be more than human, even more than angelic, and in some way divine, for they will be done in God by the movement of his Spirit and by his grace. What an excellent way of life such a way of acting would be! What a way of life of the missionaries would be, if it embraced this practice (Abelly I:105) … At the end of his life Vincent was able to say with great calmness: Whoever speaks of the teaching of Jesus Christ speaks of an unshakable rock: eternal truths, which infallibly produce their proper fruit. They should rather expect the heavens to fall than find the truth of Jesus Christ to fail (Abelly I:103).
Here we see the strength of his convictions and the power of his proposals. It was precisely this that enabled him to convince others and to organize great works on behalf of the poor and the Church of his era. This strength was revealed in Clichy as he attracted a group of young men to the priesthood (Abelly 1:54); in Folleville where he was able to convince peasants to approach the sacrament of Reconciliation (Abelly I:61-62); on the de Gondi estate where he was able to convert some heretics (Abelly I:80-82); on the occasion of the establishment of the Congregation of the Mission his passion for the missions and the proclamation of the gospel was contagious and others followed him (Abelly I:93-95); when organizing the Confraternity of Charity in Châtillon and other places (Abelly I:72-73).
Vincent recognized that God had gifted him with the power of persuasion: I was living in a small town near Lyons, where Providence had called me to be the Pastor; I was vesting to celebrate Holy Mass one Sunday when I was told that in an isolated house a quarter of a league away everyone was ill. None of them was able to help the others, and they were all in indescribable need. That touched me to the heart. During the sermon, I made sure to commend them zealously to the congregation, and God, touching the hearts of those who heard me, moved them with compassion for those poor afflicted people (CCD:IX:192).
When Vincent spoke to others, especially to the young Missionaries, he was able to communicate his gospel convictions with enthusiasm. This power of conviction is revealed in his correspondence and conferences. An example of this can be seen in the letter addressed to M. Antoine Duran when he was appointed superior of the seminary in Agde (1656). M. Duran was twenty-eight and Vincent wrote to him in a powerful way about his faith and experience: For this purpose, give yourself to God so that you will speak in the humble spirit of Jesus Christ, acknowledging that your doctrine is not your own, nor coming from you but from the Gospel. Imitate especially the simplicity of the words and comparisons Our Lord uses in Holy Scripture when he speaks to the people. What wonderful things could he not have taught the people! What secrets could He not have revealed about the Divinity and its admirable perfections, He who was the Eternal Wisdom of His Father! Nevertheless, you see how plainly He speaks and how He uses familiar comparisons — a farmer, a wine grower, a field, a vineyard, a mustard seed. That is how you must speak if you want to make yourself understood by the people to whom you will be announcing God’s word (CCD:XI:313-314).
At this point we can ask if Vincent communicated all his gospel convictions with the same force or did he emphasize some over others. In my study and reflection I have been able to discover that some convictions were emphasized over others. Which convictions were emphasized? … Let us look at some of them.
In the first place we have Vincent’s conviction with regard to Jesus as the missionary of the Father. Vincent lived and communicated this conviction with exceptional strength. To be a missionary is to participate in the fullness of the vocation of Jesus Christ who was sent into the world by God, the Father, in order to reveal his love to the poor. This faith conviction was the center of Vincent’s life and he expressed this with unique force when he said: In this vocation, we are very much in conformity with Our Lord Jesus Christ, who seems to have made His principal aim, in coming into the world, to assist poor people and to take care of them. “He sent me to bring glad tidings to the poor.” And if we ask Our Lord, “What did you come to do on earth?” “To assist the poor,” etc. Now, He had only poor persons in His company and He devoted himself very little to cities, almost always conversing with and instructing village people. So are we not very fortunate to belong to the Mission for the same purpose that caused God to become man? And if someone were to question a Missioner, would it not be a great honor for him to be able to say with Our Lord, He sent me to bring glad tidings to the poor? I am here to catechize, instruct, hear confessions and assist persons who are poor (CCD:XI:98-99).
When Vincent spoke about the missionary vocation he always referred to Jesus Christ. He felt that he was blessed in being called to serve as a missionary. During a repetition of prayer on October 25, 1643 he explained his conviction with expressive words that flowed from his heart. Then he explained some other ideas to encourage the missionaries in their ministry. He pointed out the obligation to work for the salvation of poor country people since this was the very heart of the ministry of the Congregation: Are not we very blessed, my dear confreres, to live authentically the vocation of Jesus Christ? For who lives better the way of life Jesus lived on earth than missionaries? I am not just talking about us, but [all] missionaries … Look at how they go even as far as the Indies, Japan, and Canada to complete the work Jesus Christ began on earth and never abandoned from the first instant of his call! Hic est Filius meus dilectus, ipsum audite [This is my beloved Son, listen to Him]. From the time His Father commanded this, He did not stop for a single moment until His death. Let us try to imagine that He is saying to us, “Set out, you Missioners, set out! Quoi! You are still here, and there are poor souls waiting for you, whose salvation depends perhaps on your preaching and catechizing!” (CCD:XI:121).
Another gospel conviction that was very important in the life of Vincent de Paul was that of seeing Jesus Christ in the person of those who are poor (as affirmed in Matthew 25:34). To abandon the poor is to turn one’s back on God … Vincent communicated this conviction to the Ladies of Charity. The Rule of the Confraternity at Châtillon is an expression of the gospel conviction that Vincent lived and that he hoped others would take up and thus continue the missionary vocation of Jesus Christ: the Servants of the Poor will take for patron Our Lord Jesus and for its aim the accomplishment of His very ardent desire that Christians should practice among themselves the works of charity and mercy. This desire He makes clear to us in His own words: “Be merciful as my Father is merciful,” and in these words: “Come, blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry, and you gave me to eat … I was sick and you visited me … for what you have done to the least of those, you did to me” (CCD:XIIIb:9).
In 1647 when it became difficult to maintain the works of the Confraternity at the General Hospital in Paris, Vincent gathered together the women and encouraged them to persevere in providing assistance to those in need. He made them see that they were engaged in a good and holy work that gave much glory to God. Therefore to abandon this work would mean that they were willing to turn their back on God: A work is good and sound if it is for the glory of God, the benefit of poor orphan children, the sick, and poor slaves, the salvation of all of them, and the sanctification of our own soul. Well, it’s clear that all that is for the glory of God, since it’s He who orders all these things and it’s His glory that we obey Him. On the contrary, to do nothing about it is, in a certain sense, to disdain His Divine Majesty … If this good work is abandoned, God won’t be known by those poor people to whom you’re making Him known; those souls will never be reconciled to Him … Many children will die in original sin for want of being baptized and will have come into the world without experiencing in it the effects of the goodness of God. And God, who has willed in this age to make use of the ministry of persons of your sex to do the incomparable good that’s being done in your Company, will be frustrated in this (CCD:XIIIb:418-419).
During this same time the work with the abandoned children encountered financial difficulties and because of a lack of economic resources many children were in danger of dying of hunger: Providence has made you the adoptive mothers of these children. Note that I said adoptive mothers. This is a bond you’ve contracted with them; consequently, if these poor children are abandoned by you, they will, of necessity, die. Who is going to prevent this? Until now, the police have been unable to do so. If you can’t, who will? No one, to be sure. And therefore, Ladies, you are obliged in conscience to assist them for two reasons: (I) Because the need is extreme; (2) Because you are their mothers (CCD:XIIIb:421-422).
With the same energy and surety Vincent conveyed his convictions to the Daughters of Charity. In the first conference that is preserved for us, a conference from 1634 that dealt with the explanation of the rule, Vincent was very clear as he expressed his conviction: to serve those who are poor is to go to God, and you should see God in them. So then; be very careful to attend to all their needs, and be particularly alert to the assistance you can give them for their salvation; don’t let them die without the sacraments. You’re not there simply to care for their bodies, but to help them to be saved. Above all, motivate them to make general confessions; put up with their little fits of temper, and encourage them to suffer patiently for the love of God. Never get angry with them, and don’t speak to them harshly; they have enough to put up with because of their illness. Imagine that you’re their visible Guardian Angel, their father and mother, and don’t contradict them except in those things that are bad for them, for in that case it would be cruelty to give them what they want. Weep with them; God has made you to be their consolers (CCD:IX:5).
Eight years later, in 1646, during a conference on the “love of vocation and assistance to the poor”, Vincent spoke about his belief that Jesus identifies himself with each poor person that the Daughters serve: in serving persons who are poor, we serve Jesus Christ. How true, Sisters! You are serving Jesus Christ in the person of the poor. And that is as true as that we are here. A Sister will go ten times a day to visit the sick, and ten times a day she’ll find God there. As Saint Augustine says, what we see with our eyes is not so certain because our senses sometimes deceive us, but the truths of God never deceive. Go to visit a chain gang, you’ll find God there. Look after those little children, you’ll find God there. How delightful, Sisters! You go into poor homes, but you find God there. Again, Sisters, how delightful! He accepts the services you do for those sick persons and, as you have said, considers them as done to himself (CCD:IX:199).
The following year Vincent again expressed the same conviction but now he explained how the people had given the Company the name, Daughters of Charity, servants of the poor: What a lovely title, Sisters! Mon Dieu! What a lovely title and what a beautiful designation! What have you done for God to deserve it? Servants of the Poor is the same as saying Servants of Jesus Christ, since He regards what is done to them as done to himself, for they are His members. And what did He do in this world but serve persons who were poor? (CCD:IX:256).
Vincent was convinced that Jesus was continuing his mission in the Church through the ministry of those who followed in his footsteps. On December 6, 1658, he spoke to the Missionaries: If there are any among us who think they are in the Mission to evangelize poor people but not to alleviate their sufferings, to take care of their spiritual needs but not their temporal ones, I reply that we have to help them and have them assisted in every way, by us and by others, if we want to hear those pleasing words of the Sovereign Judge of the living and the dead, “Come, beloved of my Father; possess the kingdom that has been prepared for you, because I was hungry and you gave me to eat; I was naked and you clothed me; sick and you assisted me.” To do that is to preach the Gospel by words and by works, and that is the most perfect way; it is also what Our Lord did, and what those should do who represent him on earth, officially and by nature, as priests do (CCD:XII:77-78).
Another of Vincent’s strong convictions was that the missionaries and the servants of the poor should be guided by Divine Providence. He liked to say: grace has its moments (CCD:II:244). He was wholly convinced of God’s love and that God was our father and mother (CCD:V:536-537; VI:463; VIII:68) and therefore, God walked with us (CCD:II:256-257; VII:230-231). This conviction led him to speak often about Providence. In 1634 he told Louise de Marillac: Follow the order of Providence. Oh! how good it is to let ourselves be guided by it (CCD:I:284). Then in 1643 when Vincent wrote to M. Bernard Codoing, the superior of the house in Rome, he spoke about the significance he gave to trust in divine Providence: Let us leave it to the guidance of the wise Providence of God. I have a special devotion to following it, and experience has shown me that it has accomplished everything in the Company, and that our acts of foresightedness hinder it. It is in this spirit that I have never done nor said anything to call attention to us (CCD:II:462).
At times when Vincent spoke about following the plans of God’s Providence he urged some individuals to moderate their inordinate zeal. He said to Philippe Le Vacher: The good which God desires is accomplished almost by itself, without our even thinking of it. That is how our Congregation came into being, that missions and retreats for the ordinands began, that the Company of the Daughters of Charity was formed … Mon Dieu! Monsieur, how I wish you would moderate your ardor and examine matters thoroughly before making any decision on them (CCD:IV:128, 129). At other times, in the name of the same Providence, he encouraged other confreres to take action. In 1655 he wrote to Étienne Blatiron, the superior in Rome: Please continue, Monsieur, to petition for our affair, confident that it is the good pleasure of God … the success of similar pursuits is often the result of the patience and vigilance exercised in them … the works of God have their moment; His Providence brings them about at that time and neither sooner nor later … let us wait patiently but let us act (CCD:V:400). Vincent seemed to summarize the value he placed on Providence when he made this marvelous statement to Brother Jean Barreau: We cannot better assure our eternal happiness than by living and dying in the service of the poor, in the arms of Providence, and with genuine renouncement of ourselves in order to follow Jesus Christ (CCD:III:384).
Vincent placed such a great importance on following the rhythm of Providence that at the end of his life he summarized his thinking during a repetition of prayer: The true Missioner must not be concerned about the goods of this world but cast all his cares on the Providence of the Lord, holding for certain that, as long as he is firmly grounded in charity and well anchored in this trust, he will always be under the protection of God; consequently, no harm will befall him and he will lack no good thing, even when he thinks that, judging from appearance, all is going to be lost. I am not saying this as coming from myself; it is Holy Scripture that teaches it to us (CCD:XI:32).
The sentiments of Vincent de Paul are similar to those of Jesus Christ
Vincent frequently meditated on and commented on Saint Paul’s recommendation (have among yourselves the same attitude as Christ that is also yours in Christ Jesus [Philippians 2:5]) and the content of the Christological hymn that is found in the letter to the Philippians (Philippians 2:6-11). Vincent clothed himself in the attitudes of Jesus and therefore he did not view power and wealth and prestige as the most important values in life. Rather, he opened his heart to God and the poor and, guided by the Holy Spirit, bore the weight of his own life and the weight of the lives of the poor. Vincent opened his heart to God with complete trust and confidence and was able to clothe himself in the attitudes of Jesus Christ: as a good Christian, this was a daily exercise of Vincent’s life.
The following sentiments of admiration and charitable commitment were the fruit of Vincent’s meditation: O Savior! Source of love humbled even to our level and to a vile agony, who showed, in that, greater love for the neighbor than You yourself did? You came to lay yourself open to all our misfortunes, to take the form of a sinner, to lead a life of suffering and to undergo a shameful death for us; is there any love like that? But who else could love in such an outstanding way? Only Our Lord, who was so enamored with the love of creatures as to leave the throne of His Father to come to take a body subject to weaknesses. And why? To establish among us, by His word and example, love of the neighbor. This is the love that crucified Him and brought about that admirable work of our redemption. O Messieurs, if we had only a little of that love, would we stand around with our arms folded? Would we let those we could assist perish? Oh, no! Charity cannot remain idle; it impels us to work for the salvation and consolation of others (CCD:XII:216).
Christ, incarnated and humiliated by a most vile death through crucifixion … this Christ is placed before us as a model for our life. All Christians are called to have the same attitude as Christ (Philippians 2:5). Vincent knew this and in fact he was ever mindful of this reality. Each day he learned how to clothe himself with the attitudes of Jesus and how to conform his attitudes to those of his Master. This was not some isolated form of sentimental contemplation but had direct implications on his life of faith and charity. He expressed his admiration of Jesus Christ and his compassion toward the poor: I must not judge a poor peasant man or woman by their appearance or their apparent intelligence, especially since very often they scarcely have the expression or the mind of rational persons, so crude and vulgar they are. But turn the medal, and you will see by the light of faith that the Son of God, who willed to be poor, is represented to us by these poor people; that He scarcely had a human face in His Passion, and passed for a madman in the mind of the Gentiles and a stumbling block in the mind of the Jews. With all that, He describes himself as the Evangelizer of the poor: Evangelizare pauperibus misit me. O Dieu! How beautiful it is to see poor people if we consider them in God and with the esteem in which Jesus Christ held them! If, however, we look on them according to the sentiments of the flesh and a worldly spirit, they will seem contemptible (CCD:XI:26).
Just as Jesus wept at the tomb of his friend, Lazarus, so, too, Vincent allowed his heart to be touched by the death of his friends. He was filled with emotion at the death of M. Jean de La Salle in 1639 (CCD:I:581ff) and the death of M. Jean Pille in 1643 (CCD:II:364) and other Missionaries and coadjutor brothers.
Vincent was most impacted by Jesus’ compassion. Jesus was not indifferent to the sufferings of people … Jesus paused, listened, embraced and resolved various situations … Jesus cured and healed, restored sight to the blind, raised the dead and freed those who were possessed by evil spirits. This compassionate attitude of Jesus captivated Vincent’s heart and, impelled by the Spirit, Vincent desired to act in the same way. Vincent admitted that he felt that his heart was moved with compassion by the peasant at Gannes and the family that was ill in Châtillon: Someone came to tell me there was an indigent man who was sick and very badly lodged in a poor barn … moved by great compassion, I made a strong plea, speaking with such feeling that all the ladies were touched by it (CCD:IX:165).
When Vincent reviewed the history of the Daughters of Charity he attributed the different works that had been entrusted to them to God’s compassion: Sisters, what a happiness to serve those poor convicts abandoned into the hands of persons who have no pity for them! I’ve seen those poor men treated like animals; that caused God to be moved with compassion. They inspired pity in Him; as a result, His Goodness did two things on their behalf: first, He had a house bought for them; second, He willed to arrange matters in such a way as to have them served by His own daughters, because to say a Daughter of Charity is to say a daughter of God (CCD:X:103).
Just as Jesus related with women who were engaged in the cause of the Kingdom of God so too Vincent corresponded with women and did so with complete interior freedom and shared with them his sentiments of compassion, gratitude, admiration, confidence and also affirmed and recognized the good work that these women were doing (CCD:I:-10-12, 155-156, 590-592). This is reflected in his correspondence with Louise de Marillac, Jeanne-Françoise Frémoit Chantal, Madame Goussault, and duchesse d’Aiguillon (the niece of Cardinal Richelieu). Vincent de Paul utilized this communication of sentiments as a means of establishing relationships and employed this as a gospel strategy to attract and involve others in the proclamation of the Kingdom of God.
On various occasions Jesus communicated his sentiments to his followers. In the sixth chapter of Saint John’s gospel Jesus expressed his sorrow and pain as he witnessed the lack of faith of some of his disciples: the words I have spoken to you are spirit and life; but there are some of you who do not believe (John 6:63-64). On the occasion of restoring life to his friend Lazarus, Jesus expressed his esteem and love for his friend and wept with those who wept over the death of Lazarus (John 11:33-36). At the last supper Jesus expressed his feelings of anguish and sadness (John 16:5-13). In the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus spoke of his sorrow and asked the disciples to keep watch with him (Matthew 26:38).
Vincent revealed his sadness and surprise when he became aware of the fear and the cowardice of some of his confreres who had heard about the death of the Missionaries in Madagascar. He motivated them as he said: Someone in the Company may say perhaps that Madagascar should be abandoned; flesh and blood will use that language and say that no more men should be sent there, but I am certain that the Spirit says otherwise. Quoi! Messieurs, shall we leave our good M. Bourdaise all alone there? The death of those priests will, I am sure, astonish some. God led 600,000 men out of Egypt, not counting women and children with the intention of bringing them into the Promised Land; yet of all that great host only two entered it — not even Moses, the leader of them all. God has called our confreres into that country; and yet some die on the way, and others shortly after arriving there. At this we must bow our heads, Messieurs, and adore the wonderful incomprehensible way of Our Lord (CCD:XI:372).
Vincent expressed his sentiments in order to communicate enthusiasm and in order to touch the hearts of those who were listening and thus attract individuals to the cause of God’s kingdom. When he became aware of some criticism that he felt was not in accord with the gospel, he confronted the situation directly. Therefore when some confreres began to speak about the end of the Congregation if there were more failed expeditions to Madagascar, Vincent addressed them and said: My dear confreres, after knowing that, could we possibly be so base and unmanly as to abandon this vineyard of the Lord to which His Divine Majesty has called us merely because four, five, or six men have died? And tell me what a fine army it would be if, because it lost two or three, four or five thousand men — as they say happened at the latest siege of Normandy — it would abandon everything! What a nice sight an army of runaways and poltroons like that would be! Let us say the same of the Mission; it would be a fine Company of the Mission if, because five or six had died, it were to abandon the Lord’s work! What a cowardly Company, attached to flesh and blood! Oh, no! I do not think there is a single member of the Company who has such little courage, or who is not ready to go to take the place of those who have died (CCD:XI:373-374).
Vincent spoke in the same way to the Daughters when he appealed to their hearts as he addressed their fear. Look at how he referred to the Sisters who were being sent to Calais: I seem to hear our Sisters who remain here say to me, “But, Monsieur, where are our Sisters going? We saw four of them setting off a short while ago; now one of them is dead, and the rest are ill and may perhaps die, too. Now you’re sending off four more to replace them, and maybe we’ll never see them again. We’ll lose our Sisters. Meanwhile, what will become of the Company?” Dear Sisters, that’s the objection people made to the holy martyrs who went off to die. It was believed that, with so many martyrs, the Church would die out and there would no longer be anyone to sustain it; but my reply to that is the one given to that question, the blood of martyrs is the seed of Christians. For one who will suffer martyrdom, many more will come; his blood will be like the seed that brings forth fruit, and fruit in abundance. The blood of our Sisters will bring others to the Company and will merit for those who remain the grace of God to sanctify themselves. At these words Most Honored Father was obliged to stop on account of the abundance of his tears; then, in a voice choked with sobs, His Charity said, “So then, Sisters, you’re about to make the highest act of the love of God that can be made and that you’ve ever made, for there’s no greater act of love than martyrdom. What grounds for humbling yourselves, Sisters, that God prefers your Company to so many others which would perhaps do better than you! But He’s the Master, so He does what He pleases” (CCD:X:443). The Sisters ceased their criticism and now willingly offered to go to Calais.
The important decisions of Vincent’s life were inspired by the gospel
The most radical and important decision of Vincent’s life was that of dedicating his life to the service of the poor. As we all know this decision was made during a time of powerful temptations against the faith. His decision was the fruit of calm discernment. Vincent hoped that this decision would enable him to give honor to Jesus and to live his life doing good, just as Jesus had done … Jesus, the missionary of the Father and the Savior of the world. Abelly describes this situation very well: Vincent experienced strong temptations against the faith. In the midst of this situation he understood that God wanted to test him and so he had recourse to various means in order to confront this situation: The first [thing Vincent did] was to write out a profession of faith which he placed over his heart as an antidote to his trials … The second remedy he used was to do the exact opposite of what the tempter suggested, striving to act by faith in rendering honor and service to Jesus Christ. He carried this out particularly in his visits to the sick poor of the charity hospital in the faubourg Saint Germain where he lived at the time. This charitable practice is among the most meritorious in Christianity since it bears witness to faith in the Savior’s words and example and to the desire to serve him … Three or four years passed in this severe trial which bore down upon Monsieur Vincent, and he groaned before God under their weight. Yet, seeking to strengthen himself more surely against the attacks of the devil, he thought of taking a firm and unbreakable resolve to honor Jesus Christ and to imitate him more perfectly than ever before by committing his entire life to the service of the poor. No sooner had he done this than, by a marvelous effect of grace, all the suggestions of the evil one disappeared (Abelly III:115-116).
This decision was followed by others: to accept the parish in Châtillon, to organize the Confraternity of Charity there, to return to the de Gondi estate (on certain conditions that were thought out and discerned in light of the gospel: he would no longer tutor their children; he would preach missions on their lands and establish more Confraternities of Charity). Charity and mission became the two pillars of Vincent’s life. Now we come to 1625 … the time of another important decision. Let us allow Abelly to describe this situation: Madame de Gondi saw both the need and the success of the missions. She had conceived the idea some years before of endowing a foundation of priests or religious to give some of their time to providing missions on her lands … Vincent spoke several times with superiors of various orders and used all his powers of persuasion to have them accept the foundation. However, he found none willing to take up the project for his own community … Madame de Gondi became aware of the refusal of the religious communities to take up this work. She also was aware that doctors and other clerics helped Monsieur Vincent in the work of the missions. She thought that if they had a house in Paris they might possibly come together in some form of community. This might even attract others to this same work, and so perpetuate the work of the missions she had so much at heart. She spoke of this to her husband. He not only approved the idea but wished to become a co-founder with her of this foundation. The two spoke to His Excellency, Jean François de Gondi, the general’s brother, the successor to Cardinal de Retz as leader of the Church in Paris, and later its first archbishop. He heartily approved their plan, since his diocese would likely win many advantages from it. He proposed that on his part he would make available the College des Bons Enfants, which was then at his disposition, as the residence for these priests. The three together considered who might be best suited for bringing this project to a successful conclusion. All three decided to meet with Monsieur Vincent to overcome all objections his humility would raise and to have him accept. All this came about as they hoped, chiefly because Monsieur Vincent’s great respect for all three of these persons led him to do all they asked of him. He agreed to their proposition, first, to take over the direction of the College des Bons Enfants and the priests who might come to live there to help out in the giving of missions; second, to accept, in the name of these priests, the foundation given by the de Gondi’s; and third, to select personally those he thought fit and disposed to participate in this holy work (Abelly I:93-94).
Vincent decided to accept the proposal. He saw that the will of God had been revealed and he also saw this as an opportunity to continue the mission of Jesus Christ, the evangelizer of the poor. Here we are dealing with a decision that was inspired by the gospel even though it was also clear that Vincent wanted to respect the wishes of the de Gondi family.
Previously Vincent had made another decision that he felt would configure his life to that of Jesus Christ, the missionary. This decision involved the total renunciation of any dependence on his family which was followed by an act of entrusting them to the loving Providence of God. Vincent spoke about this during a repetition of prayer: I call myself as witness to this truth. From the time I was still in the home of the General of the Galleys, and before he made the first establishment of our Congregation, it happened that, when the galleys were at Bordeaux, he sent me there to give a mission to the poor convicts; I did so by using members of some religious Orders of the city, two for each galley. Now, before leaving Paris on this journey, I was talking with two friends concerning the order I had received about this, saying to them, “Messieurs, I am going off to work near the place where I was born; I am wondering if it would be [a] good idea for me to make a visit home.” Both of them encouraged me to go. “Go on, Monsieur,” they said, “your presence will console your relatives; you can speak to them about God, etc.” The reason I wondered about doing this is that I had seen several good priests who had done wonders when they had been away from home for some time, and I noted that when they went to see their family, they returned completely changed and became useless for the people. They got totally involved in the affairs of their families, which occupied all their thoughts, when previously they were busy only with their ministries and were detached from flesh and blood. “I’m afraid of becoming attached like that to my relatives,” I said. And, in fact, after spending eight to ten days with them to instruct them in the ways of salvation and to steer them away from the desire for possessions — even to telling them they should expect nothing from me and that, even if I had chests of gold and silver, I wouldn’t give them anything because a priest who has anything owes it to God and to the poor — the day I departed, it was so painful for me to leave my poor relatives that I did nothing but weep all the way back, and wept almost constantly. Those tears were followed by the thought of doing something to assist them and to better their situation, to give this to one, that to another. My mind was deeply moved and I was sharing in this way what I had and what I did not have. I say this to my own shame, and I say it because perhaps God allowed that to make me understand better the importance of the Gospel counsel of which we are speaking. This troubling passion for improving the lot of my brothers and sisters plagued me for three months; it was a constant weight on my poor mind. In the midst of that, when I found myself somewhat free, I prayed that God would be pleased to deliver me from that temptation, and I prayed to him so much about this that He finally had pity on me and took away those tender feelings for my relatives. And, even though they had to ask for alms, and still do, He gave me the grace of entrusting them to His Providence and to consider them happier than if they had been well off (CCD:XII:179-180).
The decision to undertake the work on behalf of the ordinands in 1628 was also a decision that was made in light of the gospel and was arrived at as a result of the initiative of Agustin Potier, the bishop of Beauvais. This good prelate saw the ways in which God had communicated his Spirit to Vincent in order to provide for the spiritual needs of the people through preaching missions and organizing the Confraternities of Charity. Therefore the bishop felt that Vincent was best qualified to assist in the reform of the clergy. The bishop admired Vincent’s practice of virtue, especially his charity and he frequently opened his heart and spoke to Vincent about the difficulties he experienced with members of the clergy. He invited Vincent to come to Beauvais and at other times he visited Vincent in Paris where together they explored the most effective ways to confront the present situation of the clergy. One day the bishop asked Vincent what could be done to remedy the disorders among the clergy … what could be done to reform the clergy. The wise and experienced missionary responded that he would begin with retreats for the ordinands. This occurred during the month of July, 1628. The bishop asked Vincent to take charge of this task: to develop themes and a schedule for preaching conferences. Vincent saw these events as a revelation of God’s will and decided to undertake and direct this ministry (Abelly I:138-140).
The decision to organize the Tuesday Conferences in 1632 in order to provide for the on-going formation of the clergy was also an action that was inspired by the gospel. Abelly describes this situation in a brief but very concise manner: The priests always considered Jesus Christ to be present in these meetings because of his word in the Gospel, that when two or three are gathered in his name, he would be in the midst of them. Monsieur Vincent was well aware through his own experience of how useful these conferences were, for he had used them with great blessing from the beginning of his Company. He seized the opportunity offered him by God to extend these conferences to other priests (Abelly 1:144).
Louise de Marillac began to pressure Vincent with regard to the foundation of the Daughters of Charity. Vincent counseled her to move more slowly and to patiently await the revelation of God’s will. In 1633, as the feast of Pentecost approached, Vincent was not yet convinced about the need to create a new community: With regard to your employment, my mind is not yet enlightened enough before God concerning a difficulty which prevents me from seeing whether it is the Will of His Divine Majesty. I beg you, Mademoiselle, to recommend this matter to Him during these days in which He communicates more abundantly the blessings of the Holy Spirit, rather, the Holy Spirit Himself. Let us persist, therefore, in our prayers, and may you remain quite cheerful (CCD:I:200).
The retreat of August or September 1633 was decisive. As happened ten years earlier in Soissons, Vincent respected the rhythm of Providence and the Spirit opened the path for the creation of this new community. At the end of the retreat Vincent wrote a letter in which he gave his approval of this foundation which he felt was the fruit of a process of true spiritual and gospel discernment: I beg you, Mademoiselle, in the name of Our Lord, to do all in your power to take care of yourself, no longer as a private individual but as a person upon whose health a number of others are dependent. Today is the eighth day of our little retreat; I hope to continue to the tenth with the help of God. I think your good angel did what you told me in the letter you wrote me. Four or five days ago, he communicated with mine concerning the Charity of your young women. It is true; he prompted me to recall it often and I gave that good work serious thought. We shall talk about it, God willing, on Friday or Saturday, if you do not write to me sooner (CCD:I:215-216).
A similar experience occurred with the decision to send Missionaries to Algeria, Madagascar and other places. In each of these situations Vincent made a decision to respond to the call of the Church which he viewed as a way of fulfilling the mission in accord with the gospel. Abelly summarized this very well when he referred to Vincent as a man of the gospel: He fled from any dignities with more care than the ambitious sought them. In every sort of circumstance he admired and perfectly imitated this dual public and hidden life of his divine master. Since he knew from his own experience that the treasure of grace lie hidden in the mystical field of the Gospel, he invited and exhorted others to share in them there (Abelly III:84) … [Vincent] seemed to be nourished by the passages of Scripture like a child taking his mother’s milk. He drew such nourishment for his soul that in all his words and actions he seemed filled with the spirit of Jesus Christ (Abelly III:76).
Vincent de Paul speaks about the relevance of the Beatitudes
The beatitudes are at the center of Jesus” preaching. They are also the very heart of the gospel. In the beatitudes Jesus gathered together the promises that had been made to the chosen people, promises made from the time of Abraham. These promises, however, were brought to perfection and instead of taking possession of some territorial land, people were (and are) encouraged to expand their horizons and focus on the kingdom of heaven. The text from the gospel of Matthew makes this very clear: Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:3).The beatitudes reveal an order of happiness and grace, an order of beauty and peace that express the new order of the fullness of love that Christ has revealed to us in the gospel. In the beatitudes Jesus celebrates the joy of those who are poor and who are destined for the kingdom (Luke 6:20). Thus Vincent made the maxims of Jesus Christ the norm for his life. He spoke about this conviction in the conferences that he addressed to the Missionaries and the Daughters of Charity (CCD:X:112-126; XI:98-110).
Vincent found interior freedom, peace, happiness and security as he lived out the beatitudes. In 1642 he expressed these feelings when he wrote to M. Bernard Codoing, the superior in Rome and rejected his proposal to give missions on the lands of the Cardinals who were members of the Curia. He felt it was not in accord with the gospel to attempt to gain the favor of the Cardinals and therefore he rejected said proposal because it was not in accord with the spirit of the beatitudes: Rest assured that the maxims of Jesus Christ and the examples of His life are not misleading; they produce their fruit in due time. Anything not in conformity with them is vain and everything turns out badly for one who acts according to the contrary maxims. Such is my belief and such is my experience. In the name of God, Monsieur, hold that as infallible and keep yourself well hidden (CCD:II:316). Vincent expressed his delight at having been chosen to express the relevance of the beatitudes. In 1643 as he spoke about missionary zeal he expounded on a reality that he had been living and did this in the form of a question: Are not we very blessed, my dear confreres, to live authentically the vocation of Jesus Christ? For who lives better the way of life Jesus lived on earth than missionaries? (CCD:XI:121).
As he explained the beatitudes as essential maxims of Jesus Christ, Vincent was in actuality speaking about realities that he was living. The world says that the blessed are those who are wealthy and esteemed by others, those who are happy and lack nothing. The poor in spirit that Jesus referred to as blessed were those whose hearts were detached from wealth, who made good use of the things they possess, who did not engage in a frantic search for those things that they did not have and were resigned to the reality when they lost those things or when those things were taken from them. Vincent spoke in this way as he attributed all the good that he had done to God, including the establishment of the various works that he founded. As Vincent rejected honors he revealed his total detachment from praise and recognition. He lived his life totally detached from material goods and utilized said goods to assist the poor. Brother Louis Robineau provides us with numerous details that confirm what we have just stated.7
Vincent was convinced that the meek relate to their brothers and sisters in a compassionate manner and bear with their neighbor’s defects and insults without complaint or resentment. In the March 28th, 1659 conference to the Missionaries Vincent expressed his convictions with regard to the virtue of meekness and the beatitude that refers to meekness. It should be remembered that Vincent referred to meekness as one of the five fundamental virtues that the Missionary must practice. Vincent also affirmed that the Missionaries, more than all other priests, ought to be filled with meekness because their vocation demands them to serve the most wretched members of society, those who are most forgotten in society. He pointed out that the practice of this virtue consists of several phases and the first phase has two stages. In the first stage the person represses spontaneous feelings of anger and makes every effort to remain calm and reasonable. The saint told his listeners that this is difficult, but it is possible to act in this way because even though the movement of nature proceeds that of grace, grace can nonetheless predominate. The second stage consists of expressing one’s anger in an appropriate manner. At times it might be very necessary to correct, to punish or to reprimand an individual, just as Jesus did with the disciples. In those situations the missionary ought to act, not because he has been overwhelmed with anger but rather because he has dominated his anger. Vincent affirmed that the meek are consistent and firm and able to judge situation correctly. On the other hand, those who are unable to control their anger and passion are generally inconsistent in their behavior.
Vincent frequently related meekness with respect (CCD:I:83; VII:605-606; VIII:262-263; IX:206ff). He told the Daughters of Charity that there could be no charity without meekness and mutual respect. Vincent also exhorted Robert de Sergis to treat the servants with meekness, cordiality and profound respect (CCD:I:343-345). He then stated: I think that only gentle souls receive the gift of discernment; for since anger is a passion that troubles reason, it has to be the contrary virtue that imparts discernment (CCD:XII:157). Throughout his life Vincent spoke about this beatitude in his teachings but his words were based on his own lived experience (CCD:XI:304-307).
Vincent explained that those who weep are blessed. They are blessed because they endure the tribulations that afflict them as a result of their sinfulness, the tribulations that afflict them as a result of the evil that they have done and the scandal they have given, the tribulations that afflict them as a result of being very distant from heaven and being in danger of not entering heaven. Vincent had suffered quietly when he was accused of theft … imitating Jesus he endured calumny and persecution and decided to be silent and not offer excuses (CCD:XI:53-56). As an adult he was afflicted by the sins of his youth8 and experienced the sins of the world as an offense against God and therefore he tried to remedy this situation by instructing people through the preaching of missions. Vincent was weighed down by his own sins as well as the sins of the clergy. This reality motivated him to engage in ministry that would lead to the reform of the clergy. Vincent was pained by the desecrations and outrages committed against religion and requested that acts of reparations be made in the villages of Clamart, Châtillon and Limetz and also asked the Missionaries to process to these churches in order to make amends for the desecrations that were committed during the first war of the Fronde.9
Near the end of his life Vincent felt that he was far from being allowed to enter heaven and as he prepared for his death he asked forgiveness of everyone, especially his benefactors. A year before his death he wrote to M. de Gondi, the former general of the galley slaves: My declining state of health and a slight fever I had cause me to take this precaution in your regard, My Lord, in the uncertainty of what is to come. I would like to prostrate myself in spirit at your feet to ask your pardon for the displeasure I have given you by my boorishness and to thank you most humbly, as I now do, for your charitable forbearance in my regard and the innumerable favors our little Congregation and I in particular have received from your kindness. Rest assured, my Lord, that, if God is pleased to continue to grant me the power to pray to Him, I will use it in this world and in the next for you and your family, desiring to be, in time and eternity (CCD:VII:452).
Vincent felt that those who desired to grow in divine grace and in the performance of good works were those who were hungry and thirsty for justice. This hunger and thirst for justice is very noticeable in the person of Vincent de Paul. His works of charity and his various foundations sprang up from this hunger and thirst for justice. The most radical expressions of this hunger and thirst were his missionary zeal and his burning desire to seek the glory of God and the spread of the kingdom in everything that he did. Abelly states that it is impossible to grasp all the things that Vincent did in order to make God’s justice and holiness shine forth in the Church: It seemed his merciful Providence wished to use the missions to accomplish the ends which brought about the incarnation of his Son, and which were foretold by the prophet: “to banish iniquity, destroy and exterminate sin, and reestablish sanctity and justice” (Abelly II:28).
Vincent recognized that he lived his life by making the search for the kingdom of God a priority and wanted his confreres to live in the same manner. He revealed his ardor and zeal to the Missionaries when he spoke to them about the search for the kingdom of God: [To] seek first the kingdom of God … seems to me that this says many things. It means putting ourselves in the state of always aspiring to what is recommended to us, working constantly for the kingdom of God and not remaining in a cowardly state, with set ideas, and being attentive to our interior life and to keeping it well regulated, but not giving attention to the exterior for our own enjoyment. “Seek, seek” implies care and action … Oh you pitiful man! You have such an obligation to lead an interior life, and here you are, in the state of falling and relapsing! May God forgive me for this! … Let us strive to make ourselves interior men so that Jesus Christ may reign in us; let us strive after this and not remain in a languishing, dissipated state, a worldly, profane state that causes us to busy ourselves with things the senses present, without reflecting on the Creator who made them, not making our meditation in order to extricate ourselves from worldly things, or not seeking the Sovereign Good … Let us seek the glory of God, the reign of Jesus Christ (CCD:XII:111).
For Vincent the merciful are those who love their sisters and brother for love of God and who are compassionate in alleviating their spiritual and corporal needs … they attempt to provide for these needs according to their ability and their state of life and also do this with an affective and effective love. All of Vincent’s life and works are an expression of this mercy. Brother Louis Robineau refers to Vincent’s mercy and compassion toward the poor and mentions some details that are omitted by his other biographers, including Abelly. He tells us that in 1649 Vincent was motivated by mercy to search out the poor and then distributed alms to two thousand people, frequently using his own money; Vincent would kiss the feet of the poor because they represented the person of Jesus Christ; he would also remove his hat when speaking with them. Vincent had a woman who was living on the streets and whose legs were covered with ulcers brought to the Hotel Dieu; he had two elderly women ride in his coach with him; he had the infirm whom he met on the street and an injured child brought to the hospital.10 Vincent is the good Samaritan who does not pass by on the other side of the road but notices the poor. He is moved with compassion and weeps with those who weep and suffers with those who suffer. Vincent spoke from his heart when he stated: To be a Christian and to see our brother suffering without weeping with him, without being sick with him! That is to be lacking in charity; it is being a caricature of a Christian; it is inhuman; it is to be worse than animals (XXD:XII:222).
Abelly and Brother Robineau refer to another dimension of Vincent’s mercy, namely, his ability to forgive. Vincent was convinced that people, who were unable to forgive another person, were lacking in mercy. Abelly refers to a specific event: Once Monsieur Vincent became aware that the superior of a well-known religious order in Paris was disturbed by the way he had handled a certain business matter. At once he went to see the superior, threw himself at his feet, and asked pardon for any offense he had given. Unfortunately the superior received Monsieur Vincent with coldness, and despite his efforts to conciliate the superior, he put Monsieur Vincent off with offensive words, and he had to leave. Yet he was happy to have had the opportunity to suffer rebuff for the love of his Master (Abelly:III:158). Some months later Vincent sent a brother to the same individual to request some articles for a liturgical celebration. The superior responded in a positive manner and stated that Vincent was guided by the Holy Spirit and that there were no traces of resentment in him. Brother Robineau also points out that Vincent had a young man, who had been unsuccessful in his vocation and who had become a thief and sought refuge in the house of the minister, Drelincourt … Vincent had this individual set free. Vincent prayed for and had others pray for an individual who had insulted him and calumniated him.11 These and other similar events prove that Vincent lived the beatitude of mercy.
Purity of heart, in the thinking of Jesus and Vincent de Paul, is more than some particular virtue because it encompasses all the virtues and makes them true virtues. According to the gospel that which makes an action pure or impure — whether this action be one of alms giving, fasting or prayer — is the intention. In other words is an action done to please God or to makes one’s self appear to be holy and righteous in the eyes of others (Matthew 6:2-6)? Here we are speaking about transparency or purity of intention as one seeks the glory of God and nothing else. It was in this light that Vincent spoke about his love for the virtue of simplicity: As for myself, I do not know, but God has given me such a high esteem of simplicity that I call it my Gospel. I have special devotion and consolation in saying things as they are (CCD:IX:476). Because he was involved in a search for truth and the glory of God, Vincent felt that he was an instrument in the hands of divine Providence and thus, he allowed himself to be led by Providence: I have a particular devotion to following the adorable Providence of God step by step. And my only consolation is that I think Our Lord alone has carried on and is constantly carrying on the business of the Little Company (CCD:II:237). In the Bible hypocrisy is the sin that is most forcefully denounced by God and equally denounced by Vincent de Paul. Hypocritical people place God on a lower level than created human beings. For Vincent when people cultivate appearances over the heart they are giving more importance to the human being than they are giving to God. Vincent was convinced that men see the appearances but the Lord looks into the heart (1 Samuel 16:7)
The beatitude of the peacemakers refers to those individuals who are at peace with their sisters and brothers, at peace with themselves, and who attempt to make peace with their enemies. During the wars that afflicted France in the middle of the seventeenth century, Vincent was actively involved in this situation as a peace maker. Vincent was a first hand witness to the plunder and violence and saw the pain that the war inflicted on those who were poor. In 1640, during the civil strife in Lorraine, Vincent met with Cardinal Richelieu, knelt before him and begged for peace. Richelieu rejected Vincent’s request and stated that peace did not solely depend on him. In 1649, during the civil war, Vincent quietly left Paris, crossed the battle lines and forged an overflowing river in order to see the Queen (it should be remembered that Vincent was almost seventy years old). He asked the Queen to remove Mazarin from office because he considered him to be responsible for the war. He also spoke directly with Mazarin. Again his pleas were rejected and Mazarin wrote in his private diary that Vincent was his enemy.
Vincent encouraged the members of the Congregation of the Mission to attempt to heal broken relationships. One of the objectives of the missions was reconciliation (Common Rules, XI:8). In fact the Missionaries often spoke to Vincent about their success in settling quarrels. From his letters it is clear that Vincent attempted to mediate disputes between members of the Congregation, the Daughters of Charity and other persons whom he counseled. He insisted on the need for interior peace which he felt was necessary in order to make good judgments. Near the end of his life he wrote: I think that only gentle souls receive the gift of discernment; for since anger is a passion that troubles reason, it has to be the contrary virtue that imparts discernment (CCD:XII:157). Vincent’s words were consistent with the way he lived his life. Abelly tells us that many people considered Vincent to be the most peaceful and meekest man of his era.
Vincent experienced the last beatitude in his very flesh and bone. People endure persecution for the sake of justice and patiently suffer ridicule, rejection and persecution because of the faith and love that Jesus Christ has shared with them through his Incarnation, life, death, and resurrection. Vincent was ridiculed and persecuted during the time of his captivity and again in Mâcon when he organized the Confraternity of Charity to assist beggars. Vincent spoke about this situation: When I first began the Confraternity of Charity in Macon, people made fun of me. They said I could never bring it off. Tears of joy greeted its establishment. When I was about to leave, the authorities of the town were prepared to do me such honor that I was obliged to leave secretly to avoid their congratulations. This is one of the better of these Confraternities of Charity (Abelly I:88).
Vincent experienced opposition and persecution from some members of the Oratory who opposed him and the efforts that were being made in Rome to obtain approval of the Congregation of the Mission; some priests opposed him when he was offered Saint-Lazare; Cardinal Mazarin removed him from the Council of Conscience … during the Fronde Vincent experienced setbacks and persecution but his attitude was always one of forgiveness: During the war in 1649 the soldiers caused us losses amounting to forty thousand livres, but this loss was not particular to us, for everyone felt the troubles of the times. Difficulties were everywhere, and we were treated just like everyone else. Blessed be God, my brothers, for it has now pleased the adorable Providence of God to take away some of our property. This is a major loss for the Company, very great indeed. We must adopt the sentiments of Job when he said: “God has given, and God has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord” (Abelly III:285). Vincent defended the rights of the Congregation and the rights of the poor and he requested his lawyers to not use offensive language but to be respectful of everyone.
Throughout this presentation we have seen that Vincent de Paul was a man of the gospel and wanted his followers to be the same, that is, men and women who root their lives in the gospel. We conclude with a beautiful prayer in which Vincent expressed his desire concerning those who were called to continue the mission of Jesus: O Savior! O my good Savior, may it please Your Divine Goodness to keep the Mission free of that spirit of laziness and of seeking its own comforts , and give it an ardent zeal for your glory, which will make it accept everything joyfully and never refuse an opportunity to serve You! We are made for that; and a Missioner — a true Missioner, a man of God, a man who has the Spirit of God — must find everything good and indifferent; he accepts everything, he can do anything; for even greater reason, a Company or a Congregation, animated and led by the Spirit of God, can do everything … if we can do nothing of ourselves, we can do everything with God. Yes, the Mission can do anything because we have in us the seeds of the omnipotence of Jesus Christ (CCD:XI:191, 193).
- Henri J. M. Nouwen, Cambiar desde el corazón, escuchar al Espiritu, Ed. Paulinas, Madrid 2001, pp. 14-15.
- Giuseppe E. Panella, Diccionario de Espiritualidad, Etiqueta: Hombre evangélico; Carlos María Martini in Diccionario espiritual; Titulo: Hombre evangélico. Ediciones de la Biblioteca Católica Digital. Cf., Nueva Diccionario de Espiritualidad, directed by Stefano de Fiores and Tullo Goffi in Ediciones Paulinas, Madrid, 1983.
- Réginald Garrigou-Lagrange, Las tres edades de la vida interior, Ediciones Palabra, S.A., Madrid 1975; Aniano Álvarez Suárez, Por los caminos de la interioridad, Ed. Monte Carmelo, Burgos 2008.
- Louis Abelly, The life of the Venerable Servant of God: Vincent de Paul, New City Press, 1993, Vol. I, p. 126. Future references to this work will simply mention the author (Abelly), followed by the volume number (I, II, or III), followed by the page number, for example, Abelly I:126. These citations will appear in the text and not as footnotes.
- Luis Robineau, El Señor Vicente visto por su secretario. Presentación of P. Andrés Dodin. Ediciones Fe y Vida, Teruel 1995, p. 137.
- Vincent de Paul, Correspondence, Conferences, Documents, New City Press, New York, 1985-2012, volume IX, p. 390. Hereafter, references to this work will be noted with the letters CCD, followed by the volume number, and then the page number, for example, CCD:IX:390. These citations will appear in the text and not as footnotes.
- Louis Robineau, op.cit., pp. 33-57.
- José María Román, CM, St. Vincent de Paul: A biography, Melisende, London, 1999, p. 93.
- Louis Robineau, op.cit., p. 113.
- Ibid., p. 47, 226.
- Ibid., p. 232, 234.