Vincent de Paul in Châtillon: the birth of a new spiritual vision

Francisco Javier Fernández ChentoVincentian FormationLeave a Comment

Author: Jaime Corera, CM · Translator: Charles T. Plock, CM. · Year of first publication: 2008 · Source: San Vicente de Paúl, Ayer y Hoy, XXXIII Semana de Estudios Vicencianos, Editorial CEME, Santa Marta de Tormes, Salamanca, 2008..
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Pastor at Châtillon

On August 1, 1617 Vincent de Paul, a priest from Paris who at that time was thirty-seven years old, took possession of the parish of Saint-Martin in the village of Buénans. From there he immediately took possession of the adjoining parish, Saint Andrew in the village of Châtillon-les-Dumbes. The Church was located in the area of Bresse, a region that had belonged to the House of Savoy but sixteen years before was made a part of the French Empire. From the time of the French Revolution the town of Châtillon became known as Châtillon-sur-Chalaronne, from the name of the river through flows through its lands.

At that time Vincent was not just a priest from Paris but rather it could be said that the new pastor was a priest who was fleeing Paris. He was not fleeing because he was being persecuted; in fact his reasons were just the opposite. After having spent four years on the de Gondi estate he began to feel that his own vision of his priesthood was fading as a result of being surrounded by people who held him in high esteem. Vincent had a brief experience as pastor in the parish of Clichy, at that time a village outside of Paris. Then in 1613 Vincent accepted the offer to become tutor of the de Gondi children. This position had been offered to him by Bérulle who had been his spiritual director for three years. After ministering on the de Gondi estate for about a year and a half, Madame de Gondi requested that Vincent become her spiritual advisor.

In January 1617, in the village of Gannes (a village that was part of the de Gondi estate), the well-known event of the confession of the dying peasant occurred. The success of his subsequent preaching and the many people who presented themselves for confession on January 25th in Folleville made Vincent question himself: was it right for him to allow his priesthood to be spent ministering to three members of a noble family when on the lands of this same family there were some eight thousand peasants who needed the sacraments and instruction in the catechism?

As a result of his experience in Folleville Vincent began to realize that his true vocation involved a return to his peasant roots (fifteen year ago he fled from this reality). Thus he made a decision to dedicate his priestly and personal energies to the people who lived in the rural areas. The peasants who lived in the countryside made up ninety percent of France’s total population and for the most part they were neglected by the Church and were exploited by the other classes.

Vincent spoke with Bérulle about his situation and about his desire to give a new direction to his priesthood. Even though it was Bérulle who had initially introduced Vincent to the de Gondi family, he was not opposed to Vincent’s new proposal. In fact in was Bérulle who took the initiative in finding a place that was sufficiently distant from Paris and at the same time a place where Vincent would be able to satisfy his aspirations … and so we find Vincent in Buénans-Châtillon. As we speak about this time in Vincent’s life we will only refer to Châtillon since from the very beginning Vincent resided there and the events that we will refer to later on occurred in this place. In reality the church in Châtillon was a chapel that was connected to the principal parish that was located in Buénans.

Three years before the arrival of Vincent, the Archbishop of Lyons made a pastoral visitation to the parish of Châtillon. According to the parish registry books that have been preserved, the parish was found to be in a satisfactory spiritual situation. In fact as a result of the visitation the Archbishop had the idea of establishing Châtillon as a center for Catholic evangelization, a type of missionary center for the area and in order for this to happen he needed a priest of good character. He approached the Oratorians in Lyons who in turn consulted with Bérulle, their Founder. Bérulle believed that Vincent de Paul, who had been influenced by the spirituality of the Oratorians (even though he was not a member),would be the best priest to carry out the plans of the Archbishop.

These were the historical circumstances (presented here in a summary manner) that led Vincent de Paul to Châtillon and these were the paths that Providence utilized so that Vincent de Paul, a priest of the Diocese of Dax with a bachelors in theology, might change the direction of his priestly ministry and at the age of thirty-seven begin to walk on a new path.

Even though, as we said in the beginning, Vincent did not take formal possession of the parish until August 1st, it is very possible that Vincent had been present in the area and began to minister there several months before, during the season of Lent. This information was obtained during an investigation of the parish that was conducted by Charles Demia in 1664, the pastor at that time. The purpose of said investigation was the possible opening of the process of canonization. Therefore it should be remembered that while this information was obtained four years after Vincent’s death, the events had occurred fifty years before this report was written. Nevertheless in the same year, 1664, in the earliest biography of Vincent de Paul, Louis Abelly stated that the departure-fleeing from Paris took place during the month of July, which naturally excluded the possibility of Vincent’s arrival in Châtillon during Lent. This discrepancy is not very important and cannot be clarified with any degree of certainty. The advantages in accepting the opinion of the parishioners over Abelly is that this gives Vincent three or four additional months during which he could accomplish the many things that the parishioners said he did from the time of his arrival in Châtillon until in departure for Paris at the end of 1617.

In fact the parishioner’s statements about Vincent de Paul during his nine month stay there are so important that we feel obliged to warn the reader that these facts would be almost impossible to believe unless they had been seen and heard by these same people who testified concerning these events. These individuals believed that what Vincent had done in Châtillon was sufficient motive to canonize him and they spoke about their former pastor as if he were a saint. Even the most cautious reader will realize that the six parishioners who signed the document at the time of the investigation were overly enthusiastic and exaggerated the negative aspects of the parish at the time of Vincent’s arrival in order to bolster the merits of the ministry of their new pastor.

Another victim of this enthusiasm was Abelly as he wrote his second edition of the biography of Vincent de Paul. In the second edition when making reference to the moral and religious situation of the people at time of Vincent’s arrival (a situation which in the first edition was “normal”) he made the situation worse than it actually was and seems to have been influenced by the testimony of the six parishioners. It is most probable that Abelly had access to this document when he was preparing the second edition. Yes, Abelly was a victim of this enthusiasm but certainly not the last one. All the important biographies of Vincent, including that of Coste (though Coste was more reserved) and those who were inspired by Coste, have taken the document from the investigation and viewed it as a very trustworthy document. As a result these authors have described the religious and social situation of Châtillon at the time of Vincent’s arrival in such a negative manner that it becomes almost impossible to believe that Vincent, or anyone else for that matter, could have accomplished the things that are described in these biographies, let alone accomplish these things in such a short period of time.

The religious and social situation in Châtillon at the time of Vincent’s arrival

At the time of the arrival of the new pastor in 1617 some two hundred families or about 1200 people lived in the parish. The majority of these persons were baptized in the Catholic Church and practicing Catholics. There was a small group of twenty-eight families (about one hundred sixty persons) who were Protestant. During his brief stay in Châtillon Vincent converted several of these persons. It is certain, however, that he did not convert Jean Beynier in whose house he lived for a short time before moving into the parish house. The rectory needed to be repaired and Vincent asked Beynier for lodging. Neither the parish house nor the Church were in ruins even though many biographies state the contrary and even though the film Monsieur Vincent describes a situation that is not faithful to the actual historical situation.

We have said that the conversion of Beynier to Catholicism cannot be attributed to Vincent for the simple reason that Jean Beynier was baptized in the Catholic Church (the existing baptismal registries in Châtillon are dated from 1573) and Jean Beynier never abandoned the faith. Beynier is also one of the witnesses who signed the official document when Vincent took possession of the parish in Châtillon (CCD:XIIIa:47-49). During the seventeenth century it is difficult to imagine that a non-Catholic would have been allowed to exercise such a function.

Ordinarily the parish in Châtillon enjoyed the services of a pastor who was assisted by a vicar. The 1664 report of the parishioners stated that at the time of Vincent’s arrival the parish had been vacant because of the death of the previous pastor, M. Soyront (CCD:XIIIa:49). This is the first error in the report, but not the only mistake. The official document (CCD:XIIIa:44) stated that the previous pastor, Jean Lourdelot, has resigned into the hands of his Ordinary, the Archbishop of Lyons, possibly on the recommendation of the Archbishop himself. The purpose was to vacate the parish so that Bérulle could recommend a new pastor. The document does not specify the beneficiary of said resignation and was signed in the house of the Oratorians in Lyons on April 19, 1617 (CCD:XIIIa:45).

In the village there was also a small number of priests who had no specific pastoral obligations, even though at different times they performed baptisms. These priests, however, were obliged to chant the divine office and to offer Mass in the various chapels of the parish church. Far from giving scandal and lacking in virtue (as described in some of the biographies), the Archbishop himself praised these priests during his 1614 pastoral visitation. This visitation occurred three years before Vincent’s arrival and the Archbishop made reference to the fidelity of these priests to their obligations and highlighted their virtuous lives. This should not be viewed as some form of “blindness” on the part of the Archbishop. In fact, the Archbishop was an avid reformer, a personal friend of Francis de Sales. It was this same archbishop who nevertheless obliged the Visitation Sisters to observe strict enclosure even though Francis desired greater flexibility.

The report on the occasion of the pastoral visitation included a positive judgement on the religious state of the parishioners, especially as they were compared to people from neighboring towns. The majority of the inhabitants in Châtillon were Christian … practically everyone was baptized soon after birth. People regularly participated in Sunday Mass and received the other sacraments according to the customs at that time. Protestants were less influential here and there were no strong religious rivalries in the town (it should be noted here that these rivalries caused great harm to the Church and disturbed the social peace in many places throughout France).

Ordinarily the local community provided for the extreme cases of poverty and neglect, for example, orphaned children. This had repercussions on the budget of the municipality. The community at Châtillon maintained a small hospital within the confines of the village and another hospital outside the village where people with contagious diseases were cared for.

This, in broad strokes, was the religious and social situation that Vincent encountered when he arrived in Châtillon during Lent or in the summer of 1617. The earliest description of Vincent’s activity during his five to nine month stay there is recorded by his first biographer, Abelly. What he described for us is quite different from the accounts of the parishioners and also from the descriptions given by later biographers, including the second edition of Abelly’s biography.

In the first edition of his biography Abelly summarizes Vincent’s activity in Châtillon: One of the first things he [Vincent] did upon arriving at Châtillon was to gather together the five or six clergymen he found in the area. He formed them into a sort of community to make their ministry more effective for God and his Church. This arrangement lasted for a long time, to the great edification of all the parish. He applied himself with his usual zeal to instructing the people and converting sinners by his effective preaching and exhortations in both public and private. He did not neglect the sick and poor. He visited them and consoled and helped them in all kinds of ways. God blessed his efforts to bring back to the faith some heretics… (Abelly 1:65).

These words are found in the ninth chapter of the first book. Since Abelly introduced the theme of heretics at the end of the summary cited above, he further developed this theme in chapter eleven. He mentions two cases. The first case involved Jean Beynier, who has already been referred to. Abelly states that he was born into a family that had instructed him thoroughly in their heretical doctrines (Abelly 1:74). As a result of researching the archives in Châtillon there is no doubt that among the many persons who had the name Beynier, all of them were baptized in the Catholic Church and remained faithful to the Church. With regard to Baynier mentioned by Abelly, we have already stated that he was one of the witnesses when Vincent took possession of the parish. The other converts mentioned by Abelly were indeed converted by Vincent. One of them testified to this fact in a letter written to Vincent thirty years later (CCD:VII:75-76). In this latter case we are dealing with the seven brothers from the Garron family. The father of these seven brothers, however, not only resisted efforts to convert him but also denounced Vincent to the authorities. He died of grief as he watched his sons develop and grow in their religious faith.

Abelly also made reference to another theme, namely, the care that Vincent provided to those persons who were sick and/or poor. Abelly states this as a fact in chapter nine and then dedicates chapter ten to this aspect of Vincent’s ministry. It is in this context that we find the narration of the establishment of the first Confraternity of Charity on a parish level. In the following section we will develop that theme.

The first Confraternity of Charity

It is surprising that Vincent, who commented frequently in public about the events that occurred in Gannes-Folleville in January 1617, and referred to these as decisive in giving a new direction to his priesthood, rarely mentioned the events that occurred later in the same year, events that also had a profound influence on his life. In the extensive documentation that we have available to us in Vincent’s letters and conferences, the creation of the Confraternity of Charity is mentioned only three times. These references are found:

  • in a letter dated October 13, 1635 that was sent to Louise de Marillac … eighteen years after the event and only two years after the establishment of the Company of the Daughters of Charity. In this letter Vincent apparently responded to Louise’s question and stated: I believe that the Confraternity of Charity began in 1617 (CCD:I:302).
  • in a conference that Vincent gave to the Daughters of Charity on January 20, 1645 … twenty-eight years after the events and twelve years after the establishment of the Company (CCD:IX:165-166). This reference is key to understanding Vincent’s vision of the history of the creation of the Daughters of Charity and the nature of their vocation.
  • in another conference that was given to the Daughters of Charity on February 13, 1646 (CCD:IX-192-193). This reference is similar in content to the previous citation and is equally important. Later, in more detail, we will see the importance of these two references.

The events that led to the foundation of the Confraternity of Charity in Chatillon are well known, at least in their general outline. Therefore we will not recount those events here. We said “in their general outline” because in the different accounts that we have available to us there are discrepancies in certain details that are impossible to harmonize and yet are important. But again in the context of this presentation those details and discrepancies are not our concern and therefore, we will not deal with them here.

We will, however, give only one example: who and how many sick persons were the beneficiaries of the assistance of the parishioners and the pastor? This is a very simple question and yet not even the statements of Vincent, who was an eyewitness to these events, clarifies the situation. In the short span of thirteen months Vincent gives us two different accounts (and we cannot attribute this to loss of memory in old age since Vincent was about sixty-five when he narrated these events to the Daughters of Charity … less than thirty years after the events occurred. In the conference of 1645 Vincent said there was an indigent man who was sick (CCD:IX:165). One year later in another conference he stated that in the house everyone was ill (CCD:IX:192). The information that Abelly provides is similar to the latter account of Vincent but he adds a detail that totally disfigures the image that Vincent seemed to suggest. While Vincent gave the impression that this was a poor family, Abelly stated that this was a family whose children and servants had fallen sick on their farm (Abelly 1:72) which seems to suggest that the family lived in comfortable surroundings.

As we have said, we will not speak about the other differences in this presentation because our concern here is what happened after the people and the pastor returned from visiting the sick man or the sick family (rich or poor) on this warm Sunday in August 1617.

What happened in Châtillon was the fruit of an idea that occurred to Vincent as he was returning to the town. Vincent attributed this idea to God and stated this fact in the 1645 conference to the Daughters: I met the ladies returning in droves, and God gave me this thought: “Couldn’t these good ladies be brought together and encouraged to give themselves to God to serve the sick poor?” (CCD:IX:166). As happened so often in Vincent’s life, he was unable to imagine at first glance the historical potential of such a simple idea. For the moment let us pause at these words: to give themselves to God to serve the sick poor. If we simply omit the word “sick”, we are then at the very heart of the spiritual vision that has inspired thousands of people to the present day: to give themselves to God to serve the poor.

The immediate fruit of Vincent’s idea was the following: Vincent brought together a small group of eight women and they met on the following Wednesday. The date was August 23, 1617: I pointed out to them that these great needs could very easily be alleviated. They immediately resolved to see to it (CCD:IX:166). There were eight women, married and single from different social backgrounds, who heard Vincent’s proposal to give themselves to God to serve the sick poor (an expression which mean the poor who were sick or were becoming sick, the sick who were truly poor). This idea was expressed clearly in the Rule for the Confraternity, that is, they were not to care for just any person who was sick but rather the sick poor.

Vincent’s written account of this meeting has been preserved and we find in this document some elements of his personal spiritual vision which influenced him until the time of his death and were the source of inspiration for the institutions that were established in later years. They began and concluded with prayer to the Father the Judge, to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit be honor and glory forever and ever (CCD:XIIIb:5). The Ladies have charitably joined forces to take their turn to assist the sick poor of the town of Chatillon (CCD:XIIIb:3). They made a decision to do this in an organized manner so that those who needed assistance would be cared for during the entire length of their illness. They would be assisted in their physical needs: given food and medicine … and they would also be assisted in their spiritual needs: preparing those who seem to be tending toward death to die well, and preparing those who will recover to live a good life (CCD:XIIIb:3). All of this was to be done for the glory of Jesus (CCD:XIIIb:3) and Mary, the Mother of God, has been taken as patroness (CCD:XIIIb:3). If the members were faithful to this good work then they could be sure that on the day of judgment those who assist persons who are poor will hear that gentle pleasing voice of Jesus saying: “Come, you blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the creation of the world …” (CCD:XIIIb:4).

In the beginning this group had no name or any canonical status, but during those first weeks Vincent began to realize that this humble group of individuals could become a permanent institution, recognized by ecclesiastical authority. This group could be formed into a Confraternity … not a pious confraternity like the Rosary Confraternity that already existed in Châtillon and had been active before Vincent arrived there, but a confraternity of charitable action. Confraternity signifies an association of brothers and sisters in the faith who come together for a specific purpose. The members of the Confraternity of Charity came together to practice charity.

A few weeks after observing the effective functioning of the group, Vincent initiated steps with the Archbishop of Lyons to have the group recognized by ecclesiastical authorities as the Confraternity of Charity. The archdiocesan officials granted this recognition on November 24th. Vincent was present for the official establishment of the Association which took place on December 8th. A few day later he left the parish to return to Paris, where, for all practical purposes, he remained until the time of his death. The Confraternity did not disappear with the departure of its founder. There is written testimony that it continued to function even after the death of Vincent in 1660. It can be said then that Vincent knew how to provide the Confraternity with a structure so that its functioning did not depend on his presence.

This fact presents us with a question as we read the biography of Vincent de Paul: from whom and where did Vincent learn how to form these permanent groups that were established for a specific purpose, institutions that in almost every case had objectives that extended for indefinite periods of time (some of which still exist today, almost four centuries later)? Even a superficial knowledge of Vincent’s activity from the time that he was born until the time of his arrival in Châtillon at the age of thirty-seven reveals that he had no opportunity to learn from some professor how to organize groups of people in order to achieve some specific objective … he had no opportunity to learn how to structure these groups so that they could continue to function into the future.

As we have clearly seen with regard to the Confraternity, Vincent attributed this idea to God and would do the same when referring to his other foundations. Clearly he had reason to do this even though we know that God used other persons to plant the seeds of these ideas. For example, Madame de Gondi was instrumental in the foundation of the Congregation of the Mission, Louise de Marillac influential in the establishment of the Daughters of Charity, some anonymous diocesan priest was influential in initiating the Tuesday Conferences; Louis XIII played an important role in the work in North Africa as did the Nuncio in Paris with regard to the work in Madagascar … But concerning knowledge with regard to organizing and structuring groups, there were no intermediaries. This was the result of God’s gift and Vincent’s innate abilities.

We can examine the roots of some aspects of Vincent’s spiritual vision and discover the individuals and the different writings that influenced Vincent. Such research has been done. But his ability to organize which has been admired by so many people including the Marxist historian, Boris Porschnev, cannot be attributed to the influence of any one individual or institution. Indeed, one of the most original aspects of Vincent’s personality is his incredible ability to organize. The first example of this ability is revealed (in a humble and small scale) in the first Confraternity of Charity that was established in Châtillon.

The name of the Confraternity was inspired by the name that the Brothers of Saint John of God gave to a hospital that they established in Rome. Vincent became aware of this institution during his second stay in Rome. This hospital was also the precursor of another hospital with the same name that was later established by the same Congregation in Paris. Vincent had some relationship with this institution during his first stay in Paris. The General Regulations of the Confraternity expressly recognize the fact that the name of the group is derived from the name of the hospital and not, as some biographers state, from the name of a Confraternity that ministered in said hospital.

The Introduction to the General Regulations offers, in a summary manner, a series of ideas that inspired the action and the thinking of Vincent throughout his life and also inspired the institutions that he founded. Vincent was thirty-seven when he wrote these ideas and would live until he was eighty. He never put these ideas aside and in fact shared these ideas with individuals from various social and ecclesiastical backgrounds. The fundamental principles outlined in this document were never altered. We present here the Introduction and are confident that the reader is familiar with Saint Vincent’s vocabulary and will therefore immediately recognize his hand in this composition: Since charity toward the neighbor is an infallible sign of the true children of God, and since one of its principal acts is to visit and bring food to the sick poor, some devout young women and virtuous inhabitants of the town of Châtillon-les-Dombes, in the Lyons diocese, wishing to obtain from God the mercy of being His true daughters, have decided among themselves to assist spiritually and corporally the people of their town who have sometimes suffered a great deal, more through a lack of organized assistance than from lack of charitable persons. Because, however, it is to be feared that this good work, once begun, might die out in a short time if they do not have some union and spiritual bond among themselves to maintain it, they have arranged to form an association that can be set up as a confraternity … The confraternity will be called Confraternity of Charity, in imitation of the Charity Hospital in Rome, and the persons of which it will be mainly composed will be called Servants of the Poor or of the Charity (CCD:XIIIb:8-9).

The Confraternity was limited to twenty persons to avoid the confusion that comes from too large a number (CCD:XIIIb:9). All the members were married or single and were assisted by a procurator in administering the organization: the members will elect as their Procurator some pious, devout priest or an inhabitant of the town who is virtuous, devoted to the good of persons who are poor (CCD:XIIIb:10). On this occasion M. Beynier, who was referred to before, was elected to this position. The rule details a rigorous control of the money and the goods of the Confraternity … the pastor, the president of the Confraternity, the treasurer and another assistant or councilor were all responsible for these resources. The yearly accounts were subjected to a type of external audit by persons who were not associated with the Confraternity, for example, the Treasurer will keep the money, documents, and furnishings, as has been stated, and give an annual report on the day after the holy feast of Pentecost, in presence of the Pastor, the Prioress, the Procurator, and the other Assistant, as well as the Lord, one of the Syndics, and the Administrator of the Chatillon Hospital (CCD:XIIIb:16). This audit was a way to guarantee the responsible administration of the Confraternity’s resources, especially because these resources were seen as belonging to the poor of Châtillon. If there was some failure in the proper administration of these goods, the archbishop was to be notified since the continued existence of the Confraternity depended on him.

We have paused to reflect on this aspect which is often passed over by commentators. This dimension reflects the permanent aspects of Vincent’s organizational ability, namely, his awareness of the need to carefully control those goods that were destined for the poor, resources that were almost always administered by persons who were not poor and who might be tempted to use those goods for themselves or for some purpose that had nothing to do with the association. History, including the present day history of beneficent volunteer institutions, is filled with examples of such abuse. Even though Vincent trusted the good will of the volunteers who worked in the different institutions that he established or that were inspired by him, nevertheless, the administration of these goods demanded a strict control, as strict as any other financial institution.

Other aspects of the Confraternity’s Rule have been commented upon by biographers and researchers. This is especially true with regard to those aspects that refer to the personalized individual care that was given to each person who was ill. Since this point is well known we will not examine it here in detail. But this matter does present a problem which is not often discussed with regard to this theme: where did Vincent learn or who taught this priest who was thirty-seven years old, who had little prior pastoral experience and was not known for his relationships with poor people … who taught him this incredible sensitivity which was also a very practical sensitivity as seen by the way that he outlined methods to assist the poor, to feed them and bathe them in their beds, to assist them spiritually without tiring them with endless sermons. The only place he could have learned this was at the Charity Hospital in Paris (an institution that was referred to earlier). Vincent would have visited this hospital in his role as chaplain to Queen Marguerite. At that time said hospital was the most modern institution of its kind, for example, each person had their own individual bed that was enclosed by curtains. This was in stark contrast to the situation in large public hospitals, such as Hotel Dieu in Paris, where it was very common to place several patients in one bed. In this respect the film Monsieur Vincent portrayed this situation with historical accuracy.

In the Rule the Confraternity is described as a fraternal organization and the relationships among the members are based on mutual concern and help. These relationships continue after a member has died because when God is pleased to take from this world a member of the group, the others will attend her funeral with the same sentiment as if she were their own sister, whom they hope to see one day in heaven (CCD:XIIIb:18). The members, in their personal life and not just when they are ministering to those who are ill, ought to give witness to a devout Christian life through fidelity to their prayer life.

The founder of the Confraternity wanted its members to be well-formed in the spirituality that was proper to their state in life. He recommended that they read the work of Saint Francis de Sales (whom Vincent knew personally), Introduction to the Devout Life, which is perhaps the most successful spiritual work in the history of the Church. The following year, 1618, Vincent and Francis were both in Paris and they established a relationship of friendship which had a profound influence on Vincent’s spiritual and psychological development. Francis’ writing provided the women in the Confraternities with a solid spiritual vision of their life as Christians.

The Rule of the Confraternity supplemented the vision that was found in Francis’ book by giving the members a charitable objective, thus orienting their spiritual life toward service of the poor. The Rule describes the women who compose the Confraternity as an organized group who enjoy autonomy in dealing with the matters that are proper to their organization. The group functions by itself, makes decisions with regard to their activities, administers its financial resources and by a plurality of votes of the entire Confraternity (CCD:XIIIb:17) elects those persons who will have positions of responsibility. It was not the founder of the Confraternity or the priest who would succeed him as pastor who was responsible for the group but rather there was an advisor whose role was limited during the meetings to offering a short spiritual exhortation (CCD:XIIIb:15). This aspect of the Confraternity, namely, placing full confidence in the laywomen with regard to the administration of the group, is all the more surprising when we realize that Vincent could have easily followed the model of the Association that was already functioning in the parish when he arrived, the Rosary Confraternity. In this group there were two positions that were reserved for men and on several occasions one of these men was M. Beynier.

On Christmas Day, 1617, Vincent was in the process of returning to Paris. This occurred as a result of the persistence of Madame de Gondi who felt that her family was all but lost because she was without a spiritual director and her children had no tutor. As the saying goes, Madame de Gondi moved heaven and earth, which in this case involved all those persons in civil or ecclesiastical positions who could have some influence on Vincent and thus bring about his return to Paris. Vincent did not say farewell to his parishioners (even though the six witnesses that we referred to earlier stated otherwise) because he was not sure if he would return to Châtillon to continue to serve as pastor or if he would accede to the wishes of Madame de Gondi and remain in Paris (CCD:I:21). The latter occurred. As we look at the path that Vincent followed, we cannot help but think that his return to Paris was a work of Divine Providence that was made known by the psychological insecurity of Madame de Gondi. At the same time we cannot help but realize that Vincent’s time in Châtillon as pastor was also a work of Divine Providence, for even though he was there for a brief period of time, it was enough time to establish the Confraternity of Charity.

Elements of the Vincent spirit in the Rule for the Confraternity in Chatillon

We know the dates that establish the origins of Vincentian spirituality: January 25th, 1617, the day on which the first mission sermon was preached in Folleville; August 20, 1617, the day on which the sermon that gave rise to the first Confraternity of Charity was preached. On the first date the Holy Spirit inspired Vincent with the “charism” of the mission and on the second date with the “charism” of charity. The first event resulted in the establishment of an institution that continues to exist, the Congregation of the Mission, while the second event led to the creation of the Confraternities of Charity and the Daughters of Charity and the Ladies of Charity. After Vincent’s death these “gifts” resulted in the foundation of many groups and institutions that claim to be inspired by the vision of Vincent de Paul.

Even at the present time we are able to notice in the activities of the distinct institutions a difference that is the result of their distinct historical origin. In the Congregation of the Mission we see a predominance of activities that we have referred to as “spiritual”: preaching, attention to liturgy, celebration of the sacraments. In the other institutions (those that were established by Vincent as well as those that he did not establish, for example, the Saint Vincent de Paul Society) there is a predominance of activities that we know as charitable acts.

These different types of institutions must be mindful of the fact that in Vincent’s vision, mission and charity are “two arms”, two ways of bringing about in history the redemptive mission of the poor that Jesus began in Galilee. All the members of these institutions are to engage in one and/or the other type of action that is proper to their social and canonical situation. The lay members of the Saint Vincent de Paul Society, the Daughters of Charity and the members of the International Association of Charity are unable (because of their canonical status) to absolve the poor from their sins. But the members of these groups can and ought to be concerned about the spiritual well-being of those who are poor, that is, they should be concerned that the poor know how to pray, know the catechism and have a good relationship with God. For their part, the Vincentian Missionaries cannot limit themselves to the celebration of the sacraments for those who are poor … besides absolving them from their sins they must also be concerned with providing these individuals with food, clothing, lodging, education, medical care … in a word, they should be concerned about defending their rights.

Mindful of this observation we now highlight the fact that those elements of “Vincentian spirituality” that were present in the events at Châtillon have throughout the years continued to be characteristic and indeed should continue to characterize all those institutions that have been inspired by Vincent de Paul … this should be a reality whether or not these institutions have Vincent’s name in their official title.

The center, the very heart of this spirituality is expressed succinctly in the Rule of Confraternity in Châtillon: to dedicate oneself to God in order to serve him in the poor and to do this for the glory of Jesus. This is a most fundamental element and without it, beneficent activities, no matter how noble and worthy of praise such dedication might be, yet such activity could not be classified as Christian (even though it might spring forth in some implicit manner from the Spirit of Christ). With this offering of self to God eternal life becomes a spiritual sacrifice that is offered to the God of Jesus Christ. Therefore the most humble acts of service on behalf of people who are poor and those actions that are most unappreciated by larger society become spiritual actions (we will see later that Louise de Marillac expressed this same idea). At the same time, the Rule of Châtillon and Vincent himself years later when speaking to the Daughters of Charity said that this way of life guarantees one of eternal life: Come, blessed of my Father … for I was hungry and you gave me to eat … (CCD:XIIIb:9). All of this should flow from a Christian life that is lived from day to day, a life of personal prayer and prayer with other, a sacramental life, a life of activity that is worthy of one who believes in Jesus Christ.

Work with the poor is not just another form of social work activity but, strictly speaking, is part of the evangelization process in which the spiritual and material aspects are accomplished by word and action. As the members of the Confraternity of Charity severed the sick poor, they continued the ministry that was begun by Jesus as he served in the poor in Galilee. To act in this way is to serve the poor, to be servants of the poor. Years later when Vincent spoke about the servants of the poor he came to the logical conclusion that the poor are our lords and masters. Therefore since these individuals are our lords and masters they are to be given personalized service and should be encountered face to face so that they are known by name. As a result of this vision the Confraternity in Châtillon and later foundations could never become simply beneficent institutions that distribute money and other resources in a bureaucratic manner that distances its members from the lives of those persons who are poor.

Personal service on behalf of the poor is certainly an infallible sign of the true children of God (CCD:XIIIb:8). But not just any action on behalf of the poor can be referred to as Vincentian action. Thus our charitable-evangelizing activity ought to be done in collaboration with other believers and in well-organized groups whose members are animated and united by bonds of mutual affection. This is fundamental if we want to understand the true Vincentian spirit. We previously highlighted the fact that the organizational abilities that Vincent displayed were a very personal trait of his, a quality that was expressed later in more complex organizations. We have also stated that Vincent’s organizational abilities have impressed many later historians and researchers. We already referred to Porschnev but here we add the names of Henry Kamen and Daniel Rops … in the previous paragraph when we spoke about personalized work with those who are poor we do not want those words to be understood as meaning that such work is meant to be undertaken in an individualistic manner, that such activity is to be done personally, individually. In fact personalized attention to the poor is done as a member of and with the help of an organized and carefully structured group.

Just as the Rule for Vincent’s first foundation states that its members will be subject to the good pleasure of their most honored Prelate the Archbishop (CCD:XIIIb:8-9), who in this case was the Archbishop of Lyons, Vincent’s later foundations would maintain this same loyal submission to the hierarchy of the Catholic Church … this included fidelity to the dogmas and the teachings of the Church. This position is a result of the vision of the vocation of the laity and an understanding of the meaning of Christian baptism. All of Vincent’s institutions are, without exception, lay institutions which implies that the members of these institutions should attempt to live the demands of the Christian faith, the demands to grow in holiness in the midst of the world, in the midst of the world of the poor.

While being faithful to the Church and to the hierarchy, Vincentian institutions, nevertheless, enjoy an autonomy in their internal functioning, that is, in the administration of their resources, in deciding what actions to undertake, in the appointment/election of individuals to different positions of leadership (these elements are expressed in the Rule of the Confraternity). In this regard the different Vincentian institutions have varying degrees of autonomy (this should be understood as a form of relative independence in their relationship with the hierarchy). The clearest example of such autonomy is that of the Saint Vincent de Paul Society. Ozanam was definitely a faithful interpreter of Vincent’s spirit when he made reference to the fundamental principle that the society was wholly lay and at the same time wholly Catholic. In this context the word “lay” refers to the lay nature of the association and also refers to its autonomy.

In addition to these characteristics of every true Vincentian vocation, characteristics that are expressed in the Rule of the Confraternity in Châtillon and the Rule of the Congregation of the Mission and the Company of the Daughters of Charity, there are other characteristics that are not, however, common to every Vincentian institution but are proper to certain institutions: the priesthood in the case of some members of the Congregation of the Mission … vows and community life in the case of the members of the Congregation of the Mission and the Daughters of Charity. These elements (priesthood, vows and community life), however, should be oriented toward the fundamental focus of evangelization-redemption-service of the poor. If this is not done then these elements cease to provide these persons with a Vincentian identity. For example, if there were some institution that had the name Saint Vincent de Paul but said institution had some other objective that was not the evangelization of the poor … then the name of this institution is not enough to make it a Vincentian institution … in fact it would be Vincentian in name alone.

In summary, the following are the elements of Vincentian spirituality, elements that we have highlighted in the Rule of the Confraternity in Châtillon:

  • To commit oneself to God in order to serve the poor and to do this for the glory of Jesus Christ;
  • to live a Christian life on a daily basis;
  • to evangelize by work and action;
  • to evangelize with actions that provide for the spiritual and material needs of the poor;
  • to be servants of the poor;
  • to engage in direct service with the poor;
  • to develop a lay spirituality that is lived out in the midst of the world;
  • to be a member of an institution that is Vincentian in nature;
  • to affirm the organizational autonomy of the institution.

The list is by no mean exhaustive as we attempt to define the true Vincentian spirit in its broadest sense. We would have to add other elements, for example, the characteristic virtues, a prayer life that is broader in scope than that which is expressed in the Rule of the Confraternity, a broader vision of the person of Jesus Christ, and several other important themes. The list is simply an attempt to enumerate the elements that are found in the Rule of the Confraternity in Châtillon. In this way we can understand that the Rule of the Confraternity contained many elements that later became essential elements in what today we refer to as Vincentian spirituality. This spirituality was given a definitive form as a result of the influence of the experiences of Louise de Marillac, the other Daughters of Charity and, to a lesser degree, the Ladies of Charity.

The first years after Chatillon: Vincent de Paul, a rural missionary

At the end of January 1618, after Vincent had returned to Paris, he gave his first mission in the village of Villepreux and there he established the second Confraternity of Charity. This was followed by the establishment of many other Confraternities which were established in the towns and villages where he and his Missionaries preached (preaching that occurred both before and after the establishment of the Congregation of the Mission in 1626). Throughout the years many other Confraternities were established, including in places where his Missionaries had not preached. As a result, in less than fifty years after the establishment of the first Confraternity, his biographer, Louis Abelly, was able to write: the confraternity has been established in France, Italy, Lorraine, in Savoy and elsewhere (Abelly I:73). On the de Gondi estate alone there were more than thirty Confraternities.

It has often been said that 1617 was a decisive year in the life of Vincent de Paul. It was in this year that the two important elements of his pastoral and spiritual vision took shape; mission and charity. The first element, mission, was the result of his experience of hearing the confession of an elderly man in Folleville while the second element, charity, was the result of his experience in Châtillon. Interpreting the change of direction in Vincent’s life as a result of these experiences is true to the historical realities, but nonetheless, there is more to the story. The thesis, or perhaps better to say, the hypothesis of this presentation is that while the element of mission had matured in Vincent’s awareness by the time that he gave the first mission in January 1618, the element of charity was deepened and transformed as a result of influences and experiences that occurred in later years. We will now reflect on this point in greater detail.

In 1625 Vincent made a commitment to the de Gondi’s to gather together a group of priests who would dedicate their lives to preaching missions on their estate. This commitment was fulfilled in 1626 when a Missionary team of three priests was formed. There is nothing in the Foundation Contract that was signed with the de Gondi’s nor in the Act of Association that refers to providing for the material needs of those who are poor. Rather the contract mentions those needs that are spiritual in nature: sacraments, religious instruction. etc.

In the contract with the de Gondi’s the proposal of a future missionary teams is outlined in the following manner: They could devote themselves entirely and exclusively to the salvation of the poor common people. They could go from village to village at the expense of their common purse to preach, instruct, exhort, and catechize those poor people and encourage all of them to make a general confession of their whole past life … [to provide] spiritual assistance to the poor galley convicts, helping them to make good use of their bodily sufferings … to teach catechism in the villages on Sundays and feast days (CCD:XIIIa:214, 216, 217).

As can be seen there is no reference to any charitable activity, not even in relation to the galley slaves who lived in deplorable conditions. The same observation could be made with retard to the Act of Association in which the purpose of the missionary group was defined in the following manner: To devout themselves, by way of the mission, to catechize, preach, and exhort poor country people to make a general confession … (CCD:XIIIa:222).

During the following years the same vision was maintained. This is clear in the various requests that Vincent, beginning in 1627, sent to Rome as he attempted to obtain Vatican approval of his Congregation. Vincent had established his Congregation with the recognition of the Archbishop of Paris, who in his letter of approval referred only to spiritual activities (CCD:XIIIa:218). The same applies to the document of approval that King Louis XIII wrote in 1627 (CCD:XIIIa:226-227) and the papal document of approval (CCD:XIIIa:296-304). The only reference in these documents to charitable activity appears when there is reference to the establishment of the Confraternities at the end of each mission. The activities that are envisioned in all these documents, that is, the activities of the Missionaries with regard to those persons being missioned could all be classified as spiritual. The same idea in expressed in Vincent’s correspondence when in 1631 he wrote: the poor are being damned for want of knowing the things necessary for salvation, and for lack of confession … It is the knowledge we had of this situation that brought about the establishment of the Company, so as to remedy it in some way (CCD:I:112).

Neither Vincent nor his missionaries lost sight of the spiritual dimension as a fundamental function of their pastoral activity. Indeed, had they lost sight of this dimension then the very reason for the establishment of the Congregation would have lost its significance. It is also clear that during those first years a concern for charitable works was not referred to as an important dimension in the Missionaries’ activities, certainly not referred to as important as that other dimension that we have classified as the spiritual dimension.

Mission and Charity: the evolution of a new spiritual vision

What a difference the passing of years made in the language that Vincent used to communicate to the Missionaries the purpose for which he established the Congregation. Vincent expressed this vision in a conference that he gave in 1658 when he spoke of his vision and referred to the “being” and the “doing” of the Congregation: 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 … to do this is to preach the Gospel by words and by works (CCD:XII;77-78).

Thus we have a clear expression of Vincent’s definitive vision which was spoken as a form of testament two years before his death. The Mission was initially founded to assist the peasants in meeting their spiritual needs: catechesis, the celebration of the sacraments, peace among the inhabitants of the village, the conversion of sinners to a life of grace, the conversion of heretics to the true faith. Only with the passing of the years did Vincent become convinced that the proclamation of the gospel had to be accompanied by the practice of every form of charity on behalf of those in need: to do this is to preach the Gospel by words and by works. This well-known phrase expresses in a succinct manner the definitive spiritual vision of Vincent de Paul.

The seed of this new vision was planted at the time of the establishment of the Confraternity of Charity in Châtillon and, as previously noted, was further developed in the Rule for said Confraternity. Later, little by little, Vincent became more convinced of this reality through his own personal experiences and through the influence of others: Louise de Marillac, the young members of the Confraternity of Charity, the Ladies of Charity and all the different teachings that these individuals shared with Vincent. These teachings revolved around the reality that the practice of charity toward those persons who are poor is a way of evangelizing by work and is a way of living out the Christian life. It is also a form of spirituality and an effective and legitimate means of growing in holiness … as legitimate as any other means and perhaps an even more legitimate means than others. We refer to this as a “new spiritual vision” because as we look at the long history of spirituality, this appears to be a new element. It is true that this vision had been lived by thousands of believes throughout the history of the Church. But we do not find any account of this in books that deal with the spiritual history of the Church, that is, we do not read about this element inspiring any form of institutional spirituality nor was this form of spirituality officially recognized prior to the experience of Vincent de Paul and his various establishments. It is for this reason that we say that this is a “new vision”.

Over the years the earliest and most prolonged influence was that of Louise de Marillac who was the first person to intervene in the life of Vincent in the matters that we are speaking about. Their first encounter occurred during the time when Vincent was concerned with forming a team of Missionaries. Although the previous spiritual formation of Louise had very little to do with the popular missions and even though she sought spiritual guidance from Vincent in matters of conscience, nevertheless from the outset Louise became a member of this small missionary team and took charge of many charitable concerns. She helped some of the young women who lived in the villages where the missions had been preached find work in Paris. As a result of her personal experiences in these matters Louise found a new way to express her Christian faith and her personal relationship with God. All of this was the result of her collaboration with the Missionaries in these charitable works. In fact it was during one of these visits with the members of the Confraternity that Louise had a mystical experience that authors refer to as “spiritual betrothal”. She connected this experience to her new ministry: Throughout my trip, I seemed to be acting without any contribution on my part … At the moment of Holy Communion, it seemed to me that Our Lord inspired me to receive Him as the Spouse of my soul and that this communion was a manner of espousal … to bear with the difficulties I might encounter as part of the community of His goods (SWLM:705, [A.50])

Louise certainly experienced many difficulties when in May, 1629 she began a systematic visitation of the Confraternities of Charity that had been established in the different towns and villages where the mission had been given. Her purpose during these visits was to resolve various problems with regard to the functioning of these organizations while at the same time renewing the initial enthusiasm of the members for this ministry. Louise was involved with the Confraternities in this manner up until the end of 1633 when, together with Vincent, she established the Confraternity of Charity for young women.

We spoke before about the spiritual formation of Louise de Marillac and noted that said formation has little relevance to what she was discovering as a result of her collaboration in the ministry of the various Missionaries. Once Louise discovered this new path she was not only faithful to it until the time of her death, but she was also able to inspire and encourage the first generation of Daughters to embark upon this same path. At the same time Louise was able to influence Vincent who has left us various testimonies with regard to his admiration of Louise. Vincent realized that Louise was born into an aristocratic family and that she had received a fine education and a solid spiritual formation and yet she was able to put all of this aside and achieved a high degree of holiness as she served the poor of Jesus Christ (using Louise’s own words).

We say that she was faithful to this vision until the time of her death because two months before she died she gave us an unequivocal testimony of her definitive and final spiritual vision. In a letter that she wrote in January 1660 she expressed her desire that the Spirit of Jesus Christ may abide in them (the Daughters of Charity) and grant them the strength to persevere in this way of life which is totally spiritual, although they will be employed in exterior works which appear lowly and despicable in the eyes of the world but which are glorious in the sight of God and His angels (SWLM:674, [L.651]). For Louise de Marillac the dedication of the Daughters of Charity to humble actions on behalf of the poor was a way of life that was wholly spiritual because such actions reveal that the spirit of Jesus animated their lives, that spirit of Jesus who was the first person to dedicate his life to the spiritual and material redemption of those persons who are poor.

Louise de Marillac would not have understood that the word “spiritual” as being reserved for those aspects of the Christian life that are related to transcendental realities and that are unable to be “physically seen with the eyes”: prayer, forgiveness of sins, the life of grace that is shared through the celebration of the sacraments. Even today books on spirituality continue to express this perspective and yet there is no reason that the word “spirituality” should continue to remain in quotation marks as we are doing here in order to show a discrepancy between our understanding and the habitual and more common use of the word. In order to remove the quotation marks from the word “spiritual” we have to apply this word, as Louise de Marillac did, to any activity that remedies the visible and human needs of individuals, that is, activity that involves feeding the hungry, clothing the naked … needs that because they are human needs cannot be viewed as merely material. These needs, then, just like religious ignorance and the state of sin, become the motive and the object of evangelization and redemption (for the neo-testament basis of this affirmation see for example, Matthew 11:4-6).

The long process that was begun in Chatillon in order to arrive at this clear expression of Vincent’s new spiritual vision was without a doubt influenced by Louise de Marillac as well as the young women who were members of the Confraternity that was established at the end of 1633. Vincent’s letters and conferences during those years were filled with expressions of surprise and admiration for these women’s dedication and service on behalf of those persons who were poor. Many of these women were able to grow in holiness as a result of said service and dedication. The Daughters of Charity — Vincent wrote these words in a letter that he addressed to a Missionary seven months before his death — have become, in the order of Providence, a means God has given us to do by their hands what we cannot do by our own in the corporal assistance of the sick poor … these Sisters are devoted, like us, to the salvation and comfort of their neighbor (CCD:VIII:278). A few years prior to this he had spoken directly to the Sisters and said: for whoever sees the life of Jesus Christ would see far and away the similarity in the life of a Daughter of Charity. And what did He come to do? He came to teach and to enlighten. That’s what you’re doing. You’re continuing what He began (CCD:IX:466). In order to achieve such a clear vision Vincent undoubtedly had to allow himself to engage in new experiences and come to know people whom he could not imagine encountering when he left Châtillon at the end of 1617.

Before this new Confraternity was established a “young pastor” entered the lives of our holy founders. This “pastor” was a young illiterate woman, Marguerite Naseau, who without realizing it, became the historical link between the events that began in Châtillon and gave rise to this new vision and the other event that contributed to the flourishing of this vision and that gave it a definitive form, namely, the establishment of the Confraternity of Charity for young women.

We are reminded once again that in those initial years of Louise’s collaboration with the Missionaries, one of her tasks was to find employment in Paris for some of the young women who lived in the towns and villages where the missions were preached. Marguerite Naseau was one of those young women who introduced herself to Vincent during a mission. She, however, was not looking for employment in Paris but rather offered to help the members of the Confraternity of Charity care for the sick poor in their homes. This encounter took place around February, 1630 (CCD:I:67-68).

Marguerite died three years later at which time the Confraternity of Charity for young women was established. Vincent realized that when Marguerite began to work with the Confraternities of Charity she was making a contribution that provided these groups with a better approach and also she provided them with a deeper spiritual content. The approach was better: Marguerite dedicated all her time to this ministry, something that the other women were unable to do because of their family responsibilities. The spiritual content was deepened: Marguerite dedicated her life to minister on behalf of the redemption of the poor. In this way she lived her baptismal commitment to follow Jesus Christ in the path of holiness. Marguerite made such a radical commitment that she gave her very life as she cared for a poor woman who was afflicted with the plague. In this way she imitated Jesus Christ who, through his earthly life among us, liberated humankind from the various spiritual and material maladies that afflicted them.

Once again Vincent attributed to God the fact that Marguerite had played such an important role in the evolution of the idea that began to unfold in Châtillon. When speaking to a group of the Daughters of Charity Vincent noted that some women in the Confraternities were unable to provide the necessary care because of their previous family commitments. He stated: In short, things were not going well because God wanted there to be a Company of Sisters who would be specifically for the service of the sick under the guidance of those Ladies. The first of these Sisters was a poor young woman from the country … (CCD:IX:193). Then Vincent continued to speak to them about Marguerite Naseau.

We have already stated that Vincent needed some time to discover and understand the role that Marguerite played in the Confraternities and in the establishment of the Daughters of Charity. There is no doubt, however, that he discovered this connection. On more than one occasion he spoke about this expressly and in great detail to the Daughters of Charity. Even though Marguerite died ten months before the establishment of the Daughters of Charity, Vincent gave her the honorary title of being the first Daughter of Charity. Twelve years after the foundation of the Daughters Vincent spoke to them about the historical origins of their way of life and their spirituality (CCD:IX:165-165; 192-195). In Vincent’s narration of these events the Daughters found their remote origins in the laywomen who were the first members of the Confraternity that was established in Châtillon. The next phase was the formation of a Confraternity of Charity for young women. Marguerite was the first woman to join this group and soon other young women were attracted to join because of Marguerite’s example and words. Finally, Louise and Vincent gave a definitive form to this group.

From the very beginning Louise was the primary and on-going formator and inspiration for this group. This was so even before the group gathered together in her house when those first four women formed a community on November 29, 1633. That date and that group of women mark the foundation of the Daughters of Charity. This new foundation was originally called the Young Women’s Confraternity of Charity because that was a group of young women who helped the other women who were already members of the parish Confraternities of Charity in Paris. Very soon after their foundation, however, this group became independent from the Confraternities and became involved in their own proper works. It was not difficult for Vincent to discover that the name of the members of the Confraternity should be Daughters of Charity. Certainly Vincent was assisted in this discovery by the French language itself: the word for “daughter” and “young woman” is the same, “filles”. Thus these young women were and should be Daughters of Love, love which is God, love which God poured forth on humanity through his only Son, Jesus Christ, love which God continues to be poured forth through the life and ministry of the Daughters of Charity … You are continuing what he began!

Conclusion: beyond Folleville and Chatillon

Vincent’s spiritual vision was broadened with the passage of time and his direct knowledge of the different forms of poverty was also amplified. This was the result of discovering new forms of poverty in Paris and its surrounding area, then in other parts of France, later in other parts of Europe and yes, even in other parts of the world. In 1617-1618 Vincent committed his ministry to the peasants and the sick poor. Soon thereafter he began to care for the galley salves. Then as a result of his relationship with Louse de Marillac and her Daughters of Charity the poor began to appear everywhere. (in the film, Monsieur Vincent, these words were spoken to Vincent by a nobleman). We can begin to envision Vincent’s view of poverty by simply listing some of the different classes of poor people that became part of his life. This vision began in 1617 with an experience that led him to dedicate his life to the poor peasants and the sick poor.

  • 1634: the sick poor in public hospitals (Ladies of Charity, Daughters of Charity).
  • 1638: abandoned children (Ladies of Charity, Daughters of Charity).
  • 1639: war refugees (Daughters of Charity, Congregation of the Mission).
  • 1645: Christians held captive in North Africa (Congregation of the Mission).
  • 1648: the people of Madagascar (Congregation of the Mission).
  • 1649: victims of the wars in Paris and the surrounding areas (Congregation of the Mission, Daughters of Charity, Ladies of Charity).
  • 1650: assistance to people living in devastated areas (Congregation of the Mission, Daughters of Charity, Ladies of Charity).
  • 1654: homes for the elderly (Congregation of the Mission, Daughters of Charity); wounded soldiers (Daughters of Charity).

We could add to this list the assistance that Vincent provided to literally thousands of beggars, to noble families from Ireland who were ruined and exiled, to men and women religious who were fleeing the devastation of war and living in very precarious situations.

The poor were everywhere…

The element that all these groups share in common was the fact that these men and women were poor. They lacked those goods that would have enabled them to subsist and this reality was often accompanied by other forms of poverty: religious ignorance, lack of freedom, illness, social marginalization. As a result of Vincent’s experience in Châtillon it was very clear that caring for the poor must involve providing for their spiritual and material needs. The human person must be seen as a whole, in all his/her dimensions and not viewed from the single dimension of their relationship with God nor, on the other hand, from the single dimension of their lack of material goods. The criteria that guided Vincent and the groups that he inspired in deciding to care for one group of individuals and not another was the lack of resources for sustaining themselves. If we do not understand this then we will nor understand Vincent’s concern for noble Irish immigrants who had been ruined as they fled Protestant persecution now will we understand Vincent’s concern for priests and religious women who were living in precarious situations. It could be supposed that these groups of persons did not need spiritual assistance. But then, this was not the motivating factor that led Vincent to act, rather it was the fact that these individuals lacked the most basic resources,

Vincent de Paul’s vision was expanded beyond his initial experience in Châtillon. This broader vision extended not only to the types of poor people that were cared for but also to the manner in which these people were assisted. The Rule for the Confraternity in Châtillon describes the situation of those person who were ill and thus receiving a form of help that today we might refer to as “public assistance”. This approach continued to predominate not only in the works of the many Confraternities that were later established but also in the activities of other institutions. Yes, this approach was certainly predominant but was not the only approach. In some Confraternities that were established in Paris, their Rule provided for other types of activity that were oriented toward human promotion and the professional formation of young men and women who as a result of said activity were expected to provide for themselves (CCD:49, 54, 79, 81-84). Activities of some of the other Vincentian institutions were also oriented toward human promotion, for example, the teaching of young girls in the villages and town where the Confraternity has been established and the formation of orphaned children (these were ministries that were initiated by the Daughters of Charity).

Vincent’s experience in Châtillon was not characterized by other ways of working with the poor, ways that might be classified today as different approaches to social work. In other words at this phase in Vincent’s life we cannot say that his ministry involved the defense of the rights of those who were poor or a concern for justice on their behalf (for example, interventions in the political arena on behalf of the social well-being of the poor). Examples of these approaches are found in Vincent’s later life, many years after he had left Châtillon. The experience in Châtillon, together with the experience in Folleville that occurred in the same year (1617), planted the seeds that enabled Vincent to live the Christian faith in a new way and provided a foundation for a new spiritual vision that, little by little, produced fruits and was broadened. This vision inspired hundreds of men and women from every social class, men and women who also contributed to this vision, a vision of being Christian that today we know as the vision of Vincentian spirituality.

Bibliographic Notes

In volume XIIIa and XIIIb of Correspondence, Conferences, Documents (New City Press, 2003) one can find all the documents that refer to the relationship between Vincent de Paul and Châtillon:

  • Resignation of the Parish of Châtillon in Favor of Saint Vincent, April 19, 1617 (CCD:XIIIa:44).
  • Appointment as Paator of Châtillon, July 28, 1617 (CCD:XIIIa:45).
  • Act of Taking Possession of the Parish of Châtillon, August 1, 1617 (CCD:XIIIa:47).
  • Report of Charles Demia on Saint Vincent’s Stay in Châtillon, August 7, 1665 (CCD:XIIIa:49).
  • Foundation of the Charity in Châtillon-les-Dombes, August 23, 1617 (CCD:XIIIb:3).
  • Charity of Women – Châtillon-les-Dombes, November, December 1617 (CCD:XIIIb:8).

All the events in this presentation that depart from what is contained in the better known biographies, events that surround the arrival of Vincent de Paul in Châtillon, his activities during his brief stay there … all of this should be credited to the careful and thorough research of Father Bernard Koch, CM. The results of his research appear in: Châtillon-les-Dombes et Saint Vincent, 1998; Les protestants à Châtillon-les-Dombes jusqu’a Saint Vincent, 2001; Châtillon-les-Dombes, Visites pastorales undated. These three articles and several others on the subject of Châtillon can be obtained by sending a request to the author at: or

These works have been published, some in greater length, in Bulletin des Lazaristes de France.

Abelly dedicates four chapters of book I to the description of the relationship between Vincent de Paul and Châtillon (Louis Abelly,The life of the Venerable Servant of God: Vincent de Paul New City Press, 1993):

  • Chapter nine: Vincent secretly withdraws from the de Gondi house but later returns there, p. 63ff.
  • Chapter ten: The beginnings of the Confraternity of Charity for the Sick Poor, p. 72ff.
  • Chapter eleven: The conversion of several heretics whom Monsieur Vincent brought back to the Catholic Church, p. 74ff.
  • Chapter twelve: The marvelous change brought about in the life of a noble person under Monsieur Vincent’s spiritual direction, p. 77ff.

In volume I of Correspondence, Conferences, Documents one will find the letters that refer to Vincent’s going to Châtillon and his decision to leave the parish and return to the de Gondi estate: Letter #6, 7, 8, 9, 10

With regard to Louise’s collaboration with the first Missionaries of the Congregation see volume I of Correspondence, Conferences, Documents, Letter #93, 94, 95, 101, 102, 103, 130, 132. With regard to her ministry with the Confraternities see volume I of Correspondence, Conferences, Documents, Letter #44, 45, 132, 134, 135, 138, 139, 140, 146, 148, 149, 151, 153, 157, 159, 162, 177, 178.

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