Vincent de Paul: Minister of Restlessness

Francisco Javier Fernández ChentoVincent de PaulLeave a Comment

Author: Patrick McCrohan · Year of first publication: 1981 · Source: Colloque, Journal of the Irish Province of the Congregation of the Mission, no. 4.
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The first time I heard the expression: “Le prêtre doit être ministre de I’inquiétude” (the priest ought to be a minister of restlessness) was in a lecture by a Belgian priest in U.C.D. in 1965. It’s a description that has floated round the back of my head ever since. It puts before my mind the picture of a priest prophesying like Isaiah or Amos — or Jesus. It captures for me the essence of St Vincent’s specialness. It’s what makes him so like Christ, the Ministre de I’inquiétude. Jesus was the one who “burned with zeal for God’s house”, whose food was “to do the will of my Father”, who was “moved to compassion by these people because they are like sheep without a shepherd”. Jesus was always on the move, up before daybreak seeking the Father’s guidance, moving on to new towns and villages because he was restless to do the Father’s work. Jesus questioned every fixed idea and prejudice and value. He disturbed the comfortable and challenged the smug. He loved the poor, the sinners, the brokenhearted, the social “nobodies”. He loved the rich and the “notables” too, only they didn’t want or need his love, and they found him abrasive and troublesome. This was the Jesus who in the years 1609-1613 took hold of Vincent de Paul and shook him and disturbed him and uprooted him and made him a Minister of Restlessness and a bringer of Good News to the Poor.

The Experience of Vincent

You can’t be a Minister of Restlessness until you have become restless. You can’t bring Good News to the Poor until you have become poor. Between 1605 and 1607 Vincent de Paul “disappeared”. He re-appeared in respectable society, went to Rome, and wrote two long letters to his patron, M. de Comet, describing a colourful captivity in North Africa in the hands of Turkish pirates and slave-traders and subsequently as a slave on a farm. While the authenticity of these letters is not disputed, the truth of what the 27 year old Vincent wrote is. His total silence on the subject in later years and his impassioned pleas to have the letters destroyed suggest that the letters were either a fanciful use of a student’s spare time, or else an attempt to cover up a more “damaging” reality, possibly that he spent the two years in Marseilles prison as a result of having sold a hired horse1.

Just let us assume that whatever happened between 1605-1607, Vincent was very ashamed about it. On his return to Paris in 1609 he was introduced to Pierre de Bérulle, who became his spiritual director. Not long afterwards he was accused (understandably but mistakenly) of petty theft, and lived under the shadow of that accusation for six years until the culprit confessed his crime. In 1610, when things were “looking up” a little and he joined the “ecclesiastical staff” of Marguérite de Valois he entered a period of extreme mental and spiritual suffering which lasted five years. All his efforts to distract himself from temptations against his faith failed until he recognised that what God was doing was purifying him prior to calling him to find Jesus Christ in the Poor. So from 1605 to 1613 Vincent underwent a total “shaking”. He was blasted out of the promotional preoccupations of a 17th century French cleric, and in the midst of his confusion and misery he found Jesus where Jesus had always said he would be found — in the least of his brothers and sisters. It was this “shaking” and “blasting” that plunged Vincent into an experience of desperate poverty — of desperate need of God — and this was the context in which he identified himself with the Messianic figure of Isaiah chapter 61 who says: “The Spirit of the Lord has been given to me, for the Lord has anointed me. He has sent me to bring Good News to the Poor, to bind up hearts that are broken, to proclaim liberty to captives, freedom to those in prison…” (Is.61, 1-2). If we are to understand Vincent, understand his charism, understand his vision, understand who we are, who the poor are and what evangelism means, then we not only must understand what he experienced, but we ourselves must also in some way experience being poor, needing God, being restless, in need, insecure, being “blown out of the water” of complacency and acceptance of things as they are. In our searching for our proper work orientation we tend to ask the question: “What would Vincent do or say to us if he were alive today? “ I think what he would do would be to ask another question: “What would Jesus do if he were confronted with situations X, Y and Z?” and then he would do something.

For Vincent, two things were vital for a Priest of the Mission:

  1. To be insecure and poor.
  2. To take responsibility for the poor.

Insecurity and Poverty

A minister of restlessness cannot prophesy from an arm-chair. Vincent recognised the scandal posed by the distribution of clergy in France in the 17th century. In a conference to the confrères he speaks of a Calvinist whose only objection to the Church of Rome was that it could not possibly be directed by the Holy Spirit and leave the catholics in rural areas at the mercy of ignorant, immoral priests while the towns were packed with priests and monks who do nothing. How could the Church be taken seriously when nobody seemed to care that there were perhaps 10,000 priests in Paris while the country people, through their ignorance of the mysteries of the Trinity and Incarnation, and their fear of confessing their sins, were being let go to damnation? (XI 34-36).

For Vincent, comfort and security meant loss of vision. To see as Jesus sees, you must be poor, dependent on God, rooted in God alone. Once you get comfortable and don’t need God (like Adam and Eve!!) you lose your way. Writing to Bernard Codoing in 1644 (Codoing was very involved in financial difficulties in mail-coach services in Lyon and Soissons) Vincent impresses on him the need to rest only in the security of God’s Providence. He tells Codoing that the prior of the Dominicans in Paris had acknowledged that the ruin of their community had been brought about by financial security which made them “independent of Providence”. He goes on: “We are not sufficiently strong to be able to carry the weight of material plenty in addition to the grace of our apostolate, and I fear we never shall be; the one destroys the other” (II 469).

In the same vein he tells his confrères: “Gentlemen and my brothers, there is no greater calamity for a missioner than to become attached to material things. He will get caught up in their toils and will be robbed of his motivation … he will say:… why bother travelling around villages, why work so hard? Let the country people be — their own priests should look after them.” History shows us, says Vincent, that material wealth has brought about the ruin of many clerics and even of entire communities and orders (XI 79).

Vincent was haunted by this fear of his community “settling”. Smugness, comfort, laziness, pursuit of good material standards, were attitudes which brought out very strong emotions in him. In a conference on the Aims of the Congregation in December 1658 he attacks the mentality of confrères who object to every tension, who want to work on missions to the exclusion of everything else. He refers to lupi rapaces who after his time will endeavour to undo all he has undertaken because they do not look at things through the eyes of Christ but simply make decisions based on human considerations. He tells them that to be stretched and over-committed (to the Daughters, the Foundlings, the mentally handicapped who lived at St Lazare, the formation of the clergy) is to be like Jesus; uncomplicatedness can never be the criterion for the apostolate of the missioner: the only criterion is: “If Our Lord still lived among men, what would he do?” (XII 79-94).

On July 24th, 1655, at a repetition of prayer Vincent challenges the confrères on their complaints about discomfort. He points out that the poor people of the war zones have known nothing but war for 20 years, and can see a whole year’s work burnt in an afternoon, leaving them with the prospect of starvation, and still they trust in God; surely we should be ashamed to be so massively secure and cushioned against hardship that even though we don’t do a tenth of the work they do, yet we complain if the food which the sweat and labour of the poor provides for us is not up to our standards. We should never sit down to eat without challenging ourselves as to whether we’ve earned what we eat. We should be sufficiently uncomfortable at least to be aware of the misery the poor suffer, and intercede for them as Moses interceded for the people of Israel. Contact with the poor, the suffering, the “nobodies” would always keep us from becoming comfortable and losing the restlessness of Jesus. What mattered to Vincent was to live in Christ and see as Christ saw. Everything else followed (XI 200-205).

Taking Responsibility for the Poor

Somewhere around 1613 Vincent, in the torture of God’s withdrawal from him, promised God that he would spend the rest of his life serving the poor. And in that moment he found God and the Poor together. From that day on he not only served the poor, he loved them and needed them. When you love and need somebody, you don’t have to debate who they are or whether or not you are doing enough for them. For Vincent the experience of Jesus in his own poverty became the vision with which he saw Jesus and loved him in the poor. And because he was excited and passionate about this, everybody he touched came to life. As with Jesus, wherever Vincent went things happened. His Priesthood was truly Sacrament. He made Jesus present, and miracles took place.

It wasn’t all straight and simple. God had to orientate him: the poor family in Chatillon, the peasant of Cannes, the chaplaincy to the galley slaves, the mission at Folleville, all of these were “Damascus experiences” for Vincent. The important factor was a hunger in his soul, a restlessness to make Christ present to the poor.

The details he left to providence — hence the insecurity. In the Conference, already quoted, on the Aim of the Congregation (1658), Vincent tells the confrères; “I really want you all to see things as they are, as works of God which God has entrusted to us without our having taken the initiative in any of them or in any way sought to have control of them. Our commitments have been given to us by those in authority or through necessity staring us in the face — these are the ways God has involved us in his plans. It’s true to say that people generally see this Community as being raised up by God because we clearly answer the most urgent and most overlooked needs” (XII 90).

Vincent didn’t romanticise about the works of the community. He says to the confrères in a conference: “I mustn’t judge a poor peasant or a poor countrywoman by outward appearances, nor even by their behaviour or the impression they make; very often they are scarcely recognisable as rational beings since they can be so repulsive and dehumanised; but turn the other side of the medal and you’ll see, through the faith God gives you, that the Son of God is made present to us in these people, because he wanted to be poor. In his passion his face was no longer the face of a man…. Oh God, how beautiful it is to see the poor when we see them in you, and according to the way Jesus saw them. But if we see them with our merely bodily eyes, and judge them by human criteria, we will despise them” (XI 32).

Speaking on the Five Virtues Vincent stresses that meekness is very necessary in dealing with the poor “who are, I must admit, so very coarse, ignorant, slow-witted and even, (I hate to say this), incredibly stupid; they don’t know how many gods there are or how many persons there are in God. Even if you tell them fifty times you’ll still find that they are as ignorant at the end as when you began … now if you’re not gentle and patient with them, they’ll see that, and then they’ll become offended and will never again come back to learn the things they need to know for salvation” (XII 305).

Vincent had a colossal sense of responsibility for the poor people of the country districts. They were neglected and ignorant. Although he was aware that the theology of salvation of Thomas, Augustine and Athanasius was disputed, he took the tutiorist line and refused to rest until the implications of that theology were fully realised. The position of Augustine and Thomas was (and it’s vital for us to see how restless this made Vincent) that if a man did not have an explicit knowledge of and belief in the Mysteries of the Incarnation and the Trinity he was damned. Add to that the horror he felt at the vast numbers of peasants who could not or would not confess their sins to the local priest, and were therefore destined for hell, and we better understand what he meant by being poor.

In a conference in January 1657 he begs the confrères to love the poor, to spend themselves in serving the poor with affection, because they are the specially-beloved of God …” and let us go out of our way to seek out the poorest and the most abandoned … They are our lords and masters, and we are not worthy to offer them our poor services” (XI 392).

On November 17th. 1656 in a conference on our duty to catechise and instruct the poor, he says: “… if we do not observe this practice we are in danger of doing terrible harm. I say terrible harm because, as has already been so well said, you can kill a man in two ways: you can either stick a knife in him and directly cause his death, or else you can omit to offer him what he needs for life. It is a great evil when you meet somebody who has not got the knowledge necessary for salvation and fail to teach him when you have the chance. And what Augustine. Thomas and Athanasius have to say ought to disturb us, that is that those who do not explicitly know the mysteries of the Trinity and the Incarnation will not be saved …. Now I know there are other theologians who are not as rigorous and hold other opinions … but since there is a doubt. Gentlemen and my Brothers, we ought to act in love and instruct these poor people, whoever they are: we ought not let a single opportunity to go by if at all possible”’ (XI 381-384).

Vincent’s Christ-like restlessness spread out in concentric circles. Just as Jesus instructed his disciples so that they could continue his work, so Vincent impressed on the confrères that we must love the poor through their own priests also: “The Church cannot survive without good priests who will put right such a colossal tide of ignorance and vice in this world and lift this poor Church of ours from its pitiful plight. If we had any hearts at all we would weep tears of blood for the Church. I believe that all the misery we see in the world could be attributed to priests. That might sound a bit drastic to some of you, but this question is too important to let it go by without seeking an answer and finding a solution to the problem of so much evil…. We’ve had lots of conferences about trying to analyse the source of so much evil and trying to get at the roots of the problem: and the analysis is that the Church has no greater enemies than priests. It is priests who have given birth to heresies (for example Luther and Calvin) … and it is with the co-operation of priests that heretics have established their position, that vice has got such a grip and that ignorance has put down its roots among the poor, abandoned people; and all of this has happened because priests are lax, careless and lazy, and tail to oppose with all their strength these three evils —heresy, immorality and ignorance— which have swamped the whole of Christendom.

Surely, my brothers, you would be prepared to make any sacrifice to help reform our priests so that they will live up to the great expectations God has of them. Only in this way will the Church be rescued from the awful condition in which we find it” (XII 85-86).

In a letter to Thomas Berthe in Rome (January 2nd, 1654) Vincent expresses tremendous pleasure at Berthe’s sending a confrère to visit the poor and distribute alms on behalf of a wealthy lady: “It’s a source of great happiness for us that Our Lord seems in every place to be directing our Community to the service and the relief of the poorest” (V 60). Vincent was restless and impatient with a simplistic approach to “division of labour”. He opposed the mentality of those who said: “let’s do nothing but missions; let’s do nothing but seminaries.” The only question was “what is Jesus showing us? What does the Father ask of us?” Addressing himself to the tension created by diversity of commitments to the poor he says:

“Some of you might say: ‘Why should we be involved in a hospital? The poor people in the Nom de Jesus are taking us from our true apostolate … we have to say Mass for them, instruct them, give them the sacraments, and generally organise their lives. Why should we have to go to the war zones and give out relief supplies, take a lot of risks, and in this way neglect what we were called to do?’ Oh Gentlemen, how can you talk like that about these works? Why shouldn’t priests work to care for the poor? Wasn’t that what Our Lord did, and many great saints, who didn’t just talk about the poor but went themselves to comfort, relieve and heal them. Are not the poor the broken limbs of Our Lord? Are they not our brothers? And if priests abandon them who do you hope will help them? I want to make this very clear; if some of you think that we go on missions only to preach to the poor, but not to touch them, to minister to their spiritual needs but not the needs of their bodies, you are wrong. We must help them, and get help for them, in their every need if we wish to hear Our sovereign Judge say to us: “Come you blessed of my Father…” (XII 87).


Vincent de Paul was a man who knew what it was like to live in darkness. When he began to see he reacted like Bartimaeus in Mark ch. 10 — “he followed Jesus along the Way.” This explained his restlessness and also his strength. He knew that the power of Christ was present in his weakness. He knew that as long as he clung to Christ and obeyed in detail his every sign and call, that God would bless his work. The secret lay in his passionate love for Christ and tor his Church. He really had no problem seeing what to do. It was as clear to him as the voice of God.

I think that our Province, and our whole Community is beginning again to experience being lost, visionless, purposeless and apathetic. I think we have been asking the wrong questions about our works, the poor, our vocations and our future. I believe that when we really acknowledge that we are “wretchedly and miserably poor and blind and naked too” that God will bless us and the work of our hands, and that we will begin to experience what Vincent experienced and do what he did as Christ’s restless Minister of Restlessness.

  1. cf Coste: Monsieur Vincent, pp 43-60.

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