The image that would best dramatize Vincent de Paul as the patron of charity would be to show him at the center of a whirlwind, its inner circle ringed with persons who defined his life: his missionaries and Daughters, his lay collaborators and benefactors, their energies spinning out into the multitudes of the poor, the sick and the abandoned, the beneficiaries of merryThis image best portrays Vincent the spontaneous benefactor in times of crisis. The poor were always with him, true, and he served them in orderly ways through established institutions and ministries of his missionaries and the sisters. In disasters that came without warning, though, he was at his most characteristic, responding instinctively, improvising, attending to thousands of details and adapting his strategy to them, and exhausting himself in personally working side by side with co-workers.One such crisis that comes easily to mind was his response to the floods of refugees that streamed into Paris as a result of the mid-century civil wars of the Fronde. Springing into action he dunned the queen and her Court for aid to fill the endless needs. He served on committees of nobles, and other public officials, to work for peace and to dispense public aid to address the effects of wars, religious and political. He interceded with the queen for protection for the poor against pillaging soldiers, both friendly and hostile. Closer to home, he comforted his missionaries and sisters — and found relief or replacements for them — as they were beaten down by stress, disease and death in spending themselves in their missions.Amidst all these events he was able to talk about these conditions, which he revealed as news items reported in letters to confreres who were far away from Paris and Saint-Laxare. Two correspondents in particular were Jean Dehorgny, superior at Rome, and Lambert aux Coureaux, superior in Warsaw. The reports, one would think, were more than news items. They seemed to be outlets for him to vent his anguish over all that was happening to the poor, and over the struggles of his communities to keep up with the desolation.
“Our little news is always the same,” he sighed to Lambert aux Couteaux. The poor people from the country have been scattered, some of them driven from their homes by fear of being mistreated by the soldiers and have taken refuge in Paris. There is hope that the prayers and good works of many have alleviated some of the suffering, and that some measures have been taken to bring about peace. He then recounts “the good works” that have been done in Paris: “(1) The daily distribution of soup to nearly fifteen thousand poor persons, both the bashful poor and the refugees. (2) About eight hundred refugee girls have been placed in private houses, where they are taken care of and instructed. You can imagine how much harm would have been done if they had been left wandering around…. (3) We are going to rescue from the same danger the nuns from the country, whom the armies have thrown into Paris. Some are on the streets, some are living in questionable places, and others are staying with relatives. Since, however, they are all in a state of dissipation and danger, it was felt that enclosing them in a monastery, under the care of the Daughters of Sainte-Marie (the Visitation Nuns], would be most pleasing to God.”
He extended a hand even to “poor pastors, curates, and other priests from rural areas who have left their parishes to flee to this city. We are getting some every day; they will be fed and will be trained in the things they should know and practice.”
Vincent pays special tribute to the Daughters of Charity in these “many holy projects.” The sisters are “more involved than we in the corporal assistance of the poor. They prepare and distribute :he soup daily for thirteen hundred bashful poor, at the home of Mademoiselle Le Gras and for eight hundred refugees in the faubourg Saint-Denis. In Saint-Paul parish alone four or five sisters make the distribution to five thousand poor persons, in addition to the sixty to eighty patients they have on their hands.”
Throughout the massive program, Vincent is attentive not only to corporal assistance, but to spiritual needs as well, even though his action might seem to conflict with his established policy. As he tells Jean Dehorgny, “I have volunteered to have missions given to [the refugees], in line with the maxim which states that we should take our good wherever we find it. We are obliged to go and serve them in the rural areas, when they are there. They are our portion, and now that they are coming to us, driven out by the hardships of war, which is emptying the countryside, it seems that we are more obliged to work for their salvation in their present affliction in the place where they are now, subject, of course to the good pleasure of the archbishop.”
Some persons, Vincent was sure, would object that it was not the Congregation’s policy to give missions in episcopal cities. In the saint’s view, both obligations could still be honored in the present situation: “I have replied that the submission we owe to the bishops does not allow us to dispense from such missions, when they instruct us to do so, and that you yourself have just finished one in Terni, where [the cardinal) had ordered you to work. Consequently, we could do the same here on the orders of the archbishop of Paris, especially since it will be only for these poor afflicted refugees here.”
“We should take our good wherever we find it.” Such is the instinct of the patron of charity — spontaneous, inclusive, selfless. Whatever the occasion demanded, Vincent would respond appropriately. “The prayers and good works of many” were always at hand as resources, but his zeal and his practical sense supplied the drive and the direction that effected the marvels of charity for which Vincent de Paul has become famous.