Saint Vincent de Paul: Mystic of Charity and of the Mission

Francisco Javier Fernández ChentoVincent de PaulLeave a Comment

Author: Vinícius Augusto Teixeira, CM · Translator: Charles T. Plock, CM. · Year of first publication: 2016.
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On July 2nd, 2016 (within the context of the XLII General Assembly of the Congregation of the Mission), Father Tomaž Mavrič, in his first homily, invited us to rediscover and develop the mystical dimension of our charism … thus, following the inspiration of Saint Vincent, the mystic of charity.  This invitation was repeated in Father’s first circular letter (September 19, 2016), published on the occasion of the feast of our founder.  In that letter, each one of us was requested to respond personally to the question: why and how I can describe Vincent as a Mystic of Charity.  We know that some of those who are knowledgeable in Vincentian spirituality and history have done this very expertly.  This was very clear in the circular letter as Father General asked three Missionaries to share their insights on this matter: Fathers H. O’Donnell, R. Maloney and T. McKenna.  At the same time we are grateful for the writings and work of L. Aberlly, H. Brémond, A. Dodin and J.M. Ibáñez.  In addition to them (who now rest in peace) we could add the names of many others: A. Orcajo, G. Toscani, L. Mezzadri, J.P. Renouard, G. Grossi, etc.  We are indebted to these experts for their insights … we are indebted to them because with reverence and passion they probed the heart of St. Vincent and have given us the intuitions of this mystic, intuitions that are capable of quenching our thirst, capable of impelling our search for God and capable of making fruitful our charity and our mission with the poor.

No matter how significant and relevant the contributions offered by this illustrious group of historians, the question about Vincentian mysticism remains valid and the task of recreating it has not lost any of its urgency.  The celebration of the 400th anniversary of the concretization of the charism (2017) should be seen as an appropriate time to ask the question anew and resume the task … thus making this an opportune moment for the spiritual and apostolic revitalization of the whole Family that is nourished by this Vincentian mysticism. In fact, this mysticism enflames the charism received and transmitted by Vincent de Paul, makes it dynamic, attractive, and capable of faithful and bold recreations.  This dynamic occurs within the different situations and contexts in which we, members of the Vincentian Family, are challenged by the cries of the poor, the calls of the Church and the signs of the times. Without a renewed mysticism that is nourished by a profound experience of God, the Vincentian charism and the mission that originates from it would lack principle, vitality and a prophetic dimension … it would be like a house built on unstable and sandy terrain.

1. Mystics: a mystery of grace and freedom

In what sense can someone be viewed as a mystic?  There are many possible answers to this question.  No one denies the fact that there are some characteristics that will define a mystical person or an individual gifted with a lively interior life, an individual with deep convictions, enlightened by high ideals and guided by a correct conscience … all of which is expressed in a balanced personality, a coherent and persevering praxis and a constant moral fiber.
From a Christian perspective, all mystics are distinguished by their awareness of God’s mysteries, their passionate identification with Jesus Christ and their docility to the movement of the Spirit.  From this perspective, mystics are those persons who recognize the fact they have been caught up in and surrounded by an incredible Love to which they commit themselves.  At the same time, this Love clarifies their understanding, mobilizes their will and engages their freedom.  This Love is not to be confused with some cosmic force, with some fleeting sentiment or some abstract concept.  This personal Love is God (cf. 1 John 4:8, 16) who offers him/herself to others as gift and is the source of true meaning, thus providing the human person with an all-encompassing grace and the inexpressible joy of experiencing, embracing and affirming that gift … without ever exhausting that gift.  The experience of God, the acceptance of God’s love and the knowledge of God’s mystery are developed through the following of Jesus Christ and through the reception of the gifts of the Holy Spirit.  Christian mysticism is not simply an interior reality or some form of emotional rapture … nor does it demand supernatural phenomenon to verify its authenticity and efficacy.  The depth of the mystic is proven by the manner in which he/she practices the theological virtues: a confident faith, a dynamic hope and a self-sacrificing love.  In other words, even though the mystics experience this gift crying out in the very depths of their being, nevertheless, mystics produce and offer to others the fruits of their experience and they do this in their daily life, in their interpersonal relationships, in ethical behavior, in the transparency of their words, in their generous commitment, in their convincing witness and in their convictions about the truth.  Therefore, mysticism is the mystery of grace and freedom, the mystery of gift and commitment, a gift that is offered and accepted … a gift in which the Lord’s initiative is united to human persons who totally surrender themselves to God who bestows upon them this gift.

2. Vincent de Paul: a true mystic

As we reflect on Vincent’s life, we find sketched out for us a multi-faceted mysticism that was rooted in a profound experience of God and an enfleshment of the spirit of Jesus Christ … both of which were nourished by a gradual process of conversion and tested by an unwavering fidelity to service on behalf of the poor.  Vincent walked along the paths of God because God first walked amid the paths of Vincent’s life, enlightened that path, animated Vincent’s steps, corrected his detours, pointed our new directions and thus, transformed this once ambitious and restless man into an instrument of his immense, paternal charity, which is intended to be established and to expand in souls1. The interior understanding of this mystery oriented the mystic Vincent de Paul and formed within him a heart that enabled him to be moved by the misery that surrounded him and to discern the callings of Providence in every encounter and challenge that life presented him.  That is what occurred, for example, in Gannes-Folleville (January 1617) when he encountered the poor dying man who desired peace … a peace that only God’s forgiveness could bestow upon him.  That encounter made Vincent aware of the spiritual abandonment of the country people.  Faith enabled Vincent to perceive the call to commit his life to the mission of evangelizing the poor … gathering around him other priests who were concerned about that same situation.  In Châtillon-les-Dombes (August 1617) Vincent discovered another aspect of human deprivation in the encounter with a family that had been debilitated by illness and by the inability to satisfy their most basic survival needs.  Challenged by such destitution and moved by the spontaneous generosity of so many people, Vincent heard the Lord’s call to form a compassionate and organized charitable outreach.  We also mention here Vincent’s encounter with the zealous bishop of Beauvais (1628) and the challenge of doing something to remedy the immoral and ignorant situation in which so many ecclesiastics found themselves.  This encounter impelled Vincent along unknown paths that would lead to a reform of the clergy (a reform whose efficacy would be felt in a not too distant future).  Through a contemplative reading of events and then, in response to the challenges and the calls that those situations presented … in all of this we can discover the heroic faith of Vincent de Paul and we also discover the exuberance of his mysticism.

There is no doubt that in the person of Vincent de Paul we encounter an authentic mystic, a competent spiritual master, a contemplative in action and prayer, one who was able to recognize and affirm the movement of Divine Providence in his life and in history.  Then, as suggested in the Thomist tradition, Vincent communicated to others that which he contemplated (contemplate allis trader).  The charitable work of this man who was able to put aside his own needs and who committed himself to service of others gave a dynamic to his relationship with God.  Vincent’s apostolic zeal flowed from a life that was strengthened and made fruitful by the Spirit (like a plant that produces fruit because of its solid roots).  Everything that Vincent did was like a ray of sunlight that enlightened him from the depths of his interior.  Vincent’s relationship with the Lord, a relationship that grounded his convictions, his commitment and his integrity became the source of his insightful activity, his bold charity and his missionary zeal.  His mysticism, a mysticism of open eyes, gave rise to the strength of his prophecy.  In the silence of his prayer, Vincent outlined his art of forming and transforming.  Here we recall the words of Pope Francis who reminded us that without prayer all our activity risks being fruitless and our message empty.  Jesus wants evangelizers who proclaim the good news not only with words, but above all by a life transfigured by God’s presence (Evangelii Gaudium, #259).  Transfigured by the presence of God,

the life of Vincent de Paul became a reflection of Jesus’ active compassion toward the poor.  It was in the poor that Vincent was able to contemplate and experience the image of his Lord and Master.  It was also the poor who touched Vincent’s conscience and heart which expanded and became more enlightened by Grace.  Vincent’s first biographer has preserved the following words of this mystic: One cannot hope for much from someone who does not continually converse with God.  Further, if someone does not serve the Lord as he/she should, it is because such a person is not attached enough to God and has not asked for his grace with perfect confidence2.

In reality, Vincent’s mysticism is revealed in his continued insistence with regard to the indispensable value of the spiritual life.  On one occasion, as Vincent attempted to help an austere and dedicated Missionary in a process of discernment about joining the Carthusians, he stated:  the apostolic life does not exclude contemplation, but encompasses it and profits by it to know better the eternal truths it must proclaim (CCD:III:344).  On another occasion, Vincent revealed his convictions about the need for the Missionaries to cultivate the contemplative dimension of their vocation.  He exhorted his followers to be faithful to the practice of prayer: Give me a man of prayer, and he’ll be able to do anything; he can say with the holy Apostle, “I can do all things in him who sustains and comforts me.” The Congregation of the Mission will survive as long as it is faithful to the practice of meditation because meditation is like an impregnable rampart, which will protect the Missioners against all sorts of attacks (CCD:XI:76).  At the conclusion of a repetition of prayer, Vincent spoke even more forcefully when he stated: let all of us really devote ourselves to this practice of meditation, since through it all good things come to us. If we persevere in our vocation, it is thanks to meditation; if we succeed in our works, it is thanks to meditation; if we do not fall into sin, it is thanks to meditation; if we remain in charity, if we are saved, all that is thanks to God and to meditation. Just as God refuses nothing in meditation, so he grants almost nothing without meditation … so then, let us ask God very humbly to help us to adopt this practice (CCD:XI:361).  Only authentic mystics can speak about the proper place of prayer and speak about it as an exercise that disposes people to receive from the Lord those gifts that will make their life more fruitful and their apostolic ministry, more perfect.  When speaking to the Daughters of Charity, who are called to be other Saint Theresa’s, our Founder assured them that meditation is so excellent that we can never meditate too much and because we experience the presence of God when we meditate, the more we meditate, the more we will want to meditate (cf. CCD:IX:325).  Furthermore, Vincent also stated:  it is impossible for a Daughter of Charity to live without prayer (CCD:X:468).

If it were not for the intense spiritual life that impregnated the daily life of Monsieur Vincent and inspired his incredible activity, we would not know this bold evangelizer and servant of the poor who almost totally changed the face of the Church and of the society of his era and who became known to future generations as the saint of charity and of the mission.  We, like H. Brémond, have no hesitation in affirming the fact that Vincent’s holiness was translated into authentic and effective charity.  We might add, however, that Vincent’s charity (accepted in faith and manifested in his service) should be viewed as the fundamental impulse of his holiness.  If, on the one hand, it was not the poor who gave Vincent to God, but God who gave Vincent to the poor, then, on the other hand, it was the poor (cherished in Vincent’s heart and ministry) who opened the path that enabled Vincent to encounter the God of his life and his vocation and who enabled Vincent to allow himself to be guided by the sentiments and the attitudes of Jesus Christ, thus clothing himself in the very spirit of Jesus Christ.  As he stated on many different occasions when speaking with his confreres: What an important matter it is to clothe ourselves with the Spirit of Jesus Christ! This means that to grow in holiness, to be useful in helping people, and to serve the clergy well, we have to work at imitating the perfection of Jesus Christ and to strive to attain it. It also means that, of ourselves, we can do nothing in this matter. We must be filled and animated with this spirit of Jesus Christ (CCD:XII:93).

Vincentian mysticism, holiness, charity and mission demand a certain mutuality because all things proceed from the heart of the Father, find a permanent point of reference in Christ and are nourished by the creative power of the Spirit.  In his advice to a young Missionary who had been appointed superior of a seminary, Vincent stated: you must empty yourself of self in order to clothe yourself with Jesus Christ (CCD:XI:311).  Vincent then spoke about fidelity to prayer as an indispensable means to become clothed in the spirit of Christ: Something important to which you must faithfully devote yourself is to be closely united with Our Lord in meditation; that the reservoir where you will find the instructions you need to carry out the ministry that you are going to have (CCD:XI:311).  To live and to act in accord with the spirit of Christ was the secret of Vincent’s life and it was that which also revitalized his mysticism.  That is the experience that Vincent wants to communicate to us.

3. A lived and shared mysticism

Vincent’s mysticism is revealed in his faith-filled words and his merciful activity.  Words and actions flowed from his heart that had been made fruitful by Grace.  On a certain occasion a priest of the Mission stated to another confrere: I can’t tell you with what enthusiasm and abundance of the Spirit of God that was said, and with what fire and forcefulness; all I can say is that my heart was so overwhelmed and contented by it (CCD:XI:107).  In order to understand the power of persuasion with regard to the words of our Founder, a power that was able to fill the hearts of his followers with joy, we have no better testimony than that of Brother Ducournau, his faithful secretary: Even if M. Vincent speaks on something ordinary, everyone still knows that he does it with extraordinary force; for his eloquence and the grace animating him cause him to treat the most insignificant topics with such devotion that he always imparts this to his listeners, imprinting on their souls respect and reverence for all that concerns God and love for the Rules and practices of the house. That is why each individual is very attentive when he speaks, many are delighted to listen to him, and those who are absent often ask what he said, expressing their regret at not having been present for it … what persons speak of these things as he does with such discernment, efficacity, and love, spontaneously and unostentatiously? … he is the leader chosen by God to breathe spirit and life into the members of the Company (CCD:XI:xxix, xxx).  The words of the saint, more than any other rhetorical device, flowed from his heart that was enflamed by zeal  … his words were an expression of a true mystic, enflamed by the charity of Christ.

Vincent’s words were convincing and created a sense of enthusiasm in others because they arose from convictions that were accepted in faith and practiced on a daily basis.  We have an example of this in the missionary passion that Vincent often communicated to his followers and that was revealed in his own ministry.  In his 70’s, Vincent wrote to a loyal collaborator who had a position of leadership in the Confraternities of Charity and stated: I am going to continue the mission of Sevran, four leagues from here, as I have announced.  I doubt if I can leave it on Friday to go to the meeting.  Please make my excuses to the Assembly, Madame.  I think I would offend God if I did not do all in my power for the poor country people on the occasion of this Jubilee (CCD:IV:561).  When the aches and pains of old-age afflicted him, Vincent was dismayed by his inability to give missions in some of the abandoned towns and villages.  There was nothing more important or more satisfying than to dedicate his life, together with the other priests and brothers of the Congregation, to the task of evangelizing the poor: But woe to us also if we become lax in carrying out the obligations we have to help poor souls! For we have given ourselves to God for that purpose and God is counting on us (CCD:XI:122)Then revealing the depths of his apostolic zeal, Vincent concluded by saying: As for me, despite my age, before God I don’t feel excused from the obligation I have to work for the salvation of those poor people; for what could prevent me from doing so? If I couldn’t preach every day, I’d do it twice a week! If I couldn’t give long sermons, I’d try to give short ones; if, again, people didn’t understand me at those short ones, what would prevent me from speaking plainly and simply to those good people in the way I’m speaking to you right now, gathering them around me, as you are? (CCD:XI:123).  Word and action in perfect harmony … such was the fruit of a firmly rooted mystic who never became caught up in abstract thinking or speculative reflection, who never separated or opposed intense contemplation to effective action … never separated or opposed spiritual depth to practical activity.

Few missionaries knew how to be a mystic like Vincent de Paul, just as few mystics became as active as the prophet of charity and of the mission.  Vincent’s concept of a missionary was in fact an image of his own spiritual profile: a Missioner — a true Missioner — is a man of God, a man who has the Spirit of God (CCD:XI:191).  By way of conclusion, we cite here the wonderful prayer that arose from the mystical heart of our Founder as he spoke to the Missionaries: O my God! Grant me the grace of having your holy love imprinted very clearly on my heart, and that it may be the life of my life and the soul of my actions, so that, being apparent outside of me, it may also enter and work in the souls with whom I come in contact (CCD:XII:215).  Thus, we come to a deeper understanding of Vincent’s life.  The source of his mysticism was this continual movement of love … a love that was etched in the very depths of his heart, a love that became contagious in all those persons who encountered him, a love that above all else clothed the nakedness of the poor and of those who were suffering, a love that dried the tears of the mournful and thus diminished their pain, a love that restored hope and gave people the surety that they had been chosen by God to become rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom that he promised to those who love him (James 2:5).

  1. Vincent de Paul, Correspondence, Conference, Documents, translators: Helen Marie Law, DC (Vol. 1), Marie Poole, DC (Vol. 1-13b), James King, CM (Vol. 1-2), Francis Germovnik, CM (Vol. 1-8, 13a-13b [Latin]), Esther Cavanagh, DC (Vol. 2), Ann Mary Dougherty, DC (Vol. 12); Evelyne Franc, DC (Vol. 13a-13b), Thomas Davitt, CM (Vol. 13a-13b [Latin]), Glennon E. Figge, CM (Vol. 13a-13b [Latin]), John G. Nugent, CM (Vol. 13a-13b [Latin]), Andrew Spellman, CM (Vol. 13a-13b [Latin]); edited: Jacqueline Kilar, DC (Vol. 1-2), Marie Poole, DC (Vol. 2-13b), Julia Denton, DC [editor-in-chief] (Vol. 3-10, 13a-13b), Paule Freeburg, DC (Vol. 3), Mirian Hamway, DC (Vol. 3), Elinor Hartman, DC (Vol. 4-10, 13a-13b), Ellen Van Zandt, DC (Vol. 9-13b), Ann Mary Dougherty (Vol. 11-12); annotated: John W. Carven, CM (Vol. 1-13b); New City Press, Brooklyn and Hyde Park, 1985-2009, volume XII, p. 214.  Future references to this work will be inserted into the text using the initials [CCD], followed by the volume number, followed by the page number, for example, CCD:XII:214.
  2. Louis Abelly, The Life of the Venerable Servant of God Vincent de Paul: Founder and First Superior General of the Congregation of the Mission, 3 vol., edited by John E. Rybolt, CM, translated by William Quinn, FSC, notes by Edward R. Udovic, CM and John E. Rybolt, CM, introduction by Stafford Poole, CM, New City Press, New Rochelle, New York, 1993, volume III, p. 56.

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