3] Saint Vincent and the dignity of the person
The fundamental principle of the Church’s social doctrine, that is, the dignity of the human person, is based on the fact that men and women are created in the divine image (Genesis 1:27). Here we recall the cry of John Paul II in the inaugural address at Puebla: Respect the human being who is the image of God! Evangelize so that this may become a reality, so that the Lord may transform hearts and humanize political and economic systems (John Paul II, Opening Address at the Puebla Conference, January 28, 1979, III.5)
More than three centuries before Vincent told the Missionaries: It is not enough for me to love God, if my neighbor does not love Him (CCD:XII:215).
The human person is the center of the church’s social teaching. In addition to the Genesis account, the social doctrine of the Church makes reference on numerous occasions to the twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew and thus that chapter establishes another foundation for the dignity of the human person. John Paul II stated: Christ’s words “as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me” (Mt 25:40) were not intended to remain a pious wish, but were meant to become a concrete life commitment. Today more than ever, the Church is aware that her social message will gain credibility more immediately from the witness of actions than as a result of its internal logic and consistency (Centesimus annus, #57).
For Saint Vincent that gospel passage, together with the mystery of the Incarnation, became the foundation for his following of Jesus Christ. Even though Vincent’s thoughts are in our hearts and minds, let us reread some of the many texts in which he reminded the Daughters of Charity about their calling: Servants of the Poor is the same as saying Servants of Jesus Christ, since He regards what is done to them as done to Himself, for they are His members (CCD:IX:256). In serving persons who are poor, we serve Jesus Christ. How true, Sisters! You are serving Jesus Christ in the person of the poor. And that is as true as that we are here (CCD:IX:199).
For Vincent de Paul the experience of God was mediated through his encounters with the poor. Benedict XVI, in the paragraph in which he makes reference to Saint Vincent, expresses the same principle: Love of God and love of neighbor have become one: in the least of the brethren we find Jesus himself, and in Jesus we find God (Benedict XVI, Deus caritas est, #15).
Leaving it to the experts to discuss whether we can speak about a Vincentian spirituality, nevertheless if we understand spirituality as a set of ideas and attitudes that characterize the spiritual life of a person or a group of people, then yes, for Christians a Vincentian spirituality becomes a concrete way of following Christ. Therefore the spirituality of Vincent de Paul, his concrete way of following Christ, is rooted in his powerful encounter with God and with Christ in the world of the poor. This led him to experience two key principles as he lived the gospel message: (1) to serve those who are poor is to go to God (CCD:IX:5); (2) to serve those who are poor is to build up on their behalf the kingdom of God and his justice (CCD:XII:110-126).
For Vincent de Paul these principles are an unequivocal expression of fulfilling God’s will and continuing the life and the mission of Jesus Christ evangelizing the poor.
Saint Vincent insisted on this fact not only when speaking to the Missionaries and the Daughters but also when he spoke with the Ladies of Charity. On July 11, 1657, in his report on the state of the works Vincent referred to their identification with Christ and their continuing his mission: He Himself willed to be born poor, to welcome poor persons into His company, to serve those who were poor, to put Himself in their place, even going so far as to say that the good and the harm we do to those who are poor He will consider as done to His Divine Person. What more tender love could He show for persons who were poor! And, I ask you, what love can we have for Him if we do not love what He loved! That being the case, Ladies, loving those who are poor is to love Him in that way; serving poor persons well is to serve Him well; and imitating Him is to honor Him as we should (CCD:XIIIb:434).
Continuing the mission of Christ implies fulfilling the will of the Father which, for our Founders and for us, ought to be seen as a hunger and thirst for justice, a desire to build the kingdom of God and his justice. One of the proper and original characteristics of Vincentian spirituality is found in the relationship that our Founder established between the kingdom of God and the will of God. By the way he lived his life Vincent showed us that the will of God is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is built up only through action.
Christianity has always defended the oneness of the human person while Greek philosophy viewed the human person as composed of body and soul. Using the words of Father Ibáñez, this dichotomy between body and soul led to living a schizophrenic Christian life which separated the interior life from the struggle for justice and a social-political commitment on behalf of those persons who are poor. Following the thought of Father Ibáñez we read: Vincent de Paul’s faith and experience led him to discover that while Christianity continues to be nourished by spiritualistic attitudes, the struggle for justice and the defense of the poor moves along paths that are quite distinct from the paths of the Church of Jesus Christ (J.M. Ibáñez, La fe verificada en el amor, Ed. Paulinas, 1993, p. 65)
Saint Vincent affirmed that we must serve all people and serve the whole person. The separation between the spiritual and corporal needs of the person seems to have created problems during the seventeenth century. In a conference on the objectives of the Congregation of the Mission, Vincent told the Missionaries: So then, if there are any among us who think they are in the Mission to evangelize poor people but not to alleviate their sufferings, to take care of their spiritual needs but not their temporal ones, I reply that we have to help them and have them assisted in every way, by us and by others, if we want to hear those pleasing words of the Sovereign Judge of the living and the dead, “Come, beloved of my Father; possess the kingdom that has been prepared for you, because I was hungry and you gave me to eat; I was naked and you clothed me; sick and you assisted me.” To do that is to preach the Gospel by words and by works, and that is the most perfect way; it is also what Our Lord did, and what those should do who represent Him on earth (CCD:XII:77-78).
Three centuries later and with different words the Compendium speaks about integral salvation, salvation of the whole person, something that for us, the sons and daughters of Vincent de Paul, should not be new: The social doctrine has its own profound unity, which flows from Faith in a whole and complete salvation, from Hope in a fullness of justice, and from Love which makes all mankind truly brothers and sisters in Christ (Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, p.2:#3).
Vincent could not image a spirituality that was not incarnated in reality. Again we return to his conferences to the Missionaries and even though the following reference is rather long, I believe it is important to be familiar with the whole text: Let us love God, brothers, let us love God, but let it be with the strength of our arms and the sweat of our brows; for very often many acts of love of God, of devotion, and of other similar affections and interior practices of a tender heart, although very good and desirable, are, nevertheless, very suspect if they do not translate into the practice of effective love. “By this,” says Our Lord, “is my Father glorified, that you may bear much fruit.” We have to be very careful about that; for there are many who, recollected exteriorly, and filled with lofty sentiments of God interiorly, stop at that, and when it comes to the point of doing something, and they have the opportunity to act, they come up short. They flatter themselves with their ardent imagination; they are satisfied with the sweet conversations they have with God in meditation and even speak of them like angels; but when they leave there; if there is a question of working for God, of suffering, of mortifying themselves, of instructing poor persons, of going in search of the lost sheep, of being happy when they lack something, or of accepting sickness or some other misfortune, alas! they are no longer around; their courage fails them. No, no, let us not fool ourselves; Totum opus nostrum in operatione consisit [All our work consists in action] (CCD:XI:32-33).
Our fidelity to the poor makes us more open to universal love and to the great causes of humankind; it also makes us more useful to the Church of God and more fruitful for the kingdom of God and his justice. It is not necessary to repeat and do exactly what Saint Vincent did … what is important is our creative fidelity to the charism that we have received as a heritage, a new “creativity” in charity as John Paul II tells us: This means carrying on the tradition of charity which has expressed itself in so many different ways in the past two millennia, but which today calls for even greater resourcefulness. Now is the time for a new “creativity” in charity, not only by ensuring that help is effective but also by “getting close” to those who suffer, so that the hand that helps is seen not as a humiliating handout but as a sharing between brothers and sisters (Novo Millenio Ineunte, #50).
In the chapter dedicated to the creation of the human person in the image of God the Compendium reflects on the reality that both men and women share the same dignity and have equal value. Here we refer to the text of the two documents that John Paul II dedicated to women: the apostolic letter, Mulieris dignitatem (1998) and the beautiful Letter to Women (1995) that was written on the occasion of the IV World Conference on Women that was held in Peking. We cite the text of the latter document in which John Paul II refers to Jesus’ relationships with women: Transcending the established norms of his own culture, Jesus treated women with openness, respect, acceptance and tenderness. In this way he honored the dignity which women have always possessed according to God’s plan and in his love (Letter to Women, #3).
In Vincent’s time women were seen as second class citizens and this applied to their social status as well as their position within the Church. They were subordinated to men and had no legal rights as individuals. Vincent de Paul broke the mold and separated himself from the anti-human ideas in which women were forced to live. He began to discover that women were indispensable in overcoming the situation of misery in which the poor found themselves.
Convinced of this reality Vincent confronted the traditions of his time and opened new paths and yet also understood the consequences of all of this as he placed women in the midst of social and religious life. Let us look at an example of his thinking: It may seem that the care of foundlings is a work for men and not for women. Reply to this that God makes use of whomever he pleases (CCD:XIIIb:420). Further on we read: As to this not being a work for women, Ladies, you may be assured that God has used persons of your sex to do the greatest things ever done in this world. What men have ever done what Judith did, what Esther did, what the Maid of Orléans did in this kingdom, what Saint Genevieve did in providing Paris with food during a famine (CCD:XIIIb:426).
Let us look at an example of how Vincent was able to move beyond the existing norms of his time. Using today’s language we would say that he was counter-cultural. We find this example in the rule for the Confraternity of women in Châtillon-les-Dombes which was presented to the members at the end of 1617. This was the document that formally established the Confraternity and was written more than three hundred ninety years ago. In said rule Vincent stated: Because there is reason to hope that there will be foundations made in aid of the confraternity, and that it is not appropriate for women to handle them on their own, the Servants of the Poor will elect as their Procurator some pious, devout priest or an inhabitant of the town who is virtuous (CDD:XIIIb:9-10).
In a short time Vincent realized that the cultural norm of his era was not valid. In 1630 he wrote to Louise de Marillac: Experience has shown that it is absolutely necessary for the women not to depend on the men in this situation, especially for the money (CCD:I:70).
What is Saint Vincent teaching us here? Two things: in this regard Vincent is simply following the example of Jesus Christ as described to us by John Paul II and when we are dealing with doing something that will be beneficial for the poor we should not hesitate to act in a counter cultural manner when necessary.