The Vincentian Charism and the New Evangelization: Some significant Vincentian elements for the present day process of evangelization

Francisco Javier Fernández ChentoVincentian FormationLeave a Comment

Author: Celestino Fernández, C. M. · Translator: Charles T. Plock, CM. · Year of first publication: 2016 · Source: General Assembly of the Congregation of the Mission. Chicago (USA), June 29, 2016.
Estimated Reading Time:

Starting Point: Confrontation between being and doing

Frequently in our meetings, gatherings and assemblies, we ask many questions with regard to Vincentian being and doing. We have two perceptions: on the one hand, we agree on the fact that the charism, the being, the identity, the characteristic mark of Vincentians has been, is and will be fully present, fully and completely actualized and relevant. On the other hand, the manner in which we are to live and transmit this Vincentian manner of being is not so clear. Thus, we are dealing with a confrontation being our identity and our relevance, between our charism and our mission.

In recent years we have been searching (at times with great anxiety) for our unique characteristic, our proper place in the midst of society and in the midst of the Church’s process of evangelization … a place which at previous times might have been very clear but which is not so clear at this time of radical and total change. We journey hesitantly, with our doubts and concerns, with our hopes and successes, with our contradictions and, at times, with our yearnings for yesterday.

Therefore, it is important to ask ourselves a series of fundamental questions about our present and future situation … Can we, as Vincentians, contribute something to the new and urgent process of evangelization? Are we, as Vincentian, able to make fruitful our charism, our spirituality and our participation in the process of the new evangelization? What specific Vincentian elements can contribute to the process of evangelization, elements, that in turn will make the process of evangelization more effective? What is the specific area of evangelization for Vincentians and in what places should we be found?

More than fifty years ago the Second Vatican Council placed before us a very basic, simple and relevant principle that enables us to respond to the questions that I have just proposed, namely, the renewal of religious life comprises a constant return to the primitive inspiration of the Founders (charism) and incarnating and inculturating that inspiration to the changing conditions of our time (mission)1.

The Congregation of the Mission exists in order to evangelize

As the year 1975 was coming to an end, Pope Paul VI stated: Evangelizing is in fact the grace and the vocation proper to the Church, her deepest identity. She exists in order to evangelize2. Almost four hundred years ago Vincent de Paul gave life to those words and to that evangelizing vocation as he established a Congregation in order to evangelize the poor.

Today, that mandate with regard to evangelization has become all the more urgent. The last three Popes have spoken insistently and repeatedly about the new evangelization. They have taken up anew the theme of evangelization and have reminded us about the importance of engaging in the process of evangelization with new methods, with new expressions and with new ardor. We must evangelize once again because we find ourselves in the midst of a new multicultural and globalized society. Pope Francis has introduced a prophetic and significant nuance into the discussion, a nuance that is very Vincentian: the new evangelization has to occur in the midst of the multiple and contradictory peripheries of life: the material, moral, geographical, existential and spiritual, peripheries … this evangelization has to include dialogue and healing, hope and joy3.

The Congregation of the Mission is involved, in a radical manner, in the process of evangelization and thus, evangelizing is to be considered its own grace and vocation and expresses its deepest vocation. This affirmation of our Constitutions4 is most obvious and everyone agrees with those words. Nevertheless, doubts and discussion arise when we begin to speak about the “evangelizing place” that Vincentian evangelizers ought to occupy. That is the very heart of the question.

Yet we cannot, as such, speak about a process of Vincentian evangelization nor about a process of Franciscan or Ignatian or Dominican evangelization. The vast arena of evangelization belongs to all Christians and is for all Christians … evangelization is the task of the whole Church. A rainbow is a combination of all the various colors and its beauty is derived from that reality. It is a combination of colors and not one specific concrete color … the rainbow is composed of all the different colors. Each color contributes to the beauty of the rainbow. It could be said, then, that we are seeking for that specific Vincentian color that will enhance the beauty of the rainbow of evangelization. In other words, what can the Vincentian charism contribute to the task of the new evangelization.

General Framework of the Vincentian Mission

A first and most significant response with regard to the concern that is before us is provided by Vincent de Paul in the December 6th, 1658 conference that he gave to the Missionaries. The theme of that conference was “the purpose of the Congregation of the Mission”. In developing that theme we find these most important words: [our mission] is to make God known to poor persons, to announce Jesus Christ to them; to tell them that the kingdom of heaven is at hand and that it’s for persons who are poor5. It is interesting to note that these fundamental and most significant words of Saint Vincent are seldom referenced or utilized by the members of the Congregation of the Mission and yet have been included in the previous Constitutions and in the present Constitutions of the Daughters of Charity. Is this situation simply related to the use of some mere casual anecdote or is this a symbol of something more serious?

In my opinion, those words of Vincent present us with the best summary of that which is constituted as the Vincentian element with regard to the process of evangelization. Those words enable us to understand the words that Pope Paul VI wrote in Evangelii Nuntiandi and that Pope Francis wrote in Evangelii Gaudium. This general framework ought to inspire, guide and unite all our evangelization activity … all our attitudes and dispositions ought to move us toward this same general framework.

The internal history of Vincentian intuitions presents us with this general framework. Furthermore, within this framework we find the necessary strength that enables us to ground, give life to and actualize the Vincentian mission. Without such strength the mission would remain as some altruistic strategy or some demagogic speech. Three elements grounded Vincent’s radical evangelizing option and those same three elements ought to make fruitful, today and tomorrow, the Vincentian mission.

  • The experience of a gracious God, protector and liberator of the poor: God is above all else, is absolute. We are channels of God’s goodness and mercy. The God that Vincentians ought to proclaim is the God who is the protector of the poor6, the God of love and of mercy. God opts for the poor … therefore, the cause of the poor is God’s cause and the question of the poor is God’s questions. Thus, we can say that for a Vincentian, the option for the poor, besides being a mandate and a commitment, is first and foremost a reality of faith and a theological truth.
  • The centrality of Jesus Christ, evangelizer and servant of the poor: Vincent’s whole life was Christ centered and Vincent’s Christology is not theoretical but rather existential and life-giving. As a result, our Vincentian identity is Christ centered and our option for the poor can only be understood in light of the fact that the cause of the poor is Christ’s cause and therefore, Vincentians continue to proclaim (as stated by Vincent de Paul) Jesus Christ as the evangelizer and the servant of the poor. Vincentian also focus their eyes on the words found in Luke 4:18-19: The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor…). That is the key element when speaking about a Vincentian’s option on behalf of the poor or a Vincentian’s vocation and mission in the midst of the Church and society.
  • A passion for the poor: here we are not simply talking about some vague concern for the poor or drawing closer to those who are poor … no, when speaking about a passion for the poor much more is involved. Let us listen to Vincent’s words in this regard: the poor, who do not know where to go or what to do, who are suffering already and who increase daily, are my burden and my sorrow7. In other words, the poor are to be our dominant passion and therefore, everything else is secondary. Vincent de Paul, inspired by this passion for the poor, stated: We should sell ourselves to rescue our brothers and sisters from destitution8.

Three non-negotiable and irrevocable priorities

A second response, which compliments the first response, is found in the famous, and often forgotten, article of the Constitutions of the Congregation of the Mission (#12) which is a lively, operational and up-dated translation of the Vincentian charism. Article twelve points out the path, the goal and the rhythm of our mission. We can go around in circles as we search for our place in the process of evangelization, but we must always return to article twelve of our Constitutions. Someone has said: in order to be original we have to return to our origins.

I am going to focus on the first three parts of this article which, in my opinion, are three non-negotiable and irrevocable priorities when speaking about the being and the doing of Vincentians. These are three priorities that are key if we want to understand the place where Vincentian evangelizers ought to be found.

a clear and expressed preference for the apostolate among the poor

Many individuals could easily find a correlation between this first Vincentian priority and the call to establish a preferential option for the poor. Nevertheless, even though this might be laudable and demanding with regard to Christians in general, much more is expected of Vincentians. When our Constitutions speak about “a preference for the poor”, we see that this expression is nuanced with two clarifications that leave no room for doubt … our Constitutions speak about “a clear” and “an expressed” preference. In other words, our Constitutions refer to a radical option, one that is neither theoretical nor abstract. Those two adjectives make it clear that our preference for the poor is by no means optional, but is obligatory; is not preferential, but is fundamental and exclusive.

Furthermore, this clear and expressed preference for the poor and among the poor, implies effective visibility. In other words, this option on behalf of the poor must be effective, something that can be seen and touched, something that can be evaluated and that can be demonstrated. Well-written documents, great projects, and good intentions are not enough.

The primary and fundamental place for Vincentians in this plan of the new evangelization is defined in this simple constitutional proposal. As our Constitutions speak about a “clear and expressed preference for the poor”, we are reminded of the words that Vincent spoke on many occasions: The essential aim of Our Lord was to work for poor persons. When he went to others, it was only in passing9. We are priests for the poor … God has chosen us for them; this is our primary mission and everything else is an accessory to this10.

…attention to the realities of present-day society

Here we are dealing with the second priority that is highlighted in our Constitutions. This priority means that Vincentians cannot evangelize from afar or from the perspective of a spirituality that is not incarnated. This second priority reminds us of the fact that the incarnation is the primary essential characteristic of Vincentian spirituality. Therefore, from the perspective of an understanding of our language as Vincentians, when we speak about being attentive to the realities of present-day society, we are saying that there can be no evangelization unless such evangelization is incarnated and inculturated … there can be no evangelization unless we insert ourselves into the midst of the reality that we want to evangelize.

In order to avoid the temptation of living in the clouds, this second priority focuses our attention on the social reality. Here we are confronted with a specific Vincentian task that is related to our fundamental option on behalf of the poor: special attention to the factors that cause an unequal distribution of the world’s goods. Thus, according to the letter and the spirit of this article of our Constitutions, a Vincentian’s vision and analysis of the reality ought to be directed toward the vast inequalities and injustices, toward the lack of solidarity and the extensive corruption … all of which continually create more and more poor and marginalized persons.

When Pope Francis spoke about an“economy of exclusion”, the “throwaway culture” and the “culture of death”11, he was shining light on the consequences of a serious and profound analysis of the social reality. In that way he was teaching everyone, including us as Vincentians, about the need to be attentive to the realities of present-day society. In fact, so that we might have no fear with regard to trespassing on certain boundaries of prudence and orthodoxy, Francis tells us somethings that can sound strange coming from the mouth of a Pope: We should not be concerned simply about falling into doctrinal error, but about remaining faithful to this light-filled path of life and wisdom. For defenders of orthodoxy are sometimes accused of passivity, indulgence or culpable complicity regarding the intolerable situations of injustice and the political regimes which prolong them12.

This second priority that is found in our Constitutions also points out the reason and the purpose of our social analysis: so that we can better carry out our prophetic task of evangelization. That phrase points out to us a clear and certain direction, namely, evangelization demands an effort to transform social, political, economic, cultural and even religious structures; evangelization demands not just a repetition of the same old boring moralistic sermons but a pastoral approach that utilizes saving, healing and liberating gestures and activity. In summary, Vincentians ought to be engaged in a pastoral approach that is comprised of prophetic actions of solidarity on behalf of those who are socially excluded and marginalized; they are to embrace bold and courageous positions with regard concrete, specific injustices; they are to minister in an open collaborative manner that expresses their solidarity with the forgotten members of society and they are to promote humanizing initiatives.

As a result of the Second Vatican Council, the most encouraging and insightful voices of the ecclesial community have reminded us of an unquestionable truth: the struggle for justice is a constitutive dimension of evangelization.

…being evangelized by the poor

This third priority must be read in its entirety: some sharing in the condition of the poor, so that not only will we attend to their evangelization, but that we ourselves may be evangelized by them. I have highlighted and underlined the final part of this article because it seems to me to contain the most substantial and conclusive message. We are dealing with the reality of learning in “the school of the poor”.

These ideas are very much in line with what Vincent taught as well as in accord with the most authentic Vincentian tradition that has been maintained through the years: the poor, in addition to being our lords and masters, are also our teachers. It is true that Vincent de Paul never stated or wrote that phrase, that is, never said or wrote that the poor are our teachers. It is no less certain, however, that the content of that expression underlies Vincent’s thought and activity. Again, Vincent never stated that the poor evangelize us or that we are evangelized by the poor. Such language was neither possible nor imaginable in the theology and the pastoral activity of that era. The best Vincentian hermeneutic, however, points out to us the fact that Vincent said in his own language that which we are saying today in our language.

Therefore, for Vincentians, the cry of the poor, their basic needs, the abandonment and marginalization and exclusion that they experience, their lack of intellectual and spiritual resources … all of these are clear signs of God’s will and they are palpable manifestations of the reality that God is anointing us to struggle on their behalf and to proclaim to them the Good News of integral salvation. Vincentians have to learn a series of important lessons in “the school of the poor” … lessons that are most important with regard to their mission of evangelization. For example, Vincent highlights the following lessons: the poor teach us about the will of God and they also teach us about our place in the church and in society; furthermore, the poor also lead us to God and continually remind us about Jesus Christ. With their suffering the poor make us question ourselves; they invite us to live a radical form of poverty; they enable us to experience “the bite” of poverty and through their patience and their welcoming presence they evangelize us.

We spend our life seeking for the will of God and we forget that we have it right before our eyes. Pascal has told us that the situation in which the poor find themselves and the anguished cries of those men and women who are poor … those realities reveal to us about that which God is asking and demanding of us.

Evangelizers with a Vincentian spirit and moving out toward the peripheries

Evangelization without spirit becomes propaganda, social activism or some humanistic project or action. An evangelist without spirit is a publicist, a social activist and politician, a leader of the masses. Here we can apply to the evangelizer those words that the famous German theologian, Karl Rahner, wrote in the 1960’s: The Christian of the future will be a mystic, a person who has experienced God or he will not exist at all.

In chapter five of Evangelii gaudium, Pope Francis wants to make it very clear that there can be no true evangelization apart from the spirit. Following this wise principle of the Pope, I would dare to say that a Vincentian evangelizer cannot engage in a process of true evangelization apart from a Vincentian spirit. The Holy Spirit, the protagonist and primary agent of evangelization, instilled in Vincent de Paul and his Congregation a charism, a spirit, a proper and specific spirituality that enabled the Missionaries to engage in a process of evangelization on behalf of the poor. Vincentians who are not motivated by this charism and spirit will experience a certain emptiness in their pastoral ministry as evangelizers.

Vincentian evangelizers have to be coherent with regard to their proper and specific spirit … not because that spirit is greater than or less than something else but because it is the gift that the Holy Spirit gave to our Founders and their followers in order that they might fulfill the mission that had been entrusted to them. To act in a contrary manner would mean that Vincentians were not faithful to the spirit and were not living their vocation or carrying out their mission with a sense of purpose … their life had no unity. This would also lead them into the on-going temptation of becoming caught up in other suspicious and unacceptable spiritualities.

Vincentian evangelizers have to be filled with a spirit of incarnated humility, compassionate simplicity, merciful gentleness, mortification that leads to greater solidarity and a zeal that is bold and creative. Borrowing an expression from Johannes B. Metz: Christians have a live a mysticism of open eyes. In other words, their experience of God has to be inspired not by a mysticism of closed eyes in which one contemplates one’s own state of being but rather a mysticism of open eyes which enables one to enter into solidarity with those who suffer.

Inevitably, this spirit leads one to “the peripheries”, that is, leads one to willingly embrace the mission, leads one to reach out, leads one to engage in a process of discernment with regard to one’s plans, projects, and ministry on behalf of those who are poor. The parable of the Good Samaritan should be seen as a powerful example of what it means to go out to the peripheries, to those places where one will encounter those who have been trampled upon, abused, mistreated … those who are invisible in the midst of this consumer society that is so lacking in expressions of solidarity.

Vincentian proposals for the new evangelization

When we ask ourselves, as I have done at the beginning of the presentation, about the contributions that Vincentians can offer to the new evangelization, we almost always formulate a long list of missionary activities that utilize the media or an extensive list of projects that are more or less idealistic.

Nevertheless, what I would like to do here is highlight some simple Vincentian proposals that will enrich and actualize the new evangelization. These are proposal that arise from the Vincentian charism and that, at the same time, reveal the depths of our charism.

[a] The deaconate of charity as a privileged manner of evangelization

The link that connects and gives unity and coherency to the mission is the deaconate of charity. Indeed, the Vincentian charism has a deaconate structure. When I utilize those words I am referring to the service of charity, to the mission of charity, to the state of charity that Vincent de Paul lived. In this deaconate of charity we find perfect union, charity, justice, mercy, service, self-giving, the civilization of love, human promotion. Furthermore, the deaconate of charity inspires, molds and impels the Vincentian mission, thus placing the poor at the center of its works and institutions.

[b] The organization of charity as an evangelizing witness

One of the characteristic elements of the deaconate of charity is organization. The coordinated organization of charity is at the very root of the Vincentian mission. Nevertheless, this organization of charity ought to be bold and creative. John Paul II speaks about a new “creativity” in charity13: a charity that is new and renewed for the present era which demands such newness because the present situation is new and the globalization of indifference has claimed new victims.

[c] Sensitivity as a fundamental attitude

To be a Christian and to see our brother or sister suffering without weeping with them, without being sick with them … that’s to be lacking in charity; it’s being a caricature of a Christian; it’s inhuman; it’s to be worse than animals14. As a natural and logical consequence of charity, Vincent de Paul highlights the power of sensitivity. Without such sensitivity there is no openness to the poor nor is there a willingness to approach the poor. Without this sensitivity there is no evangelization; there is no Good News for the poor. On the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Jericho and that defines the meaning of life, the lack of sensitivity makes us exploiters, like the assailants and the priest and the Levite who maintained a position of false neutrality. On more than one occasion I have heard it said that Vincentians are to be renowned experts in social sensitivity. That is, indeed, both a challenge and a commitment with regard to the process of evangelization.

[d] The incarnation as an indispensable path for evangelization

We can establish a golden rule that states: there can be no mission without incarnation; there can be no mission without inculturation into the world of the poor. A document published by the Episcopal Conference of Spain, the Church and the poor, states: Our charity ought to lead us to reach out to and to approach those who are poor. We should share in the life of the poor and should be found in their midst so that we can analyze their situation in a realistic manner, share their problems and seek solutions to those same problems … share in their friendship and share in the special friendship of the Lord which is extended to those who serve the Lord’s poor.

[e] A vision of reality from the perspective of the poor and as seen in the eyes of God

Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes: We have learned to view the great events of history from the perspective of those perceived as “insignificant”, those who have been abused, the powerless, the oppressed, the despised… in a word, from the perspective of those who suffer. There is no doubt that the world is viewed differently by those live on the peripheries and by those who live in mansions, viewed differently by those who live in refugee camps and by those who lived in the luxury apartments that line the avenues of the large cities of the world, viewed differently by those whose very lives are threatened and by those who seem to have no problem at all. Therefore, what we seek is not the vision of the sociologist but the vision of God who views the very depths of our structures and as a result, is moved to the very core.

[f] Making a shared mission a reality

For many years we have spoken about the Vincentian Family, about the shared mission of the Vincentian Family, about collaboration among all the members of the Vincentian Family. Now is the time to take seriously this concept of a shared mission. In October 1964, the wise and holy Daughter of Charity, Mother Suzanne Guillemin wrote the following prophetic words: we have to move from a position of authority to a position of collaboration. The shared mission of all the branches of the Vincentian Family demands mutual understanding, unbiased collaboration, sincere openness, a change of perspective, loyal communion, common formation, strengthening the Vincentian charism and union that preserves autonomy.

[g] Systemic change as a necessary dimension of evangelization

Vincent de Paul was aware of the fact that structural causes produced, fostered, multiplied and made poverty never-ending. Vincent, with the means and the categories of his era, struggled against those pervasive structures. Vincent never doubted that such action, directed at unjust situations, was a dimension of the evangelizing process on behalf of the poor. Today we, as Vincentians, speak about systemic change. Briefly and in general terms, systemic change is focused on changing dominant structures in the midst of which the poor live and are caught up in a downward spiral that impoverishes them and marginalizes them. At the same time, the poor are encouraged to develop strategies which will enable them to escape this vicious circle of poverty and exclusion. If there is any doubt about the evangelizing dimension of systemic change, one can simply review the numerous church documents that refer to the intimate relationship between evangelization and human promotion.

[h] The Church’s Social Doctrine – a Vincentian emphasis

There is no doubt that the Vincentian charism experiences a level of comfort and ease in the presence of the Church’s social doctrine. At the same time, the Church’s social doctrine has a dynamism that enlivens, strengthens, and actualizes the Vincentian charism. Indeed, if charity is the heart and the fundamental axis of the Vincentian charism, then, we cannot forget, as Benedict XVI stated: Charity is at the heart of the Church’s social doctrine15. We should also be mindful of the fact that a member of the Vincentian Family, Frederic Ozanam, is known as the precursor of the Church’s modern social doctrine.

[i] An overall perspective: the conversion of the poor

Here we are not referring to some simple conversion that enables us to fill our journals with our “daily conversions”. When we say that Vincent de Paul engaged in the action of conversion, we are not talking about small, fragmentary, moral acts of conversion … acts in which Vincent was surely engaged. Rather, we want to highlight something more profound and all-encompassing about Vincent’s life: conversion of the poor means that the poor have to be at the center of our evangelizing activity and at the same time, the poor have to point out to us the path of evangelization. If the poor at not our perspective and our point of reference, then, who is this Christ that we give witness to? If the poor are not the first beneficiaries of the Good News, then, why do we want to engage in the process of evangelization? If our cause is not the cause of the poor, then, how are we going to continue the mission of Christ? The theologian, Jon Sobrino, takes up that position when he affirms that the crucial question is not whether the Church will transmit saving knowledge but whether the Church will continue, in word and deed, the liberating history of Christ.

A final word

To evangelize from a perspective of commitment to the poor and from a perspective of charitable service is the most authentic Vincentian manner of evangelization … it is our best contribution to the new evangelization. The reason for this is both simple and logical: the option for the poor becomes the fundamental axis of the new evangelization and is able to make the profound and infinite love of God visible and credible in our midst. This option for the poor stirs up a desire to make real the civilization of love. Yes, it is precisely in such a place that we, as Vincentians, should be found.

  1. Documents of Vatican II, Perfectae Caritatis, October 28, 1965, #2
  2. Paul VI, Evangelii Nuntiandi, December 8, 1975, #14
  3. cf. Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, November 24, 2013, #20, 30, 46, 191
  4. cf. Constitutions #10
  5. Vincent de Paul, Correspondence, Conferences, Documents, translators: Helen Marie Law, DC (Vol. 1), Marie Poole, DC (Vol. 1-14), 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. 2-14), 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 and 14); annotated: John W. Carven, CM (Vol. 1-14); New City Press, Brooklyn and Hyde Park, 1985-2014; volume XII, p.71; 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:71
  6. CCD:X:411
  7. CCD:III:492
  8. CCD:IX:390
  9. CCD:XI:122
  10. P. Collet, p. 421 in the Spanish edition
  11. expressions which he used when he addressed the United Nations System Chief Executives Board for Coordination, May 9, 2014
  12. Evangelii Gaudium, #194
  13. John Paul II, Novo millenio ineunte, January 6, 2001, #50
  14. CCD:XII:222
  15. Benedict XVI, Caritas in veritate, June 29, 2009, #2

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *