Character of Vincent de Paul
It would appear that there were not frequent outbursts of happiness in the life of Vincent de Paul*. Nevertheless, in his written and spoken words we find exhortations to live the joyful characteristic of charity, imitating the example of Jesus Christ. Sensitive and concerned about human suffering and the ignorance of people, concerned about war and hunger that afflicted so many people, Vincent did not present the appearance of one prone to laughter. The portraits that have been passed on to us rarely present him smiling except for the one painted by Angélique Labory of which Abbé Degert stated: The smiling countenance is irradiated by a ray of indulgence, of shrewd kindliness and distinction not to be found in the same degree in other portraits (Coste III:383). Vincent’s smile, half kindheartedness, half irony, did not go beyond the expression of a restrained seriousness. His everyday ministry did not allow him to engage in extended periods of boisterous laughter.
As a young man Vincent sometimes showed his bilious and melancholic temperament which obliged him to beg God earnestly to change this curt and forbidding disposition for a meek and benign one (Abelly III:163). Abelly then added the following comment: his look was penetrating, his hearing acute, his bearing grave but benign, his countenance relaxed and open, easy to approach, his disposition kindly and good. His temperament was sanguine and bilious (Abelly I:100). Vincent maintained that disposition until the time of his death but at times he fell victim to a dark melancholy which tested his humility. He never, however, became unsociable or rude.
Vincent himself has told us such. On March 28th, 1659, a year and a half before his death, he publicly and humbly professed in front of the community: I lose my temper, I change, I complain, I find fault … at other times I am very brusque with some [people] and speak loudly and harshly … other, boorish persons like me, present themselves with a stern, gloomy or forbidding expression (CCD:XII:154, 155, 156). Then, with even greater humility he stated: I remain dry as a bramble bush (CCD:XI:54). Thus, an older Vincent requested the community’s prayers because an old man rarely abandons his bad habits, please put up with me and don’t tire of asking Our Lord to change and pardon me (CCD:XII:160).
If we only knew Vincent through the words that he spoke above, we could easily imagine a person who was somber and gloomy, unable to attain the happiness that he preached about to others as he smiled and utilized examples from life and uttered humorous words. Furthermore, those words would not reveal to us the motives that led him to overcome that disposition of melancholy and thus allowed him to be led by the dictates of Divine Providence*. Vincent’s joy was found in fulfilling the law of God, in following Jesus Christ*, the evangelizer of the poor and in trusting in the fact that his name was written in heaven (cf., Luke 10:20). It was thus that Vincent’s spirit of joy arose from and matured as an expression of his charity about which Saint Paul stated: love does not rejoice over wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth (1 Corinthians 13:6).
Sense of humor and irony
There is no doubt that his humor was accompanied with gestures and words. One has simply to read his conferences and letters to discover his humor. A distinct form of humor arose spontaneously from his peasant origins and from his relationship with the poor country people … and this humor was often expressed in comic irony. His gascon character was prone to exaggeration and yet his conversation was very appealing and that could be viewed as a sign that he was not as dry as he said he was. We know that he was able to combine seriousness with humor and the pleasant with the useful. Especially when talking with the Daughters of Charity* his language, depending on the theme of the conference, would become lively and witty in order to make himself understood when conversing with those simple village women. When speaking with the Missionaries, Vincent would use gestures, he would lower his voice or speak more loudly depending on the message he was attempting to communicate. But the Daughters and the Missionaries were glad to be able to listen to their founder* who shared with them a profound doctrine combined with clever witticism.
We can see that witticism in the many anecdotes that put a smile on the faces of those who were listening to him or who were entrusted with polishing his conferences or the naiveté of the unweary and inexperienced or those who made show of their prayer but made no commitment to the practice of charity. To mention just some of those anecdotes we refer to the following examples.
When a priest of the Congregation asked permission to leave the community in order to help his elderly father, Vincent responded: this does not hold true of your father who is only forty or forty-five years of age at the most, enjoying good health, able to work and who is, in fact, working. Otherwise, he would not have remarried, as he has done recently, to a young woman eighteen years of age, who is one of the most beautiful girls in town. He himself informed me of this (CCD:II:611). When a religious spoke about his desire to become a bishop, Vincent stated: what a wrong you would be doing to your holy Order in depriving it of one of its main pillars, who sustains it and gives it a good name by his teaching and example … you still have greater service to render to God and to your Order, which is one of the holiest and most edifying in the Church of Jesus Christ (CCD:IV:21). On September 11, 1654, in a light-hearted tone, Vincent responded to Charles Ozenne, the superior in Warsaw and calmed him and the other members of the local community who feared the approaching eclipse: I do [not] think that the experts in astrology are disturbed by it, and even less those who are instructed in the school of Jesus Christ, who know that the wise man dominabitur astris [will rule the stars] (CCD:V:182-183). On another occasion, a priest entered Vincent’s room and informed him of his firm decision to leave the Congregation as soon as possible: M. Vincent began to smile and looking at him with great kindness and tenderness said, “When do you plan to leave? Are you going on foot or will you take a horse?” (CCD:XII:393). Abelly stated that the priest was so surprised by this response that Monsieur Vincent had given to distract him from this temptation, when he expected some sort of severe reprimand, that he was completely freed from this wish to leave (Abelly III:152). Who could not imagine on those occasions a firm but loving Vincent who, in the same spirit of good faith as those who wrote to him and questioned him, took the opportunity to smile and laugh as a result of their spontaneity.
There is just one step from a sense of humor to the use of irony. These were frequently combined one with the other. Vincent’s irony was expressed verbally as well as through gestures. Father Renaudin stated that if charity had not been Vincent’s great concern he could easily have been a satirist (Saint Vincent de Paul, Marseille, 1929, p. 25). It is amazing how he was able to trivialize situations and behavior that were not in accord with evangelical simplicity … and yet he never resorted to sarcasm or sadism. He never wanted to harm a person but he would hold up for ridicule any vain or licentious behavior.
The light-hearted inflections in Vincent’s voice are well-known, especially when imitating lazy and idle persons. So also were the gestures of his arms when mimicking those who seek only to enjoy themselves and, provided they have enough to eat, don’t bother about anything else (CCD:XII:81). In the conference of December 6, 1658 (just referenced) such gestures were highlighted: In saying this he made certain gestures with his hands, moving his head around and speaking in a certain contemptuous tone of voice, which conveyed even better what he was trying to express than what he was actually saying (CCD:XII:82). Such gestures were common in Vincent’s oratorical style and such an approach maintained the interest of those listening to him, at times causing them to laugh, and at other times, creating a sense of remorse or repentance. Brother Ducournau has informed us about this matter: 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 (CCD:XI:xxix). It was truly a joy to be able to participate in one of those community events in which Vincent spoke in words that lifted the spirits of his listeners and that expressed his practical wisdom and his authority.
This would not have been possible if Vincent was not animated interiorly by the joy of the Spirit, thus enhancing his natural gift of humor, which bordered on being sardonic. His was not a boisterous or excessive humor nor was it the humor of those comedians who are able to make an audience laugh while they themselves are crying in the depths of their being. His was not some frivolous or childlike humor that was forced by circumstances … rather his joy was that which was proper to a Christian, mature in faith and charity. Vincent was able to rejoice even when he shared in the suffering of Christ (cf., I Peter 4:13). He has given us some words that could define his attitude with regard to exterior joy: During recreation, and in other everyday matters, we should aim at not letting good humor get out of control, mixing the useful with the agreeable. In this way we give good example to all (Common Rules VIII:7). [Note that the Latin word hilaritas means “rejoice” “happiness” “positive/good mood”].
Honor the holy cheerfulness of Our Lord and that of his holy Mother (CCD:I:309)
With the above referenced words Vincent counseled Louise de Marillac when she was overwhelmed by feelings of sadness as a result of her personal and family situation. Vincent, a proven spiritual director, wanted Louise to experience peace in her life and showed her the path of trust and love of God: God who is love wants us to go to him through love (CCD:I:81). The stronger Louise’s temptation, the more effort Vincent exerted in his role as spiritual director: “rejoice”,“honor the holy cheerfulness of Our Lord and that of his holy Mother” (CCDI:309; cf., I:36, 69, 145, etc.).
In the Sacred Scriptures that inspired Vincent de Paul, the Lord Jesus and his mother, Mary, are viewed as outstanding examples of joy. Therefore he held them up as models of joy in the Spirit. The following of Jesus* provides us with convincing motives to live in the hope that we will experience temporal and eternal happiness — that supposes the practice of the asceticism* that is involved in that following of Jesus. Mary, the first Christian and the most outstanding disciple of Jesus, gave us an example of authentic joy when she said: my spirit rejoices in God my savior (Luke 1:47).
Saint Paul’s exhortation with regard to joy, [Rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again: rejoice! Your kindness should be known to all. (Philippians 4:4)], was based on the words and the life of Jesus. That Pauline counsel presents us with the reason for the type of Christian joy that was desired by Vincent de Paul and that is rooted in Christ’s earthly mission. This is a joy that is intended to provide us with total happiness. Vincent wrote to one of the Missionaries and said: We cannot better assure our eternal happiness than by living and dying in the service of the poor, in the arms of Providence, and with genuine renouncement of ourselves in order to follow Jesus Christ (CCD:III:384). He spoke to the Daughters of Charity and enthusiastically stated: I don’t know if I’ve ever seen any that honor God more than yours; no, I’ve never seen a Company that gives greater honor to God than yours does. It was founded to honor the great charity of Our Lord. What a happiness, dear Sisters! What a noble purpose! Quoi! To be established to honor the great charity of Jesus Christ and to have him as a model and example, together with the Blessed Virgin, in everything you do. O mon Dieu, what a happiness! How blessed are the mothers who have borne children to carry on such a ministry, which must be the continuation of what Our Lord and his most holy mother did on earth! (CCD:X:92).
Obviously such happiness has a price and can only be paid by those who place no conditions on the Lord and accept the evangelical counsels in order to live them in community* and with the spirit proper* to the community that receives them. This requires the grace of God and an ability to sacrifice oneself for the sake of the love of Jesus and in order to follow Jesus: Anyone wishing to live in Community must be determined to live like a pilgrim on earth, to become foolish for the sake of Jesus Christ, to change his standards of behavior, to mortify all his passions, to seek God alone, to subject himself to others as the least of all, to be convinced that he has come to serve and not to rule others, to suffer and work and not to live in luxury and idleness. He must know that a person is tried in it as gold in the furnace, that he cannot persevere in it if he is unwilling to humble himself for God, and be convinced that in so doing he will have true happiness in this world and eternal life in the next (CCD:XIIIa:161).
According to those words, complete happiness, as foretold by the Lord (Matthew 16:24), is only experienced in the generous acceptance of the cross and in the denial of self. The cross has many manifestations: illness, persecution, imprisonment. In this instance, Jesus warned the disciples: Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven (Matthew 5:12). There is a close bond between happiness and suffering in the name of the Lord. To flee from such suffering supposes a renunciation of the joy of the true disciples of Jesus. The Apostles were happy and satisfied after having suffered for the sake of the Lord (cf., Acts 5:41). Such behavior explains Vincent’s attitude and experience with regard to the joy that is derived from the process of evangelization.
The service of poor persons undertaken with joy (CCD:IX:466)
Vincent, the apostle of charity, discovered at the beginning of his missionary ministry that joy is a characteristic that must always accompany service* on behalf of the poor. In the first Rule of the Confraternity of Charity (Châtillon-les-Dombes, 1617) he wrote the following advice: When the person whose turn it is has received from the Treasurer whatever is needed on her day for the food of the poor persons, she will prepare the dinner and take it to the patients, greeting them cheerfully and kindly (CCD:XIIIb:12-13). The same advice was repeated in later Rules. It could not be otherwise since the poor* expect an easy and joyful assess to those who minister to them, an access that will revive their hope and comfort them. The initial greeting, extended with a smile, disposes the poor person to joyfully accept all the other assistance that was to be given to him/her.
The words of the Psalmist, worship the Lord with cries of gladness (Psalm 99:2) had great significance in the experience of Vincent de Paul who had learned how to discover Jesus in the poor and the poor in Jesus. As privileged members of the body of Christ, the poor are deserving of cheerful and joyful treatment. At the same time it must remembered that a harsh and somber approach will not only alienate people from love but will also diminish the effectiveness of charity. If joyful service draws the poor closer to those realities with which the Lord wants to be identified (cf. Matthew 25:31-46), is it not then a counter-sign to serve the Lord with joy and then serve those in need in a crass manner: loving those who are poor is to love Jesus in that way; serving poor persons well is to serve Jesus well (CCD:XIIIb:434). Vincent was convinced that anything opposed to the gospel spirit would hinder the ministry of service and would contradict the original meaning of evangelization which is, by nature, the proclamation of the “joyful” news of salvation to those who are poor.
All the references to the writings of Vincent de Paul are taken from: 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.
This article also contains references to: L. ABELLY, The Life of the Venerable Servant of God Vincent de Paul: Founder and First Superior General of the Congregation of the Mission, 3 volumes, 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.
P. COSTE, The Life and Work of Saint Vincent de Paul, 3 volumes, translated from the French by Joseph Leonard, CM, The Newman Press, Westminister, Maryland, 1952.
J. MORIN, “Les origines et l’enfance de M. Vincent, in Vincentiana 4,5,6 (1984) 407-418.
— “Les premiares années de M. Vincent. Un regard qui se forme, un regard qui se cherche, 1581- 1600”, in Vincentiana 4,5,6 (1987) 520-530.
A. ORCAJO, Vicente de Paúl a través de su palabra, La Milagrosa, Madrid 1988.