Charity and Mission in the Experience of the Congregation of the Mission

From Vincentian Encyclopedia


by: Corpus Juan Delgado, CM

(This article first appeared in Anales, May/June 2010, #3 of volume 118, pp. 394-402).

1. The Lord has sent me to proclaim Good News to the poor

In the synagogue at Nazareth (1), using the text of the prophet Isaiah (The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor), Jesus defined his mission and gave the prophet’s words a programmatic value as he began his public ministry. In the scene, which gave a theme to Vincent de Paul’s life, one is impressed with the personal character that Jesus gave to the words of the prophet: upon me, he has anointed me, he has sent me. Therefore when Jesus said that these words were fulfilled today, we can conclude that the Prophet was speaking of the Messiah. "Today", Jesus added, "this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing" (Luke 4:21), thus indicating that he himself was the Messiah foretold by the Prophet, and that the long-expected "time" was beginning in him. The day of salvation had come, the "fullness of time". All Jubilees point to this "time" and refer to the Messianic mission of Christ, who came as the one "anointed" by the Holy Spirit, the one "sent by the Father". It is he who proclaims the good news to the poor. It is he who brings liberty to those deprived of it, who frees the oppressed and gives back sight to the blind (John Paul II, Tertio Millennio Adveniente, #11).

When Vincent de Paul proposed that the words of Jesus, the Lord has sent me to proclaim good news to the poor, serve as a motto for the Congregation, he invited the missionaries to follow Jesus Christ, evangelizer of the poor; he invited them to focus their lives on Jesus so that at every moment they would want to do what Christ did: My idea was that men who are called to continue Christ’s mission, which is mainly preaching the good news to the poor, should see things from his point of view and want what he wanted. They should have the same spirit that he had, and follow in his footsteps (Constitutions and Statutes of the Congregation of the Mission, Common Rules, Letter of Saint Vincent, p. 102-103) (2).

Living in this manner, the life of the missionaries becomes a prolongation of the life and mission of Christ when he was on earth and their evangelization of the poor becomes a prolongation of the ministry and teaching of Jesus Christ, a ministry and teaching that was foretold by the prophets. We can say that coming to evangelize the poor does not simply means to teach them the mysteries necessary for their salvation, but also to do what was foretold and prefigured by the prophets to make the Gospel effective (CCD:XII:75).

Christ, as the first and greatest evangelizer (3), proclaimed the arrival of the Kingdom of God with his words and actions as he traveled to cities and towns curing people of ailments and illnesses as proof of the arrival of the Kingdom of God (4). People gathered around Jesus because they heard what he was doing (5) and they realized that he was a man who went about doing good (6), a prophet and more than a prophet because he inspired the poor and the humble with hope (7).

The saving words and gestures of Jesus gave hope to the poor and afflicted who gathered around him. After having performed various wonders on behalf of the people living on the margins of society, Jesus told the disciples of John the Baptist: Go and tell John what you see and hear (Matthew 11:4).

As followers of Jesus Christ, evangelizer of the poor, the members of the Congregation of the Mission have understood that they are called to be instruments of hope as they confront poverty, promote the life and the dignity of all people, motivate people to move forward in the journey and open the path for justice and love. We have been chosen by God as instruments of his immense, paternal charity, which is intended to be established and to expand in souls (CCD:XII:214) (8).

In this way service on behalf of the poor and the ministry that is undertaken for their promotion and liberation become messianic and prophetic signs and reveal the merciful presence of the Father who in Jesus walked with the poor and saved them (9) . Thus Vincent passionately invited his followers: My dear confreres, let us devote ourselves with renewed love to serve persons who are poor, and even to seek out those who are the poorest and most abandoned (CCD:XI:349).

Charity animates the mission

As Vincent reflected on the attitudes of Christ he discovered in Jesus’ love the explanation for his commitment and service. Vincent meditated on Christ as infinite goodness which led him to become a servant. On December 13, 1658, Vincent spoke to the Missionaries about the members of the Congregation of the Mission and their ministries and exclaimed: O love of my Savior! O love! You were incomparably greater than the angels were able to understand and will never understand! His humiliations were nothings but love, his work only love, his sufferings only love, his meditations only love, and all his interior and exterior actions were nothing but repeated acts of his love (CCD:XII:94).

In the May 30th, 1659 conference to the Missionaries, Vincent, with the same enthusiasm, invited the confreres to meditate on the love of Jesus Christ and to clothe themselves in this same love which would enable them to commit themselves unconditionally: Let us look at the Son of God; what a heart of charity he had; what a fire of love! Please tell us, Jesus, who pulled you away from heaven to come to endure the curse of earth and the many persecutions and torments you suffered? O Savior! Source of love humbled even to our level and to a vile agony, who showed, in that, greater love for the neighbor that you yourself did? You came to lay yourself open to all our misfortunes, to take the form of a sinner, to lead a life of suffering and to undergo a shameful death for us; is there any love like that? But who else could love in such an outstanding way? Only Our Lord, who was so enamored with the love of creatures as to leave the throne of his Father to come to take a body subject to weaknesses. And why? To establish among us, by His word and example, love of the neighbor. This is the love that crucified him and brought about that admirable work of our redemption. O Messieurs, if we had only a little of that love, would we stand around with our arms folded? Would we let those we could assist perish? Oh, no! Charity cannot remain idle; it impel us to work for the salvation and consolation of others (CCD:XII:216).

Missionaries ought to participate in a special way in this love: Missioners, above all other priests, must be filled with this spirit of compassion, since they are obliged by their state and vocation to serve the most wretched, the most abandoned, and those most weighed down by corporal and spiritual sufferings. First of all, they must be touched to the quick and afflicted in their own hearts by the sufferings of their neighbor. Second, this suffering and compassion must be apparent in their exterior and in their expression, after the example of Our Lord, who wept over the city of Jerusalem because of the disasters with which it was threatened. Third, they must use compassionate words, which make the neighbor see how they share his feelings, interests, and sufferings. Lastly, they must do their utmost to rescue and assist him in his needs and sufferings, and try to free him from them in whole or in part because, as far as possible, the hand must conform to the heart (CCD:XI:69-70).

As we will see, for Vincent the mission, and every form of missionary work, begins with love and charity. Charity animates the mission. The mission becomes charity

Saint Vincent reflected on the gospel scene of Matthew 25:31-46: Whatever you did for one of these least brothers or sisters of mine, you did for me. He invited the missionaries to see the poor as their heritage: we are the priests of the poor. God has chosen us for this. This is primary for us and everything else is only an accessory to it (10). The mission becomes charity because such was the mission of Jesus Christ. We honor him by entering into his sentiments, appreciating them, doing what he did, and carrying out what he has ordained. His most cherished wish was to care for the poor: he cured them, consoled them, helped them, and urged others to do the same. This was his delight. He himself willed to be born poor, to live among the poor, serve the poor, take the place of the poor, up to the point of saying that the good and evil we do to them he considers as done to his divine Person. How could he show more tender love for the poor? What love could we have for him if we did not love those he loved so tenderly? So much so that to love him well we must love the poor. To serve him we must serve them. To honor him as we should, we must imitate him in his care for the poor (Abelly, Volume II, p. 310).

The mission becomes charity because true evangelization, modeled on that of Jesus Christ, is proclamation and announcement, and also service and transformative action. If priests devote themselves to the care of the poor, was not that what our Lord and many great saints did, and they not only recommended poor persons to others, but they themselves consoled, comforted, and healed them. Are not those who are poor the afflicted members of Our Lord? Are not they our brothers and sisters? And if priests abandon them, who do you think is going to help them? 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’ (Matthew 25:34-36). To do this 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, officially and by nature, as priests do (CCD:XII:77-78).

In a conference that Vincent de Paul gave near the end of his life, a conference that dealt with the ends of the Congregation of the Mission and that has been called the Testament of Monsieur Vincent (11), the elderly missionary listed in detail the objectives of their evangelizing ministry:

--- the people living in the country areas --- the elderly residing at Nom-de-Jésus --- people living in the areas devastated by war --- the mentally challenged who were living at Saint Lazare --- the abandoned children --- the poor living in the Indies (Madagascar) and the slaves in Barbary… (12)

We could add other groups of poor people who do not appear on the list but who were cared for by Vincent and his missionaries: the galley salves, the members of the aristocracy who lost everything and emigrated, war refugees, soldiers (13) … the mission becomes charity.

Charity – mission, mission - charity

The mission flows from love; love animates the mission. The mission becomes charity and is expressed in the signs proclaimed by the prophets, signs of love. Vincent de Paul realized that his community was praised as a work of God because its members were not dedicated to one specific ministry and thus closed their eyes to other need, and because people see that it hastens to the relief of the most pressing and neglected needs (CCD:XII:80). Vincent added that if the community in its infancy is able to do all these works on behalf of the poor, how much more will it be able to do when it is stronger? (cf., CCD:XII:81).

Vincent’s critics reproached him on more than one occasion for extending the mission in ever wider circles to people in need (Cf., for example CCD: XII:72-82). For Vincent it was impossible to refuse to minister to people who were poor because our vocation is to go, not just to one parish, not just to one diocese, but all over the world; and to do what? To set people’s hearts on fire, to do what the Son of God did. He came to set the world on fire in order to inflame it with his love. What do we have to desire but that it may burn and consume everything (CCD:XII:215). Vincent did not hesitate to refer to those who were reticent to respond to this form of service as carcasses of Missioners … wet hens … false missionaries (14) .

Vincent reminded the missionaries who felt they were fulfilling their commitment through preaching, stating clearly: We can say that coming to evangelize the poor does not simply mean to teach them the mysteries necessary for their salvation, but also to do what was foretold and prefigured by the prophets to make the Gospel effective (CCD:XII:75). Thus the mission becomes, and must necessarily become, charity.

Vincent invited these same missionaries to discover the face of Christ in the person of each poor man and woman. I must not judge a poor peasant man or woman by their appearance or their apparent intelligence, especially since very often they scarcely have the expression or the mind of rational persons, so crude and vulgar they are. But turn the medal, and you will see by the light of faith that the Son of God, who willed to be poor, is represented to us by these poor people; that he scarcely had a human face in his passion, and passed for a madman in the mind of the Gentiles and a stumbling block in the mind of the Jews. With all that, He describes himself as the Evangelizer of the poor. Evangelizare pauperibius misit me. O Dieu! How beautiful it is to see poor people if we consider them in God and with the esteem in which Jesus Christ held them! If, however, we look on them according to the sentiments of the flesh and a worldly spirit, they will seem contemptible (CCD:XI:26).

In this experience of charity-mission the dynamism of the prophetic imagination presents the possibility to create new and original ways to be present and to serve in the church and also presents the possibility of being creative in organizing resources (human, economic and structural).

In this experience of charity-mission spiritual and material service are not two separate ends but rather two dimensions of the same evangelizing mission. It was this experience that led Vincent de Paul to exclaim just a short time before his death words that can be viewed as a summary of his evangelizing efforts: God will grant you the grace, Monsieur, of softening our hearts toward the wretched creatures and of realizing that in helping them we are doing an act of justice and not of mercy! (CCD:VII:115).

2. In the Constitutions of the Congregation of the Mission

The Constitutions of the Congregation of the Mission have gathered together the experiences of Vincent de Paul and the first missionaries and have given them form and substance.

The Congregation of the Mission exists to evangelize the poor --- the mission. The members of the Congregation of the Mission, following Jesus Christ, work at evangelizing the poor, especially the more abandoned (Constitutions, #1.2); their evangelization is the sign that the kingdom of God is present on earth (cf. Matthew 11:5) (Constitutions, #12.2). The Congregation of the Mission from the time of its Founder, and under his inspiration, sees itself called by God to carry out the work of evangelizing the poor. In its own way, it can, with the whole Church, state of itself that evangelizing is to be considered its own grace and vocation, and expresses its deepest identity (cf. EN, 14). Furthermore, the members, individually and collectively, can rightly make use of the words of Jesus: "I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God for which I have been sent"(Luke 4:43) (Constitutions, #10).

Charity, love is the source of the mission. The love of Christ, who had pity on the crowd (Mark 8:2), is the source of all our apostolic activity, and urges us, in the words of St. Vincent, "to make the Gospel really effective"(SV, XII, 84). According to the varying circumstances of time and place, our work of evangelization in word and action should strive for this, that all, through a process of conversion and celebration of the sacraments, should be faithful to "the kingdom, that is to say, the new world, the new order, the new manner of being, of living, of living in community, which the gospel inaugurates" (EN, 23) (Constitutions, #11).

The mission becomes charity. Following St. Vincent, who, like the Good Samaritan of the gospel parable (Lk 10:30-37), gave effective help to the abandoned, provinces and members should earnestly strive to serve those rejected by society and those who are victims of disasters and injustices of every kind. We should also assist those who suffer from forms of moral poverty which are peculiar to our own times. Working for all of these and with them, members should endeavor to implement the demands of social justice and evangelical charity (Constitutions, #18). The mission becomes charity that knows no boundaries: a readiness to go to any part of the world, according to the example of the first missionaries of the Congregation (Constitutions, #12.5).

Notes: (1) Luke 4:1621. In my reflections I used my work, Dimensíon social del jubilee (Social Dimension of the Jubilee), Cáritas, Pamplona, 2000. Cf.: Vanhoye, A., L’anno giubilare nel vangelo di Luca,(The Jubilee Year in the gospel of Luke), Tertium Millennium, 1977, pp. 22-25; Martini, CM, El evangelizador en San Lucas (The Evangelizer in Saint Luke), Bogotá, 1985; George, A., El evangelio según San Lucas (The Gospel according to Saint Luke), Verbo Divino, Estella, 1976.

(2) The Son of God came to evangelize the poor. And are not we, Messieurs, sent for the same purpose? Yes, Missioners are sent to evangelize the poor … 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 is for persons who are poor. Oh, what a great thing that is! But it goes beyond our understanding that we should be called to be associates and sharers in the plans of the Son of God. Quoi! To become … I would not dare to say it … Be that as it may, it is such a lofty ministry to evangelize poor persons, which is, par excellence, the work of the Son of God, and we have been included in it as instruments by which the Son of God continues to do from heaven what He did on earth (CCD:XI:283-284; XII:71-72).

(3) Paul VI, Evangelii Nuntiandi, #7.

(4) Documents of Vatican II, Ad gentes, #12).

(5) Mark 3:8.

(6) Acts 10:38.

(7) Cf., John 4:39-42.

(8) O brothers, how fortunate we are to be in a Company that professes to run to the relief of the neighbor! Charity at home, charity in the country by means of missions, charity toward poor persons; and I might add that, by the grace of God, the Company has not failed to seize any opportunity that has presented itself to help poor persons in need. What a consolation for this Little Company, Messieurs, to see that, despite its insignificance, God still wills to make use of it in that way (CCD:XI:331).

(9) Jaramillo Rivas, P., El año del Padre y la pastoral de la caridad (The year of the Father and the ministry of charity), Corintos XIII, 1999, p. 261.

(10) Collet, op. cit., p. 168. Now to work for the salvation of pour country people is the main purpose of our vocation, and all the rest is only accessory to it … woe to us also if we become lax in carrying out the obligation we have to help poor souls! (CCD:XI:121, 122).

(11) Cf., Corera, J., Diez estudios vincencianos (Ten Vincentian Studies), p. 62-86.

(12) CCD:XII:66-82.

(13) Cf., Corera, J., El pobre según San Vicente (The poor according to Saint Vincent), pp. 581-582.

(14) Now, if we are really called to take the love of God far and near, if we must set nations on fire with it, if our vocation is to go throughout the world to spread this divine fire, if that is the case, I say, if that is the case, brothers, how I myself must burn with this divine fire! How I must be afire with loving those with whom I live and with edifying my own confreres by the exercise of love, and inspiring my dear confreres to practice the acts that proceed from it! At the hour of death, we will see the irreparable loss we have suffered --- if not all of us, at least those who do not have this brotherly love and do not live it as they should. How can we give it to others if we do not have it among ourselves? Let us take a good look to see if we do have it --- not in a general way but each individually --- and whether it is present to the degree it should be; for, if it is not burning, if we do not love one another as Jesus Christ has loved, and produce acts like his, how can we hope to take this love all over the world? How can a Company inflame hearts with true charity, if the Company itself does not have it (CCD:XII:215-216).

Translated by Charles T. Plock, CM