Proper Spirit

From Vincentian Encyclopedia

By: Robert P. Maloney, CM

[This is one of the 100 articles found in the publication, Diccionario de Expiritualidad Vicenciana, published by Editorial CEME in 1995. This article has been translated and made available in the on-line Vincentian Encyclopedia with the permission of Editorial CEME].


The 1984 Constitutions of the Congregation of the Mission clearly speak about this matter in articles #4-8. Schematically the spirit of the Congregation of the Mission is described in the following manner: The spirit of the Congregation is a participation in the spirit of Christ himself, as proposed by Saint Vincent: He sent me to preach the good news to the poor (Luke 4:18) (article #5). This is particularly clear in the examples from the Gospels explained in the Common Rules (article #4), which our Founder recommended to the members from the beginning: love and reverence towards the Father, compassionate and effective love for the poor, and docility to divine providence (article #6), simplicity, humility, gentleness, mortification, and zeal for souls (article #7). Hence, “Jesus Christ is the rule of the Mission” and shall be considered as the center of its life and activity (article #5).

This contemporary formulation of the Vincentian spirit, drawn up by the representatives of the worldwide Congregation, certainly reflects the inheritance that Vincent de Paul passed on to his followers. Following that outline, this article will analyze the Vincentian spirit in three phases: [1] following Jesus who described himself as an evangelizer of the poor (CCD:XI:26) [1], [2] development of a filial relationship with the Father and a love for the neighbor (CCD:VI:413-414) [2], [3] development of the faculties of the soul of the whole Congregation (CCD:XI:124-125).

Using this outline the author will attempt to discover the evangelical roots of Vincent’s spirituality and will briefly describe some contemporary ways of updating it. In order to not get lost in details, we ought to state from the beginning that the spirit of Saint Vincent and of his Congregation is profoundly evangelical and missionary (CCD:III:204-205). Vincent was strongly supported by concrete examples and by the “gospel maxims”, trusting that Christ’s teaching will never let us down (Common Rules II:1). The Christ who is encountered in the New Testament is a missionary sent by the Father to proclaim good news to the poor (CCD:298, 302-303).

Following Jesus who described himself as an evangelizer of the poor

For Vincent de Paul there is only one driving force: Jesus Christ if the Rule of the Mission (CCD:XII:110; see also XI:53, [French] [3]) and the center of the Congregation’s life and activity. He spoke to the Missionaries and stated: Remember we live in Jesus Christ through the death of Jesus Christ, and we must die in Jesus Christ through the life of Jesus Christ, and our life must be hidden in Jesus Christ and filled with Jesus Christ, and in order to die as Jesus Christ, we must live as Jesus Christ (CCD:I:276).

Vincent cautioned his followers that they would only achieve true freedom when they died in Jesus Christ (CCD:310-311).

The Vincentian spirit, however, reflects a particular Christ. According to Vincent, the most significant aspects of this Christ are the following:

Jesus proclaimed good news to the poor

Over and over again Vincent returned to this theme. In what is perhaps his most famous conference, that of December 6th, 1658, on the purpose of the Congregation, Vincent affirmed: 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! … it’s such a loft ministry to evangelize poor persons, which is, par excellence, the work of the Son of God (CCD:XII:71). In another conference he states: [Jesus] 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 pauperibus misit me (CCD:XI:26) [4].

Vincent made a clear and explicit choice [5]. He presents us with a vision of Christ not as teacher [6] or healer [7] or as “the perfect adorer of the Father” (vision of Berulle) [8] or as “the perfect image of divinity” (vision of Francis de Sales) [9] but rather as the evangelizer of the poor. The disciples of Vincent de Paul are called to follow Christ in the same manner that Jesus did when he began his public ministry: The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord (Luke 4:18).

This is a specific theme of Luke, so much so that the gospel of Luke has often been called “the gospel of the poor”. Luke deliberately places Jesus’ visit to the synagogue in Nazareth at the beginning of his public ministry. The result is a new vision that Luke develops throughout his narration of this ministry … Jesus applies to himself the words of Isaiah 61:1-2. Luke repeats this theme and develops it in 7:21-22 [10]. In the Lucan perspective a new era has dawned. Jesus proclaims the good news of the kingdom to all people, but especially to the poor, the vulnerable, the humble, and the marginalized people of the world:

  • blessed are the poor (6:20)
  • the good news is proclaimed to the poor (7:22)
  • when you hold a banquet, invite the poor (14:13)
  • go out into the streets and invite the poor (14:21
  • lying at his door was a poor man named Lazarus (16:20-22)
  • sell everything you have and distribute it to the poor (18:22)
  • half of my possession I give to the poor (19:8)
  • this poor widow put in more than all the rest (21:3).

The spirituality of Vincent flowed from his contemplation of Christ. The driving force that generated such incredible activity and animated his contemplation was his vision of the evangelizer of the poor [11]. Vincent encouraged his followers to contemplate this Christ: How happy will those be who, at the hour of death, can say these beautiful words of Our Lord: the Lord sent me to bring the good news to the poor! [12] (CCD:XI:122).

===Jesus shared his life with many poor persons and invited them to participate in his ministry===.

Saint Vincent established communities and thus followed the example of Christ who formed apostles and disciples into a community (Common Rules VIII:1) in order to carry out the apostolic mission (CCD:XIIIa:213f; XIIIb:8f). In light of the needs of that era Vincent, with outstanding creativity, established the Congregation of the Mission* and the Company of the Daughters of Charity*. He also organized the Confraternities of Charity* and the Ladies of Charity*. He brought together men and women, rich and poor, learned and unlearned … he brought all these people together in order to serve the poor.

Vincent understood that women played a prominent role in Jesus ministry (CCD:IX:165, 358-359, 471-472f.; XIIIb:3, 62-63, 431f.). Thus women also had a prominent position in his own ministry: Marguerite Naseau (CCDIX:65), Louise de Marillac (CCD:XIIIb:324-325), Jane Frances Chantal (CCD:XIIIa:137f.) and Madame de Gondi (CCD:III:360-361). This is also one of the distinctive themes in Luke’s gospel. Luke, more than any other evangelist, highlights the formation of a “community”* of disciples and points out the importance that the women had in that community and its ministry:

  • Mary, Elizabeth and Anna (in the infancy narratives)
  • the sinful woman (7:36-50)
  • the women who accompanied Jesus (8:1-3)
  • the widow of Naim (7:11-17)
  • the women who praised Jesus’ mother (11:27f)
  • Martha and Mary (10:38-42)
  • the women on the road to Calvary (23:27-31)
  • the women who followed Jesus to the end (23:55)
  • the witnesses to his resurrection (24:22)

Jesus had a universal vision

Jesus wanted the gospel to be preached to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8; cf. Luke 24:47). Little by little Vincent became convinced of this aspect of Jesus teaching (CCD:XI:237). 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 (CCD:XII:215)

Beginning in 1648 with the mission in Madagascar, Vincent began to send members of the Congregation to various parts of the world: God is opening up for us a beautiful field of action in Madagascar, in the Hebrides, and elsewhere. Let us pray that God will fill our hearts with the burning desire to serve him; let us give ourselves to him to do with us whatever he pleases (CCD:XI:62). Before his death Vincent was able to see Missionaries established in Italy, Poland, Algeria, Tunis and Ireland … he dreamed of sending Missionaries (himself included) to the Indies.

Despite the fact that the missions ad gentes created many difficulties and were the cause of numerous deaths, Vincent remained wholly convinced of their importance, and despite the opposition to that endeavor, he defended that ministry as being in accord with Christ’s plan. Someone in the Company may say perhaps that Madagascar should be abandoned; flesh and blood will use that language and say that no more men should be sent there, but I am certain that the Spirit says otherwise … could we possibly be so base and unmanly as to abandon this vineyard of the Lord to which his Divine Majesty has called us merely because four, five or six men have died? (CCD:XI:372, 373; cf. also CCD:191-192, 357-358).

Once again Vincent incorporated an important Lucan theme into his ideal: the universality of Christ’s attitude [13]. In Luke’s gospel, Jesus did not come just for the people of Israel, but for all people:

  • Jesus is the light who illuminates the Gentiles (2:32)
  • There is more faith among the Gentiles than in Israel (4:25-27)
  • Go out to the highways and hedgerows, and make the people come in (14:23)
  • In his name the conversion of all nations will be preached (24:47

Jesus lives in the person of the poor [14]

The Christ of Vincent de Paul, even though he was still the Lord and the Son of God, he continued to live in the person of the poor … continued to suffer in them (CCD:IX:554-555).

On February 13, 1646, Vincent spoke to the Daughters of Charity and stated: 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; cf. CCD:X:100f.). Vincent frequently referred to Matthew 25:31-46 in order to highlight Jesus’ identification with the poor (CCD:IX:199, 256, 357; X:268; XII:77, 87; XIIIb:412, 415, 429). That, then, is what obliges you to serve them with respect as your masters, and with devotion because they represent for you the person of Our Lord who said, “What you do to the least of mine I will consider as done to myself” (CCD:X:268; cf. also CCD:X:545-546; XIIIb:429).

As a result of this identification with Christ the poor are our lords and masters (cf. CCD:IX:97; X:268). In outlining the Rules* for the Daughters of Charity, Vincent wrote that they ought to love God supremely and to perform all their actions for love of him. The second is to cherish one another as sisters whom he has bound together by the bond of his love and to love the sick poor as their lords, since Our Lord is in them and they are in Our Lord (CCD:XIIIb:108-109). The same theme is echoed as Vincent spoke to the priests and the brothers: 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; let us acknowledge before God that they are our lords and masters and that we are unworthy of rendering them our little services (CCD:XI:349). The Christ of Vincent de Paul, his “Lord and Master”, has to be found by his followers among the infirm, the imprisoned, the galley slaves, the abandoned children and those displaced by the wars of religion (CCD:X:545-546).

This identification with the neighbor who suffers is a theme that is emphasized in Luke’s writings: Acts 9:4; 22:7; 26:14 (Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?). This identification is also related to the Pauline theme of the body of Christ (Romans 12:5; 1 Corinthians 10:17; Colossians 1:18; Ephesians 4:4, 5:23) as well as the Johannine theme with regard to the unity of the love of God and the love of neighbor (John 13:34f; 1John 2:7f; 3:11, 16, 18, 23f; 5:1-2; 2John 5-6).

Development of a filial relationship with the Father and a love for the neighbor

In one of his letters Vincent wrote with great precision that the psychology of Christ is reflected in two directions that encompass everything: his filial relationship with the Father and his love for the neighbor (CCD:VI:413-414; cf. footnote #2).

Love and reverence toward the Father and docility to divine Providence

Vincent repeatedly told the Missionaries and the Daughters of Charity: let us give ourselves to God [15]. He had great trust in God as Father in whose hands he placed himself and his ministry. The dairy written by Jean Gicquel recounts how on June 3, 1660 (four months before Vincent’s death) he told Fathers Almeras, Berthe and Gicquel: To wear oneself out for God, to have happiness and strength only to consume them for God, is to do what Our Lord himself did, who exhausted himself for love of his Father (CCD:XIIIa:195).

Vincent wanted all people to be filled with God’s love. He wrote to Pierre Escart and stated: I greatly hope we may set about stripping ourselves entirely of affection for anything that is not God, be attached to things only for God and according to God and that we may seek and establish his kingdom first of all in ourselves and then in others. This is what I entreat you to ask of Him for me (CCD:II:122).

Since God, as Father, has a deep love for us, this same God exercises a continual providence over our lives. Many of Vincent’s writings and conferences refer to God’s providence (implicitly, and at times explicitly as Father; cf. CCD:II:520-521; III:192-193: V:399-400; VIII:175). At other times Vincent refers to Christ’s providence with regard to his followers [16]. In a letter written to Bernard Codoing, Vincent emphasized the first dimension: The rest will come in due time. Grace has its moments. Let us abandon ourselves to the Providence of God and be on our guard against anticipating it. If Our Lord is pleased to give me any consolation in our vocation, it is this: I think it seems to me that we have tried to follow Divine Providence in all things (CCD:II:499). He wrote similar words to Louise de Marillac: Mon Dieu, my daughter, what great hidden treasures there are in holy Providence and how marvelously Our Lord is honored by those who follow it and do not try to get ahead of it (CCD:I:359; cf. III:200).

Speaking about the providence of Jesus with regard to his followers, Vincent told John Martin in 1647: let us ask Our Lord that all things may be done in accord with his Providence, and that our wills may also be so submissive to him that between him and us there may be only one will, causing us to enjoy his unrivaled love in time and in eternity (CCD:III:200). In another letter written to the zealous Bernard Codoing in 1644, Vincent stated: The consolation Our Lord gives me is to believe that, by the grace of God, we have always tried to follow and not to anticipate Providence which knows how to conduct all things so wisely to the end Our Lord destines for them (CCD:II:502). Three months later he added: But what shall we do, you say? We shall do what Our Lord wills, which is to keep ourselves always dependent on his Providence (CCD:II:517).

Vincent’s teaching on Providence is based on two cornerstones: [1] a profound trust in God as a loving Father, [2] indifference, which is to will only what he wills (CCD:V:410).

It could be argued that this focus on Providence is also a Lucan focus [17]. The spirit of the Father and the spirit of Jesus is present from the very beginning of Luke’s gospel … is present and is guiding the course of history. Jesus is anointed by a power from on high and this same power directs his ministry and the ministry of the Apostles [18]:

  • The holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you (1:35)
  • When Jesus was baptized, the Holy Spirit descended upon him (3:22)
  • Filled with the holy spirit, Jesus was led into the desert (4:1)
  • Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit (4:14)
  • The Spirit of the Lord is upon me (4:18)
  • Jesus rejoice in the holy Spirit (10:21)
  • The Father in heaven will give the holy Spirit to those who ask him (11:13)
  • Those who blaspheme against the holy Spirit will not be forgiven (12:10)
  • The holy Spirit will teach you at that moment what you should say (12:12)

Today [19], the idea of providence is being revised in order to articulate a theology that understands the various levels of causality and therefore, recognizes the rational and the irrational aspects of human existence and is also able to find meaning in the midst of chaos, disorder, violence and apathy. It attempts to safeguard the distance between the polarities of life: purpose/chaos, health/illness, life/death, planning/confusion, love/heartbreak, peace/violence. The ministers of providence are the men and women who give meaning to life and who can speak about meaning. Docility to providence is an attitude of reverent trust before the mystery of God as that mystery is revealed in Christ in whom life, death and resurrection are harmonized. In the last instance providence is based on a deep faith and trust in a personal God whose wisdom guides all creation. One of the distinguishing signs of this faith is, as we will see later, a confident prayer. Trust in providence is also revealed in the ability to see beyond specific events, to see the underlying essence/significance and involves waiting with patience and perseverance. Providence is also to be honored, as Vincent points out (CCD:V:400 – let us wait patiently but let us act … let us make haste slowly) and therefore, uses the means that God provides us with in order to obtain our goals. If someone was tempted to interpret Vincent’s teaching on providence as a passive attitude, that person should recall the words that Vincent wrote to Edme Jolly: You are one of the men in this world who most honors the Providence of God by preparing remedies against ills that are foreseen. I thank you most humbly for this, and I ask Our Lord to continue and increase His enlightenment to you so you can diffuse it throughout the Company (CCD:VII:326).

Standing before the Father in prayer

Vincent called his followers to clothe themselves anew in the spirit of Christ who had a profound trust in the Father and who was continually before him in prayer. Prayer was the source of the efficacy of all the things that he did: give me a man of prayer, and he will be able to do anything (CCD:XI:76). In the midst of his missionary activity, Jesus was always in contact with the Father (cf. John 7:29-33, 17:13-31) [20]. Jesus understood that the Father was the author of all the good that he accomplished (CCD:XII:92-93) and constantly sought the will of God.

From this perspective Vincent spoke to the Daughters of Charity: Our Lord himself was a man of the greatest prayer (CCD:IX:326). In the Common Rules Vincent addressed the Missionaries in the following manner: Christ, the Lord, in addition to his daytime meditations, sometimes used to spend the whole night in prayer to God. We cannot fully follow his example in this, though we should try to do so while making allowance for our weakness (Common rules X:7).

Vincent was absolutely convinced of the importance of the bond between action and contemplation … a bond that he saw lived out by Jesus. He told his followers that stability in their vocation and continued vitality in their ministry depended on their prayer life: Give me a man of prayer, and he will 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; cf. also CCD:III:530; IX:326-327; X:468-469). Vincent frequently referred to this Lucan theme where Jesus is found at prayer in the morning and the evening and at every important moment in his ministry:

  • at the time of his baptism (3:21)
  • he goes off by himself to pray (5:16
  • when choosing the Twelve (6:12)
  • before Peter’s profession of faith (9:18)
  • before the Transfiguration (9:29)
  • he commands the disciples to pray for more laborers for the harvest (10:2)
  • he teaches the disciples to pray (11:1)
  • he prays at the Last Supper to strengthen Peter’s faith (22:32)
  • he prays during the agony in the garden (22:41-47)
  • he prays on the cross (23:46)

In this sense the gospel of Luke is called “the gospel of prayer” and the other book of Luke, the Acts of the Apostles, continues that theme (Acts 1:14-24; 2:42; 3:1, 4, 24-31; 6:14; 9:11; 10:2-4, 9, 24, 30; 12:5, 12; 13:3; 14:23; 20:36; 21:5; 24:14).

According to the Constitutions and following the example of Vincent de Paul, the Vincentian spirit involves being a contemplative in action and an apostle in prayer (Constitutions #42). For Vincent this is the only effective path for the apostolate: Let us all 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; it we remain in charity, if we are saved, all of this is thanks to God and to meditation (CCD:XI:361).

The Constitutions of 1984 suggested various means to enter into the spirit of prayer, two of which were highly recommended by Vincent: daily Eucharist and an hour of daily meditation [21].

Preaching with words and deeds

The love that is manifested by those who embrace the Vincentian spirit has to be affective and effective (CCD:IX:466, 471, 473; XI:32-33). The followers of Vincent de Paul have to serve the poor spiritually and corporally (CCDIX:73, 535; XI:328, 349).

Vincent viewed evangelization as something all encompassing [22]. This is clearly seen in the Rules that he gave to the groups that he established: the Congregation of the Mission, the Company of the Daughters of Charity, the Confraternities of Charity, and the Ladies of Charity.

Jesus came to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord (Luke 4:18). He came to save his people from their sins (Matthew 1:21; cf. Luke 1:77). Both aspects of Christ’s mission are rooted in the heart of Vincent’s ministry.

The popular mission was the fundamental ministry of the group of priests and brothers that Vincent established. That ministry was geared toward conversion and culminated in the celebration of the sacrament of penance, primarily, general confession (CCD:I:40f., 553). Vincent presented this ministry to the members of his Congregation as the vocation of the Son of God.

As his life was coming to an end Vincent recalled with tenderness the events that inspired the establishment of the Congregation of the Mission: That took place in the month of January 1617, and, on the twenty-fifth, the feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul, that lady asked me to preach a sermon in the church of Folleville to urge the people to make a general confession, which I did, pointing out to them its importance and usefulness. Then I taught them how to make it properly; and God had such regard for the confidence and good faith of that lady … that he blessed what I said; and those good people were so moved by God that they all came to make their general confession … That was the first sermon of the Mission (CCD:XI:3-4).

In his conferences and letters Vincent frequently referred to Christ who extended his hands to sinners with a confident hope in forgiveness* and a firm purpose of amendment: O Savior, how fortunate were those who had the honor of approaching you! What an expression, what gentleness, what warmth you showed them in order to attract them! What confidence did you not give souls to approach you! Oh what a sign of love! (CCD:XII:157). Vincent frequently focused on the heart of Jesus: Let us look at the Son of God; what a heart of charity he had; what a fire of love (CCD:XII:216). The Word became flesh in order to share this tender love with others: How tenderhearted the Son of God was! … it’s this sensitivity that caused him to come down from heaven; he saw that people were deprived of his gory, and he was so moved by their misfortune (CCD:XII:221)

In the gospel of Luke, which is often called “the gospel of mercy” 23], the tender love of Jesus for sinners is another distinctive theme [24]:

  • the sinful woman (7:30-50
  • the lost sheep (15:1-7)
  • the lost coin (15:8-10)
  • the prodigal son (15:11-32)
  • Zacchaeus (19:1-10)
  • the good thief (23:39-43)

In Vincent’s mind, the liberation that Jesus offers to the poor is an integral liberation. Therefore, he sent the Daughters of Charity to serve the poor spiritually and corporally (CCD:IX:50, 467; XI:328-330, 349-350). He organized the Confraternities and the Ladies of Charity to minister on behalf of the same cause. The members of the Congregation of the Mission were cautioned about viewing their ministry in spiritual terms only: If there are any among us who think they are in the Mission to evangelize the 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 … to do this is to preach the Gospel by words and by works (CCD:XII:77-78). The Missionaries ought to include in their concern the infirm, orphans, the insane, and those who are most forgotten (CCD:XI:349).

Those two dimensions of Jesus’ ministry are frequently joined together in Vincent’s writings. He viewed evangelization and the promotion of the human person as mutually complimentary: In this vocation, we are very much in conformity with Our Lord Jesus Christ, who seems to have made his principal aim, in coming into the world, to assist poor people and to take care of them, Misit me evangelizare pauperibus. And if we ask Our Lord, “What did you come to do on earth?” “To assist the poor.” “Anything else?” “To assist the poor.” … So are we not very fortunate to belong to the Mission for the same purpose that caused God to become man? (CCD:XU:98).

Today, the bond between evangelization and human promotion (something very natural in Vincent’s spirit) is one of the pivotal aspects of the Church’s social doctrine [25].

Cultivating the faculties of the soul of the whole Congregation

Vincent declared that the members of the Congregation, as they followed Jesus Christ, had to be characterized by the five missionary virtues [26]: simplicity*, humility*, gentleness*, mortification* and zeal for souls*.

In the important conference of August 22nd, 1659, Vincent focused his attention on those five virtues that flow from the gospel maxims*, whose author is Our Lord Jesus Christ … and [who] himself observed them (CCD:XII:243, 244). He told the members of the Congregation that those five virtues have to be the faculties of the soul of the entire Congregation (CCD:XII:251; Common Rules II:14). In his conferences to the Daughters of Charity he focused on the virtues of simplicity and humility and saw those virtues as complements to charity. These missionary virtues are so important that a chapter could be devoted to each one of them. At the present time, we will speak briefly about how Vincent saw these practiced by Christ (in this dictionary, there is an article on each one of these virtues).


The spirit of Christ (CCD:IV:471) is a spirit of simplicity which consists of speaking the truth (XII:142-143; Common Rules II:4), saying things as they are (CCD:I:145), without hiding or concealing anything (CCD:I:263-364; V:469-470) and referring all things to God alone (CCD:XII:142-143; Common Rules II:4). Vincent was so convinced of the importance of this virtue that he called it my gospel (CCD:IX:476), the virtue I love the most (CCD:I:265). Do you know where Our Lord dwells; he asked, with the simple (CCD:X:78) .

Thus, Vincent highlighted a basic theme of the New Testament, Jesus’ dedication to the truth. The gospel of Saint John emphasizes that characteristic of Christ:

  • Jesus is the truth (4:6)
  • Those who live the truth come to the light (3:21)
  • The truth will make you free (8:32)
  • Jesus gives witness to the truth (18:37)
  • Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to Jesus’ voice (18:37).

In addition to these and other Johannine texts (John 1:17; 4:24; 5:33; 14:6; 16:13; 17:17) the New Testament emphasizes dedication to the trust as a moral imperative that is based on a saying of the Lord that appears in different contexts: Let your “yes” mean “yes” and your “no” mean “no” (Matthew 5:37; cf. James 5:12, 2 Corinthians 1:17-20).

Today, as in the time of Vincent, simplicity means that people speak the truth and it is both an important quality and a difficult discipline, especially when one’s own well-being is at stake and the truth involves commitment. Such simplicity or sincerity continues to be attractive to modern men and women. Simplicity also means that one gives witness to the truth, … a personal authenticity in which one’s life is in accord with one’s words. Today we are also aware of the fact that this involves seeking the truth as “researchers” rather than possessing it “owners”. As in the time of Vincent, simplicity involves a purity of intention and living the truth through works of justice and charity, living a simple lifestyle and the use of transparent language, especially in preaching*. In the contemporary church* much emphasis is placed on formation programs and on integration (a balance in the various distinct values) which is another form of simplicity or of integrity or of wholeness.


Humility is the virtue of Christ (XI:46) which he teaches us by word and example (Common Rules II:7) and involves recognizing that all good things come from God (CCD:I:183; VII:114-116). It implies a recognition of our littleness and our sinfulness (Common Rules II:7) together with an enthusiastic trust in God (CCD:III:279; V:166). Vincent urged the Congregation to meditate on that admirable model of humility Our Lord Jesus Christ (CCD:XI:350) and he marveled at the fact that the Son of God emptied himself (CCD:XII:94; cf. Philippians 2:7)

Even though the other evangelists and Paul highlight Christ’s humanity (cf. Matthew 20:28; Mark 9:35; John 13:12-15; Philippians 2:5-12), this is nevertheless a theme this is uniquely Lucan and is related to the proclamation of salvation to those who are poor. Beginning with the infancy narratives, Luke presents the coming of Jesus to those who are humble. God looked upon his handmaid’s lowliness (1:48), He has thrown down the rulers from their thrones but lifted up the lowly (1:48) because those who exalt themselves will be humbled and those who humble themselves will be exalted (11:14; cf. also 18:14). Jesus reminded his disciples that those are truly great must become the least (22:26) and that he is with them as one who serves (22:27). Luke also places great emphasis on the development of the theme of exaltation through humiliation (cf. 9:22; 12:50; 24:7, 26, 40). In the book of the Acts of the Apostles, Luke states anew that this theme is key to understanding the Scriptures (Acts 8:26-40).

Today, as during the time of Vincent, humility encompasses a recognition of the fact that we are creatures, redeemed creatures and that this is one of the signs of God’s love. Our humility is expressed in the form of gratitude for all the gifts that we have received through God’s grace. Humility is expressed through the development of an “attitude of service” and through a willingness to engage in various tasks (including manual tasks) in order to serve the poor. It is also expressed, as Vincent stated, in the desire to be evangelized by the poor, our lords and masters,


Vincent wrote that Jesus himself tells us that he is gentle: learn from me because I am gentle and humble in heart (Common Rules II:6). According to Vincent this virtue provides people with the ability to control their anger (CCD:XII:154) either by suppressing it (CCD:XII:155) or by expressing anger in a controlled manner, that is, by the practice of love (CCD:XII:155). It combines cordiality with firmness (CCD:XII:156). On November 1, 1637 Vincent wrote to Louise de Marillac and stated: if the gentleness of your spirit needs a dash of vinegar, borrow a little from Our Lord’s spirit. O Mademoiselle, how well he knew how to find a bittersweet remark when it was needed! (CCD:I:383).

Usually Vincent refers to the gospel of Matthew when speaking about gentleness (Matthew 11:29; cf. 5:5; 21:5). Luke, however, also uses the word gentleness and this theme is so characteristic of the third evangelist that Dante referred to Luke as the author of God’s gentleness (De Monarchia 1:18). Jesus’ mercy (Luke 3:36f.), his love (Luke 15:1), his kind words (Luke 4:22) and his joy (Luke 10:21) soften the rough picture of Christ that is presented to us in Mark’s gospel.

Today, as in Jesus’ time, gentleness implies an ability to control one’s anger in a positive manner. Since anger is a natural energy that arises spontaneously within us when we perceive something as evil, that anger can be used in either a constructive or destructive manner. Unfortunately, there are many “angry individuals” in our communities. Nevertheless, the example of Saint Vincent teaches us that anger can be utilized for good. The scandalous situation of the poor was a powerful force and it led Vincent to establish the Confraternities of Charity, the Ladies of Charity, the Company of the Daughters of Charity and the Congregation of the Mission.

The example of Vincent reveals that people can grow in friendliness and acceptance of others. He admitted his own inclination to melancholy but stated: I addressed myself to God to beg him earnestly to change this curt and forbidding disposition of mine for a meek and benign one. By the Grace of our Lord and with some effort on my part to repress the outbursts of passion, I was able to get rid of my black disposition (Abelly III:163). Today, as in Vincent’s time, gentleness involves a growth in that kindness and openness that so characterized Vincent’s life. It also involves an ability to bear with offenses in a courageous and forgiving manner.


Jesus is the model of mortification: never lose sight of the mortification of Our Lord, since, in order to follow him, we have the obligation to mortify ourselves after his example (CCD:XII:186). Vincent defined mortification as subjecting one’s passions to reason (CCD:X:46). In his conferences this virtue is given a preferential place. Therefore, Vincent described mortification as the denial of the external senses (sight, hearing, taste, touch, smell; cf. CCD:IX:20f.; X:48, 123, 199, 226, 321; XII:324), the denial of the internal senses (understanding, memory and will; cf. CCD:X:123, 199, 226) and the denial of the passion of the soul (the most important of which for Vincent are: love/hatred, hope/despair; cf. CCD:X:201). In order to encourage the members of his communities to practice this virtue he frequently cited New Testament saying that recommended the practice of this virtue (cf. CCD:IX:135; X:49, 319-320)

Once again the reader will understand that this is a prominent theme in Luke’s gospel which is often called “the gospel of absolute renunciation”:

  • the disciples leave everything behind in order to follow Jesus (5:11)
  • the disciples should take up their cross and follow Jesus (9:23)
  • do not set a hand to the plow and then look at what was left behind (9:62)
  • sell your belongings and give alms (12:33)
  • followers of Jesus ought to hate father and mother and spouse and children and brothers and sisters and oneself (14:62)
  • renounce everything (14:33)
  • Jesus had to suffer greatly before establishing the Kingdom of God (17:250
  • it was necessary for Jesus to be crucified (24:7)
  • Christ had to suffer in order to enter into his glory (24:46).

Today mortification is not well understood and, therefore, is unpopular perhaps because of some distortions on the part of spiritual writers who have dealt with the theory and the practice of this virtue. This virtue has a very important evangelical value. Contemporary “functional asceticism” emphasizes the fact that mortification is a renunciation of something good for something better. It, therefore, involves defining our goals and channeling our limited energy toward those goals. In the words of Karl Rahner, mortification is the practice of death which is our ultimate renunciation [27]. The practice of this virtue can also involve such things as: to respond promptly to the needs of the community*, more specifically, accepting the plans of the community; to be faithful to the obligations of our state in life and to give preference to those obligations when they are in conflict with some other more gratifying reality; to exercise moderation in the consumption of food and drink; to use with a critical sense radio, television, movies and the other means of social communication; to repress critical expressions and all that causes division; to seek the company of those who are less pleasing to us, as well as the company of those to whom we are attracted; to give generously of our time in order to participate in the modern processes of decision making.


Zeal is a burning love that filled the heart of Jesus: Let us ask God to give the Company this spirit, this heart, this heart that causes us to go everywhere, this heart of the Son of God, the heart of Our Lord, the heart of Our Lord that disposes us to go as he went and he would have gone, if his eternal wisdom had deemed it advisable to work for the conversion of poor nations (CCD:XI:264). The fire of love enables the Missionary to go everywhere and to do all things: Yes, the Mission can do anything because we have in us the seeds of the omnipotence of Jesus Christ (CCD:XI:193). The love of God urges us (2 Corinthians 5:14) became the motto of the Daughters of Charity.

Zeal is the virtue of missionary action: If love of God is a fire, zeal is its flame; if love is a sun, zeal is its ray (CCD:XII:250). Its purpose is to extend the Kingdom of God. It is love in action. Let us love God, brothers [and sisters], 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 (CCD:XI:32)

Effective love, rooted in the desire to extend the Kingdom of God, is naturally the essence of the New Testament. Zeal is the virtue for which Vincent de Paul is most known and in the service of which he organized so many men and women. Many New Testament texts could be cited to demonstrate the importance of this virtue (cf. Romans 25:31-46; Romans 13:8; 1Corinthians 13:13). Perhaps the most references in this regard are found in the writings of John (cf. John 3:16; 13:34f.; 1 John 2:10; 3:16, 18, 23; 4:7f., 11, 19-21; 5:1f.).

Vincent placed authentic zeal in opposition to two extremes: laziness (a lack of fervor) and undisciplined enthusiasm (Common Rules XII:11). The first extreme often presents itself in the form of an inordinate concern for one’s health and the other extreme frequently masks selfishness and anger and can result in harm to oneself as well as harm to others. Vincent had to warn Louise de Marillac (CCD:I:92) and his confreres Bernard Codoing and Pierre Escart against this latter extreme of zeal.

Today zeal is viewed as “mobility” or as a willingness to go anywhere in order to proclaim the good news. It is a love that is inventive to infinity (CCD:XI:131) and is, therefore, creative, persevering and faithful. Thus, zealous persons, especially during times of change, commit themselves to on-going formation in order to adapt themselves to new ministries or new circumstances or some new phase in their life (“a second profession”, “retirement”). Zeal, when it becomes contagious and expansive, is also revealed in a desire to see more laborers involved in the harvest.

The two extremes of which Vincent spoke also have a contemporary way in which they are manifested. Today “insensitivity” often appears in terms of what philosophers refer to as “inattentiveness”, that is, the inability to perceive or to be affected by the problems of the world, such as, the growing inequality between rich and poor (one of the great modern day sins*). Unbridled enthusiasm continues to be manifested under the guise of excessive work* and burn-out.

A word by way of conclusion … the Vincentian spirit that has been described here has to remain alive and, therefore, the true spirit ought to be, on the one hand, deeply rooted in the Vincentian tradition and, on the other hand, ought to be continually renewed in each historical era. The concrete forms in which this spirit is manifested can and, at times, ought to change and vary significantly from one era to another. Therefore, the Congregation ought to remain in a continual state of renewal (Constitutions, #2) through faith-filled reflection on the gospel and creative attention to the needs of the poor and the clergy


[1]Even though some authors doubt that these words, which refer to Christ as the evangelizer of the poor and which Abelly (Vincent’s first biographer) attributes to Vincent, were actually spoken as such by the Saint, nevertheless, the idea seems to be to be indisputable in light of Vincent’s repeated references to Luke 4:18 (cf. CCD:XI:71f., 79-80, 120f.; XII:298-299).

[2] The French states: religion vers son p?re.

[3] Let us walk with certainty along the true path on which Jesus Christ will be our guide and our leader … this text is not Vincentian in any literal sense. Dodin does not takes up this text nor does the Spanish edition (editor’s note).

[4] Cf. note #1.

[5] Cf. also CCD:IX:100-101; XII:214-215; They all aim to love Him, but they love Him in different ways: the Carthusians by solitude, the Capuchins by poverty, others by chanting His praises; and we, my dear confreres, if we have love, we must show it by bringing people to love God and the neighbor (CCD:XII:214).

[6] Cf., for example, Luke 7:20; 9:38; 10:25; 11:45; 12:13; 18:18; 19:39; 20:21, 28, 39; 21:7. This title appears frequently in the New Testament.

[7] This image of Jesus was very important in the mind of the evangelists; cf., for example, Mark 1:29f.; Matthew 8:1f., 9:18f.; Luke 7:1f., 13:10f.; John 9:1f.

[8] Cf. Michel Dupuy, Le Christ de Bérulle, in Vincentiana, 30 (1986), p. 240-252. During the years 1609-1617 Vincent was particularly influence by Bérulle. He learned from him the meaning of Jesus’ priestly ministry. Bérulle’s Christology is abstract and one that could be described as a “Christology from below”, with a strong emphasis on the divine attributes of Christ. Influenced by Scoticism, Bérulle described Jesus as destined from all eternity (regardless of whether the human race had fallen or not) to be “the perfect adorer of the Father”. Jesus is completely dominated, possessed and penetrated by the Father. At the same time Jesus is servant, priest, and victim.

[9] Cf. Hel?ne Bordes, Le Christ de Francçois de Sales, in Vincentiana, 30 (1986), p. 253-279. From 1618 until his death in 1622, Francis de Sales had a great influence on Vincent de Paul. Vincent considered Francis to be a model of gentleness, happiness and affability. Many of Vincent’s ideas on indifference and detachment were based on Francis’ doctrine. Vincent modified Francis’ doctrine on the presence of God and developed it in the context of the practice of doing God’s will in all things. For Francis, Christ is “the perfect image of divinity”. At the same time Christ lived the perfection of humanity in every phase of his existence: his birth, his hidden life, his public life, his passion, death and resurrection.

[10] J. Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke I-IX, Anchor Bible, Garden City, New York, 1981, p. 248; cf. also p. 529-532.

[11] Mezzadri points out the fact that the power of that vision of Christ that was derived from Vincent’s service on behalf of the poor, also influenced Vincent’s concept of the formation of the clergy; cf., op.cit., 330-332.

[12] CCD:XI:122; even though Vince spoke at times in a very lyrical manner about service on behalf of the poor, he did not, however, share some romantic vision of his ministry. Cf. CCD:XI:26 --- 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 faith that the Son of God, who willed to be poor, is represented to us by these poor people ….

[13] This theme which has led to the gospel of Luke being referred to as “the gospel of universal salvation” is continued in the Acts of the Apostles where the disciples give witness to the good news in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria,, and to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8).

[14] With regard to this theme, see José María Ibáñez, Le Pauvre, icóne de Jésus-Christ, in M. Vincnet, Témoin de l’Evangile (Toulouse, 1990), 155-168.

[15] For a striking affirmation of Vincent’s attitude before God, cf., CCD:XII:112ff., 122ff.).

[16] This distinction might not have been intended by Vincent since in his writings the action of the Son and the Father are not clearly distinguished.

[17] Cf. J. Schultz, Gottes Vorsehung bei Lukas, ZNTW, 54 (1963), p. 104-116.

[18] The book of the Acts of the Apostles continues this theme of “the gospel of the Holy Spirit” … there are fifty-seven references to the Spirit in that book; cf., Fitzmyer, op.cit., p. 227.

[19] The whole edition of the Proceedings of the Forty-Fourth Annual Convention of the Catholic Theological Society of America, XLIV, Louisville, 1989.

[20] The personal relationship between Jesus and the Father is also a theme in Luke’s gospel (cf. Luke 2:49, 3:22, 9:35, 10:21f., 23:46).

[21] Common Rules X:7, Constitutions 47.1: This article of the Constitutions does not coincide exactly with the first paragraph of the Common Rules, rather it is an effort to adapt that paragraph to the present day situation.

[22] Cf. Evangelii Nuntiandi, #30-39; Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, Instruction on Christian Freedom and Evangelization, #99. Vincent understood the need to confront the social problems of his era and to offer structured and institutional solutions (e.g., the communities that he established). He was not, however, aware of what we refer to today as “the social structures of sin”. In general, Vincent accepted the political and social situation (as did St. Paul with regard to the question of slavery). Nevertheless, within that context he saw the need to engage in political action in order to deal with the various situations of poverty … he used his influence in the Court and his position on the Council of Conscience to achieve those ends. Cf. L Mezzadi, San Vicenzo de Paul, Poline, Milano, 1986, p. 69-79, 83-86.

[23] Cf. Luke 6:3: Be merciful just as your Father is merciful. The same theme is often repeated in Luke second book, the Acts of the Apostles (2:38; 3:19; 5:31; 8:22; 10:43; 11:18; 13:24, 38; 17:30; 19:4, 20:21; 26:18; 28:20).

[24] Cf. Fitzmyer, op.cit., p. 223. When Luke reflects on the Christ-event, “the forgiveness of sin” becomes one way of summarizing the effects of that event.

[25] Cf. Synod of bishops (1971), Justice in the World, … Action on behalf of justice and participation in the transformation of the world fully appear to us as a constitutive dimension of the preaching of the Gospel (#6); cf. also Centesimus Annus, #5.

[26] [Look at] the strength and the power of the Gospel teachings, among which --- because there are many of them --- I am choosing those most fitting for Missioners (CCD:XII:245-246). Besides reflecting on different events in Christ’s life, Vincent saw in the New Testament a series of maxims and sayings which he viewed as “authored” by Christ. He exhorted his followers to do what Jesus did and to practice what Jesus taught either through a direct command or through these maxims.

[27] “On the theology of Renunciation” in Theological Investigations, III:61-71 (Spanish edition).


All 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).

Translated: Charles T. Plock, CM