Reflections on the Spirituality of the Company of Charity

From Vincentian Encyclopedia

Reflections on the Spirituality of the Company of Charity


A Presentation by Gertrude Foley, SC April 19, 1997 St. John's University, New York

Is there any history more depressing than the history of the poor? The poor, in fact, would perhaps have no history at all expect that their plight from s the prelude and the postlude of so many other events that fill the pages of every nation's history. Not much has ever really changed from the times when Jesus himself observed, "The poor you have always with you." The faceless poor, so often and in such great numbers, are the hapless result of the decisions taken by those other and more important one in history, those who have a face and a name, person of power and substance in a society. We speak about "poverty" as though this were simply an impersonal, social blight for which no one is responsible, yet which affects everyone.

Poverty, when it goes on and on and on, grinds away the human spirit. Poverty, when it goes on and on, dehumanizes the poor person and de-faces the poor in our midst. Poverty, when it goes on and on, generates still other social evils, and threatens us all with hopelessness and despair. Our Scripture speaks of the "blessed poor" while on most days our newspapers speak only of the wretched poor.

These are some thoughts that came to me as I read the words of Father Robert Malony that have inspired this morning's gathering. "What a powerful force we could have by networking the various branches of the Vincentian Family, and those 'infected' by the Vincentian spirit! What a tremendous impact we could have on the lives of the poor." The thought of networking is exciting. The potential synergy of the gifts and talents of just the people gathered in this room inspires hope and awe. We aks what impact we could have on the lives of the poor, and we have a resource that Vincent and Louise and Elizabeth and Frederick did not have. We have the potential of a "world wide web", not of electronic media but of men and women already aware, organized, equipped, and involved in service to the poor of our times. Nevertheless, we share something of our founders' experience: the questions, the doubts, the temptations to despair as they faced the enormity of this challenge.

We must not separate in our thinking the exciting potential of networking on behalf of the poor and the formidable dimensions of the work to be done. If we separate these two factors, we will continually bounce between the poles of euphoria and despair. If, on the other hand, we keep these two factors connected, they will nudge us into asking more and different questions. Certainly, we will ask how can we make a network happen, given the awareness, commitment, experience and expertise of the people in this gathering? However, we will go on to ask how it is possible to look without despair at the seemingly endless destructive potential of poverty, at its intractable evil. How is it possible never to give up on projects and programs that seem to be such weak attacks on such a powerful evil, efforts that seem so ineffective in the long run? How can we avoid using our concern for the poor merely to assuage our personal sense of powerless guilt? How can we stay in solidarity with the poor, without wasting our energy in justifiable but fruitless rage?

Make no mistake about it, our founders had these same questions, doubts, and temptations. They faced them squarely and took their measure. They did not avoid the questions, the doubts, and the temptations inherent in the service of the poor and turn their attention instead to complex schemes and superficial busy-ness. Our founders were creatively pragamatic in their approaches to the challenge. Our histories witness to the fact that they accomplished what they set out to do. "It is essential," said St. Vincent, "to continue well, because to begin is nothing." (1) Yet they did not anxiously rely on the success of their projects to regenerate their confidence and their energy. Our founders generated the remarkable Tradition of Charity that has made all of us gathered here brothers and sisters of the same Family. The charism that we share has many wonderful characteristics: organization, practicality, flexibility and adaptability. This apostolic tradition is holistic in its emphasis on both physical and spiritual assistance. It is collaborative and parish-based. Wonderful as all these gifts are, and our founders model all of them, these gifts are not the secret to their impact on the history of the poor.


Deep in their hearts and spirits, our founders were seized by a profound truth. They listened and heard deeply the Good News of salvation addressed first to them. In their hearing, they they recognized and embraced the mutual identification that must exist among Jesus, the poor, and the servants of the poor. In 1934, Evelyn Underhill wrote, "God is Love ... generous, outflowing, self-giving Love, Agape... Charity is the color of the Divine personality, the spectrum of Holiness... To enter the Divine order then, achieve the full life for which we are made, means entering an existence that only has meaning as the channel and expression of an infinite, self-spending Love. This is not piety. It is not altruism. It is the clue to our human situation." (2) I believe that our founders were grasped by this truth, and understood that the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus gave us access to this Mystery of Love at the heart of the universe. They truly "entered an existence that only has meaning as the channel and expression of an infinite, self-spending Love."

I think that this is the keystone for comprehending St. Vincent;s words that we are using to name this conference today: Love is infinitely inventive. In an "exhortation to a Brother who is dying," Vincent describes the Eucharist as a demonstration of the infinite inventiveness of Love. Vincent says:

"This Lover of our hearts, seeing that sin had unfortunately ruined and effaced the resemblance, determined to break all the laws of nature in order to repai this havoc and did so with this wonderful additional favor (the Eucharist.) Not content with implanting in us a resemblance and mark of His Divinity, he even decided, with the same intention that we should love him, to make Himself like unto us and even to clothe Himself with our human nature. Who then would refuse such a just and salutary duty as loving him?

Moreover, as Love is infinitely inventive, after being nailed to the infamous gibbet of the Cross in order to gain souls and win the hearts by whom He desired to be loved... He resolved to institute the Most August Sacrament in which He is as really and truly present as He is in Heaven. (3)

It is their grounding in these profound insights of our faith that freed our founders to do the tasks that lay before them. They truly took the Gospel as their only rule of life. I do not mean by this that they read the Gospel merely or that they meditated on it daily. I mean that they internalized the Word, not as words but as wisdom, as practical guidance. This internalized Wisdom freed them to focus their daily activity in the service of the poor, freed them to use every means in their power to accomplish this mission. Writing about the place of St. Vincent de Paul and St. Louise de Marillac in the French School of spirituality, Raymond Deville writes:

(Vincent) insisted on the necessity of imitating Jesus who was the model of all the virtues. The Common Rules, for example, are replete with this theme: Vincentians must clothe themselves with the spirit of Jesus, essentially a spirit of charity, compassion, and tenderness; they must conform their actions and intentions to his, especially his commitment to the poor. In a special way - and I think this was Vincent's charism - he insisted on carrying our Jesus' mission. For Vincent, Jesus must imprint us with his mark and character. This is the fruit of the Spirit of God, of the Spirit of Jesus... "Jesus is the only rule of the Mission." (4)

I think that we trivialize our charism and tradition, if we limit it to mean only works of service. Unless we are as passionate as our founders were to grow daily into this identification with Jesus and his mission, we cannot claim the name Vincentian. We can exhaust ourselves in implementing our strategies to serve the poor. But as Vincentians we will fail, if we do not contextualize all of our service in the three-way identification seen so clearly by our founders: the trinitarian relationship, if you will, among Jesus, the poor person, and the servant of the poor, We take certain pride (holy, I hope) in the practical, down-to-earth quality of our charism and tradition. That is true enough. Nevertheless, the grounding insight of our founders was mystical, powerful and empowering. This was the insight that answered their questions, allayed their doubts, and strengthened them when the testing came.

Standing in the empowering freedom of their insight into the nature of God, our founders found it possible to look without despair at the seemingly endless destructive potential of poverty, at its intractable evil. They found it possible to be equally intractable in their efforts, never giving up on projects and programs that seemed to be such weak attacks on such an evil, efforts that seemed so ineffective in the long run. They felt empowered and responsible in putting on the mission of Jesus rather than powerless and guilty in the face of what have always looked like overhwleming odds. They followed Jesus who gave the phrase, "solidarity with the poor" its original meaning. They did not waste their energy in fruitless rage against what was unjust in their society. Instead, with intrepid, courageous love, a love tht was effective not merely affective, they calmly invented new ways to address the urgency of need that they saw all around them. They took the urgency of need to be a revelation of God's will for them, Again, Father Deville writes,

"In the same way (as in the case of the foundlings) all of the other primitive apostolates of these early communities of charity providentially emerged from Louise and Vincent's prayerful and calm attentiveness to the revelation of the urgent needs of the most abandoned of the sick, the most abandoned of the uneducated poor, the most abandoned of the galley slaves, the most abandoned of the aged, the most abandoned of the mentally ill, the most abandoned of the orphaned, the homeless and the hungery (5)

This "prayerful calm attentiveness to the revelation of urgent need" was rooted in a grasp of their identification with Jesus and with the poor. The "prayerful calm attentiveness" did not make the invention of the means something simplistic or easy. We have only to read the correspondence between Vincent and Louise to realize how busy and complicated their daily lives were! But rooted in this powerful and empowering relationship of identification, our founders gladly took on the practical challenges inherent in inventing the means, in finding the way. They did not do it all at once and they did not do it all by themselves. They literally created networks of the baptized, engaging each one according to the state in life God willed for each, in their vision. The poor were not faceless and nameless, they were men, women, and children right in your parish. And so the confraternities came about as a way or organizing and channeling many efforts into one work with focus and purpose. The poor were also the children of God, and so the servant of the poor had to find ways to bring them closer to this God who loved them. Mere physical assistance was never enough.

We sometimes excuse ourselves from such inventiveness by saying, "Oh, it was much easier then!" I don't think so. There was always the governement, always the structure of the Church, always human nature to contend with. But these founders of ours were always looking for another way, another door, another path when the first was blocked by social custom, political power, canon law, or human failing.

The Church of Vatican II offers us the right moment for the Vincentian tradition. I believe that the idea of building a network among Vincentians, Daughters and Sisters of Charity, Ladies of Charity, and the St. Vincent de Paul Society is to restore something essential in our tradition. The centuries that saw the separation of our efforts were a detour on our journey. Many historical events can account for these separations and distinctions, and as St. Vincent would say, it is all in God's Providence. But if today, we see a new possibility, if today we can envison the synergy that is possible in our efforts for those who are poorest in our world, then I think St.Vincent would also name this a a revelation from God. Standing in the empowering identification with Jesus and with the poor, clear-sighted and clearheaded about the size of the challenge before us, let us employ every talent, skill, and strategy in our power to focus this synergy on behalf of those who are poor. In considering how you can do this right here in the metropolitan area, you are acting in the spirit of St. Vincent who said to take up the work that right in of you.

As you feel the stirring of this new possibility, I urge you not to undo the good thing by being too eager to do everything all at once. Massive problems seem to callfor massive strategies, and comprehensive strategies for pervasive ills. We need systematic effort for systemic impact. Contrary as it might seem, however, I think it wise to hear what St. Vincent had to say. St Vincent has an idea about this too. He said the God is more pleased by small beginnings than by projects that begin with the ringing of bells! Vincent's way of knowing that he was doing God's will was to start small, seek good advice, and wait. This waiting was not a passive indolence, but an active listening to and discerning of what God seemed to be doing in the situation. I can think of no better set of guidelines for your deliberations than this Vincentian way: start small with what is at hand and possible, seek good advice, actively listen and wait. You can be sure of , God our Providence, will go with you to create the future.


(1) Conference to the Daughters of Charity, 16 August 1640.

(2) Evelyn Underhill, The School of Charity (London: Longmans, Green, 1934; repr., Wilton, CT: Morehouse Publishing, 1991), 10.

(3) Coste, CED 11:146.

(4) Raymond Deville, SS, "St Vincent and St. Louise in Relation to the French School of Spirituality," VINCENTIAN HERITAGE, 11:1, 39.