Saint Vincent and Suffering

From Vincentian Encyclopedia

by: Mario de Carlo, CM Translated from Italian by Luis Huerga Astorga

[This article first appeared in Vicente Paúl, Un Gran Innovador (Vincent de Paul, a Great Innovator), XXXVII Semana de Estudios Vicencianos, Editorial CEME, Santa Marta de Tormes, Salmanca, 2013, p. 405-434]


The analytic indexes of various Vincentian studies offer us a series of words which in various ways make reference to our present theme. Here I present an inventory of some of those words: suffering, trials, mortification, tolerance, temptation. Later we will make some distinctions between physical and moral suffering. In this context, however, we can include some other words: asceticism, illness, contempt, martyrdom. In our inventory we should also include those words that refer to the status of the suffering person: poor people, imprisoned, infirm, galley slaves, abandoned children. Such words enable us to have before our eyes the concrete faces of those persons who have been afflicted with some form of suffering. At the same time all of this provides us with a broad view of the suffering that people had to confront during the time of Saint Vincent. I believe that it is very important to be mindful of all of this so that we have as broad and as complete a vision as possible … one that will enable us to understand the reaction and the teaching of our Founder on this matter (a theme that he dealt with throughout his life).

Historical context: suffering in the time of Saint Vincent

If every era is known for the difficult times and the trials that people had to endure, then it can be said the seventeenth century (the time during which Saint Vincent developed his human and spiritual qualities) was particularly traumatic as a result of the terrible and painful experiences that people had to confront. That era was called the century of poor people and in fact one of the accusations that was leveled against Vincent de Paul was that he created the poor (this accusation was made by Cardinal Mazarin. It has also been said that during that same era the cries of the poor could be heard far and wide. We know much about the social situation of France during that time: society was divided into three classes and the two upper classes (the nobles and the clergy) constituted a mere 7% of the population. Together, however, those two classes possessed two-thirds of the nation’s wealth. Thus, there was a large group of poor people who lived on the edge of survival … people who with any additional adversity could easily find themselves unable to provide for the basic needs of their family. In light of this reality we can speak about:

  • Structural poverty is seen in people who find themselves in a state of misery as a result of the way in which society is constituted;
  • Circumstantial poverty is seen in people who fall into a state of misery as the result of the least crisis;
  • Borderline poverty is seen in people who are normally able to sustain themselves but whose situation becomes worse as the result of some crisis and who find themselves at the doorsteps of misery.

Other elements that often became ever present realities must also be considered when viewing this situation: wars (especially the Thirty Years War of 1618-1648), food scarcities, epidemics, malnutrition … all of which created hunger and led people to eat grass and/or the bark of the trees [1]. There was a feeling of desperation and the fact that many beggars could be seen on the streets of the city created an environment of fear. It has been calculated that the number of beggars and marginalized persons (people often associated with gangs of delinquents) was approximately one-fourth of the population. Disease, wars and famine comprised a deadly trilogy and left a trail of physical, emotional and moral misery. War, with its high cost, implied the need for a continual economic resource that was obtained through taxes. This, in turne, meant that there were fewer economic resources to confront other social problems (if by chance there was a willingness to resolve such problems). It can actually be stated that there was such widespread poverty that the poor themselves were fearful. When we speak about people who are poor we are referring to those persons who live on the fringes of society, people with no voice or rights, people excluded from participation in any level of civil life, people deprived of health and reputation, people who lacked economic resources … in sum, people deprived of their human dignity. When these individuals were afflicted with some illness they would very easily succumb as a result of the lack of medical care. We know that both Vincent and Louise attempted to provide assistance to such individuals by offering them something more than the popular medications of that era or the insights that resulted from their own intuition.

Saint Vincent lived in the midst of that reality. In the beginning Vincent attempted to escape the clutches of poverty by pursuing some other ideal of his own choosing, but the Lord enlightened him and made him understand that his life was to be lived in the midst of poor men and women. Thus, all of his initiatives were a response to that fundamental problem which made him continually question himself. He was not indifferent or passive when confronted with such situations but rather Vincent was moved to compassion … and that compassion gave rise to various initiatives. He reacted to the crisis of war and famine in the same way that he responded to other emergencies, namely, he established a network of assistance that enabled him to comfort those who were in need. His initiatives, especially the establishment of the Confraternities of Charity (the first of his various foundations), were a response to various forms of poverty that were endemic to the society of his era. His primary concern was the human person and as a result of his holistic vision of the person he sought for ways to respond to both the human and spiritual needs of people.

Suffering: the existential experiences of Saint Vincent

The biographers of the Saint place before our eyes the fact that Vincent, from an early age, had to confront the problem of pain and suffering. We know that at the age of thirty-four Vincent was attacked by a grave illness which resulted in a disease of the legs, from which he suffered for the rest of his life [2]. In 1631 when Vincent was fifty-one, a serious illness afflicted him and later, in 1644 an illness brought him to death’s door (Coste III:386). Some years later when his situation worsened he began to travel from place to place in a carriage (something that Vincent referred to as an embarrassment). Vincent seemed to be continually afflicted with fever (something that he tried to minimize) which restricted his activity. Nevertheless, Vincent did not at any time in his life become idle. It could be said that even though Vincent was a very energetic person, his heath was very fragile and he frequently had to confront the situation of his frail health. Such a situation proved to be very beneficial to Vincent since it enabled him to understand the sufferings of his brothers and sisters while at the same time he was able to clothe himself with an attitude that led others to consult him during their time of trial. His illness was often a subject of discussion in the letters that he exchanged with Louise de Marillac who was concerned about his health. She would offer him advice with regard to remedies that she, in accord with the medical practice of that era, considered appropriate and necessary. We see that the two saints were immersed in the reality of the seventeenth century and that they shared and accepted the heath and therapy practices of that era. Those same practices with regard to health provided Vincent and Louise with a foundation that enabled them to confront the needs of the poor. Perhaps it was Vincent’s personal experience with illness that led our Founder to reach out in a special way to the infirm. Perhaps it was that same experience of illness that led him to encourage the Missionaries and the Daughters and the members of the Charities to visit the infirm.

It was not just physical ailments that characterized the life of Vincent de Paul. Physical suffering was accompanied with moral suffering and throughout the many years of his long life Vincent experienced many trials: the pain and grief that accompanied the death of the Missionaries and the Daughters of Charity … but even more the pain that resulted from the realization that certain charitable and missionary initiatives were unable to respond completely to the needs of people.

We can see that from the beginning of his life Vincent experienced a lack and a scarcity of resources. In Landes, where he lived his childhood, he came to know the meaning of poverty, but we can say that his family never fell into a “state of misery”. Later in life he had to confront the reality of being enslaved which resulted in painful consequences on a physical, moral and spiritual level. At the beginning of his life as a priest he was accused of theft, thus having to endure civil consequences as well as a tarnished reputation. Vincent also experienced serious temptations against his faith that led him into a state of anxiety which continued for several years (1611-1616). That painful trial purified him and created in him an openness to make a more profound commitment, namely, an option that involved dedicating his life to the poor and doing so out of a love for Christ. In addition to all of this we would also add his frustration in securing a benefice. The attainment of some benefice had been one of his goals in life … and would become an unrealized goal that would ultimately oblige him to reflect, in a more honest manner, on the direction that he had given to his life. We must also add to this list Vincent’s decision to separate himself from his family (1623), an event that he referred to as a confrontation with the ultimate temptation. Once that temptation was overcome he felt completely free and able to entrust himself to God’s providence, able to dedicate his life to service on behalf of the kingdom. We must also mention here the trial of calumny (on a personal as well as on a congregational level) which occurred when he was involved in multiple initiatives and when he was the focus of public opinion. His reaction was always the same: he was reserved in such situations and after placing himself in the hands of God, he would await the time when the truth would become known (a reaction that we saw when, as a young priest, he was accused of theft). Such an attitude sustained Vincent on a personal level and also allowed his initiatives to become consolidated and thus the validity of those initiatives was affirmed … even when those same initiatives became a cause for hostility.

Vincent was strengthened by the sufferings that he endured and he did not allow himself to become overwhelmed: he experienced such suffering as an opportunity to purify himself and as a means of spiritual progress. It was certainly true that the poor were Vincent’s worry and sorrow [3], but Vincent also knew how to raise his mind and his heart in prayer of contemplation and adoration that was centered on the will of God. Vincent allowed himself to be moved by the wounds and scars of the human person because he himself had also experienced the pain of such wounds. In fact, it was that experience that led him to state: to be a Christian and to see our brother[s] [or sisters] suffering without weeping with them, without being sick with them … it’s to be worse than animals (CCD:XII:222). Vincent’s life shows us how we should react when we encounter such a situation.

Saint Vincent gives us an example as to how to confront the various trials and suffering that we will encounter during our journey through life. During the later years of his life Vincent had to confront some very painful situations: the death of some Missionaries and friends such as Olier, Portail, Louise de Marillac, Alain de Solminihac, Louise de Chandenier. During that same period of time Vincent realized that his own physical situation was weakening and so he continued to attend to the matters of the Congregation, matters which included preparing for the time when he would no longer be physically present to his followers. Illness, pain and fever were part of his life and yet that suffering never prevented him from offering his best for the glory of God and for the welfare of his sisters and brothers. Even though everything around him was in tumult, Vincent (as he had recommended to others) calmly prepared for the encounter with the Lord who was the center of his life and his activity. Death would come when he still had the strength to utter Jesus’ name.

The other side of the coin: the poor and the infirm in the life of Saint Vincent

Saint Vincent was not a silent spectator before the needs of other people. He had undertaken a long journey which led him to renounce the search for personal gain in order to dedicate his life to God and to others. During that journey the poor had a special place and it should be stated here that Vincent was evangelized first by the poor. We have only to reflect on some of his first pastoral experiences: his presence in the court of Queen Marguérite de Valois, where he was entrusted with the distribution of the Queens’ alms, provided Vincent with an opportunity to have a firsthand experience of the poor (1610). He not only gave those poor men and women the offerings of the Queen but he also gave them something of himself. It was during that time that he overcame his temptations against the faith by dedicating his life to the service of the poor (1812). As the pastor in Clichy (1612) Vincent experienced the joy of being in the midst of simple poor people. That experience opened his mind and he began to understand that the purpose of his priesthood was to serve others and not to satisfy his own self-interests. In the decisive year of 1617, in Folleville and Châtillon, he found himself in the midst of people who had many material and spiritual needs. Vincent responded immediately and was able to find a solution to the situation that was presented to him. Again Vincent learned that his priesthood was for others and also recognized that the Christian community should be built up around the Word of God and the practice of charity. It was there that Vincent also discovered the material poverty of those who became infirm and the spiritual poverty of so many sinners … a situation that led him to affirm: these poor people die of hunger and are damned. These various situations made Vincent question himself and he responded by establishing the Confraternities of Charity (and later he established the Congregation of the Mission and, through the inspiration of Louise de Marillac, founded the Daughters of Charity). The story continues with other powerful experiences, among which we mention Vincent’s ministry among the galley slaves (1618). That experience would remain etched in his mind and heart (I have seen those poor men treated as animals [CCD:X:103]). Vincent became very concerned about the orphans and abandoned children and expressed that concern in a very passionate manner so that the Ladies of Charity would become convinced of the need for their continued assistance. We could say that Vincent’s reaction to these various situations was never one of indifference: he was compassionate and that compassion, in turn, led him to undertake effective initiatives and to involve others in his numerous charitable works. Indeed, Vincent’s compassion and his invitation to the laity to become involved in ministry became characteristics of his way of thinking and acting.

The poor, especially the sick poor, were Vincent’s worry and sorrow: they were the reason for his existence and they gave meaning to his ministry. In Saint-Lazare he wanted two poor demented persons seated at his table (the type of poor people who had previously been housed in Saint-Lazare). The Daughters of Charity received the title, the servants of the sick poor (see the 1645 Regulations of the Daughters of Charity, CCD:XIIIb:123). Furthermore, the plan to serve the poor was an integral component of all of Vincent’s foundations, whether it was the establishment of the Daughter of Charity (in the parishes where they ministered, one Daughter of Charity was always to care for the sick poor in their homes) or the establishment of the Congregation of the Mission … the focus on the poor was central to all of Vincent’s activity [4]. Vincent did not attempt to formulate a definition of the poor but rather exhorted people to look into the faces of the poor, to look at them as persons and in that way one is able to discover the dignity of those who are poor (turn the medal, and you will see by the light of faith that the Son of God … is represented to us by these poor people [CCD:XI:26]). Those who, with the eyes of faith or as a result of their own personal experience, know how to view the sufferings of the poor will see those poor men and women transformed before their very eyes into an image of Christ. As Vincent focused his eyes on the poor he found that his personal life was changed (his eating habits, his lodging, his needs, his rejection of every form of comfort and/or privilege). As a result of the sacrifices that Vincent willingly made, he was able to ask the Missionaries to accept further sacrifice during times of crisis or extreme difficulty. As we mentioned before, at every state of Vincent’s life he allowed himself to be evangelized by the poor. We can also state that all of Vincent’s charitable activity was influenced and molded by the manner in which he confronted suffering: Vincent was not indifferent when faced with such suffering nor did he flee from it … rather he became actively involved in such situations and that attitude changed his life.

Saint Vincent meditates and reflects on illness and suffering

As a realist, Vincent approached the realities of suffering and pain in a very concrete manner. While he took on the thinking of his contemporaries, even on an ecclesial level, he also knew how to think “outside the box”. He spoke of illness as an unfortunate state and is almost unbearable to nature (CCD:XI:60). He even stated that it could be a true injustice when it attacks those who are poor and those who do not have the means to combat it: therefore it is necessary to make every effort to combat it and eliminate it (CCD:XII:29).Vincent did not view those realities in a fatalistic manner or as a punishment from God. Here we recall the words from Maurice Cloche’s film, words that are placed on Vincent’s lips as he offers a response to the problem of evil: when God wants to punish someone, it is his Son that he sends to the cross! There we find an echo of the words that Saint Paul wrote to the Romans: [God] did not spare his own Son but handed him over for us all (Romans 8:32). Those words and statements reveal to us the fact that Vincent could not accept the idea that illness and suffering was a way in which God punished people for their sins. Suffering is a part of the human condition and therefore, every effort must be made to combat it and to offer those persons who endure such suffering better living conditions and other reasons for hope. The foundation for such compassionate activity was set forth by Jesus as he laid down his life for all people, as he healed and cured numerous people who came before him (the healing of the leper): If you wish, you can make me clean … I do will it. Be made clean (Mark 1:40-41). In those various gospel narratives we discover, first of all, the desire of those infirm men and women to be cured; we also see their faith in Christ and at the same time we discover the out-pouring of Jesus’ mercy (compassion). As a result of being moved by the sight of such human misery Jesus intervened and resolved those situations. Now, back to Vincent de Paul who viewed illness as both an unfortunate state and a time of grace in which people reveal their true self. Illness is a time for reflection and a time to examine the way one is living: illness could be defined as a time of evangelization and salvation. After asking God for the grace to become aware of the great gift that is hidden in illness Vincent went on to state: It’s through sickness, Messieurs, that souls are cleansed of impurities and that those who lack virtue have an efficacious means of acquiring it. No more suitable state can be found in which to practice it; it’s in sickness that faith is exercised in a marvelous way: hope shines brightly in it; resignation, love of God, and ample opportunities for the practice of all the virtues are found in it. In it we can know what each man bears and what he is; it’s the gauge by which you can probe and discover with the greatest assurance the virtue of each and every person ---whether he has a lot, a little, or none at all … It’s the surest proof we have for recognizing the most virtuous men and those who are less so (CCD:XI:60). Vincent then added that one is able to observe the interior depth of an individual when that person is in an infirmary. Therefore, he visited the infirm Missionaries not only to offer them comfort and hope but he himself wanted to learn from them how to endure illness with faith. Vincent believed that because God sent his beloved Son to the cross, illness, then, leads people to holiness. This does not mean, however, that there is an identification between suffering, holiness and salvation, but rather it can be said that when people accept redemptive suffering, they are, in fact, accepting God’s will. Pain and suffering are the source of fruitfulness when they are embraced for the love of God. Only by looking at the suffering Christ is it possible to give meaning to pain and suffering.

It is not always easy to react positively to the trials that are encountered in the journey through life. Discouragement comes to the surface when painful news is received … news such as the death of some Missionaries, calumnies, the deprivation of goods that one deems to be necessary. Yet in those situations Vincent opened his heart and allowed it to be filled with new hope and he invited others to do the same. The enemy (in the case of the persecution of Christians), evil and all the present difficulties will be overcome sooner or later and peace and calmness will be restored. The experience of pain refines one’s sensitivity and understanding of others who find themselves in a similar situation and this is important for those who are called to positions of responsibility in the community (CCD:XI:18). Furthermore, Vincent had an even more profound understanding of these realities. He viewed suffering not only as an integral part of one’s journey of faith, but also as an integral part of one’s response to God’s calling and to the demand to live the charism of charity in a radical manner, thus following the example of Jesus who loved his own in the world and …loved them to the end (John 13:1). Such then is the martyrdom of charity in which men and women constantly give of themselves and are consumed by love for the neighbor. It is also the charity of Christ crucified (expressed so well by Louise de Marillac) that impels men and women to become involved in the integral healing of the human person, that is, spiritual and physical healing. This vision led Vincent to tell the Missionaries that they should not run from the cross and that the infirm members are a blessing for the whole Congregation: infirmities and sufferings come from God. Death, life, health, sickness --- all these come by order of His Providence and, no matter how they come, they're always for our benefit and salvation …To shun the state in which God is pleased to place us is to run away from our own happiness. Yes, suffering is a state of happiness that sanctifies souls (CCD:XI:61-62).

When referring to the ways that one might contemplate martyrdom, Vincent spoke about a martyrdom of blood and the martyrdom of charity. He saw these as the ultimate consequence of following Christ. Yet if it is divine to die for the neighbor (cf. CCD:XI:275), then it is also divine to offer one’s life every day, accepting the dangers and trials that are encountered day after day. Vincent exhorted the Sisters to reflect on their companions who were serving the infirm and he also invited the Missionaries to reflect on their confreres involved in various apostolic activities. He was convinced that this desire to die for Lord was a way to give honor and praise to God and was also the perfection of charity. Furthermore, the desire for martyrdom is the seed of vocations (Tertullian stated: sanguis martyrum, semen christianorum, that is, the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church [CCD: XI:264, 366; X:443]) … The salvation of nations and our own is so great a good as to deserve to be won at any cost; it doesn’t matter whether we die sooner or later, provided we die arms in hand; we’ll be all the happier for it and the Company will be no poorer, for sanguis martyrum semen est Christianorum. For one Missioner who has given his life for the love of God, the goodness of God will raise up many others to do the good he will have left undone (CCD:XI:366). Vincent invited his followers to intensify their desire for martyrdom and in this regard he placed before his confreres the heroic acts of different Missionaries. On one occasion he spoke about a young Missionary, Louis Robiche, who died as the result of a disease that he contracted while caring for the galley slaves: the voice of the people (which is the voice of God) is beatifying him. In a way, he died a martyr, in that he exposed his life and lost it laboring for the love of Jesus Christ, at the corporal and spiritual salvation of the sick poor, of a malady which leads to death and which he well knew was contagious (CCD:II:570). Suffering and dying for the love of God gives great value to the act of spending one’s whole life in the service of others.

Biblical foundation for Vincent’s reflections on suffering

We have seen that Vincent’s reflections on this theme of suffering were not only the fruit of his experience and of human wisdom, not only the result of a convergence with the common way of thinking of that era, but also reveal a significant and important reference to Scripture. Our Founder discovered the framework that gives meaning to human pain and suffering in his reflection on the word of God, reflections that deepened his understanding of those same realities. In such reflections we will also naturally discover the various pillars of Vincent’s spirituality. With the Incarnation as a starting point and recognizing the fact that this mystery was a central theme in all of Vincent’s reflections, we can then understand how that joyful event is intertwined with the mystery of the cross. The humiliation of lowering himself as the Son of God in the mystery of his birth, becoming a child and hiding himself in the poor and fragile body of a human person, allowing people to see himself humiliated during his passion (an event in which he became so disfigured that he seemed to lose any semblance of a human being) … therefore, to suffer is to become like Jesus Christ who finished his life by suffering for the whole world on the tree of the Cross (CCD:XI:353).

The theme of the servant of Yahweh is central to Vincent’s reflection on the theme of suffering. The prophet Isaiah refers to this theme and presents this mysterious person as the precursor of the future Messiah (cf. Isaiah 49:1-6, 50:4-11, 52:13-53:12). The evangelists identify Christ with the person of the suffering servant. The message is very clear: God has chosen the path of pain and suffering in order to fulfill his plan of salvation and in light of that perspective calls forth his servants and then calls forth his Son. Other paths could have been chosen but we are meant to understand that God wanted to accomplish his plan by sharing in the most powerful experience of human beings. Jesus again became aware of the reality that this “vocation” characterized his earthly life and mission: he is the servant, the servant of love who freely lays down his life (cf. John 13). He is the servant of the Father’s will and the servant of humankind: the Son of Man has come, not to be served by others, but to serve, to give his own life as a ransom for the many (Matthew 20:28). Here we find a clear echo of that which the Constitutions of the Daughters of Charity present as the basis of their call to follow Christ, “the servant of the poor”. Christ, characterized by love, embraces a suffering that heals and makes whole … thus the redemptive value of Christ’s sacrifice to the Father. Christ accepted the call to fulfill the Father’s will through a process of kenosis, a process of self-emptying (Philippians 2:17) … he became flesh (John 1:14) and thus revealed his compassion, his willingness to share with others, to suffer with others, to experience the suffering of men and women. Jesus not only took upon himself our sufferings but be became one with us and shared in the vilest of human experiences. When Vincent reflected on Hebrews 5:2, he stated: Since the Son of God was unable to have feelings of compassion in the state of his glory, which he possess from all eternity in heaven, he willed to become man and to be our High Priest in order to share our sufferings (CCD:XI:69). We, like Vincent, then come to understand that to reign with him in heaven, we must, like him, commiserate with his members on earth (CCD:XI:69). Many of the thoughts expressed in the letter to the Hebrews are found in the reflections of Vincent. We could also say the same with regard to Vincent’s focus on Jesus in the gospels where he heals and saves and whose healing action is always motivated by a desire for holistic salvation (Mark 2:1-10). The words of Jesus set in motion all the energy of the many disabled persons who were moved by faith to approach him and seek a cure of their ailment. In the healing of the ten lepers (Luke 17:11-19) we see that all of them were healed physically, but only one of them was “saved”.

There is an element that unites the various events of Jesus’ earthly life (the events from the time of his birth to the time of his death), an element that is found in the contemplation of Christ Crucified. It is there that we discover the endless and unfathomable degree of Christ’s merciful and compassionate love: he is the Lamb of God (John 1:36), the humble gentle lamb that was sacrificed for the salvation of all people. In an attitude of love Jesus freely and willingly laid down his life for all of us (a reality that is well synthesized by the Fathers of the Church). This mystery, in which Jesus identified himself with the poor, should be loved, adored and imitated. In was in light of this reality that Vincent spoke to the Missionaries and stated: Aren’t those who are poor the afflicted members of our Lord? Aren’t 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 (CCD:XII:77). As Vincent continued to speak he referred to Jesus’ words with regard to the Last Judgment and spoke about some of the things that the Missionaries had done to help the poor. According to what Saint Vincent was able to perceive in the teaching of the apostle, Paul, the Crucified Jesus is the content of our preaching. In fact, this mystery was central to Paul’s preaching and was what he referred to as the need for preaching. Paul solemnly affirmed: we proclaim Christ crucified (1 Corinthians 1:21-23). Thus the mystery of Christ is proclaimed with a methodology based on the inadequacy of words … my proclamation and my message were not spoken with persuasive words of wisdom but with a demonstration of spirit and power (1 Corinthians 2:1-4). As a result of these reflection we can now understand why Vincent chose the little method as a preaching style. This method was adopted not because of the simplicity of expression but because the content of such preaching was based on that which was essential to the gospel, namely, the love of God for all people. Vincent liked to describe his preaching by stating that he always gave the same sermon but organized the sermon in a thousand different ways.

Vincent was able to harmonize the gospel of joy with the gospel of suffering. Even though he used different words, Vincent helps us to understand that even though the cross is an important and obligatory moment in life’s journey, nevertheless it is impossible to end the journey there … the cross is always followed by the resurrection event. Jesus’ “yes” to the Father at the time of his passion corresponds to the “yes” of the Father with regard to the mystery of the resurrection. It is important to underline the unity of Christ’s Pascal mystery as an event of salvation that encompasses all human beings, even those who are most poor and thus gives renewed hope and confidence to those men and women who are poor and oppressed. At the time of his passion Jesus identified himself with the poor and as a result gave them great reason to expect to be able to participate in the glory of the risen Christ and in the triumph of life over every form of fear and violence and death.

Let us continue our biblical/gospel journey focused on the theme of suffering and trials as expressed in the thought of Saint Vincent. We begin with the passage blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness and for their profession of faith in the person of Jesus Christ, theirs is the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:10-20). We also find reference to the words that Jesus spoke at a later time to his disciples: whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me (Mark 8:34). Jesus does not hesitate to speak harsh and provocative words when referring to the basic fundamental motivation of an individual’s actions, namely, everything is to be done for the sake of the kingdom and in order to follow in his footsteps. In other New Testament texts we discover the connection between “trials and joy” expressed in a powerful manner: consider it all joy, my brothers, when you encounter various trials (James 1:2); in this you rejoice, although now for a little while you may have to suffer through various trials (1 Peter 1:6); for whenever anyone bears the pain of unjust suffering … and if you are patient when you suffer for doing what is good, this is a grace before God (1 Peter 2:19-20); if you should suffer because of righteousness, blessed are you (1 Peter 3:14); …do not be surprised that a trial by fire is occurring among you, as if something strange were happening to you. But rejoice to the extent that you share in the sufferings of Christ … if you are insulted for the name of Christ, blessed are you (1Peter 4:12-13); blessed be the God … who encourages us in our every affliction so that we may be able to encourage those who are in any affliction with the encouragement with which we ourselves are encouraged by God. For as Christ’s sufferings overflow to us, so through Christ does our encouragement also overflow (2 Corinthians 1:3-5); for to you has been granted, for the sake of Christ, not only to believe in him but also to suffer for him (Philippians 1:29); endure your trials as “discipline”; God treats you as sons. For what “son” is there whom his father does not disciplines (Hebrews 12:7). Joy is derived not from the trials in themselves but from the ability to live through those trials while being united with Christ. Since Christ has given us an example in order to follow in his footsteps (1 Peter 2:21), we then suffer with Christ in order to participate in his glory: such is the plan of every true disciple of Christ. This does not mean that we resign ourselves to evil since such evil is revealed in sin and injustice … rather when we experience evil we should recognize that reality as an invitation and an opportunity to transform such situations into grace and blessing. Such transformation depends on our ability to live in union with the Teacher. Therefore, with Saint Vincent we can once again return to the words that Christ proclaimed, interpreted and applied to himself in the synagogue at Nazareth as he began his public ministry, words taken from the prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 61:1-2) and that reveal that the Good News is primarily directed and addressed to the poor, to those who are captives or blind or imprisoned. For those individuals and for those persons who becomes like them a year acceptable to the Lord is proclaimed (Luke 4:18-22).

Vincent and the theological and doctrinal motivations with regard to suffering

From a reflection on the biblical references to some theological considerations is a short step. We find that Christ is at the center of all Vincentian reflection. Beginning with Vincent’s normal reasoning process --- what would Jesus do in this situation? --- we see that Jesus is his model and guide. Vincent was focused on Jesus and that focus was sustained by faith: Vincent contemplated the man of sorrows, the servant who suffers. Vincent allowed himself to be moved by those reflections and, like Christ, he did not retreat when confronted with the suffering of others. We see that there are two important elements in Vincent’s reflection: a confrontation with the decisive event of Christ, the redeemer and a concrete commitment to act in the same way that Jesus acted.

(a) Vincent did not give in to vague feelings or exaggerated outbursts of suffering (something that is seen in other saints). Rather Vincent was moved to silence as he reflected on the reality that “one person died for all humankind”. Vincent de not want the gift of redemption to become lost but like the apostle Paul, he wanted to rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ (Colossians 1:24). We know that here we are dealing with the application of the fruits of Christ’s sacrifice to oneself.

It is true that Vincent spoke about the purifying value of trials and therefore he viewed illness as a proof of grace. In other words, there is no self-satisfaction or joy in suffering: it is only in Christ and with Christ that people can give meaning to their suffering and come to understand the profound spiritual meaning of suffering. One does not stand before a judge who inquires about an offense that demands restitution (such was the traditional position with regard to Christ’s death). One is also not subject to the machinations of “infringed rights, restored rights” … the logic of a merciless justice. On Calvary there is no God Father “intransigent judge” and a Son who is sent to the gallows. Rather we stand before the logic of love. Scripture tells us that the cross is an expression of the radical nature of love, the ultimate and greatest expression of the gift of life: a man for others [5]. It is not the human person who approaches God and offers God some reparation for the harm that was caused by sin, but rather God comes into the world to have an encounter with men and women in order to give them true life. God’s justice is grace! God always takes the initiative when dealing with men and women and freely reconciles himself to sinners (2 Corinthians 5:19). Thus the cross appears as the movement of a superior being toward a lower being: it is an expression of God “insane” love for humankind. As a result Christian worship is above all else the grateful acceptance of God’s salvific action: the Eucharist. As a result we allow God to act in us and it is there that we come face to face with the true Christian sacrifice. God has no need for sacrifices but desires people who know how to accept his gift of love and know how to allow themselves to be transformed as a result of that love. Christian worship consists of the absolute gift of love: it does not require the destruction and the immolation of sacrifices but does require the oblation of love which expands the heart, gives deeper meaning to human existence, reaches out to those who are alienated and restores continuity to the relationship with God [6]. It is there then that we discover the root and the foundation of Vincent’s reflections on the great value of service on behalf of the neighbor. Such service is viewed as the most lofty human gesture. True sacrifice is a heart that is obedient to God’s desires, a heart that is willing to live in conformity with the demands of God’s will.

(b) Believers are committed to the task of applying all of this to their personal life and to their relationships with others. Each one of us is called to live a life of faith and to value the experience of suffering during the time of our life. Vincent stated: One of the surest signs that God has great plans for someone is when he sends him distress upon distress and trouble upon trouble (CCD:XI:56). Participation in the cross of Christ can and ought to nourish the spirit of self-sacrifice, even if that should involve martyrdom, which is the perfection and the most sublime manifestation of the cross. Jesus tells us that there is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one who is loved. Such love impels one to self-sacrifice (cf. John 13:1) and enables one to accept trials and suffering. There is no holiness without trials and, in fact, suffering is part of our daily asceticism and as such enables us to understand the meaning of holiness.

With regard to one’s relationship with the neighbor, especially those who are poor and infirm, the application is also immediate: Christ is present in those who suffer and in those who are poor. Jesus himself opted to suffer and, as a result, he became the man of sorrows (cf. Matthew 25:31-45). To serve the infirm is to serve Jesus Christ and to comfort the infirm is to clothe oneself in Jesus’ attitude of empathy. Thus we discover the meaning of Paul’s words when he exhorts us: help carry one another’s burdens; in that way you will fulfill the law of Christ (Galatians 6:2). Vincent revealed similar sentiments when he stated: I cannot restrain myself and must tell you quite simply that this gives me renewed, greater desires to be able, in the midst of my infirmities, to go and finish my life near a bush working in some village (CCD:V:204) and when he stated: those suffering from illness in the Company are the blessing of the Company and the house (CCD:XII:26).

(c) As we reflect on this theme of suffering we come to an awareness of other pillars of Saint Vincent’s spirituality. This theme challenges us with the question: how are we to understand Vincent’s words with regard to God’s providence, with regard to God’s love for humankind? First, we must reflect on Vincent’s attitudes: his faith led him to do the will of God in all things. He trusted in God and in God’s goodness and realized that if God allowed pain and suffering to afflict men and women, then God had a reason … even if we, as human beings, cannot understand that reason. Vincent knew and accepted the fact that Christ, who laid down his life out of love for humankind, is the answer to all our questions. God’s will is always salvific and therefore, God knows how to obtain good even when confronted with the evil of men and women. Whether it be the acceptance of the initiative of grace or the acceptance to participate in the redemptive passion of Christ, believers are invited to accept these different realities as a way to offer their life to God and as a way to imitate the example of Christ. Vincent saw all of these various elements present in the Eucharist and this enabled him to discover the various ways in which Christ became present in his daily life and became present in the life of the countless poor men and women whom he met every day. Enlightened by the word of God, Vincent attempted to give meaning to that word in his everyday life and committed himself to a plan to make the gospel effective (CCD:XII:75). In this way Vincent joined “the word and the bread”, making real Jesus’ ministry as the Good Samaritan toward humankind.

(d) In addition to the theological, the Christological and anthropological dimensions that are intrinsic to Vincent’s understanding of suffering and of the place which the poor and the infirm ought to occupy in the Christian community, we mention here the ecclesiological dimension. Together with Christ, the infirm and the poor are at the center of Vincent’s vision of Church (a Church which he and many others renewed). The gospel had helped him to form such a vision, such an image. We need only reflect on the gospel of Saint Mark and the passage related to the healing of the paralytic (Mark 2:1-12) who had been placed before Jesus in the middle of the house where a multitude of people had gathered together to listen to him. We see a relationship between that passage and the narration in the Acts of the Apostles concerning the early Christian community (Acts 2:42-47; 4:32-35; 6:1-6) which highlights the life of the early Christian community in which people were especially solicitous for those persons who were poor. The same passage in Acts also underlines the constitution of the seven deacons who were “to serve at table” … a response to the urgent need to provide for those persons most poor and neglected. If on a doctrinal level this is a question that is implied, then on a pastoral level we can observe how several of Vincent’s initiatives were intended to respond to similar urgencies. The proclamation of the good news to the poor during the time when popular missions were given throughout the rural areas of France, hearing the confessions of the people and instructing them in the catechism, caring for the infirm in their homes as well as in hospitals … all of this activity was a response to the urgent needs that Vincent discovered. For Vincent the infirm were at the center of his thought, the center of his option in life, and the focus of the recommendations that he gave to his followers. In this concern for the infirm and the poor we are able to see a sacramental movement that goes from catechesis to confession and communion so that the infirm are healed not only physically but also healed spiritually, reconciled with God and their neighbor in order to live a new life. This existential movement is achieved through visiting the infirm, comforting them and assisting them so that they are restored to health. In this way the infirm can discover hope for the future: physical and spiritual healing is a holistic approach that Vincent and his followers utilized. Through concrete gestures Vincent attempted to restore dignity to those infirm individuals, men and women who were weak and frail and marginalized. The infirm person was not some object to be examined and studied, was not first of all to be fed or clothed or given medicinal remedies … the infirm individual is above all else a person with whom one is invited to enter into a relationship: the Spirit of God abides in them and they are a temple of God. Such a perspective makes it possible to speak about the infirm as evangelizers, heralds of the message of new life in the Risen One who overcame evil and death. At the same time that focus enables the infirm individuals to engage in service on behalf of the community while at the same time receiving assistance from the community.

(e) In everything that we have stated here, one will notice that in Vincent’s reflections on this theme of suffering there is no explicit reference to the central event of our faith: the resurrection (this is lacking even when Vincent proclaims a message of hope and when he underlines the need to commit oneself on behalf of those who are infirm). In this regard Vincent is a son of the Church of his era which focused on the theme of the Passion. We have seen, however, that despite such a focus Vincent did not have a pessimistic vision of human and Christian life. He understood the commitment to serve the disinherited of this world as a participation in the whole mystery of Christ, including Christ’s glory. Vincent always attempted to project a hopeful future in which good would overcome evil and life would overcome death. In this we see a reflection of the whole mystery of salvation and also a reflection of the great gift which Christ gave to all people, but especially to those who are poor and infirm. Indeed, Jesus wants people to become fully immersed in the Pascal mystery of Christ.

In the footsteps of Saint Vincent: suffering in the life of his followers

Suffering accompanied the followers of Vincent from the first moment of their existence and also has been a constant presence in the life of his distinct establishments. We know that during Vincent de Paul’s lifetime many Missionaries and Daughters of Charity gave witness to Christ through a life of fidelity and a commitment to service. Those who followed in their footsteps did the same. We are aware of the events surrounding the mission in Madagascar: some confreres set out for the mission but never reached that island and those who did reach that mission territory died soon thereafter. We remember those who were sent to the British Isles, especially Father Tadeo Lee, the first Vincentian martyr. Many of those who were sent to Algeria and Tunisia would experience a similar fate. In fact it would be easy to call such endeavors a “waste of human effort and energy” if we did not understand that all of this activity was undertaken for the building up of the kingdom of God … and so nothing was lost. In fact, through death new life was generated. Indeed, we can see that there is a long line of martyrs for the cause of charity: those who died in Genoa during the time of the plague (they died serving and ministering to those afflicted with this dreaded disease); those who died in Poland as a result of the plague, hunger and war; those who sacrificed their life on the battlefield in various parts of France. During the time of our Founder there were many Daughters of Charity who handed over their life with joy and complete abnegation. Even though Vincent had to confront countless trials and pain and mourning, yet he did not retreat: he entered into dialogue with the Missionaries and encouraged those who were wavering and those who wanted to renounce various missionary undertakings. Vincent engaged in a beautiful colloquy with M. Bourdaise (CCD:XII:62) and was firm in his decision: it would be a fine Company of the Mission if, because five or six had died, it were to abandon the Lord’s work (CCD:XI:374).

The story continues. With just a passing review of our history we will discover the richness of the Vincentian martyrology. The era of the French Revolution was most significant in this regard since the spiritual sons and daughters of the patron of France were not excluded from persecution and martyrdom. On July 13, 1789 (the eve of the official start of the revolution) the house of Saint-Lazare in Paris was the first institution that was sacked by the insurrectionists. The Missionaries and the Daughters of Charity offered their life rather than deny their faith in God, their commitment on behalf of their neighbor and their loyalty to the Church. There was a renewed interest and enthusiasm for the mission in China which had been terminated but was once again undertaken. We have the example of M. François Regis Clet who departed from France, which was in the midst of a revolution, only to become a martyr in China (1820). Following in his footsteps was Saint Jean-Gabriel Perboyre who endured a passion and martyrdom similar to that of Jesus (cf. I Peter 2:21). In more recent times we have also seen men and women, sons and daughters of Saint Vincent, give testimony to the faith and to charity. Here we recall the recent beatification of Lindalva Justo de Oliveira and Marta Anna Wiecka. Although from distinct parts of the world (one from Brazil and the other from the Ukraine) they were united in offering their life to the Lord and to those men and women who were poor … they were united in their sharing in one and the same charism.

It could be said that the teaching of our Founders has challenged men and women of the present era and has not ceased to produce fruits of holiness throughout the centuries. Today, numerous Vincentians throughout the world (including lay men and women) continue to offer the best that they have in order to comfort and console those who suffer the pain of oppression and injustice. Their example teaching continues to produce fruit: not only as a result of the commitment to assist those who are infirm but also as a result of men and women accepting, in a joyful manner, to carry their own cross.

Vincentians todays as they confront the reality of illness and suffering

No one of us can view ourselves as being excluded from the call to give witness to the mercy and the goodness of the Father … and giving such example to those who today are most needy. This means that, above all, we give a concrete response. More and more we are called to listen to the cries of the poor and to the cries of all those persons who are in need, thus clothing ourselves in the same sentiments as Christ: to be compassionate, and that includes being able to share the painful experience of those who suffer. A traditional Vincentian element can be most helpful in this regard, namely, the home visit, which allows us to establish a direct, familiar relationship with those persons in need. Such visits also provide us with the opportunity to dialogue with them about a possible solution. In this way we are able to respond to the expectations of those who are infirm and/or afflicted in any way. In other words, we are able to respond to the following questions: in this particular situation in which the infirm or afflicted person finds him/herself, what is their real need? … in this particular situation what are we, as Vincentians, willing to give … what are we able to give? Thus, we become aware of the need to establish a relationship with those who are infirm by approaching them in a more holistic manner in which we care for their health and their salvation, for the physical and their spiritual needs. We see this revealed in the gospels where some people are healed of their bodily ailments and others are saved (see Jesus’ encounter with the ten lepers, Luke 17:11-19). On an intellectual level there is always an attempt to give a response to the questions that illness always seems to present to us, namely, is there any sense or meaning to be found in illness? … and if there is some meaning, what is it? Only a holistic vision of the person enables us to give a response and thus avoid the widespread mentality of efficiency. Such an attitude values those who are able to produce and who are useful in an economic sense. And yet the human person is much more than some object of production … in fact the human person has value in him/herself. Such is the gospel message that does not minimize the advances of medicine but knows how to value them in a discerning manner. While the scientific advances, especially those in medicine, are marvelous, they do not resolve everything. Men and women of faith are able to offer a more profound response, inviting others to view the person from a broader and more decisive vision with regard to God’s plan. Illness, like every other form of weakness and poverty, reveals the “creatureliness”, the humanness of the person, makes people aware of their fragility and invites people to clothe themselves in an attitude of solidarity. Such an invitation is always a call to charity. That is turn is a reminder that there will always be a need for Vincentians in the world and in the Church if they continue to live the values and the ideals that animated the heart and the activity of Saint Vincent de Paul. There will always be poor and infirm people who need to be loved with the same passion and intensity that Christ loved them.

By way of synthesis and as a way to provoke and to exhort, we can say that even today the response to suffering and pain is Christ: in Christ the Father shares in human suffering and gives great value to such suffering. As we follow in the footsteps of Saint Vincent we are invited to engage in a serious and difficult struggle against evil, pain, suffering … we are invited to do this in order to comfort and to console those who are afflicted and in order to seek out and eliminate the root causes of those realities which are often the result of injustice, violence and abuse. This implies a change in the way we engage in charitable activity, a change about which we are reminded and even challenge as we are offered the opportunity to engage in a process of systemic change. Therefore as we illuminate the reality of suffering with the light of faith and with the warmth of charity we discover the call to evangelize pain and suffering. We must never forget that we are called to carry about in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our moral flesh (2 Corinthians 4:10).

Two texts from Saint Vincent’s writings summarize his thinking on this subject of suffering and on the manner in which we ought to respond to the reality of suffering as we attempt, in every situation and at all times, to be the Good Samaritan to those who are beaten down by life. They are texts that are well-known but it would be good to re-read these and view them as the fruit of these reflections:

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 pauperibus 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).

God grant, my dear confreres, that all those who present themselves to join the Company will come with the thought of martyrdom, desiring to suffer martyrdom in it and to devote themselves entirely to the service of God, whether in far off lands or here, wherever it may please God to make use of the poor Little Company! Yes, with the thought of martyrdom. How often we should ask Our Lord for that grace and the disposition to be ready to risk our lives for His glory and the salvation of the neighbor, each and every one of us-Brothers, seminarians, priests-in a word, the entire Company! Alas, Messieurs, is there anything more reasonable than to give our lives for Him who has given His life so generously for each and every one of us? (CCD:XI:334-335).


  1. VINCENT DE PAUL, Correspondence, Conferences, Documents, translators: Helen Marie Law, DC (Vol. 1), Marie Poole, DC (Vol. 1-14), James King, CM (Vol. 1-2), Francis Germovnik, CM (Vol. 1-8, 13a-13b [Latin]), Esther Cavanagh, DC (Vol. 2), Ann Mary Dougherty, DC (Vol. 12); Evelyne Franc, DC (Vol. 13a-13b), Thomas Davitt, CM (Vol. 13a-13b [Latin]), Glennon E. Figge, CM (Vol. 13a-13b [Latin]), John G. Nugent, CM (Vol. 13a-13b [Latin]), Andrew Spellman, CM (Vol. 13a-13b [Latin]); edited: Jacqueline Kilar, DC (Vol. 1-2), Marie Poole, DC (Vol. 2-14), Julia Denton, DC [editor-in-chief] (Vol. 3-10, 13a-13b), Paule Freeburg, DC (Vol. 3), Mirian Hamway, DC (Vol. 3), Elinor Hartman, DC (Vol. 4-10, 13a-13b), Ellen Van Zandt, DC (Vol. 9-13b), Ann Mary Dougherty (Vol. 11, 12 and 14); annotated: John W. Carven, CM (Vol. 1-14); New City Press, Brooklyn and Hyde Park, 1985-2014; volume IV, p. 104, 218; future references to this work will be inserted into the text using the initials [CCD] followed by the volume number, followed by the page number, for example, CCD:IV:104, 218.
  2. P. COSTE, The Life and Work of Saint Vincent de Paul, 3 volumes, translated from the French by Joseph Leonard, CM, The Newman Press, Westminster, Maryland, 1952; volume 2, p. 66. Future references to this work will be inserted in the text, for example, Coste II:66.
  3. 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 vol., 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, volume III, p. 117. Future reference to this work will be inserted in the text, for example, Abelly 11I:117.
  4. José. María. Román, St. Vincent de Paul: A Biography, translated by Sr. Joyce Howard, DC, Melisende, London, 1999, p.261-262.
  5. Joseph Cardinal Ratzineger, Introduction to Christianity, translated by J.R. Foster, Communio Book, Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 2004, p. 140-142.
  6. Ibid., p. 244ff.

Translated: Charles T. Plock, CM