Saint Vincent de Paul in Marchais: Marchais or the Discovery of the Church of the Poor

From Vincentian Encyclopedia

by: Celestino Fernández, CM

[This article first appeared in San Vicente de Paúl, ayer y hoy, XXXIII Semana de Estudios Vicencianos, Editorial CEME, Santa Marta de Tormes, Salamanca, 2008, p.427-451].


I have always compared Vincent de Paul to a magical forest, with dense foliage, fertile and full of surprises. In order to travel through this forest one needs the assistance of skilled and expert guides. Nevertheless, the guides very often cannot agree and despite their good will, they mislead me rather than help me … and I am no expert.

If such is the situation with regard to this Vincentian forest, then the situation becomes even more serious when dealing with this primary aspect: the ecclesiology of Vincent de Paul. We cannot say that Vincent did not have an ecclesiology but we can say that his ecclesiology is seldom spoken about or referenced and therefore, few deepen their understanding of Vincent’s ecclesiology. We are given the impression that people either do not want to deal with this theme or that they have presumed that Vincent made no significant contribution to ecclesiology. There is also the presumption that this theme of ecclesiology provides little for discussion because everything that Vincent said and did, he said and did as a man of the Church, as one who was obedient to the Church and as one who had an absolute love for the church. Some time ago an expert in Vincentian matters, André Dodin, stated: the ecclesial aspect of our Vincentian heritage has been largely ignored [1].

Stating this more directly, the theme of Vincent de Paul and the Church has not been treated explicitly by scholars of Vincentian studies … there are not even monograph studies. Yet in all the different themes there are references, more or less extensive, concerning the theme that we are now talking about.

A precaution

It must be said at the beginning that Vincent de Paul, in his theology and in his ecclesiology, is very traditional [2]. His thinking, his writings and his conferences reflect the theology of his era. His theological formation, which was sound and enlightened, was also scholastic. When theological theories were proposed, the content of the same theological manuals, which had been referred to for centuries, was simply repeated once again. It is quite normal and logical that that should have been the situation. Vincent de Paul, in his written and spoken words was neither a revolutionary nor a romantic.

Nevertheless, in his activity and manner of proceeding, another Vincent de Paul emerges. With great reason it has been stated that the originality of Vincent de Paul is found in the manner in which he lived his life, in what he frequently called my faith and my experience (CCD:II:316).

For this reason then it is not easy to study the Vincentian understanding of the church. We do not find a structured and complete ecclesiology. Vincent de Paul was a man of experience and action more than a systematic theologian who developed and/or outlined a treatise on the totality of the being of the church, that is, an ecclesiology [3]. His ecclesial doctrine, which was lived rather than formulated in words, is found implicit in his words and his actions, in the words that he spoke and in the manner in which he lived his life.

The ecclesial vision of Vincent de Paul is inseparable from his spiritual and pastoral experience. His understanding of the ecclesial community was purified, completed and deepened in accord with his own development and experiences. Thus we begin with some background information that will help us to understand Vincent’s discovery of the church of the poor. The originality of the Vincentian vision of the church is rooted in viewing this institution as an historical reality, a missionary reality that is at the service of the poor and that is also a continuation of the mission of Jesus Christ [4].

A necessary point of departure

When we refer to the key discoveries, the decisive dates and the “kairotic” (allow me to use this foreign word) moments in the journey of Vincent de Paul, the events that occurred in Montmirail-Marchais appear in the spotlight. In reality we are referring to two distinct events: the first one occurred in Montmirail and the other occurred in Marchais. We say this because the majority of Vincentian historians combine these events.

We are referring to an event that becomes “a sign” for anyone who approaches, even superficially, the life and the activity of Vincent de Paul. Yes, we are referring to an event that, for Vincent himself, became pivotal … in other words, an event that enabled Vincent to see what God desired of him and that resulted in his commitment to a process of evangelizing the poor and of rebuilding the Church of the poor and for the poor.

While this event has lost its freshness and ability to surprise us (not because this event is referred to and narrated anew with such frequency), it nevertheless continues to question us. This event is also the necessary and fundamental point of departure for the theme that we are presenting here.

Louis Abelly, the first biographer of Vincent de Paul, states that during a mission in Montmirail (sometime in 1620) a heretic (a Huguenot) who was ready to combat every argument, formulated an objection that hurt Vincent de Paul, words that wounded him at the very core of his being because they referred to an issue that he was deeply concerned about. This individual stated: You told me, Monsieur, that the Church of Rome is led by the Holy Spirit, but I find that hard to believe because, on the one hand, we see the rural Catholics abandoned to pastors who are ignorant and given over to vice, with so little instruction in their duties that most of them hardly know what the Christian religion is. On the other [hand], we see towns filled with priests and monks who are doing nothing; there are perhaps ten thousand of them in Paris, yet they leave the poor country people in this appalling state of ignorance in which they are lost. And you want to convince me that all this is being guided by the Holy Spirit! I’ll never believe it (CCD:XI:28).

In reality those words were the harshest and the boldest formulation of the scandal that had been gnawing at Vincent’s heart for at least three years. Naturally Vincent improvised with some apologetical response … but the facts were facts. That Huguenot, perhaps with some exaggeration, reminded Vincent of the fact that the Church had abandoned the poor and that, in her pastoral practice, the Church had broken the sacred trinomial: Christ-Church-Poor.

One year later, (1621), during another mission but this time in Marchais, a small town outside Montmirail, the Huguenot, whom no one remembered, was curious to see what occurred during the popular missions. At the conclusion of the mission that individual did not hesitate to approach Vincent. Now I see, he said, that the Holy Spirit is guiding the Roman Church, since such care is taken in the instruction and salvation of poor village people; I'm ready to enter it whenever it will please you to receive me (CCD:XI:29) [5].

Abelly states that one day, when Vincent was narrating this event to the Missionaries, he exclaimed: What a happiness for our Missioners to verify the guidance of the Holy Spirit on his Church by working, as we do, at the instruction and sanctification of poor persons (CCD:XI:30).

In other words, Vincent discovered that an apologetical and/or defensive response was neither valid nor convincing. Therefore, yesterday, today and tomorrow there is only one coherent response: the preferential option for the poor as a visible and credible expression of the Church … an effective and affective option that is carried out with the strength of our arms and the sweat of our brows (CCD:XI:32).

This central event that occurred in Montmirail-Marchais can be summarized with the following words that appear to be taken from the writings of Vincent de Paul but are actually taken from the document La Iglesia y los Pobres [The Church and the Poor]: The Church’s mission to be the Church of the Poor has a twofold meaning: the Church herself must be poor and must also be a Church for the poor. In the same way that Jesus was radically and fundamentally poor through his Incarnation and his mission on behalf of the poor, in the same way that the Incarnation and Jesus’ mission enabled him to accomplish the work of redemption and thus attain his glorification, so too the Church of Jesus, in its customs and evangelization, in the way that it sustains itself and is present in the midst of the world, the Church should always reflect that it is indeed the church of poor. Therefore, the Church’s concern, commitment and planning should be guided by its mission of service on behalf of the poor [6].

The Church that Vincent de Paul contemplated and reflected upon

At the beginning of the film Monsieur Vincent there is a lengthy and very significant scene. The new pastor of Châtillon, Monsieur de Paul, enters the parish church and in the midst of sadness and anger and perplexion contemplates the state of total abandonment in which he finds this building. This is a scene that the eyes of the spectator pass over very quickly. Yet many see this scene as a metaphor or an image of the state of the church in France during the time of Vincent de Paul … that certainly appears to be the intention of the director of the film.

A desolate church

A desolate church … such was the church in which the young priest, Vincent de Paul, situated himself, the church in which he wanted to advance his career and attain a position of importance. Such was the church in which countless poor people who lived in the cities and the rural areas found themselves … indeed the poor found themselves in situations of material and spiritual poverty. Such was the church in which the high clergy, the bishops, the abbots, etc. were more concerned about their own social position than about the state of the people who had been entrusted to their care. Such was the church in which it was common for ecclesiastics to abandon their diocese and/or abbey in order to frequent the Royal Court and participate in its “display of vanities” [7].

During the time of Vincent de Paul, the Church of France was organized in an hierarchical manner, in the image and likeness of the civil state. It was a church that was intimately and totally bound up with the political powers. It was a church in which ecclesiastical figures, such as Cardinal Richielu and Mazarin, reflected this identification of the Church with power. It was a church that possessed many material goods and benefits that were meant to be utilized on behalf of the poor and because they were not used in that way, those possessions, in turn, disfigured the image of the Church. It was a church that was characterized by many charitable initiatives, but that activity had no organization and, as a result, was ineffective.

A church of inept pastors

The Church, as experienced by Vincent de Paul, was a divided community, with pastors who generally were incompetent, ignorant and unworthy … persons who viewed the priesthood as a profession and as a way to live a comfortable life rather than as a vocation that involved pastoral commitment and evangelical service. Some of Vincent’s strongest words were directed at bad priests.

For example on March 5, 1659 Vincent wrote to a lawyer from Laval who seemed to embrace the priesthood as if it were a profession: I would consider it a matter of conscience to do anything to have you take Holy Orders, especially priesthood, because it is a misfortune for those who enter it by the window of their own choice and not by the door of a legitimate vocation. Yet, the number of the former is high because they consider the ecclesiastical state a soft way of life, in which they seek rest rather than work. This has been the source of the scandalous havoc we see in the Church, for the ignorance, sin, and heresies that devastate it are attributed to priests (CCD:VII:479).

Listen to the words that Vincent address to the Missionaries during his conference of September 1655: O my dear confreres, how earnestly we must ask God for this and exert ourselves for this great need of the Church, which is heading for ruin in many places because of the bad life of priests. For they’re the ones causing it to perish and destroying it; and it’s only too true that the depravity of the ecclesiastical state is the principal cause of the ruin of God's Church. Recently I was at a meeting where there were seven Prelates who, reflecting on the disorders that are seen in the Church, were stating loudly that the clergy were the principal cause of this (CCD:XI:279)

Nevertheless there are historians of the French Church of the seventeenth century who attempt to give a balance to this issue as they describe the clergy in a more positive manner. Some Vincentians also feel that Vincent exaggerated and was harsh in the negative and generalized judgments that he applied to all priests [8]. Nevertheless there is no doubt that Vincent was very concerned about a pastoral reality that needed urgent reform.

A church of the Council of Trent

As a post-conciliar (Trent) priest, Vincent de Paul should be seen as part of a reform movement … his vision of the Church was influenced by the ecclesiology of Trent. Even though the Council did not deal with this theme in some global manner, the program of reform that it outlined was based on a specific ecclesiology: apologetical, hierarchical, centered on Rome, legalistic, hostile toward the world.

The Catholic reform would be marked by this understanding of the Church. The Church was seen as a “perfect society”, thus highlighting its juridical and visible dimension. There was a tendency to identify the Church with the hierarchy and, as a result, ecclesiology was often reduced to “hierarchiology” [9].

This was the vision of Church that surrounded Vincent de Paul, a vision in which he was formed … a vision that in certain aspects, he embraced and in others, he reacted against in order to present an enriched vision. We must remember something very important: Vincent de Paul wanted to live in the faith of the Church and did not want to separate himself from the church in the slightest manner … he accepted, with total obedience, the Church’s teaching. In a conference to the Missionaries (the date of the conference is unknown) Vincent expressed that same idea in the following manner: I’ve always been afraid of finding myself enveloped in the errors of some new doctrine before realizing it. Yes, I’ve feared that all my life (CCD:XI:31).

There are Vincentian scholars who make an important point when they affirm the fact that Vincent distanced himself from this Trinitarian vision of the Church, from the dominant ecclesiology of his era. For example, Dodin does not hesitate to state: What characterized Vincent’s vision of the Church? His vision of the Church is totally distinct from the ecclesiology of the “roman perspective”. I believe it was his conviction with regard to this new vision of Church that distinguished Vincent from Robert Bellarmine and Peter Canisius who viewed the Church as a hierarchicalinstitution, stable and vertical in nature … at the top was the Pope, followed by the bishops and priests, and under them, on the lowest level, were the laity. This was not Vincent’s vision and he was not alone in his thinking [10].

It has been said that during the time of Vincent de Paul the Church in France was one of contradictions. If we were to focus only on the vision of Church that we previously presented we would have a very dark picture of the Church. Such an image would be unjust, or, at the very least, excessively partial.

It is true that the members of the upper classes of French society despised those who were poor and defended their position with a moral hypocrisy that justified their own wealth. It is also true that good order was often a substitute for charity and on many occasions the works of charity became forms of repression (we remember the famous case of locking up the poor and we also remember the association that was presided over by a bishop who defended that action as a way of preventing the eternal damnation of beggars and other “evil-doers”). We must also admit that the Church, the members of the higher clergy as well as the members of the lower clergy, were aligned with the State and viewed the poor as a burden that threatened the moral order. At the same time elitist circles of the church sought refuge in a spirituality that was focused on “fleeing from the world” and thus sought mystical experiences that were quite doubtful. The Christian life was very often centered on practices of devotion that had no relationship with charity and/or commitment to the poor. During this time the traditional doctrine of the Church seems to have been neglected, that is, the doctrine concerning the obligation of the State and public institutions (whether religious or not) to provide for the well-being of the poor.

At the same time, in the midst of this desolate church which Vincent de Paul experienced, we find a characteristic that is not always taken into consideration. I am referring here to the fact that it is in the midst of this reality that we find an incredible flourishing of different Congregations, religious Orders and Companies whose members were dedicated to serving the poor in various manners [11]. The listing of these groups would be too lengthy and quite boring [12], but it must be stated that their ministry and dedication in the areas of health care and education and social assistance provided a dimension of hope to a rather bleak and discouraging situation.

We must not forget other persons, well-known masters in the area of spirituality and theology and mysticism.

The Catholic author, Chesterton, stated that each generation is converted by the saint who contradicts it most. We do not know what generation or what saint Chesterton was thinking about but his words could be easily applied to the church of the seventeenth century in France and the resurgence of groups and Congregations that came into existence in order to serve the poor.

There is no doubt that this is the Church that Vincent de Paul contemplated and experienced ... the Church that, despite its defects and shadows, Vincent loved. As Vincent distanced himself from that reality he attempted to respond to the ecclesial needs by living and giving life to a new and more evangelical image of the Church.

The church of Vincent de Paul’s dreams

During the funeral service on the occasion of Vincent de Paul’s death, his friend, the bishop of Puy, Henri Maupas de Tours, spoke these unforgettable words: this man totally changed the face of the church [13].

It was not Vincent’s theological studies or his degree in Canon Law from the Sorbone that changed Vincent’s manner of thinking and serving and acting. Rather it was his direct contact with the poor who every day multiply and do not know what to do or where to go … it was this reality that led him to dream about a new and distinct image of the Church, that led him to work with such determination so that his dream might become a reality.

In rhythm with experience

In various Vincentian studies we discover an on-going insistence on the primary and fundamental place of experience in the life and the activity of Vincent de Paul. Also in this theme that deals with Vincent’s discovery of the church of the poor, experience is a key factor. The Vincentian understanding of the Church is woven and interwoven into this uninterrupted chain of experiences

We began with Vincent’s experience in Montmerail-Marchais and its value as a determining sign. The narration of that event, however, should not be viewed in isolation and thus disconnected from other events. It must rather be united with other links in this chain of experiences. It must be united with Vincent’s experience in Clichy where he was pastor; it must be connected with his making a commitment to the people and his feeling of calmness and serenity when he did so. It must also be united with his experience in Gannes-Felléville and his understanding of the place of the poor in the Church. Also we must not forget his experience in Châtillon and the emergence of organized charity on behalf of the poor. In addition to those various experiences there are two other significant experiences that we must also mention: 1] Vincent’s encounter with the bishop of Beauvais and the discovery of the deficient formation of priests and of candidates for the priesthood; 2] the discovery of the missionary Church as he sent his confreres to Madagascar.

A church that is incarnated in the world of the poor and opts for the poor

This series of experiences led to a perspective that was composed of various elements that ultimately constituted the church of the poor, the church that Vincent dreamt of, discovered, built and rebuilt.

The first element is, without a doubt, fundamental: the Church has to become incarnated into the world of the poor and, therefore, has to opt for the poor. The Incarnation of the Son of God who came into the world in order to evangelize the poor was at the center of Vincent’s spirituality: So then, my dear confreres, poor persons are our portion, the poor; pauperibus evangelizare misit me. What happiness, Messieurs, what happiness! To do what Our Lord came from heaven to earth to do, and by means of which we’ll go from earth to heaven to continue the work of God, who avoided the towns and went to the country to seek out those who were poor. That’s what our Rules engage us to do, to help poor persons, our lords and masters (CCD:XII:4).

In Vincent de Paul we see that the poor occupied a central place. If the Church, then, is the sacrament of Christ, it ought to continue the preference of the Master for “the little ones”, the marginalized, the excluded … in summary, the poor. Vincent de Paul never broke or separated the trinomial of Christ-Church-the poor. He was wholly convinced that the poor are God’s chosen ones, those among whom true religion is preserved (CCD:XI:190); the great lords of heaven (CCD:X:268); our intercessors before God (CCD:IX:200); our lords and masters (CCD:IX:97, 176, 536; X:215, 268, 274, 489; XI:349; XII:4). Therefore the Church, as she continues the ministry of Christ, ought to prolong Christ’s preference for the poor and his identification with them (CCD:XI:26, 98-100; XII:71-72). In order to justify the relation between the Church and the poor, Vincent looked at the origins of the church: In instituting the Church, Jesus took pleasure in choosing poor persons … to found it and to implant it throughout the world (CCD:XI:120; XII:16). He underlined the fact that such an election was continued in the Church of his era and that God continued to call forth “the little ones” in order to continue his ministry.

Therefore for Vincent de Paul, the Church is above all else those poor people who are asking for assistance, people who are dying of hunger and are condemned to despair. We should not be surprised that we find in Vincent’s correspondence very clear indications with regard to where we will find the Church of Jesus Christ: the church is not found in the silk or the gold of the princes, the bishops or the abbots but rather in the flesh and blood, in the suffering and tears of the people [14].

For Vincent de Paul the Church is a community of charity that continues the spirit of Christ’s perfect charity. The Church does not extend any promise of influence or power but rather is a servant and poor … it is the Church of the poor. When people have the poor and the needy and the destitute as their allies and when they place themselves at the service of the poor, then they can be assured that they belong to the Church of Christ [15].

There is no doubt that Vincent de Paul discovered and placed before his followers a church that was incarnated in the reality of the poor and opted for them in a preferential manner … this was the same option as that which was exercised by Jesus, the evangelizer and servant of the poor; the man for others, for the disinherited; the servant in life and in death [16]. The Vincentian identity is Christ centered and therefore the option for the poor can only be understood from the perspective that the cause of the poor is the cause of Christ.

Vincent de Paul would have easily affirmed the words that were spoken by Cardinal Lecaro during the Second Vatican Council: the more specific purpose of my speech is to call attention, even more than has already been done, to an aspect of this mystery of Christ in the Church, which I think is not only perennially essential, but also of supreme current historical relevance. What I mean is that the mystery of Christ in the Church has always been—but today even more so—the mystery of Christ in the poor. Inasmuch as the Church, as the Holy Father John XXIII has said, is indeed the Church of all, today it is especially “the Church of the Poor.” [17]

Vincent would also have favored the reality that is reflected in another document of the Church, The Church and the Poor: For the church and for individual Christians the encounter with the poor can never be some insignificant and unimportant event. As Jesus himself stated, such an encounter defines the being and the future of the Church and Christianity. Therefore, all of us together as individuals and as members of some institution are called to become involved in and committed to the cause of the poor. The Church understands that this encounter with the poor has a twofold value: justification and condemnation (depending on whether we commit ourselves to the cause of the poor or whether we remain indifferent to their cause). The poor are the sacrament of Christ. Furthermore, we will not only be judged by God at some later time but even now we will be judged by our brothers and sisters. Only a Church that draws near to the poor and the oppressed, that stands with them, that struggles on behalf of their liberation and dignity and well-being … only such a church can give a coherent and convincing witness to the gospel message. It can be affirmed that the being and the activity of the Church are judged in accord with the manner in which the Church is present in the midst of the world of poverty and pain and marginalization and oppression and weakness and suffering [18].

A church that serves and is the servant of the poor

Vincent had a very clear vision of the Church as the Church of the poor and yet at the same time he was very concerned that the Church should also be a church for the poor. In other words, Vincent was convinced that the poor had to be the point of reference for the ecclesial life of the Church and if the Church were to cease to be concerned about the fate of the poor then it would lose its meaning and purpose [19]. A Church that ignored the poor would be nothing but a caricature of the church and a church that did not serve the poor would be far removed from being the community that Jesus desired [20]. Furthermore, Vincent introduced a very significant aspect into the Church that was characterized by the hierarchy: the hierarchy is called to serve in a disinterested manner, they are to give themselves to others … all of this is reflected in his instructions on the exercise of authority (CCD:I:525-526; II:335-336; IV:181-182; V:59; VI:77-78; XI:312-313).

Even though this fact is known by all, nevertheless we state it here: Vincent de Paul gave form to an ecclesiology of effective service on behalf of the poor not only in his intuitions and thoughts, but also in the various institutions that he established, in the Confraternities, the Congregation of the Mission, the Company of the Daughters of Charity, the Ladies of Charity. We also know that the poor are the very heart of Vincentian institutes and ministry … they constitute the reason for which these institutions exist … they decide, configure and give meaning to the present and the future of those institutions and ministries. At the same time the poor continually clarify the direction of those institutions, give a new dynamism to their commitment, adjust their mission, and guarantee their fidelity to their proper and specific mission.

From this perspective, a new and special relationship is established between the servants and their lords and masters. Here, at the very least, we are referring to a relationship of service on the part of the Church of the poor: we have to sympathize with them in order to suffer with them … we have to try to stir our hearts to pity, make them sensitive to the sufferings and miseries of our neighbor, and ask God to give us the true spirit of mercy (CCD:XI:308); treating them with compassion, gentleness, cordiality, respect and devotion (CCD:X:267); loving them with the strength of our arms and the sweat of our brows (CCD:XI:32); realizing that in helping them we are doing an act of justice and not of mercy (CCD:VII:115); being aware of the fact that we should sell ourselves to rescue our brothers and sisters from destitution (CCD:IX:390); knowing that if we don’t sacrifice our whole life to instruct them, we’re the ones who are guilty of all they suffer (CCD:XI:191); recognizing that we’re unworthy of rendering them our little services (CCD:XI:349).

If we want to see the image of the Church as the servant of the poor reflected in a radical manner, then it would be good to listen to the words of one of Vincent’s disciples who was a member of the Tuesday Conferences. Following the counsel of Vincent, this individual, instead of remaining in Paris and seeking an honorable ascent in ecclesiastical circles, lived modestly in Metz. Here we are referring to Bossuet and his famous sermon, On the Eminent Dignity of the Poor in the Church. It appears that Vincent asked Bossuet to write this sermon and many Vincentians have no hesitation in affirming that this sermon is the final testament of Vincent de Paul and can also be seen as a synthesis of the experience of Church that animated the life and the mission of Vincent [21]. In the world the rich enjoy all the advantages of their wealth and power, while in the kingdom of Jesus Christ the preeminence belongs to the poor who are the first-born of the Church and her true children. In the world the poor are submissive to the rich, and it seems that the only reason that they are born is to be their servants. On the contrary, in the holy Church, the rich find that they can be admitted only on the condition that they themselves serve the poor. The advantages and privileges of this world benefit only the powerful and the rich, while the poor have no claim on any part of these for their living. However, in the Church of Jesus Christ the advantages and blessings of the kingdom of heaven are reserved for the poor, and the rich have no right to share in these advantages and privileges, except through the poor ... This city of the poor is the holy Church, and if you as Christians ask me why I call it the city of the poor, I will tell you the reason that I have for saying this: the Church has been built by divine plan, from its very beginnings, only for the poor. The poor are the true citizens of this blessed city, which is characterized in Scripture as the city of God ... a rich of this world, you who take so much pleasure in your superb worldly titles, in the Church of Jesus Christ you will only be the servants of the poor [22].

A church of mercy

Another element that receives much emphasis in this Vincentian vision is mercy. According to Vincent de Paul the church of the poor has to be grounded on mercy because the Church has the obligation to translate the great mystery of God’s gratitude and mercy.

But this mercy should not be viewed from the perspective of the current adulterated meaning that we have given to this word. Indeed, the mercy that we are referring to has nothing to do with some false commiseration or superficial pity. In Vincent de Paul’s thinking mercy is derived from God’s infinite tenderness, from God’s nearness to those persons who suffer, from God’s profound compassion and from God’s maternal instinct. Indeed, God’s mercy has to be revealed not only through good will, but also through effective and real love. For Vincent, the Church has to reveal mercy toward the poor, the same mercy that gave form to Jesus’ life and mission.

A church of mercy has to promote “communion” with the poor. In other words, the church has to enter into communion with those persons whom she serves and with whom she struggles. This communion implies a true knowledge of the problems and needs of those who are poor; it also implies an authentic encounter with them, a profound acceptance of them, a clear and effective nearness to them, a real participation in their transformation, a respect for their rights, a humble docility before their demands, a willingness to listen to and dialogue with them in order to discover their values and thus help them become aware of their potential. Finally, such communion means that we allow ourselves to be challenged by the call of the poor and that we are willing to become the voice of those who are voiceless … thus we defend the rights of those who are most vulnerable and give voice to the legitimate aspirations of those who are most underprivileged.

Pope John Paul II formulated a very Vincentian ecclesiology when he stated in his encyclical, Dives in misericordia: The Church lives an authentic life when she professes and proclaims mercy --- the most stupendous attribute of the Creator and of the Redeemer (John Paul II, Dives in misericordia, #13). From the perspective of this Vincentian ecclesiology we can infer that the activity, the message and the essence of an authentic Church consists of being and appearing and acting as a merciful Church, a church that always speaks and acts with compassionate and merciful love toward those who are living in situations of misery. Only in such a merciful church can the gratuitous love of God be revealed, a love that is offered and extended to those who have nothing more than their poverty [23].

A church of pastors of the poor and for the poor

Among the various characteristics of the priest Vincent de Paul underlines one in particular: priests continue the mission of Jesus Christ as they minister on behalf of the salvation of men and women, especially those who are poor. He had no hesitation in telling the priests that they had a lofty ministry to evangelize poor persons, which is, par excellence, the work of the Son of God, and we have been included in it as instruments by which the Son of God continues to do from heaven what he did on earth (CCD:XII:71-72).

L. Mezzadri has studied the difference between Vincent de Paul’s and Berulle’s concept of priesthood. The results of his research allow us to clarify the mission that Vincent assigned to the Church’s priests: Bérulle had established a Company to render perpetual homage to the sovereign priesthood of Jesus Christ. But Vincent de Paul, through the foundation of the Congregation of the Mission, wanted to render homage to the need of Jesus Christ that he mystically contemplated in the poor. Thus Vincent stated that we ought to hasten to attend to the needs of the poor in the same way that we would run to extinguish a fire. According to Bérulle, the priest renounces and humbles himself in order to clothe himself in Christ and thus offer the most perfect acts of glorification to the Father. For Vincent renunciation and clothing oneself in Christ culminate in service on behalf of others. The priest belongs to the poor in the same way that the priest belongs to Christ. The encounter with the poor results in fidelity to Jesus Christ [24].

During a conference on the purpose of the Congregation of the Mission, Vincent de Paul made it very clear that the Missionaries are to be the priests of the poor: If priests devote themselves to the care of the poor, wasn’t that what Our Lord and many great saints did, and they not only recommended poor persons to others, but they themselves consoled, comforted, and healed them? 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’re in the Mission to evangelize poor people but not to alleviate their sufferings, to take care of their spiritual needs but not their temporal ones, I reply that we have to help them and have them assisted in every way, by us and by others, if we want to hear those pleasing words of the Sovereign Judge of the living and the dead, “Come, beloved of my Father; possess the kingdom that has been prepared for you, because I was hungry and you gave me to eat; I was naked and you clothed me; sick and you assisted me.” To do that is to preach the Gospel by words and by works, and that’s the most perfect way; it’s also what Our Lord did, and what those should do who represent Him on earth, officially and by nature, as priests do (CCD:XII:77-78).

A church whose laity are committed to the cause of the poor

Vincent de Paul was aware of the fact that the laity had also received a vocation to participate in the mission of the Church. He was convinced that this forgotten group in the ecclesial pyramid had to come to the forefront and they had to place themselves on the frontlines of service and struggle on behalf of the poor.

As a result of the missionary model of the Church, Vincent discovered that evangelization is the task of the whole church. Therefore, he had no hesitation in encouraging the laity to commit themselves to some form of the apostolate. Through the different associations and institutions that he established and directed, we come to understand Vincent’s vision of the laity and his own understanding of their role in the Church.

Today Vincent de Paul tells us that lay ministry comes into being as a result of a divine vocation and supposes a profound Christian life, a life of faith and a commitment to charity. Such a life constitutes a participation in the mission of Christ and in his preference for the poor who are to be served in the same way that one would serve Christ himself.

Indeed, we discover the originality of Vincent de Paul in this vision of committed lay persons who serve the poor, (especially women). At a time when women were socially marginalized, Vincent de Paul discovered their qualities and values and potential. He placed them at the service of the poor and the abandoned. As Vincent reflected on the early history of Israel and the first centuries of Christianity, he discovered inspiring examples of women who gave support to his plan: Judith, Ester, the women who accompanied Jesus and the disciples, the deaconess …

Vincent placed great trust in the women whom he encountered. The Confraternities of Charity were a model of organization and coordination as well as a model of social and charitable effectiveness. The establishment of the Daughters of Charity involved a series of original innovations with regard to the organization of women in the Church and in the society of seventeenth century France.


In preparing this presentation I have had a recurring thought that has disturbed me: what is the purpose of all the words that I have spoken and written here? Yes, it is good to honor once again a formidable saint, like Vincent de Paul; yes, it is good to remind ourselves about things that we already know. It is also good to experience ourselves, even for a short period of time, as persons who are questioned and challenged by Vincent’s courage and boldness and creativity. It is good for us to reflect on our work and ministry, our personal and community life and to do this in light of the life and the ministry of Vincent de Paul. But nonetheless my initial fear continues to disturb me: will not all of this become part of some “archeological expedition”? This is my fear and my doubt and I do find a certain freedom when I consider the fact that others might have a similar feeling or thought.

Therefore I want to conclude by reading some paragraphs from an unpublished letter of Vincent de Paul that I found among some old dusty papers that were about to be thrown into the trash. This letter is undated and has not been catalogued by the experts. Some might call this letter apocryphal, but I prefer to call it a letter of urgency.

It states: I, Vincent de Paul, unworthy priest of the Mission, am going to be bold as I speak to my family, to the Vincentian Family, living in this highly developed era of the twenty-first century. Allow me to add one more letter to the more than thirty thousand that I wrote during my lifetime. I do not intend to bore you with more details about my life and I do not want to exalt my ministry which, God knows, was carried out for his glory and for the well-being of the poor. I also do not want to burden you with my negligence while serving the poor.

There is nothing original about this letter. I repeat here that which I have always wanted to share with you. Continue to make every effort to renew your mind and your whole being with that which alone is deserving of you, namely, continue the mission of Jesus Christ, living and acting as Jesus did, loving in an affective and effective manner the poor, the chosen sons and daughters of God. But look at the way in which we have filled page after page with beautiful and profound thoughts that further develop a theology of the poor and a theology of the Church of the poor. O Savior, we speak about the poor so often and at the same time we often forget about the poor who stand before us in flesh and bone.

Dear members of the Vincentian Family, I was filled with great joy when during that “hour of God”, the Second Vatican Council, the reality of the Church of the poor was given new life. Then I relived my struggles, my discoveries, my whole life. Blessed be God, I even felt rejuvenated in the very depths of my being. Yet I must tell you most honestly that I have also become very confused as that same phrase “the church of the poor” has been turned into a simple statement of good intentions.

I was never one to give pompous advice. On one occasion I wrote: what we have to do is to minister. But allow me to remind you of one thing: never forget two rights of the church that are clearly expressed in its foundational document, in the gospel, namely, the right to be persecuted and the right to stand together with those who are poor. Never renounce the right to place yourself beside those who suffer, those who are excluded and marginalized, those who are the tragic by-product of the present world.

Continue to build the Church of the poor. May the poor find in your homes and communities the gentleness and the kindness of our good God. May the one and only criteria of your ministry be the integral evangelization of the poor. May the revision of your works be guided by one objective: to reach out to those who are most poor and abandoned. May the poor be always in the forefront of your mind and your heart and your life! I bid you farewell with the same words that I spoke during a conference that I gave to the Missionaries and I believe that these words are applicable to every member of the Vincentian Family: we are ministers of the poor … God has chosen us to minister to them.


[1] A. Dodin, Lecciones sobre vicencianismo [Vincentian lessons], CEME, Salamanca, 1978, p. 66.

[2] Cf., J. Corera, Diez studios vicencianos [Ten Vincentian Studies], CEME, Salamanca, 1983, p. 264-266.

[3] Cf., J.J. González, Iglesia [Church] in Diccionario de Espiritualidad Vicenciana [Dictionary of Vincentian Spirituality], CEME, Salamanca, 1995, p. 217.

[4] M.A. Sagastagoitia, Vicente de Paúl y la Misión [Vincent de Paul and the Mission], CEME, Salamanca, 2006, p. 184.

[5] This event is narrated by L. ABELLY, The Life of the Venerable Servant of God Vincent de Paul: Founder and First Superior General of the Congregation of the Mission, 3 volumes, edited by John E. Rybolt, CM, translated by William Quinn, FSC, notes by Edward R. Udovic, CM and John E. Rybolt, CM, introduction by Stafford Poole, CM, New City Press, New Rochelle, New York, 1993, I:81-83; P. COLLET, The Life of Saint Vincent de Paul, Founder of the Congregation of the Mission and the Sisters of Charity, translated from the French by a Catholic clergyman, John Murphy and Co., Baltimore, 1845, p. 47-49; P. COSTE, The Life and Work of Saint Vincent de Paul, 3 volumes, translated from the French by Joseph Leonard, CM, The Newman Press, Westminister, Maryland, 1952, I:102-104.

[6] Episcopal Commission on Social Ministry, La iglesia y los pobres [The Church and the Poor], PPC, Madrid, 1994, #25.

[7] Cf., A. Silvestre, Saint Vincent et l’Eglise in AA.VV., Monsieur Vincent temoin de l’evangile, Ed. Le Bouscat, Toulouse, 1990, p. 123.

[8] Cf. C. Sens, Vicente de Paúl, su vision del sacerdocio [Vincent de Paul, his visión of priesthood] in Bernard Koch, Christian Sens and J.B. Rouanet, El rostro del sacerdote según Vicente de Paúl [The face of the priest according to Vincent de Paul], CEME, Salamanca, 2004, 126-127.

[9] J.J. González, op.cit., p. 298.

[10] A. Dodin, op.cit., p. 66-67.

[11] Cf., P. Christofhe, Para leer la historia de la pobreza, [Reading the history of the poor], Verbo Divino, Estella, 1989, pp. 154-154.

[12] In this long list, beside the Congregation of the Mission and the Company of the Daughters of Charity, we would also include: the Augustinians of Jesus’ Mercy, the Hospital Sisters of Saint Joseph, the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Rouen, the Sisters of Saint Joseph de Puy, the Sisters of Saint Charles, the Sisters of Saint Thomas of Villanova, the Hospital Sisters of Saint Martha ...

[13] Cf., H. Maupas du Tour, Oraison fun?bre à la mémoire de feu Messire Vincent de Paul … prononcée le 23 novembre 1660 dans l’eglise de S. Germain l’Auxerrois, París, 1661.

[14] AA.VV., En tiempos de San Vicente de Paúl … y hoy [In the times of Vincent de Paul ... and today], two volumes, CEME, Salamanca, 1997, I:37.

[15] Cf. José María Ibáñez. Las obras de las Hijas de la Caridad en sus orígenes [The Works of the Daughters of Charity in their Origins] in Vicentiana (4-5-6), 1990, p. 606.

[16] Bishops Commission on Social Ministry, La Iglelsia y los pobres [The Church and the Poor], #21.

[17] Kate Gordon translated this intervention of the Cardinal in her article How to Create a Church of the poor;

[18] Bishops Commission on Social Ministry, La Iglelsia y los pobres [The Church and the Poor], #9.

[19] Cf., J.J. González, op.cit., p. 303.

[20] Cf., A. Silvestre, op.cit., p. 128.

[21] Cf., M.A. Sagastagoitia, op.cit., p. 210-212.

[22] Edward R. Udovic, CM, “‘On the Eminent Dignity of the Poor in the Church,’ a Sermon by Jacques Bénigne Bossuet”, Vincentian Heritage, Volume XIII, #1, p. 37-58.

[23] Bishops Commission on Social Ministry, La Iglelsia y los pobres [The Church and the Poor], #l1.

[24] L. Mezzadri, Jesús-Christ figure du preter-missionnaire dans l’oeuvre de monsieur Vincent', in Vincentiana (1986), p. 332.

Translated: Charles T. Plock, CM