Vincent de Paul: A priest of charity at the service of the poor
Vincent de Paul: A priest of charity at the service of the poor
by: Alvaro Quevedo Patarroyo, CM
Visitor of Columbia
Vincent, a follower of the French school, viewed the priest as a man who performed acts of worship, thus the priest had to be holy in order to deal with holy things. Priesthood was a participation in the priesthood of the Son of God and as such was both awesome and prestigious. But after Vincent’s experience of service to Christ in the person of the poor, after his experiences in Gannes-Folleville and Châtillon-les-Dombes, he was led to discover another theological current, a current in which ministry and service, charity and self-sacrifice were more important than prestige. For Vincent the greatness and dignity of his priesthood was found essentially in effective charity on behalf of those in need: to go to God is to serve the poor. Vincent’s faith and experience taught him the meaning of these words.
When Vincent emptied himself and allowed God to become the center of his life, he began to see the world in a new way and acquired an evangelical sense of the poor.
Vincent turned the medal (CCD:XI:26) and in the light of faith contemplated the poor as icons of Jesus Christ, as images of the Lord who desired to become poor and who desired to reveal himself to us through the poor. The poor are in Christ and Christ is in the poor. The poor are the privileged place for the encounter with God and with Jesus Christ. In the sacrament of the poor Christ appeals to us and questions us. For Vincent, the path to God was through those who hunger and thirst for just and solidarity and through those who demand to be treated with dignity.
Because of his faith and experience and in light of the incarnation of the Son of God, Vincent discovered a new meaning of the poor. As a result of this gospel experience of the poor as the sacrament of Christ, Vincent lived a priestly spirituality of union with God, a spirituality that was not centered on contemplation and adoration nor on dignity and privileges, but rather a spirituality centered on personal service, commitment and effective charity toward those in need.
The experience of the poor took on primary importance in his priestly ministry and it was in this experience of the poor that his priesthood and his life found meaning: to follow Jesus Christ, the evangelizer of the poor, to serve Jesus Christ in the person of the poor. This discovery led Vincent to state that the poor die of hunger and are condemned. Then, he dedicated his whole life to resolve these miseries and he did this through a process of evangelization, a process that today we would refer to as liberating evangelization or the integral promotion of the human person. From that time on the poor became for Vincent his concern and his sorrow (Louis Abelly, Volume iii, p. 117).
Vincent, the missionary of the poor, brought a message of liberation to the poor, the same message that Jesus proclaimed in Nazareth (Luke 4:18-19). At the same time Vincent became the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-38) who approached those who were wounded by the countless injustices of society. Together with physical and material assistance, Vincent shared with those individuals the love of his heart and Christian hope. Vincent wanted to make the gospel effective and so he was concerned about both the body and the soul.
Vincent wanted the work of evangelization to be carried on with love since we have been chosen by God as instruments of his immense, paternal charity, which is intended to be established and to expand in souls (CCD:XII:214). This is a ministry that is on-going because charity cannot remain idle; it impels us to work for the salvation and consolation of others (CCD:XII:216). It is true then, that I am sent not only to love God but to make him loved. It is not enough for me to love God, if my neighbor does not love him (CCD:XII:215).
Vincent’s process of evangelization embraced the whole person: 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 or by others … To do this is to preach the Gospel by word and by works, and that is the most perfect way; it is also what Our Lord did, and what those should do who represent him on earth, officially and by nature, as priests do; and I have heard it said that what helped Bishops to become saints was almsgiving (CCD:XII:77-78).
Vincent simply followed the example of Jesus who was concerned about the whole person and all people. Jesus not only preached and taught but he also gave people food and cured those who were infirm and defended the dignity of the human person and, in fact, carried on this defense even on the Sabbath.
1. I think I would offend God if I did not do all in my power for the poor country people (CCD:IV:561)
Probably Vincent did not realize that his work on behalf of those who were poor was a pioneering ministry in the Church and that his effective charity would have a powerful affect on Christian society. Vincent de Paul was truly a revolutionary of charity who sowed the seeds of charity and justice. Thanks to the spirit that he passed on to his sons and daughters and to all those who were and are inspired by his charism, these seeds have produced much fruit in the Church.
Charity, the charism that the Church identifies with Saint Vincent, cannot be reduced to some interior and/or spiritual reality. Rather charity is a social and public response that reveals how Christianity can humanize society. Vincent’s charity engendered justice and therefore charity is not some form of ecstasy but rather it is the intervention of a powerful force that day by day establishes greater justice in the world.
Vincent always felt that the poor had a claim on his life: I think I would offend God if I did not do all in my power for the poor country people (CCD:IV:561).
Vincent’s life was one of social action but some of his actions were more significant than others. It is impossible to list them all here but they are well known by the members of the Vincentian Family: events such as those that occurred in Châtillon-les-domes and Mason, the work among the galley salves and the foundlings, the ministry at the Hospice du Nom-de-Jésus, the education and promotion of women, the established of the Congregation of the Mission and the Company of the Daughters of Charity … all of these events make us mindful of Vincent’s incredible activity on behalf of those persons who were poor.
2. To save the poor with the poor
The Good News is essentially the proclamation of liberation. Vincent considered the passage from Saint Luke’s gospel (Luke 4:18-19) as the foundational text of his Congregation. He referred to this text when he explained to the Missionaries that their vocation was a continuation of that of Jesus Christ (CCD:XI:121-122; XII:70-71, 298-299).
Good News for the poor, what a program! To proclaim freedom to all those who are enchained by ignorance, evil and misery … yes, the Good News is an incredible program. Guided by the realities of his time Vincent engaged in specific social actions that led to liberation. By his mission and his charity Vincent restored sight to the blind and proclaimed a time of freedom.
Through an interior liberation that is the fruit of faith, Vincent suffered the pain of the poor and made every effort to free them from their suffering, to find a solution to their situation. Through organized charity Vincent was able to care for the multitudes who were starving to death as a result of the on-going wars; he was able to comfort prisoners and the galley slaves.
Vincent presented this model of prophetic action to the Daughters of Charity when he spoke with them about the virtues of Sister Jeanne Dalmagne: she had a great liberty of spirit regarding whatever concerned the glory of God … One day hearing that certain rich people had evaded their taxes, with the result that the poor were overburdened, she told them outright that it was contrary to justice and that God would punish them for such extortions. And when I remarked to her that she had spoken out very boldly, she answered that, when there was a question of God’s glory and the welfare of poor persons, we must never be afraid to speak the truth (XXD:IX:153-154). Sister Jeanne certainly learned from Vincent that liberty of spirit to defend the poor and to defend them even before the rich and powerful.
Jean Anouilh, the writer of the film, Monsieur Vincent, put in the mouth of Vincent the following words, words that he spoke after having met Marguerite Naseau: Thank you, God, for having sent me this poor young woman. In her simplicity she has understand the same reality that I have come to understand, namely, we will save the poor with the poor.
The liberating work of Saint Vincent requires: ---that events be read as signs of the time; ---that the poor evangelize the poor; ---that we live together as sisters and brothers; ---that the ministry of liberation takes into consideration the whole person; ---that the ministry of liberation be embraced and accepted by all as Church; ---that in this ministry of liberation we encourage the cultivation of sensitivity, prudence, vigilance, attention to detail, patience, kindness, listening, attentiveness to all people and a willingness to accept risks; ---that we include in our ministry a concern for the spiritual advancement of people; ---that we provide work for those who are poor; ---that we give alms to those people who are unable to work. All of these values constitute the basis for Vincentian social action.
3. We are doing an act of justice not of mercy
Vincent’s thinking with regard to the question of justice is summed up with the following words that are surprising for a man of the seventeenth century: God will grant you the grace, Monsieur, of softening our hearts toward the wretched creatures and of realizing that in helping them we are doing an act of justice and not of mercy (CCD:VII:115). There is no act of charity that is not accompanied by justice (CCD:II:68).
Vincent, motivated by Jesus Christ, made a radical option for the poor … one in which he committed himself to spend his whole life in service to the poor. Vincent would not have understood what we today call the preferential, but not exclusive, option for the poor. Vincent’s option was serious and real … he opted for the poor. If we examine the life and writings of Saint Vincent within the social context of that era, we become aware of the fact that he was a great defender of justice. In fact some people say that justice would not have the prominence that it does today if it were not for the inventive genius of Vincent’s charity and the connections that he saw between charity and justice.
Vincent was poor and had first-hand experience of the injustices that the people of Landes suffered. Because of this understanding some have concluded that Vincentian charity is not only organized for the poor but is also organized by the poor. Vincent, as a poor peasant, understood the importance of maintaining one’s dignity even in the midst of great poverty. He realized that in the depths of poor people there was a hidden dignity and pride that had to be respected. Therefore it was necessary to be sensitive and respectful when dealing with poor women and men, especially when giving them needed alms.
I know them by experience and by nature, since I am the son of a humble tiller of the soil, and lived in the country until I was fifteen (CCD:IX:67).
Vincentian charity, before becoming a reality that is done for the poor, must be a reality that is done by the poor, by poor people who are painfully aware of the ever present injustices, who are aware of the merits, values, pride and dignity of those people who are poor, realities that are often not recognized or else they are recognized but nonetheless ignored.
Vincent, as a young man, was one of the privileged individuals of his time. He was able to obtain an education, able to read and write, able to better himself. He obtained that which the families of his villages dreamed about and hoped to provide for their children. Vincent soon realized that the simple act of studying, of acquiring a certain degree of knowledge and culture, opened doors, gained respect, and restored dignity. Several times in his letters and conferences he referred to the time when he was a poor swine herder. He knew that, like the majority of his friends in Pouy, it would have been very easy for him to pass all the days of his life in the midst of the harsh realities of the peasants of that era.
The servant of charity … was he not also the saint of justice? Obviously Saint Vincent was more interested in the practice of charity than the practice of justice, but in reality he placed justice in the first place. He asked that we believe that when we assist the poor we are doing a work of justice and not one of mercy. He spoke these words two years before he died, at a time when, as a result of his faith and experience, he had a clearer understanding of reality, at a time when he was creating a synthesis of his life.
4. The rights of the poor
Vincent became accustomed to confront poverty directly. He attempted to understand its causes and in this way he could provide the best solutions. In the midst of the multiple calamities that afflicted the people of France during the seventeenth century, Vincent, because of the many works that he initiated on behalf of humanity, became known as the Father of the Nation.
The famous rights of man that the Revolution boasted as their invention (rights, however, which the Revolution never respected) were silently and slowly introduced into Vincent’s social plan (a plan that was the result of Vincent’s faith and experience) and these rights were held forth as the objectives of all charitable ministry and thus were seen as the self-evident rights of every human person.
Let us look at some examples:
• Among all the rights, the right to life is fundamental … Because Vincent believed in the God of life, he struggled tirelessly and sought collaborators who would commit themselves to this right to life. This meant specifically: looking for solutions to the hunger that afflicted beggars, alleviating the torments and sufferings of the galley salves and prisoners, confronting the abandonment of children on the streets, providing education and work to the multitudes of uneducated and unemployed men and women. We are well aware of the work that Vincent undertook with regard to the foundlings. We are also well aware of his work with the people living in the countryside and the vocational therapy that he created for the elderly, the care that he organized and provided for the infirm, the defense of the galley slaves and prisoners and the respect he showed toward those who were poor, especially those most rejected by society. We can affirm that all of Vincent’s ministry was a defense of life and a ministry that bestowed dignity upon the poor.
• The poor have the right to “their daily bread” but they died of hunger and the consequences of war … Vincent arranged the distribution of food and supplies to the victims of war.
• The poor have the right to health care but their life was endangered by epidemics and the plague and multiple illnesses … Vincent established hospitals and provided for the care of the sick poor in their homes.
• The poor have the right to a roof over their head but they were removed from their lands and homes as a result of the on-going wars. They became nomads and emigrants .. Vincent organized places where these masses of people could be received and cared for.
• The poor have the right to be able to live with dignity when they are older, but like the foundlings, they were abandoned and left to struggle along … Vincent organized hospices and small shelters where the elderly were cared for by the Daughters of Charity.
• The poor have the right to work. The wars, however, devastated their fields and crops and the people had no resources. They had no work and were starving … Vincent attempted to attend to these situations and responded to the immediate needs of the people. His sent his Missionaries to those areas and they distributed seeds, plows and other tools that enabled the people to cultivate their land and in this way the poor were able to provide for themselves.
• The poor have the right to an education but at that time in France 80% of the population was illiterate … Vincent and Louise created schools for poor children. Here we remember Marguerite Naseau who taught herself to read and write and then, in turn, taught others. We also remember that the majority of the Daughters of Charity were from the countryside and many of them did not know how to read or write. They were sent to the Ursuline Community where they spent time with the Sisters and learned how to read and write. Then they returned to their own community where they taught the foundlings. Thus, in a country where the majority of people were illiterate, the children, whom society called the cursed of God, learned to read and write thanks to the inventive love of Vincent and the solidarity and tireless efforts of the Daughters of Charity. Vincent told the Daughters that they should feel unworthy of this work and that the angels of God should be the teachers of these children because such is the dignity of these little ones!
The creation of workshops became a common norm for the Confraternities of Charity. We see this idea expressed in the Rules that governed the Charities in Folleville, Paillart, Servillers, Maçon and others. The young men who received this training in the workshops where to present themselves with their parents and in the presence of the community they made a commitment to teach others the trade that they had just learned. In this way the ministry of the Confraternities became a ministry of communion and participation.
5. Alms are not for those individuals who are able to work
Vincent was insistent on the fact that evangelization was a process of integral human promotion and he attempted to empower the poor to become subjects, who through their own efforts, would be able to provide for themselves.
On April 16, 1651, Vincent wrote Marc Coglée, the superior in Sedan: While waiting to be able to share your letters with the Ladies who are helping the people in the ruined border areas and to find out from them whether you might extend your distribution to Huguenots, as well as Catholics, and to the poor people who can work on the fortifications, as well as the sick and infirm, I can tell you that their original intention was to assist only those who cannot work nor earn their living and would be in danger of dying of starvation if someone did not assist them. In fact, as soon as anyone is strong enough to work, tools of his trade are bought for him and nothing more is given to him. Accordingly, the alms are not for those able to work on the fortifications or to do something else, but for seriously ill sick persons, orphans, or the elderly (CCD:IV:188).
Vincent recommended that the distribution of alms had to be organized and in an act of confidence toward the Missionaries who were closer to the scene, he wrote: I approve in advance whatever you both agree to do (CCD:IV:189)
We must point out that in Saint Vincent’s mind the poor had to be provided for because they were poor and it did not matter whether they were Catholic or Huguenot. The document of Puebla affirms the same idea: For this reason alone, the poor merit preferential attention, whatever may be the moral or personal situation in which they find themselves. Made in the image and likeness of God to be his children, this image is dimmed and even defiled. That is why God takes on their defense and loves them. That is why the poor are the first ones to whom Jesus’ mission is directed, and why the evangelization of the poor is the supreme sign and proof of his mission (Puebla, #1142).
Vincent stressed the need to know those people who are most poor and who cannot work or earn their living (CCD:IV:188). For charity to be effective, it is necessary to know the needs of each place and the needs of each individual in said place. Resources should not be given to individuals who are able to work, rather they should be given the tools they need to exercise their trade. Men should be given tools to cultivate the land and women should be given different materials that they can spin or sew. People should be encouraged to save so that when peace is once again established, these individuals can return to their homes and lands and begin anew. It is interesting to note that Vincent asked for reports about all these different efforts so that he could provide this information to the parishes in Paris in an effort to raise more funds.
Vincent was not only involved in an intense work to distribute alms to those who were in need and not only engaged in efforts to organize the promotion of the poor who were able to work but he also played an important role in what today we would refer to as efforts at structural change.
6. War and peace
In a general way we can say that the time in which Saint Vincent lived was a century of wars: religious wars, civil wars, foreign wars (Islam was a constant threat to Christianity).
Vincent, who had consecrated his life to the poor, was particularly concerned about those people who became the victims of these horrendous situations. He was not satisfied with collaborating in these efforts but he himself organized collections and sent food and clothing and supplies to those who had been devastated by the wars. We have the accounts of the Missionaries who were sent to these war torn areas. Besides evangelization and the celebration of the sacraments, Vincent buried the dead, nourished the survivors and provided them with the necessary tools so that they could once again engage in their labor. These tools, seeds and plows became available as a result of the collections that were taken up in Paris. In Paris, Vincent organized the efforts to provide shelter for the countless refugees, among whom were religious women, young defenseless women, nobles and countless numbers of peasants and their families.
It was not that Vincent had this great desire to enter into political and structural matters but rather it was the poor who led Vincent to the center of these complicated political situations. Vincent could not remain passive while people were dying all around him.
In an attempt to bring an end to this most destructive situation, Vincent spoke directly with Cardinal Richelieu. Those who have studied the life of Saint Vincent consider this event as his first political intervention.
During the war of the Fronde (1648-1653), a civil war in which opposing sides sought greater power, the vast majority of people endured great suffering. Mazarin, the Prime Minister, was detested. Vincent was bold and asked him to resign in order to save the people, especially those who were poor. J. Mauduit viewed Vincent’s proposal as one of the great political acts of the century.
Since those negotiations produced no results, Vincent wrote to Pope Innocent X (August 16, 1652) and described in an artful manner the sufferings of a divided kingdom: provinces devastated; land and homes and barns burned and destroyed and trampled upon by the soldiers; farmers unable to cultivate the land; young women raped; looting and torture had become everyday realities for the poor.
Another “political” intervention occurred in 1653 when Cardinal de Retz (fleeing from Cardinal Mazarin) sought refuge in the house of the Congregation in Rome. Mazarin was angered and sought vengeance. He ordered the priests of the Mission to leave Rome. Vincent met with Mazarin and had a lengthy conversation with him. The cardinal ceded and the house in Rome was not closed.
Vincent’s desire for peace did not lead him in the direction of absolute pacifism and this is seen especially in regard to Islam. At the end of his life, after having mediated peace in so many different situations and after having sought peace through peaceful means, Vincent became involved in violent project to destroy Islam.
In 1658 Brother Barreau, consul in Algeria, was once again taken hostage by the Turks. The younger of the Le Vacher brothers, Philippe, had returned to France in order to collect funds for the release of Brother Barreau. Vincent took advantage of this situation to put into print a request for the people to collaborate in this effort. However, he not only dealt with the situation of Brother Barreay but with the situation of thousands of French citizens in Algeria. Vincent was pained by the situation of French citizens there and yet found it impossible to raise the necessary funds that would obtain the release of all of them.
During this time Vincent met a man named Paul who offered to go on an armed expedition to Algeria and free the French captives. Vincent saw this project as the only means to solve the problem of slavery in Algeria. Several unexpected events delayed the expedition but Vincent did not lose hope. His last letter, dated September 17, 1660 (ten days before his death), dealt with this matter. The expedition failed but Vincent never became aware of this because he had died. During the final days of his life he had hoped to rescue the many people who were held as captives in Algeria. This final undertaking of his life was inconclusive and we ask: what motivated the gentle and charitable Vincent to support an armed expedition? The response is that that fruit of the experiences that he had lived motivated him to become involved in this project. When dealing with the Turks Vincent felt that neither diplomatic negotiations nor money made any difference, therefore the only way to deal with them was through an armed expedition.
7. Vincentian lines of action
In his social works on behalf of those in need, Vincent has left us an example or a model in which we see the beginnings of a Vincentian manner of exercising charity and providing service to the poor.
---Begin with the reality and listen to the voice of God in the cries of the poor … interpret events as signs of the time.
---Compassion and solidarity are the attitudes that are demanded of all those who desire to give witness to their faith through social action, that is, through effective charity. Vincent was a practical theologian who adhered to the theology of the Mystical Body which the church used in order to delineate a theology of solidarity.
---Joy, gentleness, respect, cordiality and devotion, Vincent invited his followers to clothe themselves in these attitudes because the poor are their lords and masters: Oh yes, Sisters! They are our masters. That is why you must treat them gently and kindly (CCD:IX:97).
---Personal contact with the poor was for Saint Vincent a prominent reality in his life. This contact was irreplaceable since it was in those encounters with the poor that he discovered sacramentally Jesus Christ. Therefore he placed the Missionaries and all his followers in contact with the poor … We should continue to be mindful of visiting families in their homes. ---Affective and effective love. Vincent had a sixth sense for the poor that led him to an affective and effective love for those individuals. Vincent saw the poor in a unique way, as though the poor man or woman who was before him was the only person who had to be cared for … Vincent followed the example of his teacher and master, Jesus Christ.
Today it is instructive for us to examine the life of Vincent and see him as a priest who engaged in a process of evangelization in which he was not only concerned about the spiritual dimension of the human person but also concerned about the physical/material well-being of the person; to see him as a priest who attempted to provide for the poor in a very practical way that which was their right in theory; to see him as a priest who was involved in the concerns of his time as an artesian of peace.
Hopefully during this Jubilee Year, this time of justice and solidarity, the sons and daughters of Saint Vincent will follow his example and with his spirit and incredible constancy will not only collaborate in those efforts to bring relief to those persons who suffer the evils that are provoked by injustice, selfishness, and war but will also engage in a process that leads them to understand the root causes of these situations and thus enables them to attack the causes of the multiple forms of poverty.
Christians, in general, and we, as members of the Vincentian Family, lack a sound political formation. We have to become convinced that faith has a social dimension that leads us to seek the common good and to defend the rights of the human person, especially those who are poor.
With a mistaken idea about the meaning of holiness, it might be asked: why would a saint get involved in matters concerning human rights and justice and war and peace? These are matters that should be dealt with by kings and the military and politicians but not saints. To correct this mistaken concept of holiness one only has to remember the message that the Synod of Bishops communicated to the world in 1985: The Spirit leads us to discover that today holiness is not possible unless it involves a commitment to justice and a solidarity with the poor and the oppressed.
If this is so, and Jesus Christ himself affirmed this when he said whatever is done to the poor is done to him and whatever is not done for the poor is not done for him (Matthew 25:40-45), then the holiness of Vincent, (the saint of solidarity with every form of human misery, the servant of the poor who were his lords and masters), has to be great. Justice and solidarity are inseparable from the Christian charism which is the source of all holiness.
Vincent was involved in the problems of his era and from the perspective of his faith he engaged in action, but action that was not simply the actions of an individual. Rather his work can be viewed as what we today would call political charity or the politics of charity. Thus, we see that Vincent worked for peace and justice and the common good of society.
Today, because of our better understanding of Vincent and history and sociology we have become aware of the fact that Vincent was not only engaged in an incredible work of assisting those who were poor but we now realize that this ministry was one of human promotion and also one that involved him in systemic change. It is very clear that Vincent attempted to do everything that was possible for the poor because they were his concern and his sorrow (Louis Abelly, Volume iii, p. 117). On behalf of the poor Vincent gave his life; on behalf of the poor Vincent knocked on every door and went wherever he had to go. His faith and experience had taught him that the priest played a fundamental role in the human promotion of people. The process of evangelization that the priest engages in has to be integral and liberating and also should be marked by a strong presence of social action and justice. The priest that Vincent desired had to be willing to struggle against the evils that enslave the People of God. He ought to be an agent of social change and this is what Saint Vincent attempted to be during those years of turmoil.
Translated Charles T. Plock, C.M.