Vincent de Paul and Faith
[This article appeared in Volume I of En tiempos de San Vicente de Paúl … y hoy, Editorial CEME, Santa Marta de Tormes (Salamanca) Spain, 1997, p. 189-199. The above cited work was translated from the French by Martín Abaitua, CM (Au tempts de St. Vincent-de-Paul… et aujourd ‘hui), Animation Vicentienne, 16, Grande rue Saínt-Michel, Toulouse, France … this work is not attributed to any one author but it is stated in the Introduction that the articles were written by various authors].
Presentation of the theme
A new world view, a new understanding of human relationships and the relationship between nature and human beings undermined the faith of the western world. A long and bloody crisis resulted in people who, in the words of a Protestant writer, were once “crazy about God” now were killing one another “in the name of God.” After restoring doctrinal integrity as a result of the Council of Trent, after the Edict of Nantes established provisional peace in religious and social matters, some individuals made their presence felt by the way they cared for and loved their brothers and sisters as well as by the way they cared for and loved one another.
The long crisis of faith that had shaken Christianity was provisionally resolved through a sudden burst of activity and an unprecedented social movement. Vincent de Paul was part of that movement.
Vincent’s family, with their peasant background, openly professed and lived their faith … there were no doubts or hesitations. Their faith rested on the foundation of an ordered universe in which everything had its place, in which (despite many miseries) nothing was questioned. This universe was composed of some saints and also some sinners who knew they were sinners. When Vincent de Paul left the home of his parents, he was in fact, changing his universe. He entered a turbulent world of new ideas, a world that was still recovering from sixty years of civil war and that had not yet forgotten the sight of the blood that was shed. Despite its seeming order, Vincent discovered a material and moral poverty in the midst of the word… these were unexpected and surprising discoveries. The categories of his faith had not prepared him for such a discovery … he thus vacillated before the clash of values and attitudes. Everything that he saw and heard further diminished the certainty of his thinking and he found that all his plans were completely changed. Though there was no ray of light that that threw him from his horse (as happened to the Apostle Paul), nevertheless, Vincent experienced disorientation and blindness … he did not know what to think or what to do … he entered a crisis of faith in which his whole being became completely and profoundly unsettled.
Thus Vincent began a long journey that would eventually allow him to see anew. He escaped to the de Gondi estate where he was assured a problem-free future … a future which his past seemed to have prepared him for. Leaving behind his past, however, Vincent became like Abraham or, better still, became like Paul who was blinded and led by the hand to Damascus where he was told what he had to do. As Vincent entered more fully into this unknown world he was led to the bedside of the infirm at the Hotel-Dieu, he was led to the home of the infirm and poor family in Châtillon, he was led to the bedside of the dying man in Gannes and led to the dungeons of the galley slaves. These were the evils and wounds and scars that Jesus spoke about … the wounds and scars that Jesus had suggested could be healed and also suggested how they could be healed … the wounds and scars of the Risen Christ that Thomas has been invited to put his fingers on and as a result his faith was restored.
Vincent’s life was transformed as a result of these different encounters that we have referred to. Those events were the key that led him to a spiritual world that was both uncomfortable and yet open to far distant and unknown horizons. In the eyes of the poor men and women Vincent discovered the gaze of Jesus Christ. It was Vincent’s faith that impelled him to engage in various initiatives to confront the situations of misery and to engage in a process of evangelization and material relief on behalf of the poor.
Francis de Sales had taught people to view God as a Father and to love God rather than to fear God. After having discovered anew the God of Jesus Christ in the humble and suffering men and women, Vincent’s faith enabled him to look lovingly and kindly upon those people. Just as the nature of a fire is to spread as far as possible so too Vincent, through faith, communicated the passion of his charity to all those individuals who collaborated with him in his various initiatives and activities. So many people followed Vincent that society itself was transformed and became more hospitable.
Two individual who eulogized Vincent referred to the power of his faith and the extension of his influence. Bossuet, as he spoke about the conferences that Vincent gave to the priest (the Tuesday conferment in which he himself has participated) repeated the words of the disciples traveling on the road to Emmaus: Were not our hearts burning within us while he spoke to us on the way and opened the scriptures for us (Luke 24:32). Henri de Maupau du Tour, the bishop of Puy, spoke about Vincent’s activity and stated that he had completely transformed the face of the church in France.
At the close of the twentieth century we, like the people of Vincent’s era, are confronted with a crisis which has picked up speed and unfortunately, we do not know the consequences that will follow. Our faith and the faith of our contemporaries is shaken. If we define our faith with categories from our past, even our most recent past, then we have no roots in this world. The ways in which young people continue to search for faith are clear indications that we need a new approach. That which at one time had great meaning for us often has no meaning for young people. The expression of our faith and the way we translate our faith into our daily life has to be re-invented. It is useless to act, as some of us do, as though we can return to some “ideal and glorious past”. If we continue to act in that way we will never discover a new path. Who will point out those paths to us? Whom will we meet on this journey? Hopefully, like Vincent, we will meet the poor whose very existence is a challenge to society because their misery is a denunciation of the established order. If through faith we know how to discover Jesus Christ in the poor then it will be our contact with the poor that will guide us and indeed the poor will point out to us the path that we must follow. The poor will tell us how to proclaim the gospel so that it can be understood. Indeed, as we discover the misery of the poor, they will show us the evils and the flaws of the larger society. For the poor and with the poor we ought to prepare and gather together the people who will form the church of tomorrow and form a society that lives in solidarity … these are the realities that our world awaits.
Saint Vincent and Faith
Vincent gave witness to the fact that his charitable activity --- all his initiatives and institutions --- was grounded on and justified by faith. Certainly his encounter with and his experience of misery and injustice provoked and impelled him to act. Nevertheless, he affirmed that everything was inspired by faith and therefore, was concluded in faith.
Therefore one might imagine that Vincent’s journey of faith was easy and effortless. Yet it took Vincent thirty-six years to arrive at that place where God awaited him. We are able to distinguish three distinct states in this journey.
The Faith of the poor peasants
The poor and believing family of Vincent is where Vincent himself was formed in the faith. It was in the midst of his family that Vincent developed his faith during the first fifteen years of his live. Later Vincent referred to his background in order to highlight its blessings and its limitations: It will be easy for me to speak to you about the virtues of good village girls because 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).
“…God has chosen persons who are poor to make them rich in faith…”
The words cited in the last paragraph introduce the January 25th, 1643 conference to the Daughters of Charity and is a clear example of the way in which Vincent referred to his family and the other persons whom he knew during the first fifteen years of his life. Reflecting on those individuals and on the debt that he owed to them Vincent affirmed: God has chosen persons who are poor to make them rich in faith. For poor persons, faith is indeed a great possession, because a lively faith draws from God all we can reasonably hope for. If you're truly poor, Sisters, you're even more truly rich, for God is your all. Trust God, dear Sisters. Has anyone ever heard that those who trust in God's promises have been deceived? That has never been seen and never will be. Yes, Sisters, God is faithful to His promises and trusting in Him is a very good thing. Furthermore, this confidence is the entire wealth of the Daughters of Charity and their guarantee. How happy you'll be, Sisters, if you never lack this confidence, for then you'll be true Daughters of Charity and will share in the spirit and good practices of true village girls, who should be your model, since God has made use of them, first and foremost, to begin your Company (CCD:IX:74).
“…It’s among those poor people that true religion is preserved…”
In the repetition of prayer, July 24th, 1655, Vincent described the misery and the injustice (war and hunger) that the poor had to confront and he exclaimed: If there’s a true religion . . . what did I say, wretched man that I am. . .! God forgive me! I’m speaking materially. It’s among them, among those poor people that true religion and a living faith are preserved; they believe simply, without dissecting everything; they submit to orders and are patient amid the abject poverty they have to suffer as long as it pleases God, some from the wars, others from working all day long in the great heat of the sun; poor vine dressers, who give us their labor, who expect us to pray for them while they wear themselves out to feed us! (CCD:XI:190).
“…I was once a country Pastor … a pretty miserable Pastor…”
In this text Vincent recalls his experience in Clichy (1612) which put him in contact with the poor people who lived in countryside. Even though his recollections were evoked by the theme of the conference (obedience) nevertheless, we find here an expression of Vincent’s admiration for the simple faith of the poor. I was once a country Pastor (a pretty miserable Pastor!). I had such good people, who were so obedient in doing what I asked of them that, when I told them they should come to confession on the first Sunday of the month, they didn't fail to do it. They came to confession, and I saw from day to day the progress these souls were making. That gave me so much consolation, and I was so pleased with it, that I used to say to myself, “Mon Dieu! how happy you are to have such good people!” … And one day Cardinal de Retz asked me, “Monsieur, how are you?” I said to him, “Your Eminence, I can't tell you how happy I am.” “Why?” he asked. “Because I have such good people, so obedient to all that I tell them that it seems to me that neither the Holy Father nor you, Eminence, are as happy as I am.” Yes, Sisters, when a man sees his flock advancing in the way of obedience, he's wonderfully consoled (CCD:IX:507-508).
“…The Church has no worse enemies…”
While admiring the faith and the religion of poor people, Vincent also knew their limitations which, according to him, were due more to the fault of the priests than the fault of the poor. The Church has no worse enemies than priests. It’s from them that heresies have come; take those two heresiarchs Luther and Calvin, who were priests; and it’s through priests that heretics have prevailed, vice has reigned, and ignorance has set up its throne among the poor people. All that is due to their own dissoluteness and failure to oppose with all their might, in accord with their obligations, those three torrents that have inundated the world (CCD:XII:76).
Faith in crisis
During his early years Vincent participated with his parents an his family in the simple, well-grounded faith of the poor. His studies and reading and travels … his stay in Paris and his search for an honorable retirement … perhaps a certain laziness … made Vincent vacillate. For three years Vincent found himself in the midst of a crisis caused by doubt and scruples. We find some echo of what he himself suffered in the account that he has left us regarding the temptations against the faith that a friend of his endured.
“…Since he was no longer preaching or teaching catechism…”
I knew a famous theologian, who had long defended the Catholic faith against heretics in his capacity of Canon Theologian of a diocese. When the late Queen Marguerite sent for him to be with her because of his learning and piety, he had to leave his ministry; since he was no longer preaching or teaching catechism, he was assailed in his idleness by a violent temptation against faith. This teaches us, in passing, how dangerous it is to remain idle, either in body or in mind, for just as the land, no matter how fertile it may be, if allowed to lie fallow, it immediately produces thistles and thorns, so our soul cannot remain idle very long without experiencing certain passions or temptations that lead it to do evil. So, when this theologian found himself in this distressing state, he came to me saying that he was troubled by very violent temptations against faith and was having horrible, blasphemous thoughts against Jesus Christ --- and even of despair --- to the point of feeling himself driven to jump out a window. He was reduced to such an extremity that, in the end, he had to stop praying his Breviary and celebrating Holy Mass ---and even saying any prayers. So much so that, when he simply began to say the Pater, he seemed to see a thousand phantoms, who greatly disturbed him. His imagination was so dry, and his mind so exhausted from struggling to make acts disclaiming his temptations, that he couldn’t formulate a single prayer. Being in this pitiful state, then, it was suggested that he do the following: each and every time he turned his hand or one of his fingers toward the city of Rome or even toward some church, this gesture and act would mean that he believed everything the Roman Church believed. And what happened after all that? God finally had mercy on that poor theologian; when he fell sick, he was instantly delivered from all his temptations. The blindfold of obscurity was suddenly removed from his eyes and his mind; he began to see all the truths of faith, but with such clarity that he seemed to feel and touch them with his finger. He finally died, lovingly thanking God for allowing him to fall into those temptations, for raising him up so successfully from them, and for giving him such great, admirable dispositions regarding the Mysteries of our religion (CCD:XI:26-27).
Abelly, Vincent’s first biographer, places the temptation of the theologian in a direct relationship to the crisis that Vincent experienced. Here is Abelly’s account.
At the same time, God in his divine wisdom permitted this same temptation to trouble the soul of Monsieur Vincent. This beset him for a long time after. He had recourse to prayer and self-denial to rid himself of this trial, but these had no other effect than to allow him to bear these torments from hell with patience and resignation, always with the hope that God would pity him. Since he realized that God wished to try him in permitting the devil to attack him so violently, he had recourse to two remedies. The first was to write out a profession of faith which he placed over his heart as an antidote to his trials. He specifically repudiated any thoughts contrary to faith, and entered into a sort of pact with the Savior that every time he placed his hand over his heart and upon this paper, as he often did, he intended by the gesture to renounce temptation, all without saying a single word. At the same time he raised his mind to God and easily diverted it from the thoughts which troubled him. In this way he confounded the devil without directly confronting him. The second remedy he used was to do the exact opposite of what the tempter suggested, striving to act by faith in rendering honor and service to Jesus Christ. He carried this out particularly in his visits to the sick poor of the charity hospital in the faubourg Saint Germain where he lived at the time. This charitable practice is among the most meritorious in Christianity since it bears witness to faith in the Savior’s words and example and to the desire to serve him; Jesus himself said that what was done to the least of his brethren he would regard as done to himself. God allowed Monsieur Vincent to draw such grace from this period of temptations that not only did he never have occasion to confess any fault in this regard, but on the contrary the remedies he used were the source of numerable blessings drawn down upon his soul. Three or four years passed in this severe trial which bore down upon Monsieur Vincent, and he groaned before God under their weight. Yet, seeking to strengthen himself more surely against the attacks of the devil, he thought of taking a firm and unbreakable resolve to honor Jesus Christ and to imitate him more perfectly than ever before by committing his entire life to the service of the poor. No sooner had he done this than, by a marvelous effect of grace, all the suggestions of the evil one disappeared. His heart, which had been so troubled for such a long time, was suddenly freed, and his soul filled with such abundant light that he admitted on several occasions that he seemed to realize the truths of faith with remarkable clarity (Abelly III:115-116).
The faith of Vincent de Paul
It is 1617, in Gannes-Folleville, a little beyond Châtillon-les-Dombes … there Vincent finally discovered the faith which would give a direction to his life of charity. Yes, the peasant roots of his faith remained in place and there is no doubt that he was enriched by the crisis that assaulted him, but Vincent’s faith would take on a new significance as he encountered and served those persons who were poor.
A] The event
In Gannes-Folleville, as in Châtillon, Vincent found God, found Jesus Christ. He found the God of Jesus Christ in the poor and this experience of God in the poor became “the way, the truth, and the life” for Vincent.
“…That’s not human; it’s from God…”
When I consider the means God was pleased to use in bringing the Company to birth in his Church, I confess that I don’t know where I am, and everything I see seems to be a dream. Oh! That’s not human; it’s from God. Would you call human what human understanding didn’t foresee and what the human will neither sought after nor desired in any way whatsoever? Poor M. Portailll never thought of it; neither did I; it has all come about contrary to my every hope and without my ever thinking of it in any way. When I consider that and see the ministries of the Company, it truly seems like a dream to me, and I think I’m dreaming; I can’t explain it to you. It’s like the poor prophet Habakkuk, whom an angel grabbed by the hair of his head and carried off a great distance to console Daniel, who was in the lions’ den; then the angel brought him back to the place where he had seized him and, when the prophet saw himself in the same place from which he had set out, he thought he had dreamed all that. Would you call the origin of our missions human? (CCD:XII:6-7).
“…It was God, not I…”
It may be said in truth that it's God who established your Company. I was thinking about this again today and I said to myself, Did you ever dream of founding a Company of Sisters? Oh no, not I! Was it Mile Le Gras? Just as little. I can tell you in all truth that I never thought of it. Who then had the idea of establishing in the Church of God a Company of women and Daughters of Charity wearing ordinary attire? That wouldn't have seemed possible. Yes, I did think about the ones [the Charities] in the parishes, but I can tell you once again that it was God, and not I (CCD:IX:165).
B] Reflection on the event
Vincent never ceased to explore and deepen his understanding (through prayer and action) of the experience of 1617. His reflection revolved around four themes:
“…To empty oneself…”
In order for the experience of 1617 to occur Vincent had to renounce his human plan with regard to an honorable retirement … thus he often recalled the fact that faith always supposes self-emptying: For, take my word for it, my dear confreres, it’s an infallible maxim of Jesus Christ, which I’ve often proclaimed to you on his behalf, that, as soon as a heart is empty of self, God fills it. God remains and acts in it; and it’s the desire for shame that empties us of ourselves; that’s humility, holy humility. Then it won’t be ourselves acting but God acting in us, and all will go well (CCD:XI:281).
“…We live in Jesus Christ…”
Vincent’s faith is centered on Jesus Christ. After 1617 Vincent became a whole-hearted follower of Jesus Christ in order to continue the mission of Jesus Christ and to imitate Jesus Christ, the evangelizer of the poor. Vincent continually encountered Jesus Christ in the poor and this Jesus took possession of Vincent’s person and life: Remember, Monsieur, we live in Jesus Christ through the death of Jesus Christ, and we must die in Jesus Christ through the life of Jesus Christ, and our life must be hidden in Jesus Christ and filled with Jesus Christ and in order to die as Jesus Christ, we must live as Jesus Christ (CCD:I:276).
“…He refers them to the Church…”
Vincent lived during a turbulent era, at a time when the Church was deeply divided. We highlight here the fact that the poor, as always, were the primary victims of this havoc. In light of that situation, Vincent reminded the priests about the obligation to be faithful to the Church. On April 2, 1657 he wrote to Jean des Lions, the dean of Senlis and stated: If you expect God to send an angel to enlighten you more fully, he will not do so. He refers you to the Church, and the Church assembled in Trent refers you to the Holy See for the subject in question, as is apparent from the last chapter of this Council. If you expect Saint Augustine himself to return to explain himself, Our Lord has told us that if we do not believe the Scriptures, we will not believe what those returned from the dead will tell us. And even if it were possible for this great saint to return, he would submit to the Sovereign Pontiff, as he did before (CCD:VI:293).
“…when it comes to the point of doing something…”
Having emptied himself and having united himself to Jesus Christ and then living in an on-going state of faithfulness to the Church, faith had finally become for Vincent the principle that guided his actions and his commitment. What Vincent called “effective love” became a sign of his integrity, without which there would have been no faith. The text which we reference below is an echo of that pivotal experience of 1617. Let us love God, brothers, let us love God, but let it be with the strength of our arms and the sweat of our brows; for very often many acts of love of God, of devotion, and of other similar affections and interior practices of a tender heart, although very good and desirable, are, nevertheless, very suspect if they don’t translate into the practice of effective love. “By this,” says Our Lord, “is my Father glorified, that you may bear much fruit." We have to be very careful about that; for there are many who, recollected exteriorly, and filled with lofty sentiments of God interiorly, stop at that, and when it comes to the point of doing something, and they have the opportunity to act, they come up short. They flatter themselves with their ardent imagination; they’re satisfied with the sweet conversations they have with God in meditation and even speak of them like angels; but when they leave there, if there’s a question of working for God, of suffering, of mortifying themselves, of instructing poor persons, of going in search of the lost sheep, of being happy when they lack something, or of accepting sickness or some other misfortune, alas! they’re no longer around; their courage fails them. No, no, let’s not fool ourselves: Totum opus nostrum in operatione consistit [All our work consists in action] (CCD:XI:32-33).
Questions for reflection and dialogue
A] Our first steps in the journey of faith ---with whom did I begin my journey of faith? ---how did I express my faith?
B] A faith that is proven … today I do not believe in the same way as I did yesterday ---have I experienced some crisis of faith? ---how have present day events influenced my faith?
C] One has to empty oneself in order to clothe oneself in Christ ---how have I engaged in this process of self-emptying? ---do I allow “others” to interrupt my life? ---do I share my faith with others?
Translated: Charles T. Plock