Vincent de Paul and the Spirit of Service

From Vincentian Encyclopedia

[This article appeared in Volume II of En tiempos de San Vicente de Paúl … y hoy, Editorial CEME, Santa Marta de Tormes (Salamanca) Spain, 1997, p. 79-89. 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

Vincent de Paul was born into the world of the poor country people, a world in which his feet were firmly planted on the ground, a world in which people are not easily fooled: people are judged not by what they say or by what they appear to be. Indeed, Vincent would continually move beyond appearances as he searched for “the true person”. Vincent did not allow himself to be impressed by the title or rank of an individual nor by how a person might first appear … to use Vincent’s words, it is necessary to turn the medal (CCD:XI:26) [1].

Nevertheless from the time of his youth Vincent was obliged to become involved in another world, the world of “appearances” and he would have to be involved in that world during his entire life. This was the world of the nobles and the bourgeoisie. Individuals in that world were known by their titles and if they did not have any title, then they bought one. The lifestyle in that world was imposed upon them: one had a house with maids and servants and those servants cared for one’s every need including dressing and bathing. They were not all gifted with the humor of Cyrano de Bergerac in whose mouth Rostand placed the following words: I am my stylishness! In order to maintain their status and to continue to dazzle the public, it was necessary, if the situation demanded, to take on enormous debts … one always had to present the appearance of what one pretended to be.

The Church did not escape this situation and the prelates conducted themselves like the nobles: the saintly bishop of Cahors, Alain de Solminihac, felt obliged to live in the magnificent castle of Mercu?s and maintained numerous servants. It is true that at the time of his death it was difficult to find among his clothing a cloth to make his shroud.

Vincent attempted to enter into that world and to find a place there. He was tenacious in his search for titles and establishing relationships with outstanding and distinguished individuals. But during his stay at the de Gondi residence he would have all the time he needed to see beneath those “decorations” … because that is what they were, decorations. He became aware of the fact that high society at that time was organized as some theatrical presentation in which everyone had a role to play, whether tragic or comic, and the scenery was made of cardboard. It was at this time that Vincent became involved in the real life of people, shared their joys and sorrows, their work, their sufferings and their misery. Vincent, through his own experience, understood the life of the humble. His family did not eat fine foods but they did visit the infirm and were occasionally able to alleviate people in the midst of their situation of misery. He had certainly read and meditated on the words of Jesus after he had washed the feet of his disciples: The Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve (sic: Jesus’ actual words, John 13:12-16; cf., Matthew 20:28, Mark 10:45).

To discover Jesus Christ in the person of the poor, people must assist and provide for the poor (as occurred in Châtillon). As Vincent discovered the spiritual misery of the poor peasant in Gannes and in the heart of all those who presented themselves for confession in Folleville, he realized that temporary assistance and service are insufficient. He came to a point in his life where he was able to say with Jesus: I have come to serve!

When Vincent wanted to place Jesus before the Missionaries as a model, he did not look for gospel references related to Jesus’ childhood or related to his passion and death … rather, during a conference with the Missionaries Vincent stated: And if we ask Our Lord, “What did you come to do on earth?”… “To assist the poor”… “anything else?” … “To assist the poor” (CCD:XI:98).

In Vincent’s mind, Jesus’ desire to serve the poor was part of his very being. Therefore Jesus was not simply the servant of God or the suffering servant that is described by Isaiah … rather Jesus is the servant of the poor and as such we are called to imitate him. Jesus, the servant of the poor who had compassion on the multitudes who were like sheep without a shepherd; Jesus, who took a towel and tied it around his waist and began to wash the feet of his disciples … this is the Jesus that should be placed at the center of our spiritual life.

Vincent allowed others to be concerned about imitating Jesus from other perspectives: the poverty of his childhood, the agony in the garden, the offering of his sacrifice, the worship of the Father. Vincent was at a stage in his life in which the attitude of service would guide his activity (an attitude that he had contemplated in the person of Jesus). Vincent would remain attentive to the will of God and to the needs of the poor (which needs revealed God’s will). From this time onward Vincent would refer to the poor as our lords and masters.

If our vocation consists of following Jesus Christ then it is in our total willingness to serve the poor that we find our perfection. This service is spiritual and material. This service is also more a question of “being” rather than “doing”: the greatest servant, Jesus Christ, from the first moment of his life, had this willingness to serve: Here I am Lord, I have come to do your will! Jesus did much more by being what he was, the servant of God, than any other activity that he might have accomplished during his public ministry. Vincent said that Jesus did more suffering than doing … Jesus did more by making himself one with the poor, by taking on the form of a slave (Philippians 2:7).

In order to be faithful to our vocation we do not have to move heaven and earth, we do not have to cross oceans or produce marvelous wonders … in fact, even when we feel that we are useless servants, we simply have to be humble servants of God’s plan with regard to those who are poor.

Saint Vincent and the spirit of service

Daniel Rops judged Vincent de Paul in the following manner: History has viewed Vincent de Paul as one of the most important people of his era. In fact, there is no book, no matter how secular, that does not give him a place [2]. A sound judgment but one that can lead to misunderstanding: fame can appear as some privileged dimension of Vincent’s life and therefore action becomes more important than contemplation, doing more important reflection, appearance more important than being. Henri Bremond provides us with another perspective: Vincent was a mystic of action [3].

Vincent, when referring to himself or to the Missionaries or to the Daughters of Charity supposes a previous condition: the development of an interior life.

The interior life of Vincent de Paul

Let us strive to make ourselves interior men so that Jesus Christ may reign in us (CCD:XII:111). This was Vincent’s basic conviction; he wanted to internalize a great principle: to imitate Jesus Christ. Abelly was aware of the preference that Vincent gave to the interior dimension of his life:

“…to reproduce in his own heart this exemplar of all virtues…”

He realized that the design of the Eternal Father, in the Incarnation of the Son of God, was not simply to give us a redeemer to draw us from the slavery of sin and hell, but also to offer a model who would show us all the virtues we might practice which would conform us to his image. He firmly resolved to follow this design of God by striving to imitate this divine model, and to reproduce in his own heart this exemplar of all virtues. He followed this plan so constantly and faithfully that it could rightly be said of him that his life was nothing else but a perfect expression of the life of Jesus Christ. In his own person he verified these words of this divine Savior: "Every student when he has finished his studies will be on a par with his teacher” … Monsieur Vincent strove to imitate the ordinary and hidden life of Jesus Christ, a life which outwardly appeared to be in no way singular, but which inwardly was all holy and fully divine. In imitation of this incomparable master he led a life most ordinary in appearance. Nothing about him appeared on the surface to be outstanding or extraordinary, and he lived without any kind of show or singularity. Yet in the secret of his heart was a wealth of praiseworthy and truly heroic actions, marked by all manner of virtues. He was neither completely withdrawn into himself nor constantly in the public eye, but in imitation of his divine model he led a life which perfectly united elements of both the active and the contemplative. He sometimes retired into solitude like Jesus Christ, but at other times he would come forth also like Jesus Christ to preach penance and to work for the conversion of sinners and the salvation of souls (Abelly II:83-84) [4].

Here we have the testimony of two confreres:

“… the perfect image of Jesus Christ…”

Monsieur Vincent’s love for our Lord resulted in his always keeping the Savior in mind. He walked always in his holy presence, and modeled himself upon him in his actions, words and thoughts. I can truly say, as we all know, that he was so filled with God’s spirit that he hardly ever spoke unless it was to recall a Gospel teaching or some action of the Son of God. I often admired how he would apply the words and deeds of our Lord whenever he counseled or recommended something ... Monsieur Portail had lived and worked for forty-five or fifty years with Monsieur Vincent. He is one of the oldest priests of the Congregation. I have heard him say that Monsieur Vincent was the perfect image of Jesus Christ whom he knew upon earth, and that he had never heard Monsieur Vincent say or do anything except relating to him who said: exemplum dedi vobis, ut quemadmodum ego feci, ita et vos faciatis [“What I just did was to give you an example: as I have done, so you must do”] (Abelly II:87-88).

“… Christ was his light and mirror…”

One day a noted doctor asked one of the priests of the Mission who knew Monsieur Vincent well, what his chief virtue was. He replied: It was undoubtedly the imitation of our Lord, Jesus Christ, for he always kept him before his eyes to serve as his model. Christ was his light and mirror, and in him he saw everything else (Abelly II:88).

The Missionary and the spirit of evangelization

“…always moving forward…”

According to Vincent, the Missionaries who desire to be effective, ought to be working toward their own perfection: Our purpose, therefore, is to strive for our own holiness, to preach the Good News of the Gospel to those who are poor, and to instruct the clergy in the knowledge and virtues proper to their state. As for the first, we are invited to it by the Gospel, in which priests and all Christians have a rule of holiness --- not just any sort of holiness but one like that of the Eternal Father. O wonderful decree of the Son of God! “Be perfect,” he says, “as your Heavenly Father is perfect.” That is aiming high; who can reach it? To be perfect as the Eternal Father is perfect! Yet, that is the standard. But, because all Christians do not work at it, God, by certain ways we have to admire, seeing that most people neglect to do this, raises up some who offer themselves to his Divine Majesty to undertake, with his grace, to become holy themselves and to guide others to holiness. To what does this holiness lead? To make us pleasing in God’s eyes. Oh, what happiness! Oh, what happiness for a Missioner whose principal concern is to make himself pleasing to God, who works to rid himself of all deterrents to this and to acquire what he lacks! Working like that makes us pleasing to God. Or sus, Messieurs, this presupposes that working to acquire virtue is working to make ourselves pleasing to God. So then, we have to work constantly at it and to obtain the grace for it; always moving forward --- plus ultra. If, in the morning, we are at six degrees, let us be at seven by afternoon, by doing all our actions as perfectly as possible. That is what our Rule prompts us to do. Let us thank God for this happy circumstance. O Sauveur! O my brothers! How fortunate we are to be on the path to holiness! O Savior, grant us the grace to walk straight on it without growing lax (CCD:XII:68-69).

“… he lacks the main ingredient…”

A Missioner who would think only of learning, of preaching well, of saying marvelous things in a province, of moving the entire population to compunction, and of all the other good accomplished by missions --- or, to speak more correctly, by the grace of God --- is such a man who neglects his meditation and the other exercises of his Rule a Missioner? No, he’s not; he lacks the main ingredient --- his own growth in holiness (CCD:XII:69-70).

“…This is your vocation…”

Claude Dufour, a Missionary, suffered temptations against his vocation and wanted to become a Cathusian because he considered the life of a missionary too easy and the life of the Carthusians more perfect. On three separate occasions Vincent exhorted him to persevere in his first state: I am well aware that the Carthusian Order is more perfect in itself, but I do not think God wants you there, after calling you here. You responded and acquiesced to the inspiration of this call, and his Goodness blessed you in it with a very special blessing, with the result that, if you esteem it, it will strengthen you unalterably in the Congregation, particularly if you place yourself in the state in which you would wish to be found at the time of God's judgment ... Take also into consideration the conformity of your present life with that which Our Lord led on earth. This is your vocation, and the greatest need of the Church today is to have workers who labor to lead the majority of its children from the ignorance and vice in which they are, and to give it good priests and good pastors (CCD:III:172-173).

“…the place of Our Lord…”

The spirit of evangelization and of service are essential for the Missionary who wishes to follow the example of the Teacher: What touched me the most is what has been told about Our Lord, who was the natural Master of everyone and yet made himself the least of all, the disgrace and abjection of men, always taking the last place wherever he went. Perhaps, my dear confreres, you think that a man is truly humble and has really abased himself when he has taken the last place, Eh quoi! Does a man humble himself when he takes the place of Our Lord? Yes, brothers, the place of Our Lord is the last place. The man who wants to be in charge cannot have the spirit of Our Lord; the Divine Savior did not come into the world to be served but rather to serve others (CCD:XI:124).

“…it goes beyond our understanding…”

To make God known to poor persons; to announce Jesus Christ to them; to tell them that the kingdom of heaven is at hand and that it is for persons who are poor. Oh, what a great thing that is! But it goes beyond our understanding that we should be called to be associates and sharers in the plans of the Son of God. Quoi! to become . . . I would not dare to say it .. . Be that as it may, it is such a lofty ministry to evangelize poor persons, which is, par excellence, the work of the Son of God (CCD:XII:71).

We can understand then, Vincent’s admiration for that spirit which is the work of the Son of God.

The Daughters of Charity and the spirit of service

“…to go from virtue to virtue…”

Vincent asked the Daughters to continually devote themselves to their own perfection: Sisters, the subject of today’s conference is how to work harder than previously for our own perfection ... It is said of him that he went on growing and increasing in virtue before God and man. Dear Sisters, the Son of God --- a God --- who, from the moment of his Incarnation, was full of grace even as man, was not satisfied with that but worked his entire life to grow in holiness. Now, since he is the model of your Company, dear Sisters, in imitation of him you must work continually to become more perfect. As soon as he began to grow, he was seen advancing in virtue with the result that greater perfection was seen in him today than the day before. We have to do the same: to go from virtue to virtue and to work harder and harder at our perfection, never saying that it is enough. 'The second reason for working constantly for our growth is that it is certain that, if we are no better today than we were yesterday, we are worse, and we can say, “If I do not do better this year than I did last year, I am regressing” (CCD:X:197-198).

“…your vocation is from God…”

Vincent recommended that the Daughters persevere in their vocation and guard against giving in to the temptation to abandon the service of the poor. He wrote to Marguerite Chétif, Louise’s successor: I am really concerned about your physical indisposition, of which M. Delville has written me, and still more by your spiritual indisposition with regard to your vocation and your Rules. On this I will tell you, Sister, that it is a pure temptation of the evil spirit who, seeing all the good you do, strives to turn you away from it. He would like nothing better than to snatch you from the hands of Our Lord by tearing you away from your work so he can get the better of you by such a shameful abduction. To judge whether God has called you to the state of life in which you now are, do not dwell on your present dispositions but on those you had when you entered it. At that time, you frequently felt the inspiration for it, had prayed to know God's will, had sought the advice of your directors, and had not only made a retreat but tested your vocation with Mademoiselle Le Gras. Then, once you had freely decided on this way of life --- before God and in answer to his call --- he showed you that this resolution was very pleasing to him. He has blessed you and your actions so much ever since then that you have edified those at home and abroad. What reason do you now have for doubting whether you are in the state where he wants you to be? For it is evident from all these things that your vocation is from God, since you arrived at it through these surest of ways. It is also through them that he is accustomed to draw souls from the world to make use of them in that same world (CCD:VI:213-213).

“…the service of your neighbor…”

Here now is the third reason or motive to induce us to advance in the love of our vocation, and that is its excellence and grandeur, for it is such, dear Sisters, that I know of none greater in the entire Church. You declare that you are devoting your life to the service of your neighbor for the love of God. Is there any act of love to surpass that? No, for it is an acknowledged fact that the greatest proof of love is to give one's life for what is loved. You are giving your entire life to the practice of charity and, therefore, you are giving it for God (CCD:IX:360-361).

“…isn't that going to martyrdom...”

A young woman will come from one hundred or one hundred twenty leagues, from Flanders, or from Holland, to consecrate herself to God in the service of the most abandoned persons on earth; is not that going to martyrdom? Yes, without a doubt. A holy Father has said that anyone who gives himself to God to serve his neighbor and endures willingly all the difficulties he may encounter in this is a martyr. Did the martyrs suffer more than these Sisters? No indeed, they certainly did not, because having one's head cut off is soon over and done with. If they suffered greater torments, these still did not last very long; they were quickly terminated by death. But those women who give themselves to God in your Company are sometimes with sick persons full of infection and sores and often noxious body fluids; sometimes with poor children for whom everything must be done; or with poor convicts loaded down with chains and afflictions; and they come under the authority of persons they do not even know but are bound to obey in every type of ministry. And you would not consider such persons worthy of respect! They are far more worthy of it than anything 1could say to you, and I see nothing like it. If we saw the spot where a martyr had been, we would approach it only with respect and kiss it with great reverence; yet, we are capable of despising our Sisters, who are persons God preserves and enables to exist in a state of martyrdom. Hold them in great esteem, dear Sisters; keep that high opinion of them, no matter what may happen, and look upon them as martyrs of Jesus Christ, since they serve their neighbor for love of Him (CCD:IX:213-214).

“…you must be so genuinely…”

Vincent was insistent and very clear that we should not be concerned about simply doing things, but concerned about doing things in a charitable manner: You should also have the intention, Sisters, of becoming truly good Daughters of Charity, for it is not enough to be Daughters of Charity in name; you must be so genuinely ... it is not our state in life, it is not our qualifications that make us pleasing to God and save us, but it is how we use the qualifications we have. Our Lord himself has said so. To all those who will say, “Lord, have we not driven out devils in your name and done many other good deeds?” He will reply, “I do not know you.” And why is that? Because they have not performed those deeds in charity.

“…apple peelings and the refuse of the world…”

We should not forget that the first model of “a true Daughter of Charity” was a poor country woman; she embodied the true spirit of service: The humility of good country women keeps them from being ambitious ... They are the ones, dear Sisters, who want only what God has given them; they do not aspire after more greatness or riches than they have, and are satisfied with their food and clothing. Still less do they consider using fine words but are humble in their speech. If they are praised, they do not know what is meant, so they do not listen to it. Their language is truly simple and sincere. Sisters, how we should love this holy virtue of humility, which causes us to be little concerned if we are despised, and even prompts us to love contempt! The holy Apostles gloried in contempt, and Saint Paul says, “We have been and are considered apple peelings and the refuse of the world.” That's how Daughters of Charity should look upon themselves, dear Sisters. You will know that you are true Daughters of Charity if you are really humble, if you are neither ambitious nor presumptuous, and if you do not think you are better than you are nor better than others, either in body or mind, family or possessions --- or even in virtue, which would be the most dangerous form of ambition (CCD:IX:68-69).

Questions for reflection and dialogue

1] Our service involves the whole person, material and spiritual service. How do we work together with other groups in promoting the human person? How are we the voice of those who are poor? How can we help people to become aware of their own situation and thus take steps to change that situation?

2] What do you mean when you say: the poor are our lords and masters? In what sense is that true?

3] Gaudium et spes states: what people are is more important than what they have? (#35). How does that statement influence your ministry?


These will follow

Translated: Charles T. Plock CM