Saint Vincent de Paul and Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta

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by: Jesús Larraneta, CM

In Saint John’s gospel 3:16 we read: For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son …. The Church Fathers commented on this text and stated that God-Father sent the Beloved as irrefutable proof of his love for the world.

In light of the mission that God entrusted to Saint Vincent de Paul and Blessed Teresa of Calcutta the proof of our love for God and the world is revealed in our loving service and conscientious care of the poor in whom God is always present.

In 1657 Vincent spoke to the Daughters of Charity and said: You, Daughters of Charity, are destined to represent the goodness of God to those poor people … therefore you must strive to serve them with cordiality and great gentleness, even the most troublesome and difficult, not forgetting to say a few words to them … always mindful of the fact that God is with them (CCD:X:267-268) [1] On April 12, 1953, Teresa of Calcutta, together with the first eleven members of her community, pronounced their vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. They added a fourth vow, that of whole hearted and free service to the poorest of the poor. The Spirit of God had illuminated Mother Teresa in the same way that our Founder was enlightened a few centuries before. Again when speaking to the Daughters of Charity in 1640 Vincent lifted up his voice in prayer: Grant us the grace to live and die in the perfect observance of true obedience … Grant us also the grace to live and die chastely … and of living in perfect observance of obedience. We likewise give ourselves to you, my God, to honor and serve our lords, the poor all our lives, and we ask this grace of you through your holy love (CCD:IX:22-23).

As we study and read and also respect the events that history has communicated to us, we see that God not only loves the world but is concerned about the world, directs it and moves it forward while always respecting the freedom which has been given to men and women, a freedom that enriches every human being.

In 1657, Saint Vincent, a privileged witness of this reality, told the Ladies of Charity: your Company is the work of God (CCD:XIIIb:431).

Vincent was bolder and spoke more categorically in 1642 when he gave a conference to the Daughter of Charity: Who has made you what you are if not God? I cannot repeat this to you often enough. We, for our part, never planned it (CCD:IX:47).

In 1654 Vincent stated: Sister states … that the Company has been instituted by God. As a matter of fact, it is a rule laid down by Saint Augustine that what human persons have not done comes from God. Now, dear Sisters, the fact is that no one on earth can say, “I did that.” Mademoiselle cannot say it, neither can M. Portail, nor anyone else. No Sisters, no one can say, “I am the one who did this work.” O Savior, you then are the one who created this great work from which you draw such great benefits; may you be forever blessed for it (CCD:IX:536-537).

Mother Teresa of Calcutta was always mindful of the presence of God in her personal and vocational calling as well as in her calling to establish the Missionaries of Charity: All of this occurred on September 10, 1946 when I was traveling by train to Darjeeling, India where I was going to make my annual retreat. When I was praying it was clear to me that God was calling me, calling me to leave the Congregation of Our Lady of Loreto in order to commit myself to the poorest of the poor, in order to live among those woman and men. It was a call from God that came within the context of the call to serve as a religious woman in the Congregation of Loreto.

Soon thereafter I met an infirm woman who had been abandoned on the streets and I carried her in my arms to the Campbell Hospital in Calcutta. There she was refused admittance simply because she was poor. At that painful moment I believe that the will of God became clarified: I ought to undertake this work and help those who have been abandoned on the street, help them to die in a dignified manner. God’s providence made use of this insignificant person so that the poorest of the poor would experience a clear and visible sign of God’s love before they died.

God’s providence is always present, but often mingled in the midst in many details which at first sight appear to be insignificant. But for me these details contain profound spiritual lessons.

One day one of the Sisters came and told me: “Mother, there is no more rice and tomorrow, Friday and the following day, Saturday, we will have nothing to distribute. Therefore, we should tell the people to return to their homes because they will receive no help here.”

I was surprised to hear the Sister speak in this manner because nothing like this had ever happened before. But on Friday, to our great surprise, several trucks from the municipality of Calcutta, filled with bread, arrived at our front door. Unexpectedly and without any previous notice, all the schools in Calcutta were closed (Cristo en Calcuta, [Christ in Calcutta] p. 207, 208).

Saint Vincent would have summed all of this up with the following words: Providence will never fail you … God has promised that those who take care of persons who are poor will never want for anything (CCD:IX:11). [8]

On six different occasions Vincent spoke about Marguerite Naseau whom on numerous occasions he called the first Daughter of Charity. In these six accounts we see in a very clear way the presence of Divine Providence, that is, the expression of God’s love for the poor who were abandoned during the seventeenth century. In a very similar way this presence of Divine providence is revealed in our own day in the life and ministry of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta.

On June 14, 1643 Vincent prayed that God would grant the Company of the Daughters of Charity the grace of fidelity to their vocation as servants of the sick poor and he reminded the Sisters that it was the goodness of God that brought one of our Sisters before the throne of God. Here Vincent was speaking about Marguerite Naseau whom he not only loved but also admired and viewed her as the model for all Daughters of Charity. As he came to know Marguerite he realized that she [Marguerite] had the happiness of showing others the way … although she had almost no other teacher or schoolmistress but God. She was just a poor, uneducated cowherd. Moved by a powerful inspiration from heaven, the idea came to her to teach young people… so she bought a primer and, since she was unable to go to school for instruction, went and asked the Pastor or the Assistant to tell her the first four letters of the alphabet (CCD:IX:65). Sisters, Marguerite Naseau was the first Sister who came to serve the sick poor in the parish of Saint-Sauveur, where the Confraternity of Charity was established in the year 1630 (CCD:IX:65). Requested for the establishment of the charity in Saint-Nicolas-du-Chardonnet parish, she slept with a girl who had the plague, which she caught from her, and was taken to Saint-Louis Hospital where she died (CCD:IX:473).

Marguerite Naseau did not take the three vows of poverty, chastity and obedience and also did not take the fourth vow of serving the poor in those who were infirm, but yes, she had practiced that which Vincent expressed in his conference of July 5, 1640: The Daughters of Charity, although they do not have vows to sustain them for the present, are, nevertheless, in that state of perfection, if they are true Daughters of Charity (CCD:IX:13). Again in 1643 Vincent said: If you are really faithful in the observance of this way of life, Sisters, you will be good Christians. I would not be saying as much if I told you that you would be good nuns (CCD:IX:103).

What was the origin of this lofty concept that Vincent had of the mission-vocation of the Daughters of Charity? This concept flowed from his own identification with Christ, the Father of the Poor (CCD:XIIIb:108). At the same time Vincent also saw Christ as the Teacher and the Evangelizer. Thus in his conference of July 5, 1640 he said: To be true Daughters of Charity you must do what the Son of God did when he was on earth … He worked constantly for his neighbor, visiting and healing the sick and instructing the ignorant for their salvation (CCD:IX:14), always seeing God in them (CCD:IX:116, X:431).

If we are unmindful of this vision of God in our service with the poor, then we practice philanthropy, solidarity, and good will, but we are not practicing the virtue of charity which Vincent felt should be the motivating force of all our work. Indeed it should be charity that explains our personal and historical pilgrimage on this earth. This concept was expressed by Vincent when he spoke to the Daughters in 1646: You are serving Jesus Christ in the person of the poor. And that is as true as that we are here. A Sister will go ten times a day to visit the sick, and ten times a day she will find God there (CCD:IX:199).

On more than one occasion the recent Popes have warned religious about the danger of clothing themselves in secular attitudes in their apostolic ministry and they have invited religious to reflect upon the reality that what they do is not as important as who they are as persons consecrated to God.

Mother Teresa, in line with the words of the Pope, affirmed on numerous occasions: We, the Missionaries of Charity, are not nurses or social workers, rather we are religious women. Everything that we do, we do for Jesus. Jesus explains our life. Indeed, our vocation and every religious vocation ought to be based on and rooted in Jesus Christ. We, the Missionaries of Charity, freely and whole heartedly commit ourselves to God in order to freely serve the poorest of the poor, but making it very clear that Jesus is always at the center of life. Yes Jesus is almost hidden but he is quite real in the scared and disfigured poor women and men who are often abandoned, even by their own families (Cristo en Calcuta [Christ in Calcuta] pp. 31-32).

At this time we pause and with Mother Teresa we ask ourselves: Who made or created the poor? Certainly it was not God. So it had to be other human beings. Logically it had to be other human beings. And yet might it not also be us who help them, who care for them, who comfort them who do everything possible so that they are can leave this vicious circle of poverty which most often is offensive to all those who are created in the image and likeness of God (Cristo en Calcuta [Christ in Calcuta] p. 210).

So once again we ask: who are these poor people who are cared for with such love by the daughters of Mother Teresa? The most poor, regardless of caste, creed and nationality, are the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the ignorant, the captives, the invalids, the lepers, the alcoholics, AIDS victims, the undesirables … all of those who are considered a burden for society and who have lost all hope and faith in life (International Association of Co-workers of Mother Teresa, Annual Report-1995).

In the same way that Vincent de Paul added to the list of persons who are poor so too Mother Teresa added those who have lost sight of God, those for whom God no longer “ís” but “was”. She also included those who hunger and thirst for the Word of God, for peace, for the truth, for justice and for love (Cristo en Calcuta [Christ in Calcuta] p. 210).

Expanding on this important point, Mother Teresa said on more than one occasion: Reporters from the first world ask me: with such great poverty in India, why do you send your Missionaries not only to countries where there is less material need but to countries that are prosperous and have great wealth? My response has been and is always the same: the spiritual poverty of the people living in these prosperous nations is worse than the material poverty in India. Yes, in India there is often a lack of rice, but those who die of hunger believe in God and believe in an after-life; they truly love their Creator and Lord. On the contrary, in those wealthy nations, people do not only not believe in God but so many people live as though God did not exist and it seems that they are convinced that they can manage their own lives without any need to rely on the One who created them, the One who continues to love them despite their ungratefulness and ignorance. This spiritual poverty is more cunning and deceitful than the material poverty of India or Ethiopia and, as we know, it is also more difficult to eradicate and eliminate. The apostolate of the Missionaries is that of charity and in the different countries where we minister, we, through our lives of austerity and our assistance, attempt to show to those individuals who have no friends or family or companions that an abundance of material possessions has never filled the human heart with authentic happiness. There are other ways to be happy, other ways to feel fulfilled, other ways to experience joy and optimism, and these “other ways” have everything to do with God, our Creator; with Jesus Christ, our Redeemer; with the life of prayer, etc.

This is our apostolate in the wealth and opulent nations and I humbly submit that this is in accord with what our Lord did during his three years of apostolic ministry in Palestine (International Association of Co-workers of Mother Teresa. Annual Report – 1995).

In a social, cultural and historical context that was quite distinct from ours, Saint Vincent de Paul shared the same ideas and concerns of Mother Teresa, that is, her ideas and concerns with regard to spiritual poverty, not only the spiritual poverty of those who are rich but the spiritual poverty of the poor for whom the Daughters of Charity were established. It is important to listen to and reflect on Vincent’s words today especially when there is a tendency among many priests and religious to limit their services to the material, human, or social level when dealing with those who are in need.

Here we have the thinking of our Founder on this most important theme: For you see, dear Sisters, it is one thing to assist physically those who are poor; in truth, however, it was never Our Lord’s intention in founding your Company that you should care only for the body, because there will always be someone to do that; but Our Lord’s intention is that you assist the sick poor spiritually; and to do that you have to reflect interiorly, “how do I act in my parish? How do I serve my patients? Is it only with regard to their body, or is it body and soul together? For, if my intention is only to assist them corporally, alas! that is a small matter; anyone at all would do as much.” A Turk or an idolater can care for the body. That is why Our Lord would not have instituted a Company simply for that reason, since nature sufficiently obliges people to that. But it is not the same for the soul. Not everyone can be of assistance in that regard, and God has chosen you principally to teach the truths necessary for their salvation. Reflect within yourself and say, “In the service I have given to poor persons, have I been concerned only with assisting them corporally? If, until now, my only thought has been to give them food, medicine, and other things that pertain to the body, I have not fulfilled my obligation. Forgive me, Lord, for the past!” (CCD:X:269).

I want to conclude this presentation with the words of John Paul II who fills out the words of Saint Vincent de Paul: The church, as it promotes religious life, not only desires to lead religious congregations and their members to internal renewal but also desires that all religious will provide a service to humanity. The specific service that religious are invited to provide today is that of alleviating the greatest poverty of our time: a poverty that is the result of the rejection of God, a poverty that is often very silent but unfortunately it is very definitive, a poverty in which many have lost all meaning in life and thus have begun to live a practical and existential atheism. Such individuals do not fight against God, but simply cast God aside. They do not attack the Church because for them the Church is a cultural-historical entity of the past that has no relevance today. Therefore religious, with their ministry and life and words, ought to reveal the joy that flows from a love of God, the joy that flows from the liberating beauty of the fruit of this love which is transformed into disinterested service of the neighbor in whom this God of love lives (Enseñanzas al Pueblo de Dios de Juan Pablo II [Teachings of John Paul II to the People of God], p. 117).

Translated by: Charles T. Plock, CM