Saint Vincent de Paul and the Incarnation
[This article was translated by Martin Abaitua CM from the original French which appeared in Au temps de St. Vincent-de-Paul ... et aujourd'hui and was p[ublished in Spanish under the title En tiempos de San Vicente de Paúl … y hoy, Editorial CEME, Salamanca, 1999, Volume II, p. 379-391]
Saint Vincent de Paul and the Incarnation
We are accustomed to view Saint Vincent from the perspective of his relationship with the poor. In doing so we run the risk of narrowing our vision in such a way that we simply consider him as a great philanthropist or a compassionate humanitarian.
Aware of the heritage that has been given to us we must be ever mindful of the profound motivations and convictions that led Vincent to act in the way that he did. Why was Vincent so interested in assisting the poor spiritually and corporally?
We have no hesitation in affirming the fact that Vincent imitated Christ and wanted to follow in the footsteps of Christ, the Servant and Missionary. Vincent found support for his spiritual vision in the Scriptures (Matthew 25 and Luke 4:18) and this leads us to a twofold complementary understanding of the person of Jesus. But the basic question remains: what motivated Jesus Christ to act? Why did he really come to earth? Why did he act in such an extreme manner on behalf of humanity?
Vincent wanted the Missionaries and wants us today to be copies of Christ. Therefore it is necessary to understand the profound reasons behind the Incarnation, reasons that he himself has revealed to us.
We can respond to this question from a threefold perspective: Jesus and his Father, Jesus and humankind, Jesus and us as Vincentians.
Thus there arises the need to contemplate the mystery of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ in order to fully live this mystery at the present time.
Jesus and his Father
Vincent was a man possessed by the Spirit, a man who knew theology (he had studied in Toulouse and lived what he had studied). Theology nourished his meditation and his prayer.
For Vincent the Son of God received everything from the Father. Vincent often contemplated Christ as one who was filled with his Father, as “the Adorer” first of all and then as the “Servant of the Father’s loving plan”. The Son is appreciative of his Father, wants to honor him and refers all things to him: My teaching is not my own but is from the one who sent me (John 7:16). Jesus, the Father’s equal, recognizes the Father as the author and the principle of all the good that is in him.
Jesus’ love for the Father is revealed in his total commitment to the Father’s will: I always do what is pleasing to him [the Father] (John 8:29); I always do the will of the Father (CCD:XII:94).
It is necessary to meditate on the life of Christ. Jesus is eternally united to the Father. Vincent referred to the Trinity as a mystery of reciprocity. He often referred to the source of love as being the likeness that exists among the Persons of the Trinity: What the Father wants, the Son wants; what the Holy Spirit does, the Father and the Son do and act the same way; they have only one power and one way of acting (CCD:XII:210).
Yes, Vincent spoke about “uniformity” and this is a word filled with history and different meanings and applications … this is also a word that has not aged well. Yet when Vincent used this word he wanted to express the idea that there exists a perfect harmony among the divine persons and therefore this form of relationship can serve as a model for us … it is an invitation to communion in the midst of differences and diversity.
The greatest gift that the Father has given the Son is “the sending forth”. The Son of God is sent by the Father. This is the mystery of the Incarnation. Jesus is sent forth at the costly price of love (Cf., CCD:IX:69).
Vincent refers to the “divine deliberation” in an almost candid manner: the Father suffers interiorly as he ponders the consequences of the Incarnation, but the Son is also aware of the Father’s love and proclaims his own fiat: Father, I’ll do whatever you command me (CCD:IX:69). Here we are confronted with a reality that contemporary theology refers to as “God’s suffering”.
The Son does what the Father desires and becomes incarnated. With just a few words Vincent was able to express his faith in the Incarnation: It was Your pleasure, Savior of the world, Your ambrosia, Your nectar to do Your Father’s will (CCD:XII:137).
Christ has only one desire: to do that which pleases God. Vincent frequently used this expression.
Jesus, as a result of his nature as Son, renders homage to his Father, the One from whom he received life and being. Through his prayer and his action Jesus adores and praises the Father and through his obedience he expresses his gratitude to the Father.
Vincent viewed Christ’s mission as one of fulfilling the Father’s plan. The Incarnate Word lives in intimate union with the Father. Vincent like to envision Christ in prayer as he sought to know and to do the Father’s will, as he sought to fulfill the Father’s plans and desires.
The plan of love, the salvation of humanity, is the mission for which Jesus was sent.
Jesus and humankind
In his writings Vincent gave preferential treatment to the reasons for sending the Son to earth: He sent me to evangelize the poor. Those words could well serve as a summary of the mission that was entrusted to the Son as he was sent forth into the world. Vincent was not mistaken about this and often repeated these words to the Missionaries and the Daughters. As men and women who continue the mission of Jesus they ought to evangelize poor persons as Our Lord did, and in the way Our Lord did it (CCD:XII:299).
In Vincent’s mind, his followers are obliged to contemplate Christ, the Evangelizer.
Monsieur Almeras, the first successor Saint Vincent, added to the cover of the Common Rules an engraving by Cochin that depicted Our Lord sending forth the Apostles to proclaim the gospel.
Christ is in the midst of his disciples as one who listens. At the same time Christ is inspired by the Spirit and points out that those at his right will share in the divine glory while those at his left will be deprived of this presence. Two phrases seem to summarize this visual teaching: As the Father has sent me, so I send you (John 20:21) … they went from village to village proclaiming the good news and curing diseases everywhere (Luke 9:6).
Our mission continues Jesus’ ministry of love.
It is precisely for this reason that the Incarnation is referred to in the Common Rules as the mystery that, together with the mystery of the Trinity (which is primary), must be honored by the members of the Congregation.
Christ, the Evangelizer, is portrayed by Vincent with strong and exemplary traits: ardor and zeal, self-giving throughout his life, faithfulness and urgency with regard to preaching, calling others to a life of charity, corporal assistance (done with tenderness), compassion, sharing in the sufferings of others, spiritual assistance through the proclamation of the Good News of life in God that is offered to everyone.
Christ, the Evangelizer, is a Christ on fire with God’s love and with a love for humanity. In Christ everything is charity. Vincent contemplated this heart of Christ and shared his reflections: Let’s look at the Son of God; what a heart of charity he had; what a fire of love! Please tell us, Jesus, who pulled You away from heaven to come to endure the curse of earth and the many persecutions and torments You suffered? O Savior! Source of love humbled even to our level and to a vile agony, who showed, in that, greater love for the neighbor than You yourself did? You came to lay yourself open to all our misfortunes, to take the form of a sinner, to lead a life of suffering and to undergo a shameful death for us; is there any love like that? But who else could love in such an outstanding way? Only Our Lord who was so enamored with the love of creatures as to leave the throne of His Father to come to take a body subject to weakness. And why? To establish among us, by His word and example, love of the neighbor. This is the love that crucified Him and brought about that admirable work of our redemption (CCD:XII:216).
A suggestive and illuminating painting (traditionally attributed to Louise de Marillac) adorns the stairway wall of the Motherhouse of the Daughters of Charity. As one admires this picture one immediately begins to reflect on the expressive words of Vincent: Christ the Missionary cannot be separated from the “Lord of Charity” whose heart is on fire with love for men and women, with love for those persons who are most abandoned. Thus we have a perfect illustration of the reason for the Incarnation: love is everything … in itself love is Good News … the gospel of God is summarized by love.
This reality places us in the midst of that which is specifically Vincentian, that which characterizes Vincent’s originality, his personal way of reading and living the gospel, his way of making the gospel come alive.
In light of the love that was communicated by Christ … in light of this reality Vincent contemplated what Jesus gifted to those who were poor. Jesus wanted to save humanity and to wanted to make people participants in the same love that he experienced for the Father … Jesus wanted to do this because he had discovered and experienced the misery of humankind’s situation. Thus Jesus, in the very depths of his being, became poor. Father B. Koch highlighted the fact that “the Son of God is the prototype of the poor” and cited the following words of Saint Vincent in a presentation that he gave to the Missionaries: When a Person has personally experienced his own weaknesses and trials, he’s more sensitive to those of others …You know that Our Lord willed to be tried by all kinds of misery. “We have a High Priest,” says Saint Paul, “who knows how to sympathize with our weaknesses because he has experienced them himself.” Yes, O Eternal Wisdom, You willed to experience and take upon Your innocent person all our poverty! You know, Messieurs, that He did that to sanctify all the sufferings to which we’re subject and to be the original and prototype of all the states and conditions of human persons (CCD:XI:18, 19).
We cite here the words of Father Koch who present us with an interesting and dynamic perspective: Jesus is the prototype of every human condition, especially the condition of the poor, the condition of those who are humble and those who suffer … this reality completely changes our way of seeing … there are not two movements in Christ, that is, one directed toward the Father and another directed toward the poor. This is only one movement: the Word is the poor man and/or woman who receives everything from the Father, who from all eternity moves in unity with the Father and because of this is the prototype of the human condition, especially the condition of the poor to whom he revealed the fact that they are sons and daughters of God. Therefore he is able to sanctify their situation, able to give their situation a divine, an infinite dimension. This is one of the cornerstones of Vincentian theology and anthropology (B. Koch, Saint Vincent et nours à la suite du Christ Evangélisateur dans sa relation au P?re y aux pauvres, Vincentiana, #4-5, 1993, pp. 374-375).
The Incarnation makes Christ a poor person among the poor. He becomes one of them. Poor as a child (read here, an abandoned child), poor as the poor criminal or those condemned as galley slaves, poor like the elderly at the Nom-de-Jésus, poor like the mentally challenged. Vincent spoke about this to the Daughters of Charity: You should know, Sisters, that Our Lord willed to experience in His own person every kind of distress imaginable. The scriptural expression is that He willed to be regarded “as a scandal to the Jews and a folly to the Gentiles” … You must be aware that He’s as present in those poor folk deprived of intelligence as He is in all the others (CCD:X:103).
Vincent contemplated at length this Servant among the servants of the poor. For Vincent the primary activity was that of service. One had to serve others spiritually and corporally and to act in this way gave rise to a way of “being and doing”. This is self-giving, a form of service proper to all Vincentians. The Incarnation placed Jesus in a state of service and self-giving. We are invited to imitate Jesus who wants all of us to follow him as Missionaries and Servants. This is the very reason for the Incarnation. We live as authentic human beings to the degree that we commit ourselves to God and to the poor, to the degree that we love as Jesus loved.
Jesus and us as Vincentians
We know the lesson very well and it almost appears to be monotonous! Yet look at the dynamism and the spiritual inspirations that touch our hearts and motivate us to engage in missionary activity … and all of this occurs because we realize that we continue the mission of Jesus and therefore we are destined for the mission, the same mission as Jesus … and this is what really matters.
Thus in order to render homage to the Incarnation and in order to place ourselves on this path:
• We have to respond to our vocation in order to honor Our Lord and serve Him in persons who are poor (CCD:X:104) … and to do this competently and with a quality of presence.
•In light of the new forms of poverty and mindful of our limitations we have to be available and ready to serve persons who are poor, wherever we’re sent (CCFD:X:104).
•We have to live as people who are filled with God and therefore we have to clothe ourselves with the spirit of Jesus Christ (CCD:XII:84) in order to become humble and simple servants … servants filled with love and gentleness and zeal.
•In order to be “icons of Christ” we have to turn the medal and you will see by the light of faith that the Son of God, who willed to be poor, is represented to us by these poor people (CCD:XI:26).
•We have to serve and evangelize the poor with respect and devotion, our lords and masters (CCD:XI:349), and live in solidarity with them. They represent Jesus Christ to us and we, in turn, make Jesus Christ present to them.
In summary, we have to roll up our sleeves, we have to act with enthusiasm, we have to incarnate ourselves, we have to be unafraid to enter into “real concrete” situations, we have “to sweat” and give ourselves to those who are poor and see them as they are without romanticizing or idealizing their situation. As Vincent said we may find the poor to be repugnant and vulgar, rude and abject, yet despite all of this and contrary to all outward appearances they are the image of God.
Vincent liked to say that our ministry consists of action … and here action is understood as incarnational activity because God has carried out a very clear strategy … at the end of humanity’s journey Jesus will be recognized as triumphant and majestic and he will gather us together as his people in his kingdom because he was served and discovered in the poor.
For Vincent the twenty-fifth chapter of Saint Matthew’s gospel, the scene of the final judgment, is a passage of profound truth because it enlightens and gives meaning to our existence, our activity and our vocation.
All of us have an appointment with the voice of Christ, the voice of the Incarnate Word, the Word that is exalted in glory.
Saint Vincent and the Incarnation
In the writings of Saint Vincent that have been handed down to us, the mystery of the Incarnation does not appear to be emphasized and yet it seems that this mystery has been integrated into Vincent’s thoughts and actions. Vincent is aware of the fact that this mystery places certain demands on the spiritual life, the mission and the activity of the Missionaries.
As we read Vincent’s words with regard to this mystery we are reminded of the words of Louise de Marillac as she prayed in the presence of the Lord: Was it not also, O my God, so that Your admirable Incarnation might be the source of the graces of which souls stand in need in order to reach their end (SWLM:800 [A.13b]).
To know this mystery
Vincent tells us that the Incarnation is a great mystery … great in itself and great in its consequences.
Vincent believed that it was necessary to teach the poor about the existence and the greatness of this mystery. Despite his theological questions and doubts, we admire his apostolic zeal.
“… the necessary Christian truths…”
Another reason we have to be totally committed to it is its necessity. You know, Messieurs, how great it is, you’re aware of the ignorance of the poor people, which is almost unbelievable and you know also that there’s no salvation for persons who are ignorant of the necessary Christian truths, according to the opinion of Saint Augustine. Saint Thomas and others, who hold that anyone who does not know about the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the Incarnation, and the other Mysteries, can’t be saved. And how, indeed, can a soul who doesn’t know God or what God has done for love of it, believe, hope, and love? And how will it be saved without faith, hope, and love ….
There are other theologians who find this opinion too strict, even though it’s based on these words of Our Lord, Haec est vita aeterna ut cognoscant te solum Deum verum et quem misisti Jesus Christum. Now this is eternal life, that they should know you, the only true God, and one whom you sent, Jesus Christ. From this we can infer that those who do not know the unity of God, or the Trinity, or Jesus Christ, will not have eternal life.
So then, we have some who say that people can’t be saved without this knowledge, and others who hold the contrary. Given this doubt, isn’t it better to follow the safer opinion? In dubiis tuitor pars est eenenda (in doubtful matters, the safer position is preferable). Then, too, is there anything in the world more worthwhile than to teach these truths to those who are ignorant of them, since they’re truths necessary for salvation? Doesn’t it seem to have come from God’s goodness to remedy this need? (CCD:XII:72).
He also dedicated himself to enter more fully into this mystery in order to better teach it to others.
“…I thought of the Blessed Trinity…”
I thought of the Blessed Trinity, which shows us in the unity of its essence the distinction of the three Persons in two instances: in the creation of the world, when they deliberated about creating man in the image and likeness of God, and in the determination regarding the Incarnation of the Eternal Word (CCD:IX122). “…I thought about the joy the Blessed Virgin…”
I thought about the joy the Blessed Virgin experienced when she felt herself so filled with the sacred love of the Father and the Son, which had brought about in her the Mystery of the Incarnation, and the thanksgiving and offering of herself she made to God once again. I also considered the joy of the Apostles, who felt quite different from what they had felt previously, and also the courage that animated them, since, from that time on, they exercised their ministry fearlessly. I turned to the Blessed Virgin, Spouse of the Holy Spirit, to ask her to obtain from Him that He might take possession of my heart and enkindle in it His sacred love (CCD:IX:323).
“…the necessity of the mystery of the Incarnation…”
you will often have to turn to the Father of Lights, repeating to Him what you say to Him every day: Da mihi intellectum ut sciam testimonia tua (Give me discernment that I may know your decrees). In your meditation, set in order the lights He will give you, in order to demonstrate the truth of the First and Sovereign Being, the appropriateness of the mystery of the Trinity, and the necessity of the mystery of the Incarnation, which causes a second, perfect man to be born in us, after the corruption of the first, so that we may improve and reform ourselves on Him (CCD:III:281)
To live the mystery of the Incarnation
Vincent wanted the Missionaries to venerate the mystery of the Incarnation and wanted them to do this in order that they might better imitate Christ.
“…From the moment of His Incarnation…”
It's 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, wasn't satisfied with that but worked His entire life to grow in holiness. Now, since He's 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’s enough (CCD:X;197-198).
Devotion to the mystery of the Incarnation is referred to in the Common Rules of the Congregation of the Mission as well as in the foundational contract April 17, 1625 where the purpose is specified: to preach, instruct, exhort, and catechize those poor people (CCD:XIIIa:214)
“…To honor the mystery of the Incarnation…”
And to accomplish this, the Lord and Lady, in gratitude for the goods and graces they have received and receive daily from God's Divine Majesty, and to contribute their part to His ardent desire for the salvation of poor souls, to honor the mystery of the Incarnation and the life and death of Jesus Christ, for love of His holy Mother, and also to try to obtain the grace of living the rest of their days so well that they and their family may hope to attain eternal glory, they have resolved to constitute themselves as patrons and founders of this good work (CCD:XIIIa:214).
“…Prayer of faith and adoration…”
According to the Bull which established our Congregation, we are bound to honor in a special way the Most Holy Trinity and the Incarnation, mysteries beyond words. We should therefore try to carry this out most faithfully and, if possible, in every way, but especially in these three ways: 1° frequently honoring these mysteries by a prayer of faith and adoration, coming from our inmost heart; 2° dedicating certain prayers and good works each day to their honor and, above all, celebrating their feast days with special dignity and the greatest possible personal devotion; 3° trying constantly, by our teaching and example, to get other people to know these mysteries and to honor and worship them (Common Rules X:2).
In May 1646 Vincent expressed the same concern in advice that he shared with Boniface Nouelly and Jean Barreau before their departure for Algiers. He told them that there they were to provide corporal and spiritual assistance to all the Christian salves there.
To fulfill their ministry properly they should have special devotion to the mystery of the Incarnation, whereby Our Lord came upon earth to assist us in our slavery, in which the evil spirit holds us captive (CCD:XIIIa:344-345).
To look for the Incarnation in the poor
The Missionaries ought to be a sign of the Incarnation for the poor. Vincent, from the beginning, was concerned about this point. We see this concern expressed in a letter that was addressed to Francois de Coudray who was sent to Rome to negotiate the matter concerning the approval of the Congregation of the Mission:
“..The instruction of the poor common people…”
A great person of rank, remarkable for his doctrine and piety, was telling me yesterday that he is of the opinion of Saint Thomas, namely, that he who is ignorant of the mysteries of the Trinity and the Incarnation, and dies in that state, dies in a state of damnation. He maintains that this is the basis of Christian doctrine. Now, that touched me and still touches me so deeply, that I am afraid of being damned myself for not being unceasingly engaged in the instruction of the poor common people. What a motive for compassion! Who will excuse us before God for the loss of such a great number of people who could be saved by the slight assistance we could give them? Would to God that so many good ecclesiastics who could assist them in the midst of the world might do so! Beg God, Monsieur, to grant us the grace of redoubling our zeal for the salvation of these poor souls (CCD:I:II9).
One of the persons who corresponded with Vincent, the Abbé Laplatte, wrote a report about the great work of the combined Confraternity of Charity in Mâcon. He pointed out to Vincent the ignorance that existed among the poor which was a great concern for Vincent. Certainly our Founder had to tremble as he read the following lines:
“…The state of the poor…”
"No one," said Fr. Desmoulins, "informed me of the state of the poor people in Macon; I recognized it myself; for, when this charitable organization was begun, since it was ordered that, on the first of each month, all the poor persons who were to receive alms should go to confession, the other confessors along with me found elderly persons, sixty years of age and older, who told us frankly that they had never been to confession; and when someone spoke to them of God, the Trinity, or the Incarnation, it was a language they did not understand. However, through this devout Confraternity of Charity that M. Vincent established, these disorders were remedied, and in a short time the physical and spiritual needs of this throng of poor persons were taken care of” (CCD:XIIIb:71).
At the present time we are the men and women who continue the mission of Jesus Christ who came to proclaim Good News to the poor. “…To continue the ministry of God’s Son on earth…
We wouldn't, in fact, be doing enough for God and the neighbor if we only gave the sick poor food and medicine and if we didn't assist them, in accord with God's plan, by the spiritual service we owe them. When you serve poor persons in this way, you'll be true Daughters of Charity, that is to say, daughters of God, and you'll be imitating Jesus Christ. For how did He serve persons who were poor, Sisters? He served them corporally and spiritually; He went from place to place, healing the sick, giving them what money He had, and instructing them about their salvation. What a happiness, Sisters, that God has chosen you to continue the ministry of His Son on earth! Make your meditation Sunday morning on this topic and reflect before God on the motives or reasons why we should serve poor persons corporally and spiritually, one of the chief motives being to honor the holy humanity of Our Lord by imitating His actions in this respect. What a happiness, Sisters, to do what a God did when He was on earth!" (CCD:IX:50)
“…In conformity with Our Lord…”
In this vocation, we’re very much in conformity with Our Lord Jesus Christ, who seems to have made His principal aim, in coming into the world, to assist poor people and to take care of them. Misit me evangelizare pauperibus (He sent me to bring good news to the poor) … So, are we not very fortunate to belong to the Mission for the same purpose that caused God to become man? (CCD:XI:98).
“…What reason we have to tremble…”
You see, brothers, that the essential aim of Our Lord was to work for poor persons. When he went to others, it was only in passing. But woe to us also if we become lax in carrying out the obligations we have to help poor souls! For we have given ourselves to God for that purpose and God is counting on us. Declinantes ab obligation adducet Dominus cum operantibus iniquitatem (The Lord will bring to iniquity with their works those turning away from duty) … what reason we have to tremble if we’re stay-at-home people or, if, because of our age or under pretext of some infirmity, we slow down and let our fervor diminish! (CCD:XI:122).
“…Our vocation … a continuation of that of Jesus Christ…”
But, Monsieur, we aren’t the only ones who instruct poor people; do Pastors do anything else? What about preachers in towns and villages? What do they do in Advent and Lent? They preach to the poor, and they do it better than we do. True, but there isn’t a single Company in the Church of God that has for its portion persons who are poor, devoting itself totally to the poor and never preaching in large towns. That’s what Missioners profess to do; it’s their special characteristic to be, like Jesus Christ, committed to the poor. So, our vocation is a continuation of His, or, at least, it’s similar to it in its circumstances. Oh, what happiness, brothers, but what an obligation we have to be attached to it…
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 wouldn’t dare to say it . . . Be that as it may, it’s such a lofty ministry to evangelize poor persons, which is, par excellence, the work of the Son of God, and we’ve been included in it as instruments by which the Son of God continues to do from heaven what He did on earth. What great reason we have to praise God, my dear confreres, and to thank Him continually for this grace (CCD:XII:71-72).
Putting aside any romantic or idealized images the conclusion of all of this is very clear:
“…The well-beloved of God…”
God loves the poor, consequently, He loves those who love the poor; for, when we truly love someone, we have an affection for his friends and for his servants. Now, the Little Company of the Mission strives to devote itself ardently to serve persons who are poor, the well-beloved of God; in this way, we have good reason to hope that, for love of them, God will love us. Come then, my dear confreres, let’s devote ourselves with renewed love to serve persons who are poor, and even to seek out those who are the poorest and most abandoned; let’s acknowledge before God that they’re our lords and masters and that we’re unworthy of rendering them our little services (CCD:XI:349)
Questions for reflection and dialogue
1] How do I understand the phrase: The Word became flesh? How do I give meaning to this understanding in my life and my activity?
2] “The Word made his dwelling among us!” Can these words lead us to a more profound reflection and a deeper commitment to our vocation? Can these words change our way of being present in the midst of the world?
3] Vincent was convinced of the importance of the Incarnation for his various foundations … what importance do we give to the Incarntion?
Translated: Charles T. Plock, CM