The Poor in the Heart of Saint Vincent

From VincentWiki

by: Celestino Fernández, CM

(This article first appeared in: La experiencia spiritual de San Vicente de Paúl, [XXXV Semana de Estudios Vicencianos] Editorial CEME, Santa Marta de Tormes, Salamanca, p. 507-529)


Some years ago during a consultation that was conducted on radio an individual requested a solution that would enable him to overcome his depression, his spiritual anemia and his existential disillusionment. The response from the director of said radio program was the following: do not become neurotic about your problems and don’t curl up like a frightened dog … go out into the streets and look at your sisters and brothers, begin to struggle on their behalf; when you have loved them sufficiently, your heart will have been stretched and you will be cured. Ninety out of one hundred illnesses involve some dimension of the heart. Examine your heart, look at its present state and consider what could happen to your heart if you truly opened yourself to others.”

Ever since the organizer of the Vincentian Studies Week proposed to me the theme, “The poor in the heart of Saint Vincent”, I have been turning over in my mind the above cited consultation. Consciously or unconsciously the title of this presentation brings together two essential protagonists in the life and experience of Vincent de Paul: the poor and the heart. Vincent’s journey cannot be understood without these two fundamental presuppositions: the poor and the heart.

I am going to explore the heart of Vincent de Paul, in light of its broadest meaning and symbolism, in other words, I am going to examine the neurological center of the person which includes sentiments, emotions, decisions, options and life itself … from the perspective of this neurological center which is the heart, I am going to reflect on Vincent’s existential relationship with the poor. Jesus of Nazareth has told us: from the fullness of the heart, the mouth speaks (Matthew 12:34). In other words, the heart is the source, the strength, and the cement of the human person. This is clearly evident in Vincent de Paul.

I simply ask the listener or the reader to imagine for a moment Vincent de Paul, an elderly man, speaking to us about the memories of his heart and doing so as a type of indelible witness. Once again then he opens his heart to us like a father who brings from his storeroom both the new and the old (Matthew 13:52).

Dimensions of the heart

It is very possible that the radio announcer involved in the consultation cited at the beginning of this presentation knew nothing about the life of Vincent de Paul. If, by chance, he could have known Vincent’s heart, he would have found there an authentic and concrete example that would have made his wise advice even sounder. In Vincent de Paul he would have found living proof of how his heart expanded to unexpected limits and of how the poor became part of Vincent’s experience and faith as his heart expanded.

A heart of stone

I do not know if Vincent would have liked this biblical expression to describe the relationship of his heart with the poor as he took those initial steps in a lifelong journey. I also am not sure if it would be correct to classify this stage of Vincent’s life with such resounding negativity, that is, describing Vincent’s heart as being completely closed to everything that dealt with the poor. There are authors who have described Vincent as a child and as an adolescent as one who had great sentiments toward the poor … but these stories are part of the legends of hagiography.

Saint Vincent himself described this reality to us when he spoke about a spider web (Abelly:III:257). His heart was involved with other concerns and his vision was reduced to a small world that was focused on himself and his own business affairs. It was not that his heart was not sensitive to the poor but rather, at this time in his life the poor were viewed as objects of piety and pity and indifferent repudiation.

If words express what the heart experiences, then with a series of different phrases Vincent speaks to us about a reality that is very similar to “a heart of stone”: an example of fortune’s vicissitudes (CCD:I:2), in pursuit of the affair that my temerity does not allow me to mention (CCD:I:2), it is impossible, Monsieur, for you and my relatives not to have been slandered by my creditors on my account (CCD:I:10); I am in great disgrace for having left my affairs in such disorder (CCD:I:3), chances for advancement (CCD:I:15), an honorable retirement (CCD:I:13), a suitable benefice (CCD:I:13), a copy of my letters of ordination (CCD:I:13), an honorable retirement so that I may spend the rest of my days near you (CCD:I:15-16), my misfortunes (CCD:I:16), good luck in the future (CCD:I:16), the little service that I have as yet been able to render at home (CCD:I:16). When Vincent recalled this period of his life in his correspondence he referred to himself as one who was burdened with sin (CCD:I:112) and also referred to the abominations of my poor soul (CCD:I:568). We may understand these words as an expression of his humility but that does not prevent us from seeing in those words a description of another reality.

This “heart of stone” is certainly not a perverted heart. Neither his natural righteousness nor his desire for advancement would allow for such perversion nor would they provide him with the means to facilitate such perversion. Yet the general principles of psychology might lead us to the view that his disposition was something more than a simple worldly attraction. If we look at Jesus’ words, Where your treasure is, there also will your heart be (Matthew 6:21), then Vincent’s heart was seeking other treasures that were far removed from the poor.

A heart of flesh

Vincent de Paul however was a convert and as proclaimed by the prophet Ezekiel conversion begins with a change of heart … a process that allows hearts of stone to become hearts of flesh (Ezekiel 36:26). Vincent had experienced the land of Egypt, that is, the land of slavery. He himself had experienced slavery. Some significant data would be enough for a reflective person to discover everything that is concealed in such a desert land. Vincent himself was a reflective man and would therefore be able to understand the consequences. The final experiences of this stage of Vincent’s life (false accusation of theft, entrance into the frivolous and banal world of the ex-queen, the temptation of the theologian, the presentation of a possible benefice at the Abbey of Saint Leonard de Chaumes) are events proper to the land of Egypt, that land of slavery.

These events reveal Vincent’s heart as one of selfishness but these same events also forced him to ask questions and to look beyond his own interests. While he contemplated the world of shadows and false dreams he also contemplated the poor in the Hospital de la Charité and interacted with those individuals who worked and ministered in that hospital. In other words, he contemplated the poor who were struggling between life and death and contemplated those persons who dedicated their life to work on behalf of those persons who were viewed as outcasts. Vincent reflected on the ministry of those individuals who worked with the poor and struggled with them so that those individuals could live dignified lives.

The heart of Vincent de Paul began to move beyond its smallness, began to expand, began to slowly approach that path of life that goes down from Jerusalem to Jericho, that path where one finds those who are exploited, wounded, massacred, marginalized and excluded … the victims of the system. As a result Vincent came to the conclusion that the poor were not some pious or occasional past-time nor were they simply a statistic that upset good people. Rather they were a painful passion, a terrible question that God placed before him and therefore demanded an urgent and bold response.

In the famous novel of Antoine de Saint-Exupery, The Little Prince, the leading character speaks to the fox and says: the truly important things can only be seen with the eyes of the heart. The heart of Vincent de Paul was a heart that began to see, to feel, to search, to ask questions, to reflect on the true meaning of life. His heart became a broad, expansive, profound heart … it became intimate, warm, welcoming, merciful … a place where the poor could enter and feel as though they were at home. As another author states: In order for Vincent to dedicate his life to the poor he first had to discover their existence and at that time in history it was very easy to adopt a lifestyle and certain attitudes that would protect one from the disturbing presence of the poor [1].

Vincent’s intimate experience must be viewed from a background of indisputable realism: The poor people are dying of hunger and are condemned to despair. The reality of material misery and spiritual abandonment became the two coordinates between which the life-giving fluid of Vincent’s heart flowed.

Attentive to the movements of his heart of flesh, Vincent began to experience the harsh realities of the poor on an even deeper level: The poor, who do not know where to go or what to do, who are suffering already and who increase daily, are my burden and my sorrow (CCD:III:492). It is a small thing to hear or read these things; they must be seen and ascertained with one’s own eyes (CCD:IV:446). I have seen those poor men treated like animals (CCD:X:103).

During that “century of poor people” Vincent’s heart reached out to those people who lived on the margins of the civilized and “not so Christian” society. Vincent’s heart dwelt among those countless masses “of unfortunate men and women who possessed no other property than their souls … and the only reason they possessed their soul was that it could not be auctioned off.” These words were proclaimed by Talon, the general-counsel of Parliament and were spoken in the presence of Queen Anne of Austria. Furthermore, Vincent’s heart was able to penetrate the subtle structures that generated and manufactured marginalization and abandonment.

The boundaries of this heart were so endless that they extended to all those who were poor: to those persons who lived in the area surrounding Saint-Lazare and to those persons who lived in the most remote areas of France … including those who lived outside of France. With a certain sense of humor we might repeat the words of the Chancellor Seguier who angrily proclaimed in the film, Monsieur Vincent: before you there were also poor persons. But this did not prevent good people from sleeping. Now there are poor people everywhere and it will be said that you invented them [2].

A heart on fire

We should sell ourselves to rescue our brothers and sisters from destitution (CCD:IX:390). We’re responsible if they suffer because of their ignorance and sins; so, if we don’t sacrifice our whole life to instruct them, we’re the ones who are guilty of all they suffer (CCD:XI:191). We are to run [to attend to] the spiritual needs of our neighbor as if we were running to a fire (CCD:XI:25).

These three references, randomly selected from the more than eight thousand pages of Vincent’s writings, could only be written by an individual whose heart was enflamed with pure fire. Here there are no traps or deception. No one could speak in such a manner if there was not a courage and a boldness behind those words … an attitude that went beyond the limits of cautious prudence.

Someone has said that Vincent de Paul had a “bad heart”. But do not let those words startle you. Vincent suffered from a pathology that was both positive and strange: a passion for the poor. We are satisfied with a heart that is “concerned about the poor”, “interested in the poor”, “close to the poor”. Vincent de Paul had a passionate heart that reached out to the poor … so passionate that it was totally enflamed like the offering of a holocaust. The poor were his dominant passion. In light of such a passion, everything else became secondary.

From the perspective of this heart of pure fire Vincent loved the poor. He loved them in a way that was devoid of any romantic idea but loved them in a very warm and understanding manner … he loved them as a result of his commitment to follow Jesus Christ and he was willing to pay the price for this love. In this “divine task” Vincent brought together two complementary dimensions of Christian love: the curative and the preventive … and combined these with an attitude of gratitude.

So that his passion for the poor would not be lost or remain on the level of good intentions, Vincent utilized two perspectives that further enflamed his heart: “the poor as the sacrament of Christ” and “the poor as lords and masters” [3].

Keys to the heart

The historian of French spirituality, H. Bremond, states that those who view Vincent de Paul as a philanthropist rather than a mystic, those who do not see Vincent de Paul as a mystic and primarily as a mystic, such persons speak about a Vincent de Paul who never existed [4].

Indeed there are many keys that enable us to gain access to Vincent’s heart and without these keys we cannot understand him. This is the heart of a saint, not the heart of an activist. This is the heart of a man of faith and not the heart of an ideologue. Therefore it is important to reflect on the following three keys which moved his heart.

From a theological perspective

In light of Jesus’ command and commitment the option for the poor becomes a reality of faith and a theological truth. It is God who first of all opts for the poor. Thus, the cause of the poor is God’s cause and the question of the poor is God’s question. Therefore we can say that the poor provide us with a theological perspective that enables us to know and encounter God; we can also say that the poor provide us with a vision of God in as much as God is scandalously present in those men and women who are poor.

What is at stake here is not the merits, the values or the virtues of the poor, but the justice of the Kingdom of God and God’s desire that the poor have life in abundance. Archbishop Romero in his February 2, 1980 discourse at the University of Louvain stated: The early Christians said: Gloria Dei, homo vivens! (the glory of God is man and woman fully alive). We can concretize these words by saying: Gloria Dei, pauper vivens! (the glory of God is the poor fully alive) [5]. J. Dupont has accurately expressed this when he stated: God favors the poor not because he owes them something but because he owes it to himself to become their defender and protector … the very justice of God is at stake [6] . The document of the Episcopal Commission on Social Ministry (Spain) entitled, The Church and the Poor, highlights the fact that God would be unjust if he appeared to collaborate with injustice or if he remained silent in light of said injustice and did not defend those who were oppressed or lift up those who had fallen [7].

This perspective enables us to understand Vincent when he states: God is the protector of the poor (CCD:X:411). On October 25, 1643 Vincent told the Missionaries: 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 (CCD:XI:122). When Vincent shared his faith and his experience with the Priests of the Mission, it was presumed that the Missionaries clearly understood Vincent’s intention and what he attempted to do when he founded the Congregation, namely, to organize a Company in the Church of God that has for its portion persons who are poor, devoting itself totally to the poor (CCD:XII:71). His insistence on this left no doubt that the Missionaries are the priests of the poor. God has chosen us for them. This is our primary concern, everything else is secondary [8].

Only from this theological perspective can we understand the frequently misinterpreted words of M Bremond: It is not the poor who brought God to Vincent de Paul, rather it is God who brought Vincent de Paul to the poor [9].

From a Christological perspective

In order to discover the definitive criteria that led Vincent to opt for the poor we must view Jesus’ mission and message as an absolute point of reference with regard to his preference for the poor. For Vincent de Paul this option was the same as living in an authentic manner the vocation of Jesus Christ. Aren’t we very blessed, my dear confreres, to live authentically the vocation of Jesus Christ? For who live better the way of life Jesus lived on earth than missionaries? I’m not just talking about us, but missionaries from the Oratory, from Christian Doctrine, Capuchin missionaries, Jesuit missionaries. O Brothers, those are the great missionaries, and we’re only shadows of them. Look at how they go even as far as the Indies, Japan, and Canada to complete the work Jesus Christ began on earth and never abandoned from the first instant of His call! Hic est filius meus dilectus, ipsum audite! (This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him!). From the time His Father commanded this, He didn’t stop for a single moment until His death (CCD:XI:121). But it must also be pointed out that the Missionary vocation has as its primary objective the continuation of the mission of Christ who was sent by the Father to evangelize the poor and to tell them that the kingdom of heaven is at hand and that it is for persons who are poor (CCD:XII:71).

Therefore if Vincent de Paul focused his attention on Luke 4:18-19 (The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord) it was because he found there the key for his option on behalf of the poor, the key to understand his vocation and his mission to the Church and to society.

A most pivotal aspect of this Vincentian Christology is the mystery of the Incarnation. In the spiritual school of Pierre de Bérulle, Vincent de Paul learned the centrality of the Incarnate Word … This Messiah, Christ, is God, incarnated in history. Through the Incarnation Jesus Christ is sent by the Father to accomplish his will with regard to service. Therefore, at the center of Vincent’s faith and experience we find Christ-Love who is characterized by “a spirit of perfect charity” and who reveals himself as a total gift of love for men and women … a servant messiah who though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross (Philippians 2:6-8) … a Messiah who comes and enters fully into the human reality … a Messiah who rejects (for himself and for his followers) any title that denotes authority and/or prestige and substitutes such titles with the word “service”.

Vincent made an option for the poor as a result of a previous option: an option for Jesus Christ, evangelizer and servant of the poor, “a man for others, a man for the dispossessed, the servant, one who serves in life and death.” We should not view Vincent’s option for Jesus Christ and his option for the poor as two separate options but rather as two distinct moments in one and the same option. The Vincentian identity is Christocentric and therefore his option for the poor can only be understood in light of the fact that the cause of the poor was also the cause of Jesus Christ.

From an ecclesiological perspective

Naturally if the Church is the sacrament of Christ it ought to prolong in the world Jesus’ preference for the disinherited. This is what Vincent de Paul learned very well. His heart never separated the threefold reality of Christ – Church – Poor. Vincent could easily have been seduced by the juridical, economical and authoritarian aspects of the French Church during the seventeenth century. But a Huguenot who wanted to become a convert reminded Vincent about the sad reality: the church had abandoned the poor and therefore for all practical purposes had broken the unity between Christ – Church – Poor. Vincent de Paul discovered that there was only one coherent and real response: the option on behalf of the poor as a visible and credible expression of the Church. This was the response that years later Vincent saw fulfilled in the Missionaries: What a happiness for our Missioners to verify the guidance of the Holy Spirit on His Church by working, as we do, at the instruction and the sanctification of poor persons (CCD:XI:30).

In order to better understand the ecclesiological meaning of the Vincentian spirit in its option on behalf of the poor, it would be good to reflect on a recent text that could appear to be part of Vincent’s writings. I refer here to the document, The Church and the Poor which states: the Church’s mission toward the poor has a twofold significance: to be a poor Church and to be a Church for the poor. Just as Jesus, in the very depths of his being, was poor through the Incarnation and committed to the poor through his mission, and just as this was the only way in which Jesus brought about the redemption of the world and achieved his glorification, so too the Church of Jesus wherever it is found, in its customs and organization and lifestyle and as a result of its very existence is molded and formed by the world of the poor. Thus the Church’s concern and dedication and planning is guided primarily by her mission of service on behalf of the poor [10].

It would also be good to remember here the words of one of Vincent’s contemporaries and disciples, the illustrious preacher Bossuet. In a famous Lenten sermon on the eminent dignity of the poor in the church, a sermon that was preached in the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, he stated: In the world the rich enjoy many advantages and occupy the first places; in the kingdom of Jesus Christ the preeminent positions will be occupied by the poor who are the firstborn of his Church and the true sons and daughters of his Church. In the world the poor depend on the rich and appear to have been born in order to serve those who are rich; on the other hand, in the holy church the rich are admitted on the condition that they serve the poor. No one doubts that with regard to this theme Vincent de Paul greatly influenced the thinking of Bossuet. Furthermore we have the impression that Bossuet was the elegant and learned spokesperson of the simple speaking Vincent de Paul.

Thus, for Vincent de Paul the Church is a community of charity that continues the spirit of Christ’s perfect charity”. In other words, the church does not seek influence or power but rather the Church is “a servant of the poor” … the church is a church of the poor. Therefore when the Church is with the poor and places its resources at the service of those in need and those who are destitute, it is then that the Church best reveals herself as the Church of Christ.

The Tasks of the heart

If anyone should think that this Vincentian heart could remain in the realm of “feelings” or in the realm of some suffering and anguished contemplation of the poor and those who had been excluded from participation in society, then those individuals should listen to this unmistakable voice: 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 do not translate into the practice of effective love … 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 … No, No, let us not fool ourselves: Totum opus nostrum in operatione consistit [All our work consists in action] (CCD:XI:32-33).

This is a heart that establishes a fundamental principle: one must move from affective love to effective love … affective love of God and the poor is good but if it is not rooted in a struggle on behalf of the poor, then such love is not authentic. Therefore we now highlight what could be classified as the tasks of the heart.

A heart that organizes

Once more we return to the events that occurred in Châtillon-les-Dombes and the famous words of the pastor who began to open his eyes: the people … have sometimes suffered a great deal, more through a lack of organized assistance than from lack of charitable persons (CCD:XIIIb:8). We are all familiar with this event. We are also aware of the ways in which Vincent de Paul’s heart was like an unstoppable and tireless motor when confronted with material misery and spiritual ignorance. He organized charitable activity and became inventive … and this activity, in turn, generated justice.

Historians say that Vincent de Paul organized a network of assistance and help for all of France in a way that today would be the envy of many organizations.

A heart that plans

Often people involved in charitable work have been accused of remaining on the level of improvised, short-term assistance. But Vincent de Paul’s heart was bold and as a result he became involved in a plan of integral liberation on behalf of the poor.

This plan encompassed a broad spectrum of struggles, attitudes and programs and was based on a realistic as well as a utopian vision. This all-encompassing plan rested on four complimentary columns: assistance, promotion of the cause of those who were poor, prophetic denunciation and changing unjust structures as a result of heightening the awareness of public officials to the situation of those most in need, most marginalized and most helpless.

A heart that discerns

The heart is intelligent. It thinks, analyzes and ponders reality. It does this for a reason: since we live on the sweat of the poor we must, therefore, seek that which is best for them.

I have always been amazed at Vincent’s shrewdness and insight with regard to those matters that affected the poor. He did not allow himself to be influenced by first impressions nor did he fall into the trap of formulating grandiose schemes. An example of this is seen in the events surrounding the General Hospital which should be viewed as a paradigm of serious discernment on behalf of the poor. While the Ladies of Charity and the members of the Confraternities were enchanted with and supported the monumental plan for the General Hospital, Vincent’s heart discovered that this was not something that would be beneficial for the poor but rather was something that would repress and condemn them.

A heart that denounces

Familiar with the great prophets of Israel, Vincent’s heart was not intimidated by those powerful individuals who create more poverty and ignorance and misery. This heart was convinced of an indisputable truth: Christians, because of their name and their identity as Christians and because they are urged on by the love of Christ and the love of their brothers and sisters … said Christians cannot be satisfied with simply acting in a just manner. Rather they must become involved in the struggle for justice as an authentic expression of charity.

Whoever approaches the life of Vincent de Paul, even if this is done in some cursory manner, will be confronted with an incredible amount of activity, attitudes and words that were meant to prevent (with all the means available to him) the social, economic and political institutions from creating more poor people. It was this attitude that led Vincent to confront the Prime Minister, Richelieu and request him to put an end to the war. We also mention here Vincent’s radical and public opposition to Cardinal Mazarin’s policies of exploitation directed at the peasants. We cite the famous words that he addressed to the Cardinal: Cast yourself into the sea and the tempest will be calmed. One must also take note of Vincent lengthy and intelligent letter (September 11, 1652) addressed to Cardinal Mazarin in which the asked the cardinal ro resign his position and leave the country because he considered him to be the primary cause of the people’s suffering (CCD:IV:459-464); his appeal to Pope Innocent X (August 16,1652) requesting his intervention during the Fronde in order to bring relief to the people crushed by such a long war; to bring back to life the poor, prostrate and almost dead from starvation; to restore devastated farmlands and afflicted provinces; to rebuild ruined churches; to give security to young women; to return priests and shepherds of souls to their churches; and, in a word, to give life back to everyone (CCD:IV:446-447). Vincent had to pay the price for his bold denunciation of these injustices and remained in exile from Paris for a period of five months

The lessons of the heart

When we approach the heart of Vincent de Paul we immediately come in contact with a series of attitudes that are worthy of admiration, respect and gratitude. But I believe that Vincent would tell us that while this is good and necessary, it is also very little. Vincent did not like to be praised. So here he would speak to us in the same way that he addressed the first Missionaries when, with an enflamed heart, he said: 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 (CCD:XI:349).

Thus we are invited to move from admiration to imitation. At the very least we are asked to be attentive so that we can notice the movements of Vincent’s heart and observe the manner in which he lived and experienced life. This will enable us to understand the message that he wants to communicate to us. This then is the process that we could call “the lessons of the heart”. I am going to chose some of those lessons as a way of pointing out some basic movements of Vincent’s heart. A complete list of all the various elements and expressions would exceed the time and the space that has been allotted for this presentation.

An exclusive option for the poor

This is the first lesson of the Vincentian heart. Each time that I read and reflect on Vincent’s option, I am confirmed in my belief that his option was an exclusive option on behalf of the poor. The church has coined a very laudable expression: the preferential option for the poor. The heart of Vincent de Paul continues to insist on an exclusive option. From the time that Vincent discovered the poor, everything else became secondary. Vincent dedicated himself exclusively to those who had nothing, to those who besides material poverty also had to bear with spiritual abandonment.

A special sensitivity toward the poor

To speak about the heart is to speak about sensitivity. It is very probable that at Saint Vincent’s time many people were sensitive toward to the poor. But it is also most probably that few people had a “special” sensitivity, that is a sensitivity that went beyond that might be called “normal” sensitivity.

Vincent de Paul’s heart was very experienced with regard to his “special” sensitivity. In fact it was this special sensitivity that guided his faith and his experience. An illustrative example of this is found in the radical position that he took as he defended the dignity and the freedom of the poor in light of the false charity of those who held positions of responsibility in the society of seventeenth century France. The structures of French society are reflected in the royal decree of April 27, 1656 which stated that poor men and women ought to be locked up and forced to clean the city. This would protect people of good conscience from danger and would at the same time preserve the collective order. Those who supported this decree said: to enclose the poor in this way does not rob them of their freedom; it rather separates them from licentiousness and atheism and the possibility of being condemned.

With all his strength Vincent opposed this policy and cried out in defense of the dignity and the freedom of countless poor men and women. He encouraged the members of society to restore life and dignity to those individuals who were at risk of being buried alive.

The sacramentality of the poor

This is the most profound vision and lesson of Vincent’s heart. It is a sign of the whole of his spiritual experience. I have previously stated that Vincent de Paul was not simply an activist even though he engaged in some of the most incredible activities. Vincent was a man of faith and the focus of his heart was always a focus of faith. Vincent would not have advanced very far without said focus.

This lesson is part of the most unique, living and inalienable patrimony of Vincentian spirituality. This lesson is rooted in Matthew 25:40: whatever you did for one of these least brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me. Therefore in light of his faith Vincent de Paul discovered that the poor, besides being the beneficiaries of his services and efforts, were clear and obvious signs of the presence of the crucified Lord.

With regard to this point, there are many various incisive texts in Vincent’s writings. Here I will cite his words to the members of the Confraternity of Charity: Christ himself willed to be poor, to welcome poor persons into His company, to serve those who were poor, to put Himself in their place, even going so far as to say that the good and the harm we do to those who are poor He will consider as done to His Divine Person … what love can we have for Him if we don’t love what he loved! That being the case, Ladies, loving those who are poor is to love Him in that way; serving poor persons well is to serve Him well (CCD:XIIIb:433-434).

The poor as our “lords”

This lesson is one of the things that surprises those who are unfamiliar with Vincentian spirituality. In fact, those same individuals find it difficult to understand this lesson because it is so far beyond that which might be referred to as “normal”. Yet this was one of Vincent’s basic convictions. He formulated this conviction in words: the poor are our lords and masters and this encompassed experiences that characterized his journey through life.

He could have called the poor “brothers and sisters”, “friends”, or “equals”. But when his heart discovered this mystery he exclaimed: What great lords are the poor in heaven! It is their prerogative to open its gates (CCD:X:268). Let us acknowledge before God that they are our lords and masters and that we are unworthy of rendering them our little services (CCD:XI:349). You must also remember that your principal concern, which God asks especially of you, is to be very attentive in serving the poor, who are our lords. Oh yes, Sisters! They are our masters (CCD:IX:97). So then, my dear confreres, poor persons are our portion, the poor … that’s what our Rules engage us to do, to help poor persons, our lords and masters … that was unheard of (CCD:XII:4).

The poor as our “masters”

This is another bold movement of Vincent de Paul’s heart. To call the poor “masters” could appear to be incredulous. Yet Vincent’s heart considered this to be an important characteristic of his incarnation into the world of the poor.

When the heart of Vincent discovered the “eminent dignity of the poor” he also discovered that the poor were “masters” because the needs of these men and women and the events of their lives point out God’s desires. Vincent discovered the poor are “masters” because they provide us with a series of “basic teachings”: they draw us closer to God; they continually guide us toward Jesus Christ; they question us with their suffering; they invite us to a more radical form of poverty; they point out the “bite” of poverty; through their patience and their ability to welcome and accept others, they evangelize us.

Interpreting and analyzing events from the underside of history

The father of the theology of liberation, Gustavo Gutiérrez, states that it is different to read the Scriptures and reality from the perspective of the poor than from the perspective of the rich. If one reads the gospel and life from the underside of history and from the reality of the poor, one will become aware of certain judgments, a certain sensitivity and certain actions that are completely different from those which society and the system consider “normal”.

This is what Saint Vincent did. He read life, the signs of the times, the changes in his country, the never-ending struggles, the place of the Church, the gospel … he read all of these realities with the eyes of one whose heart lived with and for the poor. Thus there is no need to underline the conclusions that he reached, his mindset, his experience and/or the manner in which he lived his life.


I suppose that everything said here has been previously reflected on by all of those who are present here. I also suppose that those who have listened to this presentation might have expected some new theory or some original assertions about this fundamental theme. Here, however, I have restricted myself to pointing out the centrality of the poor in the experience of Vincent de Paul. I have done this in the way in which a son would honor his father and thank his father on the 350th anniversary of his death. We know that in these matters of love, children should allow themselves to be guided by their heart rather than by their mind.

Therefore I want to conclude with a passage from the second book of Kings. The scene revolves around the final moments before Elijah, in the presence of Elisha, is taken up to heaven in a whirlwind. Elisha is very sad and asked for one thing from Elijah: May I receive a double portion of your spirit (2 Kings 2:10). This is what I ask of Saint Vincent de Paul for all of you and for myself.


[1] J. Corera, El pobre según San Vicente, in Vincentiana (1984) p. 583.

[2] Cf., Monsieur Vincent, Ediciones Fe y Vida, Teruel, 1992, pp.61-63

[3] An anthology of those texts in which Vincent speaks about the poor as “the sacrament of Christ” and as “lords and masters” would be very extensive and is beyond the scope of this presentation. At the same time the most frequently referenced texts are most familiar to the member of the Vincentian Family. These include Vincent’s words when he spoke about the need to turn the medal (CCD:I:26), when he insisted that a Sister will go ten times a day to visit the sick, and ten times a day she’ll find God there (CCD:IX:199) and include his words to the members of the Confraternities: loving those who are poor is to love Christ in that way; serving poor persons well is to serve Christ (CCD:XIIIb:434).

[4] H. Brémond, Histoire littéraire du sentiment religieux en France, Paris, 1967, Vol. III, p. 219.

[5] Cf., V. Codina, Seguir a Jesús hoy, Sígueme, Salamanca, 1988, p. 105

[6] J. Dupont,, Les Béatitudes, T.II, La Bonne Nouvelle, Gabalda, París, 1969, p. 123.

[7]Comisión Episcopal de Pastoral Social, La Iglesia y los pobres, Madrid, 1994, #19.

[8] P. Collet, La vie de Saint Vincent de Paul, vol. 1, p. 168.

[9] H. Bremond, op.cit., p. 219.

[10] Comisión Episcopal de Pastoral Social, op.cit., #25.

Translated: Charles T. Plock, CM