The Rule of the Confraternity of Charity: Everything Began in Châtillon

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by: José Manuel Sánchez Mallo, CM

(This article first appeared in San Vicente de Paúl, Ayer y Hoy, XXXIII Semana de Estudios Vicencianos, [Saint Vincent de Paul, Yesterday and Today, XXXIII Vincentian Studies Week], Editorial CEME, Santa Marta de Tormes, Salamanca, 2008).

Brief history of the Confraternities

From the very beginning of Christianity, confraternities have provided a support for the practice of religion. The Middle Ages were known for professional guilds which continued to be influential into the seventeenth century. Each professional group rendered homage to a patron saint and consequently had a chapel or an altar in the parish church or in a monastery. The confraternities were similar to the guilds and functioned as mutual help societies which provideed for individuals’ material needs as well as their spiritual needs.

The members celebrated their patron feast with a solemn Mass that was followed by a procession and a banquet. They organized the funerals of their members with great pomp and had Masses offered for the eternal repose of deceased members. They also assisted those members who were infirm and in need.

Resources were obtained by the payment of dues, by admitting apprentices and “master” artisans in their field of expertise who paid a fee to become a member of the guild. Members were also fined for not following the established rule.

The phenomenon of the multiplication of the confraternities has been studied by Jean Delumeau [1] and the above mentioned realities are documented in the sixth chapter of his work dedicated to “the cult of the saints and sociability.” In this work we also find a description of the spread of the confraternities in the West during the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries. He does not refer to the Vincentian confraternities and this is not surprising even though Alexandrette Buguelli [2] states otherwise . Delumeau affirms that the spread and multiplication of the confraternities was in accord with certain religious and social realities. At the same time, however, one should not lose sight of the fact that people were looking for security in the midst of insecurity that resulted from illness, the plague, war, hunger and uncertainty about the future (here future refers to tomorrow as well as the time after death).

The confraternities played an important role in the social life and the religious life of the city. Despite their worldly activities, such as banquets and courting, they contributed to deepening the Catholic faith. It was rare to find a parish that did not have one or several confraternities.

Delumeau stated that the Church combated the worldly excesses of the confraternities: the Tridentine Church struggled against the ancient structures of solidarity to the degree that these structures were outside her control. We see that in France, during the final years of the Ancient Regime, there was a hostile movement against the carnivals which the renowned Company of the most Blessed Sacrament wanted to abolish. During the celebration of these festivals people would bid for one of the titles in the parish (for example, “king”, “queen”, “head waiter”). These individuals were then entrusted with organizing the patron feast day celebration, processions, and/or the representations of the different mysteries [3].

In 1581 the municipal council of Rouen leveled the following complaint: even though they began as pious and devotional groups, the charitable confraternities and associations have tarnished and disfigured religion in the Church, have misused their resources and have deceived people. The council of Rouen placed these groups under the control of the bishop and made them subordinate to the pastors. They also prohibited those rites that appeared to imitate official parish celebrations and the groups were not allowed to use holy water, blessed bread, sermons, in their various celebrations. The gathering of the groups for banquets was also condemned. During this era all of these measures were enacted in different dioceses of the Catholic Church [4].

To remedy these evils, Pope Clement VIII in 1604 published the constitutions, Quaecunque, which attempted to put order into the chaotic situation of the confraternities in which so many individuals found themselves spiritually and doctrinally devastated. The Pope wanted to eliminate the worldly elements which afflicted many of these groups. In theory only those groups approved by the bishop were formally recognized but the vigilance of the bishops was not always effective.

The more common elements of the confraternities were the following: they maintained themselves through the collection of dues and the generosity of the faithful; all of these groups were governed by rules which pointed out certain pious practices that were to be fulfilled by the members and the rules also referred to participation in the sacraments of Reconciliation and the Eucharist; all the groups had a patron saint whose feast was celebrated in a solemn manner.

These groups were directed by the parish priest or members of religious orders, such as the Jesuits, Carmelites, Dominicans, Capuchins. The majority of these groups were pious confraternities: the members worshipped together and supported the sanctification of their members.

In El Diccionario de Gran Siglo (the Dictionary of the Great Century) the word confrerie is divided into several categories:

a. Those that follow the medieval model and have a practical objective. These would be the Confraternity of Saint Roque and Saint Sebastian who were invoked to protect people from epidemics. These groups were most numerous during the Thirty Years War (1618-1648).

b. The Confraternities of Saint Joseph, the natural father of Jesus and the patron of a holy death. It flourished in the middle of the seventeenth century and was promoted primarily by the Carmelites and the Oratorians.

c. The Confraternities of Saint Christopher who was invoked to protect members from a sudden death.

d. There was another type of confraternity oriented toward devotion to the Blessed Virgin, for example, the Rosary Confraternity (Dominicans) and the Confraternity of the Assumption, etc.

e. One of the most significant groups was the Confraternity or the Company of the most Blessed Sacrament which was established in 1630 by the Duke of Ventadour, Henri de Lévis. Saint Vincent was a member of this group that was very influential until it ceased to exist in 1666. This confraternity attempted to reform the Church of France, its customs, the clergy, religious congregations, etc. It was very conservative and puritanical and as a result clashed with the larger society.

f. There were many other confraternities of piety, charity and penance.

In conclusion Michel Pernot states: The Catholic reform of the seventeenth century rooted its action in the ancient foundation of medieval devotions and established a network of confraternities that became the basic unit of Christian society (as envisioned by the participants in the Council of Trent) and a privileged place for communal devotions[5].

Alexandrette Buguelli affirms: From the end of the Medieval Age the great number of confraternities contributed to the creation of networks of solidarity which became ever more necessary as a result of hunger, illness, and war. The confraternities of penitents were very numerous. The members of these groups ministered to prisoners, the Barbary slaves, the poor and those who were hospitalized. It was in this way that the Rosary Confraternity (founded by the Dominicans in Alsace) and the confraternity of the most Blessed Sacrament were established throughout France. The confraternities gathered together people from every social class (including women). In Lillet between 1635-1645 2,935 people became members of the Confraternity of the most Blessed Sacrament … 1, 997 of these persons were single women [6].

The first work of Saint Vincent

As pastor in Clichy Vincent had established the Rosary Confraternity. Louis Abelly [7], as well as Collet [8], (well-known biographers of the holy Founder), affirm this fact. The more important reality, that which would be most decisive and would determine the charitable future of Vincent de Paul, was the Confraternity of Charity that was established in Châtillon-les-Dombes. Let us listen to Louis Abelly as he describes these events: While Monsieur Vincent was still at Châtillon, as he was about to mount the pulpit one feastday, a lady of a noble house in the neighborhood said a few words to him. She asked him to recommend to the charity of the parish a family whose children and servants had fallen sick on their farm about a half league from Châtillon. They needed help urgently. He felt obliged to speak about them in his sermon. In it he spoke of the duty we have to help the poor, especially the sick, and in particular this family which had been recommended to them. God so blessed his words that after the service a large number of people visited the sick family, carrying bread, wine, some meat, and several other provisions. After vespers, he himself went with some of the people of the parish, unaware that others had already gone. He was astonished to meet a number on the road returning in large groups, and even some sleeping under the trees, since it was so warm. The Gospel text came to mind: These are as lost sheep, with no shepherd to guide them.” He said: This undoubtedly shows that these people have great charity, but is it well organized? The poor sick family will be overwhelmed with so much in such a short time, most of which will spoil. Afterward they will be no better off than before. The following day he met with several zealous and wealthy women of the parish to seek ways of establishing greater order in the way the sick poor of the moment and those who would call for help in the future could be helped. He found these women well disposed toward this project and was able to work out with them a plan for action. He drew up a few regulations which they promised to observe and which would encourage these virtuous women to give themselves to God through this practice of charity. Thus began the Confraternity of Charity, for the corporal and spiritual help of the sick poor (Abelly I:72).

Vincent de Paul found himself in a pressing situation which forced him to confront the poverty and the urgent needs of his parishioners. At the same time he became aware of the overflowing generosity of the people in that area. Their generosity, however, had to be channeled in the right direction … it had to be organized or it would be ineffective. The fundamental elements of any group that provides assistance to people in need are: charity, organization and effectiveness. Thus Vincent de Paul, a creative man, established a new confraternity that had a twofold objective: charity, that is, aiding the poor, and the sanctification of its members. He liked to call the confraternity “the charity” and indeed Vincent established a charitable and devotional confraternity. He eliminated the worldly elements that were found in many similar associations in other parishes throughout France, for example, luxurious celebrations in honor of their patron, banquets,, annual bidding for positions of honor in this or that association, proclamation of the “king” and “queen” of the patronal celebrations. All of these elements were popular in many places in France. Saint Vincent, however, in creating the confraternity of charity, put aside these “worldly” elements in order to be in harmony with the ecclesial understanding of these associations.

The first confraternity was established in August 1617 in Châtillon-les-Domes as a response to the urgent needs that he found in this village where he served as pastor. Later in 1618 when he began to preach missions on the de Gondi estate he would establish a confraternity in each area where he preached. This association was seen as a compliment to the evangelization process.

In the beginning the confraternities were found only in the villages but very soon they were established in the parishes in Paris. They eventually spread throughout France. Before Vincent’s death in 1660 these confraternities could be found in many areas of France, including the royal court. These confraternities were also established in Italy and Poland. Association, confraternity … its name varied according to the place and the circumstances, but the confraternity itself remained constant. At times there were slight modifications in the Rule and Vincent often referred to these groups as “the charity”. Whenever his Missionaries preached missions in the towns and villages, they were told to establish a confraternity. Thus the number of these confraternities increased and at times they were related to other existing confraternities, for example, the Confraternity of the Holy Name of Jesus or the Confraternity of the most Blessed Sacrament [9].

Interpreting the Châtillon event

Let us make an attempt to interpret this event and to do so from a Vincentian perspective.

The response of the people to the family in need planted an idea in Vincent’s mind: the organization of charitable activity. This family and other families in a similar situation demanded that the generosity of people be better organized in order to be more effective. True, the generosity of people provided this family with many resources but since much of the food could not be consumed immediately, it spoiled. Therefore it was necessary to organize people’s generosity.

Saint Vincent had direct contact with the poor as well as the infirm. He realized that serving the poor becomes a sign, a sign to the reality that those who believe in God are defenders of the cause of the poor and that charity is the visible and credible expression of the Church of Christ [10]. Thus the poor became Vincent’s lords and masters.

Vincent saw that the laity, especially women, could be encouraged to collaborate in this project. Therefore he entrusted the women with this ministry of charity toward the poor. Vincent mobilized and organized believers who were blessed by God because they were able to see in the sufferings of poor people the living image of Jesus Christ [11].

Vincent realized that charity was a necessary compliment to evangelization. From that time, then, wherever he preached the mission, he established the confraternity of the charity. To serve the poor materially and spiritually are the two most repeated adverbs that Vincent spoke throughout his life. The poor are dying of hunger and are condemned … a phrase that is not found in Vincent’s writings but is deduced from his activities and as a result, all the authors place these words in Vincent’s mouth.

Vincent began to see himself as an organizer of charitable activity and a mobilizer of persons who would serve the poor. In this regard this was the beginning of a maturing process that would enable Vincent to become the genius of organized charity. There in Châtillon the seed was planted, the seed that would grow and become a fruitful tree.

Later Vincent would realize that the origin of the Daughters of Charity was also contained in the seed that was planted in Châtillon-les-Dombes. There was the seed that generated a tremendous network of charity that would flourish throughout France and the whole world. There the great saint of charity had his beginning.

The experience in Châtillon-les-Dombes revealed the importance of charity to Vincent. It could be said that the very heart of charity and the church was discovered by Vincent as a result of his experience in Châtillon [12]. In light of the situation of misery, charity is the only response, but charity has to be well-organized. Today we would say that justice is a demand of charity. However, in that former era the mental concepts prevented people from grasping the profound significance of justice as we understand it today. The poor are the suffering and humiliated members of Christ’s body … they are the disfigured incarnation of the Son of God. Vincent was driven by the conviction that no one could remain indifferent when confronted by misery. He was passionate about charity and became the saint of charity. In the whole history of Christianity Saint Vincent is certainly one of those persons who best revealed and put into practice the marvelous dynamic of evangelical charity [13].

On December 23, 1617 Vincent once again returned to Paris, to the de Gondi estate, but he returned as a new man. As a result of his experience in Châtillon, certain dynamics were set in motion that would continue to be developed by Vincent throughout his life. The option had been made. Vincent had found his vocation: the poor are dying of hunger and are condemned.

The Rule of the Confraternity

André Dodin calls this rule a masterpiece of tenderness and organization [14]. On November 24th, 1617, M. Méchatin Lafaye, vicar of the Diocese of Lyons, approved the rule and on December 8th, the feast of the Immaculate Conception, Vincent de Paul proceeded with the solemn erection of the confraternity in the hospital chapel of the town of Châtillon-les-Domes. This was done in a public act in the presence of numerous witnesses [15].

José María Román states: The rules of the Châtillon charity reveal something of Vincent’s greatheartedness when, at the age of thirty-seven, he reaches full maturity [16]. Indeed, the rules clearly reveal Vincent’s heart and his talent which enabled him to become the great apostle of charity. This was the beginning of his organizing genius which would eventually spread to every part of France and even beyond the boundaries of the French frontier.

Let us attempt to reflect and analyze this reality. What elements do we find in this basic document? What are the lines of action that are laid down in this first rule for the confraternity? What are the foundations that sustain this charitable organization, that sustain it in the way that Vincent envisioned it?

Vincent takes the initiative … Vincent is the principal actor

Vincent’s role here is decisive. Six months before God’s graced had opened new paths and now Vincent is in control of the circumstances, molding them and giving them form: Vincent spontaneously decided to spread the news that he had received prior to the celebration of Mass. There is no doubt that he spoke with conviction, with feeling and with love. The sermon had a great impact and forty-eight years later people were still talking about Vincent (CCD:XIIIa:49ff). It is clear that everything happened as a result of the sermon that Vincent preached. Morin affirms: Ah! The eloquence of Saint Vincent!

Vincent had the idea of giving structure to the spontaneous generosity of the parishioners:God gave me this thought: “Couldn't these good ladies be brought together and encouraged to give themselves to God to serve the sick poor?” (CCD:IX:166). We remember here the words of Abelly: This undoubtedly shows that these people have great charity, but is it well organized? The poor sick family will be overwhelmed with so much in such a short time, most of which will spoil. Afterward they will be no better off than before (Abelly I:72). What did Vincent de Paul do? He carried out and put into action the good idea that he had: I pointed out to them that these great needs could very easily be alleviated. They immediately resolved to see to it (CCD:IX:166). Thus began his first work. A simple, humble work that was carried out in the midst of people living in the countryside. Yet in that work we find the seed of all the charitable works that would follow. The seed would become a fruitful tree whose branches extended to every continent.

A role for women

The confraternity will be composed of women: widows, wives and unmarried women, whose piety and virtue are known and whose perseverance can be counted on. Nevertheless, the wives and unmarried women must have the permission of their husbands or parents and not otherwise. In addition, to avoid the confusion that comes from too large a number, it should be limited to twenty, until further orders (CCD:XIIIb:9).

As we have already seen there were confraternities in all the dioceses, parishes, and villages throughout France. In this sense the Vincentian confraternities were not something new. The fact that the members dedicated themselves to assisting the poor and the infirm was also nothing new because the majority of the existing confraternities did the same. So then, what was new about these confraternities that distinguished them from all others?

The first important distinguishing character of these confraternities is the fact that the members were all women. At that time it was quite rare to find a confraternity composed solely of women. It was, however, most common to find confraternities whose membership was composed solely of men. Perhaps it is here that we are in the presence of a key idea that would characterize Vincent’s activity throughout his life: the importance of women as collaborators in all his charitable works. We should state here that not only did Vincent place much importance on the role of women but his vision encompassed all the laity.

From the very beginning Vincent trusted and had confidence in women; he gave them responsibilities and placed them in charge of his various works. In all his charitable works the saint of charity was very mindful of women who were very sensitive to others, especially those marginalized, the poor, the infirm. Few saints could raise the banner of Christian feminism, especially at a time when power, glory and action were concentrated in the hands of men.

On the following day, August 21st, 1617, eight women gathered together and organized themselves in order to serve the poor. On the 23rd of the same month, Vincent gave them their first rule. The simplicity, precision and exactness of this rule is astounding … Châtillon became the first place in which the charity was established. It was from here that the charities grew and expanded. The point of reference for all these groups was the definitive Rule that Vincent redacted and solemnly promulgated for the members in the hospital chapel in Châtillon. This promulgation and the formal erection of the confraternity took place on December 8th, 1617, a short time before Vincent’s definitive departure from the parish which took place on Christmas Eve. Once again the laity were the ones who encourage Vincent. But here it must be said aloud that the laity were women.

The two pillars that sustained Vincent’s actions owed their existence to these lay women. Years later, on July 11, 1657, Vincent spoke with the women in Paris and said: For eight hundred years or so, women have had no public role in the Church; in the past there were some called Deaconesses … and now that same Providence is turning today to some of you to supply what was lacking to the sick poor of the Hôtel-Dieu (CCD:XIIIb:432).

Writing in 1639 to Saint Jane Frances Chantal, Vincent affirmed: Our Little Company is established to go from village to village at its own expense, preaching, catechizing, and having the poor people make general confessions of their entire past life. We try to settle the disagreements we find among them and do all we can to see that the sick poor are assisted corporally and spiritually by the Confraternity of the Charity, composed of women, which we set up in the places where we give the mission and which desire it (CCD:I:553). Women were always great collaborators in the Vincentian ministry

In Châtillon-les-Dombes we find this collaboration between the women and Vincent. But in this cooperation we find still another new element: the laity, especially the women, are entrusted with full responsibility for the confraternity. Throughout Vincent’s life we find this cooperation as a constant reality. Vincent never did anything alone.

Vincent always attributed his charitable works and his foundation to God’s Providence. He often said: I never thought of this. That is true, but Vincent had a special instinct, a sixth sense, that enabled him to find Providence in the different events and various people whom he encountered on his pilgrimage … God became visible in these events and people and revealed the will of the Father and the manner in which the poor should be served. This was one of those ways: giving responsibility to women … a very sound Christian feminism.

Entrusting women with this role of service with regard to the poor can be seen as a reaffirmation of the ministry of women in the Church. In 1636 with a certain delight and humor he said to the women: In this you will be released, as it were, from the prohibition placed upon you by Saint Paul in 1 Corinthians 14, “Women should keep silent in the churches; nor are they permitted to speak.” Then he adds, “For it is a disgrace for women to speak in church.” And in 1 Timothy 2, “I do not permit a woman to act as a teacher.” Adding as the reason that, “Adam was created first; Eve afterward,” and “It was not Adam who was deceived but the woman. It was she who was led astray” (CCD:XIIIb:381). The fact that Vincent released the women from this prohibition is an element of Gascon humor.

Centrality of the person of Christ

Since, in all confraternities, the holy custom of the Church is to propose a patron, and since the works gain their value and dignity from the purpose for which they are performed, the Servants of the Poor will take for patron Our Lord Jesus and for its aim the accomplishment of His very ardent desire that Christians should practice among themselves the works of charity and mercy. This desire He makes clear to us in His own words: "Be merciful as my Father is merciful,” and in these words: "Come. blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry, and you gave me to eat ... I was sick and you visited me ... for what you have done to the least of those, you did to me” (CCD:XIIIb:9). They will do all for the love of Our Lord Jesus, who became obedient unto death, even to the death of the Cross (CCD:XIIIb:10).

Vincent refers to Jesus Christ eight times in the first Rule of the Confraternity and there Vincent simply plants a seed by placing his first intuition before the members. In the first edition of the Rule which is dated August 23rd, 1617 he names the Blessed Virgin as the patroness of the Confraternity and Saint Martin and Saint Andrew (the patrons of the parish) as co-patrons.

In the definitive Rule, that which was more thought out and reflected upon, Jesus Christ is the patron. This is quite novel. At that time the patrons of the confraternities were usually saints that were more or less popular. Here, however, Vincent has an insight that will determine and guide all of his later activity since he views Jesus as the one who acts with mercy and charity on behalf of the most humble and the most poor. The patron of the confraternity is the one whom the members should imitate. What must the members of the Confraternity of the Charity imitate? They must imitate Jesus’ works of charity and his mercy toward those who are poor. This Jesus proclaims: be merciful as my heavenly Father is merciful. Since one's activity is valued and takes on value in light of the finality with which it is done, then imitating Jesus Christ by loving those who are poor gives a special dignity to the activities of his disciples.

We thus find ourselves before the first insight with regard to the Vincentian Christ, namely, a Christ who is the evangelizer and the servant of the poor, a Christ who is the source and the origin of all charity, the font and the model of all charity (as Vincent would later say).

Vincent reveals himself as a brilliant and enthusiastic follower of the French school of spirituality, but he would go beyond the outlines of said school. There is no doubt that the French school provided its followers with a sound theological doctrine but this doctrine was often abstract and ethereal. Morin states that we can understand this if we read Bérulle writings on Jesus Christ and on the principle states in life and the mysteries [17]. Such lofty, elevated ideas! And in the meantime Vincent would say, the poor die of hunger and are condemned!

The events of 1617 had a definitive impact on Vincent’s faith in Jesus Christ. The Christ who is revealed in Ganes-Folleville, and later in Châtillon, is (as Vincent continually stated) the One whom God sent to evangelize and serve the poor: So then poor persons are our portion, the poor; pauperibus evangelizare misit me. What happiness, Messieurs, what happiness! To do what Our Lord came from heaven to earth to do, and by means of which we will go from earth to heaven to continue the work of God, who avoided the towns and went to the country to seek out those who were poor. That is what our Rules engage us to do, to help poor persons, our lords and masters (CCD:XII:4).

As a result of this insight Vincent related all the teachings of the great spiritual masters and the lofty theology of Bérulle to the men and women living in situations of poverty, to God’s poor people. The center of Vincent’s faith is found in the fact that Jesus Christ was sent to evangelize the poor. Morin states that the reality about Jesus Christ places us before the fundamental aspect of Vincent’s faith: his relationship with Christ … Jesus Christ sent to those persons who are poor [18].

What we have just defined as the fundamental aspect of Vincent’s faith is also the key element in Vincentian spirituality. Much has been written about Vincentian Christology.

The Vincentian charism arises from a lived and profound experience of Jesus Christ. Vincent continually meets Christ on his journey through life and this encounter, which occurs in very concrete situations, changes Vincent’s plans and deepens his relationship with Christ.

The Vincentian Christ is the evangelizer and the servant of the poor, the One who proclaims Good News to the poor and who at the same time heals the poor: His [Jesus’] main concern was the care of poor persons in order to heal them, console them, help them, and respect them; that was His aim (CCD:XIIIb:433). This dimension of Jesus’ life seduced Vincent and as he discovered the poor, he made these men and women a part of his own life. This is the Christ whom he followed, whom he loved profoundly, to whom he handed over his life. In this Christ Vincent discovered that He Himself willed to be born 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 (CCD:XIIIb:433). This was the Christ whom Vincent loved and this is also the Christ whom we, as Vincentians, must follow.

The Vincentian Christ is a Christ-Love who is the Son of God-Love. This Christ is characterized by a spirit of perfect charity which must be transformed into a fundamental attitude of dependence and love in relation to the Father. Saint Vincent asks: What is the Spirit of Our Lord? And he himself responds: It is a spirit of perfect charity (CCD:XII:93). The spirit of Our Lord is one of charity and love but it is also a spirit of tenderness with regard to men and women, with regard to those persons who are poor. Vincent exclaimed: Let us look at the Son of God; what a heart of charity he had; what a fire of love … who else could love in such an outstanding way? … if we had only a little of that love, would we stand around with our arms folded? … Oh, no! Charity cannot remain idle; it impels us to work for the salvation and the consolation of others (CCD:XII:216).

Ibáñez affirms: In an era dominated by a harshness in its customs, a severity and repression in treating children, the insane, and the poor, a spirituality characterized by rigidity and asceticism, the reality of the Vincentian Christ is characterized by two fundamental aspects: compassion and tenderness. These two aspects have their origin in Vincent’s experience of the poor whom “I've seen treated like animals” (CCD:X:103). These two aspects also arise from Vincent’s experience of the mystical body of Christ [19].

A profile of the servant of the poor

The Confraternity will be called Confraternity of Charity, in imitation of the Charity Hospital in Rome, and the persons of which it will be mainly composed will be called Servants of the Poor or of the Charity (CCD:XIIIb:9).

Servants of the poor is the name that Vincent utilized in order to describe the members of the Confraternity of the Charity. We might ask: why did he call them servants of the poor? We will find various answers but let us focus on one which, in my opinion, could be most correct.

Vincent served one of the stateliest families in society, that is, he was a servant to the de Gondi family (an aristocratic family). He was one more servant among many others who lived on the estate. It was in this environment that Vincent learned how to treat his master. Respect, submission, obedience and attentiveness were values that characterized a good servant ... a good servant who lived on the estate. The servant should always be available to the master and willing to fulfill his will. All the honor belonged to the master and it is interesting to read what he said to the Daughters of Charity years later: I'd like to tell you that, when God placed me in the house of the General's wife, I decided to obey her as I would the Blessed Virgin and God knows that it really helped me! (CCD:IX:7). Let me speak to you informally here, Sisters. When it pleased God to call me to the home of the wife of the General of the Galleys, I looked on the General as God and on his wife as the Blessed Virgin. If they ordered me to do something, I obeyed them as if I were obeying God and the Blessed Virgin. I don't remember ever having received their orders except as coming from God, when it was the General of the Galleys who was giving me the command, or from the Blessed Virgin, when it was his wife; and I don't think I ever did anything contrary to that, by the grace of God. I also venture to say that, if God has been pleased to give some blessing to the Company of the Mission, I dare say that it has been in virtue of my obedience to the General and his wife and of the spirit of submission with which I entered their household. Be His the glory and be mine the shame! (CCD:X:311).

All of this becomes clear if we reflect on the relationships that existed in the seventeenth century between the peasants and the great feudal lords. Pierre Goubert describes this situation: The superiority and preeminence of the feudal lord is unquestionable … the origin of his superiority is bound up with the very nature of things and therefore is even a further guarantee of his superiority. The master is first everywhere because this is how things should be, at least in the civil order … the first in the village, the first inhabitant and this justifies his rights and provides him with various honors that are befitting such in individual [20].

Saint Vincent wanted to bestow on the poor all the honors that were given to the distinguished persons of that century. In Vincent’s eyes the poor were the great masters, those who deserved obedience, submission, attention, care and profound respect. Vincent simply inverted the values. He called the poor his lords and masters, even though this expression was not originally his. Then, how does one behave toward the lord and master? The master is served unconditionally; the servant’s whole being and all that he has is placed at the disposition of the master. The lord and master is first, is worthy of every form of service and deserving of honor.

The poor were to be served like the great feudal lords that Vincent knew. Thus the great ones, the nobles, and the powerful who were to be served had a name: they were the poor. They were to be provided with the best … and this is what the servant of the poor was to do … the servant does not act out of fear or for a salary … rather the servant acts out of love.

This perspective provided Vincent with a foundation that inspired his life and his work on behalf of those who were poor.

Let us listen to Ibáñez Burgos: Using the sociological reality as a starting point, Vincent de Paul and Louise de Marillac made complimentary applications of this reality. Through experience they were aware of the relationship between the feudal lord and his servants. They knew that these aristocrats were often demanding, capricious, disagreeable and unjust. But in the majority of cases their servants attended them conscientiously and with a certain kindness. Now the poor are going to be the lords and masters, many times difficult, demanding, vulgar and disagreeable and the Vincentians (men and women) are going to be their servants … they serve not out of fear or for a salary, but out of love and because, in the light of faith, they discover in the oppressed Jesus Christ who calls them to a life of solidarity and effective love[21].

The integral development of the person … corporal and spiritual … two dimensions of evangelization

Since charity toward the neighbor is an infallible sign of the true children of God, and since one of its principal acts is to visit and bring food to the sick poor, some devout women and virtuous inhabitants of the town of Châtillon-les-Dombes, in the Lyons diocese, wishing to obtain from God the mercy of being His true daughters, have decided among themselves to assist spiritually and corporally the people of their town who have sometimes suffered a great deal, more through a lack of organized assistance than from lack of charitable persons (CCD:XIIIb:8).

Indeed the Rule is a plan for integral development: the servants of the poor, the lay people will assist the poor spiritually and corporally. These two adverbs are continually part of Vincent’s ivocabulary.

The Rule outlines the objective of the new Association as assisting the poor spiritually and corporally, that is, to provide for the body and the soul of those who are poor. The body is provided for by supplying nourishment and medicine and the soul is cared for by disposing those who are near death to die well, and by encouraging those who are healed to live a good life.

Disposing people to live well and to die well is a program that includes, as we will see, participation in the sacrament of Reconciliation. The first document is not precise in this matter. Nevertheless, the perspective of this charitable action is the great awesome Day of judgment (CCD:XIIIb:4), the gentle pleasing voice of Jesus (CCD:XIIIb:4) who blessed some and curses others, and the admirable final invocation: to the Father the Judge, to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit be honor and glory forever and ever (CCD:XIIIb:5).

The lengthy Rule of the charity in Châtillon-les-Dombes, written in November and December, 1617, is very precise in its description of the tasks of the servants of charity on behalf of the poor and focuses on the intentions of the confraternity: The first thing she will do is to see if the patient needs a nightshirt so that, if that is the case, she may bring him one from the confraternity … them there. When this has been done, she will see that the patient goes to confession in order to receive Communion the next morning because it is the intention of the confraternity that those who want to be aided by it go to confession and Communion (CCD:XIIIb:12).

The Rule explains the spiritual assistance that should be given to those who are infirm as well as how to proceed in the case of death. Again we find stated here the fact that the objective of the confraternity is to assist the sick poor and to do this both materially and spiritually: Because the aim of this organization is not only to assist poor persons corporally, but spiritually as well, the Servants of the Poor will strive and take great pains to dispose those who recuperate to live better, and those who seem to be approaching death, to die well … In addition, they will occasionally read some devotional book … [They will exhort] them to bear their illness patiently for the love of God and to believe that He has sent it to them for their greater good. They will have them make some acts of contrition … In the event that their illness [becomes worse], they will see to it that they go to confession as soon as possible. For those who seem to be dying, they will be sure to notify the Pastor to administer Extreme Unction, encouraging them to trust in God, to reflect on the passion and death of Our Lord Jesus, and to commend themselves to the Blessed Virgin, the angels, and the saints, particularly the patron saints of the town and those whose names they bear. They will do all this with great zeal to cooperate in the salvation of souls and, so to speak, to lead them by the hand to God (CCD:XIIIb:14).

One could not speak with any greater precision. The demand with regard to the sacrament of Reconciliation is characteristic of all the Confraternities. The Rule concludes with a request of the prioress, namely, that when an infirm person no longer has need of the assistance of the confraternity, said person should praise God for having been restored to health. Also those restored to health should resolve not to remain in a state of sin for any length of time but should have recourse to the sacrament of Reconciliation. Confession is an important aspect of the “program” of the charity and includes an invitation to the entire family of the infirm individual to avail themselves of this sacrament [22].

Vincent spoke of Jesus as one who served the poor corporally and spiritually … he cured the sick and instructed them in those matters necessary for salvation. Every work of evangelization that is done in imitation of Jesus Christ has a twofold dimension: the proclamation of the kingdom and healing. He went around all of Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom, and curing every disease and illness among the people (Matthew 4:23).

What, then, is the content of this proclamation? What does it mean to proclaim the Good News, to evangelize the poor … and how is this done? This is accomplished by doing what Jesus did … through words and works. Jesus had to confront the reality that his words were rejected by various classes of people. Yet Jesus never understood this reaction and on many occasions expressed his surprise because he felt that his words spoke for themselves and therefore how was it possible that people could see these works and not be convinced … how could people not see these works as a clear testimony of the Fahter’s love … even more how could people attribute these works to the Evil One.

To take care of the spiritual and temporal needs of the poor …is to preach the Gospel by words and works … It is what Our Lord did (CCD:XII:77-78)

We have just mentioned two very common words in Vincent’s vocabulary. While these words were very common in Vincent’s era, they still continue to be understood by today’s reader: spiritual and corporal needs. Today we might use other words to express the same idea: attention to the whole person, integral promotion, etc. Whether we use the older or the more modern phrases, action on behalf of the poor that is inspired by Vincent de Paul must take into consideration all the different dimensions of those who are poor … not only their material needs … not only their spiritual needs. The human person is whole, is one … not composed of body and soul that can be separated at will. The human person is whole and yes, we can distinguish different levels of needs: spiritual, economic, social, cultural. Vincentian action ought to provide for the needs on each of these different levels.

Among the various levels we have mentioned the social level. All human beings, and therefore all poor people, are engaged in multiple interactions and have many different relationships with other human beings. Even though we have to admit that there are some cases in which the poor make themselves victims, yet more often than not it is precisely the social relationships that victimize the poor: little or no access to educational opportunities and/or employment, discriminatory social legislation, marginalization by the rest of society, exploitation wages, inadequate pensions … It should be asked here if the gospel needs to be proclaimed in the midst of these social relationships, (relationships which on many levels are seen as political relationships). The answer is a resounding “yes” … and we see that Vincent himself acted in this manner.

Let us listen to these memorable words of Vincent: It is also a martyrdom of love to die in the corporal and spiritual assistance of the living members of Jesus Christ (CCD:III:351).

The assembly … there everything is decided (today we refer to team ministry and forming networks)

As we read and study the first Rule of the Charity in Châtillon, we cannot but admire the collegial, democratic and team ministry approach that was operative in this first Vincentian establishment. This is even more admirable when we realize that this was done at a time when hierarchical situations predominated. The seventeenth century was a time of total absolutism, a century in which the king proclaimed: L’estat c’est moi (I am the state).

On the other hand, Vincent did not apply this collegial understanding to other situations, for example, in the Congregation of the Mission. If we read the Common Rules of the Congregation we become aware of the absolute power of the superior in the community [23].

Today, as in Vincent’s time, service of the poor cannot be a work of “long rangers”, of isolated individuals … regardless of the good intentions of these individuals. Active participation, commitment and team work are indispensable for any form of advocacy. Vincent did not act alone nor did he reflect on his activities alone. If we reflect on Vincent’s personality we discover that there is something very modern about him. After his famous sermon on August 20th, he extended an invitation to people to participate in a parish assembly. After lunch there was an assembly and during the course of the afternoon (and probably during the afternoon of several days following) an agreement was reached … this accord came about as Vincent encouraged and animated the participants to reflect on the events that had occurred and as a result of this reflection a true renewal of life was experienced [24].

Three days later the first team of lay Vincentian was constituted, the first Confraternity of Charity, the first of Vincent’s establishments.

The confraternity was led by a prioress, elected for one year (not appointed by someone in charge) and was raised to this position as a result of said election. The prioress was accompanied by two assistants who were also elected by all the members. In all important matters the prioress was advised by the two assistants, for example, who should be admitted because of illness and who should be discharged because they had recovered his health[25].

The agreement of the three, or at least two, was required in order to admit those persons who were truly poor and not those who had the means to care for themselves. This is a very important detail. From the beginning the charitable activity of Vincent de Paul was directed toward those who were truly poor and only those who were truly poor. This detail was so important that it could not be left to the decision of any one person but rather it was best if various individuals engaged in a process of discernment about this matter. A very wise norm!

Every third Sunday there was an ordinary assembly. During the assembly all matters with regard to the well-being of the poor and the on-going activity of the confraternity were debated in an open dialogue. In this regard Vincent said something that is very relevant: It is very useful for all holy communities to come together from time to time in some place intended for discussing the spiritual progress and what concerns the general welfare of the community (CCD:XIIIb:15). In this case the “community" is the confraternity. During their meetings all decisions were made according to the vote of the majority. At the same time members were admonished for faults committed while serving the poor (all of this was to be done without any fuss or disorder and with as few words as possible). In other words, fraternal correction was an on-going dynamic among the members and the purpose of this was to be able to provide the best service to the poor.

There was also an annual assembly. This gathering took place on the Wednesday after Pentecost. At this time those who held positions of leadership relinquished their role. The reason for this was very simple: So that humility, the true basis of all virtue, may be perfectly honored in this institution (CCD:XIIIb:17).

A new group of leaders was elected: the prioress and two assistants. This election took place every year. Of course if an individual elected did not fulfill her obligations or became the object of public scandal, then she could be removed from her position.

The order to be followed at the meetings was meticulously outlined and this was done to maintain good order and to assure effectiveness in serving the poor. The meetings were deliberative and therefore open and honest dialogue was fundamental. At the same time the meetings were also spiritual and were an opportunity for the on-going formation of the members. Vincent always attempted to discover God’s will and viewed service of the poor as a dimension of faith and an important aspect of Christian living. Indeed, service of the poor is an act of love and not simply an act of social service.

For us as Vincentians, serving the poor ought to be a form of social service and also an act of love and mercy because we cannot put aside the contemplative dimension of this service.

Today we speak of team ministry, networking [26], reflection and discernment groups [27]. On September 26, 2007 Pope Benedict XVI, in an audience with young married couples stated: Saint Vincent was a great former of networks. He established throughout France numerous associations of lay people who were willing to serve the poor. Vincent convinced them to dedicate some of their time and money to the service of the poor [28]. The Holy Father understood the fact that Vincent’s insights were very modern.

Management … good administration of resources … rendering an account

And because there is reason to hope that there will be foundations made in aid of the confraternity, and that it is not appropriate for women to handle them on their own, the Servants of the Poor will elect as their Procurator some pious, devout priest or an inhabitant of the town who is virtuous, devoted to the good of persons who are poor, and not too caught up in temporal affairs (CCD:XIIIb:9-10). It will be the duty of the Procurator to manage and negotiate business involving funds for the temporal affairs of the confraternity, with the advice and direction of the Pastor, the Prioress, the Treasurer, and the other Assistant; to explain at each meeting held for this purpose the state of the affairs he is managing; to keep a book in which he will record the decisions that will be made during it; to ask, on behalf of the confraternity, the Lord of the town of Châtillon, one of the Syndics, and the hospital Administrator to be present for the rendering of accounts of the confraternity (CCD:XIIIb:11).

In a scene from the film Monsieur Vincent the foundational contract of the Congregation of the Mission is signed and Vincent is given 45,000 livres (an enormous sum of money). The notary reads the text of the contract and Vincent wanted to add some words but the notary says: Monsieur, the text is that which I have read. Vincent responds, Yes, I know, I have verified the numbers. Now this money belongs to the poor and I ought to be accountable to them. Another notary who is present says: He is covered in gold and everything verifies it. He is an exceptional being.

The money belongs to the poor and therefore we must be accountable to them and to them alone. Vincent was convinced of this and this was an obsession of his. When Vincent formulated the Rule for the confraternity in Châtillon he wanted to guarantee this accountability. Therefore everything was outlined in detail [29]: the administration of temporal goods, rendering of accounts, the role of the treasurer, the role of the procurator in maintaining movable and immovable goods, the role of the prioress, a ledger of income and expenses, the collection box in the church for the poor, etc.

In 1657, Vincent reported on the current state of affairs and told the women: 'Since the last general meeting --- that is, since about a year ago --- 5,000 livres had been spent for the light meal for the sick poor of the Hôtel-Dieu and 3,500 livres were received for this purpose, so there was a deficit of 1,500 livres (CCD:XIIIb:427).

During his life large sums of money passed through Vincent’s hands. He initiated several judicial cases because he believed his cause was just. He established relationships with the wealthy in order to finance his works on behalf of the poor. He sought funds from the most powerful women in society. He met generous people who gave him large sums of money and many material goods. He never gave any of this money to his immediate family or relatives. He also never gave any of this money to his followers because, as already stated, he was convinced that the money that he managed was not his, but rather, this money belonged to the poor. Therefore no one had the right to squander, steal or appropriate these funds. One had to be accountable to the poor for every cent that was received.

Throughout his life Vincent de Paul revealed himself to be most astute in financial matters. He knew how to provide a sound financial base for each of his foundations. He believed that service and evangelization of the poor should be done gratuitously and therefore he had recourse to financial means that were common to many institutions throughout France.

How were the confraternities financed? Let us listen to Pierre Coste: The means of procuring the indispensable resources of the Confraternity varied: alms were collected in church on Sundays and holy days; donations were accepted; some charitable people subscribed weekly or yearly; foundations were established; in the country, the Association acquired herds of cattle and, in the towns, was supported by manufactures. In Joigny, the Count de Gondi gave an annual grant of five hundred livres and a certain amount of corn and the City Hospital made an allocation from its funds. In the church at Châtillon there was a collection box for the upkeep of the Confraternity and the relief of those who were poor (this box was opened every two months) (CCD:XIIIb:17).

An account ledger from December 1617 has been found and there we find a detailed list of the revenues and the expenses of the confraternity in Châtillon. Even minimal expenses were recorded and we find Vincent’s mentality revealed in this ledger.

There is something else to be admired in the Rule, namely, when the treasurer was to give a report during the Assembly. It was stated: The treasurer will keep the money, documents, and furnishings, as has been stated, and give an annual report on the day after the holy feast of Pentecost, in the presence of the Pastor, the Prioress, the Procurator, and the other Assistant, as well as the Lord, one of the Syndics, and the Administrator of the Châtillon Hospital, provided, however, that he be a member of the Roman Catholic apostolic religion. The latter three will always be requested, on behalf of the confraternity, to be present and will have faith in the declaration the Treasurer will make that her accounts are accurate, not allowing any article in them to be crossed out nor that either her husband or her children may be questioned regarding them because, being completely trustworthy-since only such persons are chosen for that, people may have entire confidence in her. Furthermore, if she were subjected to being questioned in this matter, none of the members would be willing to accept this office (CCD:XIIIb:16). A very wise human precaution … to trust those who have been elected to certain positions and entrusted with different responsibilities. These individuals are responsible and upright and known by the community to be good people. It would be difficult to mistrust them. If people were not trusted the confraternities would not exist for any length of time.

On-going formation: reading good spiritual books and the importance of formation

The Rule provides for a monthly meeting and for those who know how to read there is reference to daily spiritual reading. Why? Vincent wanted the women to be prepared to instruct those persons who were poor. If we do not understand this concern of Vincent we run the risk of reducing the work of these women to just another form of good deeds on behalf of humankind. Let us listen to Vincent’s words: Those who know how to read will read unhurriedly and attentively a chapter of the book by the Bishop of Geneva, entitled Introduction to the Devout Life. Before the reading, they will raise their minds to God and will implore His great mercy in order to derive the fruit of His love from this devotional practice (CCD:XIIIb:19).

Do we not find in these words a seed, even though it might be a very small seed … a seed of what today we call on-going formation?

Direct contact with the poor or the infirm

Direct contact with the poor or the infirm is most important. The servant of the poor is the most brilliant of Vincent’s creations … in fact the servant of the poor is a key figure. Without such individuals service on behalf of the poor would never have been accomplished. Therefore this service has to be done with love and gentleness. To serve the poor is an act of love. Therefore such service demands order, joy, kindness, cleanliness, detailed service, attentiveness, care, accompaniment, spirituality. Vincent wrote many incredible words but there are some that must be highlighted and here we refer to the Rule for the confraternity at Châtillon. In the Rule we find the perfect fulfillment of Saint Paul’s hymn to charity: Love is patient, love is kind. It is not jealous, love is not pompous, it is not inflated. It is not rude, it does not seek its own interests, it is not quick-tempered, it does not brood over injury, it does not rejoice over wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hope all things, endures all things (1 Corinthians 13:4-7).

Let us read these words that were written by the genius of charity: When the person whose turn it is has received from the Treasurer whatever is needed on her day for the food of the poor persons, she will prepare the dinner and take it to the patients, greeting them cheerfully and kindly. She will set up the tray on the bed, place on it a napkin, a cup, a spoon, and some bread, wash the patient's hands, and then say grace. She will pour the soup into a bowl, and put the meat on a plate. She will arrange everything on the bed tray, then kindly encourage the patient to eat for the love of Jesus and His holy Mother. She will do all this as lovingly as if she were serving her own son-or rather God, who considers as done to Himself the good she does for persons who are poor. She will say some little word to him about Our Lord, making an effort to cheer him up if he is very downhearted; sometimes she will cut his meat or pour him something to drink. Once she has him beginning to eat she will leave if he has someone with him, and will go to find another patient, acting with him in the same way, remembering to begin always with the person who has someone with him and to end with those who are alone so she can spend more time with them Then, she will return in the evening to bring them their supper, using the same system and order as above (CCD:XIIIb:12-13).

Following the customs of the era and of the people of France, the food had to be healthy, well-prepared, abundant and accommodated to the situation of the person who was ill. The Rule presented a menu that was rich in calories and made provision for many homemade foods. No detail escaped Vincent: Each patient will have as much bread as he needs, with a quarter of a pound of mutton or boiled veal for dinner and the same amount of roast meat for supper, except on Sundays and feast days, when they may be given boiled chicken for their dinner. Two or three times a week, they will be given ground meat for supper. Those who do not have a fever will receive a pint of wine daily, half in the morning, and half in the evening. On Fridays, Saturdays, and other days of abstinence, they will be given two eggs, along with some soup and a little butter for their dinner, and the same for supper, with their eggs cooked the way they like. If fish can be found at a reasonable price, it will be given to them only at dinner. Permission will be obtained for the seriously ill to eat meat during Lent and on other days when it is forbidden. Those who cannot eat solid meat will be given, three or four times a day, broth, soup with toast cut up in it, barley water, and fresh eggs (CCD:XIIIb:13).

Could anything better have been provided? The poor were to receive that which was best, the healthiest foods from the houses of the farmers: meat, fresh eggs, butter, fish (at a reasonable price), chicken, etc. It is difficult to find a more complete and better planned diet. This diet was written by Vincent de Paul after having been advised by the women who belonged to the confraternity and who certainly had more experience than him in these matters.

The mystery of service: contemplation of Christ in the poor

In the beginning of the Rule Vincent refers to the gospel of Saint Matthew: Come, blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry, and you gave me to eat ... I was sick and you visited me ... for what you have done to the least of those, you did to me. Later, when he pointed out how the servants of the poor were to feed those men and women who were poor, he stated: She will do all this as lovingly as if she were serving her own son-or rather God, who considers as done to Himself the good she does for persons who are poor (CCDP:XIIIb:13).

Here we discover one of the more important elements of Vincentian spirituality, one that is not often discussed because we are afraid to do this and yet we are dealing with that which might be referred to as the Vincentian mystique. Without this contemplative dimension our service becomes like any other service because it then lacks a Christological dimension which Vincent saw as most important for the servants of the poor.

As Vincent reflected and mediated on the text from Saint Matthew’s gospel his life was illuminated by this fundamental truth and for him this had particular relevance. He became convinced of the fact that Christ himself was present in poor man or the poor woman. This was Vincent’s motivating truth, the key reality in his life. It was the truth that molded his whole life and enabled him to walk on the path of holiness. Living this radical truth Vincent became a mystic. Where did Vincent encounter Christ? He encountered Christ in the poor. Who illuminated Vincent on his faith journey? Christ who became incarnated in the poor. Why were the poor Vincent’s lords and masters? Because through the eyes of faith they visualize Christ himself. Where did Vincent find the true God? Vincent found the true God in all those persons who suffer. Why were the poor his concern and his sorrow? Because in the person of these poor men and women he found the face of Christ who suffered . When one leaves the Eucharist or prayer to serve of poor … why is this leaving God for God? Because the service of the poor is an encounter with Christ.

We can unambiguously affirm that the center of Vincent’s Christology is based on the belief that Christ is revealed and made manifest and encountered in the least favored members of society. Whatever you did for one of these least brothers or sisters of mine, you did for me (Matthew 25:40).

These words of Jesus gave meaning to Vincent’s charitable action and it was these same words that motivated the Daughters of Charity and the Missionaries to dedicate themselves unconditionally to the service and the evangelization of those persons who are poor. Without this contemplative dimension service and evangelization would be activities of a functionary and not the activity of a truly spiritual person, a Vincentian.

The infirm must be served with the conviction that they represent our Lord. When you encounter an infirm individual in your house, know that you have a tabernacle in your house. When you nurse the sick, you must also remember that this poor person represents Our Lord to you (CCD:X:101)

To glorify and honor Our Lord is a fundamental act of religion and Christian faith. When we draw closer to the poor we honor Jesus Christ and in them we contemplate the same wisdom that is found in the Incarnate God. You must be aware that He's as present in those poor folk deprived of intelligence as He is in all the others. It's with this belief that you must serve them and, when you go to visit them, rejoice and say within yourselves, 'I'm going to those poor people to honor in their person the person of Our Lord; I'm going to see in them the Incarnate Wisdom of God, who willed to pass for one of them, although He wasn't so in reality (CCD:X:103).

The act of adoration arises from our faith and is a basic attitude of our behavior as Christians and believers. This is the center of our Christian life. Now, so that your journey, or whatever you're going to do, may be pleasing to God, make the intention of adoring Our Lord in the persons with whom you have to deal … if you behave in this manner, you will be blessed by Our Lord when you are out, blessed when you are at home, and blessed in everything you will do (CCD:X:504-505).

The poor are those men and women who possess a unique dignity because they represent the Son of God, because they incarnate the great dignity of Christ, because they are the deputies of Christ because they are the vicars of Christ, and because they are the true icons of Christ. “The first motive,” said a Sister, “is that poor persons have the honor of representing the members of Jesus Christ, who considers the services rendered to them as done to himself. The second is that the souls of poor persons have the image of God imprinted upon them, and therefore we're bound to honor the Blessed Trinity in them. The third is that the Son of God has recommended this service to us by word and example. To show the disciples of Saint John that He was the Messiah, He told them that the poor had the Gospel preached to them and the sick were healed” (CCD:IX:51).

To serve the poor and to contemplate the image of the Son of God in them is the source of our happiness because we do to Christ (the invisible reality) that which we do to his living members and his representatives, the men and women who are poor.What a happiness, Sisters, to serve the person of Our Lord in His poor members! He has told you that He will consider this service as done to himself (CCD:IX:96). Ah! Sisters, what virtue! What a good Sister! To prefer visiting persons who were poor to seeing her own parents, and always seeing Jesus Christ in them! May God be forever blessed for that, Sisters! (CCD:IX:434).

Vincent realized that Jesus identified himself with those persons who suffer, with those who are imprisoned, with the infirm and that Jesus suffered with all of these individuals. Remember that it's Our Lord to whom you render that service, since He considers it as done to himself: Cum ipso sum in tribulatione, speaking of a poor person. If he's sick, so am I; if he's in prison, I'm there too; if he has shackles on his feet, so have I. And another reason is that you must look on poor persons as your masters (CCD:X:545).

As a result of this realization Vincent came to a conclusion that he held dearly: In serving persons who are poor, we serve Jesus Christ. How true, Sisters! You are serving Jesus Christ in the person of the poor (CCD:IX:199). This is not just any truth, but rather it is a truth that is rooted in the very depths of his being and constitutes the essence of his faith. It is a palpable, verifiable truth that he himself experienced. And that is as true as that we are here (CCD:IX:199).

This is a very well-known, almost classical, text with regard to this theme and it reveals Vincent’s conviction that he wanted to transmit to the Daughters of Charity because he felt that this was the only way to take ownership of one of the fundamental elements of spirituality. This truth cannot be doubted. It is the primary spiritual dynamic in serving the poor and is the driving force that frees us for unconditional commitment to God in service of the poor. In serving persons who are poor, we serve Jesus Christ. How true, Sisters! 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'll find God there. As Saint Augustine says, what we see with our eyes is not so certain because our senses sometimes deceive us, but the truths of God never deceive. Go to visit a chain gang, you'll find God there. Look after those little children, you'll find God there. How delightful, Sisters! You go into poor homes, but you find God there. Again, Sisters, how delightful! He accepts the services you do for those sick persons and, as you have said, considers them as done to himself (CCD:IX:199).

What is the path to meet and to discover Christ? The path is the poor, those men and women who suffer and endure great pain. The Christ of Vincent de Paul is found in the infirm, in those imprisoned, in the galley slaves, in the abandoned children, and in the victims of the religious wars.

For Vincent the poor are like the sacramental presence of Christ and it is there that the dignity of the poor is found. From the first years of his transformation, as well as in the Rule of the confraternity in Châtillon, we realize that Vincent encountered the Incarnate Christ present in the person of those who were poor. This was one of the revitalizing dynamics of the activity that was carried on throughout Vincent’s life. This was also the most logical explanation of the application of Vincent’s visions of the poor as his lords and masters.

Fundamental gospel attitudes of the servant of the poor: humility simplicity, charity

They will take care in practicing humility, simplicity, and charity (CCD:XIIIb:19)

Here we find for the first time the three evangelical attitudes but in this context they do not have the same spiritual and theological impact as found in his conference of February, 1652, when her spoke to the Daughters of Charity. But here in the Rule for the confraternity in Chatillion they appear in writing for the first time.

Ecclesial significance

Vincent had a profound respect for the hierarchical structure of the Church. He was aware of the fact that the bishop is the pastor of the diocese and he was certainly aware of the constitution, Quaecunque that was promulgated by Pope Clement VIII in 1604 … a document that attempted to provide some order to the chaotic situation of the confraternities. Vincent also knew that the confraternities had to be approved by the bishop. Therefore once the Rule was redacted he approached the Archbishop of Lyons, Denis de Marquemont, to ask for his approval. In the absence of the archbishop, the vicar-general, Thomas de Méchatin Lafaye, approved the Rule on November 24, 1617.

Throughout his life Vincent was consistent in acting in this manner. To minister in a diocese he always asked for the consent of the bishop and to minister in a parish he would request the permission of the pastor. These convictions with regard to the hierarchy were deeply rooted in Vincent’s conscience.

The hierarchical dimension of the Church had a great value for Vincent and he relied on this dimension for much of his activity. But he did not view the hierarchy as an end in itself but rather as a means to be able to serve the people of God … a means to be able to serve those who were most poor.

In Clichy Vincent became aware of a profound reality, namely, the reality of the people of God. We have seen how Folleville and Châtillon deepened Vincent’s awareness of this reality.

Therefore fifteen days after the approval of the Rule, on the feast of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mother of God, the pastor of Châtillon, in the presence of the people, proceeded with the solemn erection of the confraternity in the hospital chapel. After explaining from the pulpit the purpose of the Association, he asked those persons interested in becoming members to step forward. Eleven women presented themselves. When the public had left, the members of the confraternity, in the presence of three chaplains and a notary, proceeded to the election of officials and the procurator. It is important to note that the erection of the confraternity took place in the presence of the people of God.

Morin states that as with many other matters so too Vincent’s ecclesiology, that is, his concept of the church, is surprisingly modern and very close to some of the texts of Vatican II.

Vincent’s faith involved faith in a church that was a city of the poor and a servant of the poor (titles that Vatican II used when referring to the Church). The Tuesday Conferences, the seminaries and the ten years as a member of the Council of Conscience … all of this was done in order to obtain the appointment of good bishops, to foster the formation of the priests and the laity, thus enabling the Church to reveal herself as the city of the poor.

Final Note

The goal of Saint Vincent was well-organized charity. The Rule, a jewel of organization, is a good example of what Vincent meant by well-organized charity. In this rule we see Vincent’s genius as an organizer and his love for the poor … he dedicated his life to those who were poor and was passionate about providing for them.

Vincent wanted to spread the gospel and tell people that God loved them. Jesus himself came to set the world on fire, a fire that was ablaze with his love (Cf., Luke 12:49). This divine fire ought to enflame everything and ought to consume everything. This summarizes another famous Vincentian maxim: It is not enough for me to love God if my neighbor does not love him. This is an invitation to live in God’s love on a daily basis and to do so in whatever group or in whatever community I might find myself. In other words we are invited to live together with one heart and one soul. This is the most eloquent witness of any evangelization process … yes we are invited to be an image of the unity of God in the Trinity.

If I had to summarize the apostolic ardor that Vincent demanded from the laity I would use the word passion which is synonymous with zeal (zeal today is not as commonly used as in previous eras). Saint Vincent was passionate about God and felt that every responsible Christian ought to experience and live with this same passion.


[1] Delumeau, Jean, Rassuerer et proteger. Le sentiment de sécurité dans l’Occodent d’autrefois, Fayard, Paris, 1989.

[2] Buguelli, Alexandrette, Vincent de Paul. Une pastorale du pardon et de la réconciliation, Editions de Cerf, Paris, 1997, p.150. He states: It is strange that J. Dalumeau who deals with this theme in his book, Rassurer et ptoteger, does not mention the confraternities established by Vincent de Paul as one of his primary works.

[3] Delumeau, Jean, Rassuerer et proteger. Le sentiment de sécurité dans l’Occodent d’autrefois, Fayard, Paris, 1989, p. 254.

[4] Ibid.

[5]; Dictionaire du Grand Si?cle, Fayard, Paris, 1990, p. 388.

[6] Buguelli, Alexandrette, Vincent de Paul. Une pastorale du pardon et de la réconciliation, Editions de Cerf, Paris, 1997, p.149-150.

[7] Abelly, Louis, The Live of the Venerable Servant of God, Vincent de Paul, [Translated by William Quinn, FCS] New City Press, New York, 1993. Hereafter references to this work will be noted by stating the author, the volume and the page number, for example, Abelly I:23.

[8] Collet, Pierre, Life of St. Vincent de Paul, Founder of the Congregation of the Mission and of the Sisters of Charity [Translated from the French by a Catholic clergyman], John Murphy and Co., Printers and Publishers, Baltimore, 1845. Hereafter references to this work will be noted by stating the author and the page number, for example, Collet, 23.

[9] Cf., Buguelli, op.cit., p. 150.

[10] Ibánez, José María, La fe verificada en el amor, Paulinas, Madrid, 1996, p. 39.

[11] Corera, Jaime, El Señor Vicente, CEME, Salamanca, p. 39

[12] Dodin, CM, André, Vincent de Paul and Charity [Translated by Jean Marie Smith and Dennis Saunders], New City Press, New York, 1993, p. 109.

[13] René, Coste, L’Amour qui change le monde. Theologie de la Charité, 1981, p. (Translator’s Note: no page number is given in the reference in the Spanish edition of this article).

[14] Dodin, op.cit., p. 25.

[15] Vincent de Paul, Correspondence, Conferences, Documents, New City Press, New York, 1985-2012, Volume XIIIb, p. 3. Future reference to this thirteen volume work will be noted with the letters CCD, followed by the volume number, and then the page number, for example, CCD:XIIIb:3.

[16] Román, José María, St. Vincent de Paul, a Biography, [Translated by Sister Joyce Howard, DC], Melisende, London, 1999, p. 124.

[17] Morin, Jean, La fe de San Vicente de Paúl, Digital edition.

[18] Ibid.

[19] All of us make up a mystical body, but we are all members of one another. It has never been heard that a member, not even among animals, was insensitive to the suffering of another member, or that one part of a person’s body may be bruised, wounded, or injured and the other parts do not feel it. That is impossible. Every part of us is in such sympathy with one another and so interconnected that the pain of one is the pain of the other. Since Christians are members of the same body and members of one another, with even greater reason should they sympathize with one another. Quoi! To be a Christian and to see our brother suffering without weeping with him, without being sick with him! This is to be lacking in charity; it is being a caricature of a Christian; it is inhuman; it is to be worse than animals (CCD:XII:221-222)

[20] Goubert, Pierre, La vie quotidienne des paysans au xvii siècle, Hachette, 1982, p. 223. He states: He is the first in the church and has a seat apart from others (at times he has his own separate entrance). He is the first among the laity to receive communion and the priests are often obliged to incense him … he is a type of semi-god. He has a special place reserved for his burial. In certain areas he has the right to designate the places where priests will minister and his coat of arms is often painted on the interior walls of the church, and at times, on the exterior walls.

[21] Ibáñez, José María, La Caridad en San Vicente de Paúl, en La caridad carisma vicenciano, CEME, Salamanca, 1993, pp. 235-273.

[22] Cf. Bugalli, Alexandrette, op.cit., pp. 150-153.

[23] Cf. Corera, Jaime, Diez Estudios Vicencianos, CEME, Salamanca, 1983, pp. 89 ff.

[24] Morin, Jean, op.cit.

[25] CCD:XIIIb:10, 15-17. (1) Leadership in the Confraternity: a prioress, elected for one year and two assistants. The prioress will govern with her council of two assistants.

(2) Functions of the prioress:

[a] It will be her duty to do her utmost to see that all the poor persons are fed and assisted in accordance with this organization;

[b] To admit into the care of the confraternity, during the period between meetings, those sick persons who are truly poor and to discharge those who are better;

[c] All this, however, will be done with the advice of her two Assistants, or of one of them. She can, nevertheless, without asking them, instruct the Treasurer to give what she thinks is necessary to do those things that cannot be postponed until the next meeting;

[d] When she admits any patients, she will notify immediately the Servant whose turn it is to be on duty that day;

[e] The Prioress will admit to the care of the confraternity those patients who are truly poor, and not those who have the means of taking care of themselves, with the advice, however, of the Treasurer and the Assistant, or of one of them.

[f] When she has admitted someone, she will notify the person whose day it is to be on duty, and the latter will go immediately to see him. The first thing she will do is to see if the patient needs a nightshirt so that, if that is the case, she may bring him one from the confraternity, along with some clean sheets, if they are needed and he is not in the hospital, where there are some. All of this is in the event that there is no way to launder them there.

(3) Assemblies: [a] Frequency: Because it is very useful for all holy communities to come together from time to time in some place intended for discussing the spiritual progress and what concerns the general welfare of the community, the Servants of the Poor will meet every third Sunday of the month in a chapel of the church in the town intended for this purpose, or in that of the hospital;

[b] on that same day or the next day, at a time agreed upon by them, a low Mass will be offered for the confraternity.

[c] In the afternoon, at a time convenient for them, they will meet in the same chapel to listen to a short spiritual exhortation and to discuss matters concerning the welfare of those who are poor and the support of the confraternity.

d] Order to be followed at the meetings:

d.1. to chant the Litany of Our Lord Jesus or of the Blessed Virgin and then say the prayers that follow;

d.2. next, the Pastor or his assistant will give the short exhortation aimed at the spiritual growth of the entire Company and the preservation and progress of the confraternity;

d.3. after that he will propose what is to be done for the welfare of the sick poor, and will conclude by a plurality of votes, which he will collect for this purpose, beginning with the Servant of the Charity who was the last one received into the confraternity, and continuing by order of reception up to the Procurator, then the Treasurer and the Prioress. Lastly, he will cast his own vote, which will have deliberative weight, as that of the Servants of the Poor will have;

d.4. it will then be helpful to have someone read five or six articles of the organization;

d.5. they will also charitably remind one another of the faults that have arisen in the service of the poor persons. All this, however, will be done without any fuss or disorder and with as few words as possible. Each time, they will devote half an hour after the exhortation for this meeting.

(4) Elections and leaving office [a] The Prioress, the Treasurer, and the other Assistant will leave office on the Wednesday after the holy feast of Pentecost, and a new election will take place on the same day by a plurality of votes of the entire confraternity. The Prioress, Treasurer, and Assistant may not continue in office so that humility, the true basis of all virtue, may be perfectly honored in this holy institute.

[b] In the event that the Pastor should be non-resident, or that his assistant does not take the responsibility required for the work, it will be permissible for the confraternity to take another Spiritual Father and Director of the work, accepted and approved for this purpose by the Archbishop.

[c] The Prioress, Treasurer, and Assistant may be removed from office before the end of their term by the confraternity, if, in its judgment, they do not carry out their duty well.

[d] The Procurator will remain in office as long as the confraternity sees fit, and no longer.

[e] Those members of the confraternity who commit some public sin or neglect notably the care of those who are poor will be completely dismissed from the confraternity, after the warnings required in the Gospel have first been given to all those whom they wish to remove from office or dismiss from the confraternity.

[26] Networking suppose a method of work that is operative within an organization ... a method of cooperation and building relationships, an emphasis on principles of synergy, belonging, participation (memberships is expressed in active participation, in implementation), commitment, etc. In networking the important ideas are: everyone wins, everyone play their role and contributes, everyone participates, everyone leads (though in different ways). Networking is to collaborate in a stable and systematic manner and thus avoid duplication, competition for limited resources and uncoordinated efforts.

[27] This is the theory and the practice of team work

[28] Translator’s Note: The Pope had an audience with young married couples on that day and St. Vincent de Paul was mentioned. According to the transcript of this audience which is found on the Vatican web site the Pope stated: my thoughts go to the young people, the sick and the newly-weds. May St Vincent de Paul's example of charity, which we will commemorate tomorrow, encourage you, dear young people, to plan your future as a generous service to your neighbor. May it help you, dear sick people, to feel Christ's comfort in our suffering. And may it prompt you, dear newly-weds, always to be attentive to the poor in your family. The Pope’s words as stated in the body of this presentation appear to be inaccurate.

[29] CCD:XIIIB:1115-17

[1] The procurator will hand the foundations made in aid of the confraternity. This persons will be some pious, devout priest or an inhabitant of the town who is virtuous, devoted to the good of persons who are poor, and not too caught up in temporal affairs.

(a) He will be considered a member of the confraternity

(b) and will participate in the indulgences granted to it,

(c) he will come to the meetings, and, will have a vote.

(d) he will manage and negotiate business involving funds for the temporal affairs of the confraternity, with the advice and direction of the Pastor, the Prioress, the Treasurer, and the other Assistant;

(e) he will explain at each meeting held for this purpose the state of the affairs he is managing;

(f) he will keep a book in which he will record the decisions that will be made during it;

(g) to ask, on behalf of the confraternity, the Lord of the town of Chiitillon, one of the Syndics, and the hospital Administrator to be present for the rendering of accounts of the confraternity.

[2] There will be a treasurer whose functions will be

(a) to take in the money and give receipts for it,

(b) take care of the linen and other furnishings,

(c) buy and store the provisions needed for the assistance of poor persons,

(d) give the Servants each day whatever they need for the food of those who are poor,

(e) see that their linen is laundered,

(f) keep a book in which she will write down whatever she receives and uses.

[3] Collegial administration (a) The Pastor, the Prioress, the two Assistants, and the Procurator will be responsible for all the temporal goods of the confraternity, movable as well as immovable. Consequently, they will have the authority to give orders in its name to the Procurator to do whatever is necessary for the preservation and collection of these goods.

(b) The Treasurer will keep the money, documents, and furnishings, as has been stated, and give an annual report on the day after the holy feast of Pentecost, in presence of the Pastor, the Prioress, the Procurator, and the other Assistant, as well as the Lord, one of the Syndics, and the Administrator of the Châtillon Hospital, provided, however, that he be a member of the Roman Catholic apostolic religion. The latter three will always be requested, on behalf of the confraternity to be present in the Assembly

(c) and will have faith in the declaration the Treasurer will make that her accounts are accurate, not allowing any article in them to be crossed out nor that either her husband or her children may be questioned regarding them because, being completely trustworthy-since only such persons are chosen for that, people may have entire confidence in her. Furthermore, if she were subjected to being questioned in this matter, none of the members would be willing to accept this office.

(d) After his accounts have been reviewed, the Procurator will report to the same gathering the state of the temporal affairs of the confraternity and what he has administered and negotiated during the year so that the Lord, Syndic, Administrator, and Council members of the town may be adequately informed by the report of the management of the temporal welfare of the confraternity.

(e) If they find it faulty, they may have recourse to our most honored Prelate the Archbishop to have it put in order since the confraternity is totally subject to him. Should that be the case, the Council members are very humbly requested to do this for the love of God.

(f) The Prioress will keep a book of expenditures, in which she will record the responsibilities of the Treasurer for the documents, money, and furnishings of the confraternity. In the event that neither she nor anyone else is willing to take on this responsibility, except for the furnishings and part of the money that will be needed for a few months for the food of those who are poor, the confraternity will instruct the Procurator to take charge of the rest and to give an account of it.

(g) He will be bound to do so, without being able to refuse the Treasurer anything the confraternity or the Prioress orders, which he will give her for the support and food of the poor persons.

(h) The collection box in the church, placed there for the upkeep of the confraternity and the relief of those who are poor, will be opened every two months in the presence of the Pastor, the Prioress, the Treasurer, the Procurator, and the Assistant. The Treasurer will be given whatever is in it and will record the amount of what will be found there; if she is unwilling, the Procurator will do it, as has been said.

[30] Coste, CM, Pierre, The life and Works of Saint Vincent de Paul, [translated by Joseph Leonard, CM] The Newman Press, Westminster, Maryland, 1952, p. 108).

Translated: Charles T. Plock, CM