To see and to discern the present day challenges from the perspective of Saint Vincent
by Rev. Emeric Amyot d’Inville, CM
As we said at the beginning, our Vincentian month, which will examine the popular mission, will use the methodology SEE-JUDGE-ACT. This will then lead us to some conclusions and the redaction of a document which will gather together our convictions with regard to this ministry.
Presently we are at the first step of this process, that is, SEE. We have tried to look at the reality that surrounds us: the world, the church, their needs and challenges and difficulties … Now we want to take some time in order to reflect on Saint Vincent’s perception of the social and ecclesial reality of his time. This broad and profound perspective in which Vincent heard the cries of the poor, saw the signs of the times, and became aware of the challenges that he would have to confront … this perspective gave rise to his missionary and charitable endeavors which provided an effective response to the different situations that he encountered. We now have an opportunity to make some critical judgments on our own way of “seeing”, on our ability to grasp the many challenges of the present time, on our attentiveness to the signs of God’s presence as revealed in countless events … all of which will then enable us to make the necessary changes in our missionary activity. The popular mission must be in touch with the felt needs of women and men if it is to be an effective instrument in the new evangelization which we are called to engage in.
This presentation is primarily focused on Saint Vincent and so as we begin this Vincentian month it is most appropriate that we reflect once again on our roots. This presentation is divided into three parts: (1) the formation of the vision of an apostle; (2) the process that enabled Saint Vincent to discern the challenges of his era; (3) the great challenges that confronted Saint Vincent.
The formation of the vision of an apostle
In a wonderful study on Saint Vincent’s ability to “see”, a study that was written by Father Morin on the occasion of the 400th anniversary of Vincent’s birth (1581-1981), we are presented with some profound insights into the paintings that have been preserved of Saint Vincent … his eyes are most impressive. We can imagine his power of observation and his attentiveness. We also discover in his eyes something of the Gascon mischievousness, but above all we see in his eyes his great goodness.
Saint Vincent was a man who dealt with concrete realities and thus he acquired a direct knowledge of events that in turn led him to reflect on his ministry. Thus in his letters and conferences we often find the verbs see and look.
On August 16, 1652 Vincent wrote a letter to Pope Innocent X in which he described the horrors of war and asked him to intervene in the name of peace. He said: 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).
Vincent de Paul did not acquire all at once this compassionate spirit that enabled him to engage in a wide diversity of apostolic and charitable activities. Rather this spirit was acquired progressively during the course of a complex journey. Slowly he learned how “to look at” the world and the church with the eyes of Christ; slowly he learned how to listen to and understand the call of God, a call in which the poor and the neglected were instruments who enabled Vincent to understand the profound meaning of this call. We are going to follow Vincent as he goes through this evolution and this will help us as we reflect on the way in which we view the world and the church … for our perspective on the world and the Church determines the way in which we situate ourselves in the midst of the world and the church as well as the decisions we take with regard to our actions.
A look at the young peasant among the poor (1581-1595)
Vincent’s initial perspectives were formed as the result of his relationship with his parents, his family, his neighbors and his environment. We thus see the formation of the outlook of a young poor peasant that resulted from his interaction with other people in the village of Pouy. All of this would have a profound impact on Vincent who spoke about this later in his life: I am a farmer’s son who tended swine and cows (CCD:IV:219). He also communicated this same thought to the Daughters of Charity: It is very easy for me to speak to you about the virtues of good village girls because I know them by experience and by nature, since I am the son of a humble tiller of the soil, and lived in the country until I was fifteen (CCD:IX:67). Despite moving through a phase in which he attempted to distance himself from poverty, his perspective with regard to people who were poor would have a profound influence on his life.
Vincent’s first experience of poverty was that of the simple peasants and their humble work in the rural areas. This first experience … this first perspective of Saint Vincent was constitutive and he frequently referred to this experience in his writing. He did not hesitate to identify himself with the poor people in the rural area. He praised their faith and their courage when confronted with trials and tribulations and contrasted the life of these poor people with the life of certain missionaries who avoided anything that was not convenient for them or that would make them feel uncomfortable … missionaries who did not want to engage in much work: It is among them, among those poor people that true religion and a living faith are preserved … poor vine dressers who give us their labor, who expect us to pray for them while they wear themselves out to feed us … We look for the shade; we do not want to go out in the sun; we are so much in love with our comforts. During the mission we are at least in church, sheltered from the bad weather, the heat of the sun and the rain, to which those poor people are exposed (CCD:XI:190).
Even though Vincent went through a phase in which he tried to distance himself from his environment yet the first fourteen years of his life clearly characterized him as a peasant. As he advanced in years Vincent would always be mindful of this reality. He would maintain a great compassion for these people and this fundamental experience would allow him to penetrate the interior of these poor women and men and certainly enabled him to be realistic in his charity, realistic in confronting the needs of the poor … this realism is what led Vincent to seek concrete and effective solutions.
The birth of another perspective on the world (1595-1617)
The first fourteen years of his life, years that were spend in Pouy, were very enriching but Vincent would not become aware of this reality until much later when he would decide to consecrate his life to the evangelization and the service of people who were poor. Before he made the decision to move in this direction, Vincent tried for twenty-two years to distance himself from the reality of poverty. But he would mature and take on a new perspective with regard to his relationship with the world, a perspective which he acquired as a result of his relationships with rich and influential people. Later Vincent would involve these individuals as collaborators in his ministry.
In 1595 Vincent left behind the family farm and the difficult life of the village and set out to study in Dax where he found lodging in the house of the judge of Pouy, M. de Comet. It was there that Vincent began the long journey of his life in which he sought to escape poverty and create a career for himself.
The quickest way for a young person to rise socially was to embrace the ecclesiastical state. So Vincent took this path and after some years of study was ordained a priest at the age of nineteen while he was still studying theology at the University of Toulouse.
Vincent was seeking wealth but was not having much success. In 1608 he began to serve as a chaplain to Queen Marguerite de Valois and was entrusted with distributing alms to the poor. He was still, however, far from obtaining his desired goal.
Discouraged by the lack of success in his endeavors, his life devoid of meaning (he had been a priest for ten years but he had not exercised his priestly ministry) Vincent decided in November 1611 to place himself under the direction of Pierre de Bérulle (founder of the Oratory in France) and was soon appointed pastor at Clichy (a village near Paris) where he would spend sixteen months happy as a pastor in the midst of such good-hearted people (CCD:IX:507).
Vincent leaves this parish and in 1613, with the recommendation of Bérulle, became the tutor of the children of the powerful de Gondi family. He won the trust of Madame de Gondi who asked him to take on the role of her spiritual director.
Vincent gradually introduced himself into the world of the influential and the rich. He experienced a certain ambiguity that gave him an opportunity to mature and see the world in a new way. He began to see things from the perspective of the powerful. He met the poor when the distributed the alms of the Queen and when he accompanied Madame de Gondi as she visited the people who worked on her estate. He also discovered the generosity of people who were rich especially as he witnessed the ways in which they provided financial assistance and on other occasions even visited the poor. He became aware of the material and moral resources that the rich possessed and this experience had a profound impact on his social and pastoral activity, in particular those activities that were connected with the Confraternities of Charity.
From 1617 until the time of his death Saint Vincent dedicated himself to the evangelization and the service of people who were poor. He maintained, however, relationships with people who were powerful and influential and sought their collaboration. From 1610-1617 Vincent had firsthand experience with regard to the defects of people who were rich but he also appreciated their values and resources and this led him to enlist their assistance in serving people who were poor. In this respect we only have to look at the Ladies of Charity who were members of the nobility.
The maturing of the perspective of an apostle (1617)
The fundamental experience that definitively formed Vincent’s perspective with regard to the poor, took place in 1617. Let us pause to reflect on this event since this will also provide us with an opportunity to examine the origins of the popular mission.
Folleville and the discovery of spiritual misery
In January 1617 Vincent was a tutor in the de Gondi household. He went to Folleville and was accompanied by Madame de Gondi who visited the people living on her estate.
We know that this event gave birth to the popular mission. We will recall here this event in a few words. Vincent was called to attend to a man who was dying in Gannes. He heard the man’s confession. This is an event that would appear to be very ordinary in the life of a priest. But immediately this individual confesses the serious sins of his past life in the presence of Madame de Gondi who was alarmed and stated: If this man, who is considered an upright man, was in a state of damnation, what will it be like for others who live more badly? Ah, M. Vincent! How many souls are being lost! How can this be remedied! (CCD:XI:3).
Madame de Gondi asked Vincent to preach in the parish church in Follville on the theme of general confession. As a result, the people were touched by his words and wanted to confess their sins.
Vincent reflected on the incredible, massive reaction of the parishioners in Folleville to his preaching on general confession and also reflected on the confession of the peasant in Gannes. He became aware of the fact that the poor people in the rural area were abandoned by the church. As a result it was necessary for a priest to preach in such a way that the people would be moved by a desire to change their lives. These good people were so moved by God that they all came to make their general confession … But there was such a large crowd that, even with the help of another priest, I could not hear them all. Madame sent someone to ask the Jesuits of Amiens to come to assist us, writing to the Rector, who came himself (CCD:XI:4).
This moving discovery of the great spiritual needs of the poor people living in the rural areas and the fact that these people had been abandoned by the church … all of this presented Vincent with a challenge and a powerful call. From that time on he would continue the ministry that he had begun with so much success in Folleville.
Now Vincent was no longer focused on himself or his family or on his social status. He was focused on the poor people in the rural area and their spiritual needs. As a result some months later he secretly left the de Gondi estate and went to Châtillon in order to preach and administer the sacraments. In Châtillon Vincent would be shown another dimension of his vocation.
Châtillon and the rediscovery of material misery
On August 1, 1617 Vincent arrived in Châtillon, a rural parish of 2,000 inhabitants who had been left to manage things for themselves. Twenty days after his arrival another event occurred that, like that of Follville, had a great impact on him … an event in which Vincent heard God speaking to him in a new way.
We are all aware of this event. As I was about to give the sermon, someone came to tell me there was an indigent man who was sick and very badly lodged in a poor barn … moved by compassion I made a strong plea, speaking with such feeling that all the ladies were touched by it (CCD:IX:165). Everyone hurried to help this individual. In order to resolve the ineffectiveness of their generosity which was caused by a lack of organization Vincent formed the Confraternity of Charity to assist the poor who have sometimes suffered a great deal, more through a lack of organized assistance than from lack of charitable persons (CCD:XIIIb:8).
In Châtillon Saint Vincent became aware of two realities that would have a profound effect on his activity: (1) effective intervention in order to better the living conditions of the poor must go hand in hand with evangelization and (2) the laity are needed and in fact are indispensable in carrying out the evangelizing mission, in providing for the material needs of people who are poor and in encouraging these poor people to become creators of their own history.
In Folleville Vincent was profoundly impressed by the spiritual misery of the poor people who were abandoned by the priest and by the church. In Châtillon Vincent was challenged by the material poverty of the poor who had been abandoned by society. Vincent realized that if the church wanted to serve these people she could not limit herself to the spiritual dimension of her ministry. In fact, after these experiences in Folleville and Châtillon we frequently hear Vincent using the two adverbs spiritually and materially which for him were inseparable. We also find these words in the first rule of the Confraternity of Charity in Châtillon where some women from the town decided among themselves to assist spiritually and corporally the people of their town (CCD:XIIIb:8). This rule of Vincent’s first establishment contains the seeds that would characterize all of his later charitable and social activity. Indeed, we see in all of this his ability to organize and his respect for the dignity of the person of the poor who should be treated with great sensitivity.
The year 1617 was decisive for Vincent. In January of that year he was still struggling with the question of the direction that he should give to his life. But then he made the decision to consecrate the rest of his life to the evangelization of people who were poor and to provide material assistance to these same people whose true needs he became aware of as a result of his experiences in Folleville and Châtillon.
What is my perspective of the world?
In broad strokes this is the history of the development of Vincent’s perspective. We are now going to take a few moments to reflect on our own perspective and its development.
a) A first perspective is communicated in the family environment.
Vincent, like each one of us, was given a particular way of viewing the world and this occurred in his family environment. He did not make any decision in this regard. This perspective was fundamental and later this vision would be complimented with other perspectives. Let us reflect for a moment on our perspective, that which is proper to each one of us, that which was formed in our social and family environment during the first years of our life. These early experiences are constitutive because they influence the way in which we view reality. We must be aware of the fact that this early perspective will often have its limitations and can easily be marked with certain prejudices that we are unaware of. This perspective has marked our personality and our activity and therefore we should take time to reflect on all of this.
b) Then Vincent took on another perspective that complimented the first perspective.
Vincent needed a certain distance from his environment in order to form another perspective at the time that he began to decide on a career. Yet despite his ambiguity with regard to the direction that he should give to his life, he discovered another perspective that he encountered in the world of the rich and influential. He became aware of their defects but he also noticed their generosity and their material and moral resources. He came to understand these individuals and was able to speak with them and obtained their collaboration in serving the poor. We, too, must become aware of other perspectives and other ways of looking at the world because our later experiences are also contributing factors to our perspective on the world.
c) A fundamental perspective.
For Vincent Folleville and Châtillon were determinant experiences which ultimately formed the perspective of this apostle. They focused his perspective on the poor and on their material and spiritual needs. This was the perspective that Vincent would use to view and understand the world. Each one of us could ask ourselves what is our fundamental perspective? … is our perspective a Vincentian perspective?
Vincent developed the perspective of an apostle that allowed him to understand the great challenges of his time and that also led him to discern some specific, effective solutions. Reflecting on Vincent’s experience we can ask ourselves: what have been the stages that we have followed in order to come to an understanding of the present day challenges?
What path did Saint Vincent follow in order to discern the challenges of his time
Understanding the challenges of any era is a complex undertaking and occurs on several levels. This process is not something purely intellectual. Vincent did not begin this process by reading some intellectual reports because even though he understood the usefulness of such reports he was also aware of their limitations. We see this idea expressed in a letter that he wrote to Pope Innocent X: 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). The same is true today. Though reports and polls and questionnaires are useful they are not enough and taken alone they will not enable us to come to an understanding of the challenges that confront our world. So what was the path that Vincent traveled and what might be the path that we must also travel?
To experience certain realities that raise fundamental questions
Let us reflect on that which was decisive for Vincent as he came to an awareness of the great challenges of his time. It would be good to point out the fact that for many years Vincent had firsthand knowledge of the material and spiritual misery of poor people, but this knowledge did not present Vincent with any challenge. During the first fourteen years of his life Vincent experienced poverty and suffered as a result of this. Then for the next twenty-two years he wanted to escape poverty. In other words this lived experience of poverty was not transformed into some type of an awareness of a challenge that had to be confronted. At the same time, however, Vincent did not reject poverty, he simply want to escape this situation and desired the same for his family. We also see that at this stage of his life Vincent was focused on himself and on his family.
As Vincent became aware of the challenges of his time, it was necessary for him to undergo some powerful experiences, some important events that would sensitize him and open him to the neighbor and to God and to God’s will for him. He would be touched and moved. As he said on so many occasions, he felt a great compassion in the midst of such great misery (CCD:IX:165). Yet, he also felt challenged and called to act in order to relieve the suffering of these people … in other words his life was changed. In fact when confronted with so many different forms of material and spiritual suffering Vincent felt as though he had been possessed by the very charity of Christ who dwelt within him and inspired his spirit.
Charity means we can’t seeing someone suffering without suffering along with them, or see someone cry without crying as well. This is an act of love, causing people to enter one another’s hearts and to feel what they feel, far from those persons who have no feeling for the anguish of the afflicted, or the suffering of poor persons. Ah, how tenderhearted the Son of God was! They call Him to go see Lazarus! He goes … He weeps along with them. It is this sensitivity that caused Him to come down from heaven. He saw that people were deprived of His glory, and he was moved by their misfortune (CCD:XII:221). We know that in Vincent this love was not only affective but also effective, specific and inventive in order to relieve people of their suffering and communicate to them the good news of salvation.
This openness of the heart to the neighbor and to God enabled Vincent to understand events and hear the call of God. In this way he came to understand the real challenges of society and the church and at same time discovered that he was able to act in a way that would make an effective contribution to resolving these situations.
The fundament experiences that led Vincent to become more aware of God’s presence and more aware of his ministry were:
• The encounter with the man in Gannes and the great success of the missions that followed;
• The encounter with the poor and infirm family in Châtillon and the formation of the first Confraternity of Charity.
We could add to these:
• The encounter with a Protestant in Marchais who told Vincent that the Catholic Church was not guided by the Holy Spirit and that this was obvious since the poor were abandoned. A year later this same person converted when he saw that the poor were being evangelized through the missions.
As a result of these fundamental experiences Vincent was always attentive to the signs of God who spoke to him through events. As he encountered new forms of poverty he heard the urgent calls to respond to these challenges. He attempted to provide a solution through his various foundations: the Confraternities of Charity, the Congregation of the Mission and the Daughters of Charity. We can see how all of this evolved as Vincent encountered the galley slaves, the infirm in hospitals, abandoned children, elderly women and men, refugees of war, persecuted Catholics from Ireland and Hebrides, etc.
Later a re-reading of these experiences, in light of the Word of God allowed Vincent to deepen his understanding of the reality and confirmed his discernment of God’s call. This will be discussed in my second point.
To reread events in light of the Word of God
It was a re-reading of the events of Gannes-Folleville in light of the Gospel (especially Luke 4:18-22) that led Vincent to a deeper understanding of the call that he had received. He thus placed his call and his mission in the same line as that of Jesus who on his return to Nazareth began his public ministry by reading in the synagogue a text from the prophet Isaiah: “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.” Rolling up the scroll, Jesus handed it back to the attendant and sat down, and the eyes of all in the synagogue looked intently at him. He said to them, “Today this scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearting” (Luke 4:18-22).
After the experience in Folleville the text from Saint Luke’s gospel which stated that Jesus had come to evangelize the poor … this same text confirmed Vincent in his call to evangelize the poor. He understood that the proclamation of the good news of salvation to the poor was central to the gospel message and therefore placed him in a situation in which he was able to follow in the footsteps of Jesus as he carried out his mission. This was the challenge that God had placed before Vincent, namely, to follow Jesus Christ. Thus Vincent’s eyes and heart were opened to accept and discern the various spiritual needs of the poor and then seek ways to respond to these needs.
Another gospel text that would help Vincent read anew and understand the depths of the events at Châtillon that resulted in the establishment of the first Confraternity of Charity, the text that would enable Vincent to look at people who were poor and see the presence of God in them was the parable of the final judgment: Then the king will say to those on his right, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father … For I was hungry and you gave me food. I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcome me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me. … Amen I say to you whatever you did for one of these least brothers or sisters of mine, you did for me (Matthew 25:31-46). This text sheds light on the events that occurred in Châtillon and also confirmed Vincent in his call to respond to every form of suffering since it was Jesus whom he encountered and assisted in the person of the poor and the suffering.
Thus Vincent was able to say: Turn the medal, and you will see by the light of faith that the Son of God, who willed to be poor, is represented to us by these poor people … O Dieu! How beautiful it is to see poor people if we consider them in God and with the esteem in which Jesus Christ held them! (CCD:XI:26).
And now what for us?
What are the experiences that have made me question my life and my ministry? What experiences opened my eyes to the great challenges of evangelization today? Does the Word of God help me to deepen my understanding of these challenges? What scripture texts are important to me?
The great challenges that Saint Vincent confronted
Saint Vincent was able to commit himself and his various foundations (the Confraternities of Charity, the Congregation of the Mission and the Daughters of charity) to apostolic activities that had a profound impact on the social and the ecclesial life of his era because he knew how “to see” and how “to discern” the challenges of his time and God’s call that was contained in these challenges. Henri de Maupas du Tour, in his sermon on the occasion of Saint Vincent’s funeral state that Vincent has almost completely changed the face of the Church. Vincent knew how to view and understand global situations; he was able to grasp what was at stake in these situations, that is, the challenges that had to be confronted. Here I am going to discuss four of those challenges that Vincent faced and that also influenced the popular missions. It is hoped that this will encourage us to reflect on the challenges that we confront at the present time.
The challenge of spiritual misery of the poor people in the rural area
According to the beautiful and moving words of Vincent the people in the rural area are dying from hunger for the Word of God. Vincent because aware of this misery while he was in Folleville.
He also discovered that the Church had abandoned these people: the church has abandoned them: the spiritual needs of the inhabitants of the towns of this kingdom are provided for by a large number of doctors and religious who preach, catechize and exhort them and preserve them in the spirit of devotion. Only the poor people of the rural areas remain, as it were, abandoned (CCD:XIIIa:213).
Thus the Protestant whom Vincent met in Marchais in 1621 was correct when he raised his objections: We see the rural Catholics abandoned to pastors who are ignorant and given over to vice, with so little instruction in their duties that most of them hardly know what the Christian religion is. On the other hand we see towns filled with priest and monks who are doing nothing; there are perhaps ten thousand of them in Paris, yet they leave the poor country people in this appalling state of ignorance in which they are lost (CCD:XI:28). This same individual, however, returned to the Catholic church a year later when he saw that the poor were evangelized during the mission that Saint Vincent preached.
Vincent also realized that the poor people in the rural areas were in a state of profound ignorance with regard to their faith. With compassion Vincent said: The poor people whose confessions we hear are so coarse, so ignorant, so obtuse --- not to say so stupid --- that they do not know how many gods there are or how many persons in God. Make them say it fifty times and in the end you will find them as ignorant as they were in the beginning (CCD:XII:248).
Throughout Europe the situation was serious. Concerning the situation in Niolo and Corsica Entienne Blatiron wrote: We found almost no other vestiges of the faith there other than the fact that they said they had been baptized, and there were a few very run down churches. The people were so ignorant of matters pertaining to their salvation that it would have been very difficult to find a hundred persons who knew the Commandments of God and the Apostles’ Creed. Asking them if there is one God or several, and which of the three Divine Persons became man for us, was like speaking Arabic to them (CCD:IV:404). Dermot Duiguin described the situation on the islands of Eigg and Canna where God converted eight hundred to nine hundred persons who had so little instruction in matters of our religions that not even fifteen of them knew the mysteries of the Christian faith … I found thirty or forty persons of seventy, eighty, and one hundred years and over, who had not received holy Baptism (CCD:IV:496). On countless occasions the Missionaries described the deplorable situation of the people who lived in the rural area. Saint Vincent believed that the eternal salvation of these people was in jeopardy.
Besides their inadequate knowledge of the faith many people were joining Protestant churches. This reality was experienced especially in Northern Europe but was also a reality in France where many priest were unable and also not concerned with providing quality instruction to the faithful. As a result many people were moved by the preaching of the Protestant ministers who were also zealous as they explained the Scriptures in clear and simple language. On one occasion Vincent wrote about the people who lived in Champagne, a town near Richelieu where he had recently given a mission: O Monsieur, how many spiritual needs there are in that locality, where there are so many heretics for want of having heard God spoken of, so they say, in the Catholics’ church! (CCD:I:404-405),
We know that the great remedy proposed by Vincent was the parish mission. This enabled the Missionaries to reach out to the people in the rural areas who had been abandoned and offer them fundamental catechesis that was adapted to their level and that explained the principal aspects of their faith. They emphasized the mysteries of the Trinity, the Incarnation and the Eucharist (Saint Vincent inserted this in the Common Rules because in his eyes the proclamation of the faith through catechesis was most helpful to the people.
The challenges of behavior that contradicted the Gospel
The missionaries frequently became aware of moral disorders in the personal, family and social life of the people who called themselves Christian but who lived their lives in ways that openly contradicted the Gospel. This gap between a life of Christian faith and a life that openly contradicted the Scriptures was a challenge for Saint Vincent and his missionaries. During the course of the mission they would attempt to resolve these situations. Here I will discuss primarily the example of interpersonal relationships.
a) Broken interpersonal relationships
The lack of unity among people (regardless of the form that this might have taken) was one of the frequent evils found in families, the community at large and the parish. It should be pointed out that Saint Vincent and his missionaries were very sensitive to these matters since they realized that these situations were a clear contradiction of the gospel message that Jesus had communicated to all people. As a result of this, during the course of the mission the missionaries would attempt to resolve these situations. We find many accounts of the missionaries that describe these broken relationship and the efforts that were made to reestablish unity so that ultimately the family, social and parish community could once again be established on the foundation of charity, a virtue which all people are called to practice in their daily life.
Other situations involved vengeance, unjust acquisition of the goods of others which often destroyed family life and the life of the community. We cite the following situation taken from the report on the mission in Niolo and Corsica. Vengeance was so rife that no sooner had children learned to walk and talk than they were taught how to seek vengeance at the slightest offense. It was useless to preach the contrary to them because the example of their ancestors and the bad advice of their own relatives regarding this vice were so deeply rooted in their minds that they were incapable of accepting any opinion to the contrary (CCD:IV:404).
In view of these kinds of problems, the Missionaries wanted to give life to the words that are found in the Common Rules that speak about settling disputes and quarrels during the mission (Chapter 1, #2). Saint Vincent said: We have been established to reconcile individuals with God and individuals with one another.
The Missionaries zealously dedicated themselves to this ministry of interpersonal and community reconciliation. During the missions they did this by emphasizing this point in their preaching and they also approached individuals and exhorted them to forgive one another, to become reconciled with one another and to make restitution for any goods that had been acquired dishonestly. Among the many instances we cite here the example from the mission that was given in Niolo: Finally, on the eve of the general Communion, as 1was coming to the close of the sermon. after exhorting the people once again to forgiveness, God inspired me to take in hand the crucifix I was wearing and say to them that anyone who was willing to forgive should come and kiss it. Then 1invited them to do so in the name of Our Lord, who was stretching forth His arms to them, saying that those who kissed that crucifix would be giving a sign that they were willing to forgive and were ready to be reconciled with their enemies. (No one moved but a Franciscan who was present questioned them once again). … A parish priest, whose nephew had been killed and the murderer was present at the sermon, came to prostrate himself on the ground and asked to kiss the crucifix. At the same time he said in a loud voice: "Let a certain person (his nephew's murderer) come forward so I can embrace him.” When this was done, another priest did the same with regard to some of his enemies who were present. These two were followed by a throng of others, so much so that, for the space of an hour and a half, we saw nothing but reconciliations and embraces. For greater assurance, the most important matters were put in writing and authenticated by the notary public. The next day --- Communion day --- a general reconciliation took place. After the people had asked pardon of God, they asked it also of their pastors and vice-versa; it was all very edifying (CCD:IV:407).
It is interesting to observe that aside from the indispensible effort for personal conversion, the mission is also an opportunity to rebuild the life of the community and establish it on fraternal charity and peace … signs that people are living the life of the gospel on the family level as well as the parish level. Saint Vincent spoke about this in one of his conferences to the Missionaries: I have to love my neighbor as the image of God and the object of His love, and to act in such a way that people, in their turn, love their Creator, who knows them and acknowledges them as His brothers, whom He has saved, and that by mutual charity they love one another for love of God, who has loved them so much as to hand over His own Son to death for them (CCD:XII:215). There is no doubt that the mission can be summed up by the relationships of love. b) Other challenges
Here we mention some of the life-changes that occurred in people during the time of the mission, in people who were living in concubinage or in irregular marriage relationships. These situations were found almost everywhere and these realities often destroyed authentic Christian family life. The missionaries preached on this theme and when the situation permitted, they bestowed the religious blessing on couples as they exchanged the marriage vows. In other situations the missionaries attempted to convince individuals to separate. During the mission other disorders were addressed by the missionaries, for example, situations of blasphemy and alcoholism and certain excesses that occurred during carnival time.
We conclude this point by stating that the mission ought to offer people a path that enables them to change their life and embrace the gospel. Besides instructing people on the catechism which deals with the principal aspects of the faith, each day the missionaries also preached a sermon on some aspect of morality. This sermon had to take into consideration the various situations of the people, thus helping people to renounce sin and embrace the virtues proper to their state of life. The result were seen in the impressive and extraordinary changes that occurred: enemies were reconciled, mutual forgiveness extended among people who had been estranged from one another, restitution made for goods that had been obtained dishonestly and marriages were blessed.
c) The challenge of material poverty
In Châtillon Vincent came to an awareness of the challenge of permanent material poverty which resulted in the deplorable situation which afflicted many poor and infirm people in the village. In an attempt to respond to this situation he formed the first Confraternity of Charity which would be followed by many more. He also discovered many other forms of poverty as he encountered the infirm in hospitals, abandoned children, elderly women and men, the unemployed, orphans, prisoners, slaves in Barbary. The members of his various establishments would adapt themselves in order to respond to these needs.
In order to respond to the daily permanent misery of the people who were receiving the mission, Vincent wanted a Confraternity of Charity established (composed of parishioners, generally women) so that the poor who lived in the area surrounding the parish might be cared for. In fact the establishment of the Confraternity of Charity was one of the objectives of the mission and was written into the Common Rules (Chapter 1, #2). Many of the reports about the missions refer to the Confraternities that were established at the conclusion of the mission, at times with the collaboration of the Daughters of Charity who had been missioned to these places by Vincent (CCD:1:448).
In addition to those forms of poverty that created situations of permanent misery there was another exceptional form of misery that was created by an extraordinary phenomenon that continued for many years: war and its trail of death, hunger, epidemics, pillage, etc. In Vincent’s letter of August 16, 1652 that was addressed to Pope Innocent X and that requested the Pope to intervene on behalf of peace, we find a powerful description of the sufferings endured by the people: The royal house is divided by dissensions; the people are split into various factions; cities and provinces are ruined by civil wars; farms, cantons, and towns are destroyed, ruined, and burned. The farmers cannot harvest what they have sown and no longer plant anything for the coming years. Soldiers do as they please; the people are exposed not only to their thefts and pillaging, but also to murder and all kinds of torture. Most of the country people are perishing of starvation if not by the sword (CCD:IV:445).
Vincent involved the Ladies of Charity, the Daughters of Charity and the missionaries in relief activities. He sent them to Champagne, Lorraine and Picardy and to the areas surrounding Paris that were affected by the wars. He distributed food to thousands of poor people in Paris and the surrounding provinces. He also provided agricultural equipment and seeds to the farmers so that they might sustain themselves and their families. He joined the ministry of evangelization to the ministry of serving the poor and their material needs and asked the missionaries to both preach their sermons and also provide relief to the people who were poor.
We mention here another great challenge that was closely related to the popular missions.
d0 The challenge of clerical mediocrity
Saint Vincent clearly saw that the clergy of his time frequently seemed to lack a true vocation, were inadequately prepared for ministry, were lax in carrying out their responsibilities and most often unable to provide for the ordinary spiritual needs of the people, especially people in the rural areas and thus they were not prepared to follow through on the work begun at the time of the mission. In a letter that was written to Vincent, a bishop complains about the large and unaccountable number of ignorant and corrupt priests who make up my clergy and who are unable, either through word or example, to mend their ways. I am horrified when I think that in my diocese there are nearly seven thousand drunken or lewd priest who ascend the altar every day and who have no vocation (CCD:II:473). Vincent was well aware of this problem since at one time in his life he acted in the same way. Though he did not live a scandalous life, he was also not accountable to anyone for living out his obligations … in fact his primary concern was “climbing the social ladder”.
Vincent was very aware of the problem of following through on the work of the missions. On many occasions he realized that the deplorable state of the clergy would jeopardize the fruits of the mission. He saw the need for good priests in order to assure the continued development of the work once the missionaries departed. Vincent explained: To work for the salvation of poor country people is the main purpose of our vocation, and all the rest is only accessory to it; for we would never have worked in ministry for the ordinands and in seminaries for the clergy if we had not judged that this was necessary to maintain the people and preserve the fruits of missions given by good priests. In that we imitate the great conquerors, who leave garrisons in the places they capture for fear of losing what they have acquired with so much difficulty (CCD:XI:121). We know that Vincent established other structures to form good priests: the retreats for the ordinands, the Tuesday Conferences, seminaries. In fact, the mission itself offered specific ways to resolve this problem.
Assistance that the mission provided to clergy:
• Following through on the work of the mission with the collaboration of the laity. From the reports of the Missionaries we are aware that during the mission many pastors were renewed in their personal life as well as renewed in their priestly ministry. Some became reconciled with their parishioners (as we saw in the account from Niolo). Others were renewed in their ministry and as reported by the Missionaries, there were promises and declarations by pastors to teach the catechism and to be more careful about their duty (CCD:IV:408).
•During the mission a conference for the clergy (modeled on the Tuesday Conferences that Vincent initiated in Paris) was established. Besides all these services given to the laity, Monsieur Vincent was anxious that his Missionaries do what they could for any clergy in the area. He used spiritual conferences for this purpose. In them he discussed with them the obligations of their state, the faults they should guard against, the virtues they should practice as most fitting their state, and other similar topics (Abelly, Vol. II., p.23 of the English edition edited by John Rybold, CM and published by New City Press in 1993). The Missionaries could also propose to the pastors that they come together for a spiritual retreat. On several occasions the reports from the Missionaries refer to extraordinary conversions of some of the pastors as well as testimonies concerning priests who as a result of these retreats committed themselves to work zealously in their parishes.
We could refer to other challenges that Saint Vincent pointed out and confronted (ill-prepared bishops, Jansenism, etc,) but here we wanted to consider first of all those challenges that were most directly related to the theme of the popular missions. So we will stop here. Now is the time to conclude our analysis of the Vincentian method that enabled Vincent to harvest so much fruit during his ministry.
This brief presentation of the primary challenges that were clearly pointed out by Saint Vincent and this cursory glance at the response to these challenges, namely, the popular missions, enable us to see how Vincent was in the forefront of the society and the church of his time. He had a profound impact on these spheres of influence and it was said that he completely changed the face of the Church. Saint Vincent’s journey could be summarized in the following way:
• To see the reality with the eyes of an apostle and thus discern the felt needs of the most poor and abandoned;
• To confront the present challenges and seek creative and courageous responses that express at the same time trust in God;
• To continually adapt and multiply activities while enlisting new collaborators: priests, women religious and laity;
• To engage in the task of evangelization and promotion/assistance of the poor, recognizing the close bond between these realities and also recognizing that at different times one may be emphasized over the other.
Today we often hear a certain criticism when speaking about the popular missions, namely, that the mission seems to be a time for pious devotions or a time for a wonderful celebration among Christians, but in reality the missions have no future.
Because of this mistaken concept many parishes no long request missions. It seem to me that if we want our ministry of the popular mission to be seen as relevant in our church and in our society then we, as missionaries, must be inspired and willing to undertake Saint Vincent’s journey as just described. It is also important that we continue to reflect (1) on the ways to perceive and understand the present challenges as well as the way to discern the felt needs of the poor and the abandoned; (2) on the different ways to serve and evangelize in order to confront the present challenges and then, resolve these situations with effective solutions.
As missionaries we ought to be pioneers in evangelization. We cannot be satisfied with simply walking in the footsteps of our ancestors. No, we are not to distain the experience of the past, but the world has changed. Unless we are able to identify the present day challenges and confront these challenges creatively and with a spirit of faith, we will remain on the margins of the real problems of the world and the church and as a result the popular missions will have no real and/or significant impact.
Nevertheless, if we are here today, it is because we believe that the popular mission can be an effective response (even though it is only a partial response) that can be adapted to the real problems of the church and the world. Yes, we truly believe that if we live out the Vincentian charism of evangelization and service to the most abandoned then the popular mission can also contribute in an effective and specific manner to the new evangelization which our world so desperately needs.
Translated: Charles T. Plick CM