Ordinary Time 26, Year A
- The sins of my youth and my frailties remember not (Ps. 25:7)
St. Vincent de Paul, as his biographers usually have it, became a priest not for the noblest and most apostolic of motives. Says in this regard Father Hugh F. O’Donnell, C.M., in “Vincent de Paul: His Life and Way,” Vincent de Paul and Louise de Marillac: Rules, Conferences, and Writings, ed. Frances Ryan, D.C., and John E. Rybolt (New York: Paulist Press, 1995), p. 15:
- Ambition ruled Vincent’s early years in the priesthood. Among his chief reasons for
- becoming a priest was his desire to get an office early, return home, and provide for
- his family. It was a reasonable goal for the times, but a long way from the trust
- in Divine Providence which would later become the quiet center of his incredibly active life.
St. Vincent’s ambition, I submit, may well appear quite reasonable in the light of the clerical power plays and careerism of those days. “Well-positioned clergy wanted ever more lucrative benefices (parishes and dioceses),” says William Thompson-Uberuaga, writing on the founder of the Sulpicians, Jean-Jacques Olier (“Christians Who Can Breathe and Laugh” in the September 15, 2008 issue of America, p. 29). And the beneficiary of the benefices apparently did not even have to be a resident of the benefice he was the holder of!
But regardless of the degree of its reasonableness, St. Vincent’s motivation made him look like, on the one hand, the son who said “yes” to his father but then did not carry out the father’s request. Vincent’s ordination to the priesthood constituted his “yes” answer, but his ambition hindered his fulfillment of the genuine responsibilities of the priesthood.
But then, of course, Vincent went through a conversion, so that if, on the other hand, his ambition could be considered, in effect, his saying “no” to God’s will, he afterwards changed his mind and obeyed. And on account of this change of mind, Vincent’s ambition while he was in his twenties is not remembered against him but rather in his favor, in accordance with the standard of divine fairness and overflowing generosity that humans may find unfair.
In the end, therefore, St. Vincent did not persist in resisting God in the manner that did Ahaz, for instance, or “all the army leaders, Johanan, son of Kareah, Azariah, son of Hoshaiah, and all the people, high and low” (Is. 7; Jer. 42 and 43). He had a change of heart, which obviously indicates, first, that paradoxically this great saint was at one time a notably ambitious “sinner” and, second, that “the list of saints whose failings are very evident is quite long (the apostles, Augustine, Jerome, to name just a few)” (Father Robert P. Maloney, C.M., “Some Helpful Distinctions in Catholic Life,” in Seasons in Spirituality: Reflections on Vincentian Spirituality in Today’s World [Hyde Park, N.Y.: New City Press, 1998], p. 106).
Did Vincent perhaps, having experienced first hand the true religion exhibited by the poor and noting that they were entering the kingdom of God ahead of religious leaders, change his mind and come to believe? His prolonged experience of anguish, doubts, despair and suffering could also very well have led him to see himself clearly and profoundly as a poor person who could not possibly be judgmental and disdainful of any other poor since no poor person could possibly be poorer than himself (cf. Father Hugh F. O’Donnell, C.M., art. cit., p. 17). But this same experience of radical poverty must have indeed been met by the gratuitous inflooding of divine mercy, so that he could not but trust Divine Providence.
Vincent’s conversion, then, also spells trust in Divine Providence; it means living by his own advise, “No matter what others say or do, even if the wicked succeed, do not be troubled: commit everything to God and put your trust in him.” Vincent’s conversion further means understanding that “perfection consists in one thing alone, which is doing the will of God.” He told the missionaries in 1615 (as cited by Jacques Delarue, The Holiness of Vincent de Paul [London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1960], p. 53):
- Perfection does not lie in ecstasies, but in doing well the will of God ....
- Who, of all men, is most perfect? He whose will is most in accord with the will of God,
- since perfection lies in so complete a uniting of our will with God’s that his will and
- ours are really simply the same will; and the more man excels on this point, the more
- perfect will he be.
And St. Vincent, needless to say, did not just feign obedience to God either—as did those who for the rest of their clerical lives sought to lord it over others, exercising self-serving authority over them, and could neither take the last place nor adopt the Christian model of self-emptying service that today’s second reading from the letter to the Philippians recommends (cf. also Mt. 20:26-28). He knew the huge difference between saying and doing.
St. Vincent pointed out specifically, for example, that one must love God with the strength of one’s arms and the sweat of one’s brows. He did not settle for lofty thoughts, sweet conversations and angelic talk about love, all of which might only make for self-deception. For him, it was, above all, “a matter of working for God, of suffering, of self-mortification, of instructing the poor, of going out to look for the lost sheep, liking it when something is lacking, accepting illness or some other disfavour” (as cited by Jacques Delarue, op. cit., p. 56).
For St. Vincent, it was, in the final analysis, a matter of doing the work for the public entailed by the celebration of the Eucharistic liturgy, of saying “yes” to and fulfilling the instruction, “I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do” (Jn. 13:15). It was for him a matter of living in such a way that the Eucharist truly became the font and apex, most noble and apostolic, of his Christian life (cf. Lumen Gentium, 11).