Vincent de Paul and Evangelization

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[This article appeared in Volume I of En tiempos de San Vicente de Paúl … y hoy, Editorial CEME, Santa Marta de Tormes (Salamanca) Spain, 1997, p. 95-103. The above cited work was translated from the French by Martín Abaitua, CM (Au tempts de St. Vincent-de-Paul… et aujourd ‘hui), Animation Vicentienne, 16, Grande rue Saínt-Michel, Toulouse, France … this work is not attributed to any one author but it is stated in the Introduction that the articles were written by various authors].

Presentation of the theme

During the reign of King Henry, France had been pacified, but this simply meant that the weapons of war had been silenced. It was at this time that Vincent de Paul initiated his apostolic activity. Religious uniformity was now a far distant memory, nevertheless, even though Christianity was divided, it continued to spread: everyone, since they were baptized, considered themselves to be a child of God and on the path to salvation. To speak about evangelization (as Vincent de Paul did when he referred to the people who lived in the rural areas) would have seemed absurd to more than one individual … just as it seemed strange for us to hear in 1940 that Godin and Daniel entitled their book, France, a mission country. Like the people who lived during Vincent’s time, we also believed that we were living in the midst of a Christian society. It is therefore necessary for us (just as it was necessary for Vincent’s contemporaries) to view reality in a new way and to realize that we are dealing with the process of evangelization … thus there is an urgency about proclaiming Jesus Christ to those persons who have no knowledge of him.

Vincent did not leave us a treatise on evangelization … that was not one of his concerns. Yet in his willingness to follow step by step the path of Divine Providence, he attributed to the process of evangelization certain dimensions that we must be attentive to at the present time: evangelization is directed toward the whole person and is also directed toward all people.

Evangelization is directed toward the whole person. After the mission in Folleville, Vincent described the situation of ignorance as one in which many people were being damned. Therefore, Vincent spoke about evangelization in terms of “those truths that are necessary for salvation” … thus the process of evangelization was directed toward the mind. But after his pastoral experience in Châtillon, Vincent became aware of the need to direct the process of evangelization toward the whole person, that is, toward the mind, the spirit, the heart and the body.

People will not allow their actions to be guided by some interior movement until their hearts are touched. Every acceptance of the faith and every conversion, therefore, has to include a practical aspect and has to be translated into some form of service/commitment on behalf of the neighbor (this service/commitment might be that of an individual or a community). Vincent mistrusted lofty ideas and sentimental feelings … he viewed them as meaningless as one attempted to identify with the suffering and the misery of the neighbor. They can easily become pious words that are empty and thus, carried away by the wind. After the creation of the first Confraternity of Charity in 1617, the faith of people who lived during the Great Century brought about the establishment of various charitable institutions that in turn created a springtime of grace in the Church and in society as a whole.

It was clear to Vincent de Paul (just as it is clear to us) that it is useless to tell people that they are children of God and that Christ died for them if those people are dying of hunger, if society continues to heap scorn upon them, and if dogs are treated better than people who are poor. Again, we must understand that the process of evangelization demands action as well as words.

During the discussion that took place at the Synod that addressed the question of evangelization, the need for both word and action was highlighted. There is a need to proclaim doctrine but we can never be satisfied with caring for the intellectual needs of the individual. We must provide for the whole person and therefore we must proclaim that Jesus Christ came to free people from sin and oppression … evangelization is the promotion of the whole person. Also at the present time the apostle James continues to challenge the faith of Christians … especially those persons who tell their sisters and brothers to be at peace and be well, but then do nothing to relieve their situation of misery.

Evangelization is also a process that reaches out to all people and therefore, it is the promotion of every person … in accord with Jesus’ words evangelization by nature has a universal character. Vincent gave a universal character to the process of evangelization especially when he sent the Missionaries to Madagascar. The news that he received from the confreres and his concern for their ministry illuminated his daily life … it was as though the bright sun of that tropical land transformed the light and the shadows of the world that he had known so well.

In the same way the Church’s mission of universal evangelization does not allow us to sleep in peace or to sleep in the comfort of a serene faith. Indeed, we are constantly reminded of the situation of ignorance and misery that so many of our brothers and sisters confront on a daily basis. The destitution of the world is a challenge for all people, but especially for Christians and for the Church … the poor will never believe that they are children of God and the good news will continue to be a joke if we do nothing to promote the dignity of those people who live on the margins of society.

Vincent’s experience and teaching highlights a second aspect of evangelization, one that compliments the first aspect. From the very beginning, the gospel must be proclaimed to those people who have no knowledge of its message. This proclamation must, in the first place, be made to those who are poor and must be done by word and action. Here we also remember that on more than one occasion it was the poor who evangelized Vincent and made him aware of God’s call. At some pivotal moments in Vincent’s life the poor were at the crossroads, guiding him on his journey and revealing Jesus Christ to him.

It has also been the poor who, at critical moments in the history of the Church, have reminded people about that which is essential (for example, Saint Francis during the XIII century). Therefore we ought to be very humble in our proclamation of the good news of Jesus Christ because very often the poor (without even realizing it) will reveal Jesus to us. If we have a lively faith and if our eyes are open then we will see the splendor of the Lord’s glory in the person of those men and women who are poor.

Overwhelmed by various displays of power and confused and dazed by so many different publicity stunts, the world seems to have turned in upon itself like a mad dog. Yet it is in the midst of this very madness that the Church has to find its path and also has to help humanity find its path. We will never find that path unless we direct ourselves to those who have no part in this tumult because the world has marginalized them. They have nothing but are everything … they are the revelation of the living Lord who is in the midst of the world.

Vincent de Paul and evangelization

When Vincent became aware of the ignorance and the moral misery of the poor who were therefore being damned, he decided to dedicate his life (in imitation of Christ) to the service of those poor men and women. During the November 17th, 1656 conference he reminded the missionaries that from the beginning all the members of the Congregation consecrated their life to the task of evangelizing the poor and warned the confreres about becoming lax in this regard.

“…let no opportunity pass…”

I’m going to speak like my poor confreres; at present I really don’t know where we are in this because, if I go into the city and arrive at some house, I have to go up to my room or into the reception room; so you, Messieurs, who go on mission and to the rural areas, you see this better than I do right now. I do know well, however, what was done at the beginning of the Company, and that it was exact about the practice of letting no opportunity pass to instruct a poor person, which the men did if they saw that the person needed it; priests, seminarians, and our Coadjutor Brothers all did this, as they came and went. If they met some poor person --- a boy or some good man --- they’d speak to him to see if he knew the mysteries necessary for salvation; and if they noted that he didn’t, they’d teach them to him. I don’t know if we’re still as careful today to observe this holy practice; I’m talking about the men who go into the rural areas and stay at inns along the way. If that’s the case, fine! They should thank God for it and ask him for perseverance for the same Company; if not --- and if there has been any relaxation in this --- they should ask for the grace to correct themselves. As for the second point, the benefits that come from putting this holy custom in practice are very great; whereas, on the contrary, those who are unfaithful to it will be in danger of committing great evils. I say great evils because, as the man who already spoke said so well, a person can be killed in two ways: either by striking him and giving him the death blow or by not giving him what can sustain his life. So, you can understand that it’s a serious fault if you see that the neighbor hasn’t been instructed in the mysteries necessary for salvation, and you don’t teach them to him when you can. And what should urge us even more to do that is what Saint Augustine, Saint Thomas, and Saint Athanasius say, namely, that those who don’t know explicitly the mysteries of the Trinity and the Incarnation won’t be saved. That’s their thinking. I’m well aware that there are other theologians who aren’t so strict and who hold the opposite because, they say, it’s very painful to see that a poor man, for example, who has lived a good life, may be damned because he didn’t find someone to teach him those mysteries. Now, in this uncertainty, my dear confreres, it will always be for us a great charity if we instruct those poor people, whoever they may be; and we mustn’t lose any opportunity to do so, if it can be done (CCDD:XI:343-344).

Evangelize by word and action

As a result of the situation of Christianity during the seventeenth century Vincent engaged in the process of the evangelization of the poor and utilized those methods that were common during that era. His missionary initiative seemed to be limited to cultic activities: preaching, catechizing, general confession…

“…Encourage them to make a good general confession…”

The Foundation Contract of the Congregation of the Mission (April 17, 1625) defined its purpose: [the Missionaries] in accord with the wishes of the Prelates, within the limits of his own diocese, will devote themselves entirely and exclusively to the salvation of the poor common people. They would go from village to village, at the expense of their common purse, to preach, instruct, exhort, and catechize those poor people and encourage all of them to make a good general confession of their whole past life (CCD:XIIIa:214).

“…For want of knowing the things necessary for salvation…”

In 1631 Vincent wrote to François de Coudray and stated: You must make it understood that the poor are being damned for want of knowing the things necessary for salvation, and for lack of confession. If His Holiness were aware of this necessity, he would have no rest until he had done all he could to set things right. It is the knowledge we had of this situation that brought about the establishment of the company so as to remedy it in some way (CCD:I:112).

“…To preach, catechize and hear general confessions…”

In 1635 Vincent wrote to Clement de Bonzi, the Bishop of Beziers and stated: I shall tell you, first of all, Your Excellency, that we are entirely under the authority of the bishops to go to any place in their diocese they wish to send us to preach, catechize, and hear the general confessions of the poor… (CCD:I:297).

“…To evangelize by word and by work…”

The December 6th, 1658 conference on the purpose of the Congregation reveals the way in which Vincent’s thinking evolved with regard to this matter of evangelization … evangelization not only implied teaching the poor but also meant that one was willing to assist the poor in every possible way. The experience in Châtillon was a milestone and as a sensitive person Vincent was stunned by the situation of misery in which so many people were forced to live. In his letters Vincent presents us with some moving descriptions of their situation: the misery produced by the upheaval of war (including the Fronde), the inhuman condition of the galley slaves, the suffering of the infirm and the abandoned children. These different situations were experienced by Vincent as a call from God and led him to view evangelization in a broader and more demanding manner.

“But,” someone will say to me, “why burden ourselves with a hospital? Look at the poor people in the Nom-de-Jesus who are diverting us from our ministry; we have to go to say Mass for them, to instruct them, to administer the Sacraments, and to supervise the overall care of their lives. Why go to the border towns to distribute alms, to run the risk of many dangers, and to be diverted from our ministries?” Eh, Messieurs! Can we find fault with these good works without failing in our duty? If priests devote themselves to the care of the poor, wasn’t that what Our Lord and many great saints did, and they not only recommended poor persons to others, but they themselves consoled, comforted, and healed them? Aren’t those who are poor the afflicted members of Our Lord? Aren’t they our brothers and sisters? And if priests abandon them, who do you think is going to help them? So then, if there are any among us who think they’re in the Mission to evangelize poor people but not to alleviate their sufferings, to take care of their spiritual needs but not their temporal ones, I reply that we have to help them and have them assisted in every way, by us and by others, if we want to hear those pleasing words of the Sovereign Judge of the living and the dead, “Come, beloved of my Father; possess the kingdom that has been prepared for you, because I was hungry and you gave me to eat; l was naked and you clothed me; sick and you assisted me.” To do this is to preach the Gospel by words and by works, and that’s the most perfect way; it’s also what Our Lord did and what those who should do who present him on earth, officially and by nature, as priest do; and I’ve heard it said that what helped Bishops to become saints was almsgiving (CCD:XII:77-78).

The information that the Missionaries sent to Vincent about their activities indicates that they were involved in this process of evangelization (in its broadest sense, that is, in word and deed). Vincent wanted all the members of the Congregation to commit themselves in the same manner to this work of evangelization: We have visited the poor of this place and of the other villages in this valley, where the distress we have witnessed surpasses anything you have been told. I begin with the churches: they have been profaned, the Blessed Sacrament trampled underfoot, chalices and ciboria carried off baptismal fonts broken, and vestments stolen. As a result, there are in this small region more than twenty-five churches where Holy Mass cannot be celebrated. Most of the inhabitants have died in the woods, while the enemy occupied their homes. Others have returned only to end their days there because all we see are sick people everywhere. We have more than twelve hundred of them, besides six hundred just dragging themselves around, scattered over more than thirty devastated villages (CCD:IV:111).

In several ruined towns the leading citizens are in dire need. The pallor of their faces gives ample testimony to this need, and they must be assisted in secret … What is more conducive to tears is that the poor people of these border areas not only lack bread, wood, linen, and blankets, but they have no pastors or spiritual assistance … We do whatever we can, but this work is endless. In order to assist the more than thirteen hundred sick persons we have on our hands here in this canton, we have to come and go continually, exposed to the danger of roving bands (CCD:IV:112).

We have distributed vestments for the churches, and blankets and clothing for our sick. The effect that this has produced on all these border areas is indescribable. People there speak of almost nothing else but of these acts of charity. Our workers take such good care of the sick that, by the grace of God, of five hundred sick persons in the town of Guise alone more than three hundred have been cured. In forty villages in the environs of Laon, such a large number of persons have been restored to perfect health that it would be hard to find there six poor persons unable to earn their own living. We felt it our duty to provide these people with the means of doing so by giving them axes, billhooks, and spinning wheels to put the men and women to work. In this way, they will no longer be dependent on anyone, if some other disaster occurs which could reduce them to the same wretched state … We have also distributed seeds sent from Paris to this region … We give several poor pastors two hundred livres a month for their subsistence (CCD:IV:138).

Vincent reminded the Missionaries that assisting the poor in every way possible meant that they were engaged in a process of evangelization. He also reminded the Daughters of Charity, who were very committed to serving the poor, especially with regard to their physical needs, that they should not forget to instruct (whenever possible) these men and women in the truths of the faith.

“…This is what you are to do…”

The love of the Daughters of Charity is not simply tender; it's effective, because they actually serve persons who are poor, corporally and spiritually. It's your duty to teach them how to lead good lives --- I repeat, Sisters, to lead good lives; that's what distinguishes you from many nuns who care for the body only, without saying a good word. There are only too many like that. Now then, mon Dieu! let's not talk about that any longer; now then, mon Sauveur! the Daughter of Charity mustn't be concerned only with assisting the sick poor corporally; unlike so many others, she must instruct the poor. You have to do this in addition to what the Sisters of the Hotel-Dieu and the ones at the Place Royale do; you also have to go to seek out poor persons in their homes, which, until now, has never been done, whereas they're content to take in those God sends them. So then, you must take the sick poor two kinds of food: corporal and spiritual ... From all eternity you were destined to serve poor persons in the same way Our Lord served them! (CCD:IX:466-467).

Evangelization: the proclamation of the gospel or an encounter with Jesus Christ

The discovery of the “new world” placed missionary demands on Western Christianity. The gospel had to be communicated to all those people who had never heard the word. The Church of the seventeenth century was very aware of its obligation and Vincent shared that missionary vision. Vincent also understood that the poor were not only the beneficiaries of the process of evangelization, but they were the persons who revealed Jesus Christ and at the same time questioned those who were involved in the process of evangelization. Thus evangelization, at one and the same time, is a proclamation of the good news of Jesus Christ and an encounter with the person of Jesus Christ.

“…To proclaim his holy gospel…”

Let us give ourselves to God, Messieurs, to go throughout the world to carry his holy Gospel and, wherever he may lead us, let us stand by our post and observe our practices until it is his good pleasure to withdraw us from it. We mustn’t let difficulties shake us; the glory of the Eternal Father and the efficacy of the Word and passion of his Son are at stake. The salvation of nations and our own is so great a good as to deserve to be won at any cost; it doesn’t matter whether we die sooner or later, provided we die arms in hand; we’ll be all the happier for it and the Company will be no poorer, for sanguis martyrum semen est Christianorum (The blood of martyrs is the seed of Christians). For one Missioner who has given his life for the love of God, the goodness of God will raise up many others to do the good he will have left undone (CCD:XI:365-366).

“…You will find God there…”

Another motive, already mentioned by one Sister (see, Sisters, I'm only repeating what you've said), is that 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).

Questions for reflection and dialogue

A] As Vincent came to a deeper understanding of the process of evangelization, it became impossible for him to separate spiritual assistance from material assistance (evangelization by word and deed). Our Constitutions refer to human and Christian promotion. What is my understanding of evangelization?

B] How does the process of systemic change enter into the process of evangelization?

C] Are we involved with the larger Vincentian Family in our process of evangelization? If not, why not? If so, what difference does this make?

Translated: Charles T. Plock`