Vincentian Laity

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The Origins of the Vincentian Laity

The first important observation which ought to be made about the origins of the Vincentian Family is that initially it was born as a lay association. Actually, the f1rst formally created institution by St. Vincent de Paul was the [[Confraternities of Charity]. Tlis event took place in Châtillon on the 8th of December, 1617. However, eight months previously, the 25th of January of the same year, Vincent had preached, in Folleville, what he called the first sermon of the Mission, and which he always considered as the beginning of the Congregation of the Mission. But, in fact, on that day he did not found anything. He simply discovered his vocation, that is, the way by which, in the future, his Apostolic work had to develop. The formal Foundation of the Congregation would not take place until eight years later, on the 17th of April 1625, by means of a contract signed by him with the de Gondi family. On the contrary, the preparation and establishment of the Confraternities of Charity took place much more speedily. The story is well known, but perhaps it would be good to repeat it so as to understand the essential features which from the beginning formed the spirit of Vincentian Action. Let us retell it in the words of St. Vincent himself:

"When I was living near Lyons, in a small town to which Providence had called me to act as parish priest," he said to the Daughters of Charity one day, "on a certain Sunday just as I was vesting to say Mass, a person came to tell me that, in an isolated house a quarter of a league away, the whole family lay ill, so that not a single one of them could come to the assistance of the others, and they were in such dire straits as cannot be expressed. It moved me to the depths of my heart. I did not fail to speak feelingly about them during the sermon, and God, touching the hearts of those who were listening, caused them all to be moved to compassion for the poor afflicted people.
"After dinner, a meeting was held in the house of a good lady in the town to see what help could be given and every single one of those present was quite prepared to go and see them, to console them by talking to them and to help them to the best of their ability."
"After Vespers, I took a good, honest man, a native of the town, as my companion and we walked along the road together to go and pay them a visit. We passed on the road some women who had gone in front of us, and a little farther on, wc met others returning. And as it was Summer and the weather was very hot, these good women were sitting down by the road to rest and refresh themselves. And in fact my Daughters, there were so many of them that you would have said it was a regular procession.
"When I arrived, I visited the sick and went to look for the Blessed Sacrament for those who were in most urgent need, but not in lhe Parish Church, because it was not a parish, but depended on a Clhapter of which I was the Prior. So then after hearing their Confessions and giving them Holy Communion, the question arose as to how we could help them in their need. I suggested to all these dear, good people whose charity had induced them to visit the family, that they should take it in turn, day by day, to cook for them, and not only for them but also for other cases which might arise. That was the first place in which the Charity was established."[fo1]

The facts thus narrated by St. Vincent, according to my calculations, took place on Sunday, 20th of August 1617. Three days later, 23rd August, a certificate of the formation of a confraternity was sealed. More exactly it was "a Corporation which in time could be raised up as a confraternity, with its own rules, subject to the approval of the Archbishop, to whom it would be submissive totally."[fo2] After three months, on 24th of November, the new association and its rules were approved by the Archbishop of Lyons and fifteen days later, on the 8th of December 1617, it was formally erected as the First Confraternity of Charity, with the election of its Officers and other matters connected with the Rules.

Let us now see the distinctive features of the first Vincentian foundation which can help us to understand its spirit as it was called in the 17th century, or its style as we might call it today.

Above all, we bave to stress the ecclesial character of the association. It was born within the Church, and as a service of the Church. Hence its submission to the authority of the Bishop.

But with no less emphasis we must point out that the association was born or established with a determined lay vocation although, because of the restrictons of the times, it would have as procurator, some pious and devout ecclesistic, ordinarily the parish priest of the place, but chosen by the members and replaceable by them; "They shall elect an ecclesiastic who will be called rector or spiritual father of the said association, to carry out his duties as rector for as long as the members think suitable."[fo3]

The first association, that of Châtillon, was exclusively made up of virtuous women, both married and single, with the consent of their families; only as regards administrative affairs (another tribute to the customs of the times) it was establisbed that, as it was not deemed proper to administer financial affairs alone, they should elect a good ecclesiastic, or a pious and dovout layman as procutator, devoted to the welfare of the poor and not overburdened with temporal matters, who will be considered as a member of the said Confraternity.[fo4] Later, having learned from experience, St. Vincent came to the conelusion that not only were women not inferior to men in administration affairs, but that they far surpassed them; "The men and women together do not agree on matters of administration; the men want to take charge of everything, and the women will not accept this. The Charities of Joigny and Montmirail were governed on the lines of both sexes, the men took charge of the healthy poor, and the women cared for the sick poor but as they id a common fund, it was neeessary to let the men leave. And I can give this testimony in favour of women, that there can be nothing to say against their administration, as they are. most careful and reliable."[fo5]

Later foundations: Montmirail[fo6], Joigny[fo7], Mâcon[fo8], Courboin[fo9], Montreuil[fo10], and many others[fo11] continued this custom of men and women together. They established an order of sharing the works; the men were to care for the healthy poor, while the women took care of the sick. But still it can be said that St. Vincent showed a certain preferenee for the women, "since Our Lord did not receive less glory from the ministry of the women than that of the men during his life on earth, and he himself considered the work for the sick to be preferable to that for the healthy. Therefore the servants of the poor should have the same interest in the preservation and increase of the association of women as of the men."[fo12] With the passage of time the mixed confraternities and those of men only were losing their vigour, and after the death of the founder, they ceased to exist.

Another distinctive feature of the association is the simultaneous preoccupation for both the material and the spiritual welfare of the poor being assisted by it. "Two ends are set before you; to assist the body and the soul; the body by providing food and care, and the soul by preparing the dying to die well, and those who recover to live a truly Christian life."[fo13] Both of the above services are to be carried out by the members of the association personally. St. Vincent did not want a mere mercenary service nor an economic collaboration. He set it down in the rule: "The sisters of the Confraternity, on the day agreed, will service the sick poor, bringing the food and drink to them as prepared".[fo14] He insists that the normal way to do this was by the visit to the house of the sick. "These good pious women undertake to visit and serve the sick poor, and do all this on a purely voluntsry basis".[fo15]

Another Vincentian preoccupation, which was in stark contast to the mentality of the times, was the aImost universal illiteracy of women. The members of the Association were to undertake the instruction of little girls. In the rules of the Confraternity of Neufchatel we read: "Besides the exercises already mentioned the officers of the Charity will depute one or two women or young girls of the Confraternity of Mercy to instruct the little girls of the village and the neighbourhood, who will be obliged to teachthe poor without recompense except that which they can hope for from the goodness of God, and in case there is no suitable person in the Corfraternity, the officers shall make every effort to engage some externs to undertake so important a work for the glory of God and the salvation of souls in the full confidence that they will receive a magnificent recompense in this world and in the next, for the service they will have rendered to God both in the sick poor as in the education of thcse little girls".[fo16]

In a similar way, the young poor boys are to be instructed in a trade or craft so that they will be enabled to earn a living. "The directors of the association will set the young poor boys to work in some office as soon as they are old enough for it".[fo17] While being trained they can help to provide funds for the Association and when fully qualified they can set out to earn a living for themselves.[fo18]

Let us also notice that the foundation of the Confraternities obeys the Vincentian conviction that in the Church of that time, apart from individual charitable persons, there was no organisation of charity. The poor "at times had to suffer much more from lack of order and organisation than from lack of charitable persons. But, as it could be feared that after beginning a good work it could collapse in a short time, if for its maintenance there was no union and spiritual bonding, it was determined to unite the Confraternities into a corporation".[fo19] For this purpose the number of members in each Confraternity should not be in excess of twenty members. [fo20]

Likewise a characteristic of this first Vincentian Association was the preoccupation for the spiritual formation of the members. At least once a month they sbould meet to listen to a "brief exhortation with a view to the spiritual progress of the whole Company and to the conservation and prosperity of the Confraternity...". The saint also adds "that it is suppemely useful for all communities consecratod to God that they meet from time to time in a particular place in order to discuss their spiritual progress".[fo21] Do we find in these words the seed of what the Annual Conferences will be in the years ahead?

Finally, it is noteworthy that St. Vincent had a determined interest that the Associations of Charity would depend organically on his main foundation, the Congregation of the Mission. In the Papal Bull of approbation, it is laid doun that one of the ministries of the Missioners was the foundation of the Confraternities: "In the places where they carry out the functions of catechesis and preaching, they will take steps to found, with the approval of the Bishop, the Confraternities of Charity as a help for the sick poor[fo22]. And in the Common Rules of the Congregation itself, he lays down the duty on the missioneers "to establish the Confraternities of Charity"[fo23] and to place "the greatest emphasis on founding and visiting the Confraternity of Charity". [fo24]

The Charities spread a lot even during St. Vincent's lifetime. Vincentian documents make reference to about sixty parochial Charities. There were far more than that. A veritable network of Charities covered almost the whole of France. Abelly, the saint's first biographer, says that "they are now found in so many places that no one knows their number".[fo25]

We also know that some of them failed to function properly.[fo26] This fact and the increasing spread of the Confraternities obliged St. Vincent to face up the problem of how to coordinate them and watch over the good spirit of each of them. He did not however have the good fortune to set up a centralised organisation, somethg like what we would call a National Council. He confined himself to sending visitors to the different local Confraternities to oversee their progess. For this work he chose Ladies of the Paris Charities, and in particular his principal collaborator, Louise de Marillac.[fo27]

On the contrary, what he did was to create a higher class of the charity, which would take charge of problems on the wider circuit, in contrast to the merely parish charities. This was the role represented by the Association of the Ladies of Chanty of the Hotel Dieu, who little by little, took on the management and the handling of practical details in the running of all the Vincentian enterprises: the galley slaves, the abandoned babies, the North-African captives, the foreign missions, the regions devastated by the wars... This Association and not the Confraternities of Charity, which St. Vincent normally called by the simple name of the Charities, was the Association of the real Ladies of Charity.[fo28]

The Confraternities and the Ladies of Charity were not the only lay enterpdses undertaken by St. Vincent. Linked to them must be placed other associations of a more ephemeral nature; the one made up of a group of the nobility in which were such men as the Duke of Liancourt, the Count of Brienne, the Marquess of Fontenoy, and especially, Baron Gaston de Renty. The object of the association was to assist the nobles of Lorraine ruined by the wars. From it they received, in a discreet manner, from their French colleagues, the help they needed and which their condition prevented them from seeking publicly. Years later he used the same means to assist Britisb and Irish nobles fleeing from the persecutions of Cromwell. [fo29]

From this brief survey of the origins of the lay charitable associations founded by St. Vincent, it is true to say that the diverse branches of the Vincentian Family find their source or roots in the personal activity of the saint. All was prefigured in it. The passage of time will go on giving birth to new types of organisation, to new initiatives, but all of them will receive their life-giving sap from the tree planted by St. Vincent.

We lack sufficient data to follow the evolution of these associations, and in particular, of the Confraternities of Charity, during the century and a half following the death of St Vincent up to the French Revolution. We do know that they continued to be founded systematically in the missions preached by the missioners of the Vincentians in France and in other European counties like Italy and Poland. It is hard to understand why they were not founded in Spain in spite of the fact that the Congregation of the Mission itself was founded there in 1704.