Vincentian Tradition in the Social Apostolate

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The Vincentian Tradition in the Social Apostolate

Two Frenchmen of the seventeenth century made a huge impact on future generations. Rene Descartes (1556-1650), with his focus on “cogito,” “I think,” unwittingly occasioned subjectivism and relativism in philosophy, a veritable academic plague. To the contrary, St Vincent de Paul (1581-1660) was a realist. Throughout his life he practiced the virtue of charity—love for his contemporaries—energetically and effectively. Recently, the Church through its Supreme Pontiffs has voiced “a preferential option for the poor.” St Vincent anticipated this renewed emphasis by about 380 years.

To understand the Vincentian tradition in the social apostolate, a dedication to the mission of Christ and His Church, it is necessary and sufficient to review the deeds and the spirit of St Vincent.

At the outset, we may wonder what motivated Vincent in his limitless and concrete love for humanity. Undoubtedly, his university career at both Saragossa and Toulouse exerted a strong influence on him. After a brief sojourn at the University of Saragossa, interrupted by his fathers death, the young Vincent spent seven years at the University of Toulouse, where he earned a degree in theology and where, interestingly, her received authorization to explain the second of the Books of the Sentences of Peter Lombard, a work written in 1150 and still used as a university textbook in Vincent’s day. Perhaps Vincent considered pursuing a doctoral degree during these years, since the delivery of lectures on the “Sentences” was a prerequisite for the doctorate. More to our concern, it is hardly farfetched to suggest that Vincent’s knowledge of scholastic theology and philosophy and, most importantly, his scholastic contact with the wisdom of St Thomas Aquinas, provided him with a profound respect for human dignity. Supernaturally speaking, this dignity rests on divine revelation. God invites each person to share in the divine nature” (II Peter, ¼) and to become His adopted child (cf. Galatians 4/5). Realistic philosophy, moreover, teaches the worth of each person from conception to birth – a dignity totally independent of ones physical, social, and economic status. Man is special because of his origin and destiny. God creates the life principle of every person and offers each individual the goal of total happiness, attained hereafter by personal union with absolute Goodness.

The Saint’s charity was orderly. In loving the neighbor, he linked mind to heart. St Vincent said: “It is not enough to do good; it must be done well.” At the little town of Chatillon near Lyon in southern France, St Vincent was vesting for Sunday mass when he learned that an entire household was drastically ill. In his sermon, he addressed the situation and the congregation responded generously, but haphazardly. Vincent advised the volunteers to take turns in preparing meals for the impoverished family. It marked a beginning. Subsequently, the saint established the first Confraternity of Charity, a lay organization. Its goal was to assist the needy “corporally and spiritually,” providing food and medicine and urging patients to turn to God with love and trust.

The society known as the Ladies of Charity was an outgrowth of the Confraternities. Most of its members belonged to the aristocracy and the upper middle class. Generously, they put their lives and their wealth at the service of the poor. There was a need for young helpers, generous women who would dedicate themselves directly and immediately to the destitute and the sick. They became the first Daughters of Charity. On November 28, 1633, St Vincent co-founded this new community of women along with St. Louis de Marillac. Be it noted that St Louise collaborated with St Vincent for 35 years.

St Vincent instituted the Congregation of the Mission on January 25, 1617, responding to two spiritual crises. Priests were plentiful in the French cities of his day; they were lacking in the countryside. The first Vincentians gave missions in the farming districts. They fulfilled a basic exigency, but parish missions were intermittent. Country folk required a permanent, supernatural resource – intelligent, holy priests. Consequently, Vincent established seminaries and his Congregation conducted them in the spirit of the Council of Trent. In addition, to support those already ordained, the Saint inaugurated the Tuesday Conferences – a gathering of the Parisian clergy on a weekly basis, providing these priests with an opportunity for theological updating and for divine worship.

As an indication of the Saint’s appeal, it is not surprising that Fredrick Ozanam, who founded the St Vincent de Paul Society in 1835, should name Vincent as his patron. In passing, we note that this Society, which serves the economically marginalized, now numbers 800,000 members worldwide.

Indeed, the Saint’s charity was all-inclusive. When he confronted a problem, he responded—rescuing abandoned children, interceding for wretched prisoners as rowers on the French galleys, supporting war victims and refugees, providing food and shelter for the mentally ill, and sending his priests to foreign missions.

Another aspect of Vincent’s practicality was his success as a fundraiser—and indication also of his vibrant, warm personality. Anne of Austria, the wife of King Louis XIII, Cardinal Richelieu, and the Ladies of Charity were among those making sizeable gifts, participating in the Saint’s charity.

To fulfill Our Lord’s injunction to love ones neighbor, St Vincent had a twofold task: to assist both the body and soul. He never separated the two, understanding that a human being is a psychological unit. The Saint knew the necessity of alleviating physical distress in order to guide a person more readily to the practice of virtue and to God. Normally, an individual who experiences a lack of food, shelter, and clothing or who is a victim of ill-health, is distracted from moral concerns and the worship of God. Consequently, St Vincent asked the Daughters of Charity “to serve the poor corporally by supplying them with all they need and spiritually by caring that they live and die holily.” Vincent gave evidence of his hierarchy of values when he exclaimed to the Daughters on another occasion. “. . . your responsibility extends not only to the body, but principally to the soul.” Previously, he had given the same advice to the members of the Confraternity of Charity, viz, to assist the sick-poor “corporally and spiritually by providing them with food and medicine and by assisting them to practice a true love for God.”

St Vincent de Paul has earned the title, “the Father of the Poor and the Light of the Clergy.” His love for the persons of his generation was intelligently planned, effective, and boundless. As a bearer of God’s love for the world, Vincent was especially tender and compassionate. To the priesthood, he gave himself unreservedly, because it is through the instrumentally of the priests, that the human race becomes the recipient of God’s truth and His life. Priests proclaim the Gospel message under the guidance of the Church’s teaching authority; they are channels of grace by their offering of the Eucharistic Sacrifice, by their forgiving sin in the name of Jesus Christ in the Sacrament of Penance, and by their administration of the order of sacraments. Consequently, during his lifetime, St Vincent de Paul provided much evidence of his unique love for the sacred priesthood.

Kenneth F. Slattery, C.M.


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Roman, C.M, Jose Maria. St Vincent de Paul—A Biography. Trans. Sr. Joyce Howard, D.C London: Melisende, 1999

Six, Jean-Francois. Saint Vincent de Paul. Paris: Editions du Centurion, 1980

Conferences of St Vincent de Paul to the Sisters of Charity. Trans. Joseph Leonard, C.M. Westminster, Maryland: the Newman Press, 1952.