St. Vincent de Paul (1581-1660)
Our opening Mass prayer today describes succinctly what made Vincent de Paul, whose feast we celebrate today, the great saint he is:
O God, for the relief of the poor
and the formation of the clergy
you endowed the priest St.Vincent De Paul
with apostolic virtues.
grant, that afire with the same spirit
we may love what he loved
and put into practice what he taught.
God endowed Vincent de Paul with graces to relieve the poor and form the clergy. Once Vincent met a Protestant, a Huguenot, whom he invited to convert to Catholicism. The Huguenot said:
“You told me, Monsieur, that the Church of Rome is led by the Holy Spirit, but I find that hard to believe because, on the one hand, we see Catholics in the countryside 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, we see towns filled with priests 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. And you want to convince me that all this is being guided by the Holy Spirit! I’ll never believe it.”
That’s a picture of the French church in Vincent’s time. One reason for its sad condition was that the French crown had the power to appoint bishops and they appointed men from important French families who supported them. Their appointments were strongly influenced by political considerations.
The priesthood in France was badly off then. Usually priests had little education, some could hardly read or write. For financial support, they looked for benefices where they could say Mass and celebrate the sacraments, and they were usually found in the larger cities among rich families. As a young priest, Vincent himself became chaplain for a wealthy family in Paris. For many the priesthood became a job and not a call.
The decision to become a priest was mostly a family’s decision. A family might designate one of their sons as their “offering” to God, or as a way to get him some education or to get ahead socially.
Motives like these prompted Vincent’s own family, who were peasants, to direct him to the priesthood.
What Vincent did was to appeal to priests, religious, and even bishops, to begin to look spiritually at their roles. They weren’t jobs or careers, they were vocations and calls from God. They were sacred missions to follow Jesus Christ. Vincent, in fact, called the community he founded, the Congregation of the Mission (Vincentians), to go to people and areas neglected by the church. He encouraged, not only priests, but communities of women to care for the poor, without living the usual cloistered life of that time. Vincent’s network embraced laypeople too, who worked for those Jesus called “the least.”
Communities of Sisters of Charity, the Societies of St. Vincent de Paul are found throughout the world today and come from the efforts of this saint.
The reading for Vincent’s feast captures his powerful message. In the prayer for his feast we ask God, that “ afire with the same spirit
we may love what he loved
and put into practice what he taught.”
A writing of St Vincent de Paul
Serving the poor is to be preferred above all things
Even though the poor are often rough and unrefined, we must not judge them from external appearances nor from the mental gifts they seem to have received. On the contrary, if you consider the poor in the light of faith, then you will observe that they are taking the place of the Son of God who chose to be poor.
Although in his passion he almost lost the appearance of a man and was considered a fool by the Gentiles and a stumbling block by the Jews, he showed them that his mission was to preach to the poor: He sent me to preach the good news to the poor. We also ought to have this same spirit and imitate Christ’s actions, that is, we must take care of the poor, console them, help them, support their cause.
Since Christ willed to be born poor, he chose for himself disciples who were poor. He made himself the servant of the poor and shared their poverty. He went so far as to say that he would consider every deed which either helps or harms the poor as done for or against himself. Since God surely loves the poor, he also loves those who love the poor. For when one person holds another dear, he also includes in his affection anyone who loves or serves the one he loves. That is why we hope that God will love us for the sake of the poor. So when we visit the poor and needy, we try to understand the poor and weak. We sympathise with them so fully that we can echo Paul’s words: I have become all things to all men. Therefore, we must try to be stirred by our neighbours’ worries and distress. We must beg God to pour into our hearts sentiments of pity and compassion and to fill them again and again with these dispositions.
It is our duty to prefer the service of the poor to everything else and to offer such service as quickly as possible. If a needy person requires medicine or other help during prayer time, do whatever has to be done with peace of mind. Offer the deed to God as your prayer. Do not become upset or feel guilty because you interrupted your prayer to serve the poor. God is not neglected if you leave him for such service. One of God’s works is merely interrupted so that another can be carried out. So when you leave prayer to serve some poor person, remember that this very service is performed for God. Charity is certainly greater than any rule. Moreover, all rules must lead to charity. Since she is a noble mistress, we must do whatever she commands. With renewed devotion, then, we must serve the poor, especially outcasts and beggars. They have been given to us as our masters and patrons.”
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