Saint Vincent de Paul
Vincent de Paul was born of a peasant family in the village of Pouy, Gascony, France. He managed to make his humanities studies at Dax with the Cordeliers, and his theological studies at Toulouse where he graduated in theology. He was ordained in 1600 and remained in the Toulouse vicinity acting as tutor while continuing his own studies. When traveling by sea to Marseilles in 1605 (in order to receive an inheritance) he was captured by Turkish pirates who took him to Tunis. He was sold as a slave, but escaped in 1607 with his master, a renegade whom he converted.
Upon his return to France he went to Avignon to the papal vice-legate, and then went to Rome to continue his studies. In 1609 he was sent back to France on a secret mission to Henry IV. He became almoner to the Queen Marguerite of Valois, and was first provided with the Abbey of Saint-Léonard-de-Chaume, then took charge of the parish of Clichy near Paris (at the request of M. de Berulle, founder of the Oratory).
In 1612, however, he entered the services of the Gondi, an illustrious French family, in order to educate their children. He also became the spiritual director of Mme de Gondi. With her assistance he began giving missions on her estates. He began to feel that the esteem bestowed on him was at too high a level, and he therefore left the Gondi family in order to become curé of Chatillon-les-Dombes (Bresse) – again with the approval of M. de Berulle. During his time there he converted several Protestants and founded the first conference of charity for the assistance of the poor.
In 1617 he was recalled by the Gondi family and returned to them, resuming the peasant missions. Due to his example, several Paris priests joined him. After nearly each of these missions, a conference of charity was founded for the relief of the poor (e.g. at Joigny, Châlons, Mâcon and Trévoux).
Except for the poor, Vincent also focused on relieving the pain and suffering of the convicts in the galleys. Before being convoyed aboard the galleys, or when illness caused them to disembark, the convicts (frequently covered with vermin and ulcers) were kept in damp, crowded dungeons, their legs in chains, and their only food being black bread and water. Vincent wished to better them both physically and morally. Assisted by a priest, he began visiting the galley convicts of Paris, showing them much kindness. In doing so, he won their trust, friendship and converted many of them. Furthermore, a house was purchased where Vincent could establish a hospital.
Soon afterwards, he was appointed royal almoner of the galleys by Louis XIII. Vincent profited by this title in that he used it to visit the galleys of Marseilles (where the convicts were as unfortunate as at Paris). He again cared for them, and also planned to build them a hospital, but he could only do this ten years later. Meanwhile, he started a successful mission on the galley of Bordeaux (in 1625).
Vincent and the Seminaries
These above successes led Vincent to found the Congregation of Priests of the Mission (a religious institute of priests vowed to the evangelization of country people). He realized that the good done by missions in country places could not last unless there were priests to maintain it – and these were lacking in France (due to various reasons, including religious wars). The general assembly of the French clergy expressed the wish that candidates for Holy Orders should only be admitted after some days of recollection and retreat. Vincent thus attempted (at the request of the Bishopof Beauvais) the first of these retreats at Beauvais (in September, 1628). These retreats consisted of ascetic conferences and instructions on aspects most indispensable to priests. A main consequence of these retreats is that they gave rise to seminaries later established in France.
At first these retreats lasted only ten days, then fifteen or twenty days, then to one / two / three months. The bishops eventually prolonged the stay of their clerics to two or three years between philosophy and the priesthood. Eventually there were two types of seminaries to be found: seminaries d'ordinands and later grands seminaries, when lesser ones were founded.
Vincent played a great role in this double creation. In 1635, for example, he established a seminary at the Collége des Bons-Enfants. Assisted by Richelieu (who provided him with finances), he kept at Bons-Enfants only ecclesiastics studying theology (grand seminarie), whilst he also founded the Seminaryof St. Charles at Saint-Lezare (in 1642) for young clerics studying the humanities (thus a lesser seminary). He had also sent priests to various bishops in order to stablish and direct seminaries.
At his death he had accepted the direction of eleven seminaries. It is also interesting to note that, prior to the Revolution, his congregation was directing fifty-three upper and nine lesser seminaries (a third of all in France).
Through ecclesiastical conferences held at Saint-Lazare, St Vincent also instituted open retreats for laymen as well as for priests. During the last 25 years of Vincent’s life, approximately 800 persons a year came to these retreats (thus an estimate of around 20,000 in total).
Vincent and the Daughters of Charity and Others
The initial idea for the establishment of the Daughters of Charity was to assist the conferences of charity. It was realized, however, that many of the ladies who joined, even though they brought alms and were more than willing to visit the poor, did not know how to give them the proper care and attention that they required. Vincent then conceived the idea of enlisting good young women for this service of the poor. They had to visit the poor with the ladies of the conferences or care for the poor during their (the ladies’) absence. These young girls were eventually formed into a community under the direction of Mlle Legras.
Besides the Daughters of Charity, Vincent also secured the services of the Ladies of Charity. In 1634, he grouped together some pious women (among them were as many as 200 ladies of the highest rank) who were determined to nurse the sick and poor entering the Hotel-Dieu (approximately 20,000 or 25,000 a year). It was due to these ladies that various people could be cared for, e.g. a great number of foundlings. Initially twelve of these children were installed in a special house confided to the Daughters of Charity and four nurses. Years later the number of children reached 4000 and steadily increased.
With the assistance of a generous unknown who helped with funding, Vincent also founded the Hospice of the Name of Jesus, where forty old people of both sexes found a shelter and work suited to their condition (the present hospital of the uncurables). This was taken a step further through the creation of a general hospital (which was first thought of by several Ladies of Charity, such as the Duchesse d'Aiguillon). Funding poured in (e.g. the king granting lands, etc) and eventually a hospital could be erected (that the Daughters of Charity were also attached to) where, through the years, 40,000 poor could be sheltered and given useful work.
St. Vincent's charity was not restricted to Paris, but reached to all the provinces desolated by misery (e.g. through war, etc). Vincent secured funds to send to the provinces; he set up organizations similar to today’s soup kitchens (even compiling instructions concerning the quantitiy of fat, butter, vegetables, and bread which should be used); he encouraged the foundation of societies undertaking to bury the dead and to clean away the dirt which was a permanent cause of plague; he brought women and children to Paris in order to shelter them from the effects of war (placed them in convents, etc); and much more.
Due to all his good deeds, Vincent de Paul became popular in Paris and even at the Court. Richelieu received him and listened favorably to his requests (e.g. he assisted him in his first seminary foundations and established a house for his missionaries in the village of Richelieu); Louis XIII desired to be assisted by him on his deathbed; Louis’ widow, Ann of Austria, made Vincent a member of the council of conscience (charged with nominations to benefices).
He remained modest, only going to Court through necessity, and only using his influence in the interest of the Church and for the welfare of the poor.
Vincent's zeal and charity also went beyond the boundaries of France, e.g. sending missionary priests to Ireland, Scotland, the Hebrides, Poland, and Madagascar. Due to his own abduction into slavery, he focused on the poor slaves of Barbary. These slaves, numbering between 25,000 and 30,000, were originally carried off from their families by the Turkish corsairs, and were condemned to labour. Vincent sent them aid, as well as a priest and brother in order to care for them and offer them the services of religion. At the same time they acted as agents with their families, and were able to free some of them.
St Vincent For Today
St Vincent had so many remarkable qualities: he carefully obeyed the suggestions of faith and piety, was devoted to prayer and meditation, and his zeal for souls knew no limit. He had total trust in God. It is also interesting to note that it is said that Vincent was by temperament a very irascible person. He himself admitted that, except for the grace of God, he would have been "hard and repulsive, rough and cross." But what a tender and affectionate man he became! So very sensitive to the needs of others!
What an example to us all!
24 April 1580/1581 (although some say 1576)
Pouy, Gascony, France
27 September 1660
13 August 1729, Rome by Pope Benedict XIII
16 June 1737, Rome by Pope Clement XII
St Vincent de Paul chapel, Rue de Sèvres, Paris, France
16th century cleric performing some act of charity
cleric carrying an infant
priest surrounded by the Sisters of Charity
cannon-ball and swords
against leprosy; Brothers of Charity; charitable societies; charitable workers; charities; horses; hospital workers; hospitals; lepers; lost articles; Madagascar; prisoners; Richmond, Virginia, diocese of; spiritual help; Saint Vincent de Paul Societies (founded in 1833 by his admirer Blessed Frédéric Ozanam); Sisters of Charity; Vincentian Service Corps; volunteers
However great the work that God may achieve by an individual, he must not indulge in self-satisfaction. He ought rather to be all the more humbled, seeing himself merely as a tool which God has made use of.
We must love our neighbor as being made in the image of God and as an object of His love.
The Church teaches us that mercy belongs to God. Let us implore Him to bestow on us the spirit of mercy and compassion, so that we are filled with it and may never lose it.
Only consider how much we ourselves are in need of mercy.
Extend your mercy towards others, so that there can be no one in need whom you meet without helping. For what hope is there for us if God should withdraw His Mercy from us?
The most powerful weapon to conquer the devil is humility. For, as he does not know at all how to employ it, neither does he know how to defend himself from it.
Free your mind from all that troubles you; God will take care of things. You will be unable to make haste in this (choice) without, so to speak, grieving the heart of God, because he sees that you do not honor him sufficiently with holy trust. Trust in him, I beg you, and you will have the fulfillment of what your heart desires.
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…. Charity is certainly greater than any rule. Moreover, all rules must lead to charity.
Human nature grows tired of always doing the same thing, and it is God’s will that this because of the opportunity of practicing two great virtues. The first is perseverance, which will bring us to our goal. The other is steadfastness, which overcomes the difficulties on the way.
We should strive to keep our hearts open to the sufferings and wretchedness of other people, and pray continually that God may grant us that spirit of compassion which is truly the spirit of God.
Humility and charity are the two master-chords: one, the lowest; the other, the highest; all the others are dependent on them. Therefore it is necessary, above all, to maintain ourselves in these two virtues; for observe well that the preservation of the whole edifice depends on the foundation and the roof.
As it is most certain that the teaching of Christ cannot deceive, if we would walk securely, we ought to attach ourselves to it with greatest confidence and to profess openly that we live according to it, and not to the maxims of the world, which are all deceitful. This is the fundamental maxim of all Christian perfection.
We have never so much cause for consolation, as when we find ourselves oppressed by sufferings and trials; for these make us like Christ our Lord, and this resemblance is the true mark of our predestination.
Perfection consists in one thing alone, which is doing the will of God. For, according to Our Lord’s words, it suffices for perfection to deny self, to take up the cross and to follow Him. Now who denies himself and takes up his cross and follows Christ better than he who seeks not to do his own will, but always that of God? Behold, now, how little is needed to become as Saint? Nothing more than to acquire the habit of willing, on every occasion, what God wills.
He who allows himself to be ruled or guided by the lower and animal part of his nature, deserves to be called a beast rather than a man.
Whoever wishes to make progress in perfection should use particular diligence in not allowing himself to be led away by his passions, which destroy with one hand the spiritual edifice which is rising by the labors of the other. But to succeed well in this, resistance should be begun while the passions are yet weak; for after they are thoroughly rooted and grown up, there is scarcely any remedy.
The first step to be taken by one who wishes to follow Christ is, according to Our Lord’s own words, that of renouncing himself – that is, his own senses, his own passions, his own will, his own judgement, and all the movements of nature, making to God a sacrifice of all these things, and of all their acts, which are surely sacrifices very acceptable to the Lord. And we must never grow weary of this; for if anyone having, so to speak, one foot already in Heaven, should abandon this exercise, when the time should come for him to put the other there, he would run much risk of being lost.
We ought to deal kindly with all, and to manifest those qualities which spring naturally from a heart tender and full of Christian charity; such as affability, love and humility. These virtues serve wonderfully to gain the hearts of men, and to encourage them to embrace things that are more repugnant to nature.
It ought to be considered a great misfortune, not only for individuals, but also for Houses and Congregations, to have everything in conformity with their wishes; to go on quietly, and to suffer nothing for the love of God. Yes, consider it certain that a person or a Congregation that does not suffer and is applauded by all the world is near a fall.
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 love whose who love the poor. For when on 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 be understanding where they are concerned. We sympathize 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 neighbors’ worries and distress. It is our duty to prefer the service of the poor to everything else and to offer such service as quickly as possible. Charity is certainly greater than any rule. Moreover, all rules must lead to charity. With renewed devotion, then, we must serve the poor, especially outcasts and beggars. They have been given to us as our masters and patrons.
Did You Know?
- His body was found incorrupt when exhumed in 1712
- His body was later ‘defleshed’ by a flood; skeleton encased in a wax effigy in the house of the Vincentian fathers in Paris
- His heart is incorrupt; displayed in a reliquary in the chapel of the motherhouse of the Sisters of Charity in Paris