In the footsteps of St Vincent de Paul

Alexander Robertson and Tom Wintle report on a visit to Paris to explore the inspirational life and work of a saint who devoted his life to caring for the poor

At the beginning of Lent, five pastoral assistants joined aspirants to the Company of Mission Priests on a trip to Paris to visit sites associated with the life and work of St Vincent de Paul, a seventeenth-century priest and reformer of the French Church at a time of acute crisis.

His life

St Vincent de Paul was born in 1581 at Ranquine in Gascony to a family of peasant farmers. At this time, French society offered very little class mobility and the only real way for a person to get any kind of social advancement was through the professions, and the priesthood was considered one such profession.

If this understanding of the priesthood was not sign enough of a serious problem in French ecclesiastical society, the fact that St Vincent was one of a large number of career priests ordained illicitly on account of their young age shows how far the rot had set in. St Vincent was ordained at the age of just nineteen and began a period of ministry in which he carried out, in a rather perfunctory way, the office of priest in Toulouse.

Two life-changing events led to his renunciation of his former way of life and to a deeper understanding of the character given to him at his ordination. In 1607, he journeyed to Marseille to collect an inheritance, but the boat on which he was travelling is said to have been captured by pirates and Vincent is supposed to have spent two years in captivity eventually persuading his slave trader master, a former Franciscan, to set him free and also bring about the man’s return to faith.

A deeper understanding

This led him to grow into a deeper understanding of his priesthood and his baptism; he was brought into a much closer relationship with Christ and began to understand his call to be an evangelist. Through his spiritual director, Berulle, he came to work for the de Gondi family as tutor to their children, but also ministering in a rural backwater called Châtillon-les-Dombes. It was here that he encountered another defining moment in his priestly life. He had been called to the death bed of a peasant and found the man living in poverty, not only materially but also spiritually. He had received such little catechesis that he was terrified of death and, knowing nothing of God’s loving mercy, feared being sent straight to Hell.

It was at this point that St Vincent resolved that he would devote his life to care for the poor and the formation of clergy to care for the poor. He drew inspiration directly from Christ as the evangelist of the poor and the outcast, and his definition of poverty, where no distinction is drawn between material and spiritual poverty, meant that he, his priests, and later the daughters of charity, saw that it was essential to answer both spiritual and material needs as two sides of the same coin.

His experience in Châtillon-les-Dombes led to Mdme de Gondi setting him the task of converting those on the estate, a task so great that he recruited an Association of Priests of the Mission, a fraternity that still exists today and part of an umbrella organization to which the Company of  Mission Priests belongs.

His challenge to us

Talks were provided by Fr North from Camden and Fr Ward from St Stephen’s House. Fr North spoke of the way in which the life and work of St Vincent provides a very clear challenge to Catholics in the Church of England. St Vincent had a keen understanding of evangelization of the poor being the centre of the Christian life. This, in many ways, seems to be something that the Church of England has lost sight of; for example, Fr North told us that when his former parish on an estate in Hartlepool fell vacant recently, the diocese spent two and a half years trying to recruit and was eventually unable to find anyone of the right tradition. Yet when St James’s Sussex Gardens in London was vacant recently, there were 123 applicants. Fr North spoke very powerfully of the need for the Church of England to wake up and begin to serve those most in need.

Clergy training

Fr Ward provided an explanation of the French School which St Vincent de Paul’s work had begun. This particularly focused on St Vincent’s desire for an adequately trained and formed clergy who could effectively minister in the Church. The fact that many priests were ‘career priests’ meant that much of there was very little impetus to train clergy and so St Vincent began to hold Tuesday conferences for clergy.

This French School formed some remarkable priests such as Mssr Olier who evangelized a huge area of southern central Paris from the church of St Sulpice, and went on to invent the seminary system. It was this School, Fr Ward argued, which went on to inspire the Oxford Movement with their call that priests should magnify their office echoing St Vincent de Paul’s original desire for adequately formed and trained clergy. Indeed, the principles of the French School can be found behind the building of Anglican theological colleges from the 1850s.

The Daughters of Charity

Among his many gifts, St Vincent, it seems, was particularly adept at encouraging the wealthy women of his parish at Châtillon-les-Dombes to help him in his work for the poor. As a result, the Ladies of Charity were established by St Vincent in December 1617. The confraternity grew rapidly and spread beyond his parish and throughout the city. It was not long before women, inspired by St Vincent, were offering their lives to the service of the poor and, in 1633, the Daughters of Charity was established and began to live in community under the guidance of St Louise de Marillac.

Perhaps the most beautiful factor in the genesis of the Daughters is the fact that the congregation was not at all planned; indeed, St Vincent referred to it as the ‘little snowball’. Answering the call of God and inspired by their founder, the Daughters represented a unique response to the needs of the poor and vulnerable in a particular place, at a particular time. Up to this point, women who consecrated themselves to God did so in convents and were thus removed from the world.

The Daughters, on the other hand, set out to bring help to the poor and needy in their homes and in the hospitals; alongside poverty, chastity, and obedience, the first of the Daughters to take vows also committed themselves ‘to the corporal and spiritual service of the sick poor, our true masters.’

A wonderful privilege

On the evening before we left Paris we had the opportunity to visit the mother house of the Company of the Daughters of Charity of Saint Vincent de Paul (happily, more commonly referred to today simply as the Daughters of Charity). We were met there by the wonderfully eccentric Sister Bernadette who gave us a delightful tour of the house and its grounds as well as a fascinating insight into the history of the Daughters and their life and work today.

After our tour we joined the Daughters for Vespers. Most of us had allowed our GCSE/O-Level French to get a little rusty, so it wasn’t the easiest thing to follow but it was, nevertheless, a wonderful privilege to join the whole community in prayer. Indeed, it was especially wonderful to have the opportunity to pray in the Chapel of the Apparitions, which the community uses for its worship.

St Catherine Laboure

On the night of the 18 July 1830 St Catherine Labouré, who had entered the novitiate of the Daughters in the February of that year, was woken by a small child who told her that the Blessed Virgin was waiting for her in the chapel. Our Lady spoke to St Catherine of the trials that lay ahead, specifically of the July Revolution of 1830, and that ‘abundant graces’ would ‘be spread over all those who ask for them with confidence and fervour’ in that place. St Catherine was blessed with a second apparition on 27 November in the same year.

This time the Blessed Virgin was standing atop a globe and her fingers were covered in rings that ‘emitted rays of light, each more beautiful than the next’. She spoke to St Catherine and told her that the globe represented the world and each and every person; the rays, ‘the symbol of the graces that I pour out upon those who ask for them.’ At this an oval formed about Our Lady and at the top of the image was written ‘O Mary conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to you.’ She then told St Catherine to ‘have a medal made according to this model.

Everyone who wears it around their neck will receive great graces. For those who wear it with great confidence there will be abundant graces.’ When the image turned around it revealed the letter M surmounted by a cross, below which were the sacred hearts of Jesus and Mary. It is on this model the ‘Miraculous Medal’ was produced. Between 1832 and 1842, alone, it is estimated that 100 million of these medals were distributed throughout the world. Today, of course, they continue, to provide the faithful with a reminder of the most efficacious intercession of the Blessed Virgin.

A moving experience

The trip proved a very moving and interesting experience. Few of us had grasped the importance of the life of St Vincent de Paul, or indeed the huge amount of inspiration that could come from his life. The trip has certainly made us, as pastoral assistants, consider the time which we have spent in our parishes in a different way and has impressed upon us the need for the Church to draw inspiration from the lives of people like St Vincent de Paul so that we can be more adequately formed to work in the Church in the twenty-first century. ND

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