When Vincent de Paul was canonized in 1737. Frenchmen — even those least partial to saints — rejoiced. Even Voltaire was heard to declare, “Vincent de Paul: now there’s a saint for me!”
Who is this man called Vincent de Paul? What impact did he have on the society in which he lived? Why are many of the works he began in the 17th century still in existence today? As we look at these questions, it’s important to remember that no person’s life exists within a vacuum. Vincent was indeed affected by the happenings in his own family, country, church and world. Likewise, his work radically changed the society in which he lived.
Even today, members of the extended Vincentian family — including al
l of us who are part of the Charity charism – continue to embrace his life, legacy, mission and ministry.
Vincent was born in the village of Puoy, southern France, in 1581. His family was hardworking and frugal. They owned two small farms with pigs, sheep and a horse or two. Everyone in the family had responsibilities and for Vincent, this meant keeping the herds of pigs and lambs.
In his younger years, Vincent was ashamed of his background. When his father came to visit him in college, Vincent refused to even acknowledge him because he was so shabbily dressed. But later, Vincent would describe this scene as one which “was a great sin for me”. Whenever he would meet people who were impressed with their own self-importance, Vincent often humbled himself by speaking of how he herded pigs as a child.
Vincent saw in the face of his mother an unlimited source of love. When he met beggars on his way back from the mill, he would open his sack and, as his parents did, give them some flour.
Vincent originally saw his ordination to the priesthood as the means to live a somewhat comfortable life. Yet God had other plans for him. When he was falsely accused of theft and evicted, he quickly learned how one’s life could dramatically change. Did this experience affect his future ministry to accused convicts and galley slaves?
At the same time, Vincent met Pierre de Berulle who became his adviser, model and spiritual director. For Berulle, there was an urgent need to reform the Church and the priesthood, and Vincent seemed drawn to this. Vincent spent more time in hospital wards and slum areas, and donated a large amount of money to a community of brothers for the care of the suffering poor.
In 1612, Vincent undertook what he described as his happiest ministry: working in a parish. When he worked as a tutor for the de Gondi family, Madame de Gondi requested that he preach a “mission” encouraging people to seek forgiveness and reconciliation. It has been said that the Congregation of the Mission, the order of priests founded by Vincent and funded by Madame and Monsieur de Gondi, had its origin in that sermon.
One Sunday morning after Vincent returned to parish life, he learned of the terrible plight of a poor family. After explaining this situation to his parish, he went to visit the family. He was amazed at the tremendous outpouring of food and concern, but he realized that an organizational plan was missing to respond to ongoing needs. The Confraternity of Charity was born, and groups of wealthy women became collaborators with Vincent and his priests.
One of these women was Louise de Marillac. Like Vincent, Louise responded deeply to God’s call. She organized the many Confraternities which worked among the poor and in collaboration with Vincent, developed a new approach to service.
It was the rule of Vincent and the work of Louise that Elizabeth Ann Seton studied and modified as she founded her community of Sisters some centuries later. We are grateful this call and response to service continues even today!