ST. VINCENT DE PAUL - THE PATRON OF VINCENTIAN CONGREGATION
The Vincentian Congregation is a clerical society of pontifical right belonging to the Syro-Malabar Archiepiscopal Church, consisting of priests and brothers who are primarily committed to the cause of evangelization of the people especially the poor. Fr. Varkey Kattarath founded this community on 20 November 1904, the second indigenous congregation of Syro-Malabar origin for men, at Thottakom in the diocese of Ernakulam, in the political state of Kerala, in India. Since the congregation draws its spirit and distinctive character from the life and rules of St. Vincent de Paul, it is called Vincentian Congregation and St. Vincent de Paul is chosen as the father and patron of the congregation.
LIFE OF VINCENT DE PAUL
Vincent de Paul was born at Pouy in Gascony, in the south of France, in 1581, the third of six children. His family was a solid peasant family capable of making ends meet only through hard work and frugality. His father encouraged and helped him toward the priesthood, to which he was ordained on September 23, 1600 at the age of nineteen. This was probably not exceptional since the decrees of the Council of Trent, which forbade such an early ordination, were not promulgated in France until 1615.
THE SEEKER OF BENEFICES
The biographers of Vincent say that he had a rather self-seeking start in priesthood. Ambition ruled Vincent’s early years in the priesthood. Among his chief reasons for becoming a priest was his desire to get an office in the Church from which he could obtain enough money to retire early, return home, and provide for his family. It was a reasonable goal at that time. Priesthood for him was more a career and a way forward than a vocation. All his hopes for advancement however came to nothing.
Then he dropped out of sight for two years, 1605-1607. The only explanation of these years is a letter documenting his captivity in North Africa. He wrote that he had been returning by ship from Bordeaux when pirates captured him, took him to North Africa, and sold him into slavery. He records that he was a slave to four different masters and finally escaped with his master in a small boat back to France. Some historians and biographers say this did not happen. Nevertheless, he had failed to achieve his life ambition of a good benefice and an early retirement.
THE SEEKER OF GOD
Empty-handed and unsuccessful in his quest for the financial rewards of a Church benefice, he came to Paris in 1608. It was his first encounter with the city, which was to be his home for the next fifty-one years. A new phase, the gradual conversion of Vincent from a seeker of benefices to a seeker of God, was about to begin. Winds of spiritual renewal and ecclesiastical reform were stirring the city. Vincent became acquainted with the people who were spearheading this movement, in particular Father (later Cardinal) Pierre de Bérulle, whom he took as his spiritual director. He also met Father André Duval, a professor of the Sorbonne, who was to be his ‘wise man’ and counselor during the next three decades. So Vincent’s arrival in Paris marked a turning point in his spiritual journey. Ambition was receding, and attention to God and vocation were advancing.
Vincent had characteristically been a serious person. However, joy and happiness flooded his life when he became pastor of a parish for the first time in 1612. He was sent to the church of Saint-Medard in Clichy, a poor rural parish just northwest of Paris. He loved the pastoral ministry, because the poor people of the parish touched his heart. In less than a year Bérulle recalled him to Paris to become tutor and chaplain to the Gondi family and their children.
In these years, one of his priest companions was tortured by doubts of faith. He sought help from Vincent, who advised him and prayed for him. The priest was relieved of his personal doubts but Vincent began a period of three or four years of doubt and darkness. This trial of faith was so severe at times that Vincent wrote out the Creed, put it in his cassock pocket, and when he could do nothing else, placed his hand over his heart and thus over the Creed signaling his own faith.
Vincent preached the first sermon of the mission on the feast of the conversion of Saint Paul, January 25, 1617, in the parish church in Folleville. The sad state of spiritual neglect among the peasants on the estates of the Gondi family led him to it. On seeing the response of the people, Madame de Gondi urged Vincent to preach to the whole parish, and he chose general confession as his topic. A large number of the parishioners received the sacrament of reconciliation on that first mission. In the face of the spiritual need of the neglected peasants in the countryside, Vincent could no longer see himself confined to the service of a single family as chaplain and tutor. In that same year, with Bérulle’s help he left Paris and the Gondi family, and became the parish priest in Châtillon-les-Dombes in the southeast of France. As in Clichy five years earlier, he was back among the people. Again Vincent's love for pastoral ministry and for the people became evident to all.
In Châtillon, Vincent called a meeting of the women interested in helping the suffering in their parish. He urged them to put order into their generosity by taking turns. They decided to establish a group that would eventually become the first Confraternity of Charity, which gave rise to the Ladies of Charity, as the members were called in Paris. Vincent would exhibit the same style of collaborative leadership later when he worked with the clergy of Paris to organize and establish the Tuesday Conferences for priests. He inspired and assisted the priests in organizing themselves. In both instances, Vincent showed a leadership style that was free, facilitating, enabling, focused, practical, and respectful of the call of others, both women and men.
Meanwhile, Madame de Gondi found his absence from her household in Paris unbearable. She brought significant pressure to bear, through Bérulle and others, and eventually Vincent consented to return on condition that he would be free to preach missions and that someone else would tutor the Gondi children and arrived on December 23, 1617. He preached missions in the towns and villages for the next seven years with the help of other interested priests. Appointed as the chaplain general of the galleys in 1619 by King Louis XIII, Vincent became responsible for the spiritual well-being of all the galley convicts of France and he brought the missions also to the galley convicts.
Priesthood for Vincent began as a career, a job, a way of getting an early retirement. The social and economic advantages available through priesthood preoccupied his thinking and governed his plans. Gradually he was being converted from priesthood as career to priesthood as personal relationship with Jesus.
The foundation of the Congregation of the Mission, a community for priests and brothers whose end is “to preach the good news to the poor” in 1625 marked the beginning of Vincent’s independent and public life. It was only with the foundation of the Mission that Vincent’s mission had a public and permanent basis. Until then, in spite of the wonderful interior journey and fruitful work, his life was defined in relationship to Bérulle and the Gondi family and temporary appointments arising from these relationships, such as his service in the parishes of Clichy, Folleville, and Châtillon-les-Dombes, and his role as chaplain general to the galleys and missions on the Gondi estates. The archbishop of Paris recognized the new community on 24 April, 1626. Seven years later, after considerable negotiation and a number of difficulties, the Congregation of the Mission received papal approval.
The first expansion of their work came in 1628, when the bishop of Beauvais decided to have a few days of retreat for priesthood candidates to prepare them for ordination. He had come to this decision in conversation with Vincent, whom he then asked to take responsibility for the retreat. From that time until the death of Vincent in 1660, around 14,000 ordinands attended these retreats.
In 1633, in collaboration with some priests of Paris, Vincent established the Tuesday Conferences. Each Tuesday a group of priests would meet at Saint Lazare (The largest ecclesiastical property (priory) in Paris, which was transferred to the Congregation of the Mission by its few remaining monks. Later it became the mother house of the Congregation). Vincent chaired the meetings, and after a period of prayer the priests shared their thoughts and convictions about what it meant to be a priest. Their interaction was mutually encouraging; on leaving these meetings, all felt charged with renewed zeal. The Tuesday Conferences bore great fruit in promoting high ideals of priesthood and in fostering mutual support among the priests. The Tuesday Conferences grew to the point of having about 250 participants at the time of Vincent’s death.
God brought into Vincent’s life the unexpected gift of Louise de Marillac. She came to him first for spiritual direction (1625), and they later became co-workers and friends for the rest of their lives. She came into his life at that transitional moment when, having completed his interior journey to freedom, he was on the threshold of his public ministry. With Louise de Marillac he founded the Daughters of Charity, a new form of community in which the sisters lived ‘in the world’ to serve the sick poor spiritually and corporally. Vincent and Louise became father and mother to the Daughters of Charity.
Vincent had met Francis de Sales and Jane Frances de Chantal (1619), and a deep friendship sprang up among them. As Bérulle had played a strategic role in Vincent’s earlier life, so Francis de Sales set Vincent’s heart on fire with the love of God and impressed him with the power of gentleness. Along with the ongoing supervision of the charities and the founding of the Daughters of Charity, Vincent devoted himself to the direction of the Sisters of the Visitation. He had received this mandate from the founders, Francis de Sales and Jane de Chantal. Vincent directed the sisters in the spirit of these two saints and served as a living link between them and the sisters.
By 1633, the foundational works in the life of Vincent were complete: the Confraternities of Charity, the Congregation of the Mission, the Daughters of Charity, the retreats for ordinands, retreats for laity, and the Tuesday Conferences. From this time onward Vincent was called on to take an increasingly important role in ecclesiastical and civil affairs at the national level. In discovering Jesus at the heart of his priesthood, he encountered the mystery of the poor. We can imagine that the people of Clichy, Folleville, and Châtillon deeply influenced the process. He was well on the road to becoming wholeheartedly a priest who loved the poor. In 1638 Vincent undertook a new and urgent work, the care of abandoned children. He became aware of the extreme distress of the province of Lorraine, ravaged by war, famine and plague. He appealed to the Ladies of Charity, and during the next ten years he did not stop sending help. Devastation eventually spread to other areas of the country. Vincent extended his help to the areas which were plundered, burned, and devastated during both the Thirty Years’ War and the beginnings of the civil war known as the Fronde. Beginning in Lorraine in 1639, the cries of the poor led Vincent from province to province until his death in 1660.
In June of 1643, when Vincent was sixty-three years old, he undertook an entirely new set of responsibilities. After the death of her husband, Louis XIII, and during the minority of Louis XIV, Queen Anne of Austria formed the Council of Ecclesiastical Affairs, to which she immediately appointed Vincent. In these meetings Vincent exercised significant influence on the selection of good and worthy bishops, oversaw the renewal of monastic life, dealt with Jansenism, and was able to keep the plight of the people and the poor before the government of France.
The last period of his life was not one of many new undertakings, but rather one in which his earlier works spread throughout France and beyond it. Parallel to his consuming involvement in the affairs of France and his responsiveness to the urgent cries of the poor, Vincent attended to the needs and invitations beyond the borders of France. The activity of the Congregation of the Mission extended beyond France to Italy, Sardinia, Ireland, Scotland, Poland and Madagascar. He completed and distributed the rules of his congregation to his disciples in 1658. Since that day in 1617 when he sided with the poor, he had spent forty-three years fighting against sin, misery, fatigue, and sickness. When he died on September 27, 1660, all of Paris mourned for him. Although acclaimed a saint by his contemporaries, Vincent was not formally beatified until 1729. In 1737 he was canonized by Clement XII and in 1885 he was named patron of all works of charity of which he is in any way inspiration.
From a self seeking start in the priesthood, he underwent a striking conversion under the influence of spiritual directors like St. Francis de Sales, Cardinal Berulle and Andre Duval, in which he gave his life over to God in the service of the poor. Vincent did not outline his method or codify his spirituality. The one exception was The Common Rules or Constitutions of the Congregation of the Mission. They are a goldmine of spiritual wisdom, evangelical simplicity, discipleship, love of Jesus, practicality, experience, and common sense. He wrote them explicitly for the Congregation of the Mission only after the experience of living them for thirty-three years. The congregation has always jealously guarded them as part of its interior life.
Vincent de Paul was neither a profound nor an original thinker. His success was a result of natural talents and of a tremendous amount work and mostly of a profound spiritual life. The piety that he practiced and taught was simple, non-mystical, christocentric and oriented toward action. Pope John Paul II has described St. Vincent de Paul as “a man of action and prayer, of administration and imagination, of leadership and humility, a man of yesterday and today”.