A Heart on Fire 400 Years Ago Shaped Our Church Today

by Rev. John Freund, CM

WHAT CAN WE LEARN FROM A MAN WHO LIVED 400 YEARS AGO?

On January 25, the Vincentians celebrate the founding of the Congregation of the Mission by St. Vincent de Paul. His glowing sparks of practical love ignite the hearts of countless women and men today as much as they did 400 years ago.

St. Vincent’s legacy has stood the test of time because he not only changed his world but anticipated many of the most exciting currents in today’s Church …

  • A lay-centered Church focused more on the People of God and the poor than the hierarchy
  • A concept of holiness that is more mission-oriented than a monastic ideal of personal sanctification
  • A vision of the role of women in ministry
  • A commitment to the formation of priests

In retrospect, we are still trying to catch up to him. Most people, even those who think they know St. Vincent, are unaware of how much he has shaped the Church of today. (Click here to read more about contributions of the Vincentians)

Take for example the evolution of the Church in modern-day times. For those under the age of 50, the Church comes largely through the lens and practices of Vatican II, which startled much of the ecclesiastical world by recovering the concept of the Church as the “People” of God. St. Vincent anticipated Vatican II and the missionary vision of popes from Paul VI to Francis by empowering his followers to their call to a “new evangelization.” These acts were revolutionary and progressive then and now.

SETTING THE STAGE

In order to understand St. Vincent’s role in prefiguring these movements in the Church today, let’s first examine how he quietly set the stage centuries ago.

By any measure, France was a “mission” country in the 17th century. Besides short-lived periods of peace, the century in which St. Vincent lived was overshadowed by war: religious wars and civil wars that were often complicated by foreign wars.

St. Vincent knew from firsthand experience that the poor rural people, who represented the majority of France’s population, lacked the fundamental truths of faith, which had become a routine practice of a mildewed, musty Christianity lacking in the basic preparation for the sacraments.

He had no grand vision of changing his world, but rather a purpose to set “hearts on fire.” Some of his more notable accomplishments include: 

  • In 1617, struck by the need to organize practical works of charity in Châtillon, France, he founded “the Charities” (known today as the Ladies of Charity nationally and the International Association of Charities globally). During his lifetime, they spread rapidly throughout France and then the world, counting today more than 100,000 members in 53 countries.
  • In 1625, he founded the Congregation of the Mission. By the time of his death, the Congregation had spread to Poland, Italy, Algeria, Madagascar, Ireland, Scotland, and the nearby islands.
  • Beginning in 1628, he became more and more involved in the reform of the clergy, organizing retreats for those about to be ordained to the priesthood and those already ordained, and offering weekly conferences for leaders among the clergy.
  • In 1633, along with St. Louise de Marillac, he founded the Daughters of Charity, who were a revolutionary type of women’s community. Whereas formerly religious sisters had been confined to living in cloistered convents, the Daughters lived in apartments, worked on the streets, in hospitals, and in schools.
  • In 1638, he took up the work of the foundlings, providing the first of many homes for infants abandoned on the streets of Paris.
  • Beginning in 1639, St. Vincent organized campaigns for the relief of those suffering from war, plague, and famine. One of his assistants, Brother Mathieu Regnard, made 53 trips, crossing enemy lines in disguise, carrying about a million dollars per trip from St. Vincent for the relief of those in war.
  • In 1652, as poverty enveloped Paris, St. Vincent, at the age of 72, mobilized massive relief programs, providing soup twice daily for thousands of indigents at the central house of the Vincentians and thousands more at the houses of the Daughters of Charity. He organized weekly collections, gathering five to six thousand pounds of meat, two to three thousand eggs, and provisions of clothing and utensils. 

ENGAGING THE LAITY

The many impressive Vincentian accomplishments cannot be understood apart from the participation of so many laypersons—men and women—in the mission. Instinctively, he viewed Christian life from the perspective of a theology of mission: men and women who continue the mission of the Son of God.

This philosophy was reflected in the name of the band of priests he established—The Congregation of Mission. They vocation was the mission of Jesus Christ, the Evangelizer of the Poor. As Pope Francis notes: “Jesus, the Evangelizer par excellence and the Gospel in person, identifies especially with the little ones (cf. Matthew 25:40). This reminds all Christians that we are called to care for the vulnerable of the earth.” (Evangelii Gaudium, #209).

St. Vincent, and with him, Louise, did for the Church of 17th-century France what Francis is doing for today’s Church: the lives and actions of marginalized are becoming more apparent and hopeful.

WHAT SET HIS HEART ON FIRE

Underlying St. Vincent’s genius is a heart on fire. Yet, it wasn’t until he was in his late 30’s that his heart was ignited for service to the poor. The change was so profound that some refer to this transformation as Vincent 1.0 and Vincent 2.0.

What was this shift? Vincent 1.0 was a bright ambi­tious cleric seeking to escape poverty and work his way up the ecclesiastical ladder. Some believe his transition to Vincent 2.0 was the result of his ministry experiences at that time. Others argue his transformation was sparked by his immersion in scripture at this time. Previously, he made little reference to scripture.

Under the influence of one of his mentors, St. Vincent came to appreciate the scriptures as the lens through which to view the events of his life. He not only studied the scripture, he began to live and breathe them, especially the Gospels, which he used to shape the way he interpreted his life. This change was so dramatic that St. Francis de Sales called him “a walking gospel.” Indeed, he became a true “man of the Gospel,” which occurred at a time when Bibles were neither readily available nor read.

Former Superior General Robert Maloney recently noted that St. Vincent had a singular, inspirational focus: Jesus. He developed a particular view of Christ from the Gospels, and his spirituality flowed from contemplation of this Christ, who was the driving force of both St. Vincent’s incredible activity and daily prayer. In turn, he encouraged his followers to contemplate this Christ again and again as followers of Christ, the Evangelizer and servant of the poor.

THE EASTERN PROVINCE

When 13 Italian Vincentians journeyed to Baltimore 200 years ago, their hearts were burning with the fire of God’s love. As Vincentian Bishop David O’Connell noted when celebrating the bicentennial of the journey…

[The Vincentians] set America “on fire” with Christ ‘s love, and the flame is still burning,

  • burning for the poor and abandoned;
  • burning for those in formation for priestly ministry;
  • burning for those in countless churches longing to hear God’s Word;
  • burning in their confessionals, for those aching for God’s mercy;
  • burning for those in schools and universities seeking knowledge and wisdom;
  • burning in hospitals and prisons;
  • burning for and with the Daughters of Charity and the wider Vincentian family;
  • burning at home and in mission lands;
  • burning for justice and peace and inclusion and wholeness and Christ’s love.

This has always been and remains the Vincentian charism and mission; our place and our role in the Church; our sermon in the pulpit and on the city’s streets: “Armed with ‘the five smooth stones’ of simplicity, humility, meekness, mortification and zeal for souls, Vincentians lift the flames of Christ’s fire of love high.”

The fire in their hearts was so great that one province quickly expanded to two only 30 years later marking the beginning of the Eastern Province. Since then, many things have changed in ways that no one ever imagined as evidenced in St. Vincent’s words to the Daughters of Charity in 1645:

“And that, Sisters, was the beginning of your Company. As it wasn’t then what it is now, there’s reason to believe that it’s still not what it will be when God has perfected it as He wants it; for, Sisters, don’t think that Communities are formed all at once. Saint Benedict, Saint Augustine, Saint Dominic, and all those great servants of God whose Orders are so flourishing, never dreamed of doing what they actually accomplished; but God acted through them.”

Vincentians do not “follow Jesus” to do the same things Jesus did; rather, they listen to Jesus and breathe in His words of life in a world struggling for more life, more justice and more unity in love. To love is to create, and to create is to imagine the new.

HEARTS ON FIRE

When sending forth his first missionaries, St. Vincent professed, “Our vocation is to go, not just to one parish, not just to one diocese, but to all over the world, and to do what? To set people’s hearts on fire, to do what the Son of God did. He came to set the world on fire in order to inflame it with his love.”

Welcome to the world and vision of the Eastern Province of the Congregation of the Mission. His message lives on as a “task for today and a promise for tomorrow.” Today’s Vincentians continue to engage others to pick up St. Vincent’s mantle and join them by sharing one’s time, talent or treasure. Will you?