The Life of St. Vincent de Paul, the Great Apostle of Charity

St. Vincent de Paul

Born in 1581 into a farming family in Pouy, France, Vincent’s initial desire to be a priest was mainly for self-serving reasons of social advancement and monetary gain. Through a process of careful planning and being in the right place at the right time, Vincent was ordained a priest at the ripe age of nineteen by an elderly bishop who could barely see or hear.

Beginning his ordained life with less than pure motives, Vincent’s change of heart began in the middle of one of his visits to the poor tenants of a wealthy estate holder. When Vincent was called to hear the confession of a dying man, the spiritual naiveté of the penitent shocked Vincent. The poor man knew next to nothing about his religion. Not long after, Vincent preached a sermon on general confession from the pulpit (pictured below) in the village chapel of Folleville, France, in 1617. In it he asked the people to take to heart the necessity of repentance.

The response overwhelmed him. For hours the villagers stood in line to go to confession. Inside they poured out their longing for the Gospel and for good priests to minister to them. Vincent had not guessed at their hunger or their need. Based on this conversion of heart, Vincent gathered a little band of missionary priests to his side.

St. Vincent de Paul In 1625, Vincent and three priests pledged to, in his own words, “Aggregate and associate to ourselves and to the aforesaid work to live together as a Congregation…and to devote ourselves to the salvation of the poor country folk.”

St. Vincent de Paul Congregation of the Mission Founding

The Congregation of the Mission was born. More priests came to join Vincent and his three original companions and they began preaching all across France. Within Vincent’s lifetime the Congregation of the Mission had spread throughout the world. At Vincent’s funeral, the preacher declared that Vincent had “transformed the face of the Church.” No one disputed this claim. Funny, charming, impassioned and candid—Vincent de Paul had an extraordinary capacity to connect with all types of people and to move them to be inflamed with the Gospel and to live their lives in charity. His basic vision was simply that the Good News of Jesus Christ should be announced to the poor through word and service.

St.  Vincent de Paul Praying

St. Vincent de Paul’s example and message inspired an ever-growing number of disciples. After revolution which ravaged the priory of Saint Lazare on July 13, 1789, and destroyed most of the letters and objects left behind by Vincent, after all the alarms of war which had marked the two preceding centuries, and in spite of the profound changes in mentality both inside and outside the Church, the Congregation never stopped developing. Today it has presence on all five continents, thus fulfilling its founder’s wish, expressed in one of his last conferences to his missionaries.

Our vocation is to go not into one parish, nor into only one diocese, but throughout the earth. And to do what? To inflame the hearts of men. It is not enough for me to love God if my neighbor does not love him as well.

— (May 30, 1659 – SV 12: 262)

Today the Congregation of the Mission numbers 3,000 members. Vincent also founded other groups to help him. The Daughters of Charity and the Ladies of Charity are both international organizations that follow his Charism. The Society of St. Vincent de Paul, founded in 1835 by Frederic Ozanam, is a lay society dedicated to the poor. Finally, more than 500 congregations or communities declare themselves followers of Vincent or under his patronage.

What is the secret of St. Vincent’s influence?

St. Vincent de Paul left us neither a learned treatise nor a body of doctrine, only the little volume of his Rule, a brief synthesis of his theological spirituality. He was content to lay out a road, to clear the paths, inviting his disciples to continue the charitable works which he had begun. He opened the doors of the Church, teaching the clergy to work with the laity, the first who dared to value the contribution of women. And women responded enthusiastically to his call, whether they were country girls or great ladies of nobility. Vincent knew how to make his work responsive to all kinds of misery, whether physical or moral, determined to remedy it and find an appropriate solution for every situation. Thus, he was the initiator of assistance to abandoned children, to prisoners, victims of catastrophe, refugees, and housebound invalids.

St. Vincent de Paul Healing

In all these works, he was a precursor, showing the way, which is still followed today by institutions and governmental departments of social services. Bending himself to the pattern of his model, Jesus Christ, he placed himself at the service of the poor, “who are our lords and our masters.”(sv 9:119) He taught that true charity does not consist only of distributing alms, but of helping the abject to regain their dignity and independence.

He believed in the virtue of action and he loved to use this succinct motto: TOTUM OPUS NOSTRUM IN OPEERATINE CONSISTIT (Action is our entire task). Then he would add, “Perfection does not come from ecstasy but rather from doing the will of God.” (sv 11:41. 317)

Vincent was first and foremost a man of God, profoundly steeped in the spirit of the Gospel. He recommended long prayer and meditation before action so that one could come to recognize the divine will. One must not hurry, and that is why he counseled people not to leap ahead of Providence.

Above all, this man of action was a man of prayer and deep spirituality: “You must have an inner life; everything must tend in that direction. If you lack this, you lack everything.” (sv 12:131)

From “Vincent the Trailblazer” by Bernard Pujo