St. Vincent de Paul (1576? 1580? – 1660) is justifiably remembered as a great model of charity. However, his charity addressed not only the immediate needs of people but also focused on longer term solutions.
Born to poor parents at Pouy, Gascony in France, St. Vincent de Paul’s life was an amazing adventure. Working his way through school he was ordained a priest. He spent two years as a slave in Tunisia after having been captured aboard ship by Turks. He managed to escape and made his way home via Italy and Rome. He preached to the rural poor, ministered to galley slaves, and rose to the Royal Court while becoming the hero of the poor of Paris.
St. Vincent de Paul organized groups of men and women, priests and nuns to expand his mission of preaching, feeding, housing, nursing, and teaching the most abject members of society. He had influence with some of history’s most powerful men – Cardinal Richelieu and Cardinal Mazarin who, as first ministers to the King, made France the dominant power in Europe. King Louis XIII asked for St. Vincent de Paul’s assistance on his deathbed. After the king’s death, he managed to prevent a violent crackdown on the people of Paris, who had protested the interim rule of Louis XIII’s widow, Ann of Austria, as Regent.
St. Vincent de Paul organized massive relief efforts for areas of France devastated by the 30 Years War. He raised incredible amounts of money from nobles and the merchant class by letters and publications. He built hospitals, old age homes, and orphanages that also had endowments to fund their continued service. Certainly, these achievements alone would have make him one of the greatest figures of the early Modern period.
However, St. Vincent de Paul’s lasting legacy is his sense of creating organizations and institutions to meet longer term needs. The organizations include the Daughters of Charity, founded by St. Louise de Marillac, The Congregations of the Mission (Vincentian Fathers and Brothers) and various lay groups, such as the Ladies of Charity, which now operate in 40 countries.
St. Vincent shaped the emergence of the Catholic Church in the Modern period by his establishment of training programs for priests and his efforts to stem the gloominess of Jansenism.
The Council of Trent (1545 -1563) mandated several major reforms. One of these was the establishment of special schools or seminaries for the training of priests. Previously, priests might have been educated in monasteries and universities or received very little formal education. Of the 20 seminaries established after the Council of Trent, only 10 had survived by the early 1600’s due to the wars of religion.
Theologically, St. Vincent made a lasting impact by his opposition to Jansenism. He used his influence to make sure that priests who subscribed to this heresy did not receive funded positions (benefices). St. Vincent de Paul was especially active in securing the censure of the Jansenist heresy. He got the support of 85 bishops to condemn the teaching, which obliterated free will and left people predestined to heaven or hell by a grim and capricious God. St. Vincent de Paul was instrumental in securing the censure of Jansenism by Pope Innocent X in 1655 and Pope Alexander VII in 1656.
Although much of his wonderful work was swept away by the French Revolution, the institutions he founded now operate in 40 countries. St. Vincent de Paul’s spirituality – the love of God for all – is the gift that keeps giving.
St. John’s University presents an excellent portrait of St. Vincent de Paul’s spiritual journey on its website.
In the interests of transparency, I must disclose my debt to St. Vincent de Paul as well, since I received my high school education from a mixed faculty of diocesan priests and Vincentian Fathers (the Congregation of the Mission) at Our Lady Queen of the Angels Seminary in San Fernando, CA. How do you say thank you to those who not only taught you to write but to think critically and live compassionately? All I can hope to do is to pay it forward.Read More