In the way that only the Holy Spirit can work, St. Vincent de Paul has been tailing me for a long time. In eighth grade, long before I had ever given thought to (or heard of) the Vincentian charism, I chose St. Elizabeth Ann Seton as my Confirmation Saint. This was based solely on the facts that she was both mother and Sister and was reputed to be an expert horsewoman (Mother Seton Founded the Sisters of Charity, a Vincentian order).
My first real job was as a case manager in the Seton Women’s Center at a Catholic Hospital. I married a man whom I met volunteering with the Vincentians, and was later hired to help other reflect on their own service experiences with those on the margins in the spirit of Vincent de Paul.
Long before I made sense of these “coincidences,” God was already at work on my heart by the example of these fine folks. It’s clear I had, and still have a lot to learn in this way.
St. Vincent de Paul: An Unlikely Saint
I’ve said before that I have a soft spot in my heart for unlikely Saints—those who don’t fit neatly into our boxes of holiness: St. Oscar Romero, St. Bridget of Sweden, St. Elizabeth of Hungary. I’ll now add St. Vincent de Paul to the list, and here’s why.
St. Vincent de Paul was born to a large and impoverished family in France in 1581. Knowing well that money was tight and his future may not hold much stability, he enrolled in seminary for a steady income to by which to support his family, and to gain some prestige. One story told of him is that his father came to visit him one day during seminary, and St. Vincent was so embarrassed by his father’s shabbiness that he claimed he did not know the man and refused to receive him as his guest.
If there is fodder for a less likely saint, I don’t know it.
Encounters with the Poor
But the Lord works so often and so beautifully with our hard-heartedness and circumstances. Vincent asked the local Daughters of Charity to introduce him to the poor with whom they worked. St. Vincent began to visit them to bring food and comfort in whatever ways he could.
Overwhelmed by the scope of needs, he realized that his connections in the community and in the parish could assist him with financing and helping him to visit the poor he’d begun to visit.
Recognizing the importance of this partnership, he began to use the prestige he had achieved to connect the wealthy women in his parish to make visits to these impoverished families as well (thus establishing the Ladies of Charity).
His mission was born out of an encounter with the Christ, in the image of the most vulnerable he served.St. Vincent de Paul's mission was born out of an encounter with the Christ, in the image of the most vulnerable he served. #BISblog // Click To Tweet
You will find that charity is a heavy burden to carry, heavier than the bowl of soup and the full basket … It is not enough to give us soup and bread … You are the servant of the poor … They are your masters, terribly sensitive and exacting you will see. It is only for your love alone that the poor will forgive you the bread you give them. -St. Vincent de Paul
St. Vincent had a knack for remaining present to two different communities and introducing them to one another: the elite and the impoverished. By nurturing both relationships, he was able to be formed by those he served and provide invitation to those with means to take on a posture of service, too.
In doing so, his vocation was born.
It was at this time that St. Vincent met his would-be counterpart and spiritual directee, Louise de Marillac. Louise had been recently widowed and felt called to religious life, but was interested in Vincent’s particular charism of going to the people of France as opposed to joining a cloistered convent where she felt she would be separated from those on the margins.
At the time, no such order existed for women.
Due to the complete lack of organization for charitable works in France at the time, Louise’s desire for service and innovative approach for meeting these needs came at a perfect time. She began to instruct other women interested in meeting the needs of the day, to “Love the poor and honor them as you would honor Christ Himself.”
In this way, hospitals and orphanages were established to streamline the service that was so direly needed. Out of this work, came the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul.
A Legacy of Service
In 1833, Frederic Ozanam, a university student in a debating club was challenged to identify the place of the Church and its involvement in meeting the needs of Paris of the time. In light of this challenge, Frederick founded the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. It’s first work really began serving the sick poor during Paris’ cholera outbreak. The St. Vincent de Paul society was and continues to be a lay organization of Catholics committed to meeting the needs of the poor, both in their homes and in the community.
Better for the Kingdom Together
I love the witness of these three distinct individuals and the ways that their vision for service to the poor and their belief that serving the marginalized in this way made tangible their deep love of Christ incarnate. It speaks deeply to the creativity of the people of God as well as the creative and collaborative nature of our very callings. The legacy of Saints Vincent and Louise and Blessed Frederic Ozanam invite collaboration and remind me that I do not have to act alone as I’m tempted to believe from time to time.
We are, in fact, better together.Better Together: On the Feast of St. Vincent de Paul #BISblog // Click To Tweet