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Saint Vincent dePaul

Saint Vincent dePaul
  • Century: 17th Century
  • Patronage: charities, horses, hospitals, leprosy, lost articles, the poor, the sick, care-givers, volunteers
  • Feast Day: July 19th

Born in the 1580, St. Vincent de Paul was the third of a family of six children.  While the rest of his siblings were reared in farm work, St. Vincent’s father saw in him a particular hope and intelligence that he was sent to school with Franciscans.  He moved on to the University of Toulouse and by the impressively young age of 20 he was ordained a priest.

As St. Vincent began his priestly career, he was resolved to find security in life—material security.  His first major assignment was as a chaplain for Queen Margaret of Valois; an assignment that carried a substantial income.  During his time as a royal chaplain, St. Vincent lived with a friend in Paris.  This living arrangement continued, as did St. Vincent’s assignment until his friend was the victim of a theft.  St. Vincent’s roommate believed that St. Vincent had actually stolen the money—accused him, slandered him, and defamed him.  St. Vincent, however, being innocent simply kept quiet.  Within six months, the real thief (another friend of the roommate’s) confessed, but by then St. Vincent decided to leave Paris with a noticeable eye toward something different, a new concern beyond his own self.

From the queen’s chaplaincy, St. Vincent became the spiritual director and confessor of the Count of Joigny, whose children he also tutored.  In 1617, St. Vincent was called to hear the final confession of an old farmer in a country parish under the count’s patronage.  The dying man’s confession was a game-changer for St. Vincent.  He discovered that the dying man knew little about what the sacrament was and what was necessary for him to confess—although he thought he had been “confessing” all his life.  Having an audience with the Countess of Joigny, St. Vincent recounted the “sacrilege” of this man’s previous confessions, urging a renewal of teaching and preaching to the poor and ignorant in an effort to restore the religious spirit of France.  The Countess and St. Vincent began an endeavor to do just that— spending close to a year in the area, St. Vincent was hearing confessions and restoring the sacrament as a key to conversion in the lives of so many.

By the end of his stint with the Countess, St. Vincent had not only become good at converting others, but thirsted for it.  For a short time he pastored a church in Chatillon-les-Dombes, where he was able to convert not only the peasantry, but also the nobility.  Returning to Paris, he began a ministry to both galley slaves and convicts.  His work with the underprivileged and lowly, helping them in their material poverty, as well as their spiritual poverty, earned him an endowment from the Count of Joigny in 1625.  The endowment was enough to employ a company of missionaries and establish a house in Paris from which to direct the work.  The stipulation, however, was that St. Vincent would attend to the spiritual needs of the countess until she died (which wound up being two months later).

Thus in April 1625, St. Vincent de Paul began steering a growing band of missionaries from a single house in Paris.  By 1633 the house had grown into an order of secular priests (called the Fathers of the Mission, Lazarists, or later, Vincentians) who took four simple vows of poverty, chastity, obedience, and stability.  They served country and rural people and were dispersed to dioceses and seminaries across Europe and the world.  Too, St. Vincent had instituted an order of religious women to care for the sick and suffering, the well-known Sisters of Charity.  Between the Vincentian priests and these Sisters of Charity, St. Vincent’s efforts to reach the poor, vulnerable and sick ballooned into one of the most effective movements in the Church.  Within his lifetime 25 houses had opened across Europe from Paris to Poland, from Ireland to North Africa.  Over 1200 Christian slaves were ransomed from the Moors by the work of the order, and the French nobility and royalty came to trust his counsel and advice.  He and his order became a passionate refuge of orthodoxy during the high-water mark of the Jansenist heresy.  By the time he died in 1660 at the age of 80, St. Vincent de Paul was referred to as the Apostle of Charity.

Practical Take-Away:

Often in our society we confuse charity with almsgiving.  When we give money to the needy or to a noble cause, it may be charitable, but it does not exhaust the requisites for being charity.  It is more aptly called almsgiving.  Charity exists when and where an encounter with Christ occurs.  Giving money can be Christ-like, but dropping money in a bucket is a far cry from encountering Christ.  As St. Vincent de Paul said, “Go to the poor; you will find God.”  Today the lay charitable organization, the St. Vincent de Paul Society is not only an alms-generating group that distributes funds, but it actually takes the funds to the needy.  There are no beneficiaries of the treasure and talents of the St. Vincent de Paul Society that do not encounter the hands and feet of the society, as well.  To love is more than a donation of money—it is a donation of self.