When our congregation was founded, Saint Vincent became its patron saint. That is more than merely a devotion. In fact, we do follow a model that Saint Vincent handed down to us. Vincent de Paul (1581-1660) laboured so that the Church be present among the poorest of the poor.
Vincent de Paul preached the Gospel in his deeds, specifically the verse: “All you did for one of the least of my brothers and sisters, you did for me”. Therefore we rather speak of ‘Vincent’s spiritual way of acting’, instead of a ‘Vincentian spirituality’. Vincent did not do these things all by himself, but knew how to motivate people to join him in practising mercy. That is why the Church declared Vincent the patron saint of all charity organizations in the Catholic tradition.
Bringing rich and poor together
Vincent had a wide horizon and looked further than most other people. He was born in a simple farmer’s family in Southern France and opted for the priesthood. As a priest, he gained easy access among noble families and maintained contacts with the court. But he also met some priests who were working in the slums of the city. When he was appointed pastor in Paris he started an apostolate among the poor. It was typical of Monsieur Vincent to get along well with the rich and the poor, and to be able creating links between these groups that were so strictly separated in the society.
Circles of charity
For example, he started organizing systematically an association of well-to-do ladies, the Dames de la Charité, the Ladies of Charity, in order to tackle the care for the poor and sick in his parish. That was a new model and it caught on: also in other parishes similar circles came about. Vincent also gathered a few priests around him and started what was going to become the Congregation of the Mission: an organization for Catholic development work, in the town but particularly in the poor countryside.
Since there was so much work to do and the distuinguished ladies were only limitedly available, Vincent also started a group of sisters, whom he called Filles de la Charité, Daughters of Charity. At the end of his life Vincent was guiding hundreds of people – priests, laypeople and religious – who devoted their lives to charity: in schools and shelters for children, in clinics and hospices, in prisons and emergency hospitals in areas where there was war.
Religious life inside out
In order to make this type of religious dedication possible, Vincent had to renew religious life and invent another form than the existing monasteries and cloisters. In Vincent’s time most religious communities had a rather closed character and were strongly inwardly directed. This made it difficult for them to operate among the poor and the people in need.
Vincent opened the religious way of life: “Our convent, that is the world”, he said. The order of the day in his communities changed: there were short times of prayer and daily meetings for the whole community, but most of the time these men and women worked outside their religious homes, everywhere they were needed. A memorable expression in this connection was “Leaving God for God”. Sometimes it is necessary to forsake fixed religious practices, in order to become available to respond to God’s call.
In the midst of the world
After Vincent’s death, many orders and congregations did take over the open and active form of religious life that he had introduced. Also our congregation was shaped according to the Vincentian model: our houses are located in the midst of the world, we are also ‘active’ religious and much of our work is geared toward people who are poor and live in the margin of society (poverty may have many forms). Thus, in our organization, our mission, our spirituality and our Church vision, we still follow the principles introduced by St. Vincent de Paul.