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The History of Religious Life
St. Vincent de Paul: Apostle of Charity

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

First, looking at your chart, you wonder what else is there to write about Vincent de Paul. His principle biographer is Coste Leonard – Coste, and then in the English translation, Leonard – in thirteen volumes, of the correspondence, the conferences, and the documents relative to his, especially foundation of the two orders of communities of both men and women, then his life, a superb piece of hagiology, in three volumes. I read it, I think, in the novitiate and I’ve been using things from that three volumes ever since. It is a very authentic biography. He draws on sources that can be verified, that can be documented, and we even have, as you would expect, many of the manuscripts of both Vincent himself, and of course, of St. Louise du Merilac, so that we are in immediate contact with the origins of this great spirituality.


Some highlights of Vincent de Paul’s biography. First of all he lived to a good age: to be exact, eighty. He began as a parish priest. And it was because he was a parish priest that he saw the social needs of the people in a way that he might never have seen them had he been in, say, academic or administrative life in his early priesthood. He was, and this is good to hear, both counseled and inspired by St. Francis de Sales: what I call the genealogy of the spirit, or the genealogy of sanctity. Saints reproduce saints. That’s why the suggestion to you and the people that I teach: expose yourself to the company of the saints daily. It helps. Not that we don’t think that our living mortal company is saintly, but let’s be honest, it is hard sometimes to see the heroic virtue among our contemporaries. In any case, Francis de Sales quite made Vincent de Paul.

The sequence of his apostolic endeavors is pretty much in that order given in your notes. The reason, by the way, that he could engage in such a wide and far-flung apostolic enterprise is because he had early become the confidant of the royalty. He made sure, and he was a shrewd man, that if I am going to do the work better, the work that needs to be done for the galley slaves, for the poor, the sick, the foundlings, the beggars, I better have both the authority and the resources. And he went to the top. In any case, Vincent was a shrewd man. He knew you needed somebody to back you, to protect you, and you need the means. In fact the very word means – what is the first thought that comes to your mind when we talk about having the necessary means to carry out apostolic work? What’s the first thought that comes to your mind? Cash, money. Now we know theologically they are not the most important means. Agree?

In any case, Vincent de Paul was a hardheaded realist. His, I dare say, is the most down to earth spirituality you are going to consider in these two semesters. In time, he discovered that the great needs, the social needs of the people, were minor compared to their spiritual needs. And there he felt that if I’m going to do what needs to be done for the faithful, I must help the priests. And ever since, as you know, the Vincentians have been strong in operating seminaries. For example, the St. Louis Kendrick seminary is conducted by the Vincentians, just to mention one. Moreover, realizing that with the small number of men that he had, if he wants to do the work among the faithful that is necessary, we need to have a lot of them gather together. And hence he started what is now called the popular fall parish mission. There is almost nothing in modern times that Vincent somehow didn’t start. And all the while, he sensed from the beginning, I must find among that segment of the faithful that is most concerned about people’s needs, even most naturally compassionate. Hence, he brought women into the apostolate soon. So much for that part.


I would like to, at this point, give you a little run down on his biography: just so that we can put into better focus what will follow, especially in analyzing his spirituality. His background was of a peasant family. In other words, he understood hardship. He also, interestingly, was captive under the Moorish pirates: managed to escape after two years, which then helped him to become more sympathetic with people who were in captivity, in jail. It was his work of charity, especially for the poor, that led to the foundation of first, the Ladies of Charity, and then the Daughters of Charity. By the time of his death he was directing eleven seminaries. And, among the unusual characters of history who strongly defended him and helped him in his work was Richelieu: as you know, the French, not so saintly, cardinal.


Now the foundations. First of all, the Congregation of the Mission: there are four names given to it that you have on your outline: Lazarists, because it had been a leprosarium, and the word Lazarus, the name is associated with his having been a leper; the Padres Paulis, taken from the last part of Vincent de Paul’s name; Vincentians, from the first part of his name; and the official title, C.M., Congregation of the Mission.

It is in one sense satisfying, on the other hand, it is also sad to think, that the seminaries that Vincent de Paul organized, first in France, and then in time throughout the world, were not organized until, well, the first quarter or so of the 17th century. The Council of Trent finished in 1563. About fifty years it took for the Council of Trent’s legislation to take effect. Sad. One of the main reasons for the Reformation was the dense ignorance of the priests. The Congregation of the Mission, as the name implies, was mainly founded to give missions, but also to conduct seminaries, and to assist the Daughters of Charity in their social apostolate.

The Ladies of Charity were a lay people originally started by Louise de Merilac. They were both married and single women, and they were not religious. Me, as I go over this, because, one of the problems in covering so much matter at the time at our disposal, is that, in the effort to cover a man like here Vincent de Paul, we are liable to miss the lessons that he has to teach us. I believe, I am not sure whether it is the greatest, but certainly, one of the greatest defects of religious communities in the Church today, is the fact that they have not associated with themselves, lay people, to extend, carry on, and give an outreach to their goal effort to sanctify, and to do the work of corporal and spiritual work of mercy which no religious community can possibly cope with by itself. It is a mistake, and a grave one.

Have I talked in some context about the danger to religious communities of having so many lay people work with you and among you? Did I talk about that? Sisters, I know exactly what I am saying. Now the danger is not inherent in having lay people work, can’t we? It is in being in such constant and intimate contact with worldly people. And the more the state breathes down our back, as you know, insisting on, you name it, what, especially increased personal, the more we have got to look as Vincent de Paul looked: to developing and cultivating a devoted lay people to work with the community without being members of the community. And for him that’s how the women eventually became the Daughters of Charity.

The Daughters of Charity

Then the Daughters of Charity. As you would expect, even if you didn’t know who were the wealthy matrons and who were the servant girls, what would you guess? The servant girls would be the “daughters,” and the wealthy matrons would be the, well, you guessed it, the “ladies.” The first women’s community engaged outside the cloister in active apostolic work, approved by the Holy See, that opened the door to all other women’s congregations since, listen to this, were the servant girls of these ladies. Talk about God using the little things, right? Why didn’t God make religious out of the ladies? Two guesses. One, they were ladies. And secondly, they had money!

One of the most incredible letters I’ve ever read written by a saint, was by St. Robert Bellarmine, written to a community of nuns in his diocese. He was Archbishop of Capua and he heard these were all very fine ladies that had founded a community. Their foundress was a lady. But he found out, he heard they were discriminating about the social status of the girls they would accept. Robert was a gentle soul. But he used the strongest possible language in telling these, these dames: “My dear sisters in Christ, from what I hear, I am sure that the Mother of God would not have been accepted into your community. She was too low brow.” This is good to hear, isn’t it?

Vincent de Paul built under the influence of grace, on servant girls, on maids, on washerwomen, all right? Anytime we get big ideas, speaking feminine gender to you, remember, it was servant girls that started modern apostolic religious women’s institutes. God didn’t start with the ladies. He chose servants. They were then originally helpers of the Ladies of Charity: humble girls who had no aspirations whatever. The last thing, the last thing they thought they would ever become is a religious institute. Who were they? Too little; too unimportant. Sisters, stay little; stay unimportant in your own eyes. Then you’ve got a chance. Originally, we know Vincent did not intend them to be religious. They were just what they were: the cooks, and the washerwomen, and the cleaners and the sweepers of the Ladies, who were good souls, don’t misunderstand me. But they were just not material for a religious community, the Ladies. Their main focus was on the corporal works of mercy. Notably four that I identify: hospitals, the poor, foundlings, and to give shelter.

Hospitals, by the way, existed centuries before. In fact, in case anybody ever asks you, how did hospitals ever come into existence? Very simple, the Catholic Church created all the hospitals in the world. Many by now, sadly, are not Catholic, even by the wildest stretch of the imagination. But, as Vincent discovered then, and we should be discovering now, to operate a hospital by the standards of the Gospel, you’ve got to have some very dedicated persons.

The Poor

The poor. The statement of Christ about our having the poor always is a revealed prophecy: all right? You will always have the poor. And God makes sure there is enough of the poor to give those who have more, or can find ways of helping them, to engage in the apostolate. Come to think of it, suppose there were no sick people. Suppose there were no poor people. Suppose there weren’t people who needed shelter, and care, and attention. What, pray tell, would happen to the apostolic work of the church?

Foundlings, as you know by now, would to God we had more foundlings. You know what happens to the foundlings that used to be. When I was in Boston over the weekend, the newly appointed editor of the National Register came into Boston. We spent a couple hours together in very useful conversation. Married, not too many years, but has no children of his own. He’s adopted one, and is now negotiating for a second. And he told me that to adopt their first child they had been active in the pro-life work. And the girl who had planned an abortion shortly after she discovered she was pregnant was discouraged from abortion. But he told me his wife had to work on this girl for something like six or seven months to keep the baby alive. And finally in gratitude, when she delivered the child, she gave it to the woman who convinced her she should keep it. Isn’t that beautiful?

We now in the Catholic Church need religious institutes of women to cooperate with the pro-life movement. Am I making sense? A lot of good work is being done. Two men had breakfast with me today. I had to tell sister to, well, fry a few more eggs. They are both active in the pro-life work. And since I know some wealthy people they thought that I could help them get some money for their pro-life work. These are two businessmen. But the solution as you know, we were talking about the foundlings in Vincent’s day, is to provide care and attention for these girls.

It’s one thing as, the women who stand outside these abortion mills tell me, it’s one thing to dissuade the girl from having an abortion. Yes, but that doesn’t solve her problem. We don’t solve the pro-life problem of abortion by more speeches, or more books, or more amendments to the Constitution. We will solve the diabolical murdering of over a million children in the United States only when somebody finds dedicated women of the kind that Vincent found in the seventeenth century. And I hope you believe me. And I’m sorry to say we don’t have them.


And finally, the shelter. And here the brothers that are in class are perfect for this purpose: taking care of both the retarded and shelter, getting food and lodging. In New York it is estimated there are ten thousand homeless women walking the streets in New York City. And during the bitter cold that we had in New York, although it’s generally milder, below zero, which was just for about two nights, extremely cold in New York, there was a man, as I was going where I was going. I was leaving the door, and I saw a man eating his tray there. One of the priests brought him a tray of food. So I stopped to chat with him for a minute and I asked him how the food was, it was what we had, and he said that it’s good. But he said: “Really, you know what I want more than food, I need lodging for the night. Because where I am there is no heat.” Here’s a man I’d say in his mid or late seventies. “I am afraid I am going to freeze to death.” Had a thin overcoat on him, and no heat! Whatever I was going to do, it cost me about thirty minutes of my time, but I feel it was well spent. Put in phone calls and finally we got him two nights lodging by which time the cold had passed away. Let no one deceive you, there are more people poor, in need of food, clothing, shelter, and care today than most of us in affluent America, I am afraid, are willing to admit.

First: Vincent de Paul's Spirituality

Now Vincent de Paul’s spirituality. First of all, for Vincent, you begin to be spiritual when you distinguish your will from God’s Will. How’s that? You know there are some people who don’t even know that those are two different wills? They are so accustomed to doing what they want, and are sure it’s what God wants, that they are a little surprised. In any case, that’s Vincent. That God’s Will may tell us to do things that would be the last thing, if we had our choice, we’d do. God is full of surprises. He always does the unexpected. And once I realize that it’s God’s Will, then I set about doing it.

Second: Miraculous Achievements Come From God's Grace

Second, for a man to achieve as much as Vincent did, and as you read his exploits you can’t believe that one person did it, you just can’t. He must have been ten, or at least five people. He was just one. But, being so involved in the external forms of apostolic endeavor, he realized, as few other men in the Church’s history knew, that unless you wait on how God will show you, you should do this, you are almost certain to bungle it.

And this is, in a way, a commentary on the first feature of his spirituality. Vincent didn’t think that every pious thought or every good idea that he had, no matter how, well, apparently useful or practical or beneficial it would be, it was necessarily the Will of God. In other words, he especially waited for God to show him how. He was a great saint of methodology. It’s one thing to know that something should be done. It’s even something else to know that I’ve got the best reasons in the world to do it. Just a minute, or more often just an hour, or just a day! Wait: how are you going to do it? Patient waiting on God’s designs. Now of course he was not above, you might say, helping God’s designs to be fulfilled. He talked to the right people. But he never wanted to run ahead of God’s grace. It’s almost the first time that we are meeting this just this way.

He was the humblest of persons. He never thought of himself as being such a favored soul, such a privileged client of God: Look at me! I am the great Vincent, the special child of Providence. No: he was dumbfounded to think that God would use him. Him of all people! He let God work out the blueprints carefully before he, Vincent, would begin to build on them.

Third: See God's Providence in Everything

Third, if ever a man saw God’s providence in everything, it was Vincent. In other words, he didn’t think that there being so many people condemned to the galleys was just a coincidence; or that there were so many poor, or sick or beggars. For him this was Providence saying: Do something!

Fourth: Value of Vincent de Paul's Spirituality - Prayer

Fourth, Vincent de Paul, unlike a number of saints that we have so far seen, was a very down to earth promoter of the spirit of prayer. Remember the way we read in Francis de Sales? Remember how we described it? That’s contemplation in Francis de Sales. Somebody got it? Read it out loud. [From audience: “Loving and constant attention of the mind to divine things.”] All right. Well, that is not exactly Vincent de Paul. Of course, Vincent, too, had his times for contemplative prayer. But unlike de Sales and many others that we have so far reflected on, for Vincent, God was to be seen in the needs of other people. And consequently, if there was contemplative prayer in Vincent, and there was, it was almost, you might say, it was the contemplative prayer of discovering God’s Will; and for Vincent, as we have been saying, if God’s Will has three perspectives to it: what does God want me to do; why; and how; Vincent was especially concerned with the how.

All I can tell you as one who has been studying and trying in my own faltering way to imitate what I teach, what Vincent gave me was a value to prayer that I’m afraid otherwise I would never have known: that one of the functions of prayer, and for Vincent I would say in terms of clock hours in a given week, whatever the number of hours of prayer would be spent, besides the liturgy and the Divine Office which he recited, his mental prayer was mainly with inquiring of God how he should carry out the Will of God. I sure hope that I’m clear in stressing this.

Now what I’ve discovered, I am not as such engaged in, say, the corporal works of mercy. And the gentleman that I’ve mentioned whom I got a night’s lodging, or two night’s lodging to be exact, is an exception. But my job, and I think this can apply in measure to all of us, we’ve all got our respective jobs to do, is mainly communicating ideas. What I need to communicate ideas, is ideas. So what do I go: read books! I’ve read more books than I can wave a stick at. I do still average a book a day. But it’s not more reading of books: either I’m in daily contact with the mind of God, or I wouldn’t dare travel to New York to Chicago and back to talk to you, far less still put anything on paper and hope that somebody will read it.

In other words, prayer for Vincent is pragmatic prayer; it is practical prayer; it is down to earth prayer; it is the prayer that will furnish me with the wherewithal of my loving God and loving my neighbor. And all love of my neighbor is either a corporal or spiritual work of mercy.

You’ll pardon my saying this, it doesn’t really apply, but as you know, education, as we have been told over the years, is instructing the ignorant. All it means is that when we teach, when we counsel, we tell people what they need. Sharing with others part of our spirit is a work of charity. But for me to have what I should do, why I should do it, but especially how: I cannot tell you the hours of prayer I’ve spent, in how I should express myself in say, a sentence in writing, because it makes a big difference whether you put it this way or another way. The practicality of our daily life, I sure hope I am getting across. How am I going to spend my day? I am going to meet with people. Lord, enlighten me I am going to talk to her. What should I tell her? I am going in this situation, in that situation. How should I cope with it? In one kind of a person, you adjust in one way; another type of person, you adjust in another way. For Vincent this was the principle object of his prayer. Am I making sense? Okay. To know God’s will, especially on how to fulfill it.

Fifth: Follow Providence One Step at a Time

Fifth, follow Providence one step at a time. As you know, God’s Providence is His plan for the human race, which has a goal, has a purpose, and has certain means. He is fulfilling the means that He has chosen for mankind, directed to the end for which man was created: His Providence. It is God’s directing human minds and wills to their destiny. But, if providence on God’s part is planning, it must be met by providence on our part for which the best word is prudence. Providence from God must meet prudence from us; otherwise God’s providence can be frustrated. And this was where Vincent was so careful, as we mentioned earlier: What does God want? How does he want me to do it? Then in the light of what God has taught me, then I take a step.

When we say one step at a time, I wonder what that means. So you try to foresee the whole picture. Then you take one step at a time. In the sense, what do you do when you take the step? All right. Well, you’ve taken the step. In other words you’ve consulted God. Right. You take a step. Then what do you do? You consult him again. Now the phrase is his, by the way. That’s why I used it.

All I can tell you then, it’s people like this that give us sanctity; honest, because each of us is in a different state of life. None of us is a cloistered contemplative. Right? So Theresa of Avila has something to tell us; but so does Vincent de Paul. Because, if our sanctity depended on the long hours, for example, of the Divine Office, they chanted four or more hours a day, we’d never get holy. So that, I am constantly in contact with God regarding my work; if I could get this across, my coming here will have been ten times worth it. That I am always constantly consulting the Lord: What do I do next? That doesn’t mean that I carry my beads with me: I take a step, and I say a Hail Mary; another step, and another Hail Mary. But that if anyone, how decisive or deliberative we are: and some of us may have to make a dozen, twenty, thirty or more decisions a day. Agree? Little things, or bigger things. But that I’m in God’s presence right away. And I don’t figure that I have to have some kind of a calamity enter my life: and I drag myself before the Lord because there is nothing else to do; that I make new decision just on my own. That’s Vincent.

Sixth: Maintain Peace of Soul - A Sign of Doing God's Will

Sixth, maintain peace of soul, a sign of doing God’s Will. Oh, how precious this is! Now there is a precondition here, which you better remember. This peace of soul is so easy to pronounce: Peace of soul! But what a difference between one person’s having no problems or worries, and another person. The precondition for using this principle, which is a very useful one, is that I am sincerely trying to do God’s will. And if I am trying to do His Will, watch it! The sign of His leading me is the peace that He gives me. And nobody cheats you. You are either honestly trying to do His Will, then you think of something else that should be done. Lord, should I do it? What is God’s way of saying yes, it’s My Will? It’s peace.

Or as I’ve said over the years. The color of grace is peace. The size of grace is peace. The shape of grace is peace. The name of grace is peace. When God enters the soul, that he wants when he wants us to do something, He will give peace. That doesn’t mean that all the things He asks us to do will be easy. Then we get down on our betters and say, “Lord, it looks like you want me to do this, but you better help. For I have not the least idea where to turn. How do you do it?” Then what do I do? I ask for help.

Maintain peace of soul. I don’t hesitate saying, and this is a patented statement of both Vincent and Ignatius and Alphonsus Ligouri that I remember: Consider every worry, every anxiety, provided your trying to do God’s will, consider every anxiety and worry as a temptation, to be dealt with accordingly.

Number Seven: If It Is From God, It Will Succeed

Number seven, the saints by the way are very quotable. Here’s one of Vincent: God will solve all things that He has not planted. If you were to put a line under one word which you consider the most important in that sentence, see what we come up with. But in my humble opinion, I think the most important word is “He.” God roots out all things that He has not planted. There are all kinds of planters in the universe. Everybody is planting. Why don’t more things that men start succeed? Because they have not first consulted the Lord. Do You want this? Do You want this? And if He does, He’ll make sure. He’ll make the sun shine and the rain fall, and in spite of the rocky soil, it’s going to produce. Which, of course, being interpretive means that we are always to make sure that whatever we undertake, and Vincent was so filled with a lifetime of undertakings, he was always undertaking something. He always made sure, that’s why he succeeded. He always made sure it was God who wanted it. How did he find out? By consulting the Lord.

Number Eight: Make Sure It's What the Lord Wants

Number Eight. Now number eight could be misinterpreted as Quietism, which, as you know, is a heresy. Every step of the way, from finding out what does He want, to why He wants it, how He wants it done, and all the while, making sure: Lord, is it still your way? Am I out of line? Am I in the right lane? Because so often things begun in the spirit, can end in the flesh.

Number Nine: A Deep Awareness of One's Own Weakness and Sin

In fact, by the time we finish all these historic spiritualities we may be a little bit bored that the saints considered themselves such weak and sinful human beings. Well, don’t get bored, because this is what all the saints honestly believed. And that means therefore, that I shall be as responsive to God’s Will as I am sure that of myself I wouldn’t know what I need, and I wouldn’t be able to carry it into effect.

Number Ten: Collective Humility

Finally, and surprisingly, Vincent spoke of what we can call collective humility. Meaning what? Meaning that for him not only should the individual, religious, be humble, but the community qua community should be humble. The institute should practice humility. How, in your opinion, can a community practice humility? While the community is itself, especially it’s superiors, they and it are responsive to the Church’s authority. By accepting people into the community that would not, well, be from, say, the more wealthy, the higher classes of society. The property of the community, the automobiles you use, well before Vincent’s day.

I think I told you, didn’t I, on one occasion an architect that I was flying to Chicago with, happened to be a non-Catholic, and I told him I was working with religious communities. He had just finished designing a dream of a college for a religious community of women. And he said, Father, would you mind, I can’t possibly remember the name, but what he told me, I’ve memorized: Would you mind telling sisters for me that they do not give a good example in the buildings they erect that are an architect’s dream but that even the wealthiest people could not afford. Make sure then that our property is functional, serviceable. But any sign of luxury, or opulence, no! And, as some young women have told me: Walking in the front entrance convinced me this is not the community I want to join. Am I clear?

[Transcribed by Stephen Pavela, MD. November, 2005]

Conference transcription from a talk that Father Hardon gave to the
Institute on Religious Life

Institute on Religious Life, Inc.
P.O. Box 410007
Chicago, Illinois 60641

Copyright © 1998 by Inter Mirifica

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