On 11 October 2012 a Year of Faith will begin. As we read in the Pastoral Recommendations for the Year of Faith, given by the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, “the Saints and the Blessed are the authentic witnesses of the faith”. For the Daughters of Charity, together with all the Vincentian Family, these are – first of all – our Saint Founders. In the month of September let us think a little about this glowing virtue of faith in St. Vincent’s life. May some thoughts of Fr. Jean Morin C.M. (Echoes, November-December 2008), proposed as four short chapters coming successively this month, help us in our meditation:
1. CHRIST first of all
Vincent de Paul’s faith in Jesus Christ was definitively marked by the events of 1617. The Christ who revealed himself at Gannes-Folleville and then at Chatillon was the Christ who was sent by God to evangelise and serve poor persons. As Vincent constantly repeated: “Our inheritance, Gentlemen and my Brothers, is the poor, the poor; He has sent me to evangelise the poor. What happiness, Gentlemen, what happiness! To do that for which Our Lord came from Heaven to earth, and by means of which we too shall go from earth to Heaven, to continue the work of God Who shunned cities and went to the country places to seek out the poor. That is what our rules are concerned with, to help the poor, our lords and masters.” (Coste XII, 415-416, 1963 ed.)
Vincent de Paul was a remarkably conscientious student of the FrenchSchool. “Remember, Monsieur,” he wrote to one of his confreres, “we live in Jesus Christ through the death of Jesus Christ, and we must die in Jesus Christ through the life of Jesus Christ, and our life must be hidden in Jesus Christ and filled with Jesus Christ, and in order to die as Jesus Christ, we must live as Jesus Christ.” (Coste I, 276)
He had finally found this simple and lively faith, a faith “that wasn’t dissected apart.” From that point on everything was organised from the principle that our life must be a continuation of Christ’s life and lived in imitation of him. These two themes recur repeatedly in the thinking and actions ofSaint Vincent.
2. THE GOSPEL
For Vincent de Paul, the Gospel was in fact the book of faith par excellence, the book that permitted him to find directly, and especially in a very simple way, the thinking and the will of Jesus Christ. When he entered into the Gospel, he always entered by two doors:
Luke 4:18 – It is the passage in the Gospel where JESUS, at the begining his public ministry, applies the words of the prophet Isaiah to himself: “The Lord has sent me to proclaim the good news to the poor.” For Vincent de Paul, this text was the underlying explanation of the entire Gospel. When we read Vincentian texts, we have the distinct impression that each time that Vincent approached the Gospel, he considered that what was said and written had come from Jesus Christ, the One sent to those who are poor.
Matthew 25:31, serves only to accentuate this aspect of Saint Vincent’s faith. It evokes the final judgment to be carried out by Christ:” I was hungry and you gave me to eat, I was ill or in prison and you visited me; I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”
Today, dieticians often say: Tell me what you eat and I will tell you who you are. And it is very true that, knowing how constantly M. Vincent read the Gospel each day and meditated on it so that he was abundantly nourished by it, we can easily grasp the sort of man he was.
3. THE CHURCH
In terms of Church, Vincent had first of all the fourteen years of experience at Pouy, a traditional notion of a Church that was most likely somewhat remote. But from 1595 onward, he regarded it, certainly as a supernatural reality, but foremost as a hierarchical organisation. At Clichy, Vincent began to experience a more profound reality: the reality of the people of God.
I will simply quote a passage that conveys very well, through the words of BOSSUET, Saint Vincent’s deep thinking and his ideas on the Church: “The Church of Jesus Christ is truly the city of the poor. I am not afraid to say that those who are rich, owing to their riches, are only admitted out of tolerance. Come then, those of you who are rich, the doors of the Church are open to you, but they are open in preference to those who are poor and on condition of serving them. It is out of love for his children that God allows the foreigner to enter…Those who are rich are the foreigners, but the service of poor persons gives the rich their citizenship…Rich people of every century, take all the superior titles you wish; you may bear them in the world. In the Church of Jesus Christ, however, you are merely the servants of those who are poor…”
Saint Vincent’s faith was the faith of the Church, the City of poor persons and Servant of poor persons, as Vatican II reminds us. The Tuesday Conferences, the seminaries, and the activities of M. Vincent during the ten years that he was on the Council of Conscience, had as their primary goals the naming of bishops, the formation of priest and laity, to enable them to make the Church more and more the city of poor persons.
This was the final aspect of Vincent’s faith, and in describing this, it is important to return to his experience and his life journey. His personality, influenced by his rural and Gascon roots, led him to become a down-to earth and even pragmatic person. It was principally his spiritual experiences which led him to consider events as bearing a message and as a form of presence of Jesus Christ.
This was especially the case for Gannes-Folleville and Chatillon. In both of these incidents, he said himself that he was certain that he had encountered God. He would say on many occasions: “It was not me…it was God.” In this way, all events, especially those related to poor persons, became for Vincent messages and signs of faith.
M. Vincent’s prayer comes across as an intimate dialogue, in a public place in which the world is fully present. It was a dialogue with Jesus Christ who was continually present, but in a place that was constantly infiltrated by theMissioninPolandor the plague inGenoaor the desperate situation inMadagascaror the poor people throughout the world. M. Vincent, with Christ and with the community, recalled the events and sought to understand them and to find the providential lesson they carried, in order to better live this message out.
Since Vatican II, we often speak of the signs of the times. Without ever using those terms, Vincent de Paul was a master reader of them.
To sum up, the best way to define the faith of Saint Vincent seems to be with the famous words “leave God for God”, the perpetual movement between Jesus Christ and the poor person. It is certainly the fundamental experience of faith that Saint Vincent proposes for us.