You must also remember that your principal concern, which God asks especially of you, is to be very attentive in serving the poor, who are our Lords. (…)You must see that, as far as in you lies, they want for nothing, both with regard to their physical health and for the salvation of their souls.
Vincent de Paul was recognized as a saint by the Church in 1737 and declared the patron saint of charitable works. The path to sanctity for M. Vincent was, as for each of us, a long road which leads to God. Day after day, his strength helped him dare to open his ears and heart to the movement of the Spirit.
|1581||Birth in Pouy, near Dax in the Landes region.|
|1600||Ordination in Château-l’Evêque in Dordogne.|
|1610||Chaplain in the Court of the Queen, Marguerite de Valois.|
|1612||Pastor (Parish Priest) of Clichy|
|1613||Tutor to the de Gondi family|
|1614||Temptation against Faith for 3 or 4 years|
|1617||Defining year: Confession of a peasant in Folleville; establishment of the first Confraternity of Charity in Châtillon les Dombes|
|1619||Chaplain General to the Galley prisoners|
|1625||Foundation of the Congregation of the Mission|
|1628||Proposed the formation of priests, retreats for ordinands|
|1633||Foundation of the Company of the Daughters of Charity|
|1638||Begins work with the foundlings|
|1639||Sending of aid to Lorraine, ravaged by war|
|1646||Foundation of the Mission in Algeria, missionaries sent to Ireland and Scotland|
|1648||Mission in Madagascar|
|1651||Aid to the battlefields in Picardie, Champagne and Ile de France|
|Mission in Poland|
|1660||27 September, death of M. Vincent|
|1729||Beatification by Pope Benedict XIII|
|1737||Canonization of Vincent de Paul by Pope Clement XII|
|1883||Named Patron Saint of Works of Charity|
|September 27: Feast Day|
He was born in 1581 to a close-knit family of middle class peasants in Pouy, near Dax. His Christian parents transmitted a living, concrete faith to him. Vincent was intelligent and eager. Very quickly, with the support of his family, he was involved in a bright future: that of education and priesthood. He went first to Dax and then to Toulouse. To finance his studies his family sold some of their valued goods: a pair of oxen. He also tried to support his studies and was ordained very young at the age of 19 in 1600.
Vincent was a man on the move, almost like a businessman of today but on horseback and stagecoach. With history mixed in with legend, Vincent’s exact movements are uncertain. There are three years for which nothing is said about where he was: was he captured by pirates, was he a slave in Barbary (modern Tunisia)? He reappeared in Paris in 1608. He was introduced to Monsieur de Bérulle, one of the main members of the French School of Spirituality. This movement was involved in the internal reform of the Catholic Church, insisting on the coming of Jesus in our human condition: God became flesh and was close to humanity in daily life. Priests were invited to take their priestly vocation seriously, becoming deeply rooted in Christ, something that was not present in that epoch where the life of the Church had lost its authenticity.
From the beginning Vincent’s vocation was to be a priest but he also wanted to assure his retirement. He thought his career would allow him to take care of his family. He was an enterprising man, lively and curious. He arrived at the court in 1610, after having distributed alms in the name of Queen Margot, the first wife of King Henri IV.
Vincent went through a period of three to four years of doubt and “a dark night of the soul”. It was in giving his life to the love of Jesus Christ, to the service of the poor, that he again found his relationship with God. In 1612 he became pastor (parish priest) of Clichy and said, “My God, how happy you are to have such good people!” Soon after, he came into the service of the de Gondi’s, an influential family in the kingdom. Monsieur de Gondi was General of the galleys and his wife managed their estates. Vincent became tutor of the children and spiritual director of Madame de Gondi.
1617 was a turning point for Vincent. One day while accompanying Madame de Gondi on her lands, Vincent heard the confession of a dying peasant. The peasant was considered to be an upright man but he was afraid of damnation for the sins of his past life that he never had the courage to confess. After this confession the man was at peace. Madame de Gondi was worried about the spiritual state of the people of her estates and she asked M. Vincent to find a “remedy for this”. The next day, January 25, 1617, he gave a sermon in the church in Folleville with such ardor that the parishioners came to confession in great numbers.
That same year, at the age of 36, he returned to Châtillon les Dombes, near Lyon, thanks to Monsieur de Bérulle. During Mass he learned of the dire need of a family. The assembly was seized with a great spirit of generosity and they visited the sick family bringing provisions to them. Vincent was pleased and immediately posed the question of a better organization. Thanks to some pious ladies, he joined charity with a very respectful rule which invited them to serve a poor person “as if it were God himself.” These were the first “Charities” (today known as the AIC or Ladies of Charity). This experience reinforced his new vocation to serve those most in need. Pressured by the de Gondi’s, he returned to their estate and consecrated himself to the corporal and spiritual needs of the poorest. This was strongly supported by Madame de Gondi who, in 1625, signed a contract for the foundation of the Congregation of the Mission, charged with evangelization in the countryside. Now, there were two goals: mission and charity.
Vincent was a man of prayer and very concrete, who looked for ways to organize direct aid for those in necessity. Louise de Marillac crossed his path and asked him for spiritual help. He confided to her the task of visiting the new Charities and founded, thanks to her, the Daughters of Charity in 1633. In order to form the priests he started the Tuesday Conferences, the exercises for the ordinands, formation for seminarians and work in seminaries. He never ceased to create a network of help with those in the localities, to come to the aid of all human misery in his day: galley convicts, foundlings, the wounded in the wars in Lorraine, Picardie, Champagne, Ile de France, the aged or the insane. Nothing could stop the imagination of M. Vincent and his collaborators. He worked for the relief of all people so that each person could nourish him or herself, learn a trade and find dignity as a child of God.
Vincent knew how to engage those who were great to arouse their charity and demand their political aid, even at the risk of losing his credit with Mazarin. He could only see the misery of the poor to be relieved, all the poor who are the face of Jesus Christ.
He died on September 27 1660 leaving behind laity, priests, sisters, a family – the Vincentian Family – and especially a spirit in which all of us live today, the fire of love which animated the heart of St. Vincent de Paul for the poor.
To learn more:
- Mezzadri, Luigi, A Short Life of Saint Vincent de Paul, Dublin: Columba, 1992.
- Pujo, Bernard. Vincent de Paul: The Trailblazer, Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2003.
- Roman, José María. St Vincent de Paul: A Biography. London: Melisende, 1999.