The Enduring Charism of St. Vincent de Paul

A statue of St. Vincent de Paul is seen in an April 30 photo in front of a chapel that bears his name on the Washington campus of The Catholic University of America. (CNS photo/Chaz Muth)

Today, September 27, we celebrate the feast of St. Vincent de Paul, a French priest of peasant origins who died in 1660. Pope Leo XIII recognized him as the patron saint of charity and of all charitable organizations.

Why does Vincent de Paul have this distinction when so many of the great saints were models of charity and also founded organizations dedicated to charitable works?

One answer is that Vincent was one of the first to recognize that the Gospel call to charity was a responsibility of all believers. He provided the organization and a spiritual foundation for the clergy and laity, even young peasant women, to serve the suffering and poor for the love of God. He famously wrote, “There is great charity but it is badly organized.”

This year the religious orders and organizations founded by St. Vincent de Paul or claim him as their patron are marking the 400th anniversary of the charism of their Vincentian Family.

What is this Vincentian Charism being celebrated? Briefly, St. Vincent had experiences during 1617 that changed the direction of his ministry, and he began to organize Christian efforts to work with people who are suffering and poor. Those experiences convinced him that people in poverty were spiritually hungry for better pastoral care and that parishioners were willing to put their faith into action by aiding their neighbors in need.

From that date forward, St. Vincent de Paul organized the faithful around him to bring good news to the poor. To advance this mission, he founded an order of priests (the Congregation of the Mission), an order of women religious (the Daughters of Charity), and an association of laywomen (the Ladies of Charity or AIC). His clear understanding and articulation of the charism of service to the poor found in the teaching of Jesus continued to inspire people long after he died. Today, there are over 250 organizations in the Vincentian Family that share this 400-year-old charism, the largest of those being the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, with almost one million members in 150 countries.

Volunteer Joe DeLibero and executive chef Chris Hoffman break down onions in the kitchen of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul in Phoenix Nov. 17. Society staff and volunteers prepare 4,500 meals a day and will do more for Thanksgiving and Christmas. (CNS photo/Nancy Wiechec)

For St. Vincent de Paul, the Gospel command to serve Christ in the person of the poor was a real obligation. He tells his followers that, “The poor are our masters.” This is the basis of his spirituality of service but he is under no delusion about the difficulty of this work. Anyone who has worked in a food pantry, soup kitchen, or homeless shelter understands what Vincent de Paul meant when he wrote, “Let us love God, but let it be with the strength of our arms and with the sweat of our brows.”

Collaborating with St. Louise de Marillac and countless others, Vincent de Paul was innovative in his approach to meeting the needs of those he served. His progressive reforms included homes for the elderly, orphanages for children and improved conditions for prisoners.

He lived in the time we may recognize from fictional novels like The Three Musketeers or The Man in the Iron Mask. The historical characters in these novels including King Louis XIII, Queen Anne of Austria, Cardinal Richelieu, and Cardinal Mazarin all knew this simple peasant priest from rural France. They respected and often supported his work with people experiencing poverty. Nonetheless, Vincent was not afraid to jeopardize that support when he observed they were creating conditions of poverty and suffering. His firm beliefs eventually cost him his position on an important royal advisory council. St. Vincent de Paul not only served the poor but he risked his personal reputation to advocate their interests.

There is a saying that “The Gospel should comfort the afflicted and it should afflict the comfortable.” The words of Jesus did that to St. Vincent de Paul starting in 1617 and he passed that comfort and affliction on to those around him. By the grace of God, that charism is still alive in the Church today comforting and afflicting as needed for the sake of the Kingdom.

Ralph Middlecamp is the president-elect of the National Council of the United States Society of St. Vincent de Paul. His six-year term begins October 1. He has been a Vincentian for over 30 years, and most recently served as the CEO of the Madison, WI District Council.


Going Deeper!

Around the United States, members of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul are working for just wages, empowering low-income persons to address poverty, securing access to employment for formerly incarcerated persons, and fighting predatory lending.  These stories and others are featured on WeAreSaltAndLight.org.

Voice of the Poor – the advocacy arm of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul – identifies issues that are critical to people living in poverty and helps bring attention to them so communities and our elected representatives can develop strategies and tactics to reduce or eliminate poverty. Learn more about their important advocacy work online.