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

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. 

A Letter from the Heart of an Undocumented Immigrant

In recognition that this is National Migration Week and at the invitation of the National Council of the United States Society of St. Vincent de Paul’s Voice of the Poor Committee, for the first time I am telling my story of coming to the United States as an undocumented immigrant.

Our two children, Lizza and Alfonso Jr., and I were born in Tijuana, Mexico, next to the southwest border with USA. My husband, Alfonso, was born in a small town in the State of Jalisco, México.

Margarita with her husband and children in the 1970s

Margarita with her husband and children in the 1970s

As soon we got married in 1973, he, as a lawful permanent U.S. resident (green card holder), filed a visa petition for me. In those days, the waiting period of time was 12 years.

At the time, we lived in Tijuana. Every day at 2:30 AM, Alfonso crossed the border to work in the fields in the United States, picking tomatoes, chilies, and strawberries.  He worked 10-11 hours a day, 6 days a week, and spent one and a half hours commuting each way to work and back home.

In the beginning, Alfonso worked in different, very demanding jobs – as a janitor; in factories and canneries; construction; as a laboratory technician; and so on – until he started to work in an aerospace company, first as a carpenter, then as mechanic, electrician, and welder, and now as a lead man of the maintenance department. I am sharing this with you because I need to make a point – he always worked hard, long hours and different shifts.

While he worked in the United States, I worked in a Social Security Hospital in the Human Resources Department in Tijuana, and, at the same time, took care of two children. Alfonso did everything possible for the children to have a strong father presence in their lives; it was hard for him and for us.

Several years passed, and we were told that the waiting time to become a permanent resident had increased to 14-17 years. So, Alfonso made the hard decision to resign his Mexican citizenship to become a US citizen.  In those days, it was not like today where you can have dual citizenship – you had to surrender your citizenship in your own country.  Alfonso also needed to speak English well and go to school for the U.S. citizenship classes.

Can you image when he could find time to attend the daily two-hour English and Citizenship classes?

We needed to move to the United States, because it was the only way he could have time to attend his classes and have a little more family time. It was a hard decision – to continue in the same pattern or try to be a real family.  We decided to come to live here.  In the mid-1980s, my two small children and I came to the United States without permission to reside here.  My husband had a resident card so he had the right to live and work here. Thanks to God, we did not come through the desert, a tunnel, or in a car’s trunk.  We had short-term visitors’ visas to come and visit the United States and we were supposed to stay no more than three days and keep within a certain area.

I started to feel bad about myself, as if I was not good enough, because I was not able to work or have a driver’s license or walk freely on the streets. I had always worked.  I needed to be productive and was worried about how I could help support the family financially, too.

I started to help working mothers with the care of their children after school for a small fee. In the evening, I went to learn English as a second language at my children’s school.  But I did not like those classes.  They were too slow, and I need to learn a little faster.  In order to do this, my English teacher told me to go to a community college, but she did not know that I did not have the proper documents.  I attended community college briefly, but since I was not a resident, I did not qualify for reduced tuition.  Instead, I would have had to pay full foreign student tuition, even though we paid taxes for community schools.  I could not afford full tuition and still help my husband provide for the family.

From the time he started working in the United States, Alfonso paid taxes to the IRS. Once we moved to the United States, we saved some money, with family help we eventually bought our house, and we paid property taxes. I always lived in fear of deportation and the consequences for my family. Our children were in a household where our status was a secret; you did not want anyone to know it, because it was dangerous. For most undocumented immigrants, fear, and the stress that comes with it, is a constant part of life.  We had to keep our situation a secret from nearly everyone we encountered, afraid to be reported and sent back to Mexico

It was time full of frustration, learning, adapting, and growing in many ways, but mostly full of joy because we were together.

Not long after my children and I came to the United States, my husband applied for citizenship. He passed the test, and, in three months, he became a U.S. citizen.  He next petitioned for our under-age children, Lizza and Alonso Jr., to become U.S. citizens, and in 6 months they were.  It was not easy for us to pay in a single year the very expensive fee for the three of them to become U.S. citizens.  So again, Alfonso needed to work overtime to afford the house payment and all the immigration fees.

Several months passed before we could change the status of my first petition which, when it was filed back in 1973, was done by my husband in his then-status as a U.S. resident. As a U.S. citizen, he could file an updated petition on my behalf and the waiting period would be shortened.  Finally, that was accepted, and I was granted an official U.S. resident card.  Then I had to wait three more years to be able to apply and pay more fees for the U.S. citizenship process.  Eventually, I was able to apply for it.  I passed the test, and finally, after all the risks, tears, frustrations, low self-esteem, and 20 years, thanks to God, I became a U.S. citizen in 1994 – Hurray!!!

For us, it was extremely important to work hard. I really appreciate this country and its people.  We made a real pledge to making this country our home.

Margarita, her husband, Alfonso, and their extended family at Christmas 2016

Margarita, her husband, Alfonso, and their extended family at Christmas 2016

On the other hand, we continue to maintain strong relationships in our birth country. We are the lucky ones to have had the opportunity to access the best from both countries and to celebrate both cultures – not assimilate the USA culture, but to blend both.

I believe we need to share our stories. Some, like mine, are relatively easy, but others are very hard, sad, and dangerous.

We are human beings, created in the image of God, too, with dreams and hopes like every other person. We simply wish to be able to do better for our family, our communities, for the poor, and for our country.

Margarita Galindo is Vice-President for Hispanic Involvement at the National Council of the United States Society of St. Vincent de Paul.

From Prison to Rome: The Impact of the Year of Mercy on Reentry

Dominic and his children get their boarding passes for Rome

Dominic and his children get their boarding passes for Rome

Rome was an amazing trip – it was more than I ever imagined, and to have my wife and children join me was the icing on the cake! I’ve dreamed of being able to take my family out of the country and experience some amazing places like Rome, but what was even more amazing was the reason why we were invited to Rome. The Jubilee Year of Mercy Mass, dedicated to those who are incarcerated and prison and jail ministers, reinforced and gave even more assurance that the work we do in re-entry with the Society of St. Vincent de Paul is touched and blessed by God!

In his homily, Pope Francis shared, “We know that in God’s eyes no one can consider himself just (Rom 2:1-11). But no one can live without the certainty of finding forgiveness! The repentant thief, crucified at Jesus’ side, accompanied him into paradise (Lk 23:43). So may none of you allow yourselves to be held captive by the past! True enough, even if we wanted to, we can never rewrite the past. But the history that starts today, and looks to the future, has yet to be written, by the grace of God and your personal responsibility. By learning from past mistakes, you can open a new chapter of your lives. Let us never yield to the temptation of thinking that we cannot be forgiven. Whatever our hearts may accuse us of, small or great, ‘God is greater than our hearts’ (1 Jn 3:20). We need but entrust ourselves to his mercy.”

Tiffany Hunter, Jeffery Whalen, and Dominic Duren - three returning citizens who went to Rome for the pilgrimage

Tiffany Hunter, Jeffery Whalen, and Dominic Duren – three returning citizens who went to Rome for the pilgrimage

My trip to Rome had me thinking of my faith and ways to not only strengthen my relationship with God, but my wife’s and children’s as well.  We take for granted the martyrs that sacrificed their lives for merely the right to worship. Pope Francis’ homily is affirmation that God is touching the work we do and the path we are taking is the right one.

I’m so blessed to be part of this movement that not only saved my life but turned me into a leader and gave me an opportunity to help others who struggle to get their lives back on track after incarceration.

The Cincinnati delegation prepares to depart to Rome

The Cincinnati delegation prepares to depart to Rome

To be able to attend a Mass led by the Pope is a once in lifetime experience. But to attend a Mass by the Pope that focuses on those who are formerly incarcerated and their was mind blowing! I’m grateful for the opportunity to broaden my horizons by the experience I had in Rome. I learned so much and have such a greater appreciation for the sacrifices people made for their faith. I want to thank the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, Brother Mike Murphy, the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, and each and every person that attended the pilgrimage to Rome for the amazing experience that I and my family had.

The work we do is hard and frustrating at times but Pope Francis has inspired me to do more, as much as humanly possible: educate, connect, engage, build meaningful relationships, organize, and advance issues that build safe, loving, and thriving communities! To have Pope Francis’ support and encouragement for the fair treatment of those who are formerly incarcerated is evidence that our suffering is not going unheard or unseen. I have not felt this hopeful in a very long time!!!!

Thank you, Pope Francis, for providing hope to a population of people who have been hopeless for far too long!

Dominic Duren was among those from the Archdiocese of Cincinnati invited to the Vatican for a Jubilee Year of Mercy Mass for people who are incarcerated and those who minister in prisons and jails. He is the Re-entry Coordinator for The Society of St. Vincent de Paul in Cincinnati Ohio.

Going Deeper!

Lear more about St. Vincent de Paul’s two major reentry projects in Cincinnati:

The Help Program, founded by Br. Mike Murphy and provides the leadership development and community support for the returning citizens.

BLOC Print is a social enterprise that provides training and jobs.

In Support of Our Muslim Brothers and Sisters

headshot of Tom Dwyer

Tom Dwyer, National Voice of the Poor Committee Chair, Society of St. Vincent de Paul.

That one of my sons-in-law is a Muslim is only one reason why the new Vincentian Family Statement in Support of Our Muslim Brothers and Sisters is so meaningful to me.

The second is my fervent belief in the Vincentian and Gospel message to welcome the stranger among us and to demand social justice for those who are being ostracized, pushed to the margins (as Pope Francis so often notes and warns against), and discriminated against. As Vincentians and Catholics, we must speak for those whose voices are being muted and whose legitimate concerns and needs are being brushed aside in the “throw-away” culture that the Pope also regularly rails against.

Inad, my son-in-law and now the father of two of our grandchildren, was born and grew up in Amman, Jordan. He was educated there by French Jesuits. About five years ago, my wife and I traveled to Jordan to meet Inad’s family and enjoyed with them a wonderful post-wedding reception for my daughter and her new husband. They and their friends are warm and caring, as indeed the overwhelmingly vast majority of Muslims are. Like us, they value peace and desire a just and equal society where all are respected and dignity accorded to each. Experiencing this all first-hand, it pains me greatly now to hear the discriminatory, ignorant, unkind, and unwarranted comments that some in our society do not hesitate to make these days about Muslims.

In this hyper-sensitive atmosphere where so much invective is being hurled at those who are not exactly like us, especially our Muslim brothers and sisters, it is worth remembering the Gospel story of the Good Samaritan, as well as the Vincentian call to welcome and assist the stranger without regard to denomination or even lack of religion. The Pope’s message in the Jubilee Year of Mercy about the “Merciful and Kind” attributes Islam assigns to the Creator provides an especially compelling perspective.

To have a peaceful and loving society in which the human dignity of each person is respected, these messages from our Catholic Social Teaching and from our Vincentian heritage must be understood, heeded, and evidenced in our daily lives.

It is for these reasons that the Vincentian Family Social Justice Representatives prepared its Statement in Support of Our Muslim Brothers and Sisters. The statement draws its inspiration and language from the very recent Papal declaration of the Jubilee Year of Mercy and from Pope Francis’s 2013 Apostolic Exhortation “Joy of the Gospel.“

We pray that the spirit of St. Vincent de Paul and Blessed Frederic Ozanam will enable us to see true followers of Islam as neighbors and friends who share our values and aspirations for a better and more humane world.

Tom Dwyer is the Chair of the National Voice of the Poor Committee Chair, Society of St. Vincent de Paul.

 Go Deeper!

Our encounter, dialogue, and collaboration with brothers and sisters of other faiths is a witness to our unity as children of God and members of one human family.  Access resources here on how to reach out to other faith traditions.