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 Ive
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 Pauls 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. Thats 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 dont think that our living mortal company is
saintly, but lets be honest, it is hard sometimes to see the heroic virtue
among our contemporaries. In any case, Francis de Sales quite made Vincent
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? Whats 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 Im
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 didnt start. And all the while, he sensed from
the beginning, I must find among that segment of the faithful that is most concerned
about peoples 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 Pauls 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 Trents 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, cant 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 thats how the women eventually became the Daughters
The Daughters of Charity
Then the Daughters of Charity. As you would expect, even if you didnt 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 womens community
engaged outside the cloister in active apostolic work, approved by the Holy
See, that opened the door to all other womens congregations since, listen to
this, were the servant girls of these ladies. Talk about God using the little
things, right? Why didnt God make religious out of the ladies? Two guesses.
One, they were ladies. And secondly, they had money!
One of the most incredible letters Ive 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, isnt 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
womens institutes. God didnt 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
youve 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, dont
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, youve got to have some very dedicated persons.
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 werent 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. Hes 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. Isnt
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 Vincents day, is to provide care
and attention for these girls.
Its one thing as, the women who stand outside these abortion mills tell me,
its one thing to dissuade the girl from having an abortion. Yes, but that
doesnt solve her problem. We dont 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 Im sorry to say
we dont 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 its 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 its 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.
Heres a man Id 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 Pauls spirituality. First of all, for Vincent, you begin to
be spiritual when you distinguish your will from Gods Will. Hows that? You
know there are some people who dont even know that those are two different
wills? They are so accustomed to doing what they want, and are sure its what
God wants, that they are a little surprised. In any case, thats Vincent.
That Gods Will may tell us to do things that would be the last thing, if we
had our choice, wed do. God is full of surprises. He always does the unexpected.
And once I realize that its Gods 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 cant believe that one person did it, you just cant. 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 Churchs
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 didnt 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. Its one thing to
know that something should be done. Its even something else to know that Ive
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 Gods designs. Now of course he was not above, you might say, helping Gods
designs to be fulfilled. He talked to the right people. But he never wanted
to run ahead of Gods grace. Its 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 Gods providence in everything, it was Vincent. In
other words, he didnt 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? Thats 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 Gods Will; and for Vincent, as we have been saying, if Gods 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
Im 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 Im clear
in stressing this.
Now what Ive discovered, I am not as such engaged in, say, the corporal works
of mercy. And the gentleman that Ive mentioned whom I got a nights lodging,
or two nights lodging to be exact, is an exception. But my job, and I think
this can apply in measure to all of us, weve 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! Ive read more books than I can wave a stick
at. I do still average a book a day. But its not more reading of books:
either Im in daily contact with the mind of God, or I wouldnt 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.
Youll pardon my saying this, it doesnt 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 Ive 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 Gods 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, Gods 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 Gods directing
human minds and wills to their destiny. But, if providence on Gods 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 Gods 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, youve taken the step. In
other words youve consulted God. Right. You take a step. Then what do you
do? You consult him again. Now the phrase is his, by the way. Thats why
I used it.
All I can tell you then, its 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, wed
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 doesnt
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 Im in Gods presence
right away. And I dont 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. Thats Vincent.
Sixth: Maintain Peace of Soul - A Sign of Doing God's Will
Sixth, maintain peace of soul, a sign of doing Gods 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 persons 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 Gods
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 Gods way of saying yes, its My Will? Its
Or as Ive 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 doesnt 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 dont 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 Gods 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. Heres 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 dont 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, Hell make sure. Hell make
the sun shine and the rain fall, and in spite of the rocky soil, its 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,
thats 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, dont get bored, because this is what all the saints honestly
believed. And that means therefore, that I shall be as responsive to Gods
Will as I am sure that of myself I wouldnt know what I need, and I wouldnt
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 its superiors, they and it are responsive
to the Churchs 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 Vincents day.
I think I told you, didnt 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
cant possibly remember the name, but what he told me, Ive memorized: Would
you mind telling sisters for me that they do not give a good example in the
buildings they erect that are an architects 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