While on retreat recently, I noticed a number of bumble bees feeding upon some small, pink and white begonias. Yes, they were “busy as bees,” but there was no sense of senseless activity; rather, it was orderly and quite calming. The bees were simply being what they were created to be. I was reminded of the Gospel of Matthew in which Jesus asks his followers: Why are you anxious? The lilies of the field don’t toil or spin and, yet, God takes care of them. And the bees? They were being taken care of, too.
Of course, bees are not human beings; the needs of human beings are more complex than those of bumble bees. Human beings need love, compassion, intimacy—a wide range of spiritual and corporal supports in order to thrive as God’s children. God commands us to love our neighbor as ourselves and so we depend on one another for our well-being. Just as we need God for our very being, so we need the care of our brothers and sisters. St. Vincent de Paul knew this well and devoted his life to the service of the poor.
Born in 1581 to peasant farmers in the village of Puoy, Vincent was educated at a college in Dax, the University of Toulouse and, later, at the University of Paris. Vincent received his clerical education in a time when the reforms of the Council of Trent were still being implemented. It was a time when seminary formation was often very poor and lax and those in training for the priesthood were more interested in benefices and rich parishes than in “ordinary,” parish ministry. Although the Council of Trent ordered that men were not to be ordained before the age of twenty-four, Vincent was ordained a priest at the age of nineteen in 1600. He was unable to accept a pastorate immediately, because of his age and so he decided to continue his education. Vincent would later help in reforming priestly formation by preaching retreats to clergy and by helping to develop a seminary program, which would provide priests with a well-formed education. It’s very important for us priests to truly learn a deep priestly identity, through a devout priestly prayer life. Over 350 years later Pope St. John Paul II would later help priestly formation greatly with his brilliant work, “Pastores Dabo Vobis” and “Theology of the Body.”
One of the most important events in Vincent’s life occurred in 1605 when he was traveling by boat from Marseilles to Narbonne. Vincent was captured by Barbary pirates and held as a slave for two years. Fortunately, he was eventually purchased by a former Christian who had left the Catholic faith to become Moslem to escape slavery and who, having regretted leaving Christianity, escaped with Vincent back to France. This experience had a profound effect on Vincent and his future ministry to convicts condemned to the galleys.
After his rescue, Vincent spent time in Paris and came under the influence of the French mystic and future cardinal Pierre de Berulle. Although Vincent could have accepted many high positions within the French royal family, he chose to become the pastor of the parish in the town of Clichy in 1612 with the support of Berulle. It was in Clichy that Vincent, for the first time in his priesthood, entered fully into the pastoral care of his flock: visiting the sick, helping the poor, instructing his parishioners in the faith, etc.
In 1615, Vincent soon became chaplain and tutor to the Gondi family. Though living in one of the great houses of France, Vincent lived a very simple and monkish life, tutoring the children of the Count and serving the needs of the estate’s peasants. It was during this time that Vincent decided to focus his ministerial efforts on the needs of the poor.
During a short period when he was away from the Gondi family, Vincent decided to create confraternities to serve the poor. This was in the town of Chatillon where Vincent saw the need to direct and organize the works of charity, which parishioners were more than willing to carry out. Several confraternities were organized by Vincent in several towns to provide for the spiritual and corporal needs of the poor. In 1617 he gathered together wealthy women of Paris to establish hospitals, support the victims of war and to ransom 1,200 galley slaves from North Africa. With the help of Louise de Marillac, Vincent founded the Daughters of Charity.
In 1622, Vincent became the royal chaplain to those condemned to the galleys. Of this grueling and challenging work Vincent stated:
Even convicts, with whom I have spent some time, are not won over in any other way. Whenever I happened to speak sharply to them, I spoiled everything; on the contrary, when I praised them for their resignation and sympathized with them in their sufferings; when I told them they were fortunate to have their purgatory in this world, when I kissed their chains, showed compassion for their distress, and expressed sorrow for their misfortune, it was then that they listened to me, gave glory to God, and opened themselves to salvation.
Vincent quickly realized that the galleys were harsh environments, which hardened the condemned men, and so he strove to show them compassion. When he returned to Paris, he visited the prisons which provided the galleys with convicts and found them equally challenging. He would visit the prisoners each day, instructing them in the faith and celebrating the sacraments.
Wherever Vincent went he visited the poor and sought to alleviate their misery. Even in the midst of ridicule he held fast to his work, seeking alms and going door-to-door to seek out those in desperate need of help. Eventually he won over his fellow clergy and the people of the towns who began to support Vincent and his work among the poor.
With funds provided by the Countess de Joigny (Gondi) Vincent began the Congregation of the Mission, which was recognized by the bishop of Paris in 1626. In 1633, the society became a congregation with papal approval with Vincent de Paul as its leader and with its headquarters in the priory of St. Lazarus in Paris. Houses were quickly set up throughout France and missions sent out to other countries both in Europe and overseas.
Over the years, despite declining health, Vincent oversaw the growth of the Congregation and actively participated in its work of serving the poor, educating the clergy, and establishing missions around the world. On September 27, 1660 Vincent died in Paris at the age of eighty-five. He was beatified in 1729 and canonized in 1737.
St. Vincent de Paul was not a romantic when it came to serving the poor. One of his most famous sayings attests to this:
You will find out that Charity is a heavy burden to carry, heavier than the kettle of soup and the full basket. But you will keep your gentleness and your smile. It is not enough to give soup and bread. This the rich can do. You are the servant of the poor, always smiling and good-humored. They are your masters, terribly sensitive and exacting master you will see. And the uglier and the dirtier they will be, the more unjust and insulting, the more love you must give them. It is only for your love alone that the poor will forgive you the bread you give to them.
Vincent’s devotion never wavered and he willingly gave his life to serve the poorest of the poor. Like St. Teresa of Calcutta, Vincent saw Christ in the faces of the poor and sought to serve Christ through his work. His witness continues today not only in the various religious congregations which trace their origins to St. Vincent de Paul, but also in the St. Vincent de Paul Society, founded in 1833 by the layman, Frederic Ozanam, and which is an international organization which serves those suffering from natural disasters and war.
Like Vincent de Paul, we priests are called to model our ministry on that of Jesus. We know that Jesus came to seek out and call sinners and serve those who were poor, sick, outcasts, all those rejected by society. Christ himself became poor for our sake. While foxes have lairs and birds have nests (and bumble bees have their colonies), Jesus depended on others for his immediate needs. And in serving others he recognized the need to minister to the “whole” person, lavishing the mercy of God in all its spiritual and corporal expressions.
Christ did not grasp his divinity, but became a slave in order to show the deep love and desire of God for the salvation of the world. Vincent de Paul recognized the importance of entering fully into the experiences of those most in need, drawing from Christ’s own life a desire to live poorly in order to follow in the footsteps of the Master. As Vincent de Paul stated: “The poor have much to teach you; You have much to learn from them.” If we truly want to model our priestly ministry after that of Jesus, we must not only embrace poverty and a radical dependence on God, but also to be disciples who are called not be served, but to serve without counting the cost. This St. Vincent could accomplish from his virginal heart, which flowed from the virginal heart of the Father and Son with the Holy Spirit. Amen.
To Download this Saint Reflection as a PDF File, Click Here: St. Vincent de Paul
Fr. Mike Mayer is a priest of the Diocese of Rochester, New York. He was ordained in 1998 and has served as parochial vicar at St. Pius Tenth Church, pastor of St. Andrew/St. Philip Neri/Church of the Annunciation in the city of Rochester and currently serves as parochial vicar of Our Lady of Peace Parish in Geneva, New York. He also serves as spiritual advisor for the Rochester chapter of St. Paul Street Evangelization and is currently working to establish The Margaret Home (after St. Margaret of Cortona), a residential program for single, pregnant women and children.