This is the second in a series of articles about “pro-life heroes”. Their outstanding example will show us how heroic obedience to the Gospel can result in a single a man or woman having a major impact on the society and culture around them. Their efforts are foundation stones to the culture of life we are trying to build! Click here to read the first article about St. Basil the Great.
Our second Pro-Life Hero is often referred to as ‘Charity’s Saint’ – St Vincent de Paul1. He is the Patron Saint of Charities.
His heroic example and leadership was forged during a time a great turmoil and decline. His apostolic zeal, action, and advocacy echo our first Pro-Life Hero, St Basil the Great.
There are many sayings attributed to St. Vincent de Paul. One that illustrates the laser-like focus he developed on seeking the will of God was: “And what are we doing if we are not doing God’s Will?”
The early years
Vincent de Paul was born on April 24th 1581, in France.2 His parents, Jean de Paul and Bertrande de Moras were farmers. They were not peasants, but were quite poor.
Vincent was very bright. His father realised this, as did their Parish Priest (and their Bishop), and so funds were found for Vincent’s schooling at Dax (about 80 km west of Pouy). He went on to study at the University of Saragossa in Spain, with a view to becoming a Priest.
At that time, a ‘career’ as a Priest was a thing of status. With the right patrons, it could be rewarding financially, and be a path to financial security for the Priest’s family, as well as providing a potentially prestigious career for the Priest.
He was Ordained in 1600 by the Bishop of Perigueux, but continued his studies – at the University in Toulouse to take a degree of Doctor of Theology.
The young Fr. Vincent de Paul
Some biographers suggest that at first Vincent wasn’t particularly holy or zealous. Initially he seemed to pursue status and a secure career ahead of anything else. Perhaps this can be put down to the hopes and dreams his parents had?
Nevertheless, he had astonished people by dodging the temptation to invite wealthy and influential potential patrons to his post-ordination First Mass (an approach favoured for the possibility of securing a beneficial appointment). He said his First Mass alone – apart from the required Acolyte and Server – in a poor and remote Chapel. Maybe a sign of things to come!
His early priestly career did suggest someone enamoured with the finer things of life – fine clothes and furnishings, fine dining, and the like. He also made good connections with wealthy patrons, and with senior influential clergy.
His saintly zeal for helping the poor, downtrodden, wounded, abused, and under-privileged did not become truly evident until much later.
A key event that seems to have had a profound impact on the future saint’s life was his being kidnapped by Arabian pirates, and sold off as a slave.3 The details don’t matter too much, but what is apparent is that after about 3 years of slavery he was able to return to France.
He resumed his Priestly work, re-establishing contacts from before. But from this point on, his attitude and approach were markedly different, becoming more and more driven by a desire to serve the poorest, neediest, and most down-trodden in society. His advantageous connections with wealthy and powerful people were also to be of significant assistance in this future missionary work.
The Turmoil of the Times – Backdrop to Societal Ills
“There is a complex knot of forces underlying any nation once Christian; a smouldering of the old fires.” –Hilaire Belloc4
St Vincent de Paul had been born at a time when the de-Christianisation of the world – western civilization in particular – was well advanced.5
The Protestant revolt was already 100 years old. A rapid splintering of protestant groups, and even the resurgence of pagan practices, were features of the time. So too was the Counter-Reformation. There were frequent and at times lengthy ‘religious wars’ raging across Europe – a dire consequence of all this turmoil.
The so-called ‘Enlightenment’ had cascaded across Europe, and was re-shaping societal attitudes. Contemporary non-Catholic philosophers were promoting a primary focus on the ‘individual’ ahead of ‘neighbour’. This was embraced by many elite and powerful members of society, and saw a rapid erosion and decay in societal norms.
The combined effect of all this change, and of wars and social degradation, was devastating for the poor and powerless in society. There were many victim groups including refugees, widows, prostitutes, galley slaves, impoverished families, abandoned children, war-wounded, and many others.
Charity for Life
Paris was a city full of contrasts, and epitomised both the best and the worst of Western civilisation. It featured the most sublime of architecture, arts and culture, and the homes of the wealthy and powerful. It was also home to the direst of slums, with many destitute victims of the societal changes described above.
The works of charity that St. Vincent de Paul initiated were above all for life. They were about saving lives, both physically and spiritually. They were most certainly driven out of concern for the state of the lives of one’s neighbour, but also for bringing people to know, believe in, and accept Christ who is Life. His primary concern was always to preach the Good News to the most materially and spiritually destitute.
A specifically ‘pro-life’ example is when the future saint learned in 1652 that a guild of midwives were performing abortions in the slums of Paris. His response was rapid and comprehensive:
- Organising relief and medical supervision for those babies who had somehow survived abortions, and for any women who had been injured by the procedures.
- Lobbying Magistrates to apply proper justice and ensure the rule of law.
- Pushing and cajoling senior Churchmen to ensure and maintain proper spiritual discipline.
- Lobbying influential merchants and people of commerce to raise their voices in concern, and to exercise any prerogatives their positions of influence allowed.
- Initiating a complete investigation of the trade, thereby drawing public attention to it.
St Vincent exhorted his fellow Christians thus:
“When’ere God’s people gather, there is life in the midst of them –
yea, Christ’s gift to us as a people is life, and that more abundantly.
To protect the least of these, our brethren,
with everything that God has place at our disposal is not merely facultative, it is exigent.
In addition though, it is among the greatest and most satisfying of our sundry stewardships.”6
Entrepreneur of True Charity
The informal title of ‘Charity’s Saint’ reflects his truly remarkable concern for the poor, the disempowered, the needy, the wounded, but most of all those who did not know Christ. Love drove him. His brilliant organisational abilities and leadership ensured effectiveness in responses.
The Vincentian Fathers summarise this by talking about “The Vincentian question – What must be done?”.
This derives from the same question being asked of him by Madame de Gondi (his patron/employer at the time) in response to what they witnessed as they travelled through the de Gondi estates – the spiritual abandonment of the people in the villages of her estate.7
Charity must be done!
How must it be done? Collaboratively – with:
- skill / capability,
- and; most of all with great love and respect for those being served.
The Legacy of Charity’s Saint
The entrepreneurship of charitable enterprises that St Vincent de Paul demonstrated has ensured a living legacy in multiple ways:
- Ladies of Charity – 1623
Initially a lay organisation of aristocratic women who he had evangelized and then to whom he had presented the needs of the poor, and then proposed responses – especially the nursing of the sick and of neglected and abandoned children.
[This has broadened from the associations of lay women he had initiated, and is now referred to as Confraternities of Charity, to be found in many Parishes the world over.]
- Congregation of Priests of the Mission – 1625
Founded to preach missions to the poor (and to also help form and inform other Priests via retreats) – it was established as a ‘Society of Apostolic Life’. The Lazarists as they are popularly known are over 3,000 strong today, and present across the globe. Seminary training of Priests in France became modelled on what the Saint established for this Congregation.
- Daughters of Charity – 1633
Co-founded with St. Louise de Marillac, who had undertaken missions for St Vincent de Paul, and had attracted other young women to join her in this work. It is also Society of Apostolic Life involving simple annual vows, which serves those in abject poverty of circumstance.10
[They are over 13,000 strong today, serving the poorest and most abandoned in 96 countries!]
- The Vincentian Congregation – 1904 (initially in India)
Established as a clerical society of Pontifical Right, belonging to the Syro-Malabar Archiepiscopal Church – taking on the Vincentian challenge to evangelize among and serve the poor.
- Society of St Vincent de Paul – 1800s
Established initially by Blessed Frederic Ozanam, these lay organisations were established to extend the missionary and charitable work initiated and inspired by St Vincent de Paul. They are perhaps the best known of all Catholic charities globally, with tens of thousands of members.
1 Some of the information I have relied on for this article comes from the second chapter of the book Third Time Around – A History of the Pro-Life Movement from the First Century to the Present, but George Grant – Wolgemuth & Hyatt Publishers, 1991. I highly recommend this very readable book, which is available cheaply in down-loadable PDF format here: http://www.garynorth.com/freebooks/docs/210e_47e.htm
2 There is some debate about his date of birth. Many biographies of St. Vincent de Paul, (supported by the Vincentian Fathers) suggest that he was just 19 when ordained in the year 1600, which is where the year of 1591 derives from as his birth-year. Stories are told that he had to refuse an initial appointment to a parish following his ordination because technically he should not have been ordained before the age of 23 under the rules then prevailing. The Congregation for Mission recollections are that he was actually granted a special exemption to be able to be ordained at such a young age.
3 There is some debate about the details of this period of the young Priest’s life during this period of captivity. He himself was not inclined to give details about it, and some historians dispute the oft-repeated story of his capture and enslavement.
4 Quote from “The Servile State” by Hilaire Belloc – sourced from https://standardebooks.org/ebooks/hilaire-belloc/the-servile-state/text/conclusion
5 The Medieval period (approximately 5th to 15th centuries) had seen widespread acceptance of Catholic Christian thought and principles. The results were far reaching – e.g. the increase in Universities led to philosophical and theological thought development which in turn underpinned distinctly Christian social attitudes; economic development was widespread through agricultural (e.g. rotational cropping), technological (e.g. vertical windmills), crafts and trades (e.g. guilds supporting specialised artisan skills); the rule of law (e.g. systematic application of laws through legal precedent and qualification of judges).
6 Quoted in ‘Monsieur Vincent’ by Jean-Marc Anoulih (Parish: Delarge Press 1928, pp 98-99). Referenced in Third Time Around Ibid.
7 Vincent de Paul – ‘Charity’s Saint’ – see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vqSpwwojTcs
8“Your convent,” St. Vincent de Paul had said to the first Daughter’s of Charity, “will be the house of the sick; your cell, a hired room; your chapel, the parish church; your cloister, the streets of the city or the wards of the hospital.”