Walking with Vincent….400 years later!
“Walking with Vincent….400 years later!”
Society of St. Vincent de Paul Trenton Diocesan Council
Keynote address by Father Patrick J. Griffin, CM
June 4, 2016
Let me begin by saying that I hope that I will not say anything new today. I am hoping that you know all the stories and principles which I will include in this presentation. I am grateful to rethink all these values with you and to deepen my own commitments to our charism. Needless to say, I am indebted to many of our Vincentian scholars for my presentation.
I lived in Paris for more than three years—2011-2014—that is to say, that I lived in the Vincentian heartland, surrounded by the symbols and places which exude the Vincentian character. Everywhere one looks, one sees something: the street where Vincent found the abandoned child, the Church where Louise was married, the hospital where Marguerite Naseau died, a chapel in which Catherine Labouré encountered the Blessed Mother, an office formerly occupied by Rosalie Rendu, a University at which Frederic Ozanam studied and taught. If you visited Paris with me, I would take you to those places. In lieu of that experience, let us visit three sites together and listen to a word associated with St. Vincent and our Vincentian heritage at each.
1) CHÂTILLON-LES-DOMBES: THE NEED FOR ORGANIZATION
Our first stop will be a parish which was one of Vincent’s earliest assignments— Châtillon-les-Dombes. The story associated with this site is very familiar and I am sure that you have heard it. But, like a good parable, it continues to nourish and nudge. Vincent writes:
On Sunday in Chatillon as I was vesting for Holy Mass word was brought to me that in an isolated house a quarter of a league away everyone was ill, not one being on his feet to help the others, and that all were in indescribable need. I had only to mention this in the sermon when God touched the hearts of those who heard me and they found themselves deeply moved with compassion for these poor afflicted ones.
God so blessed Vincent’s words that after the service a large number of people visited the sick family, carrying bread, wine, meat, and other provisions. After vespers, he himself went with some of the people of the parish, unaware that others had already gone. As we walk with him, we would meet these parishioners returning.
He said: “This undoubtedly shows that these people have great charity, but is it well organized? The poor sick family will be overwhelmed with so much in such a short time, most of which will spoil. Afterward they will be no better off than before.”
As the story goes, Vincent met with several zealous and generous women of the parish to seek ways of establishing greater organization in the way the sick poor could be helped in a more orderly fashion. With these women he was able to work out a plan for action. Thus began the Confraternity of Charity for the corporal and spiritual help of the sick poor, or as we might call them today, the Ladies of Charity (AIC).
This movement flowed from a fundamental insight of St. Vincent, and perhaps one of his most familiar characteristics:
“The poor suffer less from a lack of generosity than from a lack of organization.” (#126. Charity of Women,” VdP, CCD, 13b:8.)
One of the great graces of St. Vincent was his ability to organize and he did so in a manner which united compassion and justice. Through organization, generosity was brought closer to an expression of mercy and a response in loving care.
What are we taught? Well, (1) the goodness of people and their willingness to serve, (2) the necessity for a means of communication which helps to identify where the need is, (3) a system for responding to the situation with organization, (4) the importance of working locally, and (5) the value of sharing responsibility. Not the lessons for a genius, perhaps, but practical ones which serve the needs of the poor most effectively. This walk with Vincent to Chatillon in 1617 teaches us something worth knowing.
2) OLD SAINT LAZARE: “I FEEL YOUR PAIN.”
As we walk with St. Vincent around Paris, we would soon be led to a place which was very familiar to him, Louise de Marillac, and his earliest followers. It is the place where Vincent lived with many of his confreres during most of his life—the site of the Old Saint Lazare. Currently, you would find a neighborhood in Paris. St. Louise and her Sisters lived nearby. Their parish Church was only minutes away and still stands. At this place, I would tell you of its history from the early days of the ministry of St. Vincent and St. Louise up to its seizure during the French Revolution on July 13, 1876—the day before the storming of the Bastille. In the little park which rests within the confines of the old estate, there is a stone column into which is carved an image of St. Vincent and a single phrase:
« J’ai peine de votre peine »
We might translate this phrase colloquially as “I feel your pain.” (The phrase comes from a letter of Vincent to Louise.) What gives this statement a certain poignancy in the current era is that the small park in which the column is located is mostly inhabited by the street people of Paris. They sit around on the benches, or lie on the grass, or wander about. I think that Vincent or Louise would be very comfortable here—even though we visitors might not be.
An undeniable element in the character of St. Vincent was his ability to enter into the feelings of the poor. He knew what it was to feel the pain of others—and this is at the heart of the virtue of compassion.
St. Vincent reflects:
We must likewise be moved by our neighbor’s suffering and share his sorrow. O Saint Paul, how sensitive you were on this point! O Savior, You who filled that Apostle with Your Spirit and compassion, help us say with him, Quis infirmatur, et ego non infirmor? Is anyone sick and I am not sick along with him?
Vincent felt and understood compassion—he felt the pain of others. If we go to the Church of Saint Severin, we find the window of him bringing an abandoned child to the Church for Baptism, and then to the Sisters for further care. If we go to the Church of St. Nicholas des Champs, two of the famous pictures of him are found: him helping an afflicted man into his carriage and his willingness to exchange chains with a galley slave. Throughout the city of Paris, there are numerous images of Vincent caring for the abandoned, the infirm, the hungry, and frequently the children. Vincent’s compassionate heart embraced those who were poor in every place he looked, and he enabled others to take on that attitude. He “felt the pain of the poor” and he encouraged those who walked with him to take on that same sensitivity.
One of Vincent’s most stirring talks is given to the Ladies of Charity as he invites them to a bold response in the care of the foundlings. Their charity became tepid over time due to busyness and expenditure. You know the challenge which they felt. Vincent confronts them with an infant:
“Well then, Ladies, compassion and charity have led you to adopt these little creatures as your own children; you have been their mothers according to grace since the time their mothers according to nature abandoned them. See now whether you, too, want to abandon them. Stop being their mother to be their judges at present; their life and death are in your hands. I’m going to take the vote; it’s time to pass sentence on them and to find out whether you are no longer willing to take pity on them. If you continue to take charitable care of them, they will live; if, on the contrary, you abandon them, they will most certainly perish and die; experience does not allow you to doubt that.” (SVdP, 196. – “The Work of the Foundlings” . CCD 13b. pp. 423-24)
It is not just the eloquence and passion which is evident in Vincent’s words here, but the commitment which he holds out to his supporters. Charity cannot be on-and-off. Will they act boldly in the care of these infants or not? He offers no middle ground. Decide. It can oftentimes be that way with charity. It cannot be for a limited time and according to our schedule, but according to the needs of those who are poor and who (sometimes) cannot plead for themselves. (This is the message which is at the heart of the story of the Good Samaritan.) Their care calls forth a bold and ongoing response. We do not become numbed but continue to feel the pain of others.
As we walk around St. Lazare with Vincent, we can feel the needs of its current inhabitants—people who are hungry, dirty and troubled. Like St. Vincent, we are invited to feel their pain and to discover a way of responding within our limited abilities. And we do not need to go to Paris to take this walk.
3) NEW ST LAZARE: “EVERYWHERE HE WENT, GOOD THINGS HAPPENED”
On this brief Vincentian tour, we can now go to the New St. Lazare. We will conclude in the Chapel of St. Vincent de Paul. St. Vincent never knew this location. It was given to the Congregation some years after the settling down following the Revolution (about 1817). This church is located on the same campus where the St. John’s University students live (and where I used to live). The body of St. Vincent is found here in the Church. In an arch over the main altar there is a phrase describing St. Vincent in two Latin words (the phrase is taken from the New Testament book of the Acts of the Apostles 10:38). The phrase is “Pertransiit benefaciendo.” If your Latin is as rusty as mine, you would have to look that phrase up as I did. It means “He went about doing good” or (as I like to translate it) “Wherever he went, good things happened.” It is a great and simple description of St. Vincent de Paul as it was for the Lord Jesus. It captures the spirit of the mission and the Vincentian charism. Above and surrounding this phrase are images of the men and women who express Vincent’s spirit in their work. They are preaching the gospel and carrying out works of mercy—teaching the children, feeding the hungry, giving clothing to those without, ministering to the sick, and leading the homeless to shelter. In 17th Century France, Vincent de Paul and his followers were powerful forces in these works of gentleness and compassion. All individuals and institutions which take him as a model must be the same: take advantage of the opportunity to do some good. Wherever we go, good things should happen.
The body of St. Vincent was brought to this Church on April 26, 1830. Walking with Vincent in this procession would undoubtedly be two familiar figures in our Vincentian history: Catherine Labouré—a young seminary sister whom the Blessed Mother would visit in another 3 months on the rue du Bac; and Rosalie Rendu. If the procession had taken one year later, someone else would probably have been in that procession: Frédéric Ozanam.
(My obvious source for so much about Rosalie is Sr. Louise Sullivan’s wonderful book: Sister Rosalie Rendu: A Daughter of Charity On Fire with Love for the Poor.)
In 1830, in the Mouffetard district of Paris, Sr. Rosalie Rendu and the Daughters of Charity worked. The release of the movie “Les Misérables” last year gives a particular flavor to that district and our walk. (Usually I sing one of the songs at this point, but not today.) The story of “Les Misérables” takes place between 1815 and 1832—mostly in Paris. During this period, Sr. Rosalie had already been in the Mouffetard District for a long time and would remain there for another 25 years—more than 50 years. It was the poorest part of Paris. The movie captures something of the condition of people who were hungry, homeless, and impoverished during that time of war and plague. In this situation, Sr. Rosalie Rendu, a Daughter of Charity, a member of the Vincentian Family, ministered with her sisters and collaborators to the poor of Paris. Again—food, shelter, clothing, education, and kindness were provided to those most in need. And this would be done with compassion and organization. From our tour through the Mouffetard District, we could go to the cemetery where Sr. Rosalie is buried. Hers was one of the great funerals of 18th century Paris, some 60,000 people of all walks of life lined the streets and participated in the procession of this simple Sister who served the poor in the model of St. Vincent de Paul.
When I have visited her grave, I have noted on her tombstone, the line with which I was already familiar: “To our good mother, Sr. Rosalie, from her friends, the poor and the rich.” And there is another line there, smaller and higher. Can you guess what it is? Two words! Yes, “Pertransiit benefaciendo,” “She went about doing good.” What could be truer or more appropriate for a Sister who lived the mission of St. Vincent de Paul—who followed in his footsteps? What might be a more flattering description of a member of the SVdP!
(An important source for me around Ozanam is the text by Madeleine des Rivières, Ozanam.)
Let us look at Ozanam through the lens of the three phrases which we have presented in relation to Vincent and Rosalie.
As we know, on November 5, 1831, an 18 year-old intellectual, Frédéric Ozanam arrived in Paris from Lyon to study at the Sorbonne.
His experiences are familiar to all of us, but again merit a retelling—as the stories above. Let me highlight three elements which are in keeping with our walking with Vincent.
- “The poor suffer more from a lack of organization than a lack of charity”
Frederic lived his Christian life in the practical order.
One of those who debated with him about the value of the Church suggested:
“Ozanam, Christianity has done wonders in the past, but what is it doing now in Paris for the poor? Show us what practical benefit the working man reaps from your religion and we too will believe in it.”
This was the impetus which started Frederic and his friends to begin to think about the way in which they could respond to the real needs of their time. Ozanam admitted:
“I must admit to you, however, that we feel inadequate and that a better organized charity [my emphasis] is called for” (Madeleine des Rivères, Ozanam, p. 42)
This began them on the journey to the SVdP just as this realization moved Vincent to the Charities.
- “He went about doing good.”
He was drawn to collaboration with other members of the Vincentian Family (This next section is heavily “borrowed” from Sr. Louise.)
We know that Frederic and his friends were inexperienced, but he was directed by his friend Bailly to seek out a Daughter of Charity, Sr. Rosalie Rendu. (The Latin Quarter where the students lived was right next to the Mouffetard.) It would be this woman, the then 47 year old Sr. Rosalie Rendu who would accompany them on their first steps in visiting those who were poor in their homes.
She did not simply refer families and supply vouchers for food or clothing to these young men. She shared with these students her heartfelt conviction on the manner in which each poor person was to be served. These young men listened. They placed themselves at the school of this humble Daughter of Charity.
Because her “beloved poor” trusted her, they trusted them. When their visits were over, the students returned to her little parlor to recount what had happened and to receive her advice and encouragement—practicing “apostolic reflection.” This practice could also be important for us as we think about our actions in light of the Gospel message.
Rosalie would often repeat to her companions: “Oh, how good these young people are, oh, how good they are.” (Sr. Louise Sullivan) Like Jesus, Vincent, and Rosalie, they went about doing good. Let it also be said of us.
- “I feel your pain”
Ozanam was instructed in compassion and love for the poor
Melun (a contemporary) writes of Rosalie guiding these early volunteers (Sullivan, Sister Rosalie Rendu, pp. 210-11):
She recommended to them patience, which never considers the time spent listening to a poor person as wasted, since this person already takes comfort in the good will that we demonstrate by attending to the recitation of their sufferings; understanding, more inclined to pity than to condemn faults that a good upbringing did not ward off; and finally, politeness, so sweet to a person who has never experienced anything but disdain and contempt.
“Oh! my dear children, . . . love those who are poor, don’t blame them too much. The world says, “It’s their fault. They are cowardly, . . . ignorant, . . . vicious, [and] . . . lazy.” It is with such words that we dispense ourselves from the very strict obligation of charity. Hate the sin but love the poor persons [who commit it]. If we had suffered as they have, if we had spent our childhood deprived of all Christian inspiration, we would be far from their equal.”
This care, this entering into the life and experience of the poor in their homes and a careful listening to their stories was to—and still does—characterize the members of the SVdP.
And so, we have completed for today this little “walk with St. Vincent” as we remember and celebrate some 400 years of service and ministry in the Vincentian Family. It is an important game of “follow the leader.” But we must remember who the leader actually is: we follow Christ. Vincent followed Christ, and Louise followed Vincent following Christ, and Rosalie followed Louise following Vincent following Christ, and Frederic followed Rosalie following Louise following Vincent following Christ, and we follow . . . you get the point. As members of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, we are followers of Christ who keep our eyes on those who have gone before us in a 400 year version of “follow-the-leader.” They have shown the way. Christ is always the leader and our walk is always with him, but with such pleasant playmates and companions. All of them teach us the values of organization, collaboration, and compassion. We model that for others. May St. Vincent’s example inspire us; may God’s Holy Spirit continue to guide us; and may Mary through the gift of the Miraculous Medal intercede for us.