What Set Vincent’s Heart on Fire?
Vincent’s heart was not always on fire
Underneath his genius at networking and organizing beat a heart on fire. But Vincent’s heart was not always on fire for the poor. Something profound seemed to change in Vincent’s life in his late 30’s. The change was so remarkable that some speak of Vincent 1.0 and Vincent 2.0.
What was this shift? Vincent 1.0 was a bright ambitious cleric seeking to escape poverty and work his way up the ecclesiastical ladder. How did he become Vincent 2.0, a man on fire with God’s love in Jesus as he experienced it in both prayer and in people, especially the poor and the world in which they lived?
The little-explored role of his love for scripture
Most say that he was changed by his experiences in his ministry at the time. But many had the same experiences he had and were not as moved as he was. Others have noted his immersion in scripture at this time. Prior to this time, he makes little reference to scripture. (See the fascinating analysis of St. Vincent’s use of Scripture by Jose´ Carlos Fonsatti, C.M.)
Under the influence of one of his mentors, he came to appreciate the scriptures as a lens through which to view the events of his life. He not only studied the scripture, but he also seemed to live and breathe the scriptures especially the Gospels. He allowed the scriptures to shape the way he interpreted his life. It was as if he were reading the book of the events of his life in one hand and the scriptures in the other hand.
After this time, it was clear scripture was the lens through which he viewed his experiences. His writings are filled with the words of scripture. This was so remarkable that St. Francis de Sales called him “a walking gospel.” Indeed, he became a true “man of the Gospel.” This at a time when printed Bibles were not readily available. Few actually read the Bible.
Reading his conferences and his letters, we begin to feel like the disciples of Emmaus: hearts burning while “beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interprets for us the Scriptures.”
Former Superior General Robert Maloney recently reminded us that
“…for Vincent de Paul, a single focus inspired everything: the person of Jesus. But Vincent had a particular view of Christ from the Gospels. Vincent’s spirituality flows from the contemplation of this Christ in the Gospel. This Christ, the Evangelizer and Servant of the Poor, was the driving force that generated both the incredible activity and the daily prayer of Vincent de Paul. Vincent encouraged his followers to contemplate this Christ again and again.”
He often tells his companions to “honor” this or that mystery of the life of Christ. He means to see how your experience mirrors an experience of Christ in the Gospels. It means discovering the echoes of the situations of Christ’s life in our experiences today.
So, the keystone in Vincentian spirituality is this: following Christ as Evangelizer and Servant of the Poor.
Living the scriptures
- How often do you read the Gospels outside the Eucharist?
- Have you ever tried to see the echoes of Christ’s life in your life?
- What would it be like to read with the pages of scripture in one hand the and current page of your life in the other?
The above is an excerpt from my longer essay A Heart on Fire Shaped Our Church Today. It appeared in the inaugural issue of a newsletter celebrating the beginnings of the Eastern Province of the Congregation of the Mission 170 year ago.