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Monsieur Vincent’s home among the poor

Peter Fleming  |  18 May 2020

A young St Vincent de Paul was attracted to the priesthood because of his desire for a comfortable life. But his true home was found on a different path.

To many people, St Vincent de Paul is nothing more than a name on the outside of op-shops. A few might even ask misguidedly, ‘Since when does a saint name a franchise after himself?’

Of course, the Society of St Vincent de Paul – whose Christian charitable work reaches far beyond the shops alone – was never set up by Vincent himself. True, he established missions of service to the poor and marginalised, and was an innovator in ways of sharing Christ’s love – but his name is prominent to us because his example moved a much later Christian, Blessed Frederick Ozanam (1813-1853) to establish a society in his image.

Vincent himself preferred to be called what the poor people of Clichy began calling him when he was made their local pastor in 1612 – ‘Monsieur Vincent’. He was embarrassed that the ‘de Paul’ part of his name – derived from the Paul River which flowed nearby his peasant home in Gascony – suggested he was nobly born.

NO AMBITITION FOR SAINTHOOD

For such a beacon of charity, Vincent’s path to sainthood did not begin well. His youthful hopes went no further than to become a priest so that he might be granted a comfortable position, perhaps that of a spiritual adviser to a noble family. He desired comfort, and an early retirement with benefits. But, to be fair, it is often said that charity begins at home – and at least a part of his ambition was to bring some of any wealth home to his poor parents.

There is doubt, even, about the veracity of a tale he told, of being kidnapped by pirates and sold into slavery in North Africa. Hollywood would leap to make a movie of his daring exploits, and of his escape back to France in the company of his third master, a runaway priest who had converted to Islam but who was moved by Vincent his slave to return to Christendom. Scholars doubt the details – but no one doubts Vincent’s later commitment to oppose slavery. He and his followers managed to raise enough money to redeem 1,200 galley slaves out of captivity, and his letters contain passages of condemnation of the slave trade.

Vincent did achieve his early ambition – he was appointed a tutor to a wealthy household, that of the Gondi banking family. Later, he acted as spiritual adviser to Queen Anne, Regent of France, herself. He could have lived that life of luxury he had yearned for. He could have settled for an empty shell of spirituality. The third temptation of Christ could have taken away his heart.

PROFOUND CHANGE

Hagiographers say his turning point came in 1617 when he guided a poor dying farmer through his General Confession, and saw the liberation and joy the man had after he made it. After this, we see a profound change in Vincent: he devoted himself to the poor, to the establishing of several charitable missions – including the Daughters of Charity, the first sisterhood of women to tend the poor and sick not as nuns living in convents, but throughout cities and countryside. He also made a priority of training priests in authentic Christian values – the very opposite of what his early ambitions had led him to imagine the life of a priest might be.

But it is wrong to think just one moment made all the difference. Monsieur Vincent’s change of heart, his spiritual development and his mature commitment to the cry of the poor suggest the patient sculpting of a soul – the unmistakable mark of our timeless friend, the Holy Spirit.

 

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