Vincent de Paul (1581–1660)
VINCENT DE PAUL (1581–1660)
VINCENT DE PAUL (1581–1660), founder of the Congregation of the Mission and of the Daughters of Charity. Vincent de Paul was not only one of the main figures of the Catholic Reformation but also one of the most popular French saints of the seventeenth century. His reputation as philanthropist and pragmatic protector of the underprivileged, already secured during his life, somewhat overshadows the political, spiritual, and mystical aspects of his life, revealed in his extensive correspondence.
Born in 1581 in a modest peasant family of Pouy (Aquitaine), Vincent found in the church the most likely means of social promotion. Subsidized by the judge of his hamlet, Monsieur de Comet, he was sent to the Cordeliers' college of Dax (1595–1597). In 1600, he was ordained priest and in 1604, he vanished for two years. Many historians speculate on this disappearance. According to what Vincent de Paul himself wrote to his protector Comet, during a sea trip from Marseille to Toulouse, he was captured and sold as a slave in Tunis, where he stayed for two years. He managed to convert his slave master, a renegade, and to flee with him back to France. After traveling to Rome and Avignon, he finally settled in Paris in 1608, was made chaplain to the queen Marguerite de Valois (1610), and began to move in the dévot circles, becoming very close to Pierre de Bérulle and the Oratorians. In 1612, he became the parish priest of Clichy, following the post-Tridentine line: renovating the church, catechizing its people, erecting the Confrérie du Rosaire (brotherhood of the Rosary). A year later, he became chaplain to the family of Philippe-Emmanuel de Gondi, and his life changed.
In 1617, Vincent de Paul was shocked by the deep ignorance of the faith he found among the inhabitants of the hamlet of Folleville, on the domain of De Gondis's family. This awareness, described by many as a true conversion, seemed to dictate his calling. He decided to instruct the poor and become a missionary. Contrary to Pierre de Bérulle and François de Sales, whom he considered his most influential masters, Vincent de Paul was less speculative and more inclined toward action. He considered that true Christian perfection did not consist of mystical ecstasies but of charitable field enterprises. With De Gondi's financial help, Vincent de Paul founded the Congregation of the Mission. The so-called Lazarists (named after the priory of Saint-Lazare where the community settled in 1632; approved by pope Urban VIII in 1633) devoted themselves to the parish missions (described by Vincent de Paul in his letters as "the salvation of the poor people of the countryside") and to the training of the local priests, for it was seen "necessary to maintain the people and to keep the fruit of the missions made by good ecclesiastics, imitating in this the great conquerors, who leave garrisons in the places they take, by fear to lose what they have acquire with so much effort." To this end, the Tuesday Conferences were launched in 1631—a kind of continuing education for priests that allowed them to reflect, pray, and work in common and that gathered the elite of the Parisian clerics. The same ideal guided the opening of the Lazarist seminary for ordinands in 1642 in the College des Bons Enfants. The idea was less to give a high theological culture than to give a solid moral, spiritual, and pastoral education to the future priests who would be called, as Vincent de Paul wrote in his Colloquium to the Missionaries, "to preach simply and familiarly as did the apostles." The expansion of the Lazarists was remarkable, first in France (in 1660, 131 priests and 52 coadjutors lived in 25 residences and had organized some 840 missions in the countryside) then in the field of the foreign missions (Madagascar in 1648), for the Lazarists added to their former objectives the conversion of the "pagans."
From the beginning, each Lazarist mission concluded with the creation of Confréries de Charité (Brotherhoods of Charity), which gathered and organized local noblewomen to care for the poor. In 1633, Vincent de Paul and his closest collaborator, the widow Louise de Marillac (1591–1660), founded the Daughters of Charity in order to support the Brotherhoods of Charity and to achieve charitable work on a larger scale, combining spiritual salvation with material help in keeping with the recommendations of the Council of Trent. Noncloistered and dressed as peasant women, the "grey nuns" contributed to implement in France the basis of health and social service (there were sixty houses in 1659). Similarly, Vincent de Paul founded L'Oeuvre des Enfants Trouvés (Care of Foundlings), which aimed to rescue abandoned children, and he supported various charitable undertakings for the sick, the disabled, and beggars, activities that were centralized in the network of the general hospitals that developed in the 1650s.
Until his death in 1660, the influence of "the father of the poor" was considerable. He was associated with the main dévot circles, in the secret Compagnie du Saint Sacrement (Company of the Holy Sacrament), and in the Visitation Sainte Marie (where he replaced François de Sales as superior). Queen Anne of Austria chose him as her confessor and placed him in 1643 at the Council of Conscience initiated by Cardinal Richelieu, who, like King Louis XIII, had held him in great esteem. Since he avoided the various spiritual conflicts of his time, he managed to stay close to parties who were adversaries: the old families of the Catholic League such as the Marillacs, the abbot Saint-Cyran (1581–1643)—though he vigorously condemned his Jansenist ideas—and the Jesuits, with whom he never hesitated to collaborate and among whom he found inspiration.
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——. Vincent de Paul and Charity: A Contemporary Portrait of His Life and Apostolic Spirit. Translated by Jean Marie Smith and Dennis Saunders. New Rochelle, N.Y., 1993.
Dubois, Raymonde, and Luigi Mezzadri. "Evangelization and charité; Reformation and Counter-Reformation." History of European Ideas, 9, no. 4 (1988): 479–488.
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Mezzadri, Luigi. Histoire de la Congrégation de la mission. Paris, 1994.
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Salem-Carrière, Yves-Marie. Saint Vincent de Paul et la politique. Bouère, France, 1992.