Today is the Feast Day of St. Vincent de Paul.
Vincent de Paul was born in April 1581 of a Gascon peasant family in Pouy in the south-east of France. He had four brothers and two sisters. At an early age, he showed a talent for reading and writing. At 15, his father sent him to school, managing to pay for it by selling the family’s oxen. A good ecclesiastical career, his father believed, would enable Vincent to be financially independent and to help support his family.
In 1596, he went to the University of Toulouse for theological studies, and there he was ordained priest in 1600. He remained in Toulouse until he went to Marseilles to collect an inheritance.
On his way back from Marseilles in 1605, there is a story he was taken seized by Turkish pirates and brought to Tunis where he was sold as a slave. After being held in captivity for two years, he converted his ‘owner’ to Christianity, he was freed in 1607. Some doubt the veracity of this event.
Vincent was ordained priest at the unusually early age of 19. He began his priestly life as a court chaplain and was supported by the revenues of a commendatory abbey but his life changed following a false accusation of theft. In 1609 he was associated with Pierre (later Cardinal) de Berulle and became tutor to the children of the Gondi family. In 1617 he was made parish priest of Chatillon-les-Dombes. All during his life he combined an apostolate among the well-off upper classes combined with an utter devotion to the care of the poor and oppressed. While chaplain with the Gondi family he gave help to prisoners condemned to work on galley ships and in 1622 preached missions to prisoners in Bordeaux.
Vincent is probably best known for the two religious congregations he founded: the Vincentians and the Daughters of Charity, both of which were designed to be contemplatives in action in the world. Both these congregations are still active today in many parts of the world.
In 1625 he set up a congregation of priests, the Vincentians. They lived from a common fund and renounced all church honors. They devoted themselves to serving people in the smaller towns and villages. The purpose was to restore a more flexible apostolate among the diocesan clergy. In 1633 they were given care of the Paris priory church of Saint-Lazare. From this church the congregation came to be known as ‘Lazarists’. Because of their founder they are also known as Vincentians, although the official name is the Congregation of the Mission (CM).
Also in 1633 Vincent founded the Daughters of Charity (Filles de Charite). They were the first congregation not to live in cloister so that they could devote themselves entirely to the poor and the sick. Vincent said that their cloister was the street. In this he realised the original idea of Francis de Sales, whose congregation had been made to follow a more traditional religious life by Rome. In this venture Vincent was aided by (St) Louise de Marillac, who was the first superior. Together with Louise de Marillac, Vincent organised hospitals for the sick poor, founded institutions for abandoned children, opened soup kitchens, created job training programmes, taught young women to read, improved prison conditions, and organised countless local charities in the villages throughout France.
It is said that, even during his life, Vincent became a legend. Every level of society – clergy and laity, rich and poor, outcasts and convicts – all were won over by his charisma and selfless devotion. Here was a man totally guided by his love for God and neighbour.
Rich women collected money and in other ways supported his countless good works. He gave alms for war-victims in Lorraine, sent his priests to Poland, Ireland, and Scotland (even the Hebrides). From 1643, during the regency of Anne of Austria, who greatly admired him and valued his advice, he had considerable influence in her court. The one exception was when he tried to persuade her to dismiss Cardinal Mazarin.
He died in September 1660 at the age of 79 and was canonized by Pope Clement XII in 1737. He was named by Pope Leo XIII patron of all charitable societies. Among these is the lay movement called the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, which was founded in 1833 by Frederick Ozanam.