The Lord said to Samuel: ‘Take no notice of his appearance or his height for I have rejected him; God does not see as people see; they look at appearances but the Lord looks at the heart.... (1 Sam 16: 6-7)
I was asked last week to write a paper for St Mary’s University that reflected its status as an institution founded in the spirit of St Vincent de Paul. Knowing not so much about the 17th century French saint I not only read what I could of his conferences, letters and addresses but also managed to visit the man himself in Paris last week. St Vincent’s Common Rules for the Congregation of the Mission (CM) offers three priorities for the lives of those priests and laity he was seeking to develop:
1. ‘To live a genuine commitment to grow in holiness’, especially by the ancient spiritual practice of ‘imitating Christ’.
2. ‘To preach to the poor – especially in rural areas’ and
3. ‘To help seminarians and priests grow in knowledge and virtue so that they can be more effective in their ministry.’
Unlike other spiritual masters such St Ignatius Loyola, St Dominic or St Benedict there is no one set of instructions or rules that can be ascribed to St Vincent. However, the voice expressed in the Common Rules, backed up by readings from his letters and addresses, seems to give us an authentic flavour of what we may term ‘Vincentian spirituality’.
In the light of today’s readings for mass and the theme of ‘seeing as God sees’, St Vincent’s approach to Christian life seems particularly apt. For him, as with Samuel, we are not to be taken in by appearances but to ‘see into the heart’ and for him the privileged place that this takes place is in our encounter with what he terms ‘the poor’. This can be those who materially less well-off but also anyone who is marginalised and weakened by our society. In particular, Vincent placed particular emphasis on the training and development of women’s ministry especially with his collaboration with St Louise de Marillac. Expanding on these three themes, then, we can tease out the following lessons from St Vincent’s approach to the Christian life:
First , the Genuine Commitment to Grow in Holiness
Although St Vincent had a particular care for priestly formation the root of his instructions lies in a call to holiness for all people. This, for St Vincent, following the emphasis of the post-Reformation church, must be based on growing familiarity with Christ through the scriptures and meditations on His life and practices. From the later Middle Ages onwards, Western Christianity (following in the footsteps of medieval masters such as St Thomas Aquinas) had placed increasing emphasis on the need to ‘imitate Christ’. Or, as St Thomas would put it, the development of the habitus – literally, ‘habit’ – of Christ. St Vincent is proud to be heir to this tradition and throughout his writings and life there are numerous examples of how we ‘put on the mind of Christ’. Study of scriptures, the practice of humility, living harmoniously with each other (Common Rules, Chs 2, 8) will all promote this practice. St Vincent is very clear that we all have an obligation to engage in these practices and they are not an optional choice for Christians. From these practices arise everything in the Vincentian life, especially:
Secondly, Commitment to the Poor
Vincentian spirituality is clearly a mission-orientated spirituality. Whilst contemplation is essential, this, for St Vincent, must be the springboard from which Christian action arises. St Vincent is rightly remembered for his commitment to ‘the poor’. This term, often deeply misunderstood, meant not just those who are materially poor (important though that group is) but the marginalised, what he calls ‘the country people’ (Address to the Sisters of Charity, January 25th 1643), youth and especially women. Again, one of the striking elements of St Vincent’s ministry is his close collaboration with, and promotion of the work of, St Louise de Marillac. It is clear from reading St Vincent’s work on this area that is was no ‘one way traffic’ – the ‘poor’ would be the means of transformation of Christians and society in general. Catechism, collaboration between the sexes, loving kindness, charity and sensitivity are all hallmarks of how St Vincent envisaged this particular form of Christian community would come into being.
Third, Ministerial Formation
To effect this change in society, St Vincent envisaged a carefully trained team of ministers who would promote this form of Christian spirituality through preaching, catechism, mission and the liturgy. Again, reflecting his times, St Vincent anticipated that this formation would take place in as skilful and mindful atmosphere as possible, preferably using all the knowledge of the sciences and the humanities at the disposal of the church. St Vincent was particularly concerned that the mission of his ministers should be a global one and in his own lifetime went to great lengths to establish a missionary presence in China, North Africa and Madagascar, amongst other countries. At the root of this formation lay the desire to ‘fan the flames of cooling Vocations’ - passionate belief in one’s ministry lay at the heart of St Vincent’s vision for Christian life.
St Vincent and Christian Life Today
If the spiritual growth of all Christ’s community is essential, it must go hand in hand with St Vincent’s commitment to realising Christian vocation through the poor and marginalised. The economically and socially marginal must remain at the centre of all our activities. At a time when the gates of ‘Fortress Europe’ appear to grow thicker we must strive to offer the gifts and wisdom of the first world to those in the developing world. Not in a patronising or post-colonial fashion but in the sense of accepting the wisdom and gifts of these countries as we give what we can to help them.
Thus, as with Christ’s encounter with the blind man in the Gospels today we can rejoice in the loving kindness of the Lord as we engage in our acts of healing ministry to the world. Today is traditionally called ‘Laetare Sunday’ after the first words of the antiphon: ‘Rejoice Jerusalem! Be glad for her, you who love her, rejoice with her, you who mourned for her, and you will find contentment at her consoling breasts!’
As we move ever closer to Easter let us rejoice in the consoling presence of our Lord, especially in our work and encounters with the poorest and most marginalised in our society.