The Vincentian Thing is Caught Not Taught

The Vincentian thing is caught not taught. Who is this Mr. Vincent who founded the Ladies of Charity, the Congregation of the Mission and the Daughters of Charity?

The Vincentian Family gathered January 25th at the Shrine of the Miraculous Medal in Philadelphia to celebrate the anniversary of the founding of the Congregation of the Mission

I first heard the story of a man called Vincent 63 years ago. Let me correct that! I first experienced the spirit of a man named Vincent 63 years ago. I was a quiet Freshman from a working-class immigrant family in his first semester at St. John’s Prep. There I met Vincentians for the first time.

It was only later that I could name the fact that in these Vincentians I was meeting were, each of them, unique embodiments of a man named Vincent – a man who changed their world.  … And because he changed their world, they would, over the next few years, change my world.

In these Vincentians, I experienced the glowing embers of the ideals of Vincent – following Christ the Evangelizer of the Poor with Vincent’s characteristic virtues

  • Honesty (Simplicity)
  • Approachability (Meekness)
  • Self-disciplined (Mortification)
  • Realistic (Humility)
  • Hard working (Zeal for souls)

(Fr. Ed Udovic’s translations of the traditional words in parentheses here.)

I am privileged to see one of these men every day. Fr. Lou Trotta, at 94, is alive and well in St. Catherine’s Infirmary.

In the six decades since then, I have learned many things about this man people called Mr. Vincent. In hindsight, some things have become clearer to me. One is that the impact these role models had on me was probably the kind of impact Vincent had on idealistic young men of his day. Another is that I am still learning about this man called Vincent.

Let me unpack these two insights.

1. I am still learning about the impact of this man called Vincent. Of course, over the years I learned much about what he did and how he changed the face of France and the Church 400 years ago. But it is only in my later years that I have realized how he has impacted the Church in which I have lived for 80 years. And you in your lifetime!

Just look around at the most vital movements in the Church today. You will see the still glowing sparks of the practical love of Vincent de Paul that ignited the hearts of so many women and men of his day. With their help, Vincent changed his world. In doing so he also anticipated many of the most exciting currents in our Church today…

  • A lay centered church focused more on the People of God and the poor than the hierarchy
  • A recovery of the ideal of a church of the poor
  • A concept of holiness that is more mission-oriented than a monastic emphasis on personal sanctification
  • A practical vision of the role of women in ministry
  • A commitment to forming priests who have “the smell of the sheep”

When you think of it, in some senses, we are still trying to catch up to him!

Surprised at his influence on things we take for granted? Most people, even many who think they know Vincent, are unaware of how much Vincent de Paul has shaped the Church of today.

2. The other insight is particularly relevant on this day when we celebrate the impetus for his founding a group of men known as the Congregation of the Mission… his genius for networking and working smarter.

When I was ordained 53 years ago, I handed out a little memento with the words attributed to Vincent: “Let love light my mortal flame until others catch the living flame.” I now think I have an understanding that that was precisely how the Congregation of the Mission… and the Ladies of Charity, the Daughters of Charity, etc. … came into being.

Vincent did not have access to the media we have today. But long before the term was invented, he demonstrated the impact of word of mouth or viral media. His life was contagious and lit that flame in the hearts of those who resonated with the mission of Jesus to bring good news to the poor.

But there is more. Vincent was a genius, a genius at networking and bring people together.

It was just some 20 years ago when I had begun collaborating with the wider Vincentian family that I began to understand some forgotten or poorly understood truths about Vincent’s approach to ministry. I have come to call them “forgotten truths.”

    • The truth is that … he was convinced that others shared his vision and would be generous in their response to needs. “The poor suffer less from a lack of generosity than from a lack of organization.”
    • The truth is that … he was humble enough to ask others to help. He was not wedded to any messianic delusions or “Lone Ranger” tendencies of thinking that he had to do it on his own.
    • The truth is that … he was adept at involving others in what he saw needed to be done. He found his strength in accepting his limitations.
    • The truth is that … so often he had the courage and the skill to walk where few had walked before.
    • The truth is that… he courageously spoke the truth to power.

Thank you, Vincent de Paul.

Thank you for illuminating our lives with the flame of love manifested in your virtues of honesty, approachability, self-discipline, realism, and hardworking zeal.

The Vincentian thing is caught, not taught!

Thank you for teaching us by example the power of networking with others, working smarter and bringing about real systemic change in society.

Thank you, Vincent!