St. Vincent de Paul, champion of the poor and downtrodden
Sean M Wright
/ Categories: Commentary

St. Vincent de Paul, champion of the poor and downtrodden

By Sean M. Wright

How many priests can say their apostolic endeavors brought relief to galley slaves, were involved in international diplomacy — or were abducted by pirates?  Well, my friends, hold onto your hats as we explore the tumultuous life of St. Vincent de Paul. 

Born in 1580 (or 1576 or 1581) of a peasant family at Pouy, in the French region of Gascony, the young Vincent desired to become a priest. His father sold an ox to pay for his tuition.

The ambitious Vincent hid his peasant background. His obvious intelligence and wit made him welcome among the elite. When his father came to visit his son in seminary Vincent refused to see him, ashamed of his shabby appearance. Ordained at Toulouse in 1600 he remained there, acting as a tutor for a wealthy family to pay for his own studies.

In a letter to a creditor, Père Vincent explained how, in 1605, he collected an inheritance in Marseilles. During the short return voyage to Narbonne, his ship was captured by Turkish pirates. Passengers and crew were taken to the city of Tunis on the Barbary Coast of Africa and auctioned and sold as slaves. This experience brought on a change of heart. The young man prayed fervently to God for his release.

Sold to an apostate French priest, Père Vincent reconverted the man. They procured a row-boat and escaped, rowing from North Africa to the south coast of France in 1607. In Avignon, Père Vincent explained his absence to the papal vice-legate who took him to Rome to complete his studies. Under the tutelage of his teachers there, de Paul’s fiery temper and ambition turned to gentleness and sensitivity.

The priest returned to France in 1609, entrusted with a secret mission to Henry IV, the first of the Bourbon dynasty. He afterward became almoner to the queen, Marguerite de Valois (an almoner is a church officer, not necessarily ordained, put in charge of distributing money to the deserving poor).

In 1612, Père Vincent entered the service of the illustrious Philippe-Emmanuel de Gondi to tutor his children. With the assistance of Marguerite and Madame de Gondi, he began giving missions to rouse the peasants living on the family estates to greater sanctity. He was then appointed curé of Chatillon-les-Dombes where he converted several Huguenots, viz., French Calvinists.

Recalled by the Gondi family in 1617, he resumed the missions for the peasantry. “The most powerful weapon to conquer the devil is humility. For, as he does not know at all how to employ it, neither does he know how to defend himself from it,” declared Père Vincent. “We should strive to keep our hearts open to the sufferings and wretchedness of other people, and pray continually that God may grant us that spirit of compassion which is truly the spirit of God.” Inspired by his eloquence, several learned Parisian priests joined him.

Wherever he preached a mission, Père Vincent started what he called a “Brotherhood of Charity”— something like a food pantry — where people donated food for the relief of the poor. Those at Joigny, Châlons, Mâcon and Trévoux lasted until the infamous French Revolution, the horrors and excesses of which again plague the Church and all Western Civilization; indeed, any place where the slogan “Liberty! Equality! Fraternity!” has replaced, “Love thy neighbor.”

Père Vincent’s solicitude was next directed towards galley-slaves, subject to his patron, Philippe de Gondi, as General of the Galleys of France. He learned of the criminals’ wretchedness, living in filth, fed only black bread and water. Their moral state was still more frightful. At Gondi’s request, Louis XIII named the priest Chaplain-General to the Galleys. Père Vincent began visiting the galley convicts of Paris, speaking kindly, serving them in any way however repulsive. He thus won their hearts, converting many.

 Père Vincent had come to know Louise de Marillac. Sending her on missions, he found her intelligent and self-effacing, with physical strength and endurance. Her rented home in Paris became the training center for young women seeking to provide service of the sick and poor.

Père Vincent founded the ‘Gardes des Pauvres’ (Guardians of the Poor), which gave rise to the Company of the Daughters of Charity. Growth was rapid. Soon there was the need for a “rule of life” which her priest-friend asked Louise to draw up. She led the order of nuns till her death. Saint Louise was canonized in 1934 and declared patroness of social workers in 1960. 

In 1634, Père Vincent set up the Foundation of the Charity of the Hôtel-Dieu, a home for the elderly. He took action to ameliorate the 1629 food shortage, the outbreak of plague between 1624 and 1640, and various conflicts (the Fronde and the Thirty Years’ War).

From 1638-1647, as chaplain for the French armed forces, de Paul focused on designing a system to secure and deliver necessary medical aid to people in the Duchies of Lorraine and Bar. Meeting with Cardinal Richelieu and his successor, Jules Cardinal Mazarin, he tried to convince them of the imperative need to restore peace in France, calling on them to more moderate treatment of Protestants.

Also in 1638, concerned about the fate of children left to fend for themselves in Paris, Vincent de Paul set up the Hospice des Enfants-Trouvés (Home for Foundlings), aiming to care for the 300 to 400 poor children abandoned each year by their mothers, often becoming victims of large-scale sex trafficking and other kinds of abuse. A bequest of 64,000 livres left by Louis XIII provided a home for 4,000 children who learned to read and write and then receive vocational training. Louise de Marillac became the project’s meticulous manager. 

Pere Vincent de Paul died on Sept. 27, 1660. Pope Clement XII canonized him in 1737.

In 1835, the French scholar Blessed Frederic Ozanam took him as the inspiration and namesake for the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, a lay Catholic organization working for the relief of the poor.

A French film about his life, “Monsieur Vincent,” (1947), won an honorary Academy Award as best foreign language film in 1949. It is found on the Vatican’s 1995 list of important films. Pierre Fresnay portrayed Vincent.

St. Vincent de Paul’s pioneering role in humanitarianism was the subject of a special exhibition in 2017 at the UN Palais des Nations in Geneva.

(Sean M. Wright, MA, an award-winning journalist, Emmy nominee and Master Catechist for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, is a parishioner at Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Santa Clarita. He answers comments at Locksley69@aol.com.)

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