If you desired to choose an epoch and an nation during which the greatest of afflictions and the greatest of splendour meet – from a Christian point of view – perhaps it would be exact to indicate the first half of the seventh century, in France. An epoch during which the nation is devastated by the thirty -year war, a ferocious civil war, followed by the farmers and urban rebellions, which was organised in a frightful movement called “The Fronde”, a distant anticipation of what was to be the French Revolution.
The aspects that we are interested in here are evidently not political, but the human aspect of the sorrowful and miserable conditions in which the innumerable throngs of the wretched were to be found.
We can describe the situation by reading a letter that Saint Vincent de' Paul himself wrote to Pope Innocent X, asking him to intervene and restrain the lacerating conflicts:
“I dare to reveal the miserable and need of pity of our nation, France? The Royal Family is divided by discordance; the people divided in opposite parties; the city and the provinces ruined by civil wars; the hamlets, villages and castles demolished, destroyed and burnt; the farmers are in a position which makes it impossible for them to harvest what they have sown and it will be impossible for them to sow in the years to come. The soldiers, going unpunished, allow themselves to inflict every type of vexation, the people are not only exposed to robbery and brigandage but also to murders and every sort of torture by the soldiers: the farmers are tortured and put to death; the virgins are molested and dishonoured; the same religious are exposed to their libertinism and fury; the churches are profaned, pillaged, destroyed, those that remain are abandoned by their pastors, and therefore the people are almost deprived of the sacraments. It is not enough to hear or read these facts, you need to see them with your own eyes to verify the state of things”.
The Church did not seem to be in able to oppose its human and spiritual force in front of such ruin.
The reform decrees of the Council of Trent had remained almost dead letter: many episcopal centres still remained in the hands of noble families who handed them down in hereditary without worries of spiritual consequences.
On the other hand, the designation of the candidates to the episcopate depended on the Royal council who often used it as a reserve of favours and transactions.
When Vincent de Paul is called to intervene with authority in this sector he will say with bitterness and force: “I am afraid that this damned traffic of Bishops brings the curse of God on this kingdom!”
The situation of the clergy was even more worrying: where there was not immorality, there was an invincible laziness and ignorance that reached incredible limits: certain priests were illiterate, others did not know how to celebrate the sacraments.
Vincent de Paul himself tells of having personally known a priest who after hearing confession, just blabbered something because he did not know the formula of absolution and another who recited a Hail Mary in all circumstances, because it was the only prayer he knew.
Convents and monasteries where often weighed down by habitual inobservences, corrupt traditions and reproachable behaviour.
Many facts can be explained when we consider that the nobles – to use a colourful expression of a historian – "entrusted their sons and daughters who were in excess numbers, to the Church, and who needed to be placed somewhere in some manner but with decorum". (With in those same times described by Manzoni).
On the other hand, the Church seemed to be the only way out of such poverty and sad anonymity, for boys of low social classes.
Thus, complaisant Bishops ordained many young boys, absolutely void of the merest vocation, priests.
Vincent de' Paul himself probably became a priest at eighteen years old, irregularly ordained by an old Bishop who was almost blind.
However, let us take a look at the other side of things: France in the seventeenth century is dominated by the out-coming of the fascinating personality of Saint Frances di Sales who with his "devoted humanism", his pastoral activity and his splendid books, has began the renewal of catholic life.
After him the figure of he who will be named "the doctor of many learned and the teacher of many saints", Peter de Bèrulle, the famous cardinal, who will carry out a vast works of spiritual and cultural reformation.
The ferment and the results are countless: we can count almost twenty-seven Saints who travel across France and begin, in several sectors, the opera of reformation.
The spiritual school of the Carmelite and Jesuits penetrate in the cultural and humble classes, so much so that the studious speak of "an enormous mystical invasion".
H. Brèmond, who wrote an opera considered fundamental, The story of religious sentiment in the seventeenth century, which filled eleven enormous volumes, complained that he had been incomplete in doing so.
Furthermore – although from different points of view – we should not forget that this was the century of Corneille, Molière, Cartesio, Pascal and Bossuet.
Nevertheless, among all the personalities the supremacy goes to he who understood how to translate that "great mystic invasion" in a multiform activity, to the limits of incredibility, so much so that in the last three centuries that which the Church was able to construct and sociably applicable, it is thanks to Vincent de Paul, the precursor and master.
During the time of his laborious work, he is called by the highly respectable and affectionate appellative of Mister or Monsieur Vincent. Up to day 1500, biographies have been dedicated to him.
Little Vincent – who was gifted by an extraordinary genial intelligence – grew up wanting to leave the world of misery that destiny had made his rank: a village with fifty clay houses, lost in the bogs, a family who were farmers in which his duty was, from the age of six, to take care of the pigs.
His luck came, when a local squire, who was passing through his land, observed the lad and noticing his particular intelligence convinced his father to have him study with a priest in a college of a city near his home.
Vincent left his home determined to forget his origins and make his way in the world. One day his father came on a rare visit to the college where he was studying, the lad refused haughtily to go down to the parlour because he was afraid of the shame of being seen speaking to a poor man.
When he was old and a saint, he could never forget this episode and crying he himself will tell more than once of the episode: "I did not want to go and speak to him and so I committed a grievous sin". At this stage he will have become the most esteemed and sought-after priest in France, but to those who said so to him, he was quick to revel: "I am noting but a poor country man and I took care of pigs. My mother was a servant".
However, before meeting with love and pride the poverty of Christ and his own identical poverty, there is an obscure period in his life with strange adventures. We will find hi, Heavens knows how, in the Pontifical Legate which takes him to Rome, the centre of Christianity, of which he perceives the strategic importance.
In Rome, in fact, he meets the French Ambassador and returns to Paris, after a few years, with him, in familiarity, so much so to obtain the credentials for an audience with King Henry 1V. This way he was finally able to acquire a small ecclesiastical benefit.
It was not anything of great importance. Meanwhile he had succeeded in becoming part of the circle of chaplains of Queen Margaret di Valois.
It was here that the Lord awaited him. The chaplains received from time to time donations or gifts in aid of charity: and than one day someone put into Vincent's hand the enormous sum of 15 thousand golden-lire, the equivalent of various thousands of today.
What happened in the poor heart that dreamt of handling money and kept his irreducible inclination to solidarity among the poor? We do not know. We do know, however, that the day after Monsieur Vincent went to the near-by Hospital of Fatebenefratelli and left the entire sum of money to the sick and invalid.
This certainly not the only ‘Yes' that Vincent will say to God, but it was the most expressive: that with which Vincent accepts a vocation that had been reserved for him from the beginning of time.
He knew then that he had to become a real priest in all senses: he put himself under the spiritual directory of de Bèrulle who induces him to generously applicate himself to his priestly ministry, assigning him to a parish in the suburbs of Paris. Here, for the first time in his life, giving himself entirely to his poor parishioners, Vincent will know what it was to be happy.
"I am so happy – he writes – because the people around me are so good, so obedient to what I say to them. Not even the Pope is as happy as I am! ".
However, the ways of God are mysterious! It was de Bèrulle who insisted that Vincent leave his parish to become tutor in the noble Gondi family.
It was one the most famous and powerful families, descendants of the antique Italian bankers who had come to France, following the Medici: Filippo Emanuele de Gondi commanded the reigns fleet, having the qualification of General of the galleys, his brother was the Archbishop of Paris, his wife was one of the most illustrious dames of the Reign, and a woman of high spirituality.
In the comfortable castle of Montmirail, Vincent who is now thirty-two years old, should, as his duty calls, take care only of the formation of the three children; he becomes the spiritual councillor of the whole family. In order to compensate his secret discomfort, he will also dedicate his time in teaching catechism to the poor farmers of the vast estate of his masters.
Then one day, overcome by the needs of the poor, he secretly escapes from the castle to become the parish priest of a miserable and abandoned community in Chatilion les Dombes.
He will not be able to remain here for long, but here also another episode will occur that will decisively impress that which is to be his direction in life.
One day when he was about to begin Sunday Mass some people come to tell him of an entire family who live in a secluded farmhouse, are dying in absolute indigence: they are all gravely ill and they cannot help one another.
Vincent from the pulpit communicates the fact, and leaves the abandoned family to their Christian hearts. Here is what Vincent will tell of what happened, with his typical humorist, he himself unable to move until later in the afternoon: "After Vespers, in the company of a good hearted middle class man from the city, we started out, walking, to visit those poor unfortunates. On the road, we met some women who had left before others and us who were on their way back. It was summer and very hot, these pious women were sitting on the roadside resting and refreshing themselves: there were so many that it looked like a procession".
It was a touching sight, but Vincent was a little annoyed: their charity was great, but unorganised. After al that abundance of food and help, subsequently days would follow of negligence and privations.
He held a meeting in order to form an association, of his ‘ladies'. He gave them a rule to follow, which according to historians was, "an little work of art and tenderness", an" everything was foreseen: how to approach the families in need, how and in what order to guarantee a rotating service, how to obtain the necessary help and keep the book-keeping, how to serve the ill with the love of Jesus, how to give them food, how to use available time with intelligence.
He named this first laic association (in anticipation of centuries on certain realisations of today) with a flaming Christian name:
"Charity". That name, which in the Christian doctrine means to indicate God himself and the theological virtues of love that He infuses in our hearts, serves Vincent (according to a tradition that goes back to mediaeval times) as a common name, "familiar", to call his associations. In a brief time, France finds itself spread with groups that were simply called “Charity”.
In the meanwhile however, the de Gondi were pressing to get back their tutor. The Archbishop of Paris and de Bèrule intervene, also son high-class personalities of the reign and Vincent had to give in: he wanted to stay among the poor and had to live with the rich. In addition, paradoxically it is here that his mission passes.
In the house of the rich, he will learn to become responsible for the poor. It happens in the meantime that he has the occasion to meet Frances de Sales and his friendship with this Saint will carry with it for the rest of his life the desire of sanctity full of peace, courtesy, energy, and indestructible but kind dynamism.
He was over forty years old and had only one desire: to do God's will and never to be impatient when the progressive manifestations of this will appeared: "We cannot do Gods work when it pleases us, but when it pleases Him", he would say, and also: "We must give ourselves to Him in order to be used by Him". Later, when he has a lot of collaborators and followers, Vincent will insist in repeating. "When you empty yourself of your own selves, then God fills you". This is what happened to him. He allowed God to fill him with His Holy Grace and God used him to carry out innumerable operas. Vincent had not programmed anything.
Earlier in his life, Vincent's wish was to be ‘comfortable', and God did put him in a high position, in a castle, but to be capable of preparing a place for the poor.
He became in time, apt in making use of everything – friendships with nobles and Sovereignty, state laws and free donation, buying and readapting of property -in order to obey the vocation that God had assigned him.
This is how one historian describes him:
“Submissive to circumstances, adaptable to the ambits in which he works, always drawing the major profits from both men and circumstances; he is precise, prudent, provident; he knows that you are never better helped by God than when you help yourself. With the rigorous order, all interests, big or small that they may be. He is imposed and imposes rules that do not leave space for unawareness. He forbids himself and forbids all any useless risks, all badly prepared enterprises, in which it happens too often that generous religious enterprises fail. Just as a good leader, on one hand, he has the sense of the great synthesis of togetherness and of the particulars that need to be controlled”.
Before all – the first great task – are those friends, better to say those sons and daughters, that God gifts him with in order that they can participate in his charisma, in order that “they move” across the land of France and then around the world to give new vitality to the Church.
France at the time can say to be unchristianised, contemporary attacked by three enemies; the winding Protestantism (the "religious wars have not yet ended), the religious ignorance widely stagnate, and – among the most fervid – the growing Jansenism (theological and moral rigorism) even more grave because this attacked the Church's living forces, throwing it into a tragic moralism.
Vincent de' Paul's "children" were called "missionary priests" by Vincent. It was he who, with three friends, started to imagine a new pastoral style of action: in an organic manner, in rotation, they travelled from village to village that were lacking in religious assistance (even if, sometimes, numerous sluggish priests already lived there), they would remained for fifteen days and preached "the missions" (according to the style that remained up to our times).
“I only preached one sermon, which I twisted and turned in a thousand ways: the fear of God, and God did what He had predicted from the beginning of all eternity: He blessed our work”.
There were mass conversions, touching because the people had become unaccustomed to the Word of God and they listened to this echo with humble and intense nostalgia: for the first time they were under the impression of seeing the apostles in those decisive and passionate priests, and they recognised them. These missions were desired and the people even suspended the markets in order to attend them. Vincent would tell: “Those hearts which were as hard as stone, were set on fire”.
Vincent kept a close eye on his newly founded congregation: he would not allow priests to preach in the style that was in force at the time (we are in the year 1600!): “To show off in a beautiful speech means to commit sacrilege, sacrilege!”, he said. The King was so impressed by the work of these priests that he requested them to preach a "mission" at his court, and then in the most ill-famed quarters of Paris.
When Vincent dies, 840 missions will have been preached and this Saint has at his disposition twenty-five congregations, one hundred and thirty one priests forty-four minor clerks and fifty-two coadjutors.
This was not enough, however, it meant that the other priests were to be risen from their indifference and to be formed; and so Vincent – in an epoch in which it had not been possible to open an seminary – first began his opera of the Exercises for Ordinations which his priests preached in the various dioceses, often compensating, during a few days of intense ascetic and theological formation, the lack of preparation of those who were to be ordained priests.
In order to give these initiatives a certain continuity, Vincent himself will hold the Tuesday Conference and will continue to do so for the rest of his life, every week, without interruption; these were conferences that priests who wanted to, attended. The best priests of France will come from this ‘free' school, among these is Bossuet who will say: “It seemed as if God spoke using his mouth!”.
Finally, and for the first time since the first Council of Trent, a century before had recommended, the Great and Small Seminaries are founded.
In the beginning, Saint Vincent's daughters are noble ladies or bourgeoisie and they were called "Lady Visitors". Vincent aggregated a large number of these ladies: he received all economical help they were able to gather from them, knowing well that society of the times did not allow them to execute all the manual work that was urgently needed by the poor. Nor did Vincent disdain the fact that here and there; a certain ‘fashion of charity' was beginning. This did not mean however, that among the Ladies, who took care of the poor in hospitals, there were duchesses and princesses, even Queen Ann of Austria and Princess Maria di Gonzaga, the future Queen of Poland.
During this period Molière attacked the "precious ridiculous" with their ringlets and cosmetics. who idled in drawing-rooms, but if he had judged his times without prejudice he could have known hundreds of noble women who took care of the poor lice infested of the city quarters; and with such fresh and hearty charity that always indicates a living rush of true faith, even in the most superficial times of history.
Problems however were ever present and the solution depended on one of those meeting that make history.
Towards the end of 1624 a young widow of thirty-three years old, of a noble family, came to Vincent asking him to be her spiritual guide: she came against her will. She had been among the penitents of Frances de Sales up to his death, but had not found peace. She was a tormented creature, full of anguish and doubts, with a problematic existence behind her. Not even the Saintly Bishop of Geneva had succeeded in bring her peace and know he was dead, and she had been informed of that "poor dumpy priest, a country man with deep penetrating eyes, dressed in such a poor way". Milady de Marillac –widow of Legras – had felt a sense of repugnance, but had obeyed.
Neither did Vincent want to hear of being the spiritual guide of a noblewoman full of physiological problems, but he did not know how to refuse.
He included her in the numbers of his Lady Visitors and observed her closely, without criticising. Here he discovers something very strange: this woman who was full of rigidity and spiritual anguish, with a shaken nervous system, changes completely when she comes into contact with the poor, she becomes kind, tender as a mother, serene. So Vincent uses this in his activity as her spiritual direct and he teaches her to "expand her heart taking the weight of others sufferings".
Milady de Marillac thus becomes one of his closest collaborators in the service to the poor and it she that Vincent turns to activate the most surprising invention: today the Church venerates her as Saint Louise de Marillac.
Up to then, in the church, a woman who wanted to consecrate herself to God ha only one way to do so: a monastic life of consecrated religious, with its cloisters, its gratings, the religious habit, and long prayers.
The apostolic activity was not considered adaptable for women, because it would have meant exposing the religious to an excessive contact with the world. Before laughing at this, we must know how t read the history with the realism that this requires. It is enough to think that even Frances de Sales had tried to imagine a new style of life for the female religious founding the Institute of the “Visiting”: as the name means, the girls who choose this order had to imitate Our Lady who charitably goes to "visit" her cousin Elisabeth.
The difficulties had been so big and insurmountable that the “Visiting” had also become cloister nuns (and they are even today!). With a certain sense of humour mixed with sadness Saint Frances di Sales said: “I cannot understand why everyone calls me a founder, when I have unfounded that which I founded!”.
It was the society of the time that did not accept alternatives.
Even so, Vincent succeeded where others had failed: with Louise de Marillac he gathered some young girls of humble origin who intended to consecrate themselves to God - but did not intend to exclude themselves from the outside world – at the complete disposition of the poor and derelict. Therefore, the order of the "daughters of charity" that were popularly called the "grey sisters".
Vincent's words are famous – for the epochal change they signify" by which he underlines their new and inaudible juridical structure. “Their monastery will be the houses of the sick and where the superior resides. For their cell, a rented room. For their chapel, the Parish Church, as their cloister, obedience. As a grating, the fear of God. As a veil, pious modesty. As a profession, a constant confidence in Divine Providence and the total offering of themselves”.
Saint Vincent and Saint Louise will partially have to institutionalise their "nuns", but they will have not only began the active, apostolic life of all modern congregations, but also all secular Institutes and "laical associations of virgins, which start today in "movements".
What this really meant in that violent and complex society of the times can be understood only by seeing them at work.
We will anticipate a very significant judgement: it is told that one day Napoleon while listening to a group of philosophers who were debating on how Enlightenment had produced a true philanthropical attitude. The Emperor became increasingly annoyed until he finally shouted: "All this is beautiful and good, but you made me a "grey nun!"
Vincent and Louise were, in fact, preparing "grey nuns" by the hundreds and were sending them across the nation and around the world to where suffering and horror was at its apex.
They began with the Hotel-Dieu, an enormous gloomy hospital situated like a laceration in the centre of the city: twenty wards, each with a capacity of fifty beds, but in realty, some were hoarded with as many as two hundred and fifty patients. There are some grotesque descriptions of beds with six patients, three one side and three on the other, in a mixture of fighting (those who were still alive) and the sound of rattling dying.
This was during the best times, which turned into hell when contagion spread or the plague arrived, as it happened in 1936.
The religious who had the direction of the hospital were in fact (and this is the paradox of which were speaking) cloister nuns and they had to direct from a "distance". They had tried to mobilise the entire community of male religious of Paris but it had been a failure.
Vincent first sent hundreds Lades of Charity (up to six hundred and twenty, including the Queen) for an organised but temporary service, in turns, then he permanently aggregated his "children of charity" to the hospital, who stated to totally mange it internally.
As if this was not sufficient, he contemporaneously began his Opera of abandoned babies and children: every year in Paris only, hundreds of children are abandoned out of misery or irresponsibility on the doorsteps of churches or at the Couche, an official institution that having no great means, managed emergencies in an abominable way. The assistants gave the children laudanum pills or a little alcohol in order to make them sleep. Apart from those who however died or were left to die, many were sold.
Vincent writes: "They sold them for eight pennies to merchants who broke their arms and legs in order to gain pity from the people and then they left them to die from hunger".
In 1638, the grey nuns are able to take in twelve children, in 1647 this number will have risen to 820. The work will be so grave that the risk of having to renounce is often present.
We must not imagine this in the light of romanticism. It is a crowd of small "filthy and bawling children, born to bad mothers", as Louise de Marillac says, notwithstanding her maternal passion. We are in times during which the simple fact of being near these "fruit of sin" as they were called, is considered indecorous and inconvenient. We are not speaking only of accepting them in swabddling, but to raise them until their are of age to take care of themselves. But then, as splendid as gold, as Vincent's way of educating his nuns is, he began by telling those who he destined to this task: “You will be similar to Our Lady, because you will be mothers and virgins at the same time. You see, my children, he would explain – that which God has done for you and for them? From the beginning of eternity he fixed this time to inspire some ladies with the desire to take care of these little ones that He considers His: from eternity he choose you, my children, to serve them. What an honour for you! If the people of this world consider it an honour to serve the children of the ‘important', how honoured you must feel in serving Gods children””
And he would tell of the beautiful scene at which he had assisted that morning: the Prince's, who was then only five years of age, son of the King, carriage had encountered the Chancellor of the Reign's carriage. The governess had told the princess to shake hands with the Chancellor, but he had reddened and exclaimed, making a profound reverence, that he was not worthy to touch the hand of the small King, adding: “I am not God! “.
Ending his tale, Vincent said: “You see, my children! He said this because he had to do with the son of the King; this boy was also a King. If the Chancellor who is one the most important officials of the Reign did not dare touch his hand, what sentiment must you have when you are serving the small ones who are God's children! “.
Even today, Christian parents can understand who much there is to be learned from this way of reasoning as far as their children are concerned! Vincent tranquilly used this same method for the ‘bastards'.
This is a time during which – as told by an historian - "that cruelty towards new-born babies, exposed or not, caused more victims than all the wars that were fought during that century". We cannot be scandalised too much if we think that today, notwithstanding all the means we possess, we do even worse: killing babies in millions by abortion.
After foundlings, there were the prisoners and convicts. They were not like the prisons of today but dangerous and stinking dens where the prisoners rotted alive, waiting every day for their cruel fate, which was when they was a sufficient number to form a "chain": a line of prisoners chained one another. Directed to the port of Marseilles, where they would become "gallery slaves": nailed with a chain to the wooden benches that where situated along the corridors of the ship – five men for each fifty meter oar - "reduced (as a historian says) to human connecting rods, in order to make the ship sail to the cadenced rhythm of a iron knotted whip".
Vincent therefore becomes the head chaplain of all the prisons of the Reign and he sends his "daughters of charity" for whom he will have built small houses beside the prisons.
Here is how he explains to them about this new "opera" and how he "reasons":
“Because we had pity on the parishes, God repaid us with the Hotèl-Dieu hospital; the, being satisfied and in order to repay us he entrusted us with the foundlings; then having seen that we had accepted all this with charity, He said: ‘I want to give them another task!'. Yes, my dear sisters, God gave all this to us without us having to think about it, not even Milady De Marillac, nor even me. However, what is this task? It is to assist the poor convicts! Oh, what happiness to be able to serve those poor convicts who are abandoned in cruel hands! I have seen these poor creature being treated like beasts, this is the reason that god had compassion on them!”
The reason that God kept choosing them –according to Vincent – was this: who says "daughters of charity" says "God's daughters", and God the poor to be served by His daughters.
In order to describe this task one needs to have a good imagination: Vincent demands that between material and spiritual services there are no stanch spaces: cleaning of prisons, washing of clothes, preparing their daily soup, comforting them, taking care of the ill, bandaging sores and wounds, accompany them in their Way of the Cross towards the ships and there, at the port, beginning from the start, another assistance, as best as they could.
All this without false modesty and fussy attitudes: it means entering unmentionable ambients, suffer vulgar language and indecent invitations (from the guards and the convicts), put up with vexations and slander and know how to keep oneself with intelligence and prudence (Vincent will give precise rules!).
In one work – he says - "to be like sunrays that rest continuously on garbage and nonetheless they are not dirtied".
To this task of taking care of the convicts, the task of looking after the solders will be another during the periodical wars. The daughters of Charity will be sent to the battlefields "to somehow repair that which man had consciously destroyed, and conserve life where man had wanted to suppress it".
In the devastated territories and villages Vincent sets up first aid centres, gathering and sorting of alimentary goods and subsistence, with a turnover that became greater than that that was managed by the ministers of the Crown. However, this was not sufficient. In the suburbs of Paris, swarms of old people, gangsters, antisocials, cripples, people hit by falling sickness, lunatics, were gathered: in short, all those who in those times were defined, by a summary sentence, "crazy".
Vincent wrote with illusions. “These people are all crazy and lunatics, spirits that are so bad that they live fighting each other. The fighting is continuous”.
Without wavering, he repeats once again his appeal with his usual reasoning, totally believing in what he said: “Ah, my dear sisters, I will tell you once again, that there has never been a fellowship that has to praise God more than ours! Is there someone that will take care of the poor insane? No, there is no one. This good fortune is your lot! Oh, my daughters, how you should be grateful to God!”.
Only once did Vincent refuse with firmness to help someone: this was when the Grand Bureau of the Poor tempted to resolve the immense problem of the mendicants that infested the city, had settled in the "court of miracles", a centre of organised criminality. The Grand Bureau launched the project of the "Great Confinement", according to which all mendicants or others like them who had no permanent job had to be confined to "general hospitals".
Doing this, there would be "two cities": on one side the city of the respectable men and on the other the city of the "human-beasts".
The first mentioned would be defended in their egoism instead of being spurred in their duty of charty, The second mentioned would be abbandoned in prey of their own violence.
Vincent opposed this. He had not a total solution to offer, but he tempted before all to prophetically indicate possible new ways.
Among the throngs of the poor, many of the older ones were ex-artisans reduced to begging due to unemployment and misfortune. He choose those who seemed to be of "good reputation" and not "idlers" (twenty men and twenty women) and aggregated workers to help them re-start their trades and re-find the pleasure of work, a job that was fit for their age group, but which however would allow them to earn a living. He even established "Boards of Directors".
So houses were established, that were authentic "work rehabilitation centres", where Vincent loved to spend time discussing with his elderly renewed and efficient workers.
It was certainly not possible to generalise the "recipe", but for the society of the times a point of judgement, of social clarity and ideals.
With the same criteria he aided those who would have been damaged by forced hospitalisation: those old people that, even though they were beggars, still kept a relationship with their families and who would have been separated by force, and divided by law in different sectors, male and female.
Vincent organised for them the task of the "little homes", in which beggars; husband and wife had the right to live together.
This initiative did not resolve the big problem, but at least it gave indications, hope and demonstrated the intelligence of charity.
For all the others Vincent battled in every way possible in order to keep the passage open between the two societies: a passageway that many came through, attracted by his charity to help the poor.
It had not only to do with voluntary service: Monsieur Vincent became in fact almost a minister of the Reign, the interlocutor between Kings and Queens, with Richelieu and Mazarino, with the responsible for the provinces and cities, and who organised associations of men and women destined to all types of intercession and urgencies.
This was how Vincent merited to be named – while still alive – “Father of the Country”.
When King Louis X111, in 1643, called the ‘Just King', on his death-bed wished to see Vincent, he said to him: “Oh, Monsieur Vincent, if I get better, I want all Bishops t spend three years in your home”. Vincent helped him to die as a saint.
On the death of the King, the Queen, Ann of Austria, choose Vincent as Counsellor and thus he became a powerful public personage, a sort of Minister of social assistance, and he made use of his position, without modesty, to reinforce all his opera: multiplying the missions, founding seminaries, equipping hospitals and in charitable opera.
He also defended the Catholic Truth: on being nominated secretary and member of the so-called Conscience Counsel (a species of Ministry for Ecclesiastical affairs in the Reign of France, where, for nine years he will find himself, face to face with Cardinal Mazarino), influencing as he could the nomination of Bishops, aiming at the good progress of the dioceses, and also conducted a battle against the heretic which was growing strong: Jansenism.
The historians say that the condemning of this diversion on the part of Pope Innocent X was thanks to Vincent work.
This is of particular interest: a man who had been so immerse in questions of charity, considered even more decisive the question of Orthodoxy.
"Since I was a young boy – he write – I have always had a secret fear in my soul and nothing ever frightened me as much as the thought of finding myself, by misfortune, caught up in some heresy that would drag me away and drown my faith”.
This was the amazing thing of those times, full of misery and trouble: the faith remained the horizon in which everyone, both rich and poor (Richelieu who was fighting for power and Vincent who was fighting for charity), everything remained inside the last fundamental horizon of Christ and His Church and in the salvation that lives in it.
Brèmond wrote: “It was not Vincent de Paul's charity that made him a Saint, but it was his sanctity that made him really charitable”.
Moreover, sanctity means precisely belonging to Christ and the Church.
This observation is profoundly baffling. Often the idea is spread through Christians that what is important is to do good to your neighbour and that this, in a last analysis, can be done by everyone, even those who do not believe in Christ and do not belong to the Church, and therefore you can be brother to anyone, beyond whatever religion or faith, in fact these last mentioned can be the cause of division. Even Voltaire, equivocally called Vincent de Paul, "My Saint": the only one who suited him.
However, Vincent de Paul would not have let himself be captured so easily. In the film, Monsieur Vincent there is a scene that represents the Saint in the act of giving instructions to one of "his daughters of charity" who is about to begin her mission. The words are not historical materialism, but they are a proper interpretation of Vincent's style and heart.
“My dear Jeanne – he says to her – my wish was to see you. I know that you are courageous and good. Tomorrow you are going to the poor for the first time. I was not always possible for me to speak to those who were leaving for the first time. Ah, one can never do as one wishes! To you, the last and the youngest, I must speak, because it is important. Remember; remember what I say, always! You will soon find out that charity is a heavy burden. Heavier than the pot of soup or the basket of bread. Nevertheless, you keep your sweetness and your smile. Giving soup and bread is not everything. Even the rich can do that. You are the little servant of the poor, the daughter of charity who is always smiling and in a good humour. They are your masters, terribly susceptible masters, and demanding. You will see. Therefore, the dirtier and filthier, the more coarse and unjust they are, and the more you will love them. It will only be for your love of yours, this love only, that the poor will forgive you for the bread that you give them”.
It is a beautiful page of screenplay, as a film, but in reality Vincent also explained about what this love burned with, that ransomed the "work of charity".
He used to day: “The reason that God called us is to love Our Lord Jesus Christ…if we forget, even for a while, this thought, that the poor are members of the body of Jesus Christ, then without a doubt, the goodness and charity in us will diminish”.
Charity, in fact, is born from a look that is never distracted, not even for a moment, in its outstretching to our living Jesus, known and loved.
“It is Jesus!“ - his biography says – these were the last words pronounced by Vincent before entering his death agony.
Read lives of other Saints - https://www.truechristianity.info/en/saints_en.php