St. Vincent de Paul, Apostle of Charity

“I am for God and the poor.”

This week (September 27) we celebrate the memorial of St. Vincent de Paul (1581-1660), founder of the Daughters of Charity, with Louise de Marillac, and the Congregation of the Mission, an order known today as the Vincentians. He is patron of all charitable societies, including the movement dedicated to his name, the St. Vincent de Paul Society, founded in 1833 by Frédéric Ozanam.

Vincent de Paul was born to a peasant family in the French village of Pouy in 1581. Though he later became well known for his dedication to the poor, he spent his early life determined to escape his humble roots. His family shared this desire, hoping that his career in the priesthood would improve the family fortune. Educated by the Franciscans, he was ordained at the age of nineteen. His charm and social skills gained him entry into the highest levels of society, where he was tutor and chaplain to wealthy Parisian families.

In mid-life Vincent experienced a transformation when he was summoned to hear the confession of a dying peasant. After receiving absolution, the man remarked that he might have perished in the state of mortal sin had the priest not heard his confession. At that moment, Vincent understood the meaning of his vocation and decided that from then on his priesthood would be dedicated to serving the poor.

 Monsieur Vincent, as he was widely known, attracted the support of the rich and powerful, while the poor accepted him as one of their own. His spirituality was based on the notion of encounter with Christ in the needs of one’s poor neighbors. He instructed his priests and sisters, “The poor are our masters and you are their servants.” Love of the poor, however, did not mean sentimental adoration. “We must love God,” he wrote, “but let it be in the work of our bodies, in the sweat of our brow. . . .”