Saint of the week

St Vincent de Paul, 27th September

The patron saint of charitable societies, St Vincent de Paul was credited by the bishop who celebrated his funeral as having “changed the face of the Church” by his establishment of a pattern of charity at grass roots level that continues to operate and to inspire today.

He was born in 1581 into a peasant family in Pouy near Dax in the Gascony region of south west France and was accepted into the Franciscan seminary in Dax to train as a priest. He was ordained at the age of 20 years.

After studies in Toulouse and Rome he travelled to Paris where he joined a group of priests gathered around Pierre de Berulle, who in 1611 formed them into the Congregation of the Oratory and advised St Vincent to become a parish priest in Clichy and to serve as tutor to Pierre, eldest son of Philip de Gondi, Count of Joigny.

During the 12 years he spent in the service of the Gondis he came to know and be influenced by St Francis de Sales and was also drawn to the service of the peasants on the Gondi estates, creating a “charity” of women dedicated to caring for the sick and the poor on the principle of serving Our Lord through the most needy and most vulnerable.

He also formed a group priests to preach missions in villages, to care for the poor and for galley slaves and other convicts, and to help to train clergy. St Vincent placed this group on a permanent canonical footing with the help of funding by Mme de Gondi, and it became the Congregation of the Mission – the Vincentians – with premises first in the rue Saint-Victoire and later at the priory of Saint-Lazare.

The all-women “Charities” also developed into a religious order – first known as the Servants of the Poor, then as Ladies of Charity and finally as Sisters of Charity. But St Vincent was determined that this order, founded with the help of St Louise de Marillac, should not be enclosed because the sisters needed to move from conventual prayer to the homes of the sick and they had a special constitution approved by the Archbishop of Paris in 1646.

St Vincent also initiated a series of Tuesday conferences in response to demands from young priests for a follow-up to the spiritual exercises he led for them. These would run from 1633 until his death 27 years later. According to Butler’s Lives of the Saints his impact on training of clergy was “immense”.

The saint was also an opponent of Jansenism which was at that time making inroads into the Church in France and although some of his friends were influenced by the new ideas on grace and predestination St Vincent was instrumental in petitioning the pope to condemn five basic Jansenist propositions.

St Vincent’s health deteriorated in the late 1650s after he developed leg ulcers and he died at his hospital of Saint-Lazare on 27 September 1660.

A cult developed almost immediately and he was beatified in 1729 and canonised in 1737. He was declared patron saint of charitable societies by Pope Leo XIII in 1885.

The Vincentians extended their mission beyond France, to such places as far afield as Poland and Madagascar, in St Vincent’s lifetime and by the 19th century they had also reached South America, England and the United States. The Daughters of Charity of St Vincent de Paul also works worldwide.

The lay confraternity of the Society of St Vincent de Paul – established in Paris in 1833 by Frederick Ozanam and others – remains a popular Catholic charitable movement operating at parish level.