Saint of the Week: St. Vincent de Paul (September 27)
Vincent (born in 1580) grew up on a small farm in Gascony, France. He was ordained a priest in 1600, and just five years later was captured by pirates and sold as a slave in Tunis. Vincent converted his slave master, who escaped Tunis with him in 1607. He returned to Europe, where he worked in many places for the betterment of the poor, establishing charities in many places—one of which was established in France after he converted many Protestants.
After his work among the poor of the countryside, Vincent’s eyes turned towards the convicts in the galleys, who were subject to the Countess de Gondi (general of the galleys of France). The condemned convicts, before being convoyed aboard the galleys or when illness compelled them to leave, were crowded with chains on their legs onto damp dungeons, their only food being black bread and water. They were covered with vermin and ulcers. Their moral state was still more frightful than their physical misery. Vincent wished to help alleviate them physically and spiritually. Assisted by a priest, he began visiting the galley convicts of Paris, speaking kind words to them, doing them every manner of service—however repulsive. He thus won their hearts, converted many of them, and interested in their behalf several persons who came to visit them. A house was purchased where Vincent established a hospital. Soon appointed by Louis XIII royal almoner of the galleys, Vincent profited by this title to visit the galleys of Marseilles where the convicts were as unfortunate as at Paris; he lavished his care on them and also planned to build them a hospital; but this he could only do ten years later.
The Countess de Gondi persuaded her husband to support a group of able and zealous missionaries who would work among poor tenant farmers and country people in general. Vincent was too humble to accept leadership at first, but after working for some time in Paris, he returned to be the leader of what is now known as the Congregation of the Mission (now known as the Vincentians). These priests, with vows of poverty, chastity, obedience and stability, were to devote themselves entirely to the people in smaller towns and villages.
Later, Vincent established confraternities of charity for the spiritual and physical relief of the poor and sick of each parish. From these, with the help of St. Louise de Marillac, came the Daughters of Charity, “whose convent is the sickroom, whose chapel is the parish church, whose cloister is the streets of the city.” He organized the rich women of Paris to collect funds for his missionary projects, founded several hospitals, collected relief funds for the victims of war and ransomed over 1,200 galley slaves from North Africa. He was zealous in conducting retreats for clergy at a time when there was great laxity, abuse and ignorance among them. On his deathbed Louis XIII desired to be assisted by him: “Oh, Monsieur Vincent,” said he, “if I am restored to health, I shall appoint no bishops unless they have spent three years with you.” Vincent was a pioneer in clerical training and was instrumental in establishing seminaries.
Most remarkably, Vincent had very hot temper and was easily provoked—even his friends admitted it. He said that except for the grace of God he would have been “hard and repulsive, rough and cross.” But he became a tender and affectionate man, very sensitive to the needs of others.
Vincent died in Paris, the year 1660. Pope Leo XIII made him the patron of all charitable societies. Outstanding among these, of course, is the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, founded in 1833 by his admirer, Blessed Frédéric Ozanam.
St. Vincent said: “If a needy person requires medicine or other help during prayer time, do whatever has to be done with peace of mind. Offer the deed to God as your prayer… Charity is certainly greater than any rule. Moreover, all rules must lead to charity.” St. Vincent de Paul, pray for us!
Biography adapted from The Catholic Encyclopedia and American Catholic‘s ‘Saint of the Day.’