“The Lord has sent me to preach the Good News to the poor.”
The Congregation of the Mission, the Vincentians, was founded by St. Vincent de Paul on January 25, 1617 in Folleville, France. From the start, St. Vincent understood the mission to be service to the poor in imitation of Christ. Taken from the gospel of St. Luke, the motto of the Congregation reflects this: “The Lord has sent me to preach the Good News to the poor.”
Vincent de Paul did not originally become a priest to serve the poor. Born in April of 1581, he was the son of a poor peasant farmer. The young Vincent knew how difficult the life of a farmer was and became a priest because he believed it was the route to a financially secure life. But God had different plans for Vincent. Over time, the slow work of grace and gradual conversion transformed him into a true servant of God.
The Congregation of the Mission
In January of 1617, Vincent was called to hear the confession of a dying man in Folleville, France. He realized that this poor man knew very little of his faith. Vincent found that many of the poor Catholics in Folleville had forgotten the importance of their faith and decided to preach a mission to this parish. The response was overwhelming. Vincent had to recruit the help of other priests to help him hear confessions. As a result of this experience, Voincent was convinced that God was calling him to help the poor come to a better understanding of their faith and to greater participation in the sacraments. He was so certain of this that he considered the date of the first mission, January 25, 1617, to be the foundation day for the Congregation of the Mission (the Vicentians).
Vincent was always ready to say “yes” to whatever God asked of him. But how did he know what God was asking? Vincent was well acquainted with scripture. He knew all about Jesus’ teachings and he understood that our mission was to be as Jesus was, particularly in Jesus’ care for the poor and the sick.
One day someone told Vincent about a poor family. All of them were very ill and they had no food or medicine. That Sunday, Vincent spoke to the people of his parish about them. A few hours later he was surprised to see the whole town come to the aid of that family. Vincent knew that there were more poor and sick people who needed help. This event of Divine Providence led Vincent to start a group called the Ladies of Charity whose mission it was to help all the poor and sick of the town. Vincent told them that they should feed the poor as if they were feeding Jesus.
Divine Providence led Vincent to do much more. He ministered to prisoners and slaves. He helped prepare men to become priests. He opened homes for the hundreds of abandoned and orphaned children in France. Each time, circumstances around him led Vincent to hear God’s call.
St. Vincent’s Mission is focused on Christ’s charity and a call to serve the spiritual and physical needs of the poor. In the 400 years since the foundation of the Congregation of the Mission, over 200 organizations have adopted the rule of St. Vincent and embraced the charism that drives its mission.
- The Ladies of Charity – Established in 1617, it is the first lay organization St. Vincent established for the care for the corporal needs of the poor and sick.
- The Daughters of Charity – Founded in 1633 by St. Vincent and St. Louise de Marillac, the Daughters of Charity are a society of religious women dedicated to meeting the corporal needs of the “poorest of the poor”. They set up soup kitchens, organized community hospitals, established schools and homes for orphaned children, offered job training and taught the young to read and write.
- Sisters of Charity – This women’s religious community was founded by St. Elizabeth Seton in Emmitsburg, Maryland on July 31, 1809 and dedicated to the care of the children of the poor. In 1810, Elizabeth and the sisters of the community, adopted the rules written by St. Vincent de Paul and St. Louise de Marillac for the Daughters of Charity in France. In 1850, the sisters of Charity were merged with the Daughters of Charity.
- Society of St. Vincent de Paul – This lay charitable organization was founded in 1833 by Frederic Ozanam to help impoverished people living in the slums of France. The society took St. Vincent de Paul as their patron under the influence of Sister Rosalie Rendu, a member of the Daughters of Charity. Today, there are more than 800,000 members in 140 countries worldwide who continue to dedicate their time and resources to help those in need in their communities.
St. Vincent de Paul Still Challenges Us
What can a saint who lived four centuries ago tell us Christians of the 21st Century? How can men and women of the technological world, of the world of computers and the internet draw inspiration from St. Vincent’s life and mission?
Jesus called Vincent de Paul to the mission and to charity. Through Divine Providence, Vincent came to a new understanding of the reality that surrounded him, namely, the social and pastoral abandonment of the poor in rural France. Through God’s grace (charism), Vincent was able to respond in a concrete and innovative way to God’s call. Because Vincent was willing to say “yes” to God, countless lives were transformed and thousands joined in his mission of charity.
Four centuries ago, in a small town in France, St. Vincent began his mission by serving the corporal and pastoral needs of the poor. Over the last 400 hundred years hundreds of thousands of people in nations all over the world have found inspiration in St. Vincent’s response to Jesus. We still have much to do in the 21st century to respond to the plight of the poor in our own communities and around the world. But in 2017, just as it was in 1617, it all begins by following the example of St. Vincent de Paul and saying “yes” to God’s call.