This is the first of a series of Vincentian Mindwalks highlighting St. Vincent’s impact on church and society in France 400 years ago. Understanding how he brought about structural reform even without intending to, gives us much to think about today.
Foreshadowing issues in our church today
In this first part, I invite you to journey with me to see how he addressed two major problems that are still with us today even if in new clothes.
The two points I focus on are
- Engaging laity, most especially women, in ministry following Christ the Evangelizer of the Poor
- Renewing a poorly prepared clergy mired in privilege.
Do these two issues sound familiar?
Engaging lay people in the Mission
Although he bears the familiar title of “Father of the Clergy”, today, we are seeing more clearly his truly ground-breaking contribution to engaging laity in what today recent Popes call “integral evangelization”.
As a result of reflecting on two experiences as a pastor in 1617 he realized the dire need for proclaimng “Good News” not only in word but deed. He also identified the need for supporting structures.
He would be the first to say, and often did say, that he was surprised by what happened. He was simply applying his peasant practicality to these problems. He just instinctively did “the next thing” that he thought would address both spiritual and material needs of which he became aware.
In his early ministry he identified and tapped a previously untapped resource, ordinary people, especially women. As he moved about in his “mission” of giving parish missions or renewals, the very first thing he did was foster lay organizations, then known as “confraternities”.
These lay organizations ministered especially to the immediate physical needs of those suffering societal inequalities and wars they did not understand. The confraternities are the forerunners of what we call today the A.I.C. The AIC is now comprised of 53 national associations and over 150,000 members or “volunteers”.
He went further and developed a new form of life that after almost 4 centuries now has its own section in the Code of Church law – “Societies of Apostolic Life”. I suspect some would be surprised to learn that the Daughters of Charity come under the section that speaks of lay associations organizations such as the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and the Ladies of Charity (AIC). Many would expect them to be governed by the section on “Religious Life”.
Unlike other communities of women in the Church of that time, they were not cloistered so that they could better serve the sick poor. (How Vincent managed to work around the canon law of the day is another story!)
Daughters of Charity are basically lay women who annually take personal and private vows of service.“The Daughters of Charity have… for a convent, the houses of the sick; for cell, a rented room; for chapel, the parish church; for cloister, the streets of the city…”
The Daughters of Charity currently number some 15,000 sisters serving in 91 countries. The Daughters established soup kitchens, hospitals, schools, and homes for orphans. They are in many ways a support for the Associations of the A.I.C.
Renewal of clergy
At the same time as he promoted laity in ministry, he ended up known for his reform of the clergy.
In his day there was virtually no formation for clergy other than some sort of apprenticeship with a local priest. Rife with nepotism, the clerical state was seen as a way to a comfortable life. Even Vincent himself saw it that way until his early mid-life conversion.
First, he dealt with the clergy around him. He offered what we would call “continuing education” via two forms of “conferences” – Tuesday Conferences and Thursday conferences for those who hungered for more. It was Vincent who was the prime mover in what became a network of seminaries. These seminaries were unheard of in his day even though mandated by a council in the previous century.
Finally, since he was so well respected that church and civil leaders turned to him to identify priests who would be good bishops.
Continue this journey in Part Two exploring how he was able to accomplish so much and what we can learn from his approach to problems in his day … and ours.