Many, but not all, can pinpoint an event (9/11, death of a parent, etc.) or identify a person who has transformed their life.
For me, it was the Vincentians who taught me in my formative high school years.
What transformed St. Vincent?
St. Vincent’s heart was not always on fire for the poor.
Something profound seemed to change in Vincent’s life in his late 30’s. The change was so remarkable that some speak of Vincent 1.0 and Vincent 2.0.
What was this shift? Vincent 1.0 was a bright, ambitious cleric seeking to escape poverty and work his way up the ecclesiastical ladder.
How did he become Vincent 2.0, a man on fire with God’s love for the poor and marginalized he had been trying to leave behind.
For most of my life, I was taught that his experiences in his ministry changed him. I am sure they had an impact. But many had the same experiences he had and were not as moved as he was. Others suggest it was the circle of friends he developed in Paris.
The little-explored role of his love for scripture
Only in recent decades have I learned of the impact of his reading of Scripture. (See the fascinating analysis of St. Vincent’s use of Scripture by Jose´ Carlos Fonsatti, C.M.)
He came to appreciate the scriptures as a lens through which to view the events of his life. He not only studied the scripture, but he also seemed to live and breathe the scriptures, especially the Gospels. He allowed the scriptures to shape the way he interpreted his life.
It was as if he were reading the book of the events of his life on the one hand and the scriptures on the other hand. (cf. My earlier Praying the News)
From his mid-thirties, his writings are filled with the words of scripture. This was so remarkable that St. Francis de Sales called him “a walking gospel.” Remember, in his day, few actually read the Bible.
How the Scriptures impacted Vincent
Reading his conferences and his letters today with an eye to his use of scripture, it can feel like the disciples of Emmaus. Their hearts were burning while “beginning with Moses and all the prophets,” Vincent interprets for us the Scriptures.
Former Superior General Robert Maloney recently reminded us that
“…for Vincent de Paul, a single focus inspired everything: the person of Jesus. But Vincent had a particular view of Christ from the Gospels. Vincent’s spirituality flows from contemplation of this Christ in the Gospel. This Christ, the Evangelizer and Servant of the Poor, was the driving force that generated both the incredible activity and the daily prayer of Vincent de Paul. Vincent encouraged his followers to contemplate this Christ again and again.”
He often tells his companions to “honor” this or that mystery of the life of Christ. He hopes they can see how their experience mirrors an experience of Christ in the Gospels. It means discovering the echoes of the situations of Christ’s life in our experiences today.
So, the keystone in Vincentian spirituality is this: following Christ as Evangelizer and Servant of the Poor.
Living the scriptures
- How often do you read the Gospels outside the Eucharist?
- Have you ever tried to see the echoes of Christ’s life in your life?
- What would it be like to read with the pages of scripture in one hand and the current page of your life in the other?