Above: Pilgrims at the tomb of St Vincent de Paul.
The Society of St Vincent de Paul is active in many parishes around the world. But who was the saint after whom the society is named? Günther Simmermacher tells the story.
A priest whose life story included being sold into slavery went on to inspire a new sense of organised charity in the lay apostolate named after him — and helped set the scene for the Miraculous Medal, one of Catholicism’s most beloved devotions.
St Vincent de Paul was born on April 24, 1581, in the small south-western French village of Pouy (which in 1828 would be renamed after the saint). He was the third of six children born to peasant farmers Jean and Bertrande de Moras de Paul.
In his childhood, Vincent tended livestock, but even then his intellect stood out. At the age of 15, he was sent to a Franciscan seminary school in the nearby town of Dax. His father paid for the boy’s education by selling the family’s oxen — a big sacrifice for the poor family.
In 1597 Vincent moved to the University of Toulouse to study for the priesthood. He financed his studies by tutoring other students. The student environment in Toulouse was anything but holy, but despite his short temper, Vincent kept out of trouble. His ordination to the priesthood in 1600 caused trouble, however. The Council of Trent, which had concluded in 1563, set the minimum age for priests at 24, and Vincent was younger than that. Rather than fight his case, he resigned a premature appointment as parish priest and continued his studies in theology and canon law, first at Toulouse and then in Paris.
By the time he was ready to start life as a parish priest, fate intervened again — at least by Vincent’s account, which some modern scholars are disputing.
Sold into slavery
In 1605, on a sea voyage in the Mediterranean, Vincent was captured by pirates, taken to Tunis, and auctioned off as a slave. According to his letters, Vincent had three masters. The first was a fisherman, but Vincent suffered chronic seasickness and was soon sold. The second master was an old alchemist and inventor, from whom the young priest learnt a lot. But that master died on a voyage to Istanbul — and Vincent was sold once again.
His new master was Guillaume Gautier, a former French Franciscan priest who had converted to Islam in order to be liberated from his own enslavement. Gautier lived in the mountains with his three wives. The middle one of these was a Muslim by birth who took an interest in the slave’s religious faith. Impressed by Vincent, she persuaded her husband to revert to Christianity and escape with the slave to France. They arrived on French soil on June 28, 1607.
Things took a better turn after Vincent’s return. First, he was sent to Rome to continue his studies, and after he came back to Paris in 1609, he received some prestigious appointments, including one as chaplain to the aristocratic Gondi family. By then he was under the spiritual direction and mentorship of Abbé (later Cardinal) Pierre de Bérulle, a priest and statesman close to the French royal court.
Vincent seemed to have attained what he had hoped for when he had entered the priesthood: a comfortable life in good society with future prospects. The good times were briefly overshadowed when a friend with whom he stayed falsely accused Vincent of theft. For six months he suffered the calumny until the real thief confessed to the crime. This experience taught Vincent the virtue of humility and encouraged his spiritual growth. He adopted the “Rule of Perfection” of the English mystic and priest Benet Canfield, which helped him control his petulance and to be of service to others. It also sensitised him to the struggles of the poor.
The turning point
When one day in 1617 Vincent heard the confession of a dying peasant in the rural town of Folleville, his life changed. He left the employ of the Gondi family, and instead took up a parochial appointment and the chaplaincy to galley slaves. Over time, with the financial help of the Countess de Gondi, he set out to improve the lives of the poor, especially rural peasants. Seeing the great need for both material and spiritual help among the country poor, he organised wealthy women of Paris to fundraise for his growing range of missionary projects. These would include feeding projects, hospitals, relief funds for war victims, and — drawing from his own experience — the ransom over time of 1200 galley slaves from North Africa.
Soon he met the recently widowed Louise de Marillac, a woman of noble background in her early thirties who yearned to enter the religious life. He became her spiritual advisor — but more than that, they became fellow workers in the Lord’s vineyard which they would cultivate to great effect.
In 1625, he used funding from the Gondis to found the Congregation of Priests of the Mission (now also known as Vincentians or Lazarists) with the aim of evangelising the rural population and encouraging vocations to remedy a shortage of priests. The priests of the congregation renounced clerical preferment, and besides taking the usual vows of poverty, chastity, obedience, they took an additional one of stability. At a time when many priests were slacking, abusive, and ignorant, Vincent was a keen director of retreats for priests and an influential advocate for proper clerical training in seminaries.
And with Louise de Marillac — also a future saint — he founded a new religious institute for women, the Daughters of Charity. It was the first congregation of unenclosed Sisters whose consecrated life involved an extensive apostolate among the poor, the sick and prisoners. The Daughters of Charity were very effective in raising funds, eventually building a huge complex which housed and fed 40000 poor people.
A living saint
His work for the poor made Vincent widely known and admired in Paris. The once irascible priest still moved in the elevated circles of refined society, but he had also become a humble servant for the poor.
Vincent de Paul died on September 27, 1660, at 79, only six months after the death of Louise de Marillac. He was canonised in 1737; Louise in 1934. But the story of Vincent doesn’t end there. In 1833, almost a century after his canonisation, the young French scholar Frédéric Ozanam was inspired by the saint’s example to found a lay Catholic organisation working for the relief of the poor, and named it after him. Today, the Society of St Vincent de Paul is represented widely all over the world, including South Africa.
A couple of years before that, Sr Catherine Labouré, a nun of the Daughters of Charity — the congregation founded by Vincent and Louise — had a Marian apparition which gave rise to the Miraculous Medal, one of the Catholic Church’s most popular devotions (St Catherine will be The Southern Cross’ “:Saint of the Month” in November 2021).
The tombs of St Catherine and St Louise are in the chapel of the congregation’s motherhouse in Paris’ rue de Bac. It also includes the incorrupt heart of St Vincent, but the saint’s tomb, with his bones embedded in a wax effigy, is in the Vincentian church around the corner, in rue de Sèvres.
St Vincent de Paul’s feast is observed on September 27.
Reproduced with kind permission of The Southern Cross, where this article first appeared. Get a pull-out poster of St Vincent de Paul in the September 2021 issue of The Southern Cross. Order from firstname.lastname@example.org or subscribe at www.digital.scross.co.za/subscribe