On the Rue des Sèvres in Paris, there is large church which is dedicated to Saint Vincent de Paul. In a shrine high above the main altar, his remains – his bones, encased within a wax figure – are visible. A staircase rises up to the shrine from the side of the altar and the public are permitted to ascend this in order to pray beside him. Always, there is an observer sitting close to the shrine, almost imperceptibly, to prevent anything untoward happening there.
When he first become a priest, it had been with the clear intention of having an ‘easy life’ – at that time in France, priesthood was very lax and provided a path to wealth without a great deal of actual work and with no need for any particular sense of the spiritual. However, one day he heard the confession of a poor man who was very close to death; whatever he heard in that confession, it changed his heart and he was never the same afterwards. This is the reason why the Collect of the Mass for today’s feast makes particular mention of the clergy. He would also establish seminaries and ensure these were theologically and pastorally sound.
For the remainder of his priestly ministry in Paris, Vincent was known as ‘the Saint of the Poor’. Everyone spoke to him familiarly, calling him ‘Monsieur Vincent’. He had the gift of persuading the fortunate to share what they with the much less fortunate – of whom there were a great many in Paris at that time. He also founded two religious congregations – the Congregation of the Mission (the Vincentian Fathers) and the Sisters of Charity – and these both had a particular vocation to serve the poor in whatever way they could. He would later found hospitals, raise funds to free slaves – amongst whom he had worked for some time.
Go to the poor – you will find God
St Catherine Labouré, the saint of the Miraculous Medal, belonged to the Sisters of Charity; indeed, the chapel where the Our Blessed Lady appeared to Catherine to give the world the Miraculous Medal is just round the corner from the church where St Vincent rests. His heart, which is incorrupt, is in the Miraculous medal chapel, in a reliquary to the left of the spot where Our Lady appeared. Before entering the convent, Catherine had a vision of St Vincent, who told her that she would one day enter his order.
Vincent died in Paris on 27th September 1660 – a very long time ago now. And yet, he is still remembered with particular fondness in Paris and throughout France as the ‘Saint of the Poor’. His love for the poor lives on today in his religious congregations and also in the work of the Society which takes it’s name from him. He is the patron saint of all works of charity.
The Society of St Vincent de Paul – commonly called the SVDP – is active in a great many Catholic parishes and does a great deal of work to provide food, clothing, furniture and material assistance for those in need – of whom the number seems to be increasingly exponentially in these days.
Charity, of course, is not the duty only of those working in particular organisations, but it is the Christian duty of every one of us, for the call to the preference for the poor is explicitly expressed over and over again in the Gospels by the Lord. The poor are our neighbours, in whom we are invited to see, to serve and to love the Lord Himself. If we practice the rituals of our religious faith with great diligence and yet have no consideration for those less fortunate than ourselves, we have entirely missed the point of following Christ. Even the widow who had little, gave of what she had. What, then, are we asked to give?
On this his feast day, may the message and the spirit of Saint Vincent de Paul inflame us with a renewed desire to see Christ and to serve Him in those to whom we are able to offer any sort of help or assistance.