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St Vincent de Paul
Founder of the Congregation of the Mission (aka the Vincentian Fathers) and the Sisters of Charity (entered heaven in 1660)
You have begun to live. Until now you have inhabited a false world, but those recent events have brought you into the real world. Yes, my sad nephew, the real world involves suffering. The betrayal of friends, the loss of a good reputation, the hardships of injustice – all your most recent experiences are the daily fare of thousands of people. So now you have a choice, you can respond to this painful experience by lashing out in revenge and violent self-defense, or by patient endurance. Revenge will bring a momentary satisfaction, but it will be superficial and brief. Patient endurance will bring, in the end, justice, and, for the time being, spiritual growth – the source of lasting and true satisfaction. Today’s saint is proof of that.
Most people think of the worldwide charitable works association that bears his name when they hear “St Vincent de Paul”. That, however, was founded a couple centuries later, in his honor and in perfect harmony with his active concern for the poor and needy, but not by him personally. He actually founded a bunch of other organizations, including a congregation of priests dedicated to giving spiritual attention to the French peasants (that congregation ended up going international – carrying out country missions and directing seminaries – even in his lifetime) and a religious order of women whose “convent is the sickroom, chapel the parish church, whose cloister is the streets of the city,” in other words, they were dedicated to serving the spiritual and corporeal needs of the poor. He ransomed over 1200 Christian slaves in Africa, was spiritual advisor to kings and counts, queens and countesses, and established dozens of hospitals for the neediest and most destitute, especially orphans and galley-slaves.
He undertook all these projects after starting out as a comfort-loving cleric with a quick-temper and a despondent character. But two things happened to change all that.
In the first place, he was captured and enslaved by Muslim traders. Pirates took him when he was traveling with some fellow Frenchmen off the coast of Marseilles. His little boat resisted seizure, so the pirates proceeded to dismember the captain once they had taken it over. Eventually Vincent was taken to Tunis (in Northern Africa), humiliated (as all slaves), and auctioned off to a fisherman. Then he was sold to a pharmacist. A goodly old gentlemen, the pharmacist lectured the saint elaborately on alchemy and the Islamic faith. When he died and left Vincent to a younger relative, he was sold once again, to a farmer who had abandoned his Christian faith and taken three wives. Working in the fields, St Vincent’s example and virtue moved the heart of one of the Muslim wives, such that she began scolding her husband for having apostatized. Eventually, the owner repented, and both he and the slave escaped back to France.
During all this harrowing experience, he was thrown back on his own faith – only prayer and intimate communion with Christ enabled him to endure the tortures and abuse of the traders, and the humiliation and hardship of slavery.
Once he returned to France, he took up residence in a Parisian boarding house. And that’s when the second chapter of his transformation was written. A fellow clergyman accused him of theft and slandered him throughout the city (this happened just after he was ordained). For six years he bore the injustice graciously, defending himself only by saying “God knows the truth.” Imagine that. For six years, all the people in the circles wherein he moved thought he was a thief; they talked behind his back, pointed fingers, gossiped, laughed, insulted… And he kept silent, didn’t insist on justice, didn’t demand his rights. Through it all he continued to learn the lesson his stint as a slave had taught him: the comforts and pleasures of this world are undependable.
After six years the thief ended up turning himself in, and St Vincent’s good named was cleared. Thereafter he began to look more for how he could serve others than how he could take care of himself, and thus began the truly incredible flurry of apostolic activity that transformed an entire epoch on an entire continent.
So you see, the sufferings you find yourself in could either be the death of your faith – they could turn you into a skeptic and a cynic and an egoist – or they could be the first step on the road to true spiritual maturity, along with the fecundity, meaning, and joy that comes in its wake. It’s up to you.
Your devoted uncle, Eddy