St Vincent de Paul

Jeannie Ewing

How to Give More with the Amazing St. Vincent de Paul

Who was St. Vincent de Paul, and what were his most notable virtues?

Known as the “Great Apostle of Charity,” St. Vincent de Paul began his life in a French peasant family.  Born in 1581 as the third of six children, Vincent quickly grew to love reading and writing.  As a boy, he was in largely in charge of caring for the family’s livestock.

Vincent showed interest in the priesthood at an early age, which might attribute to his most notable virtues of compassion, humility, and generosity – all of which comprise the ultimate theological virtue of charity.  His father, though poor, committed to sending Vincent to seminary at the age of fifteen by selling the family oxen, which shows incredible generosity on his part, as well.

Vincent’s life as a seminarian was anything but rosy, however.  While studying for his undergraduate degree, he frequently witnessed fights among students and even knew of a murder that occurred on campus.  Shortly after he was ordained and assigned as a parish priest, he was taken captive by pirates and enslaved to several different captors.  Eventually, a beneficent master, whose wife was intrigued by Vincent’s exemplary display of virtue in the midst of such horrific circumstances, had a change of heart and allowed Vincent to escape from slavery.

Once back in Europe, Vincent resumed his studies in Rome, but shortly thereafter he encountered many peasant families and was reminded of his own roots.  This was what led him to understand that his mission in life was to serve the poor.

Inspired by such love for the poor, Vincent established the “Ladies of Charity” in 1617 with a group of women in his parish who were wealthy and willing to donate their money and time in service to the poor of their village.  These women collected money for missionary projects, established hospitals, and helped ransom slaves from African slave ships.  (These women eventually became known as the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul.)

In 1622, Vincent became the leader of the Congregation of the Mission, or the Vincentians, as they are known today.  These priests, in addition to their vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, committed their lives to serving the poor in small villages and towns In addition to this work, Vincent spent twenty-eight years of his life serving as spiritual director to the sisters in the Convent of St. Mary of Angels.  He died in 1660.

From his biography alone, one could surmise that St. Vincent exhibited incredible patience, cooperation, humility, and resignation to God’s permissive will when his faith was tested in those early years after ordination.  Naturally, the work he is most known for involves total dedication to feeding, clothing, and caring for the poor.

We can credit him with the amazing work that continues today in his honor and name with the thousands of St. Vincent de Paul Societies, founded to provide financial assistance, food, and clothing to those who are in need.  Countless hospitals, nursing homes, schools, and parishes worldwide are named after this well-known and beloved saint, as well.

What does the Church teach about our obligation to serve the poor?

One principle of Catholic Social Teaching includes the “preferential option for the poor.”  This involves more than merely handing out food at a local soup kitchen or the occasional donation in the collection basket (though these are valuable and necessary).  Caring for the poor isn’t a suggestion – it’s an obligation for all of us as Catholic Christians today.  The fundamental reason we must be moved to care for those who do not have the luxuries of life that we may enjoy is the simple fact that we recognize the equal dignity of every human life – without exception.

The preferential option for the poor includes collaboration more than a sense of “helping out” those in a lower socioeconomic class.  In this way, there is neither a superiority on our parts, nor an inferiority on their parts.  We view all people as our brothers and sisters and follow the commandment, “Love one another as I have loved you” when we actively seek to comfort the suffering poor.  Ultimately, we strive to work for the “common good” (another aspect of Catholic Social Teaching) when we care for the poor.

Practical ways we can serve the poor through our time, talent, and treasure

When I was a young girl, my father was the president of the St. Vincent de Paul Society at our parish, and he served in this capacity for several years.  During that time, I witnessed and participated in many opportunities to care for the poor – ways that didn’t separate or divide me from them.  There wasn’t an “us and them” mentality at all.  They were indeed my neighbors.

Most of us are aware of local food pantries, soup kitchens, or rescue missions where we can (and often do) donate our money or volunteer our time.  While these are certainly worthwhile endeavors, here are some other ideas I picked up from my father when I was a child:

When you see someone holding that cardboard sign on the side of the highway, be prepared to help.  It’s unfortunate that most of us are skeptical in handing a homeless person money, for fear he or she may use it toward drugs or alcohol.  But my dad taught me a valuable lesson about this:  “It’s not on your conscience what he/she does with the money.  That’s up to his/her conscience.  Your responsibility is to give.”

And give we did.  To this day, I do not drive by without handing that person something.  If you are uncomfortable giving cash, consider putting together a “blessings package” that includes travel sized toiletries, packaged snacks, sanitizing wipes, and gift cards for restaurants.  For our blessings packages, we add a handmade card made by our girls that says “God Bless You!”

Consider inviting the person who has nowhere to go on a holiday for dinner at your house.  Remember the Scripture verse about Jesus dining with sinners, tax collectors, and prostitutes?  The suggestion here isn’t to pick up those on the Red Light District, but think of people you may see frequently who are alone or widowed.

When I was a child, I remember Thanksgivings as eventful holidays.  Sitting around our table was not only my family, but a conglomeration of strangers, too.  My father invited the man with the cardboard sign to dine with us (and he did), as well as the disabled man from our parish whose parents had recently died that year.  Every year it was a different group, but that group always involved those who were poor and suffering in some way.

Giving doesn’t have to be complex.  The best way to live out the life and legacy of St. Vincent de Paul is to pray and discern.  Ask the Lord what He is asking of you with your specific spiritual charisms or natural talents.  Inquire about the needs in your parish or local community.  Then fill in the gaps.  But always be disposed to the movements of the Holy Spirit, which are often sporadic and unpredictable.  Keep an open heart to the ways you may be called to serve and love the poor, and then respond with a resounding “yes.” 

How do you practice charity? Leave a comment below.