The Apostle of Charity
St. Vincent de Paul, called the Apostle of Charity, stands as a monument in the life of the Church. He transformed utterly how both the Church and the secular world (copycatting the former) undertook the infrastructure of organized charitable action. Far from doing social work for social work's sake, St. Vincent de Paul sought out the good of souls both temporally and spiritually, as his massive labor and remarkable life attest.
Born to a peasant family, he was ordained in 1600. In 1605, he was captured and taken to Tunis by Turkish pirates as a slave, but he escaped after two years, having converted his master. Later he became the almoner of the French queen, Marguerite of Valois. He performed peasant missions for ten years, eventually gathering a group of priests to go with him; these conferences also involved performing charitable works. Much of his work included going to the convicts in French galleys—ships for transporting prisoners. The prisoners endured squalid conditions, and Vincent took care of both their temporal and spiritual needs, converting many. In time, he founded the Vincentians (known as Lazarists in Vincent's time), a society of priests who gave conferences and spiritual retreats for seminarians, priests, and the laity, especially in the poor peasant regions of the country. As part of his work, he also established seminaries all over France, eventually taking control of 11 seminaries!
He also founded his Daughters of Charity in 1629, mainly for noblewomen who would care for the poor and destitute. Eventually, young women were enlisted to form a legitimate religious order, who would visit prisons, hospitals, and slums to care for tens of thousands of poor, including eventually 4,000 orphan children; 40,000 poor of Paris; and thousands more in rural, war-torn regions of France. The works of charity these sisters undertook included especially soup kitchens and providing some useful means of work for the poor. St. Vincent's concern also reached the poor slaves of Barbary, whose fate he once had shared, and his missions cared for or ransomed up to 30,000 of them. Finally, St. Vincent's works of charity also included occupying himself with caring for Irish and English Catholic refugees and burying many dead from the 30 Years War.
Never neglecting his duties as a priest only for social work, he also undertook to fight the Jansenist heresy in France, ultimately inducing 85 bishops to convince the pope to condemn the errors of the Jansenists. He also acted as spiritual director to many congregations of religious women and sent missionary priests to go to the Roman countryside, Genoa, Savoy, the Piedmont, Ireland, Scotland, the Hebrides, Poland, and even Madagascar. His prayer, modesty, humility, piety, and asceticism were intense and marked despite all his manifold exertions.
Such was the soul of the Apostle of Charity, St. Vincent de Paul. This is the story of the great saint who put charity onto an organized basis and thus transformed not only Paris but the history of the Catholic Church and the world, its imitator.
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