The life of Saint Vincent de Paul (1581 – 1660) spans a fractious time in France, with the wars of religion nearing their apex, mixed up with bitter claims over land and money. The instability of the kingship did not help matters, with the accession of a Protestant-Hugenot, Henry of Bourbon, in 1589, after the assassination of Henry III as he was besieging Paris.
But Vincent worried not overmuch about the ways of the purportedly great ones of this earth, and focused his priestly ministry on the poor, the outcast, the beggars and castoffs, and there were many in those days, with taxes squeezed out of a bleeding people, costly nationalistic and mostly futile wars, and what wealth there was ever-more concentrated in governmental coffers. His two Orders, the Daughters of Charity and the Congregation of the Mission, continue his work throughout the world to this day.
Charity is certainly greater than any rule. Moreover, all rules must lead to charity. Since she is a noble mistress, we must do whatever she commands. With renewed devotion, then, we must serve the poor, especially outcasts and beggars. They have been given to us as our masters and patrons.
One anecdote of Saint Vincent that sticks in my mind is a promise he made always to say the more simple and direct thing, rather the obfuscatory, ambiguous circumlocutions most of us use to avoid telling someone what may be an uncomfortable truth, but to which they have a right. We could use more such clarity and precision, not least amongst the ‘great ones’ of this world.