HOMILY for St Vincent de Paul
The book of Ecclesiastes represents the skeptical side of Jewish Wisdom literature, and his premise that “there is nothing new under the sun” might strike us as true. Life can seem like cycle after cycle of vain repetition, without any purpose or goal; we’re just on a treadmill of work and drudgery. Many people, I think, can feel helpless and caught up this kind of life, like a slave to its demands.
Today’s saint Vincent de Paul was actually enslaved for two years when he was taken captive by Turkish pirates in 1605. He knew the toil of slavery and also the toil of poverty, as he was born into a peasant family in France; his parents were farmers. As a young man, Vincent, who was quite bright, aspired to the priesthood in order to escape the drudgery of poverty, and he was ambitious for high office in the Church to raise the fortunes of his family. If Vincent had succeeded in this, he would have followed the path of many clerics before and after him. Indeed, there is nothing new under the sun!
But new life and originality that breaks out of life’s vanity comes from finding purpose in life. Not the purpose given by ambition and desire for riches and influence, but the ambition for charity. As St Paul says: “be ambitious for the higher gifts”. For God’s grace which leads us to charity is ever new and ever creative; in his saints we see God’s profound originality.
So, after Vincent escaped from slavery in 1607 – some say, by converting his Muslim slave master to Christianity – he made his way to Paris, and with the help of a spiritual director, he began to undergo a conversion of heart. This wasn’t a flash of inspiration but a gradual opening of his heart to grace, so that he began to see the plight of the poor around him, and he began to appreciate his priestly vocation, not as a career among the rich, but as a call to befriend Jesus Christ the Poor One. Fired up by love for Christ, the toil St Vincent undertook was no longer just drudgery and vain repetition but a life-giving act of love. As he said: “Let us love God my brothers, let us love God. But let it be with the strength of our arms and the sweat of our brow”.
And Love is ever creative, looking for new and better ways to love others and to serve their needs. So, St Vincent worked tirelessly to improve the living standards of the poor, using his contacts among the rich to help them. He organized groups to go from house to house collecting furniture, food and clothes for the poor; he founded an order of priests, the Vincentians, who would be formed to love justice and serve the poor; and he collaborated in the founding of the Sisters of Charity with whom he ran hospitals, orphanages, and homes for the mentally ill. Until his death on 27 September in 1660, he worked tirelessly and purposefully for the poor, driven by divine charity to take on new and different ways to reach out to them. Thus, he was called the ‘apostle of Charity’, and St Vincent was so widely admired that during the anti-religious hysteria of the French Revolution, as churches were desecrated and religious images defiled, his statues were left untouched. Contrary to the words of Qoheleth that “there is no remembrance of former things”, St Vincent’s charity was well-remembered, and the memory of saintly lives of love do endure and continue to inspire us.
So, if we feel that life is tiresome, and we have lost sight of its purpose, remember St Vincent, be open to God’s grace, and be ambitious for charity.