Saints, Like Grapes, Tend to Grow in Clusters

“I think we do them a disservice by portraying them all alone, since so many of them lived and worked in relationships with others—many others—who helped each one to become a saint.”

St. Vincent de Paul and the Daughters of Charity
St. Vincent de Paul and the Daughters of Charity (photo: Register Files)

“It’s always seemed odd to me,” says Fr. Vincent J. O’Malley, C.M., “That saints, whether in stained-glassed windows or in statues, are represented almost always as solitary individuals—very rarely in pairs or groups.”

Fr. O’Malley should know. He literally wrote the book about the subject: Saintly Companions: A Cross-Reference of Sainted Relationships (Staten Island: Alba House, 1995). And he adds, “The saints loved people and in general, people love the saints. I think we do them a disservice by portraying them all alone, since so many of them lived and worked in relationships with others—many others—who helped each one to become a saint.”

While examples of saintly couples and relatives abound—the Holy Family (par excellence), Sts. John the Baptist and Jude, Peter and Andrew, James and John, Francis and Clare, Teresa of Ávila and John of the Cross, Francis de Sales and Jane de Chantal, Don Bosco and Mary Mazzarello—there does seem to be a strange “one-saint-at-a-time” mentality, which Fr. O’Malley laments. This notion of the saint as a stand-alone-character is corrected in his book. And for the sake of our interview, Fr. O’Malley suggested speaking of his patron saint, Vincent de Paul and his “partner” or co-worker in sanctity, St. Louise de Marillac.

“Vincent [1580-1660] was a great ideas man, a terrific innovator,” Fr. O’Malley says. “However, he was ‘deliberate’ when putting things into action. Perhaps a bit too deliberate, as Alban Butler claims in his The Lives of the Saints. Louise de Marillac, who, as an illegitimate child knew what it was like to live as a second-class citizen—what true suffering was, even as a child—was a great assistance on helping Vincent put his ideas into action.”

St. Vincent de Paul’s name is almost synonymous with his work with the poor—not for nothing do we still have “St. Vincent de Paul Societies” which help provide clothing and dignity to the poor. But, as Fr. O’Malley’s late confrere, Br. Augustine Towey once pointed out, St. Vincent also was passionate about education—yet his work with the poor was so extraordinary (due in no small part to the collaboration with St. Louise de Marillac) that it is often forgotten he was a great educator as well. Two of the largest universities in the United States—St. John’s in New York and DePaul in Chicago—are Vincentian institutions.

“Indeed, St. Vincent was a true Reformer,” says Fr. O’Malley. “He reformed the education and formation of the clergy in France. He also strenuously argued that bishops be appointed due to their qualifications and not by patronage. (This was a type of relapse into the “investiture controversy” that St. Norbert and St. Bernard rooted out in the 12th century.) Finally, he got the laity involved—and this was truly unique—by starting the ‘Ladies of Charity’ which, when fused with the vision and drive of St. Louise, become the Daughters of Charity.”

Jesus said, “I have called you friends.” And the more one looks at the Lives of the Saints, whether in Butler’s or the Martyrology or Fr. O’Malley’s book (which features an excellent grid-like cross-reference appendix of how the saints were “related”), the term friends comes up more and more. The cliché “opposites attract” also works a lot when speaking of saints: one need only look at the homebody-role St. Ignatius of Loyola played to his great missionary compatriot-traveler and co-founder of the Jesuits, St. Francis of Xavier—or in the case at hand, the meditative, contemplative man-of-ideas Vincent de Paul and his counterpart, Louise de Marillac, with her “Will-It-Cut-Down-Trees?” approach to going out and getting things done.

“These saints—all saints, really,” says Fr. O’Malley, “live in a different realm: they aren’t interested in ball scores or fads or passing fancies. They all have a depth of spirituality that, generally speaking, most of us do not have, at least not yet. In this sense they are not ‘ordinary’ people—or if they are, then they are ‘ordinary’ people capable of (and who indeed succeed in doing) extraordinary things. God’s grace is poured out in abundance on them and they long to share it. This is what makes their relationships so remarkable, but at the same time, so natural, too.”

Saints, like many of the ones mentioned above in general and Vincent and Louise in particular, often are innovators—and that’s not always a welcome thing to many people. As Anthony de Mello was fond of saying, “Jesus was crucified for proclaiming the ‘Good News’—but no one argued that it was ‘good’—it was the fact that it was ‘new’ that infuriated the Pharisees.” Vincent and Louise wanted members of their community—known as the Congregation of the Mission (or Lazarists for the men) and the Daughters of Charity (for the women) to be freed of the traditional religious enclosure. This had been, of course, the dream of the first true mendicant orders, the Franciscans and Dominicans. However, due to the rapid growth of those orders and the near-constant fracturing of the Franciscans into various camps (Conventuals, Capuchins, Third Order Regulars), Franciscan and Dominican “monks” did indeed exist by Vincent’s time.

While not a mendicant Order per se—they are both Societies of Apostolic Life—the Vincentians and Daughters of Charity would have:

For a monastery, the houses of the sick
For a cell, a rented room;
For a chapel, the parish church;
For a cloister, the streets of the city and the wards of the hospitals;
For an enclosure, obedience.

This was truly new. St. Francis, a great visionary and saint, knew he was no administrator: even in his own lifetime his “rule” was being re-interpreted by his successors and followers. But Vincent, who with long hours of deliberate prayer and preparation, and the constant assistance of Louise, was able to establish a Congregation that remained whole and entire, and literally did exactly what it’s name claimed: went out with a “Mission” of “Charity” to the world. It is a message—and mission—still relevant today, if not more than ever.

This article originally appeared Feb. 3, 2016, at the Register.