'To Preach the Gospel by Word and Work'
St. Vincent de Paul dedicated his life to helping the poor. Today, more than 300 years after his death, it's easy to find many kind folks still stepping forward to follow in his footsteps: members of local St. Vincent de Paul societies.
A number of leaders representing these groups are quick to point out that an important aspect of their good works is often overlooked. In order to understand the Vincentian mission in its fullness, they say, it's vital to see the societies' charitable acts not only as a worthwhile end in and of themselves but also—perhaps primarily—as a means of evangelization.
The saint himself could hardly have put it more succinctly.
St. Vincent de Paul, whose feast the Church celebrates on Sept. 27, was born to a peasant family in 1581 in southwest France. He studied divinity at the University of Toulouse and was ordained at the age of 20. Captured by Turkish pirates and taken to Tunis, he was sold into slavery. He was later freed and returned to France, where he served as a parish priest near Paris and began organizations to help the poor, nurse the sick and find jobs for people who were unemployed.
Vincent founded the Congregation of Priests of the Mission (Vincentians) and, with Louise de Marillac, founded the Congregation of the Daughters of Charity. Following the example of Jesus, he devoted himself to working for the poor, sick, enslaved and abandoned of the world. He died in 1660 in Paris and was canonized in 1737 by Pope Clement XII. Vincent is the patron saint of charitable societies, charitable workers, hospital workers, hospitals, prisoners, spiritual help, volunteers and others.
In the United States, St. Vincent de Paul is probably best known for the thrift shops named for him and for the societies, which conduct all types of charitable works. It was through his works of charity that Vincent de Paul became a great evangelizer, bringing the word of God to the poor people he encountered.
The Society of St. Vincent de Paul at Most Holy Trinity Parish in Huntingdon, Pa., helps needy people in the community with rent payments, food, clothing and medicine. The group only has about 10 members and they are often busy providing for these basic needs. But its members don't stop there, says Herb Kann, president of the society.
“We hope there's a little bit of evangelization that takes place” whenever volunteers help people in the name of Jesus, Kann says. The first thing volunteers do is tell people that they're from the Catholic Church, he says, before adding: “We always extend to them the invitation to call any of us, and we tell them we'd be happy to bring them to church. The presence we have in the community lets people know what Catholics are really like.”
Kann estimates that between 75 and 100 people in the community have converted to the Catholic faith from various Protestant denominations over the past 10 years. He doesn't claim that the society's works are the main reason for the conversions. “But I would hope we get some of the credit,” he says. “Our good works have spoken for themselves in the community.”
The Word in Action
Don Clark, executive director of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul in the Diocese of Lincoln, Neb., agrees that evangelization comes through the good works the society performs. “We try to evangelize by showing the face of Christ and seeing the face of Christ in those we serve, who are the poor,” Clark says.
He recalls a recent event in which a pregnant woman came to the society for help and was taken to a local Catholic hospital. She and her husband were homeless, but after the young woman was helped by society members, the couple decided to go back to live with the man's parents in Kansas.
“We made sure they got on the bus,” Clark says. “We showed them what Catholics do. We care about people. In some cases we might talk with people about their religious [beliefs] or send them to a Catholic hospital. The evangelization that we engage in is not by word but by deed.”
Clark says he knows of a number of people who have joined the Church because of the society. “In fact, some of them are now our volunteers,” he says. “They entered the Church because they had been served by the Church.”
Clark became familiar with St. Vincent and his mission when he was growing up poor in a slum area of St. Paul, Minn., and went to a local St. Vincent thrift shop for basic necessities such as shoes. Now a retired professor of rehabilitation counseling, he devotes much of his time to helping others in similar situations. “I can preach and teach; I've done both,” Clark says. “But I find this much more rewarding and effective. The Lord has blessed us greatly by giving us the opportunity to serve.”
Vincentian Father Tom McKenna, provincial superior for the eastern province of his order, says St. Vincent was “one of the experts in the history of spirituality about getting these two things, evangelization and charitable activity, together. He had an almost frenetic schedule through the last 50 years of his life, but he managed to stay grounded in prayer.”
Father McKenna says the evangelization process can go both ways when volunteers serve the poor and sick. “You evangelize when you bring the presence of Christ [to the needy] and you are evangelized back in meeting those people,” he says. “You're meeting Christ in them. It's a circle of evangelization, where you're just as much evangelized by the poor as they are by you.”
While many St. Vincent de Paul volunteers do spread the Gospel through their good deeds, there needs to be even more emphasis on evangelization, Father McKenna says. To that end, he says the national office of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul has launched a program to train people on the elements of spirituality involved in serving the poor.
He says people today also need to emulate St. Vincent's efforts to change attitudes toward the poor. “In his day, the poor were looked upon as the criminal underclass or as being irresponsible,” Father McKenna says. “He tried to work against that perception. We need to do that today.”
It's important that students be taught the importance of linking charity and justice, says Sister Margaret John Kelly, a Daughter of Charity and executive director of the Vincentian Center, for Church and Society at St. John's University in Jamaica, N.Y.
“A number of our faculty research fellows try to bring the social teaching of the Church into the classwork so that students don't see this charitable teaching as removed from life but part of it,” Sister Kelly says.
“We hope that students begin to see that it's not what they do; it's how they do it and why they do it. That's the truer Vincentian service,” Sister Kelly says. “People say it feels good when they do something for the poor. But it's not about that. Vincent would say we serve the poor because we are truly brothers and sisters. It is in giving that we receive.”
Bob Violino writes from Massapequa Park, New York.