© 2010 Vincentians Ireland
Provincial Office, St Pauls
“As was the case with the founders of many communities, St. Vincent saw the vows as both an offensive and a defensive “weapon”
“Our Lord came into the world to re-establish the reign of his Father in all persons. He won them back from the devil who had led them astray by the cunning deceit of a greedy desire for wealth, honour and pleasure. Our loving Saviour thought it right to fight His enemy with the opposite weapons, poverty, chastity and obedience, which He continued to do right up to His death.
“In forging his “weapons”, St. Vincent drew on the long historical tradition of the Church, particularly as he found it in the rule written by St. Ignatius for the Society of Jesus. Naturally, he also added his own touches, adjusting his “arms” to the historical circumstances of seventeenth-century France and to the specific type of Congregation he wished to found. Concretely, he knew that members of his Congregation would be living in a world where the temptation to riches or the “easy” clerical life was very real; he himself had experienced, and given into this temptation at an earlier stage in his life, seeking a comfortable benefice with which to support himself and his family. Likewise, he saw that in seventeenth-century France faithful celibate living would be no small challenge; while there were some striking role-models among the reforming bishops and clergy of the day, witness to celibacy on the part of many others was dismal. Authority too, both local and Roman, was on the defensive. The episcopacy was in urgent need of reform, with some bishops rarely residing in their dioceses. Civil authorities, moreover, often interfered with what local bishops and Rome attempted to do. The general atmosphere in France, particularly during the Jansenist controversy, was filled with rumblings against ultramontane forces. Finally and perhaps most important, St Vincent experienced painfully that many who began good works among the poor failed to persevere in them. He felt the gnawing need, to use his analogy, for stable “armed forces”.
“It was in this context that on September 22, 1655, after much struggle, St. Vincent received papal approval for the members of his Congregation to pronounce vows of poverty, chastity, obedience and stability, while still remaining members of the secular clergy, but exempt from the power of the local ordinary, except in matters pertaining to their mission. Only the Pope and the Superior general, when dismissing someone from the Congregation could dispense from these vows. Vincent hoped that, through pronouncing such vows, his missionaries would renew and deepen the gift of themselves to God for the service of the poor and that later, in time of trial, they would be strengthened by recalling that they had committed themselves for life to this service.
“For St. Vincent, the vows are not merely a matter of personal piety. They are “arms” to equip the missionary to serve the poor zealously and perseveringly. Though Vincent did, like Jesus, speak to his followers about the personal merit (“treasure in heaven”) that they would gain by living the vowed life, he saw the vows, on a much deeper level, as ways of following Christ more faithfully in the mission his Father had given him to preach good news to the poor.”
An extract from The Way of Vincent de Paul by Fr. Robert P. Maloney CM.