The Life of St. Vincent de Paul

By Matthew August

I demand from you deeds of mercy, which are to arise out of love for Me. You are to show mercy to your neighbors always and everywhere. You must not shrink from this or try to excuse or absolve yourself from it. I am giving you three ways of exercising mercy toward your neighbor: the first — by deed, the second — by word, the third — by prayer. In these three degrees is contained the fullness of mercy, and it is an unquestionable proof of love for Me. By this means a soul glorifies and pays reverence to My mercy (Diary of Saint Maria Faustina Kowalska, 742).

On Sept. 27, Catholics around the world remember the life of St. Vincent de Paul, the patron saint of charity.

De Paul was born in southern France in 1581 to a poor family that struggled to make ends meet. The saint spent the majority of his early years pursuing money and fame. His family encouraged his ambition to escape poverty and one day better the family’s wealth and fortune.

De Paul’s intelligence was evident at a young age, and his parents labored to provide him an education. In his first years of instruction, he was taught by the Franciscans. Young de Paul eventually decided that the priesthood would be the best way to achieve his desire for security and respect.

De Paul used the money he acquired while working as a tutor to pay for his education at the University of Toulouse, where he studied theology. He was ordained a priest in 1600 at the young age of 19.

Many remember young de Paul to be rough and irritable. One account states that his father went to see the young man when he was in seminary, and he rejected his father at the sight of his shabby appearance.

De Paul was ashamed of his upbringing and spent the majority of his time surrounding himself with the elite. He was well received among the higher circles because of his intelligence and wit.

In 1605, de Paul was travelling by sea when a group of pirates ransacked the ship and captured him. He was auctioned and sold into slavery where he would remain in bondage for the next two years. It was during this time that de Paul’s life began to change. He prayed fervently to God and promised he would dedicate his life to the poor and suffering if he could be set free.

During these years of suffering, the Lord reforged de Paul’s heart and made him new.

Suffering is a great grace; through suffering the soul becomes like the Savior; in suffering love becomes crystallized; the greater the suffering, the purer the love (Diary, 57).

DePaul’s slave master eventually converted to Christianity and set him free.

Upon returning to France, de Paul pursued his studies in Rome where he came under the tutelage of Frs. André Duval and Pierre de Bérulle. Bérulle was a Catholic priest and mystic who became de Paul’s spiritual advisor. Under their guidance, de Paul’s fiery temper and hostility turned to gentleness and sensitivity. His ambitions for the empty pleasures of the world receded, and his love for God pervaded his soul.

“The most powerful weapon to conquer the devil is humility. For, as he does not know at all how to employ it, neither does he know how to defend himself from it,“ said St. Vincent de Paul. “We should strive to keep our hearts open to the sufferings and wretchedness of other people, and pray continually that God may grant us that spirit of compassion which is truly the spirit of God.“

From this moment forward, de Paul spent every hour in service to the poor and suffering. He preached the message of God to deprived communities and established hospitals to provide care for them.

De Paul’s connections with the higher circles of society aided him in his quest to help these communities. He instituted the Confraternities of Charity, an association of wealthy lay women who visited and cared for the poor, providing them with food and medicine.

In 1633, de Paul founded the Daughters of Charity, an apostolic religious association of women that was dedicated to active charity.

De Paul would later become the superior for the Congregation of the Mission, a group of priests that vowed poverty, chastity, and obedience. The ignorance and laxity among the men was prevalent when de Paul entered, and the saint was able to light them on fire with passion and zeal in their work for the people.

After pouring out his life in service of everyone he met, de Paul died in Sept. 1660.

In the midst of trials and tribulations, perhaps many of us have turned our sights away from God and pursued the empty pleasures of the world. May we follow the example of de Paul in turning our eyes back to the Divine Mercy of Jesus, trusting that He will pave our way to sanctity and triumph.

“With God’s help,” said St. Vincent, “you will continue to succeed in your leadership and in your duties, because Our Lord’s work is accomplished not so much by the multitude of workers as by the fidelity of the small number whom He calls.”

Saint Vincent de Paul, pray for us.

Photo by Steve Knutson on Unsplash

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