Remember the rich young man of the Gospels? How he hurried up to Jesus, asking about the way to eternal life?
When Jesus invited him to renounce his wealth and become a disciple, he walked away—sad. But what if he had accepted Jesus’ invitation to sell his possessions, give to the poor, and follow him? Maybe he’d have become another St. Vincent de Paul.
The Discipline of Failure. Unlike the rich young man, Vincent wasn’t born into a comfortable life. His parents were poor farmers in southwestern France who were struggling to raise their family of six. In order to help them—and to advance his career—Vincent decided to become a priest.
When he was much older, Vincent admitted that if he had understood what the vocation entailed, he never would have entered it. “I was rash,” he confessed. But it wasn’t a cynical move. For a clever peasant lad of his day, ordination was an acceptable choice, the only way to move up the social ladder. As a priest, he could hope for lucrative titles and positions with benefices, the revenues from lands owned by a church or an abbey.
Vincent was ordained in 1600, when he was nineteen or twenty, even before finishing his theology studies at the University of Toulouse. He promptly went out to seek his fortune. He cultivated patrons, made contacts in Rome, and pursued an inheritance. But although he was a contender for two parishes and even a bishopric, his efforts came to nothing.
Vincent lost two years as well, mysteriously dropping out of sight when he was twenty-four. In a letter written afterward, he said that he had been captured by pirates and sold into slavery, having served three masters in Tunisia before making his escape. Was it the truth, a joke, or a coverup for, say, avoiding his student debts? There’s no way to know. Vincent never spoke of the incident again. Near the end of his life, he was upset to see the letter reappear, and he tried to get all copies destroyed.
When Vincent resurfaced, he moved to Paris. Two years later he wrote to his mother that he was still trying to “firm up my chances of advancement.” Now thirty, he still had not managed to secure his own and his family’s financial future.
But there’s nothing like dashed hopes to make a person rethink priorities. And by this time, something besides personal ambition was stirring in Vincent’s heart.
A Mixed Picture. In Paris, Vincent was drawn into the orbit of new movements of spiritual renewal. Some of the leaders—including, eventually, St. Francis de Sales—became his spiritual guides. Without abandoning his quest for benefices, Vincent began to be evangelized toward the upward mobility that leads to heaven.
Probably the first outward sign of his conversion was the way he reacted to a roommate’s accusation that he had stolen some money. Vincent was innocent and said so. But then he let the matter drop rather than try to clear his name. He was vindicated six years later, when the real thief confessed. Vincent came to see the episode as a parable of how the Father saves us when we stop trying to save ourselves: “See how God cares for those who abandon themselves to his providence!” This would become one of his favorite themes.
Not quite yet, however, for now the long-sought appointments began to materialize: first, an assignment to the clerical staff of the former queen, Marguerite of Valois, then, when he was thirty-two, his first parish—in poor, rural Clichy, just outside Paris.
Perhaps to his surprise, Fr. Vincent discovered that he had a gift for pastoring. He discovered, too, that he had something to learn from his parishioners. He was moved, for example, by the way they chanted the psalms. “I said to myself, ‘You, their spiritual father, don’t even know how to do that.’ It gave me great pain.” He came to admire these country people and found them “so good and so responsive” that he couldn’t imagine any pope or bishop being happier in his work.
Even so, sixteen months later, Vincent left Clichy for a more prestigious position as chaplain for the powerful de Gondi family. Additionally, he acquired four titles and positions, with their accompanying income.
Rich Young Men. Was Vincent beginning to feel like the rich young man who questioned Jesus? Vincent, too, had kept the commandments and lived a good and upright life. And now, with a high-placed job, a steady revenue stream, and his ambitions accomplished, he also had “many possessions” (Mark 10:22).
But other desires were stirring. Through his experiences and friendships, Vincent was changing. He was growing in virtue and discovering what it really means to be a priest. He was also feeling his own weakness more keenly, in a period of spiritual darkness and in struggles with “black and boiling moods” that sometimes came upon him. Yet these times were balanced by deep experiences of God’s mercy and love.
That young man of the Gospels had undoubtedly heard Jesus speak and had been drawn by his words. Something similar now happened to Vincent. After moving into the de Gondi household, he had more time for prayer and Scripture. Poring over his New Testament, he became gripped by the words and example of Jesus. “Nothing pleases me except in Jesus Christ,” he often said later.
As his attraction to Jesus grew, it’s easy to imagine Vincent echoing the young man: “What must I do? What do I still lack?”
Twin Callings. Jesus spoke his, “Come, follow me” through two events in 1617, when Vincent was thirty-seven.
The first happened one day, when Vincent heard the confession of a peasant on the de Gondi estate who was approaching death. The man revealed many years of hidden sins and felt so liberated afterwards that he insisted on telling his family and Madame de Gondi as well! Shocked at the man’s near miss with hell, she urged Vincent to preach a sermon on repentance and confession. When he did, on January 25, so many people lined up for the sacrament that outside priests had to be called in.
Through this event, Vincent sensed that Jesus was calling him to bring the gospel to the forgotten rural poor. And though it took some years to organize a company of priests who would carry out this task, this was the day when his Congregation of the Mission was born.
The second event happened that August. Just before a Sunday Mass, Vincent learned of a poor, sick family in desperate need. Moved by their predicament, he mentioned them in his homily, with results any fund-raiser would envy. That afternoon, the family was flooded with visitors and provisions.
Seeing the need for a more organized approach, Vincent helped parishioners to develop an assistance organization, the first Confraternity of Charity. And so Vincent took his first step along the path to becoming an apostle of charity for hundreds of thousands of people in need.
In his guidelines for these groups, his motivation is clear. We should look on every person in need “as Jesus, rather than as just a human being, since Jesus said that he regarded any service done to such a person as being done to himself.” Clearly, the love of Christ was ruling Vincent now.
What a Yes Can Do. Vincent threw in his lot with Jesus and with the poor. He gave up his positions and titles with all the revenues he had worked so hard to attain. He lived very simply. And when some of the wealthiest and most powerful figures in the court of Louis XIII sought his counsel, Vincent mobilized them to use their time and treasure to help people in need.
Until his death at seventy-nine, Vincent poured himself out in a staggering array of good works and evangelistic projects. He became a kindly “father of the poor,” the Mother Teresa of his day. Galley slaves, abandoned children, the sick, the destitute—Vincent found creative ways to relieve their misery. His congregation of priests (now known as the Vincentians) brought Christ to peasants ravaged by cycles of war, famine, and epidemics. With St. Louise de Marillac, he founded the first outside-the-cloister religious community of women. These Daughters of Charity met the poor where they lived—in slums, hospitals, and prison cells.
Vincent also became a master preacher. His simple, personal style opened hearts to the gospel and helped reverse the trend of lofty rhetoric then in fashion. He was a leader in clergy reform, too, developing retreats and weekly gatherings that attracted thousands of priests and seminarians.
That Look of Love. According to St. Mark, there is something that Jesus did just before inviting the young man to sell his possessions, give to the poor, and follow him: “Jesus, looking at him, loved him” (Mark 10:21). Did the young man see that look of love? If so, he didn’t dwell on it. But what if he had let his gaze linger on the Master’s face just a bit? Might he have found the courage to follow?
Vincent let his gaze linger. Seeing Jesus’ look of love, he received it, lived in it, and let it change him. Then he was able to joyfully surrender not only his ambitions and acquisitions, but his entire life.
For Vincent it was a long, bumpy taxi down the runway to holiness. But once he said, “I will follow,” he discovered what God had made him to be and do. Then he soared.
Louise Perrotta is a former Word Among Us editor.