“What do you think is the meaning of the beautiful title, Daughters of Charity? Nothing else than daughters of the good God, because whoever is in charity is in God and God is in him.” —Saint Vincent de Paul, Conference to the Daughters of Charity, 6 January 1642
Many saints were champions of the poor and among them are many who expressed their first saintly impulses in childhood. I recently wrote about such a saint, the nineteenth-century founder Saint Vincent Pallotti. It is said that, as a boy, Vincent once met a poor street urchin who had no bed. He immediately went home, got his own mattress, and pushed it out the window for the child—such was the fervor of the young saint.
It seems an odd thing, therefore, that the early life of another Vincent, Saint Vincent de Paul — the universal patron of charitable institutions — contains no such edifying scenes. Though he was born poor, the child of French peasant farmers, young Vincent did not from the first have a heart for the poor. If anything, he desired not to be poor, and he spent his youth working to escape the state into which he was born.
Vincent’s academic prowess held the promise of a way out: if he could become a priest, he could attain a comfortable living and provide for his own security and that of his aged mother. To attain this goal, Vincent set out to be ordained even earlier than the then-prescribed age of twenty-four. He managed it, receiving ordination in the year 1600 at the age of twenty from a blind, aged bishop known for his skirting of the rules.
For the next few years, Vincent continued his theology studies with the clear goal of attaining the guaranteed income of a parish priest. Finally, in Rome, in 1609, he at last landed the sort of plum job he sought—chaplain and almoner for a retired queen. From this job he went on to tutor the sons of another wealthy lady, Madame de Gondi.
And yet, less than a decade after his first work for the queen, in the space of a single year, 1617, Vincent de Paul laid the groundwork for not one, but two, religious organizations whose entire focus was relieving the suffering of the needy: the order of priests today known as the Vincentians and the Ladies of Charity, an association that brought wealthy women directly into the hovels of the poor. So, what happened? What induced Vincent to leave behind his career ambitions for the sake of such prodigious charity?
It seems that Vincent converted to a life dedicated to the poor very gradually. Even as he climbed the ecclesiastical ladder, he made friends who urged him in the direction of something else—first of all the influential mentor, Father Pierre de Bérulle. Under Bérulle’s influence, Vincent learned to pray, opening his heart to an encounter with the incarnate Christ. And thus, in the midst of his search for security, he found himself before poverty: the mangled figure of a condemned criminal nailed to a cross. Christ would become his all. Later he would tell his spiritual sons and daughters, “Our life must be hidden in Jesus Christ and filled with Jesus Christ.”
Vincent also learned from his work with the devout Madame de Gondi, who sent him to serve as chaplain to the many peasants on her estates. There he came to know the poor intimately. He saw their wasted faces and oozing wounds. He heard their hoarse complaints. And he began to respond. The very same Vincent who was clutching at the future began to give himself away in the present—day by day, little act by little act. “Go to the poor,” he later urged, “You will find God.”
From this time, Vincent’s work expanded rapidly, taking in the poor of all stripes: prisoners, captives, the sick and the maimed, widows and orphans. And he became an expert at connecting people, drawing the wealthy and privileged into the work.
In 1633, Vincent and Saint Louise de Marillac formed the Daughters of Charity. It was an extraordinary founding. Vincent decided that to do their work among the destitute, the women who joined the Daughters must live, unlike any other religious women at the time, without the protection of monastic enclosure. They were to have unprecedented availability to those whom they served. Vincent instructed them on their unique mode of prayer: “When you leave your prayer to care for a sick person, you leave God for God: to care for a sick person is to pray.”
It was to this very religious congregation that St. Elizabeth Ann Seton became attracted a century-and-a-half later, when she adapted the rule of the Daughters of Charity for her new American community, the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph’s. It was, it seems, a “match made in heaven.”
Like Vincent, Elizabeth was not a child prodigy of charity. In fact, her life’s goal, at least at first, was to simply make good in her vocation—to be happily ensconced at home as a wife and mother. Like Vincent, her conversion came on gradually, fueled in part by her deep friendships with others—first with the Episcopal women who shared her deepening religious fervor and then with the Catholics who responded to that fervor by drawing her into the sacramental mysteries of the Church. And, finally, like Vincent, Elizabeth discovered her life’s vocation by cleaving to Christ. She did not choose her path. It chose her. Christ chose her.
On the feast of St. Vincent de Paul, I recommend you consider taking these two great saints as patrons. They are not holy card or fairy-tale figures, but human beings who struggled with earthly dreams. Their lives suggest a way forward for all of us who suffer the tension between a comfortable life in the world and a life thrown open to Christ.
LISA LICKONA, STL, is Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology at Saint Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry in Rochester, New York, and a nationally-known speaker and writer. She is the mother of eight children.
Image: Saint Vincent presents the first daughters of charity to Queen Anne of Austria. Painting of Brother André, Dominican religious, in the church of Saint Marguerite in Paris, eighteenth century.
This reflection was originally published in 2019.