“Consider your own call,” the Apostle Paul writes to the fledgling disciples of the Church in Corinth. Now of course Paul knows that every disciple’s call comes from Christ alone, that they are each and all chosen to serve and to be glorified in the one Lord. Yet Paul says, “Consider your own call.” From his own transformative encounter with the risen Christ, Paul also knows that each disciple’s vocation is unique. For just as each person is an image and likeness of the one God unlike any other, so too the circumstances, gifts, and mission of each disciple called into Christ’s mystical Body have a personally peculiar manifestation in each one. Paul says, “Consider your own call,” reminding us that each woman or man’s call will be transformed by God into a strikingly particular life of love and self-offering in Christ.
On this day, the Church’s calendar celebrates one such gloriously peculiar call of Christ. In the clerestory above us on the south side of this chapel, a stained glass window depicts a balding and bearded priest wearing the surplice and stole of a pastor. This uniquely called disciple is St. Vincent de Paul who was born in 1580 to a French peasant family. Though he later achieved fame for his dedication to the poor, his early life was spent in a determined struggle to escape and hide his humble roots. His family shared this ambition, hoping that his career in the priesthood would better their fortune. Vincent was trained and ordained at the remarkably young age of nineteen. In his early days of ordained life, Vincent applied himself to securing well-paid positions as a chaplain and tutor with wealthy patrons among the nobility. His innate charm and social skills gained him entry into the highest levels of society.
In mid-life, however, Vincent underwent a great transformation. The occasion was a summons to hear the dying confession of a peasant on a noble’s estate. The penitent man’s simple piety and spiritual naiveté shocked the priest, and Vincent was struck as never before by the seriousness of his pastoral call. He determined that henceforth his ministry would be dedicated to the service of the poor. In 1626, Vincent and three fellow priests pledged to “aggregate and associate to ourselves and to live together as a Congregation … and to devote ourselves to the salvation of the people.”
For Vincent, a predominant virtue of his deepening sense of call was charity to be extended to all. He established charitable confraternities to serve the spiritual and physical needs of the poor and sick. He became adept at convincing women of means to collect funds for his missionary projects, particularly institutions to serve the poor, the mentally ill and orphans. He also convinced a number of well-to-do women to put on simple gray habits and undertake “hands-on” ministry to and among the poor. In partnership with the wealthy widow Louise de Marillac, Vincent founded the Daughters of Charity, a non-enclosed congregation of women devoted to serving the destitute and sick. Describing this revolutionary model of religious life, Vincent wrote, “Their convent is the sick room, their chapel the parish church, their cloister the streets of the city.”
Vincent was by temperament a very irascible person. He said that except for the grace of God he would have been “hard and repulsive, rough and cross.” But encountering Christ in the needs of his poor neighbors, Vincent became tender and affectionate, very sensitive to the needs of others. The Spirit formed in him an extraordinary capacity to connect with all ‘sorts and conditions’ of people and to move them to be empowered by the gospel of Jesus. In time, many members of Vincent’s communities themselves came from among the rural poor. In the midst of the most distracting occupations his soul was always intimately united with God. Though honored by the great ones of the world, he remained deeply rooted in humility. As he instructed his priests and sisters, “The poor have much to teach you; you have much to learn from them.” “Our love of God must be effective. We must love God…but let it be in the work of our bodies, the sweat of our brows.”
At Vincent’s funeral, the preacher declared that Vincent had just about “transformed the face of the Church.” “The Apostle of Charity,” so named even in his own lifetime, breathed his last in Paris, on September 27, 1660, at the age of eighty.
Our gathering for Eucharist this morning includes disciples seeking rest and refreshment on retreat, disciple brothers seeking sustenance for faithful living in community, and disciples seeking strength for the daily praying of their lives. Each of us is being peculiarly and gloriously transformed for service. And together we may pray with blessed Monsieur Vincent, “Lord, help me to make time today to serve you in those who are most in need of encouragement or assistance.” Amen.
Holy Women, Holy Men, Church Publishing, 2010
All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time,
Robert Ellsberg, Crossroad Publishing, 1997
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