I Peter 5:1-4
The Christian life is a life of transformation. The call to follow Christ is a call to a lifelong process of conversion. It requires us to let go of our former identities – built on our gifts, our achievements, and our social standing – in order to embrace a new identity in Christ. It asks us to set aside our selfish goals and pursuits to take on a new set of priorities and values. It invites us to become changed people: people whose lives are characterized by love, joy, peace, patience, kindness and humility. It summons us to treat every person we meet with dignity and respect, seeing that they too are made in the image of God. “If anyone is in Christ,” writes St. Paul, “there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, there is a new creation!” (II Cor. 5:17)
Such a profound transformation took place in the life of Vincent de Paul, whose feast we keep today. Robert Ellsberg describes Vincent’s early life in this way:
“Vincent de Paul was born to a peasant family in Gascony (the southwest region of France). Though he later achieved fame for his dedication to the poor, his early life was spent in a determined struggle to escape his humble roots. His family shared this ambition, hoping that a career in the priesthood would better the family fortune. Thus, as a boy, [Vincent] was entrusted to the Franciscans and was eventually ordained at the remarkably young age of nineteen. It appears that Vincent’s early attitude toward his vocation was no less worldly than that of his parents. The priesthood was a way to escape the farm. Once, in the seminary, he was visited by his father, but was so ashamed by the old man’s shabby peasant clothes that he refused to receive him.”[i]
Vincent was clever and charming, and soon gained entrance into the highest levels of society. He sought and obtained lucrative positions as chaplains to the rich and tutors to their children. He associated with the wealthiest families in Paris.
But at the age of 29, his life was changed. Summoned to hear the dying confession of a peasant on the estate of the wealthiest family in the city, Vincent was profoundly moved by the man’s faith and by his need, and experienced a new understanding of the seriousness of his own vocation as a shepherd of souls. From that day onward, he was determined that his priesthood would be dedicated to the service of the poor.
His life was forever changed. Instead of focusing on his own aspirations and desires, he turned his focus towards relieving the spiritual impoverishment of the rural poor. He founded a congregation of mission priests who devoted themselves to the training of parish clergy and to mission work throughout the countryside. (Our own founder, Father Benson, was inspired by his model and used it to shape our community.) Vincent established hospitals and orphanages, and reached out to prisoners and galley slaves. With the help of a devout widow, Louise de Marillac, he founded the Daughters of Charity, an unenclosed congregation of women devoted to serving the poor and the sick. In describing what was at that time a revolutionary model of religious life, he wrote, “Their convent in the sickroom, their chapel the parish church, their cloister the city streets.”[ii]
Vincent found Christ in the poor. His spirituality was based on the encounter with Christ in the needs of one’s poor neighbors. In one of his letters, he describes this new way of seeing that had been revealed to him:
“Christ chose to be born in poverty and called his disciples from among the ranks of the poor; he himself became the servant of the poor and so shared their condition that whatever good or harm was done to the poor, he said he would consider done to himself. Since God loves the poor, he also loves the lovers of the poor… We visit them then, we strive to concern ourselves with the weak and needy, we so share their sufferings that with the Apostle Paul we feel we have become all things to all people. Therefore we must strive to be deeply involved in the cares and sorrows of our neighbor and pray to God to inspire us with compassion and pity, filling our hearts and keeping them full.”[iii]
Apparently, Vincent was an also effective fund raiser for the causes he championed. Ellsberg tells us that “he utilized his extensive contacts in the court and high society to organize a wide range of charitable endeavors. He was particularly adept at attracting the services of aristocratic women. He convinced a number of them to don gray habits and to undertake a personal ministry to the poor and destitute.”[iv]
“(For Vincent), love of the poor did not mean sentimental adoration,” writes Ellsberg. “He was scornful of those who liked to remain in the realm of imaginary acts of charity. Our love of God must be ‘effective,’ (Vincent) wrote, ‘We must love God… But let it be in the work of our bodies, in the sweat of our brows. For very often many acts of love for God, of kindness, of good will, and other similar inclinations and interior practices of a tender heart, although good and very desirable, are yet suspect when they do not lead to the practice of effective love.’”[v] Vincent believed that “effective” love of God and neighbor required us to get our hands dirty in serving others.
The transformation of his life also extended to the transformation of his personality and character. In his early years he was, apparently, an irascible person by temperament, and said of himself that except for the grace of God he would have been “hard and repulsive, rough and cross.”[vi] But over time, he became “tender and affectionate, and very sensitive to the needs of others… Though honored by the great ones of the world, he remained deeply rooted in humility.”[vii]
Such a transformed life speaks to us. It calls us to look at ourselves to see the ways in which we, too, have been made ‘new’ in Christ. It inspires us to ask ourselves:
“Am I living into my new identity as a beloved child of God, or am I still relying on external marks of achievement and success to define who I am?”
“Have I internalized Christ’s values, and are they reflected in the way I live my life?”
“Is my attention given to the needs of those around me – and especially to the needs of the poor – or am I focused solely on my own self-centered ambitions and interests?”
“Does my temperament, the way I conduct myself towards others, reflect the new nature Christ has implanted in me, or am I still captive to anger, pride, self-pity, jealousy and the like?”
“How have I changed, and how am I now being invited to change, given that the conversion of our lives is a lifelong process which is never complete in this life?”
Our founder, Father Benson, reminds us that the call of God is “continuous, abiding and progressive.” God’s voice continues to come to us, day by day and year by year, “calling us to fresh opportunities, and bringing gifts beyond what we know now.”[viii] In our Rule, we say, “As a community we are responsible for making sure that each brother has the encouragement to grow and change in response to the life-giving Spirit through whom we are born again.”[ix]
That lifelong transformation and growth is for us all. How is God inviting you to change?
[i] Ellsberg, Robert; All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for our Time; (New York: Crossroads Publishing, 1997); p.420-421.
[ii]Cited in Ellsburg, p.421.
[iii] Atwell, Robert (compiler); Celebrating the Saints: Devotional Readings for Saints’ Days; (Norwich [England]: Canterbury Press, 1998); p.338.
[iv] Ellsberg, p.421.
[v] Ibid, p.421-422.
[vi] Cited in Holy Women, Holy Men: Celebrating the Saints; (New York, Church Publishing, 2010), p.606.
[viii]The Rule of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist; (Cambridge, MA: Cowley Publications, 1997), p.78.
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