Though a man of inexorable good deeds, St. Vincent de Paul was not a man of inexorable good humor. Though a man of inexhaustible kindness, he was not a man of inexhaustible patience. He was quick-tempered. He was cantankerous. But he was kind.
Though he is a saint, St. Vincent was also a man—and saints that were more human than angelic are sometimes the best ones to emulate. St. Vincent de Paul is such a saint—a saint who was clearly a man who also happened to be a saint rather than a saint who also happened to be a man: a man who clearly relied on the grace of God in order to collect the lowly in his strong and rough embrace.
St. Vincent de Paul was short and squat with a square jaw and a square beard. Brown eyes glistened beneath black brows on either side of a peculiarly bulbous nose. In art, on the other hand, he is usually characterized with a meek gentility, smiling benevolently as he bears sick babes in from the wintry cold. This tender iconography of his tradition stands in contrast to the gruffer topography of his face, but together they convey an accurate idea of the man and the saint. St. Vincent was a man of coarse, country kindness who found, and then founded, a home with, and for, the very people he, as a young man, never imagined he would call his brethren.
Vincent was born to peasant farmers in 1581 in the French village of Pouy, near a stream called the Paul. As he grew up, Vincent longed to escape from the life of poverty and hard labor herding sheep and pigs; and, to this end, was determined to become a priest. He imagined that, as a priest, he would wear fine clothes, eat fine food and be well provided for all the days of his life. Vincent was a bright boy and showed strong propensities in reading and writing. So his good father sold his cattle and sent this son off to seminary. Vincent was overjoyed and, though he did look forward to the securities of being a village priest, he had a firm resolution to be a good and holy priest in return for the life he longed to lead.
The boy studied hard until he was both a young man and a young priest of God. At 24 years of age, Father Vincent took ship to Marseilles to sell land he had inherited from a wealthy patron, and, on the return voyage, his life changed forever. Barbary pirates overtook the vessel bearing him to Castres, swarmed overboard in a rush of screaming terror, and took over the boat, enslaving all on board, and turning its prow toward Tunisia. Rattling chains round his neck wrecked Vincent’s dreams of a life of relative comfort. He was auctioned in a slave market in Tunis to the highest bidder.
Vincent’s first owner was a fisherman, but finding his property prone to seasickness, sold him to a doctor, under whom Vincent learned much in the arts of alchemy and medicine. Upon the doctor’s death, Vincent was passed on to a farmer—a former Franciscan priest-turned-Muslim named Guilaume Gautier. Witnessing the fervor of Vincent in the Faith, Gautier’s heart re-converted and he arranged for an escape for himself and his friend to Christian country. They stole away in a boat across the Mediterranean for France.
Vincent had been a slave for only two years, but even those two altered the course of the rest of his years. He had tasted the privations, fears, sufferings, and strains of slavery and felt his soul stirring in a newfound realization and determination—he had experienced extreme poverty in strange lands and, having done so, he would never abandon the poor in their extremities in his homeland. He arrived in Paris and met a priest named Pierre de Berulle, who, recognizing a mysterious quality in Father Vincent de Paul, assigned him as chaplain to the wealthy de Gondi family. Vincent took up this assignment with a will, looking particularly to the peasants employed by the de Gondi’s on their vast and various estates and houses. It was not long before Vincent realized that his apostolate was too great for a single priest, and thus, with the blessing and support of Madame de Gondi, he formed a company of priests that would live in private community while serving the spiritual needs of this extended community. He called them the Congregation of the Missions, and they took up the work of providing for the people of their parish, and also sought out the poor, the sick, and the destitute to offer relief and peace.
The company grew to the point that they soon had to establish headquarters of their own, which they did at an old estate called St. Lazarus, a mission previously employed in the care of lepers. This location served Vincent de Paul for the next thirty years, where he directed his brothers and sisters, the Sisters of Charity. Besides attending to the poor and sick, Father Vincent held retreats for clergymen, and devised systems to improve the lives of the poor, laboring particularly among imprisoned galley slaves. By the generous support of aristocratic Parisian women, Vincent was able to train his Sisters as nurses and teachers to better serve the needy of the city and outlying villages. They, like the Vincentian Brothers, lived an un-cloistered life among the people, dedicated to God’s poor and sick. The Sisters of Charity grew in their membership as rapidly and robustly as the brotherhood, and before long toiled joyfully in hospitals, prisons, and orphanages across Europe, Africa, and eventually America.
St. Vincent de Paul came to Paris as a former slave prepared to be a slave for the poor, as he rode on horseback through the city reaching out to any abandoned child, filthy beggar, or jaded criminal he came across who languished in need of sympathy, mercy, and charity. When Father Vincent grew too old to ride, he walked. When he could not walk, he wrote letters of instruction and comfort. All the while, despite his strength or state, he prayed. The relief he brought to the destitute, the clerical reform and revival he initiated for priests, the vocations he facilitated for so many holy men and women, make Vincent de Paul stand out as one who accomplished much, but not for any miraculous reason. He was simply a hard-working man of God who persisted with a peasant’s stubborn will to succeed. He passed to his final reward on September 27th, 1660, in Paris.
St. Vincent de Paul was an ordinary saint. He was not a visionary. He was not a prophet. He was not a wonder-worker. He had no powers save those that every ordinary man has at his disposal—and he used these and these alone to change the lives of those he met. As for himself, he changed his own into a life that reflected the sturdy and hidden life of Christ the laborer, poor by His own choice. The secret that inflamed St. Vincent’s simple and stalwart heart was that people should look after one another—that people should love their neighbors as themselves—and that each person should shoulder the responsibility and the labor of this philosophy willingly and determinedly. Though poverty and hardship were things that tried his patience, human as he was, it became the foundation of his existence, his home, his heart, his heaven.