St. Vincent De Paul’s extraordinary life began in 1561 in the village of Pouy, France. From his humble beginnings as the child of peasant farmers St. Vincent would one day become an adviser to the Queen of France, and from preaching one mission to peasants in 1613 St. Vincent would found an order of priests who would continue this work all over the world. After spending two years as a slave in Tunisia, he returned to France and became a missionary to prisoners in Paris and Marseilles, and he was instrumental in the ransom of over 1,000 Christian slaves from North Africa. He began hospitals, he founded communities where the poor could work to support themselves, and he set up homes for orphans.
As a result of his devotion to the poor, the sick, and the imprisoned he is the patron of charitable organizations and he is called the “Apostle of Charity.” One might assume, then, that charity was the virtue St. Vincent De Paul valued most in his life, but it was not. In a letter to a friend he once wrote, “[Simplicity] is the virtue I love most, the one to which in all my actions I pay most heed.” He often said that simplicity was his “gospel.” What exactly was this holy simplicity that was so important to St. Vincent DePaul, and how can we imitate this virtue in our own lives?
The word simplicity has a few different meanings, and it seems that St. Vincent embraced three of them. First, simplicity means freedom from complexity or division into parts; second, the absence of luxury or ornament; and third, freedom from deceit or guile. Each of these meanings is important if we are to understand why St. Vincent esteemed simplicity so highly, so we will look at each of them in turn.
1. Simplicity as having a single aim or purpose
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” (Matt. 22:37)
St. Vincent wanted his priests and nuns to be simple in the sense that they did everything out of love of God, and not for other reasons. He did not want them to do things to impress their superior or out of human respect. He wanted them to be single-minded in their intentions and in their pursuit of God’s will. Too often, our intentions are not pure, and we act according to our own will, instead of God’s. This hinders us from flying to God in our thoughts, in our prayers, and in our hearts throughout the day. It also prevents God from working in us the way He could if we abandoned ourselves to His will.
2. Simplicity in material possessions
“When Jesus heard this, he said to him, ‘There is still one thing lacking. Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.” (Lk 18:22)
St. Vincent asked his priests not to have any superfluous furniture, pictures or books in their rooms, and to avoid owning any vain or useless things. He knew that possessions bring attachment, and attachments hinder us from living for God in complete freedom. After all, St. Vincent wanted to imitate Christ in everything, and it was He who was born in a stable and had “no place to lay his head.” (Lk 9:58) How can we live this kind simplicity in our lives? Are there unnecessary purchases we could sacrifice, and instead give that money to the poor? Are there items in our homes that we do not use that could be donated to someone who could use them? As Christians, it is important to reflect often upon what we are doing for our less fortunate brothers and sisters–in our neighborhood, in our country, and around the world. If we want to imitate Christ the way St. Vincent did, we must be willing to go without in order to help those who are in need.
3. Simplicity as sincerity
“Here is a true Israelite, in whom there is no guile or deceit.” (Jn 1:47)
Above all, simplicity for St. Vincent was sincerity in one’s words and actions. He tried to always say things as they truly were, and to avoid any duplicity or deceit. He taught his followers, “the heart must not think one thing, while the mouth says another.” He said that God speaks to the simple, and that simplicity is the spirit of Jesus. He wanted his communities to practice this virtue because the world is filled with so much duplicity. Of the three, this may be the most important form of simplicity for us to practice today.
We live in a society where it is considered normal to present an image of ourselves that is not authentic. Just as in St. Vincent’s day, this is an obstacle for evangelization and service to the poor. If people sense any inauthenticity in us, then they know we cannot be trusted, and our message or service to them will be empty. On the other hand, if we have the courage and humility to be seen as we truly are, to speak the truth in love, and to do everything with authenticity as our guide, then we will be effective in sharing the gospel and in helping the poor, the way St. Vincent De Paul was.
St Vincent DePaul said that simplicity was the “spirit of Jesus,” and if you look at each of the definitions above, you will see that no one has ever embodied simplicity the way Christ did. Looking at the life of St. Vincent we see that, just as St. Paul said, it was no longer he who lived, but Christ who lived in him. By imitating Jesus in His spirit of simplicity, St. Vincent became Christ to the poor, the sick, and the abandoned. Just as Jesus was “moved with pity” (Lk 7:13) for the widow from Nain whose son had died, St. Vincent’s heart was filled with compassion when he encountered someone who suffered, and he wanted to do all in his power to help them.
Christ was the source of St. Vincent’s tenderness with the prisoners on the galleys, living in horrible conditions, when he cleaned their wounds and gave them some decent food to eat; and it was Christ living in St. Vincent when he went out into the streets of Paris at night looking for the children who had been abandoned there to die. Just like the Good Shepherd, St. Vincent would pick the children up, wrap them in his cloak to keep them warm, and carry them to one of the orphanages he had founded for them. If simplicity made it possible for Christ’s tenderness and compassion to fill St. Vincent’s heart, and if it was the spirit of simplicity that allowed Christ to work through him, I hope and pray that each of us can learn to live this beautiful virtue, so that Jesus can do the same for us.
We ask for his intercession today, as we pray for an increase in simplicity, and in the desire to live out the gospel as heroically as he did.
St. Vincent De Paul, pray for us!