As we know, St. Vincent de Paul was a person of great faith who found strength in prayer and the belief that an unfaltering, loving God was active in our lives. So, it may seem a little odd to hear that Vincent once told the Daughters of Charity to leave God. What could Vincent have possibly meant by this?
To understand Vincent’s words, we need to appreciate the context of his theology and how he lived his faith. Vincent de Paul possessed a deeply incarnational faith, which manifested itself in very real and practical ways. In other words, because Vincent believed that all humans are created in the image and likeness of God, the act of serving one’s neighbor was a concrete expression of serving God. Therefore, this belief undergirded Vincent’s words when he told the Daughters that even if they were engaged in meditation, prayer, or spiritual reading, they were to stop whatever they were doing if a poor person sought help from them. As Vincent explained, such an act of service was not to leave God. Instead, it was to engage in a work of God that was of greater obligation or merit than their meditation and prayers. Thus, Vincent is seen to have valued concrete acts of service more than individual acts of piety.
Over the centuries, the seeds of Vincent’s pragmatism have taken root and flourished in myriad ways through the foundation of numerous social service organizations, groups, hospitals, and educational institutions. DePaul University is one of these fruits. Today, one of the signs that Vincentian pragmatism is alive and well is through DePaul’s collective embrace of Vincentian personalism. This practice calls us to serve our students and treat one another with compassion, empathy, and a high level of professionalism. And another sign is our ability to respond nimbly to current issues, as witnessed by our ongoing response to the pandemic.
We are living in a time that continues to be fraught with many challenges and obstacles. Yet amid our tumultuous present, how might an echo from our past still be heard, inviting us in new, innovative ways to answer Vincent’s pragmatic call?
1 Conference 30, The Rules, 30 May 1647, CCD, 9:252. See: CCD Vol. 9
Reflection by: Siobhan O’Donoghue, Ph.D., Director of Faculty and Staff Engagement, Division of Mission and Ministry.