Once upon a time, four hundred years ago, a priest went to hear a dying peasant’s confession at the request of his wealthy patroness. I’m making a long story short: Monsieur Vincent became forever changed by that experience. St. Vincent de Paul did not simply recognize the vast and heart-breaking spiritual poverty all around him: he became on fire to do whatever he could about it. The material and spiritual poverty of 17th century France had been there all along, but on that particular day, the Vincentian Charism was born.
I attended a mass at the Shrine of the Miraculous Medal this past January 25th, at which our brother Vincentians celebrated the birth of the Vincentian charism. It is a remarkable story, especially when we know how it ends, with hundreds of religious congregations and lay organizations all over the world claiming St. Vincent de Paul as their own. We MSBT are one of them. During the mass I reflected on the puzzle of how a charism gets born.
My informal working definition of charism is a particular spirituality within the Catholic Faith that by its nature motivates and guides a Catholic to address some specific needs. The Holy Spirit is the real founder, calling forth the faithful to do some kind of work in and of the Church that the times call for. I’ve explained this a thousand or so times over the years, as I have given many vocation talks! But still … the unmet need does not pop up suddenly. It’s not as if St. Vincent stumbled upon never-before-seen poverty, and it’s not as if he invented new virtues like charity as a response. It was all there before he showed up.
So, about those cattle egrets. If you drive along country roads and highways in the rural Gulf Coast South, you see flocks of stubby orange-tinged white egrets on top of and mingled with the cows out there in the pastures. It’s a pervasive and visually striking phenomenon. Did you know they’re from Africa? Did you know they only came to the US in 1941? They arrived as a flock blown off course to find a happy new home in sub-tropical USA.
Here’s the problem: that story gives you the idea that it was a total fluke, against all odds, unlikely random chance, a rare occurrence. In fact, flocks of cattle egrets almost certainly blew in to North America any number of times over the millennia. But none of them survived to reproduce, until finally a flock made it over after cattle herds had become widespread in the South. A new paradise!
How does a charism get born? The Holy Spirit didn’t fly over from Africa against all odds and get lucky by finding St. Vincent de Paul. The Holy Spirit is always blowing over all of us, wave after wave, calling all of us to open our eyes to see the needs right in front of us. Calling us to do something about it. The call is there for all to hear, but until someone answers, it is just the wind. Vincent received that Spirit, and from him it spread.
I’ll close with the prayer we were given at the Vincentian celebration:
Lord, merciful Father, who instilled in Saint Vincent de Paul
a great concern for the evangelization of the poor,
now fill the hearts of his followers
with that same spirit.
Today, as we hear the cry of your abandoned children,
may we run to their assistance
“as someone who runs to put out a fire.”
Revive within us the flame of the Charism,
that flame which has animated our missionary life for 400 years.
We pray in the name of your Son,
Jesus Christ our Lord, the Evangelizer of the poor. Amen.
Blog contributed by Sr. Deborah Wilson, MSBT
Watch this video for more information about the 400th Anniversary of the Vincentian Charism.